Today seems to be one of those days when it is hard to cover only one event because there are so many items of interest. Let’s start with the most bizarre: the story of an alleged Hungarian espionage ring working on behalf of the United States.
The “Empire” and its leaders
I dealt with the case in March 2016 when the story broke. One of the charges against the alleged leaders of a spy ring called “Birodalom” (Empire) was that they passed documents concerning Hungary’s defense plans to a NATO officer with the help of the U.S. Embassy. I don’t think I have to detail the absurdity of this charge. The other accusation was that in a conversation with a member of the visiting IMF delegation, they revealed details of Hungary’s negotiations for a loan. These alleged crimes took place in 2008, yet the two men were arrested only in December 2015.
Béla Butka and Norbert Maxin, as we learned today, spent eight months in jail, where detectives tried to compel them to acknowledge their guilt. The two men complain about their treatment in jail. Butka’s letters from his family arrived months late, and Maxin had to share his cell with a dangerous convicted murderer. Today, more than two years after their arrest, the two men were found innocent. The prosecutor is appealing the verdict.
Butka and Maxin are convinced that they were the victims of a politically motivated show trial (koncepciós eljárás), but they are unable to give a rational explanation of why they were arrested or to identify the persons behind the action. This is a wild guess on my part, but the dates might give us a clue.
U.S.-Hungarian relations have been rocky ever since Viktor Orbán assumed power in 2010, but after November 2014 they really deteriorated. For a short while there was some hope that with the arrival of Coleen Bell as the new U.S. ambassador relations would improve. But, just about the time of the arrest of Butka and Maxin, she delivered a strong speech on corruption and the lack of transparency. A barrage of attacks on Bell and the United States followed. I can easily imagine that the imprisonment of two men on trumped-up charges was an answer to Washington, intended to show that Hungary is an independent country that can send spies hired by the United States to jail.
The price of natural gas
Now on to the government’s inflated natural gas price.
By 2013 Fidesz’s support had dwindled. Something had to be done. The party came up with an exceedingly successful remedy that had immediate results and contributed to a second two-thirds parliamentary majority in 2014: they lowered utility prices. From then on, the price of natural gas, for example, would be set by the government.
Szilárd Németh got the job of promoting this price cut to the public. His success at turning lower utility prices into votes for the government launched his spectacular career in Fidesz.
While many Hungarians believe that their utility prices are still the lowest in Europe, the price of natural gas on the open market has been falling in the last three years. Experts have been saying for some time that while the Hungarian government is getting gas for less and less money, its frozen official price is way too high.
Yesterday E.ON’s Hungarian unit offered a deal to Hungarian consumers. It claimed that households that are ready to abandon the state-owned utility company could save 13,000 forints ($51) annually on their gas bill. This announcement sent Németh into a frenzy. He accused the company of meddling in the election campaign on the side of the opposition. E.ON was cowed, and by today the company claimed that the announcement had been misleading. Such an apology by a large, powerful firm shows the extent of government intimidation of businesses operating in the country.
But the story doesn’t stop here. It just happened that Bertalan Tóth, the leader of MSZP’s parliamentary delegation, after years of litigation, managed to get the gas contracts from Magyar Földgáz-kereskedő (MFGK), which is in charge of natural gas purchases. On the basis of the receipts, Tóth came to the conclusion that the public hadn’t saved any money; in fact, consumers lost on the deal already in 2013 and 2014. If the price hadn’t been fixed, each household could have saved at least 70,000 forints between 2013 and 2017. Attila Holoda, who was assistant undersecretary in the second Orbán government, believes that the state could easily lower utility prices by 20% and still turn a profit. Well, if the opposition parties have any sense—which I often doubt—they should immediately start a campaign. Surely, a 20% reduction in utility prices could be understood by even the least politically astute citizen.
The Ukrainian-Hungarian negotiations
Let’s start at the end. The talks scheduled for today didn’t take place.
In mid-January Péter Szijjártó was in Washington where he met the new assistant secretary of state in charge of European and Eurasian affairs Wess Mitchell. About a week ago I reported that the conversation between Mitchell and Szijjártó most likely dealt with the strained Ukrainian-Hungarian relations as a result of Ukraine’s law on education and that Mitchell probably offered U.S. mediation between the two countries. Mitchell met Szijjártó and Pavlo Klimkin, Ukraine’s foreign minister, in Paris. Negotiations had to take place immediately because at stake was Ukrainian attendance at the meeting of NATO defense ministers on February 14-15.
On February 7 Undersecretary Levente Magyar, after his meeting with Vasil Bodnar in Uzhhorod/Ungvár, announced that “significant steps” had been taken toward the normalization of Ukrainian-Hungarian relations. After a three-hour meeting, he said that “this is the first time that there is a realistic chance” for success. He said that on February 14 representatives of the Hungarian community would meet with Lilia Hrynevych, Ukraine’s minister of education, in Uzhhorod.
Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced on February 12 that it agreed with the Hungarian side on ways to address the language issue in western Ukraine. On the same day, Levente Magyar, the Hungarian negotiator, also expressed optimism about the outcome of the negotiations, which would lift the ban on Ukraine’s attendance at the NATO meeting, a ban put in place by Hungary’s veto.
But Magyar’s boss, Péter Szijjártó, most likely on instructions from Viktor Orbán, declared at a quickly organized press conference that the veto will not be lifted because it is the only means Hungary has to defend the rights of the Hungarian minority in Subcarpathian Ukraine. Hungary cannot be blackmailed. I assume that what Szijjártó had in mind was that in the last few days both Jens Stoltenberg, secretary-general of NATO, and U.S. ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison urged the two countries to sit down at the meeting scheduled for today. Hungary just declared that the meeting has been cancelled.
Hírvonal, a Hungarian news aggregator
Finally, I want to put in a plug for hirvonal.hu, an excellent newsreader, about which I wrote once already in August 2016. For those of us who study Hungarian politics a good news aggregator is a must. Over the years, I have used three different sites, but even the best could be frustrating. From the very first, Hírvonal managed to come up with far more links than any of the others, and by now it is vastly superior to the others. It extracts news from 137 sites. Just yesterday I tested a new feature of the site, searching for my own name. In Hírvonal I found 14 links, while in the others there were none. In brief, it has some very good features that make life a great deal easier.