Tag Archives: TASZ

“Observer”: The Stop Soros bills–Hopefully only propaganda and nonsense

On 18 January the Hungarian government revealed its “Stop Soros​”’ package of three bills (SSB) targeting civil organizations “supporting illegal immigration:

–  Law on the social responsibility of organizations supporting illegal migration;
–  Law on immigration financing duty;
–  Law on immigration restraint order.

The disgraceful act made news around the world and sparked wide spread criticism from Al Jazeera and Bloomberg to Reuters and Yahoo and the alphabet in between.

There have been many bits of news and comments, which I would like to summarize for Hungarian Spectrum  here, including some parts of the SSB itself (in the unofficial English translation) and in Hungarian.

The Propaganda

The SSB package was tabled by the Interior Minister, but contrary to constitutional law, the so-called public debate is being managed by Antal Rogán’s “propaganda ministry,” which in the meantime is flooding the country with another tsunami of Stop Soros posters.

The preambles, descriptions, and justifications of the SSB repeat many of the government propaganda panels, the language of the preamble is uncannily reminiscent of the 1960s communist one: “The state has a duty to ensure the survival of the nation and to create a solid basis for future generations. It is the primary obligation and also the right of the Hungarian state to protect its citizens and our national culture. Recognizing the emergency, the Hungarian government has spent HUF 270 billion* from the budget to stop immigration.” ( The original budget for the fence was set at 20 billion.)

“Soros would resettle millions from Africa and the Middle East”

That is followed by another communist turn – the listing of the nefarious and damaging activities carried out by “the enemies within,” to use the old cliché, against the state, including “propaganda,” as any dissenting opinion or fact-finding report is labeled. “Any activity intended to promote illegal immigration and to intensify the migratory pressure is against Hungarian state interest and also causes quantifiable damage to the budget. The migration propaganda assists smuggling organizations and puts illegal border-crossers … at risk. Therefore a regulation is needed that identifies organizations that support migration and takes action against persons who jeopardize national security.”

The government of course claims that it is responding to the call by the people, all the people, one is led to believe: “The creation of the legislative package has been authorized by the citizens of Hungary: 98% of participants in the referendum clearly rejected the mandatory quota and 2.3 million people expressed their clear opinion in the national consultation on the Soros Plan.”

The numbers are coming from the government “consultation” process, which, as with most acts of the Orbán regime, is non-transparent and without outside control or scrutiny. Even access to the returned forms was denied, save for the one-hour-for-three-sites granted to Ákos Hadházy, who came out convinced that the numbers were grossly exaggerated. The government stalled for weeks before coming up with a figure close to that of the Fid voters’ number, yet “based on these results, Hungarians unanimously demand strong action against illegal immigration and promote strengthened protection of the borders instead of settling [migrants in the country].”

For those who know the Stalinist times, the language is pretty poignant – i.e. the government obliged “the people” with the SSB, but according to Antal Rogán the people are actually calling for even stronger measures, as it transpires from the more than 400 suggestions his office has received.

The Legal Nonsense

Both the text and the provisions of the SSB exhibit signs of a slapdash job hatched at the “Propaganda Ministry,” where only the desired effects are clear.

Act on the social responsibility of organizations supporting illegal migration*

Sec.1: “… an association and foundation seated and registered in Hungary that sponsors the illegal entry, relocation and residence of a third-country national … directly or indirectly from financial or property benefits originating from abroad shall be qualified as an organization supporting illegal migration.” [OSIM]

There are some fundamental legal problems from the very start here – who and at which point in time an entity qualifies as an OSIM, what is the redress/appeal against such a designation. It’s a gaping legal hole which leaves the whole SSB hanging in the air.

Sec.2.1 stipulates an OSIM “is obliged to notify” the court, but this is after the entity has been qualified as an OSIM. In view of this, the widespread criticism of the act for obliging entities to report their own violations of the law is on shaky grounds, which I’m not going to pursue.

The fact that only associations and foundations are included, but not companies or other legal entities, indicates the intention to target the NGOs, violating the principle of equality before the law. The other issue is the bizarre category of entity supporting an illegal activity. Under western law illegal activities are prevented and restricted, offending entities are punished, e.g. by fines, placing the entity under management or liquidation, but there is no example of classifying them as functioning law breakers.

Sec. 2 uses phrases like “OSIM that supports in any other way,” “to facilitate the unlawful,” “sponsors or otherwise supports” which make for an extremely broad scope, allowing for the incrimination of an entity for one of its members handing out a bottle of water; note the interpretation of the preamble that “The migration propaganda assists smuggling organizations,” making all participants accomplices.

Sec. 3  stipulates that if a foreign funded organization supports in any way other Hungarian entities, such support “shall be qualified as indirect financial or property benefits deriving from abroad” i.e., making the local organization also foreign funded. Since there are no limits on how far eventual assistance will carry the “curse,” numerous entities co-operating in other matters can be drawn into the foreign-funded NGOs category with its implications under the earlier law on these.

How about Sec 2.4 prescribing that an OSIM post “ its notification pursuant to Section (1) on the website pursuant to Section 2(5)-(6) of the Transparency Act and [illetve] in the media” ?! This unique, ham-fisted attempt to force NGOs to publicly “humiliate” themselves leaves numerous questions open: in what media, in what format, for how long, at whose expense, etc. (The Hungarian “illetve” can only mean “and” here.)

According to Sec 5.2, “If the OSIM fails to meet its obligations contained in the prosecutor’s notice, the prosecutor may initiate at the registration court that a fine be imposed in double the amount of the financial benefit originating from abroad.” This provision mixes the criminal law under which the prosecution office operates with the administrative law regulating the Registration Court.

Act on the immigration financing duty

The same problem of mixing different kinds of law arises in this act as well, where the tax office is to collect (Sec.6) a duty on the basis of Sec. 2:  “The  organization supporting illegal migration is obliged to pay an immigration financing duty if…” Here we also have the absurd concept of an entity being categorized as an OSIM and then punished by a regular duty instead of being punished for the particular illegal act. And only if the entity received benefits from abroad, which again violates the principle of equality before the law.

Act on immigration restraining orders

There is some misunderstanding of this act, I’m afraid,  since it has been widely condemned for introducing an administrative provision to restrict the movement of Hungarians as well, e.g., illustrated by the example of an absurd 8 km zone around the Vigadó border entry point on the Danube in the center of Budapest. (The misinterpretation may have come from  Sec.2.a which refers to “ a member of Parliament” in the Hungarian text without specifying which parliament.)

All of the elements of the act consistently refer only to “aliens…[or] third country nationals,” presumably non-EU citizens:

According to sec. 1 regarding “third-country nationals, in order to conduct alien police procedures in an unhindered manner, the minister in charge of immigration and refugee affairs … may ban any person whose residence in Hungary is contrary to Hungary’s national security interests or who poses a danger to the public interest, from the frontiers or from within an 8-kilometer zone of the frontier marks of the external borders.”

The above would still include people with resident status in Hungary, like NGO employees or representatives, journalists, activists or tourists who otherwise would be difficult to handle or intimidate (unlike the local ones, as the government may have assumed).

There are some drastic provisions restricting the appeal/judicial recourse in sec. 5.3.  “An immigration restraining order may be challenged on account of a breach of the essential rules of the procedure in a public administrative lawsuit within eight days.”  That is, the material facts and the judgment of the minister are incontestable. It should be recalled that the Orbán government has been pushing for the creation of a separate administrative courts system. On top of this there is the provision that “provisional measures of legal protection are not available in the lawsuit,” i.e. the judge cannot change the detention, confiscation, etc. measures taken until the end of the process.

It is almost laughable to read Sec. 3 mentioning “the period of the crisis situation caused by mass migration,” which the government still keeps in force even though there have been almost no migrants at the borders for a year now.

Impact on the NGO sector

The SSB follows on the heels of the 2017 Act LXXVI NGO Law on foreign-funded  organizations, which the European Commission recently contested in the European Court of Justice, and emphasizes the general strategy to eliminate all independent  institutions, in this case the NGOs –the real goal of the huge and hysterical government campaign, along with the scare mongering – vote winning double whammy.

The TASZ (Civic Liberties Union) has summarized the expected impact very well:  “Following up on the 2017 NGO Law on foreign-funded organizations, the latest draft laws are potentially lethal blows to civil society in Hungary: their novelty is that the threat is now existential and also targets individuals. Should the proposals be adopted in spring 2018 without major changes, they will cause grave and irreparable damage to Hungarian civil society. By the end of 2018, a number of NGOs will be unable to function or carry out core work due to five direct and imminent threats to their mission.

I. Funding for essential services will be cut and driven away

  1. All foreign donors who directly or indirectly give funds to targeted Hungarian NGOs should calculate losses, as their funds will be partly (25% tax) or fully (200% fine) seized by the government;
  2. The risk of the government taxing funding in an arbitrary manner could make yet unaffected donors pull away from funding civil society in Hungary;
  3. Domestic funding for the work of the civil sector is largely available from public funds administered by national or local government agencies, which is already politically conditioned and discourages public advocacy or exposing faulty or inefficient public services.

II. Trust in civil society and willingness to seek assistance will decline

  1. Smear-campaigns, compliance procedures and investigations will further stigmatize and discredit NGOs by accusing them of performing illegal activities;
  2. Authorities would gain access to the data of all persons working for, contracted by or receiving assistance from NGOs, thus intimidating individuals from supporting, working for or seeking help from them;
  3. An estimated 80-85% of about 900-1,000 prominent NGOs risk losing public benefit status, i.e. tax-free status and other advantages. This will dramatically raise costs for NGOs and for clients, who will have to pay taxes after the value of free services/assistance (15% personal income tax + 19.5% health care tax).

III. Sanction procedures and targeted tax investigations drain and divert NGO resources

  1. NGOs that have refused to register under the 2017 Law on foreign-funded NGOs can expect to face legal procedures for non-compliance once they publish their annual financial reports at the end of May 2018. These procedures are likely to roll out during the summer and will further aggravate the pressure.
  2. Politically-motivated tax investigations could pave the way for repressive criminal prosecutions against NGO leaders and human rights defenders.

IV. Threatened by enhanced government surveillance measures, NGOs will be effectively silenced

  1. Human rights defenders who work with targeted organizations could be declared a national security risk and be subjected to arbitrary and unlawful restrictions on their freedom of movement;
  2. NGOs will have to assume their work and staff are being monitored by intelligence services, pressuring them into self-censorship and impacting their families;
  3. Stigmatizing civic groups and individuals as national security risks will have a chilling effect on other groups, supporters and clients by sending a clear message that at any point in time they could become targets as well.

V. Serious risk of ‘mimicry effect’ by potential Europe-wide copying of worst practices related to shrinking civic space l. The proposed laws could serve as a model within the EU to thwart the valuable work of civil society organizations that fight for the respect of human rights in the European Union, a danger that the EU Fundamental Rights Agency has recently underlined.”

The conclusion is not difficult to arrive at: “The recently announced anti-civil organization bill is deceitful, arbitrary and harmful. It is deceitful because it creates the appearance that its purpose is to stop illegal immigration, while in reality it wants to crush the entire civil society. It is arbitrary because the government seeks to determine what would constitute a problem for the people and who is entitled to solve it. In a democracy, this kind of restriction is unacceptable. Finally, the new act is harmful because removing public-interest status from  organizations that receive a majority of foreign support could result in all Hungarian citizens being deprived of free civil assistance.”

*The quoted passages are taken from the Hungarian Helsinki Committee’s unofficial translation of the Stop Soros laws.

January 9, 2018

Hungarian NGOs embrace civil disobedience

I don’t think anyone was surprised when two days ago the Hungarian parliament with its overwhelming, almost two-thirds Fidesz majority passed a law imposing strict regulations on foreign-funded non-governmental organizations. The law bears a suspicious resemblance to the 2012 Russian law that required groups that received funds from abroad to identify themselves as “foreign agents.” The Hungarian version is somewhat more “lenient.” The targeted NGOs don’t have to call themselves “foreign agents,” but they must bear the label that they are the recipients of foreign funds, which can be considered a stigma.

Defenders of the bill insist that there is nothing “discriminatory” in this new “civic law,” but, of course, this is not the case. If it were, there wouldn’t be so many “exceptions” to the rule. For example, churches and sports clubs are exempt. Fidesz politicians feel confident in capitalizing on how the Hungarian everyman reacts to anything foreign, especially after a series of anti-migrant campaigns that, as we know from polls, greatly increased xenophobia in the country. Just imagine an interview with the managing director of TASZ, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, in which either she must introduce herself or the reporter must introduce her as “the leader of a foreign-funded organization.”

Fidesz’s pretext for enacting such a law is the government’s alleged striving for more transparency and for preventing money laundering and the financing of terrorism. Anyone at all familiar with the work of such organizations as TASZ, the Hungarian Helsinki Commission, or Amnesty International, three NGOs that are specifically targeted by the government, knows that it is not money laundering that is bothering the Orbán government. Over the years these NGOs have become increasing irritants as far as the Orbán government is concerned. Every time the lawyers working for these NGOs suspect illegality they immediately turn to the courts, and they almost always win. As far as Fidesz and the Orbán government are concerned, this is an intolerable situation.

The government’s position is that human rights activists are not elected officials and therefore they have no right to act as a quasi-political opposition to the elected government. Of course, this argument is unacceptable in a democratic society where people can freely organize political associations on pro- or anti-government platforms. Even political parties fall into the same category. They are voluntary organizations ruled by their own by-laws and their own boards of directors. All these groups have the right to function freely as long as they act in a lawful manner. Fidesz has pretty well succeeded in making the other political parties inconsequential. But the NGOs refuse to go away or kowtow to the government. And so it was time, somehow or other, to get rid of these pesky civil rights activists with their highly qualified lawyers who keep poking their noses into the Orbán government’s dirty business.

Viktor Orbán hates these organizations, whom he considers in large measure responsible for many of his problems with the European Union, the European Court of Justice, and the European Court of Human Rights. If these organizations hadn’t existed, he wouldn’t have had half the problems he has had over the years with the European Commission.

With the anti-NGO law, Orbán is most likely convinced that the small, cosmetic alterations the government made by incorporating some of changes recommended by the Venice Commission will satisfy the European Commission, as similar superficial modifications to Hungarian laws satisfied the commissioners in the past. For a few days foreign papers will be full of articles condemning the undemocratic, illiberal Hungarian state and a few foreign governments will publish official statements expressing their disapproval of Orbán’s latest move, but nothing of substance will happen. In fact, in a couple of days everybody will forget about the bill and its consequences. Then, sometime in the future, the Orbán government will make another move against the NGOs. Because few observers believe that this will be the last attempt to get rid of the NGOs that stand in the way of the present Hungarian government.

Only a few hours after the enactment of the “civic law,” TASZ announced that it will not obey the law, i.e. it will not register as the law demands because “this is the most effective way of combating this unconstitutional law.” According to TASZ, the law violates the freedoms of speech and association and unlawfully differentiates among civic organizations. TASZ’s lawyers are also convinced that it violates EU laws because the legislation violates the European Union’s internal market rules, in particular the free movement of capital. TASZ is prepared for the consequences of its action. Máté Szabó, professional director of TASZ, argued along the following lines: “Some of the enforcement possibilities will be open to us only if we don’t comply with the law. Since we do not want to relinquish a single law enforcement option, we will not comply with the requirements of the law.” Stefánia Kapronczay, executive director of TASZ, said: “We are aware of the fact that legal procedures will be initiated against us, but we are not afraid of them. Yearly we represent our clients in more than a hundred cases in the courts of Hungary, the Constitutional Court, and the Strasbourg court…. I’m convinced that after long procedures this law will have to be discarded.” The Hungarian Helsinki Commission joined TASZ in boycotting the new law on civic groups. “Unless and until the Hungarian Constitutional Court and/or the European Court of Human Rights hear the case and approve the law, we will not register.”

I think that the decision of these two civic organizations is the correct one, even if László Trócsányi, minister of justice, announced that “civil disobedience is not known to me, nor is it known in [our] legal system.” This was obviously meant not as an admission of ignorance but as a warning to TASZ and the Hungarian Helsinki Commission. However, I would like to remind Trócsányi that his lawyers don’t have a great track record against the lawyers of these two NGOs.

June 15, 2017

Hate campaigns and their consequences

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

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

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

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

The objects of Zsolt Bayer’s ire

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

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

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

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

May 14, 2017

András Schiffer: From KISZ to neo-communism?

Just as I suspected, in one short post I couldn’t cover the departure of András Schiffer, the founder and leader of LMP, from politics as well as opinions of him that have appeared since his announcement. Over the years I have written more than a dozen articles about LMP and András Schiffer and yet, after re-reading them, I must admit that I never managed to give a satisfactory portrait of this complex, controversial, divisive man. I guess one day someone will write a book on LMP and the abortive attempt to establish a true green party in Hungary. That book will undoubtedly praise Schiffer, the party’s founder, for being able in two short years to build a party that sent a fifteen-member delegation to the Hungarian parliament. No mean feat. But most of the book will probably be about the constant internal fights within the party and its founder’s unyielding and, in my opinion mistaken, ideology and political strategy.

I suspect that most people would agree with András Stumpf of the pro-government Mandiner.hu website that, without Schiffer, LMP’s chances of becoming a parliamentary party in 2018 are remote. The party leaders of LMP are naturally much more upbeat. Bernadett Szél, co-chairman of LMP, sounded neither heartbroken about Schiffer’s departure nor pessimistic about the future of the party. She took the news laconically. “I’m old enough to know that if someone wants to leave, one should let him go. Today I can’t worry about this. Instead, I want to make sure that the green party that has grown roots in the country has a future.” She is already organizing a tour of the countryside with a view to widening the territorial base of LMP. Szél in this interview gave the impression of being a liberated woman who can now do things her own way. As for the hard-and-fast rule of not allying LMP with any other political formation, it remains in place as far as I can see.

Photo: István Fekete

Bernadett Szél. Photo: István Fekete

Among those with LMP ties, the greatest admirer is Péter Róna, which makes sense given Róna’s economic precepts, which include anti-capitalist sentiments and ideas of the “népiesek,” a group of people who envisaged a Hungary whose economy would be a “third road” between capitalism and socialism. Róna simply cannot understand the Hungarian intellectual elite’s indifference, or in some cases hatred, toward Schiffer, whom he considers the best and most honest politician in Hungary today.

Endre Kukorelly, who for a few months was an LMP member of parliament in 2010, is a writer. Since I haven’t read a line of his, I can’t pass judgment on his literary talents. But, to me, his political views are muddled. He who quit parliament after a few months hails Schiffer’s decision because it is so much easier to do politics without the shackles of a party. He represents the unproductive view that political parties are evil and that civilians are the ones who will change the present system.

The opinions of most other former LMP members, however, are pretty uniformly negative.

Benedek Jávor, whose activities in the European Parliament I greatly admire, most likely hit the nail on the head when he observed that “the conflicts that led to a split in the party have not dissipated with our departure,” referring to PM members’ leaving LMP in January 2013.

Virág Kaufer, who left LMP in 2012, suggested that Schiffer “take some time off and take a good look at what he created and speak with those who are no longer his supporters.”

Perhaps Gábor Vágó, a former LMP insider, best summarized LMP’s problem. In his opinion, Schiffer’s departure “is not the end of the LMP story. The fate of the party was sealed when it abandoned its critical attitude toward [Orbán’s] system.”

At the end of this post you will find about a dozen links to my past articles on LMP and András Schiffer, from which a fuller picture of LMP’s role in Hungarian politics should emerge. But perhaps I should add a few details that might be helpful in explaining where Schiffer came from.

Schiffer’s first political act at the age of eighteen was adding his name to an open letter addressed to the Congress of KISZ (Magyar Kommunista Ifjúsági Szövetség). The letter was dated April 10, 1989. Less than two weeks later KISZ was dissolved. Gordon Bajnai, Ferenc Gyurcsány (KISZ secretary), and György Szilvássy (KISZ spokesman and later minister in Gyurcsány’s cabinet) also signed the letter. Schiffer talked about those days in 2014 in an interview with Szabolcs Panyi of Index. “In the spring of 1989, when it wasn’t quite clear which way things would develop, there was only one man in the whole nomenclature of the party-state who put his foot down, even risking his livelihood, and declared that the properties of KISZ and the party must be divided among alternative organizations. This man was Ferenc Gyurcsány. … Gyurcsány proclaimed what many of the opposition politicians didn’t dare: that because of the nature of the state socialist system what they [KISZ and the party] possess belongs to the people.”

Shortly after the dissolution of KISZ, Gyurcsány established a new youth organization called Új Nemzedék Mozgalom (Movement of the New Generation), of which Schiffer became a member. Gyurcsány soon gave up his political activities and became a businessman, but Schiffer remained active and was one of the founding members of a new political movement called Ifjú Szocialisták (Young Socialists). Shortly thereafter, Schiffer retired from politics (for the first time). After finishing law school, he worked for TASZ, the Hungarian equivalent of the American Civil Liberties Union, where he became interested in the green movement.

What changed Schiffer’s attitude toward Gyurcsány, whom he clearly admired back in 1989, were the 2006 disturbances in which he, as an associate of TASZ, took the side of those he considered to be the victims of “police terror.” What happened on the fiftieth anniversary of the 1956 Revolution is a hot potato about which people have widely different opinions. Rightly or wrongly, Schiffer accused Gyurcsány of criminal acts against innocent demonstrators. Hence, his hatred of the man.

His attitude toward Gyurcsány may have changed radically, but he didn’t shed his socialist political views. Árpád W. Tóta, who writes witty, sarcastic, sometime savage opinion pieces, said that LMP has never managed to present a coherent worldview and that “the only concrete position one can make out is a blood-curdling neo-communism. The kind that is becoming sawdust right now in South America.” Tóta portrays Schiffer as someone who wanted to be different simply for the sake of being different. The party was toggling between right and left until it started getting closer to the positions of Fidesz and Jobbik. In brief, in ideological terms Schiffer left the party in a real mess.

Links to Hungarian Spectrum articles on LMP and András Schiffer:

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2010/03/26/lmp-or-can-politics-can-be-something-else/

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2010/03/27/two-interviews-with-andras-schiffer-chairman-of-lmp/

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2010/07/07/viktor-orban-had-a-meeting-with-the-lmp-parliamentary-delegation/

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2011/05/02/babes-in-arms-lmps-encounter-with-viktor-orban/

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2011/07/12/the-new-electoral-law-lmps-wake-up-call/

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2011/11/14/a-few-words-about-the-hungarian-green-party-the-lmp/

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2012/01/14/the-rise-and-fall-of-lmps-andras-schiffer/

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2012/07/26/the-future-of-lmp-an-interview-with-benedek-javor/

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2012/10/21/hungarian-opposition-groups-lmp-4k-and-milla/

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2012/11/17/with-or-without-gordon-bajnai-lmps-dilemma/

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2012/11/18/lmps-andras-schiffer-won-but-did-he/

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2013/01/26/where-is-andras-schiffer-leading-lmp-straight-into-the-arms-of-fidesz/

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2013/01/27/lmps-rebels-left-the-party-who-will-be-the-winner-of-this-game/

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2014/04/23/budapest-municipal-election-mszp-lmp-deal/

June 1, 2016

Inadequate hygiene in Hungarian hospitals

Today I’m venturing into the world of healthcare, specifically hygiene or rather the lack of it in some Hungarian hospitals. A discussion of the high rate of infections contracted in hospitals began when the movement “1001 physicians without gratuity” called attention to the problem. According to the statement of these doctors, the problem has been known for years. But not only is nothing being done to try to eradicate the problem, the number of reported cases has also been kept secret. The doctors complained about the quality of the sterilization machines, a lack of diapers, not enough disinfectant, etc. The group demanded the release of data about the number of cases of hospital infections and the death rate from such infections. That was at the end of February. Since then a fair number of articles have appeared on the subject that further highlighted the terrible conditions that exist in Hungarian hospitals.

Nothing, however, elicited a greater outcry than a news story published a couple of days ago by Index, which claimed that the department of dermatology, venereal diseases, and skin-related cancers at the hospital of the Budapest Medical School ran out of “rubber gloves” and therefore the unprotected staff must use “nylon gloves,” which are not as effective. The “rubber gloves” must be saved for operations.

Well, this is where my definitional problems began. I have heard of “rubber gloves” (gumikesztyű), the kind we use when washing dishes, but I had never heard of “nylon gloves” being used in hospitals. I suspect that Index’s reporting was not precise. The gloves we see in doctors’ offices and hospitals are “nitrile non-sterile single use” gloves. I assume that this is what Index called “nylon gloves.” These same gloves also come in a sterile form, which is more expensive, but the non-sterile gloves (which retail for $7.99/100) “pose no higher risk of infection for non-surgical procedures when compared to sterile gloves.” In fact, I read that even doctors and nurses dealing with HIV patients are well protected wearing these gloves.

Latex gloves used to be common in operating rooms because they fit more snugly (though they also puncture more easily). But a fair number of people are allergic to them, so many hospitals have opted for alternatives, admittedly more expensive.

If we’re dealing here with the distinction between latex and nitrile gloves, the hospital’s director was correct in explaining to the journalist that these two kinds of gloves have nothing to do with one another. That is, a shortage of one wouldn’t affect the other. No operation had to be postponed because of a possible shortage of nitrile gloves in the wards. However, the likelihood that the department did run out of ordinary nitrile gloves is very high. Tímea Szabó (PM member of parliament), who is currently working in a hospital as a volunteer to experience first hand conditions in Hungarian hospitals, has been reporting shortages of all sorts of the most basic necessities.

disinfection

Quite apart from this particular case, the fact is that hygiene doesn’t seem to be a high priority in Hungarian hospitals. One reason is the shortage of money, which unfortunately cannot be eliminated by “loving care” as Zoltán Balog, the minister of charge of healthcare, suggested. And because of this shortage hospitals try to save on items they consider non-essential. Here is one example of what is considered to be a “luxury” in Hungarian hospitals. The World Health Organization suggests the use of at least 20 liters of hand sanitizer for every 1,000 patient days. In Hungary hospitals use only 6 liters. They try to save money on disinfectant as well. Moreover, according to one man who worked as a sterilization machine operator, hospitals often sterilize equipment that should be discarded after each use. According to the whistleblower who no longer works in a hospital, he was instructed to resterilize equipment used in laparoscopic surgery as many as fifteen or twenty times. The interesting thing is that it is more expensive to resterilize equipment than to purchase new equipment. In fact, it can be twice as expensive. But since sterilization is done “in house,” the management can put in a request for new equipment but use the money for something else. As he said, “the money simply disappears.”

Meanwhile, the Állami Népegészségügyi és Tisztiorvosi Szolgálat (National Public Health and Medical Officer Service / ÁNTSZ) steadfastly refuses to release details about hospital infections and the resultant number of deaths even as it claims that its reporting is among the most comprehensive in the European Union. The website of the Országos Epidemiológiai Központ (National Epidemiological Center / OEK) does provide countrywide numbers, broken down by year, although its website is so user unfriendly that I didn’t even try to find them. It seems that Társaság a Szabadságjogokért (TASZ), the Hungarian equivalent of the American Civil Liberties Union, did look at their data but found them totally useless. What the doctors demanded and TASZ now demands as well is not aggregated numbers but a breakdown by individual hospitals. ÁNTSZ refuses to release this information. As one of the department heads of ÁNTSZ explained, if they published the data they would create panic. People would avoid hospitals where the number of infections and the resultant death rate is high and would go to hospitals where the danger of infection is low. But this could have grave consequences. Some patients might end up in hospitals that are not equipped to handle their problems. TASZ is not satisfied with this answer, and the organization will sue ÁNTSZ for the data. TASZ usually wins its cases against government authorities.

The stories of infections and death continue to multiply in the Hungarian media. A few days ago Index reported another serious infection, this time in a hospital in Pécs. The infection, called “methicillion-resistant Staphycoccus aureus” (MRSA), is caused by a type of staph bacteria that has become resistant to many of the antibiotics commonly used to treat staph infections. This sounds bad enough in English, but I’ll bet that Hungarians were petrified to read that “meat-eating bacteria are at work in a Pécs hospital.”

Infections picked up in hospitals are a problem worldwide, but according to some Hungarian doctors who came forth lately, the Hungarian situation is worse than that in most developed countries. One doctor I heard being interviewed claimed that the number of deaths as a result of these infections is twice as high in Hungary as in the U.K. According to one of the sources I consulted, the disparity is even worse. The British figure is 6.4% per 100,000 while in Hungary it is 14.7%.

It is ironic that in the country of Ignác Semmelweis, the pioneer of antiseptic procedures, hospitals are not using enough disinfectant, doctors and nurses don’t wash their hands often enough, toilets don’t function, and hygiene is altogether neglected. Devotion and hard work on the part of the staff is simply not enough, although admittedly it would start to address the problem. How often members of the staff wash their hands is not a question of money.

Hungarian healthcare needs more funding and an entirely different attitude on the part of hospital managers and staff. One of the early tasks of the post-Orbán administration should be to break the stranglehold on Hungarian healthcare by hospital administrators, trade union leaders, the Hungarian Medical Association, and those doctors in high position who are the beneficiaries of this corrupt system. Otherwise healthcare in Hungary will never improve.

April 9, 2016

A week of events organized by the Budapest Pride began last night

After the historic U.S. Supreme Court ruling, many well-known personalities, including Mark Zuckerberg on Facebook and Hillary Clinton on Twitter, displayed the rainbow flag to show their delight with the decision. This is how the resident of the White House showed his support for the American gay community.

white house

And in Hungary? Only about a month before the historic Supreme Court decision, Viktor Orbán announced that “Hungary is a tolerant nation” but that “tolerance … does not mean that we would apply the same rules for people whose life style is different from our own.” He expressed his gratitude to the Hungarian homosexual community “for not exhibiting the provocative behavior against which numerous European nations are struggling.” What exists now is “a peaceful, calm equilibrium” which should be maintained because otherwise anti-gay feelings will flare up.

The message was obvious: don’t rock the boat because there might be adverse consequences. Magyar Narancs summarized Orbán’s message well: “A Hungarian doesn’t harass anyone, unless he is forced to harass him in a tolerant manner with mercy in his heart.” In fact, Hungarian gays and lesbians suffer discrimination and harassment even without any “provocative behavior.”

So, let’s see how Fidesz politicians reacted to the news of the Supreme Court decision. The occasion was ignored by everyone except Máté Kocsis, mayor of District VIII of Budapest, and Zoltán Kovács, government spokesman. These two decided to cover their pictures on Facebook with the colors of the Hungarian flag.

kocsis-kovacs

What  kind of a message did these two want to convey? That a real Hungarian cannot be gay? Or, to flip the sentence and the emphasis, that gays cannot be truly Hungarian? Or, if I were feeling charitable, I might say that these two are just a bit confused. I doubt, however, that Kocsis is confused. Lately, he has been far too eager to prove to the world that talk of his alleged homosexuality is unfounded. As a result, he has sunk to the level of disgusting homophobia.

The only refreshing exception was the wife of Antal Rogán, the leader of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation, who decided to follow the example of many foreign celebrities and use the colors of the rainbow over her portrait on Facebook. The president of the Rainbow Mission Foundation immediately wrote her a letter and expressed the homosexual community’s appreciation of the gesture. She also extended an invitation to her and her husband, “if his schedule permits,” to the opening of the Budapest Pride Festival which took place yesterday. As far as I know, they didn’t attend.

We shouldn’t be surprised that homophobic skinheads and football hooligans take pleasure in taunting the mixed crowd of gays and their straight supporters at the annual parade along Andrássy Street when the mayor of Budapest, István Tarlós, doesn’t hide his antagonism toward the gay community. Only yesterday I wondered whether Viktor Orbán is really unaware of the fact that in better circles his racism and xenophobia are considered unacceptable and his behavior unbecoming, boorish, or much worse. In the case of István Tarlós there is no question: he is not at all ashamed that he is a homophobic boor. In fact, he advertises it. And yes, he is a boor.

On June 4 Tarlós was the guest on an early morning TV2 program called Mokka. Earlier Napi Gazdaság had reported that there was a possibility that the Budapest city council would move the Pride Parade from Andrássy Street to Budapesti Nagybani Piac, a wholesale marketplace almost 15 km away from Andrássy Street. So, the reporter wanted to know more about this alleged plan to move the Pride Parade to the outskirts of the city. Tarlós was happy to share his thoughts on the subject. Yes, he would like to move the parade somewhere else because “it is unworthy of the historic district of Andrássy Street.” In addition, he shared his “private opinion” that he finds the idea “unnatural” and gays “repulsive.” The brave reporter said not a word.

It seems that Tarlós is not familiar with the limits of the city council’s authority. Determining a demonstration’s location is not its job. Moreover, as TASZ, the Hungarian equivalent of the American Civil Liberties Union, argued, a public official cannot state his “private opinion” when he appears on TV. He is the representative of the city council, and he represents every inhabitant of the city of Budapest. His public statements must be in accord with the constitution. TASZ pointed out that at the moment Tarlós cannot be held legally responsible because in the civil code “sexual orientation” is not among the qualities protected by law, like ethnic groups or people of religious communities. But perhaps, they added, such a provision should be added, especially since in Hungary there is never any political consequence of such inappropriate statements and actions.

The organizers of the Budapest Pride were outraged at the mayor’s words, and a few days later they answered the mayor by wrapping the tree trunks along Andrássy Street in rainbow colors.

szivarvany Andrassy ut

The cleaning crew most likely appeared on the scene as soon as Tarlós heard of the attempt to desecrate Andrássy Street, which in his opinion is so important to the history of the city that “repulsive” gays should not step on its pavement.

The gay community doesn’t have any backing from government circles, but twenty-five foreign embassies announced their support of Budapest Pride. I guess no one will be surprised to learn that, with the exception of Slovenia, no former socialist country is among the sponsors. I understand that several companies also offered financial help for the close to 100 cultural events planned for the next seven days. I suspect that most of them, if not all, are multinational companies.

Last night’s opening was a huge success. The very talented theater director Róbert Alföldi was the keynote speaker. A video of the event is available on YouTube:

I haven’t had time yet to watch the whole one-and-a-half hours of it, but I listened to part of a very amusing, witty speech by Zoltán Lakner, a professor of political science, whom I consider one of the keenest observers of the Hungarian political scene.

I understand that  a number of politicians from the democratic opposition were present: Gábor Fodor, Magyar Liberális Párt; Bernadett Szél, co-chair of LMP; Ágnes Kunhalmi and István Ujhelyi from MSZP; and Péter Juhász, vice-chairman of Együtt. Several foreign embassies were also represented.

I fear that next Saturday the gay community and their supporters will once again be harassed by Jobbik and Fidesz supporters. Should we be surprised when Fidesz politicians egg them on?

Strasbourg verdict on disenfranchised churches: the Hungarian government dithers

The Hungarian government has had an awful lot of bad news lately coming from various institutions of the European Union. Yesterday I wrote about the veto by Euratom and the European Commission of certain parts of the Russian-Hungarian agreement concerning Rosatom’s supply of nuclear fuel for the two new reactors of the Paks power plant. Today I will look into an older decision of the European Court of Human Rights that the Hungarian government has yet to act on, despite a March 8 deadline. What I have in mind is the infamous law on churches.

The law that Zsolt Semjén called a masterpiece has had some rough sledding. The law stipulated that only churches approved by the Hungarian parliament could partake of the benefits churches usually enjoy in democratic countries. Smaller, less traditional churches or congregations, including some following reformed Judaism, were stripped of their church status. In February 2013 the Constitutional Court, which at that time wasn’t yet packed with Fidesz loyalists, found the law to be discriminative and therefore unconstitutional. The Orbán government’s answer was to change the constitution and to leave the objectionable law unaltered.

Since all remedies at home had been exhausted, sixteen small churches decided to go to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg to seek justice. Nine churches were represented by TASZ, the Hungarian equivalent of the American Civil Liberties Union, while Dániel Karsai represented another six. Csaba Tordai represented perhaps the most important church, which was most likely the victim of Viktor Orbán’s personal vendetta: the Magyarországi Evangéliumi Testvérközösség (MET) led by Gábor Iványi, basically a Methodist church.

Dániel Karsai, who frequently appeared on ATV during 2013, was certain already in late May of that year that their case was so strong that the Hungarian government would suffer another setback in Strasbourg. It took a year, but in April 2014 the verdict was announced. It was in favor of the small churches. The Hungarian government and the churches will have to agree on a financial settlement. If they cannot reach an equitable arrangement, the Strasbourg court will decide on the amount of compensation these churches deserve for the financial loss they suffered as a result of being deprived of their church status. Moreover, the law on churches doesn’t conform to European law and hence must be changed.

It all started rather small

This church started off rather small, after all

Dániel Karsai, the lawyer for some of the churches, was elated. He expressed his hope that “after this great victory the first business of the new government will be to put in order the question of religious freedom.” Well, a year went by and nothing happened. No settlement was reached. Instead of writing a new law, the government decided to appeal the case. I should note that it was the Ministry of Justice and Administration under the leadership of Tibor Navracsics that handled the case in Strasbourg on behalf of the Hungarian government. The same Navracsics who today is desperately trying to distance himself from the Orbán administration and attempting to portray himself as a moderate liberal in his new capacity as a member of the European Commission.

Another five months went by. On September 9, 2014, the Court of Human Rights rejected the appeal of the Hungarian government. The law would have to be changed and the churches in question compensated. The court gave the Hungarian government six months, until March 8, to settle the question of compensation. Well, I just read in Magyar Nemzet that “the government heeds the Strasbourg verdict but does not want to be overhasty.” What an understatement. The government wants to be fair, but at the same time “it doesn’t want to waste the taxpayers’ money” and the sum in question is rather large. According to some estimates, the churches claimed damages amounting to about 20 billion forints. The Magyar Nemzet article indicated that the government finds some of the claims unacceptable. On the other hand, Csaba Tordai, the lawyer for Gábor Iványi’s Methodist church, is optimistic that there will be an agreement within a few weeks. The Magyarországi Evangéliumi Testvérközösség (MET) originally asked for 1.4 billion forints, but that was in 2012. I assume the current claim is at least double that amount.

As far as the law itself is concerned, the government is again in no hurry. Dániel Karsai might have hoped that the new government would immediately take care of the problem, but today Miklós Soltész, undersecretary in charge of social policy in the ministry of human resources, announced that the government is not planning to write a new law because, after all, they already revised the original law once, in 2013. So, there will be only changes in certain points. And, he continued,”we must guard those values [in the law] that assist the spiritual work of the churches in all facets of their activities,” whatever that means. I have the feeling that this is not the end of the story.