Tag Archives: transparency

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

Hungary quits the Open Government Partnership in a huff

Yesterday the Associated Press reported the Hungarian government’s decision to quit the Open Government Partnership (OGP), “a multilateral initiative that aims to secure concrete commitments from governments to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance.”

OGP was formally launched on September 20, 2011, when the eight founding governments (Brazil, Norway, the Philippines, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States) endorsed OGP’s Declaration and announced their countries’ action plans. Since 2011, 62 other countries joined, including Hungary, which signed its letter of intent on July 10, 2012. In this letter of intent the Orbán government declared that “it attached the utmost importance to cooperation with civil organizations.” It was the Ministry of Public Administration and Justice under Tibor Navracsics that represented the Hungarian government in this particular undertaking, which claimed at the time that “it supports the effective implementation of the OGP commitments.” It also promised “in person consultations with the civil organizations and experts regularly on a monthly basis.”

These were the promises, but according to the recollections of the participants, after the initial good working relations “the process started to slow down as the document reached the political level.” The final commitments were vague and greatly weakened. By 2014 it was clear that the Hungarian government’s “sole purpose with its membership was the opportunity to communicate its devotion to open government” to the international community.

Hungary is the second country whose government is not ready to abide by guidelines set by the Steering Committee of OGP and endorsed by them. The first country to leave OGP was Putin’s Russia, which had joined the organization in April 2012. A year later, on May 17, 2013, the Russian government informed the group of its decision to leave. Russia’s participation in this group was dubious from the very beginning, but there were other countries whose commitments to the ideals of OGP were also questionable. OGP acknowledged in February 2014 that Lithuania, Malta, and Turkey had failed to meet their commitments as members of the Open Government Partnership. Warnings were issued to these three states. In addition, the Steering Committee redefined standards for suspending members. “Two warnings in a row would trigger a discussion about continued membership of OGP countries” that create hostile environments for civil society.

By October 2014 new rules were in place that made suspension of membership practically automatic if any country limits the freedom of information; limits the activities of civic groups; favors civic groups attached in some way to the government; limits the freedom of expression and freedom of assembly; limits freedom of the press, independence of the media, or engages in the intimidation of media owners. 444.hu’s eagle-eyed reporters noted the OGP’s tightened rules for suspension, adding that they are tailor-made for Viktor Orbán’s Hungary.

The first victim of the new suspension rules was Azerbaijan. In March 2016 the Criteria and Standards Subcommittee recommended the move because “such constraints are evident in the laws on grants, non-governmental organizations, incarceration of NGO activists and journalists” that would precipitate “OGP’s response policy.” At that time, it was noted, “similar NGO complaints that the Hungarian government is restricting civil society remain under consideration.” In addition, Turkey was suspended in September 2016 because it had failed to deliver a National Action Plan since 2014.

Prior to this time the Orbán government had begun a war against Hungarian nongovernmental groups, financed mostly by the Norway Grants but also by the Soros Foundation. The government accused these NGOs of representing foreign interests and proceeded to raid their offices. At that point four leaders of NGOs decided to follow their colleagues in Azerbaijan and launch a formal complaint against the Orbán government. Fanny Hidvégi of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, Sándor Léderer of K-Monitor Watchdog for Public Funds, Miklós Ligeti of Transparency International Hungary, and Júlia Keserű of the Sunlight Foundation wrote a letter to the members of the OGP Steering Committee. The letter is available on the internet.

After considering the complaints submitted by Hungarian NGO leaders, OGP proposed several remedies that the Orbán government should adopt. It suggested the establishment of a Permanent Dialogues Mechanism (PDM) within sixty days that would ensure the participation of the relevant government agencies and interested civil society organizations. What must have especially irritated the Orbán government was that “all members of the public will be kept informed about all core aspects of the national OGP process—and especially know well in advance … about the key moments to provide inputs and discuss priorities.” OGP demanded five so-called Smart Recommendations that the Orbán government would never accept: monitoring of public disclosure practices of local government and state-owned enterprises; reviewing party and campaign financing regulations; revising the freedom of information regulations; revising regulations on classified information; and launching e-procurement. For easy access to this document, I am attaching it in full at the end of this post.

After reading these “recommendations” I’m not at all surprised that the Orbán government accepted the odium of withdrawal. A semi-autocratic, illiberal government of the kind that exists in Hungary today would never agree to such demands.

So, let’s see how the official government media explained the decision. Magyar Idők justified the Hungarian decision by citing OGP’s “one-sided criticism” of the Orbán government based on the unfair accusations of “civilians financed by George Soros.” These NGOs serve foreign interests and have been spreading false stories about the Hungarian government. Transparency International and TASZ, the Hungarian equivalent of the Civil Liberties Union, had complained to the organization about the Orbán government already in October 2012, shortly after Hungary joined OGP. In January 2013 K-Monitor allied with TASZ and TI in a new attack. And here was the latest one. It was high time to quit this unfair organization.

In the opinion of Szilárd Németh, deputy chairman of Fidesz, Hungary’s abandonment of the organization “actually sheds a very positive light on us because we do not want to participate in an organization where members carry on a conversation among themselves after which they single out somebody whom they are trying to keep at bay with one-sided reports, distortions of facts, with documents prepared by phony civil organizations mostly financed by George Soros.” It was a good decision, “a lovely gift for the time when they can get together again and they can nod against Hungary.” Németh is referring to the Open Government Global Summit, which is being held at this very moment in Paris.

The opposition’s interpretation of the move was predictable. They pointed out that the Orbán government no longer cares what the world thinks of it because surely, following in Russia’s footsteps, they are practically admitting that they are corrupt to the core. Zsolt Gréczy, DK’s spokesman, said that Hungary’s eventual suspension from the organization was inevitable. But the country’s withdrawal from the organization a day before the beginning of the Global Summit was unnecessary in that Hungary was not facing suspension at this time. The demands the organization made on the Orbán government, however, were more than the “proud Magyar” could stomach.

♦ ♦ ♦

December 8, 2016

Chief Justice Lenkovics on the Fidesz Constitutional Court, Part II

Yesterday I tried to summarize the legal philosophy of Hungary’s new chief justice, which I found shocking and totally at odds with our understanding of the rule of law in a democratic society. Viktor Szigetvári, chairman of the opposition party Együtt, in an impassioned Facebook note, called Barnabás Lenkovics morally unfit for his post. Szigetvári doesn’t spend much time on the topics I covered yesterday but instead bases his condemnation of the chief justice on some currently relevant issues such as the status of churches, the refugee issue, human rights, same-sex marriage, and the Orbán government’s latest attempt at limiting access to public documents. On almost all of these issues Lenkovics holds not conservative but outright undemocratic views.

At the moment the Hungarian government is taking its sweet time drafting an entirely new law on the recognition of churches. The original law of 2011 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 discriminatory and therefore unconstitutional. The Orbán government’s answer was to change the constitution and 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. In April 2014 the court ruled in the churches’ favor: the law was unconstitutional, so it should be scrapped and the churches compensated. The Hungarian government decided to appeal the decision. Five months later, on September 9, 2014, the court turned down the appeal. At the moment the government is apparently working on a new version of the law. They are in no hurry to compensate the churches for their financial losses between 2011 and 2015.

Barnabás Lenkovics in the middle of the upper row

Barnabás Lenkovics in the middle of the upper row

It was this case that came up in the conversation between Lenkovics and the journalist from Mandiner.hu. Keep in mind that the constitution itself was altered to make an unconstitutional law constitutional. Lenkovics, who was a nominee of the then opposition parties Fidesz-KDNP and MDF in 2007, and four of the five Fidesz justices who were appointed after 2010 found nothing wrong with the church law. Consistent with that view, Lenkovics sees no reason to amend the constitution in light of the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights. It is enough if “the law is rewritten or at least significantly altered.” But he still thinks that the 1989 law on churches “gave too much freedom in the establishment of churches … who, in turn, abused it.”

Well, if the churches abused their freedom, the same is true of civil rights activists whom he labelled “hobby civil rights activists” and “professional revolutionaries.” He added that “probably there is need for them, otherwise they wouldn’t finance them.” Who are these “they”? I guess the trouble-making foreigners who would like to know what the members of the government are up to. In any case, Lenkovics finds it “strange that they [the activists] exercise their own rights at the expense of the community.”

When the reporter noted that the corruption of officials and politicians may be much more costly to the community than photocopying a few hundred pages of documents, Lenkovics came up with this gem: “We assume that those who decided to serve the common good and who took an oath will not abuse their power and will not take advantage of the public purse for their own use.” The reporter was so stunned that he could only mutter: “That is what the Constitutional Court assumes? That’s all?” At this point Lenkovics realized that he went too far and quickly retreated: “Everybody is entitled to the presumption of innocence. I believe in civil control.” A little later he even sang the praises of investigative journalism, bemoaning the fact that there are not enough reporters who can ferret out the sources of corruption.

There was a brief exchange on same sex-marriage, in which Lenkovics resorted to the old natural law argument which claims that “certain rights or values are inherent in or universally cognizable by virtue of human reason or human virtue of judicial recognition or articulation.” In his view marriage has “traditional and natural legal foundations … and it is the basis not only of European and Christian civilization but of the whole human civilization.” He compares changing the current law on marriage to creating a law that would state that “a child can be born of a man by a man.” One could write such a law, but that doesn’t make it possible.

Lenkovics wove into the topic of same sex marriage a couple of intriguing sentences. “It is an interesting absurdity that while among heterosexuals the number of marriages is decreasing and more and more existing marriages break up, among homosexuals the demand to be able to get married is growing. Did anyone try to compare them?” I suspect that this intellectual giant thinks that homosexual “propaganda” is making headway and actually has an impact on the sexual behavior of the society in favor of homosexuality.

Finally, there was an exchange on the refugee question, which came up as a corollary to Lenkovics’s distinction between “legal” and “political” constitutionality. The latter in his opinion considers reality while the former is too abstract and unworkable. So, Lenkovics thinks that

It is a great problem that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights emphasizes universality while in reality something very different is going on. The world, the United Nations, the European Union signed a blank check about universal human rights but that check is uncovered.

These people now, as refugees flood the world, declare their human rights and the duties of Europe. Not the duties of their own governments to look after them, but those of the West.

My take on this is that human rights as such should be thrown out of our legal arsenal.

This interview, I believe, tells us more about the nature of the Orbán regime than hundreds of pages of analyses by political scientists. The chief justice opened the door to the workings of Viktor Orbán’s illiberal state.

Further restrictions on freedom of information in illiberal Hungary

The Hungarian government has been dissatisfied with the current provisions of the Freedom of Information Act. Already in 2013 the government tried to limit ordinary citizens’ access to public information, but that attempt failed since it was obviously unconstitutional. Now, two years later, the Ministry of Justice has come up with a new scheme.

Up until now, a person requesting data of public interest had to pay only photocopying fees. In practice, that meant that a few days after the request was submitted the appropriate government office informed the applicant of the approximate copying charge and asked whether he was still interested in pursuing the matter. But now, if parliament passes a series of amendments Justice Minister László Trócsányi submitted, the interested citizen will have to pay the complete cost of the release of the documents. What is included in the “complete cost” is not spelled out. Certainly not merely copying costs. As 444.hu semi-jokingly said: “Who knows? It might also include the price of electricity.” Moreover, there is no provision to tell the information seeker ahead of time about the possible cost. It may happen that the bill is millions of forints, which NGOs or investigative journalists are not prepared to pay. This amendment itself might be unconstitutional, since the constitution states that “assurance of freedom of information is the duty of all government organs.”

But that’s not all. Another amendment distinguishes between ordinary government documents and copyrighted documents. The latter cannot be copied and given out to seekers of information; they can only be shown to the interested person. On the surface, this practice seems defensible–until we take a look at a specific case. I’m thinking of the billions the government spent on studies prepared by the associates of the pro-government think tank Századvég. Initially the prime minister’s office that ordered the studies refused to release them, appealing to copyright laws. The newspaperman pursued the case, went to court, and won. If the amendment is passed, the government will put a stop to this practice.

The amendment would also modify laws governing data that are still being considered by the government in such a way that any data that might be the basis for future decisions couldn’t be released. For all intents and purposes, all data would be under government protection.

In addition, there is a fudge-factor sentence that allows the government to prevent the public from accessing material that it doesn’t want to be revealed. “If so much extra work is required of the employees that they are prevented from taking care of their major duties, the request might not be fulfilled completely.”

For some reason the government wants these amendments to become law as soon as possible. Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén, who originally asked László Kövér to make sure that parliament would be prepared to vote on the amendments in October, wrote a new letter in which he asked for immediate discussion of Trócsányi’s proposals. Naturally, Kövér readily agreed. Parliament will most likely vote on the amendments on Monday.

Being able to ask the government how it spends taxpayer money is an important instrument of democracy. For example, people have the right to know how much the government spends on anti-refugee billboards or how much János Lázár’s trips abroad cost. Given the Fidesz government’s track record, it’s no wonder that Viktor Orbán, his oligarchs, and corrupt government officials are greatly bothered by the uncomfortable questions posed by NGOs or investigative journalists. HVGs take on the issue is that the Trócsányi amendments serve to cover up widespread fraud and corruption.

piggy bank2

Four anti-corruption organizations–Transparency International Magyarország, K-Monitor, Átlátszó.hu, and Energiaklub–are trying to stop the proposed changes in the law. They jointly wrote to László Trócsányi, to the Authority of National Data Protection and Freedom of Information, and to members of parliament to protest the move. Attila Péterfalvi, president of the Authority of National Data Protection, originally found nothing wrong with the proposed amendments, claiming that eventually the practice of obtaining data would be satisfactorily solved. A few days later, however, he changed his mind and released a statement in which he emphasized that “acquiring data of public interest is a constitutional right, the great achievement of the regime change, the guarantee of democratic rule of law, and the control of public spending.” It is hard to know at the moment what Péterfalvi’s next move will be.

Transparency International released a statement in which they called the law vague and one that severely restricts access to information. They also pointed out that the newly amended law will “create a serious risk that corruption by public officials will go unchecked.” Transparency International believes that government offices cannot charge more than a nominal fee when people would like to find out how their taxes are being spent. Anna Koch, director of Europe and Central Asia at Transparency International, fears that “the government is quickly pushing Hungary toward full state control of public information.” The vote will be tomorrow, and I have no doubt that it will pass.