Tag Archives: Tamás Fellegi

“The great Fidesz gas theft”

On Friday Viktor Orbán summarized his administration’s achievements at a conference held in Bratislava/Pozsony.  The short English-language talk was mostly about the accomplishments of his unorthodox economic policies, but he briefly called attention to the necessity of having a strong domestic capitalist class. In Hungary, just in other former socialist countries, he admitted, there is not enough capital to enable local entrepreneurs to become really powerful economic engines. But, he added, “we are getting there.”

Under these circumstances how can a country create a strong monied class in record time? If conditions were normal, it would take a considerable length of time for local businessmen to grow organically and compete successfully with foreign companies. If, however, you want instant super-rich capitalists, I can see only one way of achieving that miracle: to make sure that the state creates a legal framework that allows public money to be funneled into private hands. And this is what the Orbán government has been doing in the last five and a half years. The case study I’m sharing today–MET Holding–is most likely only the tip of the iceberg.

The story is not new, but now we have most of the documentation to prove what we have suspected all along: a few of Viktor Orbán’s close friends have made billions at the expense of the Hungarian people.

In 2007 MET Group, headquartered in Switzerland, began operations “in natural gas retail and wholesale trading in the European market as well as in the retail sale of natural gas to industrial customers in Hungary, Slovakia and Croatia.” Five years later, in 2012, MET Holding was established to manage and support the subsidiaries of MET Group.

Shortly after the election in 2010 Orbán promised cheaper energy to consumers. In order to lower prices, the state-owned MVM (Magyar Villamossági Művek) was allowed to dip into its gas reserves, which it could then replenish with cheaper gas from the open market, through a pipeline from Austria. The cheaper gas was supposed to be sold to hospitals, schools, and public buildings. MVM claimed, however, that its own retailer, MVMP (MVM Partners), didn’t have enough experience, so they would have to use a Swiss subsidiary of MET Holding, METI (MET International), for the transactions. As a result, MET itself reaped about 80% of the gain that the cheaper gas coming from the West offered to MVM. That is, the savings from the cheaper gas went to the shareholders of MET Holding instead of to Hungarian consumers.

In order to make that business deal legal, the Orbán government simply changed the regulation governing trading via the pipeline. In 2011 Tamás Fellegi, minister of national development, signed a new regulation allowing MVM to be the sole trader of gas from the open market. The arrangement, which was originally intended to remedy a one-time shortage in gas reserves, was extended year after year. The Hungarian government was perfectly happy to have MET, a private company, be the chief beneficiary of the cheaper gas coming from the West and not the state-owned MVM. This arrangement, by the way, is coming to an end on July 1 because Hungary is currently under an infringement procedure for allowing a single company to use the gas pipeline without holding any auctions.

We knew some of these details already last fall. I wrote about them in November, but then we had no documentation and hence no hard proof. Since then, however, Bertalan Tóth, an MSZP member of parliament, sued MVM for refusing to release the documentation of what is considered to be “a bizarre arrangement” between MET and MVM. Tóth won in the court of first instance and, after MVM’s appeal, also in the court of appeal. He received thousands of documents back in January, but it took months to wade through them and reconstruct a plausible scenario of three years of shady transactions. This morning summaries of the documents appeared on MSZP’s website. On the basis of the documents, the losses the publicly-owned MVM suffered in three years may be as high as 100 billion forints. In November, the estimate was only half that much.

Some of the details that have emerged from these documents are truly bizarre. For example, MVM bought MET’s gas on the Austrian side and later gave it back to MET on the Hungarian side and charged only 2.3-3.5 ft./m³ for shipping. It is also clear from the documents that MVM’s claim that MVMP, the subsidiary created to be a retailer for MVM, was not experienced enough to do the actual buying and selling on the open market was an outright lie. MVMP did a brisk business already in 2011 and 2012 and bought gas for MVM 16.55 forints cheaper than MET did. It even happened that MVMP bought gas from MET on the Austrian side and sold it back to MET for a lower price. MVMP didn’t lose any money because the gas sold back to MET included some gas purchased from another company at a much lower price. From the documents it looks as if MVMP acted only as a “mailman” between MET and MVM. MVM didn’t lose money on its transactions with MET, but its own profit was minimal.

Viktor Orbán and István Garancsi

Viktor Orbán and István Garancsi

Since the documents were released only this morning, there hasn’t been much time to comb through the material. Moreover, Tóth and his experts on gas transactions figure that perhaps 1,000 documents are still missing, without which the picture is far from complete. Still, the skeleton of the story is there. The Orbán government used the power of the state and its ability to change laws to pass public money to private individuals.

One of the owners of MET, by the way, is István Garancsi, who is described as the new Lajos Simicska. He is the owner of the Videoton Football League which, in turn, has close connections with the Ferenc Puskás Academy. Garancsi is considered to be one of Orbán’s frontmen. He is the one who just signed a contract with the Hungarian government to build the sites for the Aquatic World Championships to be held in 2017.

Another corrupt official: The minister of national development and his “businesses”

Today’s scandal involves the newly appointed minister of national development. In case you get confused with all the “national” stuff, this is the ministry that was led in the last couple of years by the mysterious Mrs. László Németh. The one nobody had heard of before and the one who had only a high school education.

In 2010 when the ministry was created it looked as if the minister initially appointed to head this new ministry was destined to play a major role in the affairs of the Orbán government. Viktor Orbán appointed his former professor and senior adviser Tamás Fellegi to the post. Fellegi, especially at the beginning, traveled madly back and forth between Beijing, Moscow, and Budapest. It was also this ministry that was supposed to handle the subsidies coming from the European Union. After a few months, however, Fellegi’s job of dealing with China and Russia was taken over by the prime minister himself and Péter Szijjártó, the young “genius” of Orbán’s inner circle. Fellegi resigned or was let go. Then came Mrs. Németh and with her a total lack of transparency about the activities of the department. She was presumably unable to handle such a high position in a “key ministry.” She was the only minister whose tenure Orbán decided to terminate this year.

The new minister is Miklós Seszták , a member of the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP). The appointment raised some eyebrows for at least two reasons. One was Seszták’s lack of any background in economics, finance, or administration. He is a small-town lawyer. Actually the only one in his hometown, Kisvárda (pop. 16,000), 22 km from the Ukrainian-Hungarian border. And the second problem was Seszták’s less than sterling record as a lawyer; he has been linked to some very shady business ventures.

Viktor Orbán had to be aware of Seszták’s participation in suspected corruption cases because at least since January 2013 his name had been all over the newspapers. Miklós Seszták was involved with an EU financed venture which the European Commission’s European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) found fraudulent. This was not the first time that the EU questioned the allocation of grants, but the Hungarian government normally protested or at least tried to explain them away. This time there was no question and the Orbán government did not contest the allegations.

The story goes as follows. There were five companies that received 21.25 billion forints from the EU to develop broadband internet access. But there was a bit of a problem. All five companies were established only a couple of weeks before they applied for the grant and some of the owners overlapped. In addition, Seszták happened to be a member of the board of one of these companies, Enternet Invest Zrt.

Miklós Seszták / Photo MTI

Miklós Seszták / Photo MTI

Miklós Seszták has considerable experience in establishing companies; as it turned out, his services were used to set up over 800 bogus companies in the last decade. The story goes back to 2005 when Figyelő, a respectable paper dealing with business and finance, reported that these companies were all registered under two addresses in Kisvárda where Miklós Seszták had his law office. When the reporter visited the two family houses, they found a middle-aged woman, Erzsébet Kovács, who hailed from Ukraine. When asked, Kovács announced that she is handling an international business venture that concentrates on direct marketing. The business has partners in ninety different countries and for easier communication and flow of goods it was necessary to register these foreign nationals in Hungary just as the Hungarian companies are registered in those countries where they have business interests. When the reporter inquired from APEH, the tax office, he was told that everything was in perfect order with these companies. Nothing illegal was going on. It seems that APEH did not find it odd that all the owners of these companies were citizens of countries outside the European Union. Russians and Ukrainians.

By 2009 Index found that the largest “company cemetery” was in Kisvárda. Why are they called “company cemeteries”? Because not long after their establishment and registration they disappear. In one of the Kisvárda addresses four-fifths of the 550 companies were already liquidated while at the other address three-fourths of the 201 companies were gone.

According to Index‘s updated account, 700-800 companies were registered at three different addresses in Kisvárda. Index claims that the “company cemeteries” were still functioning between 2007 and 2009, by which time four-fifths of them were liquidated, leaving substantial debts behind. All three buildings belong to Miklós Seszták. In one of them, in addition to the phony businesses, one could find until recently the local Fidesz office.

Establishing phony companies must have been a lucrative business. At least Seszták did very well financially in the last decade or so. It was only in 1996 that he opened his law office in Kisvárda, and he couldn’t have amassed a fortune from an ordinary small-town practice. Yet today he is one of the richest members of parliament.

LMP, Együtt-PM, DK, and Jobbik are demanding Seszták’s resignation. MSZP has said nothing as yet. What will happen? I assume what normally happens when a Fidesz scandal hits the newsstands. Fidesz acts if nothing has happened. They are sure that eventually the noise will die down and everything will go on its merry way, including Seszták’s appointment. And they are right. In any other country such scandals would have brought down the government years ago. But not in Orbán’s Hungary. I don’t know what is needed for the Hungarian people to wake up and say: no more!

Charles Gati: Hungary before the election–Interview

An Interview with Charles Gati of the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

[The interview, published in the January 2, 2014 issue of the weekly 168 Óra (168 Hours) and conducted by József Barát, was translated by Professor Gati for Hungarian Spectrum.]

József Baráth: Hungary is doing better. This is what we hear every day from Fidesz politicians. Some of them even demand better classification from global rating agencies and the resignation of the European Union’s finance commissioner. Looking at it from the United States: How’s Hungary doing these days?

Charles Gati: The Hungarian economy is at a standstill. It suffers from policies of re-centralization and re-nationalization. The global credit agencies issue their ratings on the basis of available numbers. Some presumably make mistakes – after all, human beings always do – but together they reflect a factual condition: that Hungary has come to occupy the last place among the Visegrad Four. The situation could change for the better only if the government no longer stood in the way of Western investments, recognized the advantages of European integration, and prepared the country for the introduction of the euro.

JB: The Hungarian government is no longer criticized so frequently in the United States as in the past. Does this mean that American officials and observers see positive changes? Or is it only that Washington has lost interest, perhaps accepting the view that Hungary belongs to that part of Europe where the values of democracy and the rule of law don’t matter so much and therefore outsiders can’t make a difference?

CG: As far as I know officials don’t see such “positive changes,” and no one has written off Hungary’s democratic potential. Yet, for now, they don’t expect to convince the current Hungarian government any more than they could convince the current government of Ukraine of the values and advantages of Western-style democracy. Given the ingrained optimism of Washington officials, you won’t hear them state it like this but their deeds reflect considerable skepticism. Far more important, however, is Washington’s preoccupation with the agonizing problems of the Middle East.

JB: Tamás Fellegi, a former member of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s cabinet, is conducting a public relations campaign in Washington to improve Hungary’s image in the United States. He’s reaching out to Hungarian-Americans. Does he have a chance to influence American public opinion?

CG: I’m aware of the campaign run by Mr. Fellegi, but I’m not familiar with the specifics of  his outreach to Hungarian-Americans. I do know that several Washington think-tanks  received contributions from his so-called “Hungarian Initiative Foundation,” which is supported by a $15 million grant from Hungarian taxpayers. In exchange, I presume, Fellegi himself and various pro-Fidesz speakers have been invited to lecture or participate in panel discussions at various forums. I attended one such lecture by György Schöpflin, a Fidesz-member of the European parliament, that was quite successful. Of the twenty or so invited guests, about half were officials of the Hungarian Embassy in Washington. As for substance, these speakers often advance the same view as the one Fidesz promotes: that it’s [the far-right] Jobbik rather than the [right-wing] Fidesz government that opposes Hungarian democracy. They say or suggest that Fidesz, by defending national values against Western “colonialism,” weakens Jobbik’s base, and therefore the West should support rather than criticize Orbán’s Fidesz-led government. This is what one hears from Fellegi, Schöpflin, as well as from Katrina Lantos Swett (daughter of the late Tom Lantos who heads the Lantos Foundation in the US and the Lantos Institute in Budapest, and who sees his father’s legacy differently from me and for that matter from what I think his father’s view would be).  By focusing on Jobbik,  Anne Applebaum, a respected American journalist,  promotes this interpretation, too. To answer your question directly, then, I don’t believe this campaign by officials and fellow-travelers of the Orbán government falls on fertile soil here.

JB: Many are surprised that there isn’t greater resistance in Hungary to the government restricting the rule of law, curtailing the system of checks and balances, and even proceeding with the expansion of funding its clients from the state budget. How do you assess this tendency?

CG: Applebaum’s recent book, Iron Curtain, offers an account of the strategy employed after World War II by Hungarian [and other East-Central European] Communists and their Soviet advisers, a strategy aimed at the immediate capture of the press which at that time meant the Radio, above all. Leaders of Fidesz have learned from Lenin; after gaining power in 2010, they conquered key positions in the press, notably television and radio, so much so that lots of Hungarians didn’t and still don’t realize what’s going on around them. So while internet helps somewhat and there are still independent papers, freedom of the press no longer exists. Those who need information most – people in the countryside who hear and watch one-sided news accounts and one-sided opinions on government-controlled stations – don’t seem to take advantage of what’s available on the internet. Moreover, businessmen as a group appear to be afraid of supporting independent or opposition voices. All in all, the attack against [Western-style pluralist] democracy in 2010 was both sudden and devastating, and much of the public have yet to wake up to the new political environment.

JB: Viktor Orbán claims that European politics should be renewed on the basis of his prescriptions. Could he find followers in Europe? Is the process of European integration endangered by Hungarian government policies?

CG: He has no followers in Europe for now. The British, Lithuanian, and Polish governments — the latter primarily because of domestic circumstances — are somewhat “understanding” of Viktor Orbán, but on a variety of issues they don’t agree with him. As for integration, it isn’t in danger of being reversed. Some countries try to slow down the ongoing processes, partly to protect their sovereign existence, partly to protect their power, but the deepening if not the widening of European integration continues unabated.

JB: There will be election this year in Hungary. Do you think the divided opposition has a chance of winning?

CG: I gave 168 Óra an interview exactly two years ago. Looking back, I note with pleasure that the right-wing press chose one sentence from that interview and attacked me for it thousands of times since. In a long and hysterical editorial,  the government daily Magyar Nemzet went so far as to curse me and members of my family as well. I note this with pleasure because not only friends but people of common sense have responded to these attacks by sending me encouraging emails. The sentence in question was this: “I agree with Palmer [the late US Ambassador to Hungary Mark Palmer who served there from 1986 to 1990]: there are possibilities for the removal of this government by democratic means if possible, by other means if that’s not possible.” The meaning of the sentence is clear: If the government stands in the way of free election, the people have the right to protect their democratic rights, restore the well-tested system of checks and balances, as well as freedom of the press and religion. Two years later I can only repeat what I said in 2012.  But, with a view toward the approaching election, I can add that while the new electoral law that the Fidesz super-majority in parliament passed strongly favors Fidesz, I still hope the election will be free. I can’t tell how the opposition will do, but I note that the number of undecided voters is very high indeed.

JB: We keep hearing that Gordon Bajnai has influential American supporters — though, truth be told, we hear this primarily from Fidesz propagandists. Are there significant American interest groups that are prepared to help one or another side in Hungarian politics?

CG: Such “significant interest groups” exist only in minds suffering both from delusions of grandeur and a persecution complex. There are no conspiracies against Hungary if for no other reason but because America is otherwise preoccupied. The government press has claimed, for example, that I work with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on trying to overthrow the legitimate Hungarian government. Too bad I’ve never even met Mrs. Clinton. Never. As for Gordon Bajnai, he has made a very good impression during his visits to Washington and New York. Over the years I heard three or four of his lectures about European integration. I also know that he had a chance to meet with high officials and respected analysts. I can say the same about Attila Mesterházy’s valuable lectures and conversations as he also visits the US quite regularly. It’s too bad the Hungarian Press Agency and most of the Hungarian press seldom or perhaps never report on Bajnai’s and Mesterházy’s successful encounters in America.

JB: Could Fidesz win again with a two-third majority?

CG: It received 53 percent of the vote in 2010, which resulted in a two-third super-majority in parliament. I expect a tough match this year.

JB: According to some interpretations of the new electoral law, even 30 percent popular support might translate into a two-third parliamentary majority — if the opposition is divided.

CG: This is a possibility, but months before the [Spring 2014] election such pessimism is unwarranted. Don’t forget that I’ve lived in America for 57 years…

JB: What do you expect to happen if Fidesz wins? What’s more likely: will Orbán pursue policies of consolidation, or strengthen his one-man rule?

CG: Fidesz is Viktor Orbán’s party. Some of his colleagues may be grumpy, especially those who expected higher positions or greater influence, but there’s no principled opposition to him. His one-man rule could be influenced by economic trends and by the European Union.

JB: There are those who believe that it could take generations before Hungary returns to European values. Do you agree with them?

Gati-168

CG: I couldn’t disagree more. Permit me to mention only one example from Hungarian history. Who would have thought around, say, 1860 that a Ferenc Deák would soon emerge with the idea that a grand compromise [with Austria] had to be the nation’s primary goal and that the necessary political capital for such a goal was within reach? What followed at the turn of the 19th-20th century was the construction of Budapest’s most lasting, most beautiful buildings and boulevards. And what an extraordinary cultural boom took place at the same time! Deák also understood that the economy needed the talents of Jewish and German-speaking citizens, and he recognized their rights. It’s often said that he was “the nation’s wise man.” He was. And he held up the example of Hungary for all of Europe!

Deák’s wisdom is missing from Hungarian politics today. This is so because the emphasis all too often is on “heroism,” not on prudence. But heroism in 21st century Europe is old hat, an outworn value, since there’s no immediate enemy.  Hungary has never enjoyed such a favorable international environment.

JB: There are critics.

CG: There are critics, of course. Their criticism shouldn’t be met with vindictive, ad hominem attacks, but with serious adjustments in the realms of both domestic and foreign policies. That’s when Hungary’s image would begin to improve.  In this connection, let me recall the memory of Nelson Mandela. Once a most radical, uncompromising  leader, Mandela emerged from 27 years in jail promoting tolerance. He sought coexistence between whites and blacks. Let’s also remember than the political prisoner and his jailer received — together — the Nobel Peace Prize. Hungary will do well when wise leaders appear on the political scene who will not only respect their opponents but are able to lift the country from its last place to Europe’s premier class — even if it means that they must shelve their own political past, even if it means painful compromises.

 

 

The Orbán government and the international Jewish community

Today’s topics are seemingly unrelated: the lobbying activities of Tamás Fellegi in Washington and the Orbán government’s proposal to establish another Holocaust Memorial in Budapest.

On November 8, in my piece on the new American ambassador to Budapest, I mentioned Fellegi’s lobbying efforts. I also gave a link to the article by Lili Bayer of politics.hu that detailed his activities. For those who didn’t read her article, here’s the upshot. Fellegi is the Hungarian government’s chief lobbyist in the United States who simultaneously heads a U.S. foundation which claims that its leadership is independent of the Hungarian government. The complicated setup of three different organizations is most likely designed to get around U.S. tax laws regarding the nonprofit status of  an organization funded by a foreign government. In order to understand this complicated story, one really ought to go to Bayer’s article.

Here, however, I would like to concentrate on something else, the targets of Fellegi’s lobbying activities. According to the document filed with the U.S. Justice Department, Fellegi’s lobbying  activities include building and developing contacts in “Congress, the Executive Branch, think tanks, the investment community, the Jewish community, and the Hungarian-American community.” What struck many of us was the inclusion on this list of “the Jewish community.” What does the Orbán government hope to achieve by trying to influence U.S. Jewish organizations and individuals?

And that leads me to the latest government effort to influence the international Jewish community, perhaps even Israel, by demonstrating its commitment to bringing into the open the atrocities the Hungarian Jewish community suffered in the past. And naturally, to show that the current Hungarian government is doing everything in its power to curb anti-Semitism, a constant topic in the foreign media.

I don’t think they can fool ordinary Hungarian citizens of Jewish ancestry, but they might succeed when it comes to the official Hungarian Jewish organizations. Perhaps they can even impress the state of Israel. And obviously the Orbán government decided to target the American Jewish community. Fellegi as a lobbyist was an excellent choice because he is a Jew, and he makes sure that everybody in the American Jewish community is aware of that fact. I might add that another member of the group, Gábor Róna, is also Jewish. He was once secretary of the Council of Europe’s program against racism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia. The third person is Péter Heltai, who is not Jewish; he was reported to have been an informant for the Romanian Securitate.

So, let’s move back to Budapest where a mega-project is underway. Out of the blue, with unusual speed and a lot of money the Hungarian government doesn’t have, the decision was made to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust with a new museum. Spearheading the “Hungarian Holocaust Memorial Council 2014” is János Lázár. And overseeing the project is Mária Schmidt, director of the House of Terror where only one room out of dozens is devoted to the Hungarian Holocaust and its 400-500,000 victims as opposed to the few thousand victims of the Hungarian communist period. Moreover, Schmidt has rather odd ideas on Hitler, the war, and the Final Solution. Here are a couple of examples: “We stayed on the side of Nazi Germany in order to defend the Hungarian Jewry.” Or, “It was Germany that forced the 1938-1939 anti-Jewish laws on Hungary.” Both are false.

The site of the new museum will be an old, abandoned sideline railroad station in Józsefváros (Josefstadt), the notorious VIII. district, that badly needs refurbishing. It will be called the “Sorsok háza,” which most Hungarians understand to mean “House of Fate.” The word “sors” also appears in the title of Imre Kertész’s Nobel Prize-winning book: Sortalanság/Fateless. Some naturally objected to Lázár’s choice of Mária Schmidt. My distinct impression, having heard her talk about her ideas for the project on György Bolgár’s program, was that Schmidt will try her best to inflate the number of Hungarians who risked their own lives helping their Jewish compatriots.

The future site of a new Holocaust memorial devoted only to child victims / Józsefváros Railway Station

The future site of a new Holocaust memorial devoted to child victims
Józsefváros Railway Station

Others objected to the name of the museum, saying that it wasn’t fate that destined these people to be transported to Auschwitz and other concentration camps. Rather, it was the decision of the Hungarian authorities who were eager to rid the country of its Jewish citizens. Still others couldn’t figure out why this particular station was picked as the site of the future museum since almost no transports left for Auschwitz from it.

I should mention that in order to justify creating another Holocaust Museum instead of giving more generous support to the existing one this new museum will be specifically devoted to the children who were victims of the Holocaust. Lázár explained the choice this way. “We chose the ‘child Holocaust’ as the theme because we were trying to find a point which cannot be relativized: no explanation, no answer can be accepted when it comes to the murder of a child.” As if the murder of adults can be relativized or explained. Some people commented that if Lázár had made such a statement in another country he would have had to turn in his resignation.

It’s an open question whether it is at all possible to finish the project by April–this date is no coincidence, since that’s when the election most likely will take place. But the members of the advisory board have already been chosen: Anne Applebaum (journalist), Annette Lantos (widow of Tom Lantos), Chava Baruch (Yad Vashem), Gabriel Gorodetsky (Oxford), György Haraszti (historian, Hungarian Jewish University), András Heisler (Mazsihisz), Joshua Muravchik (Johns Hopkins), Michael Wolffsohn (Universität der Bundeswehr), Rabbi Andrew Baker (American Jewish Committee), Mária Schmidt (House of Terror), János Szász (film director), and Yehudit Shendar (Yad Vasem). According to András Heisler of Mazsihisz, some of the members expressed sharp criticisms. He didn’t elaborate.

It is unlikely that these people can have much influence on the whole process. After all, there are only four and a half months before the planned opening. As you can see from the picture, the station is in very bad shape. Moreover, the inhabitants of the 23 service apartments within the building must be evacuated and provided with comparable or better apartments. All that takes time. Restoring the building will cost 6.6 billion forints, and then there are still the expenses involved in transforming it into a functioning museum. As a point of comparison, the Hungarian government gives only 240 million forints a year to the Holocaust Memorial Center on Páva utca.

I don’t know why the government is establishing a new museum and why in such a hurry. I don’t know why the Orbán government is lobbying American Jewish organizations. All I can say is that it never acts without a good, self-interested reason. Perhaps in time that reason will become more transparent.

New American ambassador in Budapest

I will devote today’s post to U.S.-Hungarian relations. At last the White House appointed a new ambassador to replace Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis, whose tenure as U.S. ambassador to Hungary came to an end in July.

I devoted at least three posts to her less than sterling ambassadorship. In passing I also talked about her predecessor, April H. Foley, who was totally under the spell of Viktor Orbán and János Martonyi and hence had a very bad relationship with the socialist-liberal Hungarian government.  These two as well as their predecessors were so-called political appointees with no prior experience in diplomacy and no prior knowledge of the country in which they served. In September I introduced Colleen Bell, the producer of a very successful daytime soap, as the possible next U.S. ambassador in Budapest. And indeed, it is official: Ms Bell will soon be in Budapest. Right now, I’m certain, she is being prepped by the officials of the State Department. I can well imagine how difficult it must be to cram all the basic information about the past and present of a country one most likely knew nothing about a couple of months ago. I mean that in all sincerity. Of course, she will have a large staff of professionals who will help her along, but it still won’t be easy.

I wonder whether she is fully aware of the depth of the strained relations between Washington and Budapest, which hit a new low two days ago, exactly when Bell was appointed ambassador. The U.S. embassy in Budapest published the following press release:

The United States strongly condemns the shameful event organized by Jobbik, a Hungarian political party identified with ethnic hatred and anti-Semitism, to unveil a bust honoring Nazi ally Miklos Horthy, Hungary’s leader during World War II, at the entrance to the Hungarian Reformed Church at the edge of Szabadsag ter in Budapest on November 3.  Those who organized and participated in the event, including members of Hungary’s Parliament, promoted not only their own intolerance, but also a dramatically negative image of Hungary.  Although the significant number of counter-demonstrators showed there is strong opposition to the organizers’ views, and members of the Hungarian government have expressed disapproval, an event such as this requires swift, decisive, unequivocal condemnation by Hungary’s highest ranking leaders.

Seasoned reporters don’t remember such a strongly worded communiqué from the United States government in the longest time. In this press release the U.S. is calling on Viktor Orbán himself to condemn what happened on Szabadság tér. For the time being we haven’t heard anything from either Viktor Orbán or his deputies Tibor Navracsics and Zsolt Semjén. I am expecting an official silence, which will further strain the relations between the two countries.

U.S. Embassy, Szabadság tér, Budapest Source: commons.wikipedia.org

U.S. Embassy, Szabadság tér, Budapest
Source: commons.wikipedia.org

Of course, we all know that the warning comes straight from the State Department. Perhaps with the change of personnel that occurred after John Kerry took over the post of secretary of state, the State Department decided to be tougher on the Orbán government than it had been in the last three years. Perhaps they began to realize in Washington that the Orbán team doesn’t understand the polite language of diplomacy. One must be plain spoken and hard hitting with the man. As an old acquaintance of Orbán said, the Hungarian prime minister is basically a bellicose coward who when meeting strong resolve and firm resistance on the other side usually retreats. At least temporarily.

Gábor Horváth, one of the editors of Népszabadság, wrote an editorial in today’s paper in which he expressed his sympathy for the incoming ambassador who might not be aware of the difficulties she will face in Budapest. Horváth for a number of years was the paper’s correspondent in Washington, and therefore he is thoroughly familiar with the Washington scene. In his opinion, the millions of dollars the Hungarian government is spending in Washington are a total waste: the Orbán government’s reputation is irreparably ruined due to Viktor Orbán’s policies and behavior. And the government does indeed spend a lot of money lobbying “in Congress, the Executive Branch, think tanks, the investment community, the Jewish community, and the Hungarian-American community.” For details on the lobbying activities of Tamás Fellegi, former minister of national development, see politics.hu’s exclusive by Lili Bayer.

Horváth thinks that the ambassador will have difficulties establishing a cordial relationship with the Hungarian government. I agree with him, with one correction. She will have no difficulty establishing a working relationship with János Martonyi, the minister of foreign affairs, but that will not take her very far. Martonyi will assure her that everything is just fine and dandy and that what she and her staff see is not really so. But all this means nothing because the conduct of foreign policy is not in the hands of Martonyi. The semi-official organ of the government, Magyar Nemzet, only today accused the United States of spying on Viktor Orbán and his government in order to pass on information to the socialist-liberal opposition. So, this is where we stand. I hope the new ambassador will understand the workings of the Hungarian government because otherwise she will be truly lost.

“For you only death is the proper punishment.” Zsolt Bayer on Jews and liberals

Before I tackle today’s topic I would like to call everybody’s attention to Professor Kim Scheppele’s article on the Hungarian government’s attempt to silence the Hungarian Constitutional Court, which lately has found several pieces of legislation unconstitutional. The title of her piece is “Constitutional Revenge”; it appeared on Paul Krugman’s blog in The New York Times. You can read it at

http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/03/01/guest-post-constitutional-revenge/

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I’m afraid I have to write again about the infamous Zsolt Bayer, a scribbler of extremist views. There are tabloid journalists like Bayer everywhere, but Zsolt Bayer is not a run-of-the-mill hack. He holds the #5 membership card of Fidesz. (László Kövér, president of the Hungarian parliament, holds the #1 card.) So, he was one of the original members of the tightly-knit group that eventually transformed their student association into a large and powerful party.

On February 27 Tamás Fellegi, former minister of economic development and minister without portfolio in charge of the nonexistent IMF negotiations, testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs (Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations) about “Anti-Semitism: A Growing Threat to All Faiths.” The complete text of his testimony can be read on this blogHere I would like to quote only a couple of sentences from Fellegi’s testimony:

 One should not really argue that certain writings by journalists associated with the center­‐right, such as the infamous commentaries of Zsolt Bayer, cannot be deemed as racist. It is also a fact that there are people associated with the center­‐right political community who support the rehabilitation of the historic period of Admiral Horthy. I am personally against his rehabilitation, and that applies to a wide range of political and literary figures of that era.

Please pay attention to the careful wording. He admits that Zsolt Bayer is considered to be associated with Fidesz–in Fellegi’s word “the center-right”–and that he is a racist. Mind you, Fellegi’s sentence construction is rather complicated, most likely in order to muddy the waters. He also makes it clear that this opinion is his alone. He didn’t say what I think he should have said, that “my party considers Zsolt Bayer a racist and therefore the leadership decided to disassociate itself from him.”

On the very same day that Fellegi testified in Washington about the excellent record of the Orbán government in its resolute fight against antisemitism, Zsolt Bayer celebrated his 50th birthday with friends at the Barabás Villa in Budapest. László Kövér delivered a  toast to Bayer, stating that they “had spent twenty-five years together, through thick and thin and in sadness and joy. Not once have we disowned each other, and we never will.” That is clear, isn’t it.

Zsolt Bayer, who played a key role in organizing the Peace Marches that Viktor Orbán found so critical to his political self-preservation, is an important man as far as the Orbán government is concerned. And if Bayer didn’t know that before Kövér’s endorsement, he certainly knows it now. And he became emboldened. Three days later came a new article in Magyar Hírlap where Bayer is a senior contributor.

As usual, translating Zsolt Bayer is hellishly difficult. The title of the article poses problems already. “Önsorsrontás” is close to untranslatable as one word. Basically it means that “we ourselves are responsible for our future demise.” The “we” here is “the white, Christian race.” Although Bayer never uses the words “Jew” or “Jewish,” he notes that those who have been doing everything in their power to ruin that white Christian race have been at it ever since 1919. I think the date is significant. After all, this marks the short rule of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, which is considered by the right a “Jewish affair.”

And there is another sinful group in every country–the generation of the 1968 “mummies” who complain about the “fascism that is living with us.” Their complaints about the far right and its dangers are merely a “self-justification” for their existence. These people (Jews, liberals?) organize themselves “in packs and attack their victims like loathsome drooling hyenas.” And here comes a typical Zsolt Bayer sentence: “For you only death is the proper punishment. Because you believe in death, in public executions while your victims are left alone, go bankrupt, their friends deny them, they lose their jobs, and come to a sorry end. This is your goal.” Therefore their sins are immeasurable and they will be punished. Because these mysterious people don’t realize “what monster [they] are trying to resuscitate. In fact, [they] woke him up already.”

Hyena pack

Hyena pack

All that sounds pretty threatening, but then comes the twist. “You don’t foresee yet that it will be only we who raise our voices in your defense. We, the marked victims. We are the only ones to whom you can turn for help. It will be only we who will hide you. Because we are good to the point of ruining ourselves. And take this all very seriously. You miserable ones.”

This is not Jobbik speaking but one of the founders of Fidesz who is assured that he will always be among the chosen. Therefore, it really doesn’t matter what Tamás Fellegi personally thinks of Zsolt Bayer or how much János Martonyi complains about “the anti-Hungarian hysterical propaganda that tries to make Fidesz an extension of the racist Jobbik.”

Only recently Ian Kelly, American ambassador to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, stated that the American government expected the Hungarian government to condemn Zsolt Bayer for his antisemitic and anti-Gypsy writings because of the documented connection between hate speech and crimes against humanity. The Hungarian government didn’t move a finger. Fellegi’s testimony therefore is worth absolutely nothing. Can you imagine what the members of this subcommittee would think if they could read the writings of the owner of the #5 membership card of Fidesz, the party of the “center-right”  Fellegi is so proud of?

An open letter to Tamás Fellegi

An open letter to Tamás Fellegi in Washington

The reason for our open letter is that Tamás Fellegi, former minister of national development, minister in charge of the IMF negotiations and adviser to Viktor Orbán,  spoke before the members of the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations of the Committee on Foreign Affairs.

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Gyömrő, February 27, 2013

Dear Mr. Fellegi,

You claimed prior to your appearance before the congressional committee that all democratic forces in Hungary stand in unison against antisemitism and that not one of the mainstream political parties in Hungary is antisemitic or racist.

You were quoted as saying that it is very hard for a country to be shielded against racism, including antisemitism, and indeed you are right, especially if one considers that in the preamble of the new constitution the present Hungarian government considers itself the direct successor to the Horthy regime while it does not take responsibility for the most important events of the Hungarian Holocaust, including the deportations of Jewish citizens. Or, when the Kossuth Square in front of the Hungarian parliament building is being refashioned as it was in 1944, the worst year of the Holocaust.

It is difficult to confront racism and antisemitism when our minister in charge of education and culture, Zoltán Balog, and the deputy speaker of the House, Sándor Lezsák, while still in opposition unveiled the statue of Ottokár Prohászka, Catholic bishop and member of parliament, who was the author of Europe’s first racist legislation, the so-called Numerus Clausus of 1920 that made antisemitism part of the Hungarian legal system.

In the new constitution Christianity is mentioned as Hungary’s only religious heritage, excluding other faiths, while Hungarian Reformed Bishop Gusztáv Bölcskei unveiled a plaque honoring Regent Miklós Horthy, who bears the foremost responsibility for the Hungarian Holocaust. He did that in the presence of a banned neo-Nazi paramilitary organization called Magyar Gárda. And this celebration took place in the famous Reformed College of Debrecen where many of the greats of Hungarian culture studied: the sin of the Holocaust is elevated to the status of memorials to János Arany, Mihály Vitéz Csokonai, and Zsigmond Móricz.

How can societal memory function when the government maintains a Holocaust Institute but at the same time an undersecretary and a Fidesz mayor collect donations for a statue of Miklós Horthy in Budapest?

The Hungarian Parliament enacted a law mandating that all public places and organizations that are named after people whose ideology is not to the liking of the current government must be changed. We are not talking about politicians connected to the Rákosi or Kádár regimes but those who had anything to do with the trade union movement or early social democracy. At the same time there are more and more streets being named after people who are responsible for the anti-Jewish laws of the 1920s and 1930s or the Holocaust. In the last two decades at least a dozen institutions have been named after Ottokár Prohászka. The situation is the same with racist and antisemitic politicians, for example Prime Minister Pál Teleki. Statues and streets carry his name. He was prime minister when the Numerus Clausus was enacted and he was responsible for the text of the second and third anti-Jewish laws. There are at least 50 statues of the antisemitic Albert Wass who was condemned to death in absentia as a war criminal in Romania after the war. József Nyirő, who was an admirer of Hitler and who remained a member of the Hungarian parliament even after the Arrow Cross take-over, was reburied at government expense, an event organized by László Kövér. By that act Kövér violated the Romanian law banning the adulation of war criminals. A law that doesn’t exist in Hungary.

Miklós Horthy, who bears a major responsibility for the Holocaust, was reburied in the presence of several government officials and members of parliament in 1993. A member of that government was Péter Boross, an open sympathizer with the Horthy regime, who is the chairman of the National Memorial and Reverence Committee. In Kenderes, a small town where the Horthy family’s residence is situated, there is a permanent exhibition in which Horthy’s role in the Holocaust is not even mentioned. Today in Kenderes there is official Holocaust denial. On the other hand, one can hear a lot of irredentist propaganda from the tour guides.

In 2000 Hungary signed the Declaration of the Stockholm International Holocaust Forum that obliged the signatories, including Hungary, to teach and disseminate information about the events of the Holocaust. The state of affairs described above doesn’t jibe with these declared obligations.

Gyomro Horthy ter

Miklós Horthy Square, Kereki / Photo by Martin Fejér (estost.net)

Since Miklós Horthy’s reburial in Kenderes eight towns honored the former governor either by erecting statues or by naming public places after him–Szeged, Páty, Csókakő, Kereki, Gyömrő, Debrecen, Harc, Kunhegyes–as well as three districts in Budapest. Most of these occurred in 2012. While irredentist national flags (országzászlók), the so-called Árpád-striped flags recalling the Arrow Cross Party of Ferenc Szálasi, are prominently displayed in several towns and villages, the government organized an exhibit in the Holocaust Center about the very same flag’s role in the Holocaust.

For a number of years the Military Museum has organized a remembrance for the “Day of the Breakthrough” of German and Hungarian troops from the Hungarian capital that was surrounded by Soviet troops. Sometimes the day is called the “Day of Honor,” borrowing the term from the Waffen-SS’s motto. On the wall of the museum is a plaque honoring the gendarmes who were entrusted with the deportation of the Hungarian Jews in the summer of 1944. All this is happening while the Criminal Code (§269/C) states that the denial of the Holocaust is a punishable act.

Hungary thus disgraces the memory of the Holocaust and denies the responsibility of the Hungarian state and societyHow can the country integrate itself into the European culture of remembrance this way? How can one government undersecretary attend a Holocaust Memorial while another collects money for a Horthy statue? How can they dedicate a year of remembrance to Raoul Wallenberg while the works of racist, antisemitic writers are made part of the school curriculum? Or how can someone–namely Ottokár Prohászka–be deemed a propagator of antisemitic ideas by the Holocaust Center while at least a dozen mostly educational institutions bear his name?

You claim that only the far-right Jobbik is an antisemitic party. However, open neo-Nazi  demagoguery goes on unchecked in the Hungarian Parliament even from an MP who happens to be the editor-in-chief of a weekly magazine. The banned Magyar Gárda can parade in military formation with government permission. The government with a two-thirds majority doesn’t move a finger to enforce the law on hate speech.

While in December Antal Rogán, a leading member of the government party, stood by the demonstrators against the infamous Márton Gyöngyösi (Jobbik) who suggested keeping lists of Jews, in February another important member of Fidesz, Lajos Kósa, mayor of Debrecen, made one of the cultural institutions of the city available for Gyöngyösi to deliver a lecture there.

We ask Tamás Fellegi to admit that in Hungary there is a glorification, with the active assistance of the government, of those responsible for the Holocaust. Admit that Hungary is incapable of admitting responsibility for the death of 600,000 Hungarian victims. Admit that Hungary is incapable of recognizing the danger of neo-Nazi ideology fostered by legislators. The Hungarian government is idly watching the ever increasing racism that once already ended in a series of murders. This is a greater problem than the racism of one party.

We ask you to take legislative steps to end the glorification of people who are responsible for the HolocaustMiklós Horthy, Ferenc Szálasi and members of the government between 1941 and 1945 in addition to those who voted for the Numerus Clausus, among them Ottokár Prohászka and Pál Teleki, and all those who took an active part in spreading racist ideologies, for example Albert Wass, József Nyirő, and Cécile Tormay. Memorials, places suitable for pilgrimages by extremists, plaques, and museums devoted to war criminals should be removed and their erection in the future forbidden.

According to the Declaration of the Stockholm International Forum it is the Holocaust Memorial Center and the Hungarian school system that are responsible for documenting Hungarian events accurately. We can remember these events on international and Hungarian days of remembrance without a denial of the past and without the glorification of those responsible.

Környezet-, Ifjúság- és Gyermekvédelmi Egyesület (KIGYE), Gyömrő /A civic group that protested the renaming a park Miklós Horthy Park