Tag Archives: Pál Schmitt

The “Azerbaijan Laundromat” and Orbán’s Hungary

News of the “Azerbaijan Laundromat” scandal reached Hungary yesterday, thanks to the report of Átlátszó, a group of investigative journalists who participated in an investigation conducted by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). It was a truly international effort that included Danish, British, French, Swiss, Russian, Austrian, Slovene, Romanian, Bulgarian, Estonian, Czech, and American journalists. The first short description of this money laundering scheme appeared in The Guardian on September 2, from which we learned that the ruling elite of Azerbaijan operated a secret $2.8 billion scheme to pay prominent Europeans, buy luxury items, and launder money through a network of opaque British companies.

In The Guardian article there is no reference to Hungary, but Átlátszó reported that from this enormous amount of money $7.6 million landed in Budapest in 2012 and 2013. The first installment was deposited by Metastar Invest LLP, one of the four phony companies set up to expedite Azerbaijan’s money laundering operation, in July 2012. The recipient of this and subsequent deposits was Valesco International, a company that a couple of years later conveniently ceased to exist. Where the money actually ended up no one knows.

Let’s quickly recall Azeri-Hungarian relations in the first few years of the second Orbán government. Viktor Orbán was in Baku in September 2010, participating in an energy summit, but he had a separate meeting with President Ilham Aliyev. A year later President Pál Schmitt paid a visit to Baku, where he also conducted negotiations with the Azeri president. And on June 30, 2012, Viktor Orbán, while attending the Crans Montana Forum in Baku, again met Aliyev. A few days later, sometime in July 2012, the first installment of the Azeri millions arrived in Budapest.

What happened at this meeting? Most likely it was during this encounter that Viktor Orbán was persuaded to extradite Ramil Safarov, an officer of the Azerbaijani Army who had been convicted of the 2004 murder of an Armenian officer during a NATO-sponsored training seminar in Budapest. Safarov was sentenced to life imprisonment. The Azeri government approached successive Hungarian governments several times, trying to persuade them to allow Safarov to return to Azerbaijan so he could serve the rest of his sentence in his own country. The Hungarians refused because they suspected, with good reason as it turned out, that Safarov would be pardoned as soon as his plane hit the ground in Baku.

It is hard not to suspect a connection between Orbán’s visit to Baku in June and the first installment of $7.6 million to a Hungarian bank account in July, especially since by the end of August Safarov was on his way to Azerbaijan, where he was welcomed as a national hero and set free.

Of course, this is just conjecture, but what is clear is that the Azeri government used bribes to achieve its political aims and that those who were ready to serve Azeri interests were generously rewarded. The extradition of Safarov was certainly something that merited recompense as far as Aliyev was concerned. Ever since then, Azeri-Hungarian relations have been close. Aliyev remained a grateful friend and Orbán a loyal ally. One of my posts from 2014 describes in some detail the close relationship that developed between the two countries, which at times became outright embarrassing. For example, when Viktor Orbán during his last visit to Baku in 2016 talked about “the leaders of the country who have made Azerbaijan one of the most respected and often envied countries in the world.”

The Azeri leadership also spent a considerable amount of money on European politicians who were ready to defend Ilham Aliyev’s dictatorship. I will concentrate here on one politician who also had extensive dealings with the Orbán government. He is Luca Volontè, who was one of the largest beneficiaries of Aliyev’s “generosity.” Volontè at the time was the chairman of the European People’s Party group in the Council of Europe. Italian prosecutors allege that Volontè was paid €2.4 million by Azerbaijani officials in exchange for “his support of political positions of the state” at the Council, which is supposed to promote democracy and the rule of law. The accusation is actually not new. Gerald Knaus, chairman of the European Stability Initiative, a think tank, claimed as early as 2012 that “the Council of Europe … in recent years has been captured by autocrats.”

János Martonyi, Luca Volontè, and Viktor Orbán, March 28, 2012 / Orbán’s Facebook page

It is about this time that Viktor Orbán put a photo of himself with János Martonyi and Luca Volontè on his Facebook page. By that time, Volontè had proved to be a great friend of Hungary. In January 2011 the Council of Europe held a debate on the functioning of democracy in the country. Hungary was fiercely defended by several members of the Parliamentary Assembly (PACE), among them Volontè, who criticized the proceedings against Hungary on the ground of “a lack of facts.” Any criticism of the government inside of Hungary, he argued, comes from “people who are unhappy that they were not reelected.” Otherwise, Hungary is a model democracy.

Volontè’s close friendship with the Hungarian government continued. By 2013 he was again defending the Orbán government against the monitoring committee of the Council of Europe in connection with the new Hungarian constitution. He called the criticism of the Hungarian government a witch hunt. He claimed that the critics are not even familiar with the text of the constitution. Volontè explained all this in an interview with the then pro-government Magyar Nemzet.

By that time, Volontè was most likely a paid agent of the Azerbaijani government, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he also offered his services to the Orbán government, which was in considerable trouble both in the European Parliament and in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

A year later I became even more suspicious when an ugly attack was launched in Hungary against Professor Charles Gati after the publication of his article “The Mask is Off,” which originally appeared in The American Interest and a day later in Hungarian Spectrum. It was written after Viktor Orbán’s infamous speech about building an “illiberal state” in Hungary. Orbán wasn’t expecting such a violent reaction to his honest admission of his plans, and the Fidesz media tried to distinguish between the American and the European understanding of the word “liberal.” It was at this point that Luca Volontè was called upon as a true “European voice.” He must have had considerable government help with his long article titled “Hands Off Hungary!” because he seemed to be too familiar with the Hungarian political scene at the time.

Volontè is no longer in politics. He is running the Novae Terrae Foundation, which “commits itself to defend human rights conceived according to natural law.” But he still has time to write long articles in praise of Viktor Orbán. The last such article appeared in Magyar Hírlap on March 18, 2016 with the title “Hungarian Spark: Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has the clear wisdom to outline the conditions of the epoch-making challenges ahead.” It is a propaganda piece which ends with this line: “I’m sure that I’m not the only one who can proudly say how good it is to meet true people and to know them as my friends, whom I hope to meet again in the country of St. Stephen soon.” Volontè’s wish was fulfilled because he visited Hungary in November 2016, giving a lecture on “The relativization of European values” at an international conference in Szeged organized by the Szeged-Csanád Bishopric and the Polish Consulate in Szeged. A few months later he was back in Hungary, this time for the World Family Summit held in May 2017, where he participated in a panel discussion on “Pro-family Activities in the World.”

This afternoon Magyar Idők published a surprisingly straightforward account of the Azeri bribery scheme with the title “Three-billion dollar fund for Baku’s plans: The threads reach the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.” The $7.6 million deposited in a Budapest bank was of course omitted from the summary, but the article to my great surprise included a mention of Volontè as one of the accused. My question is whether these revelations will have any bearing on the currently overfriendly Azeri-Hungarian relations.

September 6, 2017

The fifth anniversary of the Fundamental Law of 2011

Viktor Orbán never disappoints. Every time he opens his mouth he comes out with something that takes our breath away. Today’s speech at a “conference” organized for the fifth anniversary of Fidesz’s Fundamental Law was again full of outlandish statements.

Given the fanfare that surrounded the passage of this new constitution, the celebration today was decidedly subdued–wisely so, considering the checkered history of the document. In five years the new constitution–thrown together in a great hurry, mostly by József Szájer, a Fidesz EP member, and Gergely Gulyás, the rising star of the party–has been altered five times, and its sixth amendment is currently awaiting approval. I wrote several articles about the constitution at the time of its birth in April 2011, but I just discovered that the posts from the second half of that month have simply disappeared from the archives of Hungarian Spectrum. You may recall, even without reminders, that the date the new law was enacted had a symbolic meaning. In that year April 25 was Easter Monday, and for a while government officials talked about the new Fundamental Law as the Easter Constitution. The date, of course, symbolized the resurrection of Hungary.

The constitution was passed by the super majority of Fidesz-KDNP. None of the opposition parties voted for it and now, five years later, all of them swear that with the disappearance of this whole gang (bagázs) this contrivance (tákolmány) will end up in the garbage heap. Együtt’s Viktor Szigetvári called it “the constitution of the cold civil war” and predicted that the downfall of Orbán will also mean the disappearance of his regime’s constitution and institutions. József Tóbiás, chairman of the socialist party (MSZP), reminded his audience in parliament that there is no reason for the government to celebrate. The conference organized by the government was “no celebration but rather a repass after a funeral” because “in the last five years we have had no constitution.”

Although László Kövér (president of the House), József Szájer (EP MP), Pál Schmitt (former president), László Trócsányi (minister of justice), and Tamás Sulyok (acting chief justice of the Fidesz-controlled constitutional court) all delivered speeches, I will concentrate on Viktor Orbán’s speech, which in some respects was truly extraordinary.

Let me start with his claim that the “Islamization of Hungary is forbidden by the Fundamental Law.” It was this claim that captured the imagination of the Hungarian media. According to the summary of the state-controlled news agency, MTI, “the Hungarian government cannot support such movements of people that would be contrary to the pledges stated in the ‘National Avowal’ [preamble] of the Fundamental Law.” In this preamble there is only one sentence that might be relevant. It states: “We recognize the role of Christianity in preserving nationhood.” I’ll bet no one imagined five years ago that Viktor Orbán would use this sentence about the role of Christianity and nationhood as a constitutional weapon against accepting a few hundred or thousand Muslim refugees. Moreover, the sentence following this one states: “We value the various religious traditions of our country.” And Hungary already has 4,000-5,000 individuals who are the members of the Islamic community. Would a few thousand more alter the overall religious composition of the country? Of course not. But the presumably relevant sentence from the preamble will be useful in the propaganda campaign Orbán immediately began for “a strong showing (izmos) at the referendum” to demonstrate to the world the Hungarian nation’s strong resistance to compulsory quotas.

Source: Magyar Nemzet / Photo Béla Nagy

Source: Magyar Nemzet / Photo Béla Nagy

Orbán never misses an opportunity to condemn the European Union one way or the other. This time he extolled the virtues of the Visegrád Four. These countries are characterized by vitality, vigor, and an intellectual renaissance. By contrast, the European Union “doesn’t know where it is coming from; it has no vision, and it is myopic.”

Ildikó Csuhaj of Népszabadság considered the following question by Orbán–“Why does the European Union use its power against its own members?”–a watershed. In her opinion, Orbán has never gone that far in his fight with Brussels. Whether this attack is worse than the hundreds of others I simply don’t know.

Today we learned a few new details about the birth of the new constitution. Although earlier Orbán had steadfastly denied any plan to create a new constitution before the 2010 election, it is now clear that he was adamant about it, although he was met with serious opposition within the party. As he put it, “there were strong siren voices that argued against such a move because they feared that [a new Fidesz constitution] would adversely influence Hungary’s [EU] presidency” in the first half of 2011. Today he expressed his thanks to those who stood by him. In fact, he said, the timing was perfect. It would have been a mistake to retreat.

Perhaps the most intriguing comment in Orbán’s speech was about former president Pál Schmitt, who after months of agony was eventually persuaded to resign on April 2, 2012. It turned out that his doctoral dissertation was a translation of parts of an English-language book. I wrote a number of articles on the case during March and April of 2012. To recap the scandal, HVG received a note from someone who discovered the plagiarism and came out with the story. Orbán hoped that the scandal would die a quiet death, but it didn’t. Even he couldn’t manage to quell the outrage it prompted. Reluctantly, he told Schmitt that he had to leave his post. I’m certain that by now Orbán deeply regrets his decision. In the last year and a half he has been calling on Schmitt to fill all sorts of positions in matters concerning sports. Schmitt is a former Olympic fencing champion.

Orbán is now rewriting the history of Schmitt’s resignation. In his version, Schmitt, just like all those who made the decision to go ahead with the enactment of the new constitution, knew full well the consequences of such a decision. As far as his government is concerned, I guess, this means an attack by the international legal community against certain provisions of the constitution. In Schmitt’s case, his very signature on the law regarding the constitution cost him his position as president of Hungary. “Outside and foreign forces will never forgive him for it. This is very important to know, because it places an obligation on us. If they will never forgive him, then we must never forget [him].” So, according to this version, it seems Hungary’s enemies invented the story of Schmitt’s plagiarism and decided to oust him. Instead of a cheat he is actually a martyr in the cause of the nation. The obligation, of course, means that Schmitt, instead of quietly retiring from politics, will return as some “useful” member of the Orbán team.

This latest stunt of Orbán really boggles the mind. Who can believe such a cockeyed story? One would like to say nobody, but Orbán is a skilled storyteller. Perhaps someday one of the National Bank’s foundations can produce a sequel to the Grimm Brothers’ Household Tales–Orbán’s National Tales.

April 25, 2016

Viktor Orbán’s private stadium is completed: “The resurrection of Hungarian football”

The great day is coming. Monday, which is a holiday in Hungary, will not be about the resurrection of Jesus Christ but about the resurrection of Hungarian football. I’m not kidding. This is what György Szöllősi, communication director of the Puskás Academy, said to the hundreds of reporters who showed up for the first tour of the facilities of the Pancho Arena. Why Pancho Arena? Because, as we just learned, this is what the Spaniards called Ferenc Puskás when he was playing for Real Madrid. Mind you, in Hungary everybody knew him as Öcsi Puskás (“öcsi” means younger brother or a really young boy in Hungarian). And while we are on the subject of names, Puskás’s family name until he was ten years old was Purczeld. Yes, one of the Mighty Magyars was of German extraction, a descendant of one of the many German immigrants who settled in Hungary in the early eighteenth century.

I guess the creators of the Pancho Arena in Felcsút, a Hungarian village about 40 km from Budapest, decided on the name because Viktor Orbán, who was already working on making a national superhero out of Ferenc Puskás, decided during his first premiership to name the old Népstadion (built between 1948 and 1952)  after the football legend. So, the Puskás name was already taken. Thus they had to settle for a name that isn’t terribly familiar to Hungarians.

I doubt that Puskás in his youth ever heard of this village. His favorite town was Kispest, where he started to play football. Kispest was a separate town until 1950, when it was incorporated into greater Budapest. Nonetheless, Orbán managed to get all “the Puskás treasures” in the possession of the Puskás family to Felcsút, where the prime minister spent part of his childhood and where he built a weekend house a few years ago. These “treasures,” which include old jerseys, pictures, trophies and other memorabilia, will be on permanent display in the halls of the stadium. Daily guided tours will be available to all who would like to see this “sanctuary” to Ferenc Puskás and football. The description of the arena as a sanctuary also comes from the Academy’s communication director.

The sports reporters were clearly in awe of the excellent conditions created in Felcsút for the sport. I’m also sure that they are looking forward to reporting from the press box equipped with all the latest marvels of modern technology. They lauded the turf that is being watered and heated from below ground.

Journalists who deal with political matters were less enthusiastic. They made sarcastic remarks about the man who is able to satisfy all his whims because of his position of power. They can’t quite get over the fact that such a large and ostentatious stadium, which will be able to seat 3,600, is being built in a village of 1,800 people. Index calculated that each individual inhabitant of Felcsút received 3.77 million “football” forints. One old peasant woman who was interviewed kept emphasizing that the erection of such a stadium is a real joy for the Felcsútians because “after all, the building will remain here.” But this is exactly what worries the critics. What will happen whenViktor Orbán is no longer the prime minister or when he is no longer, period? What will happen to this stadium? The same thing that happened to the one Nicolae Ceaușescu built in his birth place, the village of Scornicesti, which now stands empty and crumbling? Moreover, what can one say about the leader of an allegedly democratic country who allows a football stadium that is supposed to be an exhibition piece to be built in his backyard? Indeed, a valid comparison can be made between the Romanian dictator and Viktor Orbán. This is what a blogger was alluding to when he gave this title to his post on the stadium: “Santiago Orbaneu: Ilyen lett a felcsúti stadion.” (This is how the stadium in Felcsút turned out.)

Felcsut stadium1

Photo László Döme / pfla.hu

There are several boxes, complete with I assume well-stocked bars for those who either “deserve them” or can afford them. One box belongs to Viktor Orbán and his guests. The plaque next to the door reads: “The prime minister’s office.” That aroused the interest of the journalists, but it turned out that the plaque is somewhat misleading. It is the private box of the founder of the Puskás Academy, Viktor Orbán. It will be his as long as he lives. Another box is designated for “local entrepreneurs.” I guess it is reserved for Viktor Orbán’s front men in Felcsút.

In the VIP section the seats are apparently made out of real leather, and the lucky ones who sit there can watch game replays in slow motion on monitors attached to the backs of chairs in front of them. I’m not sure how well these leather chairs will stand up to nature’s vicissitudes and the inevitable stains.

Photo Läszló Döme / pfla.hu

Photo László Döme / pfla.hu

The elaborate wooden structure will also be difficult to keep in tip-top shape. And the copper roofs in no time will tarnish. In brief, the upkeep of the structure will be enormous. What will happen if the flow of money that is coming in now due to the founder’s position stops? Because, although perhaps Viktor Orbán doesn’t want to face the fact, financial supporters of his hobby will drop him once he is no longer of use to them. Once Viktor Orbán is out of office–because it will happen one day regardless of what some pessimistic people say–I doubt that a new Hungarian government will pick up the tab.

Source: Nëpszabadság

Those leather chairs / Source: Népszabadság

On Monday at the opening ceremony there will be the usual speeches. Two of the stars of the show will be former president Pál Schmitt, an Olympic champion and member of the International Olympic Committee, and Ángel Maria Villar, president of the Spanish Football Association and vice president of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association. The former had to resign in disgrace because of plagiarism and the latter’s reputation is marred by his possible involvement in corruption cases. What a pair!

The communication director of the Puskás Academy admitted that decent people no longer go to watch football, but he predicted that “on Monday the change of regime of Hungarian football will begin.” Critics of Orbán’s football mania very much doubt it. They consider every penny spent on stadiums a waste of limited resources. And the stadium at Felcsút a disgrace that speaks volumes about Viktor Orbán and the regime he has built.

The price of collecting signatures of the quick and the dead

My initial impression of HVG‘s young editor-in-chief was negative, mainly due to his habit of appearing for TV interviews wearing a baseball cap backwards. But I have since completely revised my opinion of Gábor Gavra. He has turned HVG into a powerhouse of investigative journalism. It was HVG that in the final analysis was responsible for President Pál Schmitt’s resignation. While they were at it, they managed to prove that not was all kosher with the dissertations (yes, plural) of Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén, the pious spokesman for the Hungarian Catholic Church. Alas, proof or no proof, Semjén stayed and Schmitt’s replacement, János Áder, is only superficially better than his predecessor.

HVG‘s track record of exposing documented misdeeds encouraged others to come forth. For instance, they broke the story of the allocation of tobacconist shop concessions in Szekszárd where the Fidesz members of the city council determined who among the party faithful should be rewarded. The brave vet who approached HVG with the tape recording has since left the party and, as a result of his disclosure, has been having all sorts of problems in his hometown.

HVG‘s latest revelation deals with the Fidesz petition to lower utility rates. According to the tapes it received, Fidesz paid young high school students who were eager to make some pocket money 100 forints per local signature, 500 forints if the signature came from someone out of town. We know from the article that appeared in HVG yesterday that the editors of the paper have not just one tape but most likely several at their disposal. Moreover, as we know from past experience, Gábor Gavra likes to hold a few pieces of evidence back for later use. So, although right now the evidence points to Dunakeszi and Fót, who knows what else the editorial staff of the paper has up its sleeve?

What we know already is damning enough. The kids didn’t just pound the pavement in their hometowns. It seems they were sent to other localities. The evidence comes from a mother whose underage son began collecting signatures on Friday and didn’t return home until Monday. The worried parents actually informed the police about the disappearance of their son. Surely, if he had been working close to home he would have gone home for the night.

Fidesz collected 2.5 million signatures and paid an unknown sum of money to the students for their efforts. But why would such a signature campaign be needed? Wouldn’t it be a no-brainer for 2.5 million people to support the idea of lowering utility rates? It seems from the tapes, however, that it wasn’t all that easy to collect those signatures. One boy boasts that in two days he managed to collect 102 signatures; another claims that one can make 8,000 forints a day.

The payment per signature might explain the many “mistakes” that came to light once Viktor Orbán sent thank you notes to those who signed his petition. Thousands of people complained that they didn’t sign the petition and still got a letter or that their long deceased relatives were also profusely thanked by the grateful prime minister.

Voting fraud

Róbert Zsigó, one of the many Fidesz spokesmen, immediately came to the rescue, claiming that the signature campaign that HVG described was a purely local initiative. A local politician decided to reward the youngsters “from his own salary.” Sure thing. As the video of Zsigó’s press conference attests, that can’t be the real story because Zsigó himself got confused. First he denied that “we paid” anything, but a second later he said “we paid” (fizettünk). So, did they or didn’t they? I suspect they did, and they did it nationwide.

As soon as the news broke, Tibor Szanyi (MSZP), taking advantage of the situation, expressed his belief that if Fidesz can pay for signatures for utility prices why wouldn’t they do the same at the national election where the stakes are a lot higher? We do have to distinguish the two cases. Payment for collecting signatures is not against law as long as we are talking about adults, although I don’t know the status of payment for collecting phony signatures. Payment for votes, in whatever form that takes–well, that’s something else entirely. And, of course, voter fraud (to mention only three of its possible iterations: vote early and often, resurrect the dead, vote on behalf of those who do not intend to vote) is illegal. Unfortunately, MSZP’s suspicions are not unfounded. A lot of people worry about electoral fraud. Viktor Orbán can’t imagine life without being the prime minister and I’m sure he will do everything in his power to remain in office.