Tag Archives: Szilárd Németh

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

Olga Kálmán is leaving ATV for Lajos Simicska’s Hír TV

The news of Olga Kálmán’s departure from ATV and her move to Lajos Simicska’s Hír TV has spread like wildfire. This unexpected event prompted scores of negative comments on the Assembly of Faith, the fundamentalist sect that owns ATV. Columnists also bemoaned the sad state of the Hungarian media, which leaves someone like Kálmán with only two choices: either ATV or Hír TV. They reminded their readers that only a couple of years ago Hír TV was part of the Fidesz media empire. Its journalists made it their mission to hunt down all those liberals whom they considered Viktor Orbán’s enemies. Since the Simicska-Orbán fallout two years ago, however, quite a few newcomers joined the staff and its most vicious mud-slingers left. They will find a congenial home in Lőrinc Mészáros’s new acquisition, Echo TV.

It is an anomaly that a basically conservative or even right-wing sect like the Assembly of Faith keeps up a liberal television station. So the clash of cultures within the walls of ATV should have been expected. Critics claim that Sándor Németh, the leader of the Assembly of Faith, made a deal with the devil in 2012 when, they suspect, he agreed to some level of cooperation with the government in return for his sect’s “recognized” status. The Assembly of Faith is certainly the odd man out among the 26 accepted churches.

The first program that ATV scrapped was the Újságíró Klub with György Bolgár, Tamás Mészáros, and János Avar. Every Monday night the three seasoned reporters, with the assistance of a moderator, discussed the main political events of the previous week. In June 2014, after 14 years of great popularity, ATV did not renew their contracts, allegedly because of lack of interest in the program. Its replacement was a flop and died after a single season.

In May 2016 Sándor Friderikusz got the boot, ostensibly because his excellent conversations with intellectuals were deemed to be too serious for the station’s audience. Friderikusz’s liberal outlook was most likely the real reason. In October Friderikusz gave a lengthy interview to Index in which he described the state of affairs in the studios of ATV under the direction of Sándor Németh’s son, Szilárd. Friderikusz recounted a conversation in which Sándor Németh inquired from him whether he was purposely working for the downfall of Viktor Orbán.

And about a month ago we learned that András Bánó, the long-time director of ATV’s excellent news, is leaving the station. Most people doubt that his departure is voluntary. The pressure is on to get rid of certain people.

Meanwhile, there have been signs that the Assembly of Faith, under the leadership of Sándor Németh, is supporting the government’s views on the migrant issue. ATV, for example, agreed to air the government’s anti-migrant ads, which many faithful ATV viewers strenuously objected to. As we learned lately, Sándor Németh is also an admirer of Donald Trump, as you can see from the photo he posted on his Facebook page.

Sándor Németh, leader of Assembly of Faith, is a very happy man

While serious programs have disappeared one by one, a few “light” programs have been introduced. I can’t imagine that ATV’s viewers like Péter Hajdú’s Frisbee or Zsuzsa Csisztu’s Csisztus24. These programs simply don’t belong on a television station that has until now functioned as a quasi public television station. Today I took a look at both: they are dreadful.

Another “lighthearted” program is Judit Péterfi’s Magánszféra, which is supposed to let us in on politicians’ private lives. I described the program after the first episode as “an extended flirtation between the reporter and the politician, initiated primarily by Judit Péterfi.” Another new program, this one for women, seems to be superior to the other new shows–as long, that is, as one can tolerate Henrik Havas’s constant bragging.

I have no idea how these new programs are faring, but I doubt that they are hits. Friderikusz characterized Szilárd Németh’s leadership of the station as “amateurish,” and the latest changes in programming seem to justify his opinion. If Szilárd Németh, who is apparently under the thumb of his father, keeps going in this direction, ATV will soon disappear. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if by next season most of the new programs are scrapped. It was time for Kálmán to leave. It’s just too bad that the only television station that it is still independent belongs to Lajos Simicska. At least this is the opinion of Kálmán’s fans.

On a brighter note, ATV announced that Egyenes beszéd will continue but Szabad szemmel (With Open Eyes) with Antónia Mészáros on Friday evenings will be discontinued. My hunch is that Mészáros, who is a fine reporter, will take over Egyenes beszéd.

The Fidesz media was shocked by the news of Kálmán’s departure for Hír TV. They immediately went into attack mode. According to Magyar Idők, “the employees of Hír TV were perplexed when they received the news that Olga Kálmán was joining their station.” It’s not just the old hands at the station who are worried about their jobs but even those who joined Hír TV in the last couple of years. Magyar Idők learned that “the leadership of ATV has been worried for some time that Hír TV wants to compete with them by espousing a political view farther to the left than ATV is at the moment.”

Origo seems to be worried about Simicska, who allegedly will be overpaying Olga Kálmán. According to Blikk and other right-wing tabloids, like Ripost and 888.hu, Kálmán’s Egyenes beszéd (Straight Talk) is not at all popular. They seem to know that ATV’s “most often watched program is ATV Start, an early morning show.” Moreover, Kálmán’s presence seems to be immaterial to viewers. There was no appreciable difference in the size of viewership when in her absence someone else was before the cameras. So, concludes Origo, “the departure of Olga Kálmán is not an irreplaceable loss to ATV.”

Lokál, a free paper owned by the mysterious Árpád Habony, a right-hand man of Viktor Orbán, portrays Kálmán as a workaholic who was still in the studio four days before her son’s birth and, “as soon as she delivered, she was immediately on the phone on a work-related matter.” The impression these publications are trying to convey is that Kálmán is not only an unpopular TV personality but is also a bad mother. Simicska is wasting his money. All this sounds like sour grapes to me.

When it comes to the offerings of ATV, we must keep in mind that during the day the station airs two-and-a-half hours’ worth of infomercials in addition to the dubbed 700 Club with Pat Robertson, lasting 30 minutes twice a day. On Sundays, one has the pleasure of listening to Sándor Németh’s sermon Vidám Vasárnap (Joyful Sunday). Of course, this is also repeated later. ATV receives quite a bit of money from the Orbán government for airing a documentary series called Hazahúzó (Drawing you home), which depicts different regions of the country. These programs are supposed to be magnets for Hungarians living and working abroad. As we know, all these efforts have been singularly ineffective. This daily program is 40 minutes long and is aired twice a day. So, as you can see, there is a lot of filler here.

During the day I also took the time to check out Hír TV’s fare and found quite a few good programs, including their newscast, which was thorough and professional. At first glance it seems that Hír TV has more substantive programming than ATV. They have only 30 minutes of infomercials, they don’t have to air government propaganda for expats, and they don’t have to show such programs as the 700 Club or Németh’s sermons. On the basis of my sampling, it is definitely worth taking a look at Simicska’s station, quite independently from Olga Kálmán’s joining its staff.

December 18, 2016

A new crusade in Brussels over the price of electricity

It was evident already in 2010 that the Orbán government considers the nationalization of utility companies one of its priorities. Indeed, by now almost all such companies, including, believe it or not, those of chimney sweeps, have been nationalized.

In 2013 the government, in an effort to bolster its sagging popularity, slashed retail utility rates. With this move the government killed two birds with one stone. The much-advertised cut in utility prices made the government very popular practically overnight. It also resulted in serious losses for E.ON, a German-owned gas and electricity company, and practically forced the German owners of E.ON to bail and sell the company to the Hungarian state. As it turned out, the Hungarian government paid far too much, 260 billion forints, when the assessors claimed that E.ON was actually 600 billion forints in the hole. Obviously, price was no object. Orbán wanted utility companies to be in state hands.

Once this was done, the government set about to lower prices in three stages. Critics warned that producing gas and electricity at a loss would mean that these utilities would not be able to undertake the technical innovations necessary for improved service. Once again, however, Viktor Orbán was lucky, at least in the case of natural gas. In the last couple of years the price of gas on the free market has fallen around 40%, yet the state did not lower the price it charged consumers anywhere close to that amount. Given the state’s monopoly in the energy sector and the government-regulated price structure, the profit margin of the state utility companies must be considerable. According to some estimates, Hungarian families pay about 25% more for gas today than they would if there were no fixed prices and if true market conditions existed.

Independently from all this, the European Commission is working on a so-called “winter energy package,” which is a comprehensive plan for the creation of an “energy union.” One particular provision of this proposal caught the eye of the Hungarian government: the abolition of government-set prices for electricity retailers over a five-year period. If adopted by the European Council, the body consisting of the prime ministers of the member states, Hungary will no longer be able to keep electricity prices artificially low. Hungary has among the lowest electricity rates in the EU. In Denmark consumers pay 0.309 euros per kWh, in Germany 0.297. In Hungary the price is 0.111 euros per kWh. Only in Bulgaria is electricity less expensive than it is in Hungary. The European Council is convinced that artificially low prices discourage the conservation of energy and deter investors.

electricity

So, the Orbán government decided to launch a new “war against Brussels.” Viktor Orbán announced in his Friday morning radio interview that “the government will not allow Brussels to eliminate the government’s power to set prices.” Such a move, he emphasized, would put an end to the government’s ambitious plan to lower utility prices even further in the future. He promised to defend “utility decreases,” adding that “it will be a difficult struggle but we have a chance of success” because Hungary’s position in Brussels has been greatly strengthened. Naturally, due to his outstanding political success on the world stage.

Szilárd Németh, who was chosen to be the “utility tsar” back in 2013, was given a new mission. The result? He announced that the government had found the remedy. The government will endow the Hungarian Energy and Public Utility Regulatory Authority (MEKH) with legislative powers which, in his opinion, could derail Brussels’ intentions of abolishing fixed electricity prices.

Németh outlined the terrible state of affairs during the socialist-liberal governments (2002-2010) when electricity prices went up by 97% and the price of gas tripled while inflation was only 58%. The evil foreign owners “lugged out 1,200 billion forints of profits.” But then came the Fidesz government which froze prices in 2010, and in the next two years prices rose only very little.

This is not what the author of a very thorough article remembers about the course of natural gas pricing. According to her, in 2012 one MJ of natural gas up to 1,200 m³ use was 15% more expensive than before the Orbán government came into power. Her final estimate is that if the Orbán government hadn’t touched gas prices at all, the average consumer would pay significantly less than he does today.

In discussing the evil deeds of Brussels, Németh stressed that the European Union cannot constantly ignore Hungarian sovereignty. “Hungary didn’t join the European Union to give up everything it possesses.” The decrease in utility prices is a question of sovereignty and national security. It is up to the Hungarian government to decide how it wants to help Hungarian families. Obviously, the government doesn’t want to help only those families who need assistance. Otherwise, it could offer subsidies to people whose income is insufficient to pay the full price for utilities. No, the government wants all Hungarians to be grateful that they are getting a break on their utility bills thanks to Fidesz.

The most interesting twist in Németh’s story came at the end of his press conference. He admitted that in 2013 the Hungarian parliament had extended the right of legislative powers to MEKH but that the European Union considered the decision illegal and subsequently the Hungarian government had to annul the law. So, I don’t know why the Orbán government thinks that this time around they will be more successful than they were three years ago.

All the talk about fighting Brussels on electricity prices is most likely just a political ploy. The Commission’s recommendations are just that, recommendations. The final nod comes from the European Council where Hungary is represented by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. He can vote against the proposal.

My guess is that now that the migrant issue has lost its appeal, the government has decided to turn its attention to utility decreases which were so successful in gaining voter support before the last election. Fighting Brussels over a pocketbook issue can most likely be dragged out until 2018.

December 3, 2016

Viktor Orbán’s new neighbor: Ghaith Pharaon, fugitive from justice

During the summer Viktor Orbán’s son-in-law, István Tiborcz, was searching for new business opportunities. By that time, OLAF, the European Union’s Anti-Fraud Office, was looking into his “super company,” which had received almost all of the contracts for the EU-financed modernization of city lighting in Hungary. The first son-in-law had to find greener pastures, preferably far away from public procurements. The choice, it seems, was real estate. Investigative journalists discovered that Tiborcz was doing lucrative deals with the assistance of a wealthy Turkish businessman. One of their first real estate ventures was the purchase of the building of the defunct Postabank, which soon enough they sold, through an intermediary, to Ghaith Pharaon, a Saudi businessman of dubious repute.

The available English-language information on Ghaith Pharaon is extensive, mostly because of his association with the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) back in the 1990s. Secretly acting on behalf of BCCI, Pharaon acquired control of two American banks in violation of federal banking laws. When the fraud was discovered, BCCI was forced to sell the banks, which soon after were shut down by regulators when it was determined they were insolvent. Pharaon was charged with wire fraud and conspiracy to commit racketeering. He has been wanted by the FBI since 1991 for his role in the BCCI fraud and remains a fugitive. In addition, Pharaon was accused in a 2002 French parliamentary report of having financial dealings with hawala, an Islamic financial network which is also used by terrorist organizations. Earlier I wrote in more detail about Pharaon’s business activities in Hungary.

Trouble seems to follow István Tiborcz. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that he has a penchant for dealing with questionable characters.

It seems that in the last four or five months Pharaon has been busy. He is currently the owner of nine extremely valuable pieces of property in Hungary. His latest purchase is a mansion right across from the house owned by Viktor Orbán and his family. I suspect that the mansion was a state property that earlier was used as a kindergarten. Orbán himself liked the building so much that during his first administration he planned to refurbish it and use it as the official residence of the speaker of the house. The place has been abandoned for almost 20 years and, judging from the photos, it needs extensive repairs. During the summer the property’s listing price was 410 million forints or $1.45 million.

The mansion Pharaon bought

The mansion Ghaith Pharaon bought

Once it became public knowledge that Pharaon is now Orbán’s neighbor, interest in his past spiked even though it has been a well-known fact in Hungary, at least since June 2016, that Pharaon is on the FBI’s wanted list. But the opposition parties finally started asking questions about Pharaon’s close business ties not only with the prime minister’s son-in-law but also with the Hungarian government and MOL, the Hungarian oil company.

Pharaon is not a simple foreign investor wanting to make some money in Hungary. He is in possession of a valid visa issued to him by the Hungarian government. At the time they issued the visa, Hungarian authorities were aware of the fact that Pharaon was being sought not only by the FBI but apparently also by Interpol because of his relations with terrorists, including at one time with Osama bin Laden. Péter Juhász of Együtt got hold of a letter from Sándor Pintér, minister of interior, strangely enough written in Hungarian, to the Saudi ambassador in Budapest confirming their knowledge. Pintér wanted to have the Saudi government’s opinion in the case. The answer had to be reassuring because Pharaon received a visa without any trouble. But why would it not have been reassuring since, according to information that can be found in Stratfor Intelligence Files made public by WikiLeaks, “Ghaith Pharaon is not a genuine businessman … he is nothing more than a front man who does dirty things on behalf of Saudi Arabia.”

All the talk about Pharaon being on the FBI’s most wanted list eventually prompted Hungarian journalists to approach the U.S. Embassy in Budapest, requesting information about Pharaon’s current status. Eric Watnik, counselor for public affairs, who is in charge of the press and information office at the embassy, gave the following information on Pharaon. On November 15, 1991 the District of Columbia court issued an arrest warrant signed by Alan Kay, magistrate judge. “This arrest warrant is still valid,” he added. Since then the charges against Pharaon have multiplied (conspiracy, wire fraud, racketeering conspiracy, aiding and abetting) and by now, if arrested and charged, he could face at least 30 years in jail. In addition, according to Watnik, Interpol issued a Red Notice (A355/8-1992) which, according to Interpol’s website, seeks “the location and arrest of wanted persons with a view to extradition or similar lawful action.” Although the Red Notice has since disappeared from the Interpol website, Watnik noted that Hungary has an extradition treaty with the United States and thus, had it been asked, would have been obliged to agree to the extradition of Pharaon.

Once this letter from Pintér to the Saudi ambassador became public, both Jobbik and MSZP wanted to know more about the case. Jobbik’s Márton Gyöngyösi couldn’t get an answer from Viktor Orbán himself, but Tamás Harangozó of MSZP lucked out. He wanted to know whether the prime minister had ever had a personal meeting with Pharaon. Harangozó said he wanted to have a serious answer because Orbán, instead of giving substantive responses, often cracks jokes or makes ironic remarks. Orbán admitted that he had met “Professor Pharaon” at a banquet, which surely cannot pose a national security risk. Harangozó hit back: in that case, Orbán and the government itself is the national security risk. Eventually, Orbán claimed that “the whole Pharaon affair is an American secret service game.” If the FBI is truly seeking his extradition, how is it possible that Pharaon has remained free for the last 24 years?

The case was even discussed in the parliamentary committee on national security where Szilárd Németh, the committee’s Fidesz deputy chairman, expressed his belief that Viktor Orbán’s neighbor may be only the namesake of the real Ghaith Pharaon. Of course, a simple fingerprint comparison could put an end to any doubt but, according the U.S. Embassy, the Hungarian authorities refuse to cooperate. In fact, the Hungarian government is actively shielding Pharaon from “harassment.” When Jobbik wanted to place a public announcement in which Pharaon’s name was mentioned, MTI OS (Országos Sajtószolgálat) refused to publish it because “they need to protect the privacy rights of public figures.” Why is Pharaon a public figure? The only thing that comes to my mind is the phrase “public enemy.”

October 29, 2016