Tag Archives: Orbán government

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

A new declaration of war: Justice for Hungary!

I had no intention of writing about Trianon today. The truth is that I had completely forgotten about the “Day of National Unity” until I began skimming the Hungarian media’s headlines this morning. Some of these headlines piqued my curiosity and prompted me to read further. What I found astounded me.

I assume that most people even vaguely familiar with the history of modern-day Hungary know that the Treaty of Trianon was the peace treaty between the by then independent Kingdom of Hungary and the Allied and Associated Powers. It was signed somewhat belatedly on June 4, 1920, almost two years after the end of World War I. The demand for a day of remembrance originally came from Jobbik, but it was promptly adopted by the new Orbán government.

My decision to read an assortment of articles on Trianon turned out to be wise because I found some real gems among them. From the interpretations there emerges a fascinating sociological and psychological portrait of the Fidesz regime. It’s not pretty, but it may help us to understand the thinking of Viktor Orbán’s propaganda machine. In light of the official government announcement by János Lázár, this particular Day of National Unity may be a turning point in the Orbán government’s handling of the Trianon issue.

The first problem is the false historical background these far-right, nationalistic authors present in their writings. The general thesis is that Hungary was the blameless victim of those nationalities that Hungary’s rulers allowed to settle in Hungary at various times over history. In their interpretation, the nationalities in pre-1918 Hungary had extensive rights, and their continued national existence was in no way threatened. In fact, it was the cursed liberalism of the Hungarian political elite that was responsible for the growing number of non-Hungarians at the expense of Hungarians. This statement, by the way, is erroneous.

In almost all these writings journalists and politicians portray present-day Hungary not terribly differently from the “victim” that was being torn apart by hostile neighbors in 1918-1919. At least one of the commentators, György Pilhál of Magyar Idők, who labels the members of the Little Entente hyenas, considers Hungary’s present neighbors just as antagonistic toward Hungarians as their people were 100 years ago. Hungary is still being besieged and unfairly treated, just as in the past.

Moreover, Pilhál continues, cataloging Hungarian woes, before Trianon there was the Mongol devastation in 1241, the Battle of Mohács in 1524 which signaled the beginning of 150 years of Ottoman rule, and the surrender at Világos in 1849 after a lost war of independence. Pilhál ends this greatly distorted historical summary with the following remarkable words: “Do you want to flood this mutilated, blood-soaked remainder of the homeland with migrants? No, No, Never!” Thus, the migrant question today is being elevated to the level of the most significant dates in Hungarian history. Just as Hungarians had to face the Mongols, the Turks, and the hostile Austrians and Russians, now if they don’t stand fast they might end up being victims of the onslaught of migrants, which would be the equivalent of a second Trianon.

György Pilhál’s son Tamás, who works as a journalist for Pesti Srácok, also wrote an opinion piece that in some ways is even more interesting than his father’s. He also has some harsh words for members of the Little Entente, but in his eyes the real perpetrators were the allies. “The West, with capital letters, cut our hands and feet and threw us among to-this-day antagonistic neighbors that had been fattened by our body parts.” These new neighbors hate the Hungarians because they know that they were conceived in sin and received their territories as a result of unforgivable injustice. Therefore, they don’t feel secure within their own borders. They are not really robbers or thieves, “they are only fencers of stolen goods.” The real criminals obviously are the western powers. “The West is Trianon itself. They have never apologized, they have never tried to rectify their sins and lessen the damage.”

How can Hungary regain its former position as a mid-sized power in Europe? Just as the historian of the Trianon Museum suggested, Hungarians must “repopulate the Carpathian Basin.” Well, he used a more amorous, untranslatable expression “szeressük vissza Magyarországot!” which more or less means getting Hungary back by love-making. This is not a very different formulation from the one Szilárd Németh, Fidesz vice-chairman, uttered a while back, according to which the world belongs to the nation that populates it. So, the only way of getting back Hungary’s former glory is through “the modification of the national scale.” And the horizon is not the “mock borders” of Trianon but at least the confines of the Carpathian Basin.

The third piece is by István Stefka. His ideas might strike readers as outright bizarre, but he fervently believes everything he says. It was about a week ago that I saw him on a television program where three other journalists, including a conservative one, tried to convince him in vain that his theories are untenable. He too sees a second Trianon coming through the activities of George Soros, who is “the Béla Kun, György Lukács, Oszkár Jászi, and Mihály Károlyi combined, who with his civic organizations wants to ruin the country.” Hungary 27 years ago regained its sovereignty, but “now not with weapons, but with scheming, lies, ignominy, hard financial influence, and paying off internal enemies” Soros and like-minded people want to take away Hungary’s mastery over its own affairs. If the Hungarian socialists and left-liberals don’t stand by the people and follow Soros and Co., “they can no longer be considered part of the nation.” In that case, they are also working toward the destruction of Hungary.

Let me now turn to a more official source: the second most important man in the Orbán government, János Lázár. In a speech yesterday he sent the following message to Brussels: “It’s time for our neighbors and the leaders of Europe to acknowledge and adjust their policies accordingly: the Hungarian nation is the victim of Trianon and not its originator and perpetrator.” It is unacceptable that the only thing the leaders of the neighboring countries can say is that it’s time for the Hungarians to get over their old grievances. “The Hungarian nation should receive if not material at least moral reparations for the greatest injustice in world history.” He added that “we don’t want any change of the borders and especially not ethnic tension … new wars in Europe … but that doesn’t mean that we will tolerate the provocations, the repeated violations of our national sensibility for another 100 years. Yes, we can say even now: “Justice for Hungary!” which was the cry for revision after 1929.

I strongly suspect that these new words were not born in the heat of a fiery nationalistic speech. The Orbán government seems to have decided to open another front in its war against Europe, this time for a reinterpretation of the Treaty of Trianon. This is a serious turn of events that may not bode well for peace in the region.

June 4, 2017

MSZP’s László Botka in Brussels

László Botka has become a superbly self-confident man since he received overwhelming support from MSZP’s delegates to the party congress less than a week ago. At the press conference he gave in Brussels, he identified himself as “Hungary’s candidate for the premiership.” To clarify his status, at the moment at least five politicians are vying to replace Orbán: Gergely Karácsony (Párbeszéd), Lajos Bokros (MoMa), Tamás Lattmann (representative of civic society), Gábor Vona (Jobbik), and László Botka. These are just the declared candidates, but if at the end each opposition party has a separate party list, even Ferenc Gyurcsány, as leader of DK, might be one of the challengers. This, of course, is just an aside to show that MSZP isn’t paying much attention to reality. They are in a state of euphoria, which might not be warranted. In fact, several opinion pieces appeared lately describing Botka as the man who will oversee the total disintegration of the party. Or, a more charitable opinion, in a couple of years no one will remember who László Botka was.

I’m not so pessimistic, but I’m watching with growing concern the MSZP candidate’s moves. For example, I find it an annoying socialist habit to fight Fidesz by trying to appease its voters with the slogans of Fidesz itself. Socialist politicians should have learned by now that this kind of strategy leads nowhere.

Here is one example. The Hungarian public has heard nothing else in the last seven years but that the European Union is on its last legs. And yet we have ample evidence that the great majority of the Hungarian public is still pro-EU, despite the massive anti-EU propaganda. So, it would be logical to have an election campaign resting on the slogan: “Either Europe or Orbán.” To launch such a campaign, however, would require a full embrace of the Union. One shouldn’t be uncritical, of course, but for Botka to say, after arriving in Brussels, that he is “watching the performance of the European Union with apprehensive criticism” is not exactly a good beginning. What followed was no better. Botka announced that a significant number of citizens had lost their trust in the democratic institutions of the EU, which in turn is responsible for the upsurge of populism. I wish politicians would consider the truth of their political rhetoric before they open their mouths. Does Botka really think that a lack of trust in democratic institutions led to the rise of populism? It is enough to look around the world, from Russia to the United States, to know that this assertion simply cannot be true. After that introduction, to say that he is “deeply committed to the European Union” sounds hollow. Moreover, some of his suggestions to “solve” the crisis could have been uttered by Viktor Orbán himself. This is not the way to distinguish yourself from your political opponent.

Prime Minister Candidate of Hungary

Let’s take another example. The government media discovered that not only would László Botka be in Brussels. George Soros also stopped by for a short visit before flying on to Budapest. What a great opportunity for the kind of journalism practiced in Orbán’s Hungary. The M1 TV station announced that “László Botka and George Soros will negotiate on Wednesday.” Magyar Hírlap published as front-page news that “At last Soros and Botka will find each other in Brussels.” Practically all government papers carried the same news, insinuating some secret cooperation between MSZP and George Soros. What does a good politician do in a case like that? Does he keep insisting that he has never in his life met George Soros? Does he excuse himself by emphasizing that he has never been a beneficiary of Soros’s largesse and that MSZP has never received any money from “the financial investor or his circles”? Surely not. In fact, if he were a brave opponent of Viktor Orbán, who has been demonizing George Soros, he would simply brush aside the whole issue as a typical example of primitive Fidesz propaganda and say that whatever dirt they have been throwing at Soros is undeserved and disgusting. But, no, the brave socialist candidate is afraid that perhaps Fidesz-infected citizens who really think that Soros is the devil incarnate will not like him if he defends the founder of Central European University.

The most important meeting that István Ujhelyi, a MSZP member of the European Parliament, secured for Botka was with Frans Timmermans, who is well versed in Hungarian affairs. Timmermans is one of the most resolute critics of the Orbán regime, and therefore I’m sure it was unnecessary to convince him that “the socialist party and the democratic opposition are interested in the restoration of the rule of law.” What is more difficult to decide is what Botka meant by his request that “the Orbán government should be punished and not Hungary.” How can that be achieved? Viktor Orbán and his government represent the country, so whatever “punishment” is meted out to that government for any infraction will unfortunately affect the whole country and its population. Botka’s request was a timid response to the accusation that the opposition is lobbying in Brussels against its own country. Such pious pronouncements will not change the opinion of Fidesz supporters about the opposition’s alleged unpatriotic actions.

In addition to Timmermans, Botka also met with Marita Ulvskog, vice president of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament. She is also the vice-chair of the EP Committee on Employment and Social Affairs. This meeting was logical given Botka’s emphasis on a truly socialist agenda for MSZP, as opposed to the more centrist or even Third Road approach of the party under Ferenc Gyurcsány. The very low wages in Hungary and the lack of employee protection is truly appalling, and since 2010 the situation has only deteriorated. For example, the total destruction of the power of unions is a relatively new development. What I don’t understand, however, is what Botka was driving at by pointing out “the incredible inequality that exists between member states” as far as the level of wages is concerned. Currently, it is Jobbik that is in the midst of a campaign for equal wages for equal work in all member states of the European Union. Anyone with a modicum of knowledge of economics knows that this is utter nonsense. It is one thing to support the creation of a union-wide social network, but complaining about small or medium-size member states “being powerless to defend the interests and wages of employees of multinational companies” is simply unfair, at least as far as Hungary is concerned, where employees working for multinational companies are better off than those who work for the “patriotic” Hungarian oligarchs.

At home Botka stepped on quite a few toes in the last couple of days. I have no idea what he had in mind when he answered the question of whether he would consider placing Gordon Bajnai, an economist and businessman who proved to be a popular and very effective prime minister in 2009 and 2010, on a common list of politicians of the opposition parties. He said: “Under no circumstances would I place Gordon Bajnai, János Kádár, Mátyás Rákosi, or Miklós Horthy on the list.” What on earth prompted Botka to utter this nonsense? Soon enough Bajnai placed this witty retort on his Facebook page: “I would ‘like to reassure the worried public that I have no desire to be placed either on the list of MSZP or on those of MSZMP, MDP, or even the Peyer Pact.” For those unfamiliar with these acronyms, MSZMP was the communist party under János Kádár between 1956 and 1989; MDP was the party of Mátyás Rákosi between 1948 and 1956; the Peyer Pact was a political arrangement between the Bethlen government and the Hungarian Social Democratic Party in 1921.

I don’t know, but Botka’s first few days are not promising. Popular reactions on Klub Rádió, ATV, and Hír TV are mixed, but there are many who don’t like Botka’s attitude. Let’s hope he and his party realize, and quickly, that this is not the best way to win the hearts of voters.

June 1, 2017

Central European University refuses to be intimidated

Finally I can give you some encouraging news about Central European University. In my last post on the subject I reported on the step taken by Andrew M. Cuomo, governor of the State of New York, who on May 24 “announced his readiness to enter into discussions with the Hungarian Government” concerning the fate of CEU. At that time I expressed my doubts that the Orbán government was actually ready to negotiate in good faith. I based this somewhat pessimistic opinion on a couple of sentences that had appeared in Magyar Idők, which indicated to me that any kind of agreement would still require the prior approval of the U.S. federal government, which we know is impossible to obtain.

Of course, we have no idea what the end result will be, but at least the Orbán government didn’t outright refuse Governor Cuomo’s offer. In fact, Kristóf Altusz, the undersecretary in the foreign ministry who is entrusted with the negotiations, got in touch with Governor Cuomo’s office last Friday. That is certainly a positive step.

This development is due to the brave and self-confident manner in which Michael Ignatieff, the rector of CEU, handled the situation. Cowering or trying to appease is the worst possible tactic to take when under siege by governments like that of Viktor Orbán. The university, led by Ignatieff, refused to be browbeaten. I’m convinced that without his determination and his calling worldwide attention to the Orbán government’s assault on a private university, that telephone conversation between Cuomo and Altusz would never have taken place. In fact, Ignatieff himself came to this conclusion, saying that “we are in a stronger position now than we were before because we resisted and said no.”

Central European University will stay in Budapest at least through the 2017-2018 academic year, Michael Ignatieff announced yesterday at a press conference. He wants to send a clear message to the government: CEU will not be shuttered. When a journalist asked him whether he has a plan B if “things get worse,” Ignatieff’s answer was that even if the government puts more pressure on them, they will not move. As he put it, he refuses to get involved in a game of chicken with the Hungarian government. He also made it clear that he is not going to be idle in the interim, which indicates to me that he is ready to continue his efforts to gain an agreement that would include a guarantee of the university’s unfettered existence in Hungary in the future.

Zsolt Enyedi, the university’s prorector for Hungarian affairs, made a remark which I found significant. He said that “the past few weeks have made us aware that we have a duty to the city and the country. We must remain as long as possible.” This is practically a clarion call to resist the anti-democratic forces that have taken over the reins of government in Budapest. In fact, this stressful episode in the history of the university has only made the resolve of the administration and faculty stronger.

The university will host an international conference on academic freedom on June 22 where the keynote speaker will be Mario Vargas Llosa, the Nobel Prize-winning Peruvian writer. At the graduation ceremony former German president Joachim Gauck will receive the Open Society Prize, which “is awarded annually to an outstanding individual or organization whose achievements have contributed substantially to the creation of an open society.”

The government media published, without any commentary, MTI’s summary of what transpired at the press conference. The only attack in the past two days came from Pesti Srácok, which reported on “the stomach turning anti-family conference” organized by the School of Public Policy/Department of Gender Studies of the university. The conference was obviously an answer of sorts to the mega-conference hosted by the “coalition of conservative organizations from around the globe.” It seems that what made the lectures stomach-turning was that speakers deemed the conservative family model outmoded in our modern society.

A few days ago Magyar Hírlap learned that the evil puppeteer George Soros, who rules the whole world according to the Hungarian government and its media, is coming to Hungary because CEU’s board of trustees will hold its annual meeting on June 24-25 in Budapest, right after the international conference on academic freedom. I don’t know when the decision was made to hold the board meeting in Budapest, but I have the feeling that it was not entirely independent from the recent government attack on the institution. Soros is the honorary chairman of the board. Otherwise, the trustees are a distinguished lot, including such well-known American-Hungarians as author and journalist Kati Marton and George E. Pataki, former governor of New York. The only trustee from Hungary is Attila Chikán, professor of economics at Corvinus University.

We also shouldn’t forget that, thanks to the joint effort of all opposition parties, including Jobbik, the Hungarian constitutional court was obliged to take up the question of the constitutionality of Lex CEU, as everybody in Hungary calls the law designed to expel the university from Hungary. The parliamentary vote took place on April 12. Until today we heard nothing about the fate of the court case. We just learned that, at the suggestion of the chief justice, a special working group will be formed to prepare the case for discussion by the full court. The creation of such working groups is allowed, “in especially complicated cases.” This means that until now the judges haven’t considered the case at all. The fact that the chief justice considers the case so complex that it needs special treatment leads me to believe that there is no agreement within the body about what to do with this hot potato.

May 31, 2017

CEU: New York State vs. Hungarian legal gobbledygook

It was less than a week ago that I wrote a post in which I included a couple of paragraphs about the state of the “negotiations” between the Hungarian government and the administration of the United States. On May 17 the European Parliament “urged the Hungarian Government to immediately suspend all deadlines in the act amending the National Higher Education Act, to start immediate dialogue with the relevant US authorities in order to guarantee the future operations of the Central European University issuing US-accredited degrees, and to make a public commitment that the university can remain in Budapest as a free institution.”

Today, a week later, the National Higher Education Act is still in force and the Hungarian government has shown no intention of altering the recently adopted law that makes the continued existence of Central European University (CEU) in Budapest impossible. Neither has the Hungarian government gotten in touch with the “relevant US authorities.” As for direct negotiations with the administration of the university, after about a month the government sent a bunch of middle-level bureaucrats who, as it turned out, had no decision-making authority.

It matters not that the United States government made it abundantly clear that the U.S. federal government has no authority to negotiate with a foreign power about educational matters relating to schools and universities. The Hungarian ministry of foreign affairs simply ignored the message and kept insisting that the State Department is ill informed. The Secretary of Education is authorized to conduct negotiations on the fate of Central European University with the Hungarian government. Tamás Menczer, a former sports reporter and now spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, confidently announced that, in the past, the two countries had signed three agreements dealing with education. Buried in the government archives was a 1977 agreement on cultural, educational, scientific and technological cooperation between the two countries. The second was signed in 1998. It dealt with the legal status of the American International School Budapest, which functions under the aegis of the Office of Overseas Schools of the U.S. State Department. The third was from 2007, when the two countries signed an agreement about a committee that would oversee student exchange programs between the two countries. Clearly, these cases have nothing to do with the issue on hand, but that fact didn’t seem to bother the foreign ministry, whose spokesman announced that the ball is still in the United States’ court. The Hungarian government is just waiting for a letter from the secretary of education inviting them for a discussion about Central European University. Kristóf Altusz, an undersecretary in the ministry, claimed that about four weeks ago he “negotiated” with the U.S. government, but his approach was described by the U.S. authorities as “seeking information.” I believe this meant that Altusz was told he was knocking on the wrong door.

The Hungarian government is obviously stalling. If nothing is done, they will wait until CEU’s next academic year is in jeopardy. Students normally apply to universities in the winter, and sometime in the spring the applicants get the much awaited letter about their future. Under the present circumstances, the Hungarian government is playing with the fate of the best university in Hungary. But this is exactly the goal. Not only the ministry of foreign affairs but also the ministry of human resources, which is in charge of education, are waiting for the letter they know full well will not come. Zoltán Balog told Index that “I’m expecting a letter from the madam secretary who is competent to negotiate, which I will probably receive. It will be after [the arrival of the letter] that I will formulate my position concerning the case.”

A day after this encounter, on May 23, the U.S. State Department published a press statement titled “Government of Hungary’s Legislation Impacting Central European University.” The statement read:

The United States again urges the Government of Hungary to suspend implementation of its amended higher education law, which places discriminatory, onerous requirements on U.S.-accredited institutions in Hungary and threatens academic freedom and independence.

The Government of Hungary should engage directly with affected institutions to find a resolution that allows them to continue to function freely and provide greater educational opportunity for the citizens of Hungary and the region.

The U.S. Government has no authority or intention to enter into negotiations on the operation of Central European University or other universities in Hungary.

The Hungarian Foreign Minister’s reaction to this statement was what one would expect from the Orbán government. “It is regrettable,” said Tamás Menczer, that “no assistance comes from the American federal government…. A press release is a far cry from an official diplomatic answer outlining a negotiating agenda.” The Hungarian government is obviously quite prepared to wait for an official diplomatic letter, which will never arrive. So there is an impasse, exactly what the Hungarian government was hoping for. This way they can show the world that they are flexible and ready to negotiate and that the deadlock is entirely the fault of the United States.

The deadlock might have been broken this afternoon when Governor Andrew M. Cuomo of the State of New York announced his readiness to enter into discussions with the Hungarian government. Let me quote the whole statement:

Governor Andrew M. Cuomo today announced his readiness to enter into discussions with the Hungarian Government to continue the New York State-Government of Hungary relationship that enables the Central European University to operate in Budapest.

The Government of Hungary has recently adopted legislation that would force the closure of CEU. This legislation directly contradicts the 2004 Joint Declaration with the State of New York, which supported CEU’s goal of achieving Hungarian accreditation while maintaining its status as an accredited American institution.

The Government of Hungary has stated publicly that it can only discuss the future of CEU in Hungary with relevant US authorities, which in this case is the State of New York. The Governor welcomes the opportunity to resolve this matter and to initiate discussions with the Hungarian government without delay.

The Central European University in Budapest is a symbol of American-Hungarian cooperation and a world-class graduate university that is chartered by the State of New York. For more than 25 years, this institution has provided tremendous value to Hungary and to its diverse student body representing more than 100 countries.

An agreement to keep CEU in Budapest as a free institution is in everyone’s best interests, and I stand ready to enter into discussions with the Hungarian Government to continue the New York State-Government of Hungary relationship and ensure that the institution remains a treasured resource for students around the world.

This offer at least broke the silence, but I’m not at all sure whether it will break the impasse. At a press conference Michael Ignatieff, rector of Central European University, welcomed Governor Cuomo’s statement and expressed his hope that the Hungarian government will react positively to the New York governor’s willingness to negotiate. Ignatieff reminded his audience that Cuomo’s statement is timely because today is the day when the Hungarian government must answer the European Commission’s official letter on the possible infringement procedure.

Népszava got in touch with both the ministry of foreign affairs and the ministry of human resources about their reaction to Cuomo’s letter, but the paper has received no answer as yet. On the other hand, the government paper Magyar Idők came out the following intriguing couple of sentences: “If the headquarters of a university is in a federal state where the central government is not authorized to enter into binding international agreements, then the issuing of the document must be based on a prior agreement with the central government. These preliminary agreements with the federal government must be concluded within six months after the date of entry into the force of law.” It is such a complicated text that I may have misinterpreted the meaning of these sentences. So, to be safe, here is the original Hungarian text: “… ha az egyetem székhelye egy föderatív államban van, és ott a nemzetközi szerződés kötelező hatályának elismerésére nem a központi kormányzat jogosult, akkor a központi kormánnyal létrejött előzetes megállapodáson kell alapulnia az oklevél kiadásához szükséges nemzetközi szerződésnek. Ezeket az előzetes megállapodásokat a föderatív állam kormányával a törvény hatályba lépését – a kihirdetését követő napot – követő fél éven belül meg kell kötni.”

If my interpretation is correct, the Hungarian government will invoke some arcane (or newly minted) law, imposing a most likely unattainable legal requirement which will extend the agony of Central European University for at least six more months.

May 24, 2017