Tag Archives: terrorism

Launching a new action plan, “Stop Soros”

In an article that was written yesterday but appeared only today in the early morning edition of Magyar Idők, the well-informed government paper reported that “an action plan is being formulated against George Soros and his network.” This action plan necessitates amendments to already existing laws. The paper got wind of two such impending legal changes. One would allow the assessment of dues or levies on nonprofit organizations that “support migration.” The other action that needed a legal basis was banning George Soros’s entry into Hungary. According to Magyar Idők, the government sought a way to ban dual citizens who pose a national security risk to the country. Zoltán Lomnici, Jr., a far-right so-called constitutional lawyer whose opinions are almost always legal nonsense, suggested a solution that would allow the expulsion of dangerous dual citizens who live abroad on a permanent basis. The other expert to whom Magyar Idők turned for his opinion was Ágoston Sámuel Mráz, director of the pro-government Nézőpont Institute. Mráz is a great deal more intelligent than Lomnici. He opined that the proposed law is “only a symbolic defense instrument.” In brief, it is a propaganda ploy serving domestic political purposes in preparation for the election to be held on April 8.

If Mráz is correct, I’m afraid the Orbán government is assuming a great deal of risk in the international arena with this proposed piece of legislation. After a cabinet meeting this afternoon, the Hungarian government released an article in English on the official website of the Prime Minister’s Office, About Hungary. Here are the most important provisions of these bills:

  1. Every organization that supports illegal immigration by using foreign financial resources would be registered and obliged to report on its activity.
  2. A tax would be imposed on the foreign funding of organizations supporting illegal immigration. This public income would be invested in border protection.
  3. It would be possible to issue restraining orders against those who take part in organizing illegal immigration. In essence, such restraining orders would apply in any area that is within 8 kilometers of the Schengen border. In special cases, a third-country citizen would be subject to a restraining order anywhere within Hungary. This measure would remain in force until the end of the migration crisis.

It is instructive to compare this English text, obviously intended for foreign consumption, with the one Index published in Hungarian.

  1. Every organization that supports illegal immigration by using foreign financial resources would be registered and obliged to report on its activity.
  2. Over and above the registration, those organizations that receive more money from abroad than from Hungary will be obliged to pay 25% of their support as a levy. The money will be collected by the National Tax Authority. If the organizations don’t fulfill their duties, the prosecutor’s office must take action against them. If the prosecutor’s office finds unauthorized activity, it will appeal to the court.
  3. A new kind of restraining order will be introduced: implicated foreign nationals will be barred from Hungary while Hungarian citizens will not be able cross an eight-kilometer border zone next to the Schengen borders.

During a joint interview given by Interior Minister Sándor Pintér and Undersecretary Zoltán Kovács, who is in charge of communication, a few more bits of information were dropped. For example, to my astonishment I discovered that those NGOs that are guilty of assisting illegal migrants will have to “acknowledge their complicity on their own.” If they fail to do so, they will be sanctioned. So, if I understand it correctly, the whole scheme is based on self-incrimination. I’m therefore not surprised that some people believe that the government has no intention of actually adopting these measures.

As far as the banning of George Soros from Hungary is concerned, it seems that the government thought the better of it. In fact, to my great surprise, Pintér announced that “George Soros doesn’t carry out illegal migration activities,” and therefore he has nothing to fear. However, Kovács added that if he ever does so, the law will apply to him just as it does to everyone else. The report published by Eurobserver claimed that “UN personnel and diplomats would not fall under the possible restraining order, and MPs who have reason to be in the area will also not be excluded from the border zone.”

The targeted NGOs, such as the Hungarian Helsinki Committee and TASZ, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, charged that these proposals are not only confusing but also most likely unconstitutional. They go against past rulings of the European Court of Human Rights and the European Court of Justice. I’m no lawyer, but Orbán’s own Basic Law guarantees the free movement of citizens anywhere in the country.

I know that Orbán and his minions are too young to have lived through the Rákosi era, when Hungary had so-called “border zone” (határsáv) along the Yugoslav and Austrian borders, but still they ought to know that the comparison will be inevitable. In those days a special permit was required to enter this restricted zone. Most of the peasants who were forcibly removed from their villages, stripped of all their possessions, and deported to the Hortobágy region of the Great Plains came from villages inside the zone. The word “határsáv” has a very bad ring to it.

In the opinion of the spokesman of TASZ, it is also illegal to impose dues on money received from abroad because one cannot make a distinction between monies from domestic and non-domestic sources. I’m also sure that as the proposals are put into more final form, legal experts will offer even more criticism.

Some commentators think that Assistant Undersecretary Kristóf Altusz’s embarrassing revelation to the Times of Malta and the subsequent fallout at home prompted this latest “Stop Soros” action. The new action is, they argue, an attempt to divert attention from what someone called “the Orbán government’s Őszöd,” referring to Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány’s speech to the MSZP parliamentary caucus in 2006 in which he admitted that, although they knew about the sad state of the economy, they kept it a secret because of the forthcoming national election.

Altusz, in response to insistent questioning about Hungary’s refusal to admit any refugees,  blurted out that “last year alone Hungary took about 1,300 refugees, but, very often, such cases were not publicized by the government as it could put the beneficiaries in danger.” For more than two years the Orbán government sought to convince the Hungarian people that it wouldn’t allow a single migrant to settle in Hungary, and now it turns out that 1,300 “Muslim invaders,” to use Viktor Orbán’s words from his recent interview with Das Bild, have received shelter in Hungary.

One family among those who received asylum in Hungary

The Orbán government is building its entire election campaign on the migrant issue, and now it seems that, after all, there is a difference between illegal migrants and refugees, as Altusz explained. Moreover, the argument that a refugee must settle in the closest safe country is now in tatters. The government just admitted in an indirect way that Hungary is obliged by the Geneva Convention to give shelter to refugees, even from faraway Iraq, Syria, or Afghanistan.

Hungarians have heard nothing else in the last two or three years but how dangerous these people are; they are terrorists who will kill them and rape their daughters. Just recently, Orbán ordered mayors to organize resistance to settling nonexistent migrants in their cities. And now we learn that the government, behind the frightened people’s backs, allowed 1,300 of these dangerous people to settle in their country. The overeager Kristóf Altusz delivered a serious blow to a carefully crafted political construct and rallying cry.

If Viktor Orbán decided to launch the “Stop Soros” campaign in order to divert attention from this uncomfortable slip by a junior diplomat, I think he is making a mistake. These issues touch upon the very essence of European Union values. To flout them for the sake of an electoral victory, which everybody predicts will be his, is foolhardy.

January 17, 2018

Justin Spike: Hungarian village vents its hatred of refugees

Justin Spike’s article on the recent upheaval in the village of Őcsény first appeared in The Budapest Beacon under the title “Hatred of refugees has fundamentally changed the town–Hungarian village succumbs to state propaganda.” In a separate post to appear shortly, I’ll comment on the event and its aftermath.

♦ ♦ ♦

Residents of the Tolna county village of Őcsény in southwest Hungary held an emergency village assembly Monday evening. So many members of the roughly 2,000-person community attended that not everyone was able to fit into the community center. They had come together to discuss what they considered an imminent threat to their village: the arrival of several refugees, mostly women and children, for a few days of vacation.

The residents had gotten wind of the cooperation between a local guesthouse owner, Zoltán Fenyvesi, and the Migration Aid civil organization to bring four rounds of six or seven refugee children with adult chaperones to the village for a week of relaxation in the guesthouse and sightseeing tours in the region.

Upon hearing of the plan, residents convened the assembly, which Fenyvesi attended. The meeting was so hysterical and full of shouting, the guesthouse owner said, that he didn’t have the chance to speak.

The half-broken sign once read “European village” / Source: 24.hu / Photo: Rudolf Karancsi

Later that night, the tires on two of Fenyvesi’s vehicles were slashed.

“The people were so dismissive at the village assembly that the guesthouse owner and the civil organization couldn’t even say what their plans were,” said Őcsény mayor János Fülöp, who has since resigned. “They said things like, ‘These people are animals, they’re not even human. They’re terrorists, they’re going to blow things up and rape the children’.”

Hatred of refugees has fundamentally changed the town

Of all the many problems facing countryside villages – “no medical care, the closure of the savings banks and the post offices, no firewood” – what everyone is talking about nowadays is migration, mayor Fülöp said.

“This was only about 30 people, mostly women and children, that would have come here,” he said. “They would only have been at the guesthouse at night, because in the daytime they wanted to bring them to monuments, and to Pécs and the surroundings.”

Fülöp, who resigned his 11-year post as mayor of Őcsény Wednesday night after a special meeting of the local council, insisted that “not every refugee is a criminal and Islamist fanatic. These people received the protection of the Hungarian state, they went through a serious inspection based on international treaties.”

Fülöp said he’d resigned because the village had become divided, and he didn’t want to contribute to furthering the tensions.

“I’ve been mayor here for 11 years, and in that time I remember peace and quiet. No one spat on or cursed each other. That’s finished now,” he said, adding that he thinks the hatred of refugees has fundamentally changed the place.

Fenyvesi, the owner of the Csengettyűs guesthouse, agreed.

“I trusted that there would be a normal debate at the village assembly where I could convince the people, but I told them in vain that this was about children. There was no chance for a discussion,” Fenyvesi said.

“They’re not afraid, they’re horrified,” he told 444.hu of the residents. “They said they hate them! They really think that one migrant here will become six, six will become 12, and in the end they’ll take over all of Őcsény and all of Hungary.”

Őcsény residents told daily newspaper Magyar Nemzet that they didn’t believe the refugees would only stay for a few days. One woman said she’d heard they would be moved into vacant houses in the village, and was afraid they’d bring diseases. Another said she’d seen on television how the refugees behave: “They rape everyone.”

One local man on a bicycle approached a Magyar Nemzet journalist and insisted the residents shouldn’t interact with “political monkeys,” since every newspaper and television station works for George Soros. He considers Fenyvesi, the guesthouse owner, a “Soros agent” as well, he said.

A petition is reportedly being circulated in Őcsény which aims to ban migrants from the community indefinitely.

If the shepherds had not been from Bethlehem, but from Őcsény…

According to its website, Migration Aid is “a volunteer civil initiative providing live-saving emergency assistance for asylum-seekers who need it.” The organization recently ran into similar local opposition when it arranged to provide accommodation for refugees in a town near Lake Balaton. At that time, Fidesz politicians and government media insisted the organization was “settling” illegal migrants in Hungarian villages as part of the government-contrived, much-touted “Soros Plan.”

Fenyvesi responded to a Migration Aid ad seeking volunteers to provide vacation accommodation for refugees who have received the official protection of the Hungarian state. He offered his 9-bed guesthouse to the organization free of charge.

It’s not the first time Fenyvesi has used his guesthouse to accommodate disadvantaged people. He said he has often taken in “people in difficult social situations” to stay there for free.

“If I can accommodate poor Hungarian children, and among them very many Gypsy children, I would add, then why not suffering refugee families with children?” he asked. “I’d be really curious that if the shepherds had not been from Bethlehem but from Őcsény, then would Jesus lay down among the cattle to rest in the manger, or somewhere outside like a homeless person?”

But Fenyvesi’s goodwill was met with hostility in Őcsény: after the village assembly, he was threatened and his property was damaged.

“They literally threatened me, that they would separate my head from my body!” he told 444.hu. “In the night there was a huge bang, a brick was thrown at my van. We saw in the morning that six of my eight tires had been slashed. I ask you, if someone is banging someone’s car mercilessly in front of their house in the night, and they’d threatened them before…then will he feel terrorized or not? I wonder, is that terror or not?”

Fenyvesi has decided not to host the refugee children, “not because they terrified me or anything like that, but because I saw those mothers and how shocked and horrified they are and how much they hate, and a mother’s love for her children is above everything.”

He said he doesn’t blame the residents for what has happened, but government propaganda which has incited so many Hungarians to hate.

“And those who threaten me, I’m not mad at them,” he said. “Nor at the tire slashers. Because they’re actually really good folks. They go wild over certain topics and become unpredictable. I think I’m going to discuss it with them; we go to the same bar. Either we’ll come to an understanding or I’ll get life insurance and that’s it. You don’t have to live forever.”

September 29, 2017

Justice in Orbán’s Hungary: The Ahmed H. case

As I was looking through my old posts to see my coverage of Ahmed H.’s trial for terrorism, which took place in 2016, I found to my astonishment that I hadn’t even mentioned the name of this Syrian man who received ten years for allegedly committing terrorism at the Serbian-Hungarian border. I have often been told that over the years the posts of Hungarian Spectrum can more or less serve as a timeline of Hungarian politics. I’m trying to cover all the important events, but, as is clear from this example, I don’t always succeed.

The omission is especially egregious because Ahmed’s alleged terrorism case was one of the pretexts for the government’s attempt to introduce a new category of emergencies that could be declared in the event of a “situation created by a terrorist threat.” Ahmed’s arrest and the subsequent charge of terrorism against him were followed by an unprecedented hate campaign against migrants. This Syrian man from Cyprus, where he has been living legally for the last ten years, became a symbol for all those vicious terrorists who want to overrun Hungary. The only problem with the Hungarian government’s plan was that the terrorism case against Ahmed H. was mighty weak.

Even if I missed covering the original trial, I can now make up for it, at least in part, by reporting on the ruling of the appellate court on June 15 and by recalling some of the events that led to the news that Ahmed has a second chance to receive a fair trial. The appellate court found the work of the court of first instance so flawed that the whole case must be retried–and not, as the judge made clear, by the same panel of judges.

Representatives of such civic organizations as Amnesty International and Migszol, a group formed at the time of the refugee crisis in Hungary in the summer of 2015, have been calling Ahmed H.’s trial a “conceptual show trial.” Looking through the available documents, one thing is sure. The Orbán government very much wanted to find someone guilty of terrorism. It needed such a verdict for its anti-migrant drive. Ahmed seemed to fit the bill. He had a bullhorn and was talking to the crowd in several languages, including English. He allegedly incited the crowd to violence, repeatedly threatened the security forces, and then joined the disturbances that took place on September 16, 2015. He was also charged with illegally crossing the border. On November 30 Ahmed H. was sentenced to a 10-year prison term.

The trial was a mockery of judicial fairness. The judge refused to hear the testimony of more than 20 defense witnesses and ignored the fact that the prosecution’s main witness, a police officer, was not certain of the accused’s identity. It was true that Ahmed threw a couple of items during the melee, but there was no proof that he hit anyone. He claimed that he tried to calm the people. But even if he was guilty of all the crimes he was accused of, did Ahmed H. deserve 10 years? Gauri van Gulik, deputy director of Amnesty International for Europe, said that “to sentence Ahmed to 10 years in prison for a terrorist act is absurd.”

The spokesman for Fidesz expressed the party’s delight after the initial verdict was announced. He repeated the slogan on the billboards: “every migrant must learn that, once in the country, he must honor the laws of Hungary.” But those outside the circle of Fidesz and its followers were stunned. The United States asked the Hungarian government to conduct a transparent investigation of the incidents at the border that would include an independent civic organization. The government should review Ahmed’s case. As far as the United States is concerned, it will follow the case’s future handling, the statement promised. It didn’t take long for the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade to respond, telling the United States that criticizing the work of the court may be allowed in the United States but not in Hungary. Moreover, in Hungary it is not the civic organizations that decide on the guilt or innocence of people but the courts. The ministry spokesman ended his harangue by saying that “we can promise one thing: Hungary will never demand an explanation of U.S. court decisions on terrorists attacking American policemen.”

A week before Ahmed H.’s case was to be continued at the Szeged Appellate Court, the Hungarian media reported that Péter Bárándy, one of the best lawyers in Hungary who was minister of justice between 2002 and 2004 in the Medgyessy government, was going to be Ahmed’s defense lawyer. (There is some indirect evidence that Bárándy had been working on the case since at least March.)

Ahmed H. has had four lawyers, including Bárándy. First, he had a court-appointed lawyer. Then a local Szeged lawyer took over who, according to a member of Migszol, “during the trial sat quietly and wasted not one word in defense of his client.” Two weeks before the end of the trial he quit. The accused got another court-appointed lawyer who apparently did at least try to defend his client, unfortunately without much success.

The news of Péter Bárándy’s appearance as the lawyer for the defense was not exactly welcome news in government circles, but it did give Fidesz leaders an opportunity to connect “terrorism” with its alleged supporters, the Hungarian liberals and socialists. In fact, Gyula Budai, the man who in 2010 was entrusted by Viktor Orbán to bring all socialist and liberal “criminals” to justice, gave a press conference in which he charged that the Soros organizations, Brussels, and the socialists are working hand in hand to free Ahmed H. and therefore “they support terrorism.” He used strong words like “while Europe is terrified of terrorism, Brussels is openly supporting it.” He wanted to know “who is paying the lawyer” and called on MSZP to give an account.

Péter Bárándy in the courtroom

At the trial the prosecutor mostly praised the excellent decision that had been reached in the lower court. But he found the sentence of 10 years, the minimum for those accused of terrorism, insufficient and asked the court for 17.5 years instead. It was then Bárándy’s turn, who pointed out that he found 205 serious mistakes in the proceedings of the lower court. Here, of course, I cannot recount all of them. But I think a couple of examples will give a good idea of the kind of justice that was meted out to Ahmed H. A key charge against him was that he was the leader of the crowd that was throwing rocks against the police. A video, however, showed that the rock throwing had been going on for at least 45 minutes before Ahmed got hold of the bullhorn. In addition, the judge ignored the existence of a video taken by a policewoman which, as opposed to other videos, also contained sound and it doesn’t support Ahmed’s alleged incitement of the crowd. On the contrary, he can be heard saying to the fellow refugees “please, wait, stay here,” “please advise,” “we speak English, we don’t want an Arabic interpreter, we are asking for someone who speaks English.” And finally he told the refugees in Arabic, “no, wait, go back, please go back.” The verdict also claimed that Ahmed gave the police two hours to open the border. How did the police know this? He held up two fingers. But this can also mean “victory.” Finally, he was found guilty of illegally crossing the border, but even that judgment was wrong because Ahmed had free access to all EU countries, including Hungary. At the most, Ahmed was guilty of a misdemeanor (szabálysértés).

Ahmed H. with his back toward us is trying to calm the crowd / Source: police.hu

After the appellate court sent the case back to the lower court for a retrial, Zsolt Bayer wrote an opinion piece in Magyar Idők titled “H. Bárándy and Ahmed Péter.” Bayer may seem to have gotten a little mixed up. I assume you get the gist of what he wants to tell us. It was a relief to read close to the end of the article that “we are not going to incarcerate the judge [of the appellate court] or H. Bárándy.” That’s awfully charitable.

Let’s end this post on a lighter note. The management of state television M1 channel most likely was certain that the Ahmed H.’s verdict would not be reversed or annulled. Perhaps he will even get 17.5 years as the prosecution demanded. They decided to send a camera crew to the trial along with their legal experts who were supposed to give live commentary. For three solid hours one could watch the trial. Once the decision was handed down, however, M1 ended the live broadcast in a great hurry. No further commentary necessary.

The reaction of the top Fidesz leadership has been as expected–a complete denial of any possibility that the original verdict could be flawed and a charge that the socialists, the civic organizations, Brussels, and everybody else under the sun are working together to open the borders and let in all those migrants who are in Bayer’s words members of “the terrible mob of Mordor, the Third World.”

June 18, 2017

Viktor Orbán stood alone at the EPP congress

Viktor Orbán has been headline news in the last few days. One reason for this sudden interest in the pocket dictator of Hungary is his determination to close Hungary’s best institution of higher learning, the Central European University. The other was his performance at the annual congress of the European People’s Party (EPP) in Malta, where he delivered a speech that went against everything the other EPP politicians stand for.

The new government mouthpiece Origo described the Hungarian leader’s fantastic energy, which allowed him to have so many negotiations in one day in Malta. “Even foreign journalists commented on the Hungarian prime minister’s stamina.” On March 29 he had talks with an Albanian party chairman, a former Macedonia prime minister, the Bulgarian prime minister, the Croatian prime minister, an opposition politician from Malta, and the Austrian deputy chancellor. As for politicians from the European Union, he met with Jyirki Katainen, vice president of the European Union, and an official of the European Council.

Then came the second day of the congress and speeches by European politicians, who all spoke about unity and solidarity. Donald Tusk, who has been highly praised in the international media of late, talked at length about the necessity of a united Europe as the only guarantee of its sovereignty. “For a responsible patriot there is no better alternative than a united and sovereign Europe.” Romanian President Klaus Iohannis showed himself to be a strong supporter of a unified Europe bound together by the basic values of the European Union. Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish prime minister who is one of those few European politicians striving for a United States of Europe, talked about the advantages of integration. Manfred Weber, head of the EPP’s parliamentary delegation, announced that “anyone who loves his birthplace must say yes to a strong Europe.”

Then it was Viktor Orbán’s turn. His speech was described by Bloomberg as a “litany of charges” against migration into the EU, warning of “a dominant Muslim presence” in western Europe in the coming years, and condemning a “leftist ideology” that imposed guilt “for the crusades and colonialism.” Alluding to the Syrian conflict, he said that “if you kick an anthill, we should not be surprised if the ants overwhelm us.” I don’t know how other people feel about this metaphor, but it struck me as crude and demeaning. Perhaps unfairly, it reminded me of Albert Wass’s story of the rats that the farmer allowed to take over his house. Of course, Wass was writing not about the Syrians but about the Jews.

Angela Merkel, who spoke after Orbán, didn’t directly address the Hungarian prime minister but clearly was referring to Orbán’s hard-nosed inhumanity. “Do we just want to say that we don’t have any humanitarian responsibilities here?” she asked. According to Bloomberg, this clash between Merkel and Orbán laid “bare European disunity.” What they should have added was that, of all the speeches delivered, it was only Viktor Orbán’s that went against the consensus.

We are trying to be charming / Photo: MTI

Bloomberg didn’t elaborate on the part of Orbán’s speech that dealt with human rights. Orbán is mighty upset over the European Court of Human Rights/ECHR’s verdict that fined the Hungarian government for the ill treatment of two refugees from Bangladesh. In fact, Fidesz politicians were so upset that they were quite seriously talking about withdrawing Hungary from adherence to the European Convention of Human Rights. Of course, cooler heads prevailed. The hotheads calmed down once the minister of justice said that the government, although it will appeal the verdict, has no intention of taking such a foolish step. But it seems that the Hungarian government is not satisfied with a simple appeal. Viktor Orbán wants “urgent reforms” of the ECHR because “its judgments were a threat to the security of EU people and an invitation for migrants.” It is a mystery why Orbán thought that the EPP’s annual congress was the best place to suggest reform of the court when it functions under the aegis of the Council of Europe, which is a different entity from the European Union.

Orbán also decided to bring his ideological fight to the fore when he called the European Left “fatal for Europe.” Leftist politicians “want to force bureaucratic rules in our labor market, raise taxes, and … build socialism in Europe.” He called on his fellow Christian Democrats to fight these forces. “We are the EPP. We should not be afraid of leftist criticism calling us populist.” According to Euractiv, these words were received enthusiastically, which I find strange because practically no one considers the Christian Democrats populists. We normally talk about them as politicians of the right of center. The label “populism” is reserved for politicians of the far right, for example, Viktor Orbán and leaders of populist parties all over Europe. In this regard, it should be noted, Fidesz’s presence in the EPP delegation is something of an anomaly.

My sense is that because of Viktor Orbán’s behavior in the past few years, Hungary is isolated even within the EPP. For instance, at the congress there were several panels on a range of topics where experts and politicians gave speeches or led discussion groups. There was not one Hungarian leading such a group. Hungary was represented only once, on a panel discussion organized by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in which János Martonyi, the former Hungarian foreign minister, was one of the participants. Martonyi has the reputation of being a respectable diplomat, and Viktor Orbán usually trots him out when he wants to show the better side of his government and Fidesz.

There was one piece of news from the congress about which the Hungarian government media was silent. The EPP adopted a resolution on “Russian disinformation undermining Western democracy.” We learned about the existence of this resolution from István Ujhelyi, an MSZP member of the European Parliament, who wrote about it on his Facebook page. He pointed out that Viktor Orbán signed the document, but obviously the party and the government were not too eager to advertise this fact.

The path to this resolution started with an open letter by members of the EPP to Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. The letter asked her to “Please start taking the Russian disinformation threat seriously!” Apparently, she didn’t answer “nor did she acknowledge what the letter’s signatories seemed to want her to say: that Russian disinformation, as well as the separate but related issues of illiberalism and political extremism, is increasingly becoming a big problem in Europe, and specifically in the ‘Visegrad Four’ countries in Central and Eastern Europe, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia.”

Unfortunately, I very much doubt that Viktor Orbán’s signature on this declaration will make any difference in the government media’s pro-Russian orientation.

March 31, 2017

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

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

The migrant question

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

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

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

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

Transparency and non-governmental organizations

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

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

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

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

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

Viktor Orbán on the future Trump administration

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

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

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

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

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

January 13, 2017

Terrorists in Hungary? Three days to the referendum

Who would have thought that almost a year after the Paris terrorist attacks the Hungarian media would be full of the old story of Salah Abdeslam, who made several trips to Hungary to pick up fellow conspirators returning from Syria? Abdeslam’s job was to travel to Greece, Italy, and Hungary to transport the terrorists who had taken advantage of the mass migration from Turkey and northern Africa.

The Hungarian anti-terrorist unit knew nothing about the trips Abdeslam made to Hungary until the Belgian federal prosecutor announced on December 4, 2015 that Abdeslam had twice gone to the Hungarian capital sometime before September 9, where he picked up two men whom he supplied with fake Belgian IDs. The two men were subsequently identified as Mohamed Belkaïd and Najim Laachraoui, both killed in the police raid following the terrorist attack at the Brussels Airport. This bare bones story was then embellished in Budapest thanks to the combined efforts of the Hungarian secret police, the incompetent MSZP chairman of the parliamentary committee on national security, and members of the Hungarian government. It became a tale of high drama, serving the government’s anti-refugee propaganda. The most unreliable story came from János Lázár, who tried to convince the public that Abdeslam “visited the Keleti station, where he recruited a team from among those who refused to be registered.” Oh, yes, this is precisely how one collects instant terrorists.

Since early December of last year we heard almost nothing about Abdeslam’s trips to Hungary. Then yesterday Magyar Idők, after receiving a hot tip, offered a new take on the old story. It was in Budapest, they wrote, that the Paris and Brussels terrorist attacks were hatched.

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From the style of Magyar Idők’s article it is pretty clear that the paper received the information it made public yesterday straight from TEK and other secret service agencies, most likely on the order of the “propaganda ministry” of Antal Rogán. The Hungarian authorities know about three trips Abdeslam made between August 30 and September 17, but the paper gives details only of the first and the last trip.

During the first trip on August 30 Abdeslam picked up Bilal Hadfi, who later died in the attack at Stade de France, and Chakib Akrouh, who was killed during the police raid in Saint-Denis. The two crossed the Serbian-Hungarian border and moved on to Kiskőrös, where they purchased cell phones that they allegedly left behind. The Hungarian authorities claim that they later found these cell phones and “ascertained that on the basis on the information available on them it was the Islamic State’s Syrian center that directed the operation.” This meeting, like the others, was organized to provide fake ID cards or passports to the arrivals and to transport them to Belgium and later to France.

Magyar Idők describes Abdeslam’s third visit to Budapest in a separate article, the title of which is enticing: “The Paris mass murderers were waiting and organizing in Budapest,” giving the false impression that the details of the Paris attacks were worked out in the Hungarian capital. According to the Hungarian sources, Abdeslam arrived on September 17. His co-conspirators–Omar Mostefai, Samy Amimour, and Foued Mohamed-Aggad, who all died in the Bataclan terrorist attack–had been waiting for him for at least a week. Shortly after Abdeslam got to Budapest, he turned around and drove the newly arrived terrorists westward, most likely to Belgium.

Magyar Idők says nothing about the second trip, but I assume it occurred shortly before September 9, as the Belgian federal prosecutor stated. Thus, seven terrorists who subsequently were involved in the French and Belgian terrorist attacks traveled through Hungary.

Szilárd Németh, the Fidesz deputy chairman of the parliamentary committee on national security, announced his decision to call the committee members together to look at the documents the national security authorities have on Abdeslam’s visits to Hungary. While he was at it, Németh said that the secret service should also investigate those civic organizations that are being financed by George Soros because some of the Hungarian NGOs are mentioned by name on the DC Leaks site. Some of these so-called independent organizations are actually heavily involved in anti-government activities, he claimed.

At first blush it would seem that dredging up this old story serves no purpose save to frighten the population further and boost turnout for the referendum. But Népszabadság learned that a new investigation is underway. The paper was told that in the last few days Belgian and French anti-terrorist units have been working with TEK, the police, and members of the prosecutor’s office in Budapest in search of local connections to the terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels. Apparently, they are looking for people who in 2015 assisted at least ten terrorist suspects to escape detection in Budapest and who were instrumental in smuggling them abroad. The authorities naturally are tight-mouthed about the investigation, which has been going on for weeks. But the paper seems to know that the French-Belgian-Hungarian investigative team identified and arrested several people who “belonged to Abdeslam’s circle and who were responsible for the travel arrangements of other Islamic terrorists recently [közelmúltban],” which indicates that the cases might be of recent vintage. This information was later reaffirmed by György Bakondi, Viktor Orbán’s personal adviser on domestic security.

I wonder how much we will ever learn about these alleged new developments. The parliamentary committees concerned with national security and police affairs have not yet been informed of the ongoing investigation. And whatever information the government shares with the public will undoubtedly be received with a large dose of well-founded skepticism. The Hungarian public is already suspicious of the timing of the information leaked by Magyar Idők as well as the release of select details of the super-secret French-Belgian-Hungarian investigation.

September 29, 2016

Explosion in Budapest: Skeptical Hungarians suspect foul play

Last night around 10:30 there was an explosion in front of an empty storefront at 2-4 Teréz körút. Two policemen, a man and a woman, both in their twenties, were seriously injured. According to early reports, the explosion took place inside the store, but eventually it was ascertained that the detonation of the anti-personnel nail bomb occurred outside. Hundreds of nails have been found nearby.

A few minutes after the explosion / Photo by László, a reader of Index

A few minutes after the explosion / Photo by László, a reader of Index

In no time, hundreds of policemen surrounded the area and evacuated the residents of the building. The police went from building to building, from apartment to apartment all night in the area, requesting information from the inhabitants. Some people near the scene of the crime reported a very powerful blast that did considerable damage to nearby buildings.

A demolition expert shared his knowledge of nail bombs with the public. On the basis of pictures of the crime scene he ascertained that this particular bomb was a small, most likely home-made device, adding that this was the kind of explosive device used in the Brussels airport and metro station that killed 31 people and wounded 250. Nail bombs are used mostly in the Middle East (including Israel), in the United States, and lately in Western Europe. In Hungary no such apparatus has ever been used. After this information, it was no surprise that people thought that whatever happened on Teréz kőrút was likely an act of terrorism.

Another expert, István Gyarmati, a Hungarian diplomat and political scientist specializing in national security issues, found it “odd that the victims were policemen and only policemen.” He found it equally strange that “they were only wounded” and not killed. So, it was inevitable that rumors began circulating on Facebook and in comments to newspaper articles about the possible perpetrators. This was especially the case since, until late tonight, the police refused to share any information with the public about the case.

This morning 24.hu neatly summarized the “facts,” which stoked public suspicion. The paper found it strange that only two policemen were hurt and that the first two people to arrive on the scene happened to be policemen in civilian clothes. Within minutes 100 policemen arrived in armored personnel carriers. Pieces of information coming from the policemen at the scene were contradictory and, most importantly, 12 hours after the explosion no official information was available.

Clearly, the reporter for 24.hu suspected that the explosion was an inside job. And he is not alone. No matter what the police investigation of the incident uncovers, a large segment of the Hungarian population will believe that the whole affair was staged by the Orbán government to make sure that the refugee referendum on October 2 succeeds. This shows the depth of suspicion that surrounds the Orbán government.

As the day went by more information was received from those who witnessed the bloody scene. MTV’s M1 station learned that a still unidentified man placed a package or brief case on the sidewalk seconds before the explosion. HVG learned that the two young policemen were actually the specific targets of the assailant. Employees of a restaurant selling gyros nearby claimed to see a white-skinned man around age 40 wearing a white hat. All sorts of stories were circulating, which only added to the suspicion of chicanery.

Around 2:00 DK demanded that the police and the government clear the air and tell the public by 6:00 p.m. what they have learned so far about the incident because “many people don’t find it impossible, in fact they believe it to be likely, that the Orbán government is behind” the alleged terrorist act. About the same time Bence Tuzson, undersecretary in charge of government communication at the prime minister’s office, told MTI, the Hungarian telegraphic agency, that by tonight the police will have enough information to inform the public of the details of the case. Népszabadság was pleased that Tuzson refrained from frightening people with terrorism. On the other hand, Georg Spöttle, another suspicious expert close to the Hungarian government who was apparently at one point a member of the German police force, announced that according to German law all crime using a detonating device is considered to be a terrorist act.

At last, around 9:00 p.m., Károly Papp, chief of the whole Hungarian police force, accompanied by the head of the Central Investigative Prosecutor’s Office (Központi Nyomozó Főügyészség) made an official announcement. Papp said that the assailant’s targets were the two policemen, adding an important sentence to the announcement: “he viewed the attack on these individuals as an assault on the whole police force.” A manhunt began for a 20- to 25-year-old man about 170 cm tall with a light-colored fisherman’s hat who wore a dark denim jacket, blue jeans, and white sneakers. The police are ready to pay 10 million forints to anyone who can provide information leading to the arrest of the suspect.

Although Police Chief Papp didn’t call the incident a terrorist act, there are a couple of sentences in his comments that are worrisome. He announced that tightened security measures have been introduced at the Ferenc Liszt International Airport, at border crossings, and on all international trains. A well-known journalist on Facebook found it troubling that Papp considers the attack on these two individuals to be an attack on the whole police force, which can be interpreted as a terrorist act. If that is the case, the government might introduce a state of emergency for the next two weeks, which would include the day the referendum is being held. That would mean a ban on demonstrations planned by opposition parties.

To these questions we have no answers at the moment. I’m pretty certain that a lone individual is responsible for the crime, but what this man’s motivation was only time will tell. Skeptical Hungarians on Facebook, however, are certain that we will never know the truth because whatever it is will be made a state secret for at least thirty years. That’s Orbán’s Hungary for you.

September 25, 2016