Tag Archives: Poland

Miklós Haraszti: Countering illiberal usurpations of democracy

In my post about the visit of the European Parliament’s rapporteur to Budapest, I noted that coincidentally, in Brussels, there was a book launch for a new work by NGOs from Hungary, Croatia, and Serbia. The title of the book is Resisting Ill Democracies in Europe. The study is now available online in English, Croatian, Hungarian, Polish, and Russian. It documents the workings of illiberal governments through the experiences of the most important NGOs in the various countries. Hungary is represented by the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee.

The book has five chapters dealing with various aspects of the problems facing civil society in these countries: traditional values and illiberal trends, a case study of illiberal governments, human rights and the rule of law, practices and strategies to inspire civil society, and laying foundations for civil society to resist.

Miklós Haraszti wrote the foreword (“Countering Illiberal Usurpations of Democracy”) to the book, which is republished below. Haraszti is an author and director of research on human rights at the Center for European Neighborhood Studies of Central European University. In the past he wrote two articles for this blog, and, since he is a faithful follower of Hungarian Spectrum, he often contributes discerning comments to our discussions.


In recent years, an epidemic of anti-civil society laws has been hitting many new democracies on several continents. They are made to tighten the conditions for government-independent citizen activities. The latest legislative fashion is unrolling internationally, based on models designed in the Kremlin. It punishes global networking of civil endeavors or international sponsoring for non-profit activism, by labeling its actors as ‘foreign agents’.

The spreading of these restrictive regulations is a clear sign of the degradation of the freshly attained liberal constitutionalism toward illiberal or outright authoritarian governance. It is more than just a side-effect: the crusade against “unofficial” civil associations is basic household cleaning for illiberal regimes. They have set out to transform democracy from a cooperative and pluralistic enterprise into a disguise for a game where the winner sets the rules.

The illiberals have a reason. Civil activism is the nearest thing to the raw energy that fills and regenerates freedom in any society. Citizen activities are both the beginnings and the finest fruits of a democracy. When we see them purposefully hindered, cynically vilified, and even criminalized, this is in fact done to stop them from reaching out to society or from monitoring the government. We should remember that both these public roles are inherent in their independence.

Because populist power grabs are ‘democratically’ justified (“we have elections, don’t we”), it is not immediately clear for the public just how central the assaults on civil society are for the illiberal outcome. The watchdogs need to be silenced so the illiberal actions can go on: the elimination of transparency in the use of public money; the subordination of all branches of power to the executive; the systematic thwarting of autonomies; the streamlining of the judiciary; and the curtailing of the rights to free assembly, association, and media pluralism.

I suggest we take the rage of the illiberals against independent civil society at surface value. When the illiberal rulers stamp NGOs as foreign agents, they do not simply seek to diminish criticism using a nationalist ideology. The illiberals want the citizens to see the government not just as temporary and partial representatives of the nation – they want the government to be identified with the nation, and squeeze out independent activism as alien and even hostile to the nation.

So let’s react accordingly. Civil power, unhindered NGOs – just as a pluralistic media –are the ultimate frontiers in defending freedom in society. Unfortunately, under illiberal regimes, the traditional political process is not anymore able to correct the systematic distortion of competition rules, or put checks and balances back to work. This is because the populist illiberals and autocrats have utilized those very guarantees to first get to the top and then to eliminate the built-in barriers to absolute power.

Where can help come from, when the economy has been turned into a nepotistic fiefdom, political parties into parliamentary padding, and the media into mere decorations of preordained elections? Change could only come from the remaining unchecked, globally rooted social forces, the mercurial civil society, and its increasingly Internet-based communications strategies.

Importantly, the freedom of civil society and free media are growingly the same cause as internet-based connectivity becomes a fact of life. Can you tell apart what the illiberal rulers are angrier with: the fact-finding activities of the watchdog NGOs, or their communications-based ability to actually convey their findings to all citizens, despite that the rulers have occupied all traditional media? Russia’s Alexei Navalny or Hungary’s Márton Gulyás have practically reinvented public-service media, as part of their civic activity, illuminating the way to a reinvented, post-illiberal democracy.

One main weapon of the illiberals is the slogan of ‘internal affairs’, the notion of sovereignty utilized to push the management of global developments back into a territorial matter. Think of the laws aimed to domesticate the global Internet or sometimes simply to stall the growing bandwidth.

The illiberal regimes wage a two-level battle against any form of international togetherness of worldwide civic aspirations. One is, paradoxically, through the established intergovernmental organizations and legal instances. In such fora, they perfectly team up with all other governments that want to send internationalism back to hell. But the words they internally use for mobilization belie the elevated arguments about sovereignty. Domestically, the illiberal rulers are just plain nationalist populists. Their science consists of enhancing and weaponizing the explosive force of age-old basic instincts: ethnic or religious exclusivism and xenophobia.

Therefore, all international friends of civic freedom have to remember what is at stake here: the fate of universal human rights and ultimately, the guarantees of peace. Immanuel Kant, the reclusive philosopher from Königsberg (today Kaliningrad), is right on target, more now than ever. His triple formula of ‘eternal peace’ suggested that, for global peace to materialize, it is necessary but not sufficient to have democracies in all countries. Not even an international alliance of democracies will be enough to secure that goal. The final guarantee of peace must be, he said, the international enforceability of individual human rights.

See the new Berlin Wall erected: the ‘foreign agent’ type anti-NGO regulations. This time, the divides are built of legal provisions, not concrete and steel. But their function is the same: to eliminate the indivisibility of human rights, proclaimed by the international community after WW2 – and in fact, the main lesson of WW2.

I hope this handbook will help us deeper cultivate the rationale for civil society: freedom in peace, at home and worldwide. And that it will make us more mindful in countering the illiberal usurpations of democracy, at home and worldwide.

January 14, 2018

Morawiecki’s pilgrimage to Budapest: It might have been in vain

Viktor Orbán was evidently pleased with his administration’s impressive show of diplomatic prowess when he boasted two days ago that “This is a strong beginning to the year; in two days two prime ministers of the European Union visited Budapest.” He announced this during the press conference that he and Leo Varadkar, Taoiseach of Ireland, held on Thursday. Varadkar’s was only a quick working visit. By contrast, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki was received the day before with great fanfare, which included the appearance of a colorful “huszár bandérium.”

The trip to Budapest was the first official visit of the newly appointed Polish prime minister. In addition to acknowledging the historical friendship between the two countries and to reinforcing the ideological ties that bind Kaczyński’s Poland and Orbán’s Hungary, the trip was intended to serve pragmatic interests. Under normal circumstances, Hungary has to play second fiddle to the much larger and stronger Poland, but today it is Poland that badly needs the goodwill and benevolence of Hungary. The reason is that Frans Timmermans, vice president of the European Commission, announced on December 20, 2017 that “it is with a heavy heart that we’ve decided to trigger article 7 point 1 [of the EU Treaty], but the facts leave us no choice.” The expectation in Poland is that Viktor Orbán would veto the implementation of article 7 against Poland if and when such an eventuality actually takes place. In fact, Euobserver took the Hungarian veto for granted, which might be premature because that threat didn’t come from Viktor Orbán but from Zsolt Semjén, who is prone to hyperbole. While journalists in Brussels looked upon the new Polish prime minister’s visit to Hungary as a snub, Polish commentators saw the trip very differently. The consensus is that Morawiecki traveled to Budapest to receive assurance from Viktor Orbán that the expected veto would be forthcoming. Polish diplomatic moves in the next months will depend on such assurances.

There were hussars but no promise of a veto / MTI / Photo: Tamás Kovács

Polish commentaries reported that the Poles were expecting Viktor Orbán to say it out loud, right there, during the press conference that “he would not allow the EU to punish” Poland. But the word everybody was waiting for was not forthcoming, as the pro-government, conservative Rzeczpospolita pointed out. What follows in this article is a long list of Orbán’s sins, among them his pro-Russian policies and his demand for autonomy for the Hungarian minority in Ukraine during the Russian aggression against that country. The conclusion is that Hungary is a difficult and perhaps even unreliable ally. For the Poles, Viktor Orbán’s Facebook note, “Poland has not yet perished, So long as we still live,” didn’t mean much because these words are merely a line from the Polish national anthem, not a promise to stand by Poland.

Hungarians also noticed the absence of any mention of Article 7 in the hour-long press conference because surely, said Szabolcs Vörös of Válasz, it is hard to imagine that the matter wasn’t brought up during the conversation between the two men. Orbán mostly talked about Eastern Europe as the engine of the European economy, strong and economically successful member nations, and migration, which will spark serious debates in 2018. As for Morawiecki, his comments were even less enlightening. According to him, the two countries see eye to eye on current issues in Europe, member nations must be united on the question of Brexit, and, naturally, Poland has the same opinion on migration as Hungary does.

That wasn’t much, but what was really surprising was that no journalist who attended the press conference directed a question to either man on the crucial topic of Article 7, Poland’s current headache. But then a Polish paper, Gazeta Wiadomosci, revealed that the Polish journalists who accompanied Morawiecki to Budapest had agreed ahead of time to inquire about Article 7, but when it came time for the two questions they were allowed to ask of the two prime ministers their inquiries turned out to be trivial. The same was true of the Hungarian journalists. The paper came to the conclusion that “there was censorship in Budapest.”

It is true that Orbán subsequently gave a lengthy interview to Poland’s public television station in which he assured his audience that “Hungary stands by Poland,” whatever that means. Yet there are signs that the Poles don’t really trust Hungary as an ally. The spokeswoman of the liberal Nowoczesna, a liberal party, said in a radio interview: “I was just stunned; our diplomacy hasn’t changed at all. We entrust our security to Hungary, who sides with Russia. It is sad that we had to go to Hungary for Orbán’s veto, which at the end we didn’t get.”

The most detailed analysis of current Polish-Hungarian relations appeared in Független Hírügynökség. The article is simply signed as “Sikorsky,” although I suspect the author is Hungarian, someone who seems to be thoroughly familiar with Polish as well as Slovak and Czech affairs. In his opinion, the Czechs and Slovaks believed that Morawiecki’s trip to Budapest was first and foremost “a message to Brussels” that Hungary stands squarely behind Poland, and that was most likely the expectation of the Polish government as well. The new government spokesman, Michał Dworczyk, told the Polish Press Agency (PAP) that the dispute between Warsaw and Brussels will be “among the most important items on the agenda.” In fact, he pretty well admitted that it was the real purpose of the meeting. The Polish prime minister wanted to have assurances of a solid alliance before he faced the European Commission.

After Orbán’s silence, several commentaries appeared in the Visegrád countries, among them one in the Slovak Pravda, in which Ivan Drábek reminded people that the leaders of PiS haven’t forgotten Orbán’s duplicity when, instead of keeping his promise to Poland to block the reelection of Donald Tusk, he actually supported Tusk’s appointment as president of the European Council. The Polish Gazeta Wyborcza’s editorial also considers Hungary an unreliable ally. According to the author, Poland needs an ally that would be a reliable partner in the long run against both Russia and Germany. A Hungarian commentator in Népszava in a different context talked about Morawiecki and Orbán as two fantasts. Such a designation might be true of the Poles, who dream of being a great power between Russia and Germany, but it is certainly not true of Orbán, who is an unsentimental pragmatist. If he decides that it is not in his interest to support Poland, he will abandon the country without a second thought. He might already have done so.

January 6, 2018

What awaits the Visegrád Four?

A couple of weeks ago an excellent article appeared in Atlatszo.hu with the striking title “Visegrád is dead—An anti-Orbán alliance is in the making in Central Europe.” The alliance the author, Botond Bőtös, is referring to is the so-called Slavkov Triangle, comprising Austria, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. Slavkov is better known to most of us as Austerlitz, where the Battle of the Three Emperors (Napoleon, Tsar Alexander I, and Emperor Francis II) was fought in 1805.

Actually, the Slavkov Triangle is not new. It was in January 2015, in the middle of the Ukrainian crisis, that on the initiative of the Czech Republic the three prime ministers–Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann, and Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico–signed a declaration that envisaged close cooperation in areas of infrastructure development, traffic, energy safety, and, most important, joint consultations prior to European Union summits. At the time quite a few Polish and Czech analyses appeared, but in Hungarian I found only one, in HVG, by Csaba Tóth of the Republikon Institute, which was subsequently translated into English and published by the Budapest Sentinel under the title “Slavkov Triangle threatens to isolate Hungary from its European allies.” The Slavkov Declaration, as Tóth noted,“betrays such a level of cooperation … as to suggest that if this plan is executed, the Visegrád Cooperation will become an empty structure.”

Not much happened in the intervening months. But at the end of June Bohuslav Sobotka, Robert Fico, and the new Austrian chancellor Christian Kern sat down again to continue their project and talk about the “convergence of old and new Europe.” According to Botond Bőtös, in the last couple of years the Czech Republic in particular has become concerned that the Visegrád 4 countries are being labelled intransigent opponents of everything the European Union stands for. Czech politicians began asking whether it was in the best interests of the Czech Republic to be identified with the Polish-Hungarian dominated group.

Bőtös is convinced that Orbán was always something of an irritant to the others, but after the 2015 Polish election that brought the right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS) to power, “the foreign policy of Orbán became the official strategy of the Visegrád Group.” That was too much for the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Especially after the September 2016 V4-meeting in Bratislava, it became increasingly apparent that the Czechs and Slovaks held different views from their Polish and Hungarian colleagues. They differ on European integration, and they are not happy with the authoritarian turn of events in Poland and Hungary. They came to the conclusion that the V4 has no common, positive message for the rest of Europe. And the outside political world has a very negative opinion of the V4 countries. These are the considerations underpinning the revival of the Slavkov Triangle.

Christian Kern, Bohuslav Sobotka, and Robert Fico in front of the Austerlitz Palace

A couple of days ago Austrian chancellor Christian Kern gave an interview to the German paper Handelsblatt in which he talked at some length about the Visegrád 4 Group. He began by saying that there is a visible split in the group between Poland and Hungary on one side and the Czech Republic and Slovakia on the other. Kern pointed out that the EU often reproached the Polish and Hungarian governments, to no avail, but “now this conflict must have a resolution.” If necessary, through financial retribution.

Péter Szijjártó, the Hungarian foreign minister, reacted by saying that the Hungarian government has been aware for some time that certain Western European politicians are attempting to divide the Visegrád Group. “But we have bad news for them. It will not work. The Visegrád Group is the closest and most effective alliance within the European Union.”

Yesterday Viktor Orbán himself spoke about the Austrian chancellor’s reference to Hungary and the fractured Visegrád 4 in his Kossuth Rádió interview. Let me translate the passage verbatim because it says a lot about him and his interaction with the rest of the world.

It is never fortunate in politics when someone confuses his desires with reality. I understand that the Austrians are hurt because they are not part of the Visegrád Group. Austria is a lonely country anyway, and thus we don’t even know exactly where it is trying to find its strategic interests. Since the collapse of the monarchy it has been the historical question of Central Europe where Austria belongs. Until now Austria has been a very successful country. Therefore we can tip our hats because between the end of World War II and now it has achieved the highest standard of living and the greatest economic development. So, it is a talented country, but in a foreign policy sense it is at a loss because it is not a member of NATO yet a member of the European Union, not a member of V4 although it belongs to Central Europe. So there are many uncertainties here. It is not worthwhile for our friends to hope that they can break the unity of the Visegrád 4. The basic principle of V4 is simple: one for all and all for one.

Orbán at his best. Condescending, contemptuous, and arrogant when, by the look of it, it is he and his country who seem to be in some trouble on the international stage.

July 8, 2017

The Three Seas Initiative and Donald Trump

On June 9 the White House Office of the Press Secretary announced the upcoming visit of President Trump to Poland at the invitation of Polish President Andrzej Duda in advance of the G20 Summit in Hamburg. At the end of the short statement we learned that, in addition to meeting with Duda and delivering a major speech, “he will attend the Three Seas Initiative Summit to demonstrate our strong ties to Central Europe.”

SouthFront: Analysis & Intelligence announced that “this visit deserves to be closely monitored for it will reveal more about the Trump Administration’s foreign policy agenda than his previous actions.” The opinion piece considered Trump’s presence at the Three Seas Initiative Summit especially meaningful since Poland’s current political elite is advancing the idea of Intermarium, a Polish-dominated confederation that would include the Baltic States, Ukraine, and possibly also the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, and Slovenia. It is supposed to serve “as a ‘cordon sanitaire’ against Russia and a counterweight to the power of Germany and the European Union.”

Before we embark on current opinions on the Three Seas Initiative, let’s look at its precedent–Intermarium, or in Polish Międzymorze, between the seas. It was a plan proposed by Józef Piłsudski, an important political figure and military leader of interwar Poland. He envisaged a confederation that, by its third iteration, would have included practically the whole of Central Europe, including Hungary. Nothing came of the plan because there were just too many conflicting national interests at work. In addition, other countries were suspicious of the whole project, which they viewed as an attempt to re-establish the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which in the seventeenth century included half of today’s Estonia, all of Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, the westernmost parts of Russia, and the larger part of Ukraine.

Józef Piłsudski’s Intermarium Plan and its different stages

A revival of the Intermarium project surfaced after the 2014 Ukrainian crisis when the present Euroatlantic arrangement couldn’t prevent the annexation of Crimea and the armed conflict in Donbas. Ukraine and its neighbors were looking for alternative models for regional cooperation. At that time the concept of a modern Intermarium began gaining adherents, among them Polish President Andrzej Duda, who “is attempting to recreate the Polish long-life plan of building a natural defensive alliance among like-minded neighbors in the face of the Russian threat, and with NATO military support.”

Duda looks upon the formation of the Three Seas Initiative (TSI) as his great diplomatic feat. On August 28, 2016 a two-day meeting took place in Dubrovnik, Croatia, which was attended by representatives of 12 countries, including Hungary’s president, János Áder. The Croatian president called the area between the Adriatic, the Baltic, and the Black Sea “the lifeblood of Europe.”

It is the second summit of this group that Donald Trump agreed to attend. Trump’s attendance, according to Wojciech Przybylski writing for Euobserver, will definitely put the spotlight on TSI. It is not impossible that Trump’s Polish visit is intended as “a slight against German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Emmanuel Macron.” In addition, some European leaders fear that the Polish ministry of foreign affairs can’t handle such a diplomatically sensitive visit. There is also the possibility that, after Trump’s visit, the Poles will be even more confrontational than before when dealing with the European Union, Przybylski concludes. Others, like the pro-Russian World Socialist Web Site, use stronger language. They are certain that “Trump’s meeting with the leaders of this alliance is a clear signal that the White House is reintroducing the Intermarium strategy which will exacerbate conflicts with Germany.”

Last December Vit Dostál, writing for visegradplus.org, called the Three Seas Initiative a “pipe-dream coming from Warsaw.” He may have been right because the Polish Gazeta Wyborcza cited at least one Czech diplomat who said that Prague will not attend the Three Seas event because it is far too close to the “concept of Piłsudski.” Sputnik Polska conducted an interview with Adam Wielomski, a Polish political science professor, who considers Trump’s visit to Poland and his presence at the TSI summit “support of Duda’s governing Law and Justice Party and the initiative to forge a Central and Eastern European union.”

The TSI project or, in Hungarian, “Három Tenger Kezdeményezés” was not widely covered in Hungary before the news of Trump’s attendance. MTI reported on the Dubrovnik summit, but no one was really interested in what was described as a round table discussion on energy. On the other hand, in November 2015, at a conference attended by politicians, both Jobbik’s Gábor Vona and LMP’s András Schiffer envisaged Hungary’s future in an East-Central European Union. I have not followed Schiffer’s foreign policy ideas, but Vona’s adherence to such a regional solution didn’t surprise me because a couple of months ago Matthew Kott of New Eastern Europe reported that Intermarium was hijacked by the far right in certain countries of the region.

The only serious Hungarian piece on the Three Seas Initiative and Donald Trump’s decision to attend its summit is by Attila Ara-Kovács, a foreign policy analyst, which appeared a couple of days ago. He is skeptical of the success of Duda’s project and Trump’s power to substantially influence the present geopolitical situation in Europe.

Donald Trump’s visit to Warsaw is fraught with danger. He knows absolutely nothing about the situation in Poland or, for that matter, about the whole complicated region. His visit will give a boost to the present Polish government, which is good neither for the Polish people nor for the people of the European Union.

June 29, 2017

Emmanuel Macron meets the leaders of the Visegrád 4 countries

Viktor Orbán usually leaves these summits full of complaints about the Brussels bureaucrats’ total incompetence, which will lead to the ruin of Europe. Normally, he comes out of these meetings either condemning the results altogether or, if there is anything to praise, bragging about his key role in the negotiations. For reasons that are still unclear, Orbán’s reaction to this particular summit was surprisingly upbeat. He was especially satisfied with the unanimous support for the creation of a European army. “If one day there is a European army, then future history books will consider this summit the point of departure.”

There is nothing surprising about Orbán’s enthusiasm for a common army because he has talked about it often enough in the last year or so. On the other hand, it was unexpected that, although he admitted that there is no agreement on questions related to migration, “the emphasis was on cooperation” instead of “divergence,” which he considered to be a positive development. Orbán was remarkably congenial, although he was still unmovable on the issue of refugee quotas.

For the leaders of the Visegrád 4 countries, especially those of Poland and Hungary, the scheduled meeting with Emmanuel Macron this morning was of paramount importance. If all goes well, with the election of Macron as president of France there is a good possibility of a gradual transformation of the European Union or at least of the Eurozone into some kind of a federation-like construction. In addition, Macron has never hidden his objections to the kind of political system Jarosław Kaczyński is building in Poland and Viktor Orbán has pretty well already built in Hungary. Moreover, Macron believes, and it seems that he has Chancellor Angela Merkel’s backing, that the lack of solidarity the Visegrád countries display in the refugee crisis cannot be left unpunished. In addition, Macron has had some harsh words to say about the blatant disregard for European values in the Polish and Hungarian political systems. None of that boded well for the first person-to-person meeting of the five heads of states.

Having gone through several Hungarian, Polish, and English-language summaries of the meeting, I came to the conclusion that the prime ministers of the Visegrád 4 didn’t change Macron’s view that all member countries must respect the values and joint decisions of the EU and that, if they don’t, they must face political consequences. Nonetheless, the reports insisted that the meeting was friendly and successful. As Hungary’s Híradó, the official news distributed to all media organs, put it, “although the positions didn’t converge, the leaders called the meeting successful because they could share their own points of view with the president.” Well, that’s not much, especially if, as the Polish Gazeta Wyborcza noted, during the meeting “Emmanuel Macron … reiterated the claim that some countries regard the EU as a supermarket.”

All the Hungarian articles quoted Orbán’s somewhat cryptic description of their meeting with the new French president as a “friendship with a manly beginning,” which in English doesn’t make much sense. However, the meaning of the word “férfias ~ férfiasan” (“masculine ~ in a masculine manner”) in Hungarian also means “firm, resolute, uncompromising.” That’s why one of the internet sites continued by saying that “yet by the end of the meeting they came to the conclusion that the basis of cooperation is the mutual respect they will accord each other.” To put all this into more easily understandable language, I suspect that the Visegrád 4, most likely led by Orbán, started off on a high horse but decided after a while to tone down their “uncompromising” attitude as long as Macron shows them respect.

From other sources it is clear that Macron was unyielding on certain topics. When someone from the French president’s entourage was asked about possible sanctions against those countries that refuse to play according to the rules, he asserted that “no subject was avoided, ignored” during the talks with the Central European leaders. Moreover, Angela Merkel, who usually avoids openly criticizing the countries of the East, said yesterday that “Germany and France are totally on the same page” on the issue.

Magyar Idők most likely doesn’t know yet what the official line will be on this particular issue, and therefore it decided to rely on the official Hungarian news agency’s brief report from Brussels. However, the paper’s anti-Macron rhetoric continues. Just today two antagonistic articles appeared about him, including one which gleefully announces that the raid of Havas’ headquarters by the French anti-corruption police might also involve a visit by Macron, at the time economy minister, to Las Vegas. To an article that didn’t have any more information than what MTI released, Pesti Srácok gave the following headline: “The Visegrád Four put Macron in his place.”

The day before the Macron-Visegrád 4 meeting Ivan Krastev, chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies, published an opinion piece in The New York Times: “Central Europe’s Tough Choice: Macron or Orban?” He explains that many countries in Eastern Europe built their economic competitiveness on low wages and low taxes and therefore fear the policies Macron campaigned on, like harmonizing taxes across the union and penalizing countries for exporting cheap labor. If these plans materialize, they “could destroy Central Europe’s business model.” So, these countries now, says Krastev, must choose “between deeper integration on terms set by Germany and France or political marginalization—and the fears of a two-tiered European Union could become self-fulfilling prophecies.” The choice is given, but “the jury is out on which choice governments will make: Macron or Orbán, “Hungary’s hard-line nationalist minister.” Orbán told us several times that a two-tiered Europe is unacceptable to him. I expect that in the next years—unless he loses the election, which is unlikely—Orbán will work to somehow wiggle himself out of this hard if not impossible choice.

June 23, 2017

Putin’s Night Wolves pay a visit to Budapest

The Hungarian public is becoming familiar with the name of a Russian motorcycle club–Night Wolves (Nochnye Volki)–whose beginnings date back to 1989 when a group of rock music fans and motorcycle enthusiasts got together to form a club during the perestroika era of the Soviet Union. It was the first official bike club in the USSR, led by Alexander Zaldostanov, known as the Surgeon. Currently, the club has 5,000 members and seven chapters outside of Russia–in Ukraine, Latvia, Germany, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, and Macedonia.

Zaldostanov and Putin may have known each other from their days in East Germany, where both resided in the 1980s. Some people suspect that Zaldostanov was also a KGB agent. Perhaps because of the supposed relationship between the two men in Germany, Zaldostanov and his club are fervent supporters of Vladimir Putin and Russian nationalism. Putin considers the Night Wolves his friends. At one point he even led their rally on a Harley-Davidson trike. Because of its close relations with the Kremlin, the club is well taken care of financially. According to at least one observer of the Russian scene, the club receives “several hundred million rubles a year.” In return, club members have performed such patriotic duties as fighting on the side of pro-Russian militants during the Crimean crisis and the war in Donbass.

The Wolves are not welcome in too many countries. For example, in 2015 when they were planning to celebrate “Victory Day” in Berlin, their trip was rudely interrupted by the government of Poland, which refused them entry. At that time they were not welcome in Germany either; their Schengen visas were cancelled. Some Wolves who tried to enter Germany by plane were denied entry. In December 2014 the United States announced sanctions against the bikers because of their recruitment of fighters for the war in Donbass. Canada followed suit a month later. I might add that the Wolves are great admirers of Stalin, “who was sent by God” to do great things on earth.

Poland and the Baltic States didn’t soften their hearts when it came to letting the Wolves through their countries to visit Berlin this year. (For some reason Germany relented.) On May 1 they were turned away from the Polish border. A day later another group of bikers was forbidden to enter Georgia. One group drove to Sebastopol, from where they went to Romania by ship. Riders from all seven chapters headed to Budapest. For example, Novorossia Today reported that the Bulgarian chapter of the Night Wolves began their journey in Sofia and met the other contingents in Budapest.

On May 4 the bikers, accompanied by members of the Russian Embassy, visited the famous cemetery on Fiumei út where Soviet soldiers are buried. Here they laid wreaths at the memorial erected in their honor. The ceremony can be seen on this video.

Given the excellent relationship that exists between Putin’s Russia and Orbán’s Hungary, it is not surprising that Hungary allowed the bikers to cross into Hungarian territory and from there move on to Bratislava, Prague, Dresden, and Berlin. But the Hungarian public, which has had enough of the overly friendly relations between Moscow and Budapest, was less than thrilled seeing the Wolves in Hungary. The majority of the population opposes the construction of a nuclear power plant in Hungary by a Russian firm and, as a result, Hungary’s being indebted for decades to come to Russia. The encounter between the Chechen-Russian patriot who threatened a Hungarian citizen didn’t go over well either. And now here are these grim-looking bikers carrying red flags with a hammer and sickle and a star. How is it possible that the Hungarian government makes a huge fuss over the red star in the logo of Heineken, the Dutch beer manufacturer, while these guys proudly display the real star (albeit in white), the symbol of the communist Soviet Union? A Hungarian citizen displaying these symbols can receive a jail sentence, according to §335 of the criminal code. So, in no time, an individual paid a visit to the central police station and filed charges. Naturally, the police had no intention of interfering. It was too late in any case. Once the bikers were inside the country, their display of these symbols was inevitable.

The opposition members of the parliamentary committee on national security asked a few questions from the police about their inaction. According to Bernadett Szél, the explanation offered by the police was “horribly embarrassing.” On the one hand, they argued that the cemetery is considered to be private property and therefore the police couldn’t enter the premises while, on the other hand, they explained that the bikers’ refusal to follow Hungarian law was justified by “the special circumstances.” The police report that was issued simply stated that “no criminal offense was committed” and therefore no action was necessary.

Péter Tarjányi, a national security expert and former police detective, told Olga Kálmán, who has a new program on HírTV, that through these Victory Rides the Night Wolves, with their powerful bikes and their frightening demeanor, intimidate the locals. And yet the Hungarian government doesn’t dare stand up to them. On the contrary. The Wolves were allowed to pay homage to the Soviet heroes and to the Great Patriotic War. They can thus be seen as a “communication arm” of a strong and powerful Russia and its leader.

It is hard to say whether Viktor Orbán is afraid to stand up to the Russians as Tarján claims or whether by now his involvement with Putin’s Russia is so extensive that he cannot extricate himself from Putin’s embrace. He committed his country too much to Russia while he practically burned his bridges to the West. To be able to say “no” to Putin could be done only if he were ready to abandon everything he has stood for in the last seven years. Such a reversal at the moment or perhaps ever is unimaginable.

May 12, 2017

An American LGBT hate group will enjoy the hospitality of the Orbán government

This is not the first time that I’m writing about the World Congress of Families. Through its annual gatherings, each year in a different country, WCF, as it is known in the United States, promotes Christian right-wing family values internationally. WCF was designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center an anti-LGBT hate group in February 2014 based on its involvement in the 2013 Russian LGBT propaganda law.

My earlier piece focused on its congress three years ago. The congress was scheduled to be held in Moscow in the fall of 2014, but then came the annexation of Crimea and several U.S. organizations pulled out of the project. Nonetheless, the congress proceeded as planned. Several leaders of right-wing European parties attended and were among the speakers, people like Aymeric Chauprade (National Front) and Heinz-Christian Strache (FPÖ). Hungary was represented by Gergely Prőhle, who was one of the speakers at the gathering. The journalist for Cink.hu who wrote an article about this far-right gathering was told by the ministry that the Hungarian government doesn’t care who took part in the conference; Prőhle was there to represent the government’s family policy. I should add that the congress issued a manifesto lambasting liberal Europe and calling for a ban on “homosexual propaganda.”

WCF is again in the news, this time for its impending gathering in Budapest between May 25 and May 28. Átlátszó published a lengthy article about the Orbán government’s sponsorship of this year’s conference. I was already stunned in 2014 because I thought that the Hungarian government’s official representation at such a conference was inappropriate. Now, in 2017, the Orbán government is actually organizing and financially supporting the affair. According to the official site, the chief organizer of the event is Katalin Novák, undersecretary for family, youth, and international affairs.

The event’s site explains that “the values of accepting life, undertaking to give birth to and raise children, and families based on the marriage of a man and a woman have been compromised in the past decades but need to be restored in order to implement a sustainable future.” WCF’s goal is the spread of the idea of the “natural family” as opposed to households where children are cared for by single parents or grandparents or are brought up in same-sex marriages. The group is well known for its anti-LGBT propaganda. Its influence is especially strong in Africa, where several countries’ anti-LGBT legislation resulted from WCF’s lobbying efforts. Most notably, it helped inspire harsh anti-LGBT laws in Nigeria and Uganda.

Just last year the director of the National Organization for Marriage, Brian Brown, was elected president of WCF, which was seen as “a logical trajectory for Brown, one of the best-known anti-LGBT activists in the United States.” According to the announcement of his appointment by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Brown over the past few years has gradually refocused his opposition to marriage equality on international work, especially after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality. Brown’s ideas find fertile soil in Hungarian government circles. SPLC gave a good summary of Brown’s ideas and checkered career at the time of his appointment as president of WCF.

Brian Brown, president of WCF / Source: AP Images

WCF’s platform is bad enough. But perhaps even more worrisome is its close cooperation with Russian nationalists, serving Russia’s geopolitical agenda. In fact, the World Congress of Families has its roots in Moscow. In 1995 the leader of an Illinois-based group, the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society, was invited to Russia by two professors at Lomonosov Moscow State University. The three men agreed that unfavorable demographic trends were the result of feminism and homosexuality. So, they came up with the idea of “pro-family” conferences in Europe and Russia and agreed to share their ideas with American evangelical thinkers.

WCF has had its greatest influence in Russia. It has deep ties to the Russian Orthodox Church and the Putin regime. Apparently, WCF has nothing but praise for Vladimir Putin and his policies. One its leaders wrote that Putin “is the one defending laws and morality consistent with the freedom in the U.S. Constitution.” Another leader called Putin “a power player who cares more about Russia’s national interests … than … that mythical force known as world opinion.”

Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBT civil rights advocacy group and lobbying organization in the United States, put together a comprehensive history of WCF, in which a chapter is devoted to Eastern Europe. In the region it was Poland that was most eager to welcome WCF. The Polish government hosted WCF’s annual gathering in 2007, during the brief tenure of Jarosław Kaczyński as prime minister of Poland. The group made its first excursion into Serbia in 2013, where WCF leaders attended an anti-LGBT rally which led to the cancellation of the Belgrade Pride Parade. A year later they organized a regional conference in Kiev. In 2014 a WCF partner, Alliance Defending Freedom, submitted an amicus brief to the Constitutional Court of Slovakia supporting the proposed referendum on a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union between one man and one woman. They are also active in Albania, Latvia, Romania, and the Czech Republic. In Hungary there was no need to lobby for a restriction of the meaning of marriage because the Orbán government incorporated it into the new constitution.

Looking through the very thorough history of WCF by the Human Rights Campaign, I found only two countries outside of Russia–namely, Poland and Hungary–where the organization has received official support. Suggestions by the independent media in Hungary that WCF is actually a homophobic hate organization were swept aside by Zoltán Balog, who is obviously a great supporter of the organization. According to Balog, “all sorts of nonsense has been published about ‘who’s who’ among the participants.” The Hungarian government certainly would not participate in any event that spreads hatred of LGBT people. He proudly announced that at the end of May Budapest will be the capital of families.

Hungary has its own conference on the family, the Budapest Demographic Forum—Families in Focus, which held its first gathering in June 2015. This year the Budapest Demographic Forum will hold its second conference in conjunction with WCF’s annual gathering. The Forum’s keynote speaker will be Viktor Orbán himself. A former Spanish minister of interior and the Croatian and Polish ministers responsible for family affairs will attend. Thus, an allegedly scientific gathering on demographics is subsumed into a four-day WCF extravaganza. Further and further down a very slippery slope.

May 11, 2017