Tag Archives: Szilárd Németh

Hate campaigns and their consequences

President János Áder, who had been reelected for another five-year term already in March, delivered his inaugural address on May 8. If we can believe him, his original intent was to talk about all the work that still lies ahead for the nation. “Looking at the political discourse of the past months,” however, he came to the conclusion that “if things go on like this, we will destroy everything we have managed to build together since 1990. We question everything. We completely disregard every—even tacit—agreement we have made. We go beyond all limits.” So, what is the remedy? According to Áder, the simple answer is “reconciliation.”

In his speech I found only two sentences that deserve closer scrutiny. One was a Ferenc Deák quotation, the third in the short speech, which can be construed as a criticism of the governance of the Orbán government. Deák, the architect of the 1867 Compromise with the Crown, warned that “Hungary should not be loved with inciting thoughts unsettling it, but with a series of everyday, useful deeds that promote prosperity.” The second sentence came from the section on the quality of public discourse, which has deteriorated dramatically over the years. “I don’t want to dwell on responsibilities and on who is to blame. However, political numbers and majority status dictate that the responsibility of government parties is greater,” Áder admitted.

Skeptics are certain that Áder’s words were approved by Viktor Orbán himself, who needs to cool the overheated political atmosphere. Others, like György Csepeli, a social psychologist, consider the speech a perfect example of hypocrisy. After all, Áder signed the bill that threatens the very existence of Central European University, which added fuel to the fire, but the same man now wants a world in which people of different political persuasions live in harmony. If I may add another observation. Áder admits that the larger share of the responsibility falls on Fidesz, but simply because it is the governing party with a large majority. He is wrong. The reason for this state of affairs is not political arithmetic but the militaristic style of Fidesz, which leads to both verbal and physical violence. There was a time when Áder himself, as the leader of Fidesz’s parliamentary delegation, practiced the same kind of verbal coercion he now decries.

Zsolt Bayer, about whom I have written 13 posts since the beginning of 2011, is certainly not helping to tone down Hungarian political discourse. Bayer, one of the founding members of Fidesz who still has the full support of Viktor Orbán and his party, is notorious for his anti-Semitism and his vile writing. This time he ranted about the handful of NGO leaders who appeared at a parliamentary hearing to silently protest a pending bill that would discriminate against those NGOs that receive financial aid from abroad. When asked his opinion of their silent demonstration, Bayer said: “If people like this show up in the parliament building again and disrupt their work, then they need to be thrown out like shitting cats. If they need to be pulled out through their snot and blood, then they should be pulled out through their snot and blood….Their faces should be beaten to smithereens, if need be.”

The objects of Zsolt Bayer’s ire

As György Balavány, a conservative journalist, pointed out, Bayer is not a lone overly active pitbull. “He is the voice of the party” which, despite all pro-government opinion polls, is afraid. Facing widespread opposition, the Orbán government has “no other strategy than the intimidation of the public and the incitement of its own followers. Both of them can serve as preliminaries to physical force.” Meanwhile, Fidesz acts as if the increasingly frequent physical encounters simply didn’t exist. Orbán, for example, said that “it is not his job” to comment on claims of that sort. Among those Fidesz members who had an opinion on Bayer’s latest, some found his remarks perfectly acceptable. For example, according to Fidesz spokesman Balázs Hidvéghi, Bayer didn’t cross the line between free speech and incitement. The spokesman of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation said that Bayer is like that, “and this is how many of us like him.”

At this point TASZ’s two lawyers, who took part in the silent demonstration at the hearing, decided to offer Bayer an opportunity to discuss their differences over a cup of coffee. Bernadett Szél, co-chair of LMP, said she would join them. The naïve souls. First of all, any rational exchange with Bayer is a hopeless task. Worse, TASZ’s invitation was a tactical mistake because Bayer countered, saying he wants to extend the invitation to individuals on the anti-government side who, in his opinion, were either violent or who incited others to violence. Bayer suggested that the following individuals should be invited: Márton Gulyás and Gergő Varga, the two activists who were stopped from throwing washable orange paint on the president’s office, and two journalists from 24.hu who, according to Bayer, wanted him to hang on the first lamp post. He also thinks a pro-government female journalist should be present, who could tell how frightened she was among the “liberal” and “European” crowd at one of the demonstrations. Perhaps the editor-in-chief of a regional paper could also attend, who said that he is afraid that Orbán can be disposed of only in the way the Romanians managed to get rid of Ceaușescu. “If you think that I will take responsibility for the current state of public discourse alone, then you are mistaken.” Since then, others have indicated that they will attend and suggested more people who have been verbally abused by Bayer. One of these people was András Hont of HVG, who responded on Facebook: “Thank you, but I don’t want any coffee.”

Meanwhile fear and hatred have reached dangerous proportions in the country. The following incident in the heart of Budapest tells a lot about the impact of the government’s hate campaign against the European Union and the migrants. An employee of a pizza parlor on Kálvin tér, a bona fide Hungarian, thinking that one of his customers was a tourist, addressed the man in English. In turn, the customer called him a “filthy migrant.” And he kept yelling that Hungary belongs to the Hungarians and that he is not a tourist in his own country. He called the waiter “a cockroach.” When a young woman asked him to stop insulting the waiter who mistook him for a tourist, he hit the woman on the head, knocked her glasses off, and called her a stupid woman whose brain is filled with urine. Her bitter reaction after the incident was: “Long live the politics of hate, the brainwashing, and the incitement.”

Szilárd Németh, the embodiment of Fidesz primitiveness who is a deputy to Viktor Orbán, when asked about the incident, expressed his belief that the whole thing was nothing more than a “damned provocation” because anything can happen here “since George Soros set foot in this country and his provocateurs do what he tells them to do.” He added that this kind of incident has absolutely nothing to do with the Orbán government’s communication tactics because the government has never attacked the migrants. It has only defended Hungary and Europe. Poor Hungary, poor Europe.

May 14, 2017

Physical force used against Hungarian journalists

We have seen signs of nervousness and even some fear in Fidesz circles despite all the polls that show the party leading with a comfortable margin. Fidesz politicians should be superbly self-confident, but instead they increasingly act like besieged soldiers in a fortress. Perhaps the clearest expression of that feeling came from Viktor Orbán himself when, during a recent visit in Győr, he asked the 50 or so admiring elderly ladies to root for him because he “at times is encircled and has the feeling some people want him to perish” (időnként be van kerítve, és úgy érzi, el akarják veszejteni). Enemies inside and outside the country have been making every effort to put an end to the splendid experiment that has made Hungary the most successful country in Europe and if possible to remove him and his party from power. I believe that it is this fear that has been making Fidesz politicians increasingly belligerent in the last couple of years.

Of course, these so-called enemies are largely creatures of their own making, but the fear may not be totally unfounded. At the moment the Orbán regime is the victim of its own mistaken policies. Although the regime, under internal and external pressure, is acting aggressively, this doesn’t mean that its actions are based on self-assurance. On the contrary, aggressiveness is often the manifestation of desperation and insecurity.

Verbal aggressiveness against foreign and domestic adversaries has always been the hallmark of Fidesz discourse, but lately it has often been accompanied by physical force. In the last few months the victims of Fidesz frustration were journalists, who more often than not happened to be women.

Let me start with the non-violent case of Katalin Halmai, who used to be the Brussels correspondent for the by now defunct Népszabadság. In December 2016 Halmai, working as a freelancer with a valid press pass, was told to leave Orbán’s press conference in Brussels. Halmai meekly followed instructions and left the press conference. After her departure one of the journalists asked Orbán about George Soros, to which he received the following answer: “A man of proper upbringing doesn’t like talking about people who are not present. Especially not if the journalist who represents them is also absent,” referring to Katalin Halmai.

This vicious remark was something new and unexpected, but by now I think we can say with some certainty that it was not an off-the-cuff quip but an indication that members of the critical press are viewed as agents of foreign powers and thus are to be eliminated one way or the other. Fidesz Deputy Chairman Szilárd Németh, in his primitive brutality, said: “I don’t consider the men and women of the media empire supported by Soros real journalists just as I don’t regard the pseudo-civic groups supported by Soros civic activists. They tend to provoke, and their activities amount to being mere agents” for foreign interests. Journalists whose media outlet receives any money from abroad are enemies of the nation. From here it is but a single step, which at times has already been taken, to conclude that all journalists who are critical of the government are also agents. In the last few days we heard several times that George Soros wants to overthrow the Hungarian government. Anyone who with his or her critical writings assists this effort is equally guilty. Unless someone stops Viktor Orbán, the fate of critical journalists may be similar to that of the journalists who languish in Turkish jails for treason.

Recently there have been three occasions when physical force was used against female journalists. The macho Fidesz guys usually don’t take on other men. They prefer women, who can be intimidated or easily overpowered by sheer strength. Halmai in Brussels, instead of refusing to leave the premises where she had every right to be, walked out. Moreover, a few minutes later when Viktor Orbán, wanting to sound magnanimous, called her back for a friendly chat not as a journalist but as a Hungarian citizen, she even obliged. Women don’t want to create a scene. I think she made a huge mistake when she left the press conference and an even greater mistake when she accepted Orbán’s qualified invitation for a friendly conversation.

In January of this year the spokesman for the ministry of national economy grabbed the microphone out of the hand of HírTV’s reporter when she dared to ask a question which Undersecretary András Tállai didn’t like. On May 3 another reporter of HírTV was prevented from conducting an interview. The brave Fidesz politician twisted the arm of a female journalist when she asked a couple of questions the official didn’t like. But these were trivial matters in comparison to what happened to a female reporter for 444 two days ago.

The government decided to have a campaign to explain the real meaning of the questions and answers of the notorious “Stop Brussels!” national consultation. One hundred and twenty meetings will be held all over the country for the further enlightenment of the population. Although the government announced that 900,000 questionnaires have already been returned, this number (real or invented) is nothing to brag about considering that over eight million questionnaires were sent out. High government officials were instructed to hit the road. Mihály Varga, minister of the national economy, and István Simicskó, minister of defense, held the first such gathering in the Buda Cistercian Saint Imre Gymnasium in District XI. It was a public gathering, and 444 sent a female reporter to cover the event. She was planning to video the gathering but was told she had no permission to do so. She obliged, which again in my opinion was a mistake. No such restriction had been announced earlier. After the speeches were over, she received a telephone call, so she left the room to go into the corridor. When she wanted to return to gather her equipment, she was prevented from doing so. The local Fidesz organizer of the event, who turned out to be the program director of the ministry of defense, grabbed her telephone, deleted the couple of pictures she took, forcibly dragged her down the staircase, and threw her out on the street. Once outside, she phoned the police. When they arrived they couldn’t find the culprit, who apparently had split as soon as he realized that he might be in trouble. The reporter filed charges with the local police.

Fidesz embraces the adage that the best defense is a strong offense. It took them a few hours, but the District XI Fidesz headquarters eventually came out with a statement that accused 444 of sending out reporters to Fidesz events to provoke the members of the audience and disturb the proceedings. The organizers suddenly decided that the gathering was a private forum to which 444 didn’t receive an invitation. They are outraged at the journalist’s description of what happened, which included such words as “jostle,” “intimidate,” and “attack,” none of which is true. Therefore the Fidesz group in Újbuda will file charges against her for defamation.

Soon enough a demonstration was organized on the internet, and yesterday about one thousand people gathered in front of the District XI Fidesz office. Media-related associations are outraged because of the uptick in incidents of this sort. There is a concerted effort on the part of the government to obstruct the work of the independent media. Reporters are excluded from public events and are boycotted by state institutions.

Amerikai Népszava published an editorial yesterday which summarized the situation very well. “Orbán by now is irritated not only by the independent journalists’ activity but their sheer existence.” If Viktor Orbán keeps up his constant attacks on “foreign powers and their agents,” we may see physical attacks on journalists by Fidesz loyalists who blindly follow the instructions of their leader. Back in the fall of 2006 Fidesz employed such tactics, and later it used football hooligans to prevent MSZP from filing a referendum question that was not to its liking. But the mood of the country is different today, and I would advise caution.

May 7, 2017

Viktor Orbán’s answer to the Jobbik campaign against him and his regime

On April 1 thousands of stark black-and-white billboards appeared all over the country. On the left, on a white background, is a single short sentence: “You work.” On the right are photos of either Viktor Orbán and Lőrinc Mészáros or Antal Rogán and Árpád Habony with an equally short message: “They steal.” For good measure, the consequences of the political elite’s corruption–poor healthcare and education plus low wages–appear on an orange background. “Jobbik for the People” is in the lower left corner.

The Fidesz-KDNP leadership didn’t find the April’s Fool Day surprise very amusing. In fact, they were infuriated because they realized the incredible impact these posters make. Everybody understands their simple, damning sentences. The appearance of such bold anti-government posters signaled to Fidesz and the Orbán government that the opposition is becoming increasingly daring and most likely also increasingly effective. They are tapping into a general dissatisfaction with the government that has been expressed recently in large-scale demonstrations. Fidesz came to the conclusion that a new, radical solution must be found to the problem. The old methods of discrediting their opponents no longer work.

Fidesz propaganda over the past few months has been directed mostly against Jobbik. Only recently has the government’s propaganda minister also paid attention to László Botka, MSZP’s likely candidate for the premiership. Disparaging Gábor Vona, the Jobbik party chairman, has been continuous and vicious. Among its many charges, Fidesz claims that Vona is being supported by Viktor Orbán’s arch-enemy, Lajos Simicska. And so it was predictable that Fidesz’s first reaction to Jobbik’s billboard campaign would be to reiterate that Vona is a puppet of Simicska while the left is financed by George Soros. Szilárd Németh, one of the deputies of Viktor Orbán, called Jobbik the party of billionaires and accused Vona of selling the “soul of Jobbik” for this media campaign. Perhaps, Németh continued, Vona swore allegiance to Simicska, promising him special financial deals after Jobbik wins the election.

The Jobbik-Simicska connection has been the topic of political debate for some time. Both Simicska and Jobbik deny any financial arrangement between the billionaire and the party. On the other hand, Simicska and his son have both made pro-Jobbik statements, and Vona admitted that he and Simicska have met at least twice at public events. Moreover, all the recent Jobbik messages appeared on the billboards of two companies, Publimont Kft. and Mahir Cityposter Kft., both owned by Lajos Simicska. Fidesz argues that this is proof of Simicska’s hidden financing of Jobbik.

Of course, it is possible that Jobbik received a special deal from Simicska, but hidden campaign financing would be difficult to prove. Although Simicska’s two companies are among the strongest billboard providers, altogether about 100 companies are involved in this competitive business. A couple of years ago Demokratikus Koalíció’s billboards appeared on Simicska’s properties. When Ferenc Gyurcsány was questioned about the arrangement, he said that Simicska’s firm offered the best deal. Simply capitalism at work.

Fidesz also came to the conclusion that “the constitutional court, led by László Sólyom, developed such an extremely liberal practice regarding freedom of speech” that the government has no way of fighting Jobbik’s messaging in court. At least this is the conclusion Zoltán Lomnici, a right-wing constitutional lawyer, came to. Moreover, he added, even if a Hungarian court ruled in favor of the government, one of the NGOs financed by George Soros would take the case to Strasbourg.

So, as a stopgap measure, Fidesz came up with a billboard of its own showing George Soros and Lajos Simicska as the puppeteers and László Botka and Gábor Vona the puppets. In addition, the personal secretary of Lajos Kósa organized a team of Fidesz activists to systematically deface Jobbik’s billboards all over the country. Unfortunately, he said, they couldn’t be burned because that would have destroyed the billboard structures, so they had to be satisfied with painting them over. That method is actually quite widespread in Hungary. Activists of Momentum, for example, suggest changing the “Stop Brussels” billboards to “Stop Moscow.” But these methods weren’t radical enough to solve the Orbán government’s problem with the the kinds of posters Jobbik put up.

On April 27 Index noticed in the Official Gazette that Lajos Kósa, former leader of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation, and János Halász, undersecretary for culture in the ministry of human resources, had submitted a proposal to re-regulate posters and billboards. If the provider of advertising surfaces sells spaces at a price lower than the “current market value,” such an action would be considered to be hidden and forbidden party financing. This regulation would be applicable at times outside of the three months officially designated as the “campaign period.” Owners of poster surfaces must turn in a price list to the State Account Office and will be obliged to make their prices available on their websites.

In addition, and much more worrisome, a government decree signed by Viktor Orbán stipulates that starting June 1, 2017, local government permission will be needed to place new advertising spots anywhere. The decree also introduces other new regulations. For example, the size of the billboards will have to be reduced from 12m2 to 9m2 and the frame size must be changed from 14m2 to 11m2. An additional burden on the companies. But that is the least of the problems. The appendix to the decree stipulates that in the future one will be able to advertise only on properties owned by the state or the municipality. As it stands now, 90% of the advertising surfaces are in private hands and only 10% belong to the municipalities. This decree turns the billboard market totally upside down and will institute a state monopoly over political advertising.

Jobbik doesn’t seem to be too frightened for the time being because they came out with a variation of their original billboards. The color scheme is the same. The billboard pictures Viktor Orbán and Lőrinc Mészáros. The text is: “They steal. We will take it back and use it to raise wages.”

The opposition is up in arms over this government crackdown on campaign advertising. In the parliamentary committee on justice, where the Kósa-Halász bill is being considered, there was quite a ruckus. The opposition is convinced, not without reason, that the bill was written specifically to target Jobbik and Lajos Simicska. The Fidesz opposition tried to limit discussion of the matter, and the chairman, György Rubovszky (KDNP), refused to allow Márta Demeter (independent) and Ákos Hadházy (LMP) to take part in the discussion. In turn, the opposition members called the government party cowardly and the procedure shameful. Rubovszky at this point ordered the opposition members to leave the room, which they refused to do. Hadházy suggested that Rubovszky call the Parliamentary Guard to remove them forcibly. The chairman wisely refrained from making an ass of himself.

The opposition has a powerful weapon against this bill. To pass, the measure needs a two-thirds majority which, as we know, Fidesz doesn’t have at the moment. If the opposition, the left as well as the right, hangs together, it can win this battle. If it succeeds, this would be the second time that Fidesz is unable to force its will on the opposition.

As for the heinous governmental decree, I assume that some of those Soros-supported NGOs will start legal proceedings against it.

May 2, 2017

Hungary has no secrets from Russia? The strange story of the Yandex capture code

On April 8, 444.hu’s curious and internet savvy journalists, while looking at the government’s website where citizens can fill out the infamous “Stop Brussels” questionnaire, discovered that “personally identifiable information” (PII) is being passed on to Yandex’s Russian servers.

First, a few words about Yandex, a Russian multinational company specializing in internet-related services. It is the largest search engine company in Russia. It also performs services similar to those of Google Analytics, but it can perform certain additional tasks that Google doesn’t (and won’t): with a special setting it can collect “personally identifiable information,” a feature that is described by experts as marking the difference between capture and spying.

Citizens who choose to answer the Orbán government’s moronic questions online must give their full names, e-mail addresses, and age. Although the website assures respondents that their personal information is safe, that it is not given out to a third party, it is clear from the source code that this is not the case. Thus, what Antal Rogán’s propaganda ministry, which runs the website, did was against the law. But that’s only one of the many problems connected to using Yandex.

It is well known in internet technology circles that Yandex passed information to Russia’s state security service, FSB, back in 2011. Yandex also has a service similar to PayPal, which the Russian blogger Alexey Navalny used for donations he collected for an anti-corruption website. Yandex passed the names of the donors on to the FSB. It is also well established that in Russia there is no such thing as data protection. Any information Yandex and other Russian internet service providers collect is readily accessible by the security services. Therefore, Yandex is almost never used in western democratic countries. That the Hungarian government opted for Yandex lends additional credence to the hypothesis that Viktor Orbán, for one reason or another, is beholden to Vladimir Putin. He never misses an opportunity to give preferential treatment to Russian companies.

It didn’t take long after 444.hu made its finding public for the capture code to disappear from the site’s page source code. The discovery of the Yandex connection had to be embarrassing to the Hungarian government. Moreover, the removal of the capture code signaled that this was not just an innocent mistake or an oversight. It took the government a whole day to try to explain away Yandex’s capture code. They didn’t succeed. The statement concentrated on questions that had nothing to do with the problem at hand. For example, it claimed that “personal data and the opinions expressed are stored in a closed and unconnected manner.” In taking the capture code down, the government only wanted to avoid “malicious misinterpretations” in the future.

Source: Index.hu

The conservative mandiner.hu rushed straight to Yandex. Its president, Victor Tarnavski, argued that Yandex is really not a Russian company, a dubious claim considering that the company’s headquarters are in Moscow. He said that the data most likely ended up in Yandex’s data center in Finland. He added that it is “the duty of our clients to check the mode of capture.” The special function that allows the capture of personal data must be set by the user of the code–in this case, the Hungarian government.

Not surprisingly, the opposition parties were up in arms and demanded to know more. Zsolt Molnár (MSZP), chairman of the parliamentary committee on national security, indicated on Sunday, April 9 that he would ask questions about the case from the military and national security experts present at the regular Monday meeting the following day. Bernadett Szél (LMP), a member of the committee, asked the head of the Military National Security Service about the Russian code. He informed her that this is a domestic matter and he has nothing to do with it. Then Szél turned to the head of the Office for the Defense of the Constitution. Before he could answer, the deputy chairman of the committee, Szilárd Németh, abruptly got up and left the room, to be followed by all the Fidesz members of the committee. Thus, the committee no longer had a quorum, and the questioning had to be stopped. Szél was especially outraged. She said “apparently the prime minister of this country is no longer called Viktor, but Vladimir.”

In the wake of the scandal over the Russian code and the subsequent fiasco in the committee, leading Fidesz politicians treated the public to a series of ridiculous pseudo-explanations. Lajos Kósa said that “we don’t want to make a secret of how many people responded. This is not a secret even if Vladimir Putin himself counts them in the loneliness of the Kremlin.” He also expressed his surprise at the outrage of the opposition members of the parliamentary committee, saying that “when we say that the meeting ends we leave, but otherwise the opposition can shoot the breeze as much as they wish.”

As far as the government and Fidesz are concerned, we’ve reached the end of the story. However, Attila Péterfalvi, head of the Authority of National Data Protection and Information, is investigating the case.

Magyar Idők must have thought they were very clever when they ran a short article with the title “444 is spying.” They discovered that 444.hu, the internet news site, uses Google Analytics (just as Hungarian Spectrum does). The government mouthpiece wanted to know why 444.hu can follow its readers with “an American spy program.” This description of Google Analytics came from a right-wing blogger who claimed that Google, Facebook, Yahoo, “and practically all American internet providers report to the CIA, the NSA, etc.” So, what’s the problem?

I have no idea, of course, whether any personal information reached a data collection center in Russia. If it did, what could the Russian government do with such information? One thing that comes to mind is that they could construct a database (or add to a database they already have) that would allow the Russian propaganda machine to target Orbán voters, who are most likely susceptible to pro-Russian disinformation and propaganda. Given Russia’s passion for cyber warfare, disinformation, and propaganda, this hypothesis is within the realm of possibility.

April 14, 2017

Central European University in Viktor Orbán’s crosshairs

It was on February 11 that I wrote a post titled “Viktor Orbán’s next target: Central European University in Budapest.” What prompted my post was an article “Can the Soros-School Stay?” that appeared in Figyelő, a once respectable financial paper acquired by Mária Schmidt, Viktor Orbán’s adviser on matters of history. This opening salvo was followed by at least four articles in Magyar Idők, the semi-official paper of the Orbán government, all aimed at discrediting the university. It seemed that the government had decided that the time was ripe to do what it had been contemplating for quite a while: get rid of CEU once and for all. I ended my post with these words: “What happens to CEU may depend, at least in part, on how successful Donald Trump is at implementing his plans at home and abroad. If he moves American democracy toward an illiberal state and if his followers keep bashing Soros, most likely Viktor Orbán will feel free to banish CEU from Hungary. But if he fails because of internal opposition and foreign resistance, perhaps these attacks will subside. Let’s hope so.”

Obviously, Viktor Orbán thinks that Donald Trump is doing splendidly and that his own move against George Soros, who after all supported Hillary Clinton, and Soros’s Budapest university is not only timely but has every promise of success. Well, Trump isn’t doing so splendidly, and bashing Soros wouldn’t do much to move the needle on his 35% approval rating. But, as the Hungarian government has formulated its proposed legislation against CEU, that’s really not the problem. What the Orbán government is demanding for the continued existence of CEU cannot be satisfied. Washington has nothing to do with a university accredited in the State of New York.

I don’t know, of course, what was in Orbán’s head when, in the middle of the night, the amendments to the Law on Higher Education were posted on the website of the Hungarian Parliament. I assume he hoped, at the very least, that there would be no response from a more sympathetic United States government. But he was wrong. The U.S. Embassy in Budapest released a strongly worded statement:

The United States is very concerned about the legislation proposed by the Hungarian Government yesterday that would severely impact the operations of the Central European University in Budapest…. The University is an important success story in the U.S.-Hungarian relationship, and it enjoys strong bipartisan support in the U.S. Government. The United States opposes any effort to compromise the operations or independence of the University.

Such a statement cannot be issued without the approval of the State Department.

I should add that if the Hungarian government wants to negotiate with the U.S., it will have to negotiate not with the Secretary of Education but with the governor of New York, Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat. Moreover, George Pataki, the former Republican governor of the state, is on the board of trustees of CEU. All in all, Orbán will have a hard time realizing his plans.

Large crowd at Michael Ignatieff’s press conference

This afternoon Michal Ignatieff gave a press conference which was attended by hundreds, including diplomats of the U.S., Canadian, German, Swedish, Dutch, and Romanian embassies. I am personally grateful to the Romanians, the only country from the region, for standing up for the academic freedom of a U.S.-Hungarian university.

Ignatieff, who is a very measured man, was visibly angry. He announced that Viktor Orbán is mistaken if he thinks that there will be a Trump-Orbán summit about the fate of CEU because he will be the one who will negotiate about the future of his university. He added that earlier the university’s administration demanded only the withdrawal of the amendments but now, after the Hungarian state violated their trust, they expect a new bilateral agreement that will guarantee the independence of the university. Earlier, in an interview he revealed that the university “plans to show [the Hungarian government] over the next week or so that messing with us comes with costs.” The university administration also announced that it is contemplating legal action against Origo, the latest acquisition of the government’s propaganda machine, because of the internet site’s falsification of facts in connection with the operation of CEU.

As far as the Hungarian government is concerned, the usual double talk reigns. László Palkovics, undersecretary in charge of education, whose rapid-fire explanations are hard to follow, tried to convince his audience at a press conference this morning that the amendments to the law on higher education have nothing to do with CEU. It is just one of the 28 foreign universities that operate in Hungary. It apparently took about 20 questions from journalists before he admitted that CEU is the only institution among the 28 that has no campus abroad and thus cannot operate in the future.

Szilárd Németh, one of Viktor Orbán’s deputies in Fidesz, usually gets the nastiest messages to deliver. In this case, he was surprised that this whole case caused such an altercation. It is just a routine affair: there are many universities that don’t function as working universities abroad, and this is considered to be fraud by Hungarian law. He sanctimoniously announced that “all educational enterprises must obey the laws of the country.” What he forgot to add was that this law hasn’t been enacted yet. He announced that this is “not a Soros problem” yet said that “all of those [in the Hungarian parliament] who rose to defend the Soros university made it clear that they actually serve the interests of George Soros.”

The university had important defenders. The slavishly servile Batthyány Circle of Professors, as usual, was silent at a time when they should be defending the integrity of academic freedom. On the other hand, László Lovász, president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, stood by CEU and even offered himself as a possible middleman in future negotiations between the government and the university. He declared that “CEU is a very significant research center and international educational institution. It is good that it is situated in Budapest.”

Even a Fidesz-supported deputy mayor of District XV in Budapest, Zoltán Balázs, spoke out in defense of the university. But he is not a run-of-the-mill Fidesz politician. He happens to be a professor of political science at Corvinus University who also taught off and on at CEU. Balázs is a true conservative. Earlier he was often a guest in political discussion groups at ATV. He wasn’t my favorite, not so much because of his conservative ideas but rather because of his mannered and stilted style. But this time I was pleased that he sat down and wrote an article that was published in HVG titled “CEU and the freedom of conscience.” In it, he pointed out that “there is no sane person who wouldn’t consider the quality of American universities in general to be the standard anywhere in the world.” He added that “the University is one of Hungary’s doors to the world.” At the end of the article Balázs shared his disappointment with the Hungarian government, writing: “I have given up all hope” that the current political climate will change for the better.

As far as the European Union is concerned, Frans Timmermans did bring up the issue at today’s meeting of the European Commission. Tibor Navracsics, commissioner for education, culture, youth and sport, is studying the matter. I wrote to him to remind him of his academic past. I urge all of you to write to him as well. His e-mail address is cab-navracsics-contact@ec.europa.eu

March 29, 2017

Viktor Orbán is back: his views on migrants, NGOs, and the Trump administration

In the last two days Viktor Orbán gave a short speech and a longer interview. He delivered his speech at the swearing-in ceremony of the newly recruited “border hunters.” It was exclusively about the dangers migrants pose to Hungary and Hungarians. The interview was conducted by one the “approved” state radio reporters and ranged over many topics. I decided to focus on two: the Orbán government’s current attitude toward non-governmental organizations and the prime minister’s thoughts on the coming Trump administration.

The migrant question

A few days ago we had quite a discussion about the Hungarian penchant for viewing Hungary as the defender of the West, the protector of Christianity during the expansion of the Ottoman Empire. In the last few decades Hungarian historians have done a tremendous amount of work on Hungarian-Ottoman relations, and today we have a very different view of this whole period than we had even fifty years ago. First of all, scholars no longer believe the traditional story of Hungary as a bulwark of European civilization against the Porte. Yet the traditional interpretation of Hungary’s role prevails, and since the beginning of the refugee crisis it has been recounted repeatedly, largely because the Orbán government can use the historical parallel to its advantage.

It was therefore no surprise that Viktor Orbán’s address to the border hunters began with this theme: “you today swore to defend the borders of Hungary, the security of Hungarian homes. With this act you also defend Europe, just as has been customary around here in the last 500 years. To protect ourselves and also Europe: this has been the fate of the Hungarian nation for centuries,” he told his audience.

Although this is certainly not the first time that Viktor Orbán has announced that, as far as he is concerned, all those millions who in the last two years or even before arrived on the territory of the European Union are “illegal immigrants” who “cannot be allowed to settle in Europe,” this is perhaps the clearest indication that for him there is no such thing as a refugee crisis or, for that matter, refugees. No one can force any nation “for the sake of human rights to commit national suicide.” Among the new arrivals are terrorists, and “innocent people have lost their lives because of the weakness of their countries.” In brief, he blames western governments for terrorist acts committed on their soil. “They would have been better off if they had followed the Hungarian solution, which is workable and useful.” In brief, if it depended on Viktor Orbán, all foreigners would be sent back to where they came from.

The rest of the speech was nothing more than pious lies, so I’ll move on to the interview.

Transparency and non-governmental organizations

Let me start by reminding readers that, in the 2016 Global Competitiveness Index of the World Economic Forum, among 138 countries Hungary ranked ahead of only Madagascar and Venezuela in the category of government transparency. Yet Orbán in his interview this morning gave a lengthy lecture on “the right of every Hungarian citizen to know exactly of every public figure who he is, and who pays him.”

But first, let’s backtrack a bit. The initial brutal attack by Szilárd Németh against the NGO’s, in which he threatened to expel them from Hungary, was somewhat blunted a day later (yesterday) when János Lázár, head of the prime minister’s office, assured the Hungarian public that Németh had gotten a bit carried away. The government is only contemplating making these organizations’ finances more transparent, although he added that “the national side” must feel sympathy for Németh’s outburst because it is very annoying that these NGOs, with the help of foreigners, attack the Hungarian government. Németh was told to retract his statement, and for a few hours those who had worried about the very existence of these watchdogs over the activities of the Orbán government could be relieved.

This morning, however, Zoltán Kovács, one of the prime minister’s many communication directors, made an appearance on ATV’s “Start.” He attacked these organizations from another angle. He claimed that they have been assisting migrants and thereby helping terrorists to pour into Europe. If possible, that sounds like an even greater threat to me than Németh’s unconstitutional suggestions regarding the expulsion of NGOs.

So, let’s see what Orbán is planning to do. The reporter asked about “the work of civic organizations that promote globalization.”  Orbán indicated that he finds these NGOs to be stooges of the United States. During the Obama administration, he said, the United States actively tried to influence Hungarian domestic affairs. “Some of the methods used were most primitive,” he remarked.

He is hoping very much that in the future nothing like that will happen. His duty as a prime minister is “to defend the country” against these attempts, but all Hungarian citizens have the right to know everything about NGO’s, especially the ones that receive money from abroad. The people ought to know whether these organizations receive money as a gift with no strings attached or whether there are certain “expectations.” “And if not, why not?” So, what Orbán wants is “transparency.” This demand from Viktor Orbán, whose government is one of the most secretive in the whole world, is steeped in irony.

Viktor Orbán on the future Trump administration

Although initially Orbán tried to be cautious, repeating that it is still too early to say anything meaningful, he is hoping for “a change of culture” after the inauguration. This “change of culture” for Orbán means first and foremost that the Trump administration will not raise its voice in defense of democratic values. Earlier, Orbán didn’t dare to attack the NGOs across the board, and most likely he would have thought twice about doing so if Hillary Clinton had succeeded Obama. With Trump, he feels liberated. Whether he is right or not we will see.

What kind of an American administration does he expect? A much better one than its predecessor. The Obama administration was “globalist,” while Trump’s will have a national focus. It will be a “vagány” government. “Vagány” is one of those words that are hard to translate, but here are a few approximations: tough, brave, maverick, determined, and fearless. Trump’s men “will not beat around the bush, they will not complicate things.”

Orbán also has a very high opinion of the members of Trump’s cabinet because “they got to where they are not because of their connections. They are self-made men.” These people don’t ever talk about whom they know but only about what they did before entering politics. “They all have achieved something in their lives; especially, they made quite a few billions. This is what gives them self-confidence.” These people don’t need any political training. “They are not timid beginners. They have ideas.”

Most of us who are a bit more familiar with the past accomplishments of Trump’s cabinet members have a different assessment of their readiness, at least in most cases, to take over the running of the government. Orbán, just like Trump, is wrong in thinking that because someone was a successful businessman he will be, for example, an outstanding secretary of state. Put it this way, Rex Tillerson’s performance at his confirmation hearing yesterday only reinforced my doubts about his ability to run the State Department.

Orbán might also be disappointed with the incoming administration’s “new culture,” which he now believes to be a great asset in future U.S.-Hungarian relations. What if all those virtues of the tough, plain-talking, down-to-earth businessmen Orbán listed turn out to hinder better U.S.-Hungarian relations instead of promoting them? What if those resolute guys in the State Department decide that Viktor Orbán is an annoying fellow who has become too big for his britches? What if the strong anti-Russian sentiment of Secretary of Defense James Mattis prevails and the U.S. government gets suspicious of Vladimir Putin’s emissary in the European Union? Any of these things could easily happen.

January 13, 2017

One of Donald Trump’s first victims may be the Hungarian NGOs

An article appeared today in The Guardian predicting a new crackdown on Hungarian NGOs. The timing is no coincidence. Viktor Orbán’s illiberal government has been emboldened by the election of Donald Trump, who will not raise his voice in defense of critics of the Hungarian government in the name of democracy.

A few hours after the publication of the article, Szilárd Németh, one of the deputy chairmen of Fidesz, announced the government’s intention to get rid of “the pseudo-civilians” of the Soros Empire. In Németh’s vocabulary, “pseudo-civilians” are foreign political agents who represent the “global plutocracy and the world of political correctness above the heads of the national governments. These organizations should be forced back, and, I believe, they should be thrown out. I feel that the international opportunity for such a move has arrived.” The “international opportunity,” of course, is the election of Donald Trump, as Péter Krekó, an associate of Political Capital, a think tank of political scientists, pointed out to The Guardian.

The announcement of the government’s intentions regarding foreign-subsidized NGOs was not unexpected. Just before the holidays Orbán gave an interview to 888.hu in which he was quite explicit about his feelings toward the NGOs critical of his government. According to him, they are being used by antagonistic powers and their agents, like George Soros, to advance their own interests in foreign countries. Therefore, these organizations must be banished. Not only Hungary will move against them, but “all countries” in Europe. The year 2017 will be about Soros in this sense. “One can feel it coming when each country will trace the source of these monies; they will find out what kinds of connections exist between them and the intelligence communities; and which NGO represents what interests…. [2017] will be about the extrusion of the forces symbolized by Soros.” One cannot be more explicit. The only question was just when in 2017 the onslaught would begin.

It is unlikely that Donald Trump will be upset if Viktor Orbán follows in Vladimir Putin’s footsteps. In 2012 Putin introduced a law requiring non-profit organizations that receive foreign donations and engage in “political activity” to register and declare themselves to be “foreign agents.”

George Soros recently wrote an opinion piece in project-syndicate.org in which he didn’t hide his feelings about the president-elect, whom he called “a would-be dictator.” He described Trump’s cabinet as being full of “incompetent extremists and retired generals.” He predicted that “Trump will have greater affinity with dictators,” which will allow “some of them to reach an accommodation with the US, and others to carry on without interference.”

Soros’s attack on Trump naturally elicited counterattacks on the financier by the pro-Trump media. Articles appeared with headlines like “Soros and Other Far Leftists Instigate Revolution against Trump,” “Billionaire Globalist Soros Exposed as Hidden Hand against Trump,” “Busted! Soros-Backed Pro Clinton Group Caught Funding Violent Protests,” and many more. Orbán can rest assured that no one will be terribly upset in Trump’s White House or State Department about the harassment of Hungarian NGOs. Under these circumstances Orbán can feel pretty safe.

By the time Orbán gave his interview to 888.hu, initial plans for the elimination of NGOs were already in place. On December 14, Zsolt Semjén, who serves as Orbán’s deputy, sent a modification proposal to a 2012 law on non-governmental organizations to the president of the parliament, which apparently will discuss and most likely enact it into law before April. One of the important changes is that “officeholders of non-governmental organizations” will have to submit financial statements just like members of parliament. What’s wrong with such a requirement? In the first place, salaries of officials of nongovernment organizations have nothing to do with the public purse. Second, knowing the Hungarian government’s practices, it’s likely that the Hungarian Internal Revenue Service would immediately begin to discredit those people who are seen as standing in the way of the government. In addition to this change, there is a vaguely worded reference to “the legal environment of the civic association” that will be rewritten. For the time being, officials of NGOs have no idea what this means, but “in light of the Orbán interview” it is worrisome that the proposal includes references to “the adoption of solutions that have worked” in other countries. The fear is that the Orbán government has Putin’s solution in mind.

NGO officials believe that the elimination of organizations will take place in stages. First, the usual character assassination will take place after the submission of financial statements. Second, the NGOs will have far more administrative obligations, which will take time and money away from their useful activities. As a third step, the government might accuse them of espionage and treat them as sources of danger to national security. They could be accused of treasonous activities against the legitimate government of their own country as agents of foreign powers.

According to rumors, behind the scenes the Hungarian government has been trying to convince George Soros “to limit his presence to the financing of the Central European University” and to stop giving any more grants to the 60 or so organizations that are the beneficiaries of his generosity.

For the time being, it looks as if neither the Open Society Institute (OSI) nor the NGOs are intimidated. They insist that they will continue as before. In the first place, some of these organizations, like Transparency International (TI), receive only a small fraction of their funding from the Soros Foundation. In fact, one of TI’s largest contributors is the European Union. The director of TI, József Martin, can’t imagine that the government would dare to ban TI because by this act “Hungary would remove itself from the community of free countries.” In Martin’s place, I would be less sanguine that Viktor Orbán cares what the community of free countries thinks.

The Hungarian Helsinki Commission gets about a third of its budget from OSI. In addition, it receives financial help from the European Commission and the United Nations High Commission. Its position, I believe, is less secure than that of TI. After all, it deals with human rights, something that leaves Viktor Orbán and his friends cold. The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (TASZ) is unfortunately heavily dependent on the Open Society Foundation.

Szilárd Németh’s announcement of the government’s intentions to eventually eliminate NGOs prompted the usual protestations from the left. MSZP couldn’t come up with anything more original than the demand that “Szilárd Németh must leave public life.” Sure thing. He will rush to oblige. DK reminded Viktor Orbán that, no matter how strong a feeling of affinity he has for Vladimir Putin, “this place, in the Carpathian Basin, is not called Russia.”

In the past, we kept trying to convince ourselves that surely this or that move of the government would not be tolerated by the European Union, the Council of Europe, or the Venice Commission. Be it the new constitution, the media law, or the building of a nuclear power plant on Russian money by a Russian company that received the job without competitive bidding. And what happened? Almost nothing. A few sentences were changed in the constitution. So, let’s not try to shift the burden to the EU. There is only one way to put an end to this nightmare: to get rid of Orbán and his minions in 2018.

January 10, 2017