Tag Archives: Péter Szijjártó

“Visa shopping” in Moscow: The case of Szilárd Kiss

A young man phoned György Bolgár’s popular call-in show, “Let’s Talk It Over,” on Klub Rádió this afternoon. He was agitated over the latest public row within the ranks of the fractured opposition. “Don’t they realize that we are in big trouble? Don’t they realize that if they don’t unite, Viktor Orbán will be the ruler of this country for life just like Putin and Erdogan? It’s all very nice that LMP’s Bernadett Szél managed to get some documents out of the government, but what does she achieve with that? These politicians should try to figure out how to get rid of a dictator.”

It was only a little later that I realized that the caller was talking about documents that Szél has been trying to get from the ministry of foreign affairs and trade for almost two years. The documents were the result of an investigation into the wholesaling of Schengen visas to thousands of Russians without any vetting by a man officially employed by the Hungarian government.

When I read the details of this latest government scandal, my first reaction was: “But this is not a new story.” Two years ago I wrote two posts on the villain of this story, Szilárd Kiss, agricultural attaché in the Hungarian Embassy in Moscow, who was able to extract thousands of visas from the Hungarian consulate in the Russian capital for his friends, business partners, and even prostitutes. At the time that I wrote my first post on Kiss, he was being held in pre-trial detention for defrauding a credit union in Hungary. He had been in trouble with the law in Russia earlier.

A lot was known about Kiss already in 2015. We knew that he moved to Russia in 1990, hoping to establish himself as a successful businessman dealing with agricultural products. He was especially keen on exporting Hungarian wine to Russia, but somehow all his business ventures failed. Meanwhile he developed a wide network of Russian businessmen and high-ranking politicians through his Russian wife or girlfriend of long standing, Yelena Tsvetkova.

After 2010, with the arrival of Viktor Orbán as prime minister, Kiss thought his time had come. After all, Orbán was keen on establishing strong political and economic ties with Russia. Through his influential Hungarian friends, like Csaba Tarsoly, the CEO of the Quaestor brokerage firm that a few years later went under, Kiss was introduced to Péter Szijjártó, the current foreign minister who was then an undersecretary in the prime minister’s office. Szijjártó was impressed and sent Kiss on to Sándor Fazekas, minister of agriculture, who without further ado appointed him agricultural attaché in Moscow.

In 2014, however, the Hungarian ambassador was about to dismiss Kiss because he had failed to pass the vetting process by the national security office. During the investigation it became evident that Kiss had connections to the Russia mafia and perhaps even to the Russian secret service. In addition, it was discovered that Kiss had been involved in a profitable “visa business” on the side. It was known already in 2015 that he had secured Schengen visas for at least 2,500 people without the standard vetting. In 2015 Index learned that Hungarian consulates had, in total, issued more than two million visas since January 2008. The Russian share was staggeringly high: 400,000. That is, every fifth visa had been issued to a Russian citizen.

We knew all that two years ago, yet the Hungarian media and public act as if this revelation is brand new. I sympathize with the caller who said that politicians could spend their time more profitably than fighting for the release of documents. It took two solid years to get the documents, which only confirmed everything that Index had reported two years ago. Of course, it is good to have the proof as well as more details, which “give a frightening picture of what was going on in Moscow.”

Source: Index / Graphics: Szarvas

As a result of the newly available documents we know that half of all Schengen visas issued in 2013 were requested by Monte Tokaj Kft, Szilárd Kiss’s company. We are talking about 4,000 visas, not 2,500 as we thought in 2015. Moreover, these visas were issued to “Russian citizens with ill-defined financial backgrounds and professions” and “without any apparent documented control.” The Hungarian authorities were not even aware of the addresses of these people, their requests were granted within hours, 50% of the applicants had no references, and they didn’t even have to visit the embassy for a personal interview. What Kiss and his accomplices were doing was what we call “visa shopping.” I should add that it is likely that none of these people spent even as much as a full day in Hungary.

Without the consuls’ cooperation Kiss couldn’t have conducted this visa racket. It looks to me as if they tried to defend themselves by claiming “dishonest influence peddling, pressure, or even threats” against them. Are they talking about pressure and threats from Russian mafia bosses? Perhaps, but the internal investigation doesn’t address this topic.

What is also interesting about this case—something we already knew in 2015—is that although the foreign ministry asked the ministry of agriculture to get rid of Kiss, he was not fired outright. Fazekas worked out an arrangement that allowed Kiss to remain with the ministry. He was asked to resign from his diplomatic post, thereby avoiding the stigma of dismissal. In compensation, Kiss was appointed “commissioner of eastern economic relations.” Why the change? Perhaps because the new appointment was based on a contractual agreement for which one didn’t need national security clearance. Kiss thus remained a public servant until January 2015, when he was arrested because of his role in defrauding a credit union.

By now Kiss is free again, awaiting trial. The last time his name showed up in the media was when he was spotted using a car with a diplomatic plate.

The foreign ministry now claims that they filed a complaint with the police regarding the case. If that happened at all, it must have occurred only recently, under pressure from a court order for the release of the report of the internal investigation that took place four years ago, in 2013.

Although it’s good that we know more about the case than we did two years ago, I’m sure the story will be forgotten within days just it was in 2015. In fact, I would be surprised if there were a police investigation at all. Kiss’s visa racket will be at best a footnote in a history book.

The Hungarian government has every reason to downplay this case. Although Szijjártó claims he never worked with Kiss, he can be seen cutting the ribbon at the opening of the visa center in Moscow with Yelena Tsvetkova, wife/girlfriend of Szilárd Kiss, partial owner of the company. It is also unlikely that the Hungarian government would be too keen to investigate the deal Fazekas made on behalf of his friend Szilárd Kiss in the ministry of agriculture.

So yes, we now know more lurid details of the visa scandal, but given the present government’s stranglehold on the police and the prosecutor’s office nothing will ever come of it. I agree with the caller to “Let’s Talk It Over.” Opposition politicians should slowly turn the job of investigative journalism over to the professionals and instead focus on the daunting task of becoming an unbeatable political juggernaut.

February 8, 2017

Orbán: “one of the greatest virtues is to know where one’s place is”

Anyone who has the patience to sit through 40 minutes of a bad English translation of the joint press conference given by Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orbán can’t help noticing that the two politicians were not in the best of moods. Two years ago, during Putin’s last visit, Orbán was glowing. This time he was somber and so was Putin. Commentators who claim that the whole trip was nothing more than an opportunity for Putin to show that he is welcome in a country belonging to the European Union and for Orbán to demonstrate that he has an important ally were most likely wrong. Something happened during the negotiations between the two leaders that was disturbing, especially for Viktor Orbán.

But first, let’s see what issues the Russian partner wanted to discuss during Putin’s visit to Budapest. According to a summary issued by the Russian foreign ministry, from the Russian point of view the financing and construction of the Paks II Nuclear Power Plant extension had absolute priority. Rebuilding the old Soviet-made metro trains on the M3 line came next in importance, a project that is already underway. In addition, it looks as if Russia is eyeing the project of reconstructing the M3 line in lieu of the €120 million Hungary owes Russia as a result of the bankruptcy of the jointly owned MALÉV. Moscow also wants Hungary to show more interest in cultural matters pertaining to Russia. The ministry’s communiqué noted with satisfaction that there is a revival of interest in the Russian language. As for bilateral economic cooperation between the two countries, the document was vague.

Péter Szijjártó while in Moscow assured Sergey Lavrov of Hungary’s plans to promote Russian culture in Hungary. He announced that Leo Tolstoy will soon have a statue and a street named after him in Budapest. He revealed that the Hungarian government will spend a considerable amount of money on the restoration of three Orthodox churches in the country. As for Hungarian investments, Szijjártó specifically mentioned Hungarian technological investments in the field of agriculture and construction. In addition, he brought up a few projects allegedly under construction and financed by the Hungarian Eximbank.

Not mentioned among the items Hungary is offering to Russia was a memorial that was just unveiled in Esztergom. Even though if Orbán had a free hand he would gladly remove the Soviet memorial on Szabadság tér (Freedom Square), his government accepted a statue, “The Angel of Peace,” done by a Russia sculptor, Vladimir Surovtsev. The statue was erected in Esztergom because it was in the outskirts of that city that, during World War I, a huge camp for prisoners of war was set up. More than 60,000 soldiers–Russians, Serbs, and Italians–spent years there, at first in miserable conditions. Cholera took many lives. To erect a memorial to commemorate the dead and the sufferers is certainly appropriate. What is less logical is that the Russian NGO responsible for the project insisted on including a reference to the soldiers of the Red Army who died in and around Esztergom during 1944-1945. In any event, Vladimir N. Sergeev, Russia’s ambassador in Budapest, said at the ceremony: “It is symbolic that the unveiling of the statue takes place at the time of the Russian president’s visit to Hungary. This shows how important and how strong our cooperation is.”

Perhaps, but it may not have been on display during the meeting between Putin and Orbán, especially when they were discussing Paks II. That the financing of the nuclear power plant was on the agenda was most likely a fact that Viktor Orbán was not eager to share with the public. But his Russian friend practically forced him to reveal it. It was not a friendly gesture.

Let me describe the circumstances in which the incident took place. A journalist from the by-now completely servile Origo asked Viktor Orbán whether the question of financing Paks II was discussed during the conversation. The reason for his question was the Hungarian government’s repeated assertion that by now Hungary could, unlike back in 2014, finance the project on the open market at a lower interest rate than Hungary is currently paying on the Russian loan. János Lázár, head of the prime minister’s office, in fact indicated that the government was ready to renegotiate the deal. As it stands now, in the first seven years the interest rate on the loan is 4.50%, for the second seven years it is 4.80%, and in the last seven years it is 4.95%. According to Népszava’s calculation, the interest on the loan is approximately 300 billion forints a year, or one percent of Hungary’s GDP.

Orbán flatly denied that the question of financing (or refinancing) had come up. However, about one minute later when Putin took over from Orbán, he announced that he had “informed the prime minister that Russia is ready to finance not only 80% but even 100% of the project.” So, he contradicted Orbán, practically calling his host a liar. It seems that the Hungarian request or demand to renegotiate the loan was discussed and rejected. Instead, Putin offered him an even larger loan by way of compensation.

Perhaps here I should bring up a baffling statement that Orbán made. When he was asked by the reporter from MTV’s M1 about the two countries’ cooperation in the international arena, Orbán’s answer was: “Russia and Hungary move in different dimensions when it comes to geopolitical, military, and diplomatic questions. To my mind, one of the greatest virtues is to know where one’s place is.” Is it possible that this rather bitter observation had something to do with Orbán’s less than pleasant conversation with Putin? Did he realize that there is no way out of Putin’s deadly embrace? Perhaps.

Of course, it is possible that Orbán, who is not the kind of man who readily admits that he made a mistake, will just go on merrily forging even closer relations with Russia. On the other hand, he may realize that he is not in a position to be a successful mediator between Russia and the rest of the western world.

As usual, it is hard to tell where Orbán stands only a day or two after his meeting with Putin. He was one of those EU leaders who “pledged the need for unity and for Europe to stand on its own two feet” at the European Council summit in Valletta, Malta yesterday even though before his arrival he announced that the U.S. has the right to decide its own border control policy and that “he is puzzled at the ‘neurotic European reactions’ over the travel ban.” Nonetheless, behind closed doors he joined the others who were united in their condemnation of Donald Trumps’ comments and attitudes toward the European Union. François Hollande was one of the most vocal critics of Trump at the meeting and, when asked what he thought of EU leaders who are leaning toward Trump, he said that “those who want to forge bilateral ties with the U.S. … must understand that there is no future with Trump if it is not a common position.” Orbán should understand that, having lost his battle with Putin over the financing of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant. We will see how he decides.

February 4, 2017

Donald Trump’s Russia policy must be a disappointment to Viktor Orbán

I’m beginning to feel sorry for Viktor Orbán, who tries so hard to make the right diplomatic move at the right time but, despite his best efforts, finds himself making missteps. He can expect even more such aborted diplomatic moves now that the United States has a totally unpredictable president. Orbán’s latest effort was an obvious attempt to further strengthen Russian-Hungarian relations in the conviction that this move would have President Trump’s blessing and backing. It looks as if Viktor Orbán didn’t factor in the total unpredictability of the Trump administration’s policies.

Viktor Orbán expected that his favorite candidate, Donald Trump, would conduct a pro-Russian foreign policy and would keep his nose out of the affairs of other countries. Also, he would no longer demand adherence to democratic norms. Consequently, Orbán renewed his attack on non-governmental organizations operating in Hungary, especially those that receive money from George Soros’s Open Society Foundation. After all, Orbán figured, Trump dislikes the billionaire financier because he generously supported Hillary Clinton. As for diplomatic matters, Orbán was certain that he would receive Trump’s support for an even closer relationship with Putin’s Russia.

So, how did Orbán prepare for this new era of international relations? He decided to have a trial run ahead of the scheduled visit of Vladimir Putin, sending Péter Szijjártó to Moscow with a message that indicated a more openly supportive Hungarian policy toward Russia.

The many reports that appeared in both Hungarian and foreign papers on the meeting in Budapest between Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orbán all agree that the much touted “summit” ended with a fairly meaningless press conference dealing mostly with trade relations and including a few announcements about the Russian gas supply and the financing of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant’s extension. To learn more about what most likely transpired between Putin and Orbán behind closed doors, we should focus on the Moscow trip of the much more talkative Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó on January 23 and 24. He was equally chatty after his negotiations with members of the Russian delegation in Budapest.

First of all, Szijjártó’s servility was, even by his own standards, extreme. He oozed praise and talked at length about the personal pleasure he felt at being able to meet Sergei Lavrov again. The normally dour Russian foreign minister seems to have such a close relationship with Szijjártó that in Budapest, the night before the “summit,” Lavrov was a guest at Szijjártó’s private residence.

A bit over the top

After the Lavrov-Szijjártó meeting in Moscow, Szijjártó expressed the views of the Hungarian government: “If the EU and Russia cannot agree on the conditions of a pragmatic and close cooperation, then the Union will seriously lag behind in the international economic and political competition.” He called attention to the fact that historically Central Europe has always been the victim of conflicts between East and West and therefore “it is in Hungary’s interest that the new U.S. administration and Russia establish as soon as possible a pragmatic and close cooperation based on mutual trust.” Politicians in the European Union label everybody whose ideas aren’t mainstream a “Putinist” or a “Trumpist.” But Hungary “wants to break away from such insultingly simplistic and harmful approaches and to realize that it is in Europe’s interest to normalize its relationship with Russia.” This must have been music to Sergei Lavrov’s ears.

A few days later, this time in Budapest, Szijjártó continued his efforts with members of the Putin delegation and announced Hungary’s eagerness for a close relationship between the European Union and Russia. He falsely claimed that by now “the western world” also wants to have a rapprochement with Russia. He exaggerated Hungary’s financial loss as a result of the sanctions and announced that “our position on this matter” will be guided by Hungarian interests. Both Szijjártó and Orbán, as we will soon see, act as if Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its active participation in the disturbances in Eastern Ukraine simply didn’t exist. It looks as if, in the view of the Orbán government, the “western world” should just forget about Putin’s transgression of Russia’s treaty obligations and its settling of territorial disputes by force.

In comparison to Szijjártó, Viktor Orbán was outright reticent. What was most telling was not what he said but what he didn’t. After thanking Putin “for visiting us,” he immediately moved to the “center of the talks,” which were economic issues, specifically the absolutely perfect economic relations between the two countries in recent years. It was only at this point that he gingerly moved to politics. “One of the reasons we should especially value the results of economic cooperation is that we have achieved them in a difficult international environment. We have all seen the development of strongly anti-Russian sentiment in the western half of the continent, and anti-Russian politics has become the fashion.” Fashion? Anti-Russian sentiment out of the blue? Clearly, the Orbán government would love to forget about the whole Ukrainian issue, which seems to me a highly irresponsible position considering that Ukraine is Hungary’s neighbor.

Then he moved on, somewhat obliquely, to the question of sanctions. “Hungary maintains its position that problems of a non-economic nature cannot be addressed with economic measures,” an opinion that is clearly wrong. For example, sanctions against Iran were instrumental in getting Iran to the negotiating table. Or, if these sanctions are as ineffectual as Orbán has often claimed, why is Putin so eager to have them lifted? Orbán added that “it is difficult to imagine Hungary being successful if we do not develop open, strong, and fruitful economic and trade cooperation with the major players in the global economy.”

Putin’s introductory words were equally bland, dealing mostly with economic and cultural relations between the two countries. He spent only one sentence on territories in which Russia has a military presence. He ended his short address with these words: “We discussed the Eastern-Ukrainian and Syrian situations, and we determined that we must unite our forces against terrorism.”

From Putin’s answer to a Russian journalist’s question, however, one has some idea of what Putin must have said to Orbán on the Ukrainian situation. In Putin’s opinion, the Ukrainians provoked the latest military action in the eastern provinces of the country because the Ukrainian government badly needs money, which it hopes to get from the European Union and the United States. Thus, the Ukrainians try to picture themselves as the victims of Russian aggression. Orbán’s response to this fabrication was not exactly courageous. He muttered something about fulfilling the Minsk II Agreement, which will provide peace in Europe. At the same time he felt it necessary to mention that the Minsk Agreement has a clause guaranteeing minority rights, which also affects the Hungarian minority. He expressed his dissatisfaction with the Hungarian minority’s current situation in Ukraine.

The Hungarian assumption underlying Viktor Orbán’s hopes for closer Russian-Hungarian relations was that Donald Trump would conduct a pro-Russian foreign policy, which he has long advocated. But after the chaotic first two weeks of the new administration, there has been an unexpected turn. The Trump administration, counter to all expectations, is taking a hard stand on Russian aggression against Ukraine. The newly appointed U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, delivered a tough speech yesterday in which she condemned Russia’s unacceptable behavior. She said that the United States would like to have better relations with Russia, but “the dire situation in eastern Ukraine is one that demands clear and strong condemnation of Russian actions.” Moreover, in the speech she also said that “the United States continues to condemn and call for an immediate end to the Russian occupation of Crimea. The United States considers Crimea to be part of Ukraine.” She added that “our Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns control over the peninsula to Ukraine.”

Although Haley’s remarks were not all that different from speeches delivered by Samantha Power, the Obama administration’s ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, the Russian ambassador to the UN, felt that “there is a change in tone” with the arrival of the new administration. He claimed that he wasn’t particularly surprised by Haley’s speech, something I find difficult to believe, even though in the last couple of weeks the Russians have also come to the conclusion that one never knows what to expect from this new White House.

What an irony of fate. On the very same day that Viktor Orbán and his foreign minister are laying out their great plans for an entirely different international climate as far as Russia and Europe is concerned, the U.S. ambassador to the UN reinforces the United States’ resolve to keep the sanctions in place as long as it takes. This should put an end to the daydreams of Viktor Orbán and Péter Szijjártó.

February 3, 2017

A small but close circle: the Orbán family and Arab businessmen

The Pharaon affair simply doesn’t want to disappear.

In the first place, it is not an everyday occurrence that the prime minister of a country and his close family are caught doing business with a man, Saudi businessman Ghaith Pharaon, who is being sought by the FBI and Interpol.

Second, once the story broke Viktor Orbán and several high-level members of his government managed to get themselves entangled in a web of contradictory statements. Analyzing and comparing every statement they made has kept reporters and commentators busy for several days.

Third, since the pressure on the government refused to let up, it seems that the decision was made to change tactics. A couple of days ago Magyar Idők, the government’s mouthpiece, began accusing the United States of being responsible for the problems that plague Hungary, and specifically its prime minister, as a result of Pharaon’s presence and business dealings in Hungary. Soon enough, Pharaon was portrayed as an agent of the CIA who tried to blacken the good name of Viktor Orbán. That was bizarre enough, but for good measure Hungarian intelligence sources complicated matters by adding another twist to the Pharaon story: it was Russian and Israeli intelligence agencies that revealed Orbán’s secret dealings with Pharaon and other Arab businessmen. These stories gave rise to a new round of speculative articles in the Hungarian media.

Finally, Csaba Tarsoly, the CEO of Quaestor, the brokerage firm that for at least a decade if not longer was engaged in a Ponzi scheme, gave an interview to Magyar Narancs the other day from which the Hungarian public learned that shortly before the collapse of Quaestor in March 2015 Foreign Minister Szijjártó arranged a meeting between Tarsoly and Pharaon.

Let’s start with the conspiracy theories. “The ugly American” version comes from Magyar Idők, which on November 23 published information that was allegedly obtained from the Hungarian intelligence services. The gist of the story is that, although the Americans consider Pharaon “very dangerous,” they were so careless that they were searching for him under 11 different names, four different birth dates, and two different birthplaces. The Pharaon who entered Hungary was none of those 11 Pharaons, claimed the Hungarian authorities. Surely, the story continues, if Pharaon were so dangerous and the Americans really want to capture him, they wouldn’t be doing business with the man in Georgia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. As for Pharaon’s fingerprints, the FBI didn’t pass them on to Interpol. “One wonders why,” Magyar Idők adds mysteriously. To add insult to injury, the fingerprints the Hungarians got from the FBI were useless. So clearly, it is not Hungary’s fault that a visa was issued to Pharaon.

pharaon3

Ghaith Pharaon

Armed with the above information, Magyar Idők apparently confronted the U.S. Embassy in Budapest but said they “haven’t received substantive answers” to their questions. On the other hand, the paper received information from “government sources,” according to which “the idea of Pharaon as a national security risk for our country came directly from the United States” because “with this information the U.S. can strike a blow against the Hungarian government.” This story was then embellished by János Lázár, who at one of his press conferences claimed that at the time the visa was issued in October-November 2014 the Hungarian government asked the U.S. Embassy whether there was any objection to allowing Pharaon to enter Hungary. If this is true, says 444.hu, the Americans tricked the Hungarians, knowing full well that greedy Hungarian businessmen with close connections to the government would make sure that the government issued a visa without any vetting. I find this version of the story most unlikely. And I disregard Lázár’s story altogether. I’m sure that his story about getting in touch with the U.S. Embassy is one of his many fabrications.

While some Hungarian intelligence sources were whispering into the ears of the reporters of Magyar Idők, others were busy dropping stories about Russian and Israeli involvement to Hetek, the publication of the Assembly of Faith. According to this version, Israel is concerned about the very large investments by Arab businessmen in Hungary, which they consider to be “indirect Islamization of the region, which is especially dangerous in a country with the largest Jewish population in the region.” And the Russians? They are worried about Hungary’s close relations with Pharaon because of his reputation as a CIA agent. He must be an agent because there is no other explanation for the fact the United States has been unable to arrest him in the last 25 years. I disregard this version as well.

One doesn’t need to concoct stories about intelligence and counterintelligence to understand a simple story that was made purposely complicated by officials of the Hungarian government. Indeed, greedy Hungarian politicians and businessmen would make deals with the devil himself. They cared not who Pharaon was or what the FBI and Interpol thought of him. National security experts whom I trust are certain that the Hungarian intelligence agencies were fully aware of Pharaon’s past and the dangers that close relations with him would pose but that the prime minister of Hungary overruled them. Yes, I think the story is that simple.

Finally, here is the latest development in the career of Pharaon in Hungary. According to Csaba Tarsoly of Quaestor, a few days before the collapse of his brokerage firm he had a chance to meet a wealthy Saudi businessman who was interested in investing some money in a huge project that was extremely important to the firm. Quaestor owned 50% of a large tract of land (33 hectares) on the northern side of Csepel Island. The plan included the erection of a large conference center with a hotel and several apartment houses and commercial buildings. Tarsoly and his business associates needed about 300 billion forints to erect Duna City, as the future project was named. According to Tarsoly, “at the beginning of 2015 the foreign ministry brought a Saudi investor called Ghaith Pharaon to me. There was a big dinner at the Buddha Bar where I was introduced to him and his secretary; later I returned the invitation. It was after these two meetings that the investors met in my office and told me they would be willing to invest in the development of Duna City. I found the amount offered insufficient, and therefore the Saudi investor told me that if I give him 5% he will take care of the financing.”

Foreign Minister Szijjártó readily admitted that the Befektetési Ügynökség (Hungarian Investment Promotion Agency/HIPA) that functions under the aegis of the foreign ministry did suggest Tarsoly’s Duna City project to Pharaon. After all, it is HIPA’s job to encourage foreigners to invest in Hungarian projects, and therefore it was practically the agency’s duty to hook Tarsoly up with Pharaon. When Magyar Narancs asked him outright whether he himself was in any way involved in the negotiations, Szijjártó denied any participation. But again, something is not quite right with the story. The director of HIPA told Hír TV that he had nothing to do with either Ghaith Pharaon or the Duna City project. I suspect that this particular business deal was so important to the circle around Viktor Orbán that they sidestepped HIPA and that the negotiations with Pharaon were conducted at the highest level, with Szijjártó or perhaps even Viktor Orbán.

And here’s an interesting footnote to the story of the meeting of Pharaon and Tarsoly in the Buddha Bar. It was on June 14, 2012 that Budapest’s newest luxury hotel, Buddha Bar Hotel, owned by two Jordanian investors, opened in the Klotild Palace in downtown Budapest. It was no ordinary opening. Almost all the foreign ambassadors attended in addition to former president Pál Schmitt and, of all people, Cardinal Péter Erdős. But the most surprising guest was the prime minister himself. While reading Origo’s description of the opening ceremony a name caught my eye: Zaid Naffa, honorary Jordanian consul in Budapest. Sharp-eyed readers of the Hungarian press or Hungarian Spectrum will immediately recognize the name. He is the man who requested a Hungarian visa for Ghaith Pharaon at the Hungarian consulate in Beirut.

Viktor Orbán was the guest of honor at the opening of the hotel. He delivered a speech which revealed the close ties between the Jordanian businessmen and the Hungarian government. It turned out that the two investors had spent their student days in Hungary and that their company, Mellow Mood Group, owns nine more hotels in Budapest. As usual, Viktor Orbán was expansive in his praise of Hungary’s Arab friends and called attention to the common traits of Arabs and Hungarians. They are both hospitable, open people. And, he said, it is obvious from the example of the owners of the hotel that Arabs understand that “not even profit gives satisfaction if there is no friendship and soul.”  Viktor Orbán was, and I suspect continues to be, friends with this small group of people, to whom, I think, Ghaith Pharaon also belongs.

November 25, 2016

The Orbán government stands fast at home and abroad

At home

Viktor Orbán was expected to have a difficult time in parliament today. It was one of those times that the prime minister has to answer questions. He cannot pass the unpleasant task on to one of his ministers or even to undersecretaries. All three opposition spokesmen wanted the prime minister to say something about Index’s revelations concerning Antal Rogán’s suspicious business activities which, on the surface at least, seem to involve kickbacks and money laundering.

Opportunities to confront the prime minister directly are rare, and therefore each opposition party should designate its best person to pose the question. I’m afraid MSZP’s choice of László Varga wasn’t wise. His “witticism”—if you can call it that—about Antal Rogán’s inability to see reality from his helicopter and the size of his apartment fell flat. For Orbán, who can shine in such a situation, Varga’s poorly formulated question was easy to answer and counter. Orbán never uttered Rogán’s name but instead reminded the socialists of the days when the MSZP-sponsored hunger marches were organized by “an opulent euro millionaire,” a reference to a high-level MSZP politician who was discovered to have 200 million forints worth of euros in an Austrian bank.

Bernadett Szél, co-chair of LMP, was a great deal more specific. First, she recalled all the lies Rogán told about the residency bonds and about his relationship to Balázs Kertész. Szél specifically wanted to know how long Antal Rogán can remain a minister. She reminded Orbán that he as prime minister is responsible for the composition of his government and therefore it is he who must take responsibility for the behavior of his ministers.

This question couldn’t be sidestepped. Orbán had to give a more or less straight answer. His reply: “I don’t have anything to do with political bluster and political tabloid sensations. I am interested only in performance within the government. Whatever has been happening to Antal Rogán so far only strengthens his position. Don’t think that these accusations shatter us or that they force us to think of them at all. I consider the accusations no more than infantile sham which I simply don’t take seriously. If one word of this affair were true you would have filed charges already.”

Viktor Orbán today in the Parliament

Viktor Orbán in parliament today

Finally, György Szilágyi of Jobbik rose and listed all the lies Rogán uttered in the last few days. He inquired why Orbán as prime minister tolerates this. Orbán pretty much repeated what he said to Szél: “These are political sham attacks that I don’t take seriously. Every attack I have heard so far only increases my trust in the minister.” Orbán also cleverly used this opportunity to bolster his defense of Rogán by pointing out that the attacks are no so much against his minister as against himself and his government. His final words to Szilágy were: “a politician calling another politician a liar is not very original.”

So, for the time being Rogán’s position is secure. He has been an indispensable associate who, by the look of things, brought billions of euros into the coffers not only of the country but most likely also of Fidesz, in addition to enriching himself. Orbán at the moment thinks so little of the strength of the opposition that he believes that he can withstand all the charges. Most likely he is right.

Abroad

Hungarian papers barely mentioned an extraordinary dinner meeting of foreign ministers held on Sunday, which was inspired by German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. In light of the unexpected victory of Donald Trump, a man with no background in foreign affairs, Steinmeier thought it was important for the EU foreign ministers have a common policy when dealing with an unpredictable Washington. Federica Mogherini, the quasi foreign minister of the European Union, agreed and the meeting was scheduled.

It was rumored at the time the meeting was announced that Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó would not attend but would instead send one of his undersecretaries. It was an indication that Hungary, unlike most of the EU member countries, didn’t believe the emergency meeting was necessary. Since Viktor Orbán, alone among European politicians, rooted for Trump, he hopes that the new president will look upon his regime favorably. That the foreign minister opted not to attend the emergency meeting should give Hungary another gold star in Trump’s book.

Three foreign ministers did not attend the Sunday meeting. Predictably, the UK’s Boris Johnson was absent. After all, Britain is on its way out of the Union and needs to be on especially good terms with the next president of the United States. France’s Jean-Marc Ayrault sent an envoy due to a scheduling conflict. And, as euobserver.com said, “Hungary’s pro-Trump Prime Minister Viktor Orbán also kept his top foreign envoy at home.”

Assessments of the Sunday dinner meeting vary. According to critics, it was far too early for the foreign ministers to get together since we know practically nothing about Trump’s foreign policy objectives. Mogherini, on the other hand, declared the meeting a success, saying that the foreign ministers agreed “to engage with the incoming administration even from this very first week of transition,” meaning right away.

Meanwhile, Szijjártó decided to speak up and explain Hungary’s position. He found “the hysteria caused by the US presidential elections that swept through the European political elite pathetic and at the same time amusing.” Hungary will not take part in this hysteria because it considers Trump’s election good news. The Hungarian government finds the president-elect’s idea to stop “democracy export” beneficial to the world.

It should be noted that Viktor Orbán’s Visegrád 4 friends decided not to follow in the footsteps of their pugnacious Hungarian friend. I wonder whether there was any consultation among the four countries ahead of the Sunday dinner meeting. I suspect there was, but that Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic don’t want any more open confrontations with the rest of the European countries. They gave the EU a hard enough time on the refugee issue and don’t feel like sticking their necks out for Donald Trump, who may be courting Russia at the expense of Eastern Europe.

November 14, 2016

Mátyás Eörsi declines the government nomination

At the beginning of August I devoted two posts to a “candid interview” of Péter Szijjártó, minister of foreign affairs and trade, by András Dezső and Szabolcs Panyi of Index. I prefaced my articles by saying that members of the Orbán government rarely give interviews to publications critical of its policies. It is possible that the relatively relaxed manner in which the interview was conducted was Szijjártó’s attempt to show the readers of Index that the government he serves is actually the paragon of cooperation. At one point he dwelt at length on all the assistance the Orbán government extends to opposition politicians in their travels abroad, for example to Ferenc Gyurcsány in China. He added that “it was the most natural thing for me to ask the Department of Chinese Affairs to put together some preparatory material for the former prime minister.”

Seeing the journalists’ astonishment, he decided to surprise them even more. “But I can also tell you some breaking news! Recently I had a visit from Mátyás Eörsi, who lives in Warsaw and works as deputy-secretary general of an international organization called Community of Democracies. This organization has 18 members, among them Hungary, and Eörsi would like to run for the post of secretary-general, but he needs the nomination of his government. He asked me whether such a nomination would be possible, and I said: of course. I visited the prime minister and told him that this was a good idea. He said that [Eörsi’s] merits at the time of the regime change deserve respect even if we have since disagreed on many things.”

In the second part of my two articles I gave a brief introduction to the Community of Democracies. As far as Mátyás Eörsi’s distinguished political career is concerned, a short biography can be found in the English-language Wikipedia. Below you can see the interview with Mátyás Eörsi on ATV’s Egyenes beszéd (Straight Talk) in August, after the Orbán government’s endorsement of him for the post.

Prior to the interview Eörsi published an announcement of his nomination by the government, which was followed by a fairly acrimonious debate in liberal circles, which I described in the second part of my post on the Szijjártó interview.

Since then Mátyás Eörsi had a change of heart. Below you will find his letter to Foreign Minister Szijjártó informing him of his decision to decline the nomination of the Hungarian government for the post of Secretary General of the Community of Democracies. The translation is mine.

♦ ♦ ♦

Péter Szijjártó
Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade
Budapest

Warsaw, October 11, 2016

Dear Mr. Szijjártó:

First of all, let me thank you once more for the support of the Hungarian government in nominating me for the position of Secretary General of the Community of Democracies.

I have to inform you with heartfelt and profound regret that as a result of the incidents that have taken place in Hungary over the past days and weeks I cannot accept your endorsement. I have already informed the president of the Community of Democracies and the State Department of the United States of America of my decision.

When I speak of the reasons for declining your support I have to be, above all, self-critical. Although I have been aware of the Hungarian government’s actions during the past six years by which it has systematically destroyed the democratic institutional structure that functioned more or less well before, I still hoped that as the head of an international organization I could effectively assist the consolidation and development of democratic norms in the participating countries. I thank you specifically for mentioning my accomplishments at the time of the transition to democracy. Over and above my role at that time I hoped that through my past work as caucus leader in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and in the Liberal International—then still in alliance with Fidesz—I had gained sufficient international credibility to enable me to perform this task.

But we must be clear that past merits can provide only a foundation for credibility. A person nominated by a government that has become infamous for destroying democratic institutions cannot credibly lead the Permanent Secretariat of the Community. While my aspiration is still to serve the cause of democracy, it seems ever more impossible with the support of the present Hungarian government.

The hate campaign full of untrue allegations that cost more than the aggregate campaign for and against Brexit in the United Kingdom was unacceptable for a democrat. Claiming victory over a clearly lost referendum and the politically motivated shuttering of the largest Hungarian daily, Népszabadság, marking a crucial landmark in the liquidation of free print media, are diametrically opposed to the Warsaw Declaration of the Community of Democracies signed by Hungary.

While once more I want to thank you for the nomination, please permit me to seize this opportunity to caution you, the Hungarian government and the government party, Fidesz, whose original members were once my friends. Historical experience shows that a government without checks and balances restricts democracy. Its aim is to annihilate those it considers “enemies” of the nation, believing that once the “enemy” is destroyed it will restore democracy.

This was the original idea of the communists who wanted to get rid of Nazism, of Colonel Qaddafi who wanted to get rid of the dictatorship of King Idris, and of Fidel Castro who brought the oppression of Batista to an end, and many others who originally with good intentions began the destruction of their opposition. Slowly, without realizing it, they themselves became the oppressors. By that time there was no way back if for no other reason but fear. Please, don’t misunderstand me: Fidesz and the current government, even if it made attempts at the incarceration of its political opponents, haven’t gotten to this point yet. But you have to be aware of the consequences of the destruction of institutions and the liquidation of critical media and civil society. Once this is done there will be no one to prevent fatal mistakes, the consequences of which can be a catastrophe for the nation, including its leaders. As the saying goes, those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Although I have no reason to think so, I would still like to believe that the government will come to its senses and will restore democratic norms in order to prevent a tragedy.

Sincerely,

Mátyás Eörsi

October 18, 2016

 

Anti-refugee hysteria in Hungary

The “real” referendum campaign began only after September 4, when Viktor Orbán and the Fidesz parliamentary delegation met for the weekend in Balatonfüred to discuss the political tasks ahead. Of course, the most urgent job is to whip up sentiment against the “migrants,” thus making sure that enough people vote, preferably “no” to the question “Do you want the European Union, without the consent of Parliament, to order the compulsory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary?” I’d wager to say that the majority of citizens who are ready to participate in this hoax believe that what they are voting for is “No, we don’t want to have a single migrant in our midst.”

After three weeks of intense campaigning, with government and party officials on the road day in and day out, a veritable hysteria has enveloped the country. It is a frightening reminder of how an unscrupulous demagogue can take basically decent people and instill in them the worst possible instincts about people they know close to nothing about (and the little they think they know comes from dubious sources).

A year ago 64% of Hungarians thought that “it is our duty to help the refugees” and 52% believed that the refugees should be treated more humanely than the Hungarian government was doing at the time. Today the second number has decreased to 38%, and only 35% think it is their duty to help the refugees at all. These are the results of the hate campaign the Orbán government has waged for months. This kind of propaganda blitz can be carried out only in dictatorships where all power is concentrated in the hands of the government and where there is no effective opposition, which by now is pretty much the case in Hungary. The fractured Hungarian opposition has no means by which to combat this one-sided onslaught.

So, let’s see what kinds of tricks the Orbán government is using to achieve its desired end. The most brutal words came from György Nógrádi, the government’s favorite “expert” on national security, who worked as an agent for the internal security establishment during the 1980s. He is apparently very popular as a speaker at the “town meetings” organized by the local authorities. He says that these migrants cannot be integrated, and if Hungarians don’t want “no-go” zones in Hungary they will have to go and vote. In one town the audience was in a total frenzy by the time Nógrádi finished with his stories about the horrid possibilities awaiting them. An older woman rose to speak, clutching the photos of her two granddaughters who will be raped by migrants unless Viktor Orbán saves them. At the end of the lecture Nógrádi suggested that the only way to stop the inflow of migrants is to shoot them as they are crossing the sea.

Zsolt Bayer frightens people by telling them that 2 billion people will be coming to Europe from Africa, even though the population of the continent is only 1.2 billion. Fidesz MPs have been going from town to town, terrifying people with the prospect that migrants will be forcibly settled in their town. In Gödöllő the Fidesz MP of the district told his audience that 1,500 migrants will be settled in the town, which means 220 families. Moreover, in time that number will be much higher because these people’s relatives will join them. The mayor of the town is suing the MP for scare-mongering. In Csepel the Fidesz deputy mayor announced that the residents “wouldn’t be happy if [the government] had to evict the tenants” living in municipal housing in order to make room for the migrants. Moreover, the district now spends 192 million forints on financial assistance for its citizens, and it would be sad if that money ended up in the hands of the migrants. Two lawyers decided to sue the deputy mayor, again for scare-mongering.

Roland Mengyi, the MP whose immunity was just lifted because of the corruption case unearthed by Attila Rajnai of 168 Óra, was asked to campaign for the referendum. No hiding in shame for him. At one of his meetings Gabriella Selmeczi, formerly a Fidesz spokeswoman, told the people of Borsod County that migrants will be settled there and that the “white people” will soon find out what it’s like having “no-go zones” if they don’t vote no. A gypsy in the crowd told the audience that “ten years ago at Olaszliszka these people would have killed not only Lajos Szögi but his daughters as well. Everybody.” In 2006 in Olaszliszka a group of gypsies beat to death a man whom they accused of killing a girl who ran in front of his car. More about the story here.

hysteria by s.butterfy / flickr.com

hysteria by s.butterfy / flickr.com

The official referendum booklet claims that the so-called “no-go” zones are areas of cities that the authorities are unable to keep under their control. Here the society’s written or unwritten norms do not apply. Saying that in those European cities where large numbers of immigrants live several hundred “no-go” zones exist got the Hungarian government into trouble. Not only was Szijjártó asked some hard-hitting questions in an interview with the BBC, but the British, French, German, and Swedish ambassadors together demanded a meeting in the Hungarian foreign ministry about this obviously false claim of the Hungarian government.

Meanwhile, others resort to violence. The Two-tailed Dog Party (KKP), which has collected about 20 million forints and printed several funny “counter-posters,” has several young activists who put them up on advertising surfaces. Pro-government individuals systematically tear them down or cover them with other advertisements. The following incident gives an idea of what’s going on nowadays in the country. Activists were in the middle of putting up KKP posters in Szentendre when a taxi driver went up to them and yelled “A zsidó kurva anyátokat” (Your f..ing Jewish mother). At that point the taxi driver tore down the posters one by one and, when an activist starting taking a video, the man hit him. The activist ended up on the ground. To everybody’s great surprise the police on its own laid charges against the man, who has since been identified as Béla P (63). He is being accused of battery.

The chief culprit is of course Viktor Orbán himself, who just today announced at a press conference in Vienna that in Egypt 5.5 million migrants are waiting to move on and that the EU-Turkish agreement might easily be broken. In this case the EU needs a new “script for the impending disaster” (vészforgatókönyv). I was especially intrigued by the 5.5 million migrants in Egypt since that is an enormous number of people about whom we should have heard sometime, somewhere. So I decided to investigate. I found the following information about the number of refugees in Egypt, as provided by the UN Refugee Agency: “As of 31 August [2016], 187,838 refugees and asylum-seekers have been registered with UNHCR in Egypt, with 116,175 Syrian (62%) followed by 31,200 Sudanese, 10,941 Ethiopians, 7,254 Somalis, and 7,000 Iraqis, among others.”

What can we expect from a government whose the prime minister so brazenly lies about facts that can be easily verified? Not much. The result is a moral disaster.

September 24, 2016