Tag Archives: Slovakia

Viktor Orbán in Brussels: Success or failure?

There is huge confusion in the Hungarian media over Viktor Orbán’s success or lack thereof at the EU summit yesterday.

The Hungarian prime minister arrived in Brussels with a plan which, in his opinion, could have solved the unchecked influx of refugees coming mainly from Turkey and entering the European Union via Greece. He made sure that the world knew about the details of his plan, which he revealed while visiting Bavaria’s ultra-conservative prime minister, Horst Seehofer, ahead of the summit.

Orbán tried to portray the summit as a gathering of the leaders of the EU member states to discuss his proposals. After the marathon meeting ended, he triumphantly announced that, with the exception of his idea of a pan-European defense of Greece’s borders, all his proposals had received a favorable reception.

Yes, the idea of a common defense of Greece’s borders was vetoed, but that was not the only one that received a less than sympathetic reception. Orbán’s suggestion to set up “hot spots” outside of the EU borders also fell on deaf ears: there will be hot spots in Greece and Italy.

We heard nothing about the reaction to Orbán’s suggestion for “special partnership arrangements” with Turkey and Russia. I’m not sure what kind of a special partnership Orbán had in mind, but at the moment Turkey is alarmed over the Russian military buildup in Syria and I doubt that the European Union would want to get involved in that quagmire.

Orbán also demanded an official EU list of “safe” countries since the question of whether Serbia is a safe country in terms of being able to handle the registration and maintenance of large numbers of refugees is not immaterial from the Hungarian point of view. It is, of course, possible that such a list is in the works, but for the time being no decision has been made. As things stand, Serbia, as far as the EU is concerned, is not a safe country.

Finally, Orbán demanded worldwide quotas, which was also discarded by the representatives of the member states. For a man who furiously rejects quotas for his own country to suggest quotas for extra-EU countries is quite something. In fact, no quotas are necessary because countries are already offering to take in refugees. The United States has said it will take 25,000 Syrians. Canada has a commitment to resettle 10,000 Syrians by September 2016. This is in addition to 23,000 Iraqis. Australia will take 12,000 Syrians and Brazil 5,000. One could go on. I’m also certain that the United States will provide financial assistance to the United Nations for the aid of refugees staying in camps in the countries neighboring Syria.

A determined Viktor Orbán in Brussels / MTI / EPA Photo: Stephanie Lecocq

A determined Viktor Orbán in Brussels / MTI / EPA Photo: Stephanie Lecocq

In any case, despite his declaration of victory in Brussels, after the summit ended Orbán seemed by turns downtrodden and defiant. Because of the EU’s reluctance to defend Greece’s borders, Hungary has only two choices, he said. Either it continues to build the fence to keep refugees out of Hungary or it simply lets the refugees go to Austria. Although recent news from Hungary indicates that the fence building is continuing, not just along the Schengen border between Croatia and Hungary but also along the Slovenian-Hungarian border, I would be reluctant to predict the final move in this “fencing game” between Hungary and the EU. Tomorrow Viktor Orbán is paying a visit to his arch-enemy, Werner Faymann, chancellor of Austria, who is the greatest opponent of fences and who said that he is ready to take any number of refugees from Hungary.

If Orbán goes ahead with his current plans and orders the construction of a fence between Slovenia and Hungary, his rationale for building the fence in the first place evaporates. Until now he has piously claimed that the erection of the fence is for the sole purpose of defending the borders of Europe. Surely, a fence between Slovenia and Hungary serves only one purpose: to save Hungary from the immigrants. If Orbán decides to extend his fence northward between two Schengen countries he will be revealing his true intentions. I’m not sure he is ready to go that far.

On the other hand, János Lázár just announced that the Hungarian government is contemplating joining Slovakia in mounting a legal challenge to the refugee quotas agreed upon at the meeting of the ministers of interior despite the protestation of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, and Romania. So, it seems that Viktor Orbán returned from Brussels with a renewed determination to fight any attempt to develop a common EU policy.

Meanwhile he is playing with fire just south of Hungary. It wasn’t so long ago that the Serbs and Croats were at war with one another, and now under the pressure created by Orbán’s fence the two countries are at loggerheads. Border controls have been introduced between the two countries, and they are engaged in a full-fledged trade war. Some people with Serbian passports were turned back at the border by Croat officials. It would be advisable for Orbán to stop his war of independence because it could have serious repercussions not just within the European Union but also in the Balkans, the powder keg of Europe.

Viktor Orbán seems to be endangering the stability of the region and sowing discord among the member states of the European Union for one reason only: to bolster the popularity of his party and ensure his desire for a perpetual premiership. At the moment he is ready to pay any price for that political victory at home. Unless someone stops him.

The shadow of János Kádár’s happiest barrack

In November 2009 the Pew Research Center conducted a survey in nine former communist countries. Twenty years had passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and researchers wanted to know how public sentiment had changed in the intervening years.

The countries selected were East Germany, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Lithuania, Russia, Bulgaria, and Ukraine. The results can be found on the Internet. A quick look at the interactive public opinion poll on some of the more important political questions reveals a lot about the mood of the people in these countries in 2009. The most startling finding was that Hungarians were the most dissatisfied and most disappointed people in the area. I believe that if a similar survey were conducted today, the divergence between the Hungarian figures and those of the other countries would be even greater than it was five years ago. Since then the lot of most of the neighbors has improved, while the Hungarian economic and political situation has worsened.

Here are some selected data from 2009. While in 1999 80% of Hungarians were looking forward to the coming of the market economy, by 2009 only 46% had any trust in the capitalist system. The only other country with similar results was Ukraine. Hungarian’s satisfaction with democracy was the lowest (21%), compared to Poland’s 53%, the Czech Republic’s 49%, and Slovakia’s 50%. But perhaps the most interesting finding was that it was in Hungary where most people (72%) thought they were better off during the communist period than in 2009. Compare that to 35% of the Poles, 39% of the Czechs, and 48% of the Slovaks.

Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project / November 2009

Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project / November 2009

Political analysts have been trying to find an explanation for this discrepancy between Hungary and her closest neighbors (the Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovakia) in attitudes toward the regime change and what followed. Clearly, there were heightened expectations everywhere, but while, for example, in Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic there was only a slight drop in the population’s positive attitude toward the market economy, in Hungary the drop was huge–from 80% to 46%.

What makes the Hungarian situation so different from that of the other countries? From repeated surveys we know that there is something in Hungarian culture that makes Hungarians consistently dissatisfied with their lot. That by itself, however, is not enough to account for the incredible disappointment reflected in these numbers. It is also unlikely that Hungarian politicians who were responsible for the introduction of democracy and a market economy in Hungary were totally unfit for their jobs. Or that they were significantly worse than their colleagues in the neighboring countries. All countries had their own political upheavals, and they also made bigger or smaller political mistakes. So, I don’t think that the key to the puzzle of Hungarians’ dissatisfaction with their political and economic situation can be found in either the national psyche or the political leadership.

There has to be some other fundamental difference between Hungary and the other countries that accounts for the huge divergence in attitudes and outlook. The answer, I believe, lies in the unique nature of the Hungarian version of the socialist system. Ironically, Hungary’s troubles today most likely stem from the fact that the Hungarian people had it too good under János Kádár. If they had had to live in the kind of dictatorship that existed in Czechoslovakia under Gustáv Husák or in Romania under Nicolae Ceaușescu, today they would have a much greater appreciation of democracy. If Hungarians had had to face empty shelves in the stores as the Poles did or to suffer as much economic hardship as the Romanians, they would have a much more positive view of the market economy.

But the Kádár regime, especially in its last ten years, was a benign one-party system, what Hungarians call a “soft dictatorship.” The great majority of people wouldn’t have had any reason to complain about their limited freedom since their demands were modest in the first place. Most people were satisfied with their lot because they noticed a steady growth in their living standards year after year, almost to the very end. It’s no wonder that with the exception of a very small group of “dissidents,” really a handful of people, there was no serious opposition to the regime.

The lives of Hungarians in economic terms have not changed for the better since 1990. Yes, there are people who have become very rich, but in Hungary in 2009 77% of the people believed that “the rich just get richer while the poor get poorer,” as opposed to around 50% in the neighboring countries. I’d bet that if we had a similar poll today, even more Hungarians would think that in the last five or six years the situation has deteriorated further. Today poverty is widespread. All in all, there are very good reasons for economic dissatisfaction, which cannot be counterbalanced by positive feelings about the introduction of democracy, especially since Viktor Orbán’s system is a far cry from democracy as most people understand it.

The relatively good economic situation of the population during the Kádár regime, the fact that slowly but surely people became satisfied with their lot might also be responsible for some of the failures of the new political elite. Many of the economic ills of Hungary in the last twenty-five years stemmed from a fear of moving in a direction that might lead to a severe drop in living standards, to which Hungarians, given their relative well-being under the Kádár regime, would react very negatively. Much more negatively than the populations of other post-communist countries who were accustomed to hardship and privation. Therefore, a restructuring of the economy was postponed time and again because of fear of a backlash. Over the years, governments overspent in order to satisfy economic demands only to be forced later to introduce austerity measures when the deficit spiked. No one dared to bite the bullet and make the Hungarian system a fully functioning market economy in the western sense. The irony of it all is that the economic system that more than half of Hungarians hate is not really a market economy in the classical sense. As someone rightly put it, Hungarian capitalism has all of the negative features of the market economy without any of its benefits. János Kádár’s system continues to cast a dark shadow over today’s Hungary.

Hungary as a “field of operation”

Paranoia seems to have swept through the Hungarian government. Fidesz politicians are convinced that the United States wants to remove Viktor Orbán and cause his government’s fall. All this is to be achieved by means of the “phony” charge of corruption.

Recently a journalist working for Hetek, a publication of Hitgyülekezet (Assembly of Faith), managed to induce some high-ranking members of the government to speak about the general mood in Fidesz circles. The very fact that these people spoke, even about sensitive topics, to a reporter of a liberal paper points to tactical shifts that must have occurred within the party.

Their argument runs along the following lines. Until now the Obama administration paid little attention to the region, but this past summer the decision was made to “create a defensive curtain” in Central Europe between Russia and the West. The pretext is the alleged fight against corruption. The Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania are the targets. Fidesz politicians point to recent Slovak demonstrations against corruption which were “publicly supported” by the U.S. ambassador in Bratislava. Or, they claim, the Americans practically forced the Romanian government to take seriously the widespread corruption in the country. They are certain that the resignation of Petr Nečas, the former Czech prime minister, “under very strange circumstances” was also the work of the CIA.

In its fight against the targeted Central European governments Washington relies heavily on NGOs and investigative journalists specializing in unveiling corruption cases. George Soros’s name must always be invoked in such conspiracy theories. And indeed, Átlátszó.hu, sponsored in part by the Soros Foundation, was specifically mentioned as a tool of American political designs.

To these Fidesz politicians’ way of thinking, all of troubles recently encountered by the government are due solely to American interference. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that the government itself has given plenty of reason for public disenchantment. In fact, the first demonstrations were organized only against the internet tax. Admittedly, over the course of weeks new demands were added, and by now the demonstrators want to get rid of Viktor Orbán’s whole regime.

The Fidesz politicians who expressed an opinion think, I am sure incorrectly, that the Americans have no real evidence against Ildikó Vida and, if they do, they received it illegally. Vida got into the picture only because of the new “cold war” that broke out between the United States and Russia. Hungarian corruption is only an excuse for putting pressure on the Hungarian government because of its Russian policy and Paks.  As for Hungary’s “democracy deficit” and American misgivings about Orbán’s “illiberal state,” Fidesz politicians said that if the United States does not accept Orbán’s system of government as “democratic” and if they want Fidesz to return to the status quo ante, this is a hopeless demand. “Not one Hungarian right-wing politician would lend his name to such ‘retrogression.'”

The latest American “enemy” of the Orbán government is the State Department’s Sarah Sewall, Undersecretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, who a week ago gave a speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in which she said that “we [recently] denied visas to six Hungarian officials and their cronies due to their corruption. This action also bolstered public concern, and on November 9th, the streets of Budapest filled with 10,000 protesters who called for the resignation of corrupt public officials.” As soon as Hungarian officials discovered the text of that speech, André Goodfriend, the U.S. chargé in Budapest, was once again called into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

I think it would be a mistake to characterize the American fight against corruption simply as a smokescreen for exerting political pressure on foreign governments. Sewall in that speech explains the potentially dangerous political ramifications of corruption.

Corruption alienates and angers citizens, which can cause them to lose faith in the state, or, worse, fuel insurgencies and violent extremism…. Ukraine …provides [an] illustration of how corruption can both increase instability risks and cripple the state’s ability to respond to those risks. The Maidan Movement was driven in part by resentment of a kleptocratic regime parading around in democratic trappings.

All this makes sense to me, and what Sewall says about Ukraine is to some extent also true about Hungary. But the Fidesz leadership sees no merit in the American argument. In fact, today both Viktor Orbán and Péter Szijjártó used very strong words to accuse the United States of interfering in Hungary’s internal affairs.

"We can't pay as much in taxes as you steal"

“We can’t pay as much in taxes as you steal”

Viktor Orbán sent a message from Belgrade. The prime minister does not know why the United States put aside 100 million dollars for “the preparation of an action plan against two dozen Central- and East-European countries in order to put pressure on their governments.” The United States declared Hungary to be a “field of operation,” along with others. Referring to Sewall’s speech, he expressed his dissatisfaction that he has to learn about such plans from a public lecture. “If someone wants to work together with Hungary or with any Central-European government for a good cause, we are open. We don’t have to be pressured, there is no need to spend money behind our backs, there is no necessity of organizing anything against us because we are rational human beings and we are always ready to work for a good cause.” It is better, he continued, to be on the up and up because Hungarians are irritated by slyness, trickery, and diplomatic cunning. They are accustomed to straightforward talk. (He presumably said this with a straight face.)

Viktor Orbán’s reference to the military term “field of operation” captured the imagination of László Földi, a former intelligence officer during the Kádár regime as well as for a while after 1990, who announced that in secret service parlance “field of operation” means that every instrument in the intelligence service can be used to undermine the stability of a country. The Americans’ goal, as Orbán sees it, is the removal of his government.

Meanwhile the staff of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade who were brought in by Péter Szijjártó are solidly anti-American. They consider the diplomats who served under János Martonyi to be “American agents” because of their alleged trans-atlantic sentiments. So I don’t foresee any improvement in American-Hungarian relations in the near future, unless the economic and political troubles of Putin’s Russia become so crippling that Orbán will have to change his foreign policy orientation. But given the ever shriller condemnations and accusations, it will be difficult to change course.

Assistant Undersecretary Victoria Nuland’s keynote address at the 2014 U.S.-Central Europe Strategy Forum

Yesterday Victoria Nuland,  assistant undersecretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, delivered the keynote address at a conference organized by the Center for European Policy Analysis’s U.S.-Central Europe Strategy Forum. Just as the conference was winding down, I published a short summary of  the relevant passages of her speech that were addressed in part to Viktor Orbán and his government. She mentioned neither Orbán nor Hungary by name, but everybody in the audience knew whom she was talking about.

I consider her speech to be so important that I decided to republish itAfter all, few people will bother to search the U.S. State Department’s website for the text of Nuland’s speech. The couple of sentences devoted to the Hungarian government’s harassment of NGOs by President Bill Clinton or the remark by President Obama on the same topic were limited in scope. On the other hand, Victoria Nuland’s short speech outlines U.S. positions on vital issues concerning the East-Central European region and contains criticism of an unnamed politician whose domestic and foreign policies fail to meet with the approval of the United States. This politician is described as one who, among other things, pushes illiberal democracy and cuts dirty energy deals. Only one politician fits the bill: Viktor Orbán. 

* * *

Keynote at the 2014 U.S.-Central Europe Strategy Forum

Victoria Nuland
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs

stateThank you, Wess, for that introduction. It’s good to be here with you today with Minister Lajcak. Like me, Miro is still recovering from UNGA, the “World Cup” of diplomacy; or as we like to say at State: the diplomatic equivalent of speed dating. Our thanks to CEPA for your great work to strengthen our transatlantic bond with Central Europe. In just 9 years, CEPA has become the “go-to” think tank in Washington for those who care about a democratic, prosperous, secure Central Europe.

This fall, as we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, we are also reminded that two and a half decades ago, the countries of Central Europe inspired the world by seizing a moment of hope and transforming it into freedom and opportunity for tens of millions of people.

Across Central Europe, citizens stood up for the right to hold free elections; they built strong, independent institutions; and fostered civil society and a vibrant media.

They did the hard work of reforming their economies, stabilizing currencies, privatizing inefficient industries, opening up labor markets, and welcoming foreign investment. In short, they restored liberal democracy to the heart of the continent.

And they proved the skeptics wrong. In successive waves of NATO and EU enlargement 5, 10 and 15 years ago, they extended the boundaries of our Euro-Atlantic family and the values it represents.

We live in a better world because the countries of Central Europe chose the path of a Europe whole, free and at peace 25 years ago. But today that choice is under threat, and Central Europe is once again on the frontline in the fight to protect our security and values. And today, that fight is once again both external and internal.

Let’s look at these in turn.

First, the external threats: President Obama said in New York last week Russia’s aggression in Ukraine threatens to take us back to the days when large countries could trample small ones at will. Because the countries of Central Europe understand the danger better than most, almost all of them have been among the strongest and most generous in support of Ukraine’s right to choose its own future, and live in a more democratic, clean, free and prosperous country.

They have offered assistance and advice to Ukraine, security support, and even, as Slovakia has done, reversed the flow of gas to help fill Ukraine’s winter storage tanks. And most have been strong advocates inside the EU for the sanctions the Transatlantic community has put on Russia for its actions.

Today we must maintain that solidarity with Ukraine and unity within the Transatlantic community. Implementing sanctions isn’t easy and many countries are paying a steep price. We know that. But history shows that the cost of inaction and disunity in the face of a determined aggressor will be higher. The history of Central Europe itself teaches us that. So when leaders are tempted to make statements that tear at the fabric of our resolve, I would ask them to remember their own national history, and how they wished their neighbors had stood with them.

Ukraine is working hard to promote peace and change to meet its people’s expectations. It is fulfilling its commitments under the September 5 Minsk agreement—it passed amnesty legislation, a special status law for the east, and is working with Russia to demarcate the special status zone.

Now Russia and its proxies must do their part – withdraw their forces and all the heavy weapons that have flooded the east, restore Ukrainian sovereignty on the international border, withdraw heavy weapons there too, and return all the hostages—notably, including Nadiya Savchenko and Oleg Sentsov. When the Minsk agreement is fully implemented, we can and will begin to roll back some sanctions. It is in Russia’s hands when that day comes.

Every country in the CEPA space has made tough sacrifices. And as you stand with Ukraine, we stand with you. The United States’ commitment to NATO’s Article 5 is unwavering. As President Obama said at Tallinn, “we will defend our NATO Allies, and that means every Ally.” Our allies, in turn, are working to fulfill the pledge they made at Wales to reverse the decline in defense spending.

Even as we stand against Russia’s threat to Ukraine’s European choice, we must recognize that ISIL’s threat to our security, prosperity and values is also real, also immediate. Even in the Euro-Atlantic space, nobody’s immune. That’s why today the nations of Central Europe are joining the global coalition to degrade and destroy ISIL’s terrorism, contributing ammunition, training, humanitarian assistance and countering ISIL’s hateful ideology. All of us must do more to harden the Transatlantic space and make it a “no-go” zone for ISIL recruitment and finance.

When we pass anti-terror laws to keep our citizens from joining the fight, whether that fight is in Rakka or Luhansk, it is our values and way of life we are protecting: rule of law, state sovereignty, peace and security, individual human rights and dignity.

And just as we work together to defend our values externally, we must fortify them internally. In Central Europe today, I would argue, the internal threats to democracy and freedom are just as worrying. Across the region, the twin cancers of democratic backsliding and corruption are threatening the dream so many have worked for since 1989. And even as they reap the benefits of NATO and EU membership, we find leaders in the region who seem to have forgotten the values on which these institutions are based.

So today I ask their leaders: How can you sleep under your NATO Article 5 blanket at night while pushing “illiberal democracy” by day; whipping up nationalism; restricting free press; or demonizing civil society! I ask the same of those who shield crooked officials from prosecution; bypass parliament when convenient; or cut dirty deals that increase their countries’ dependence on one source of energy despite their stated policy of diversification.

As President Obama noted, oppressive governments are sharing “worst practices to weaken civil society.” They are creating wormholes that undermine their nations’ security, freedom and prosperity. The countries of Central Europe—through the EU and nationally—must remain vigilant. We can only be strong when we protect political pluralism, civil society and the right to dissent within our own borders; when our governments are clean, transparent and accountable to the people they serve.

For more than 20 years, Central Europe has been the canary in the coal mine for the promise of a Europe whole, free and at peace. The example set by the countries of this region has also inspired others around the world that they, too, can fight for democracy, free markets, rule of law and human dignity. As the President said in Warsaw in June, “The blessings of liberty must be earned and renewed by every generation – including our own.” We must renew our commitment today – to our citizens and to each other; at home and around the world. We are stronger together, and many around the world who crave the same freedom we enjoy are depending on us.

* * * 

What was the reaction in Budapest to this very harsh criticism of Viktor Orbán and his regime? The spokeswoman of the Hungarian Ministry of Trade and Foreign Affairs told journalists that, according to Péter Szijjártó, “the people of Central Europe have suffered under communist dictatorship and fought for their freedom and for the reunification of Europe.” The region is inhabited by freedom-loving people who surely wouldn’t allow their freedom to be curtailed. Hungary looks upon the United States as a friend and “our alliance is rock solid.”

Interestingly enough, the speech was also the topic of political debate in Romania. According to the Romanian Social Democratic Party, Victoria Nuland’s remarks were addressed only to the Hungarian prime minister. Prime Minister Victor Ponta stated that it was surely not Romania that harassed the NGOs. It was the Hungarian government that limited freedom of the media. It was Hungary that stopped sending gas to Ukraine, and it is Viktor Orbán who has a unique relationship with Vladimir Putin. Romania supports Moldova and Ukraine and helps its neighbors with their energy needs. President Traian Băsescu, a political opponent of Victor Ponta, thinks otherwise. He is certain that Nuland was also talking about Romania, especially when she referred to corruption as a threat to national security. 

In my opinion the bulk of the criticism was directed at Hungary, but corruption unfortunately is everywhere in this part of the world. 

Apparently Péter Szijjártó will meet Victoria Nuland during his forthcoming visit to Washington. I would not like to be in his shoes. Victoria Nuland is one tough lady.

The reception of Viktor Orbán’s speech in the West and in Romania

The world is in such a turmoil that although Viktor Orbán’s open admission of his goal to eliminate the “liberal” component of western-type democracy might be considered a watershed both domestically and in Hungary’s relation with the European Union, it is receiving scant attention. After all, the armed conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East are serious current problems, while Viktor Orbán’s threat to Hungarian democracy and to the European Union would have  negative implications only in the future.

In English I managed to find only a couple of news items about Orbán’s speech. The Associated Press published a short summary which was then picked up by ABC. Zoltán Simon’s reporting from Budapest for Bloomberg was more detailed and to the point: “Orbán Says He Seeks to End Liberal Democracy in Hungary.”  This article must have had a large readership judging from the number of comments.

Vox.com quotes an important passage from the speech: “I don’t think that our European Union membership precludes us from building an illiberal new state based on national foundations.” Actually, I trust that this will be a sticking point soon enough. The author of the article also takes issue with Orbán’s contention that illiberal states are economic success stories; they are in fact doing a great deal worse than liberal states. Russia, Turkey, and China are all poorer than Croatia, Poland, or Hungary for that matter.

The German and Austrian papers that are usually full of news about Hungarian politics are silent. Perhaps everybody is on vacation. I found only one German article and even this one only through a Hungarian source. It appeared in the liberal Süddeutsche Zeitung. The title of the piece is “Enough!,” a reference to the question of how long the European Union will tolerate Viktor Orbán’s anti-democratic policies that have already transformed Hungary into a non-democratic state. “One must urgently pose the question whether Hungary led by Viktor Orbán wants to remain part of the European Union or not.” And while he was at it, the journalist suggested that the European People’s Party should expel Hungary from its delegation.

On the other hand, interest in Orbán’s speech was great in Romania. After all, it was delivered there and its implications can already be felt. Romanian-Hungarian relations are at an all-time low.

Before I turn to the Romanian press I would like to talk about Viktor Orbán’s contradictory messages and how they affect the Hungarian minorities in the neighboring countries. Let’s start with Romania. The Hungarian minority in Romania is large: 1.2 million people or 6.4% of the population. Yet, according to the Romanian constitution, Romania is a “nation-state.” The Hungarian minority would like to have Romania be officially transformed into a multi-national state.

Orbán should know full well that the highly charged nationalism he is advocating is not in the interest of the Hungarians in the neighboring countries. Nationalism on one side of the border evokes nationalism on the other side. This is exactly what happened in Romania. Bogdan Diaconu, a nationalist politician and member of parliament, published an article in Adevarul, a leading Romanian newspaper, which was subsequently translated into Hungarian. The nationalistic hate speech of Diaconu there was countered with obscene, equally hateful comments by Hungarians.

nationalism

Surely, Orbán’s nationalism does not make the life of the Hungarian minority any easier in the neighboring countries. Just the opposite. Great suspicion follows every word Orbán utters in connection with his plans for the “nation.” And that is not all. Orbán’s attack on Hungarian NGOs that receive foreign money was also a double-edged sword. He argued that this money is being used to influence the Hungarian government, which cannot be tolerated. But the Hungarian government is financing Hungarian NGOs and parties in Romania and Slovakia. Thus, the Hungarian government is trying to influence the Slovak and Romanian governments on behalf of the Hungarian minority. What will happen if Romania or Slovakia follows Orbán’s example and refuses the receipt of any money from Budapest destined for the Hungarian NGOs? In fact, one of the Romanian articles that appeared in Romania Libera talked about the incongruity of Orbán’s stance on the issue. According to the journalist, if Orbán tries to silence the NGOs financed from abroad, “the bad example” might be imitated in other Eastern European countries where democracies are not yet sufficiently stable. We know which countries he has in mind.

In any case, although for the time being it is unlikely that either the Slovak or the Romanian government will try to imitate Viktor Orbán, Romanian commentators are worried that Hungarian bellicosity will have an adverse effect on the stability of the region. Romanian papers talk about an “illiberal” state’s possible revisionist tendencies which could upset the stability of the region given the presence of Hungarian minorities in Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, and Serbia.

All in all, Orbán with this speech declared war on several fronts. Against his own people, against the European Union, against Hungarian civil society, and last but not least by his overcharged nationalist rhetoric against the amity of nations in Eastern Europe.

——

I would like to call everyone’s attention to Hungarian Free Press, a new English-language news portal from Canada. Here are some introductory words from the editor-in-chief:

The Hungarian Free Press, an online newspaper published by Presszo Media Inc., a Canadian federally-registered company based in Ottawa, was launched this morning. The HFP aims to offer informed opinion on current events in Hungary and East/Central Europe, and to expose to a broader English-speaking audience the explicit move away from liberal parliamentary democracy, which now appears to be the overt policy direction of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government.

While pro-government English-language publications, such as the newly launched Hungary Today site, as well as Mandiner’s English-language blog, The Hungarian Globe, aim to create the impression that Mr. Orbán’s government is really no different than any other right-centre or conservative administration and is simply “attacked” by the left for the same ideological reasons, this is not an accurate reflection of the situation. A good case-in-point is Hungary Today’s coverage of Mr. Orbán’s Tusnádfürdő (Băile Tușnad) speech, where the prime minister formally declared that the days of Hungarian liberal democracy were over and that his preferred authoritarian political model was similar to that found in countries like China, Russia and Singapore. Hungary Today, in its coverage, made it appear that Mr. Orbán, like most right-centre politicians, was merely challenging the welfare state and was attacked for this reason by the left-centre opposition, thus making the speech and the reactions that followed seem like “business as usual” in the world of parliamentary politics.

In 1961, American President John F. Kennedy was among the most articulate in expressing the media’s role in the long-term survival of multiparty democracy. Kennedy, addressing the American Newspaper Publishers Association on April 27th, 1961 noted:

Without debate, without criticism, no Administration and no country can succeed–and no republic can survive. That is why the Athenian lawmaker Solon decreed it a crime for any citizen to shrink from controversy. And that is why our press was protected by the First Amendment– the only business in America specifically protected by the Constitution- -not primarily to amuse and entertain, not to emphasize the trivial and the sentimental, not to simply “give the public what it wants”–but to inform, to arouse, to reflect, to state our dangers and our opportunities, to indicate our crises and our choices, to lead, mold, educate and sometimes even anger public opinion.”

The HFP joins a very small handful of English publications in exposing the danger that Mr. Orbán and his avowedly illiberal, anti-democratic and openly authoritarian government represent in the heart of Europe.

What do sugar distribution and drag racing have in common? A lot

Perhaps there is hope yet for investigative journalism in Hungary. When in the mid-1990s I first encountered an article that was supposed to uncover corruption in the police force I was appalled. The author didn’t seem to be aware of the most basic rules of what we used to call expository writing. Moreover, she was so sloppy that she didn’t even bother to learn the simplest facts of the case. I decided to write to her, going through her article practically sentence by sentence. As if she had been a student of mine who wrote a very, very bad essay on some historical topic. After I sent off the e-mail I was sure that I had made an enemy for life. But no, I received a very cordial answer in which she thanked me for my thorough critique of her work. We even stayed in touch for a while: I continued to criticize, and she continued to improve.

In general, however, Hungarian investigative journalism didn’t improve. Investigative articles and even books on the mostly dirty business affairs of Hungarian politicians were still sketchy and largely incomprehensible. One got the impression that the authors had only a vague sense of the complicated legal and business connections they were writing about. Mind you, they were trying to untangle business activities that were intentionally designed to be inscrutable.

So I was happy to read an article in Index by Miklós Jenei the other day that seemed to have uncovered more about a company’s questionable business practices in a couple of weeks than the National Tax and Customs Administration of Hungary (NAV) managed to do in years with its 23,000 employees.

Jenei decided to focus on sugar because András Horváth, the whistleblower at the Hungarian tax authority, mentioned sugar as one of the favorite commodities of the VAT scammers who make millions if not billions by reclaiming their non-existent value added taxes. He visited quite a few large supermarkets and compared prices. He found a Slovak-Hungarian brand called Sovereign which cost 20-30 ft less than the others. This particular brand was produced by Sovereign Slovakia s.r.o. and was sold at Tesco, Lidl, and some other outlets. The price of Sovereign sugar is 229 at Tesco and 200 ft at Lidl.

According to their website, the company was established in 2009 and the owner is Majorbiz Inc. (Seychelle Islands). The CEO is Ilona Ollé Agh. The reporter is fairly certain that the sugar actually comes from Hungary but that for one reason or other it is more profitable for the owners of Sovereign to transport the sugar to Okoč/Ekecs in Slovakia, a village which is almost entirely inhabited by Hungarians, for packaging.

Jenei managed to discover the wholesale price of sugar per ton by posing as a CEO of a sugar distributor. As a result, he came to the conclusion that no one can buy sugar from the factory for less than 185 forints per kilogram. The supermarkets refused to reveal the price they pay for Sovereign sugar, but our investigator figures that Tesco most likely pays 180 and Lidl 173 forints per kilogram. So, something doesn’t add up.

It turns out that over the last few years there were several companies with the name Sovereign. Several of them dealt with sugar packaging. All of them also had business interests in the sale of cars. Almost all of them had their share of trouble with the Hungarian tax authorities. And all of them shared the same address on Farkastorki utca in District III in Budapest. It is a small apartment on the ground floor. These various Sovereign businesses came and went after amassing millions in unpaid taxes. The authorities would regularly shutter the delinquent business, but within a few months a new business with a slightly different name would spring up. The CEOs also appeared and disappeared. One such CEO was Szilvia Marisz who claims that she is a bookkeeper; when Index‘s reporter finally got hold of her he could hear a baby crying in the background. Her successor was a 63-year-old fellow who had interests in thirteen companies of different sorts. Most of them are no longer in existence.

Lately a new company was registered at the same apartment on Farkastorki utca: Tull Trade Kereskedelmi és Szolgáltató Kft. Its owner is Sándor Esztocsák, who had earlier connections with Sovereign. Tull’s business was fabulously profitable. In 2010 it grossed 551 million forints, which is not bad for a company run by one man, Esztocsák, who obviously came cheap: he had the modest salary of 282,000 per year.

What is the connection between Tull and the packaging company in Slovakia? The link seems to be Jenő Rujp, head of the Sovereign Racing Team Kft, a company that also has its headquarters in the ground-floor apartment on Farkastorki utca. The company is involved with drag racing and maintains a sailing team as well as a band. The racers were badly behind with their taxes and therefore their business permit was cancelled. But no problem. They changed the name to Sovereign Sugar Hungary and Rujp ostensibly left the company. This last company with a new CEO is the distributor of Sovereign Sugar.

Sovereign at a drag racing meet

Sovereign at a drag racing meet

Quite a saga! Naturally, Index tried to avoid drawing any conclusions from the findings of Miklós Jenei, but it seems to me that the “sugar business” serves primarily as a vehicle for making enough money–thanks to major funding from the unwitting Hungarian taxpayers–to keep up the expensive habits of some of the characters in the story.

Viktor Orbán just announced his government’s motto: Glory to God alone

We all know about Viktor Orbán’s infatuation with the spiritual in the last few years. Maybe I just don’t remember properly, but I can’t recall much piety in his speeches during his first premiership between 1998 and 2002. Today, by contrast, his speeches are teeming with Biblical quotations and Latin religious phrases. And his generosity toward the “established” churches, especially the Catholic and Hungarian Reformed churches, is substantial.

At the time of the formation of the Orbán government in June 2010 Gusztáv Bölcskei, the Calvinist bishop of Hungary, told a conference that the Hungarian Reformed Church “is looking forward with great expectation to the work of the new government.” He added that the Catholic, Hungarian Reformed, and Lutheran churches will join forces to “rethink the question of the churches’ educational and social activities in addition to their finances and their compensation.”

These churches haven’t been disappointed. The famed Hungarian Reformed College, actually a gymnasium, received 10 billion forints for its renovation. The generous gift was announced by Viktor Orbán at a church service in the famous Great Church (Nagytemplom) of Debrecen where the prime minister said: “The communist dictatorship stole the collection box in which Hungarians for centuries had contributed their pennies” for the churches. I happen to have a different recollection, at least of the Hungarian Catholic Church’s accumulation of wealth: it didn’t come from collection boxes. In any case, Orbán promised that the government will return “the stolen wealth to the churches and the Hungarian people.” An interesting equation of the churches with the Hungarian people.

Yesterday Viktor Orbán again had an opportunity to deliver a speech in a Hungarian Reformed church. This time in Rimavská Sobota (Rimaszombat), a town of 25,000 in south-eastern Slovakia. The majority of the inhabitants of the town are Slovaks, almost 60%, but there is a significant Hungarian minority, about 36% of the population. Rimavská Sobota doesn’t seem to be a particularly religious place. Approximately 25% of the population claimed no religious affiliation at the last census. Only 10% purport to be Calvinist.

The church service was meant to express the locals’ gratitude for all the gifts that made the renovation of the church possible. The renovation, by the way, cost 270,000 euros. We don’t know how much the Hungarian government contributed, but it had to be substantial. After all, besides Viktor Orbán, several other government officials were present: Zoltán Balog, minister of Human Resources and himself a Hungarian Reformed minister; Zsolt Németh, undersecretary of the Foreign Ministry; Zsuzsa Répás, assistant undersecretary in charge of policies connected to national issues (nemzetpolitika); Csaba Balogh, Hungarian ambassador to Slovakia; Éva Molnár, née Czimbalmos, Hungarian consul-general in Košice;  and Pál Csáky, one of the leading politicians of Magyar Közösség Pártja (MKP), the favored Hungarian party in Slovakia.

The Hungarian Reformed Church in Rimavská Sobota/Rimaszombat

The Hungarian Reformed Church in Rimavská Sobota/Rimaszombat

From the speech it is not entirely clear whether the faithful in Rimavská Sobota had already received money during the first Orbán government, but it is likely. Orbán referred to the eight-year hiatus in the renovation effort. What was clear from his speech is that between 2011 and 2013 the Hungarian government financially assisted in the renovation of 119 churches and church buildings beyond Hungary’s borders. Twenty-three of them in the Uplands (Felvidék), i.e. Slovakia. To the chagrin of Slovaks, Hungarians still cling to the old designation for the Slovak territories.

We also found out, and I must say this was entirely new to me and I suspect to everyone else in Hungary, that “the publicly declared motto of today’s government which is civic, national, and Christian, is “soli Deo gloria (glory to God alone) as opposed to the other political camp which declares that ‘glory is to man alone.’ I don’t think that I have to say more about the conditions at home,” Viktor Orbán added.

“Soli Deo gloria” is associated with Protestantism and was the name of the Hungarian Reformed Church’s student association between the two world wars. The five “solae,” one of which is soli deo gloria, encapsulate the basic theological beliefs of Protestantism: sola scriptura (by scripture alone), sola fide (by faith alone), sola gratia (by grace alone), solus Christus (Christ alone), and soli Deo gloria (glory to God alone). Perhaps Reverend Balog neglected to mention the origin of Orbán’s new motto because, at least historically speaking, the association is too close to the Protestant churches whose followers are in the minority in Hungary.

The editor-in-chief of Galamus, Zsófia Mihancsik, gathered some information about the sums the government spent on the renovation of churches, both Catholic and Protestant. Subsidies from the European Union cannot be used  for anything directly connected to religious activities, but some of these projects were and still are being financed from subsidies set aside for projects promoting tourism as well as educational and social services. Thus, for example the Hungarian Reformed Church in the Northern Plains, in the vicinity of Debrecen, will receive 4 billion forints in the next six years from the European Union. Similar but less spectacular projects are under way in a very poor area of Baranya county called Ormánság, and in Tolna county twenty village churches will be renovated with the help of the European Union.

One possible reason that the Hungarian Reformed Church is doing so well under the Orbán government is that at its General Convent in 2010 it declared itself to be one and indivisible in the territories of the Carpathian Basin. In other words, in the former territories of Greater Hungary. There was only one bishop, László Fazekas, the representative of the Slovak Hungarian Reformed Church, who announced that for the time being his church would not join the “convent.” He added that his congregation is bilingual and they therefore have reservations about the merger. By May 2011, Fazekas changed his mind. The Slovak Hungarian Reformed Church joined the one and indivisible Hungarian Reformed Church but promised to pay special attention to defending the  minority rights of its Slovak brethren.

One of the two ministers who delivered homilies in Rimavská Sobota was Bishop László Farkas. The other was retired Bishop Géza Erdélyi whom Viktor Orbán described as a man who has for many years been his family’s spiritual guide. I guess it was a long distance affair. The special mention of Erdélyi was most likely intended as a sign of Orbán’s recognition of his political work in MKP, the party Fidesz recognizes as the only Hungarian party in Slovakia. Most-Híd, a Slovak-Hungarian party, doesn’t exist as far as Fidesz and the Orbán government are concerned. In fact, Fidesz as well as the Romanian-Hungarian RMDSZ voted against Most-Híd’s application for membership in the European People’s Party. They were admitted against the wishes of their brotherly co-nationals. By the way, MKP did remarkably well in the first round of local (county) elections a week or so ago. I’m sure that it’s not only the churches that get a lot of money from Budapest. MKP is also a major beneficiary of the printing press in Hungary.

I should add that it was announced today that the Government Debt Management Agency (ÁKK) mandated four banks to manage a 10-year USD bond issuance to the tune of 2 billion U.S. dollars.