Tag Archives: Viktor Orbán

Foreign Minister Szijjártó goes to Washington, and silence follows

Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó just returned from a three-day visit to Washington where he was to meet Wess Mitchell, the new assistant secretary of state in charge of European and Eurasian Affairs. Mitchell is the successor to Victoria Nuland, whom Magyar Idők called, less than a week ago, the “gravedigger of Hungary.”

Mitchell’s appointment was finalized only in October 2017, but the Hungarian government began assessing its possible chances with Mitchell as soon as his name emerged as a potential assistant secretary. The government’s reaction was mixed. On the one hand, it was pleased that Mitchell, before accepting the State Department post, had been the president of the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), the American think tank that concentrates exclusively on East-Central Europe. Therefore he should be more familiar with the region and hence with Hungarian affairs. However, Index noted at the time that “one of the main research fields of [CEPA] is Russian propaganda, disinformation and the fight against it, which is not a priority for the Hungarian government.” I would call this a gross understatement. In fact, the Hungarian government does a superb job of misinforming the public and gives free rein to Russian disinformation on the pages of the newspapers and internet sites it supports.

Whatever misgivings Viktor Orbán and his foreign policy experts originally had, they eventually decided that Mitchell’s appointment “could mean the beginning of a new chapter in Hungarian-American political relations.” Under the previous administration Hungary “had to face several instances of undue criticism and lack of understanding.” The Hungarian Foreign Ministry hoped that, with the appointment of Mitchell, “now is the best opportunity” to establish close diplomatic relations.

Szijjártó arrived in Washington on January 15 to conduct two days of negotiations, which began on January 16 with a conversation with Assistant Secretary Wess Mitchell, followed by meetings with two White House officials –Jason Greenblatt, assistant to the president and special representative for international negotiations, and Fiona Hill, special assistant to the president and senior director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council. Greenblatt, prior to his Washington job, was chief legal officer to Donald Trump and The Trump Organization. Hill is a highly regarded Russia expert from the Brookings Institution, who most likely is critical of the Orbán government’s Russia policy and Viktor Orbán’s personal relations with Vladimir Putin.

Szijjártó anticipated that his encounter with Mitchell would “take the form of a long discussion.” One of the topics, I’m sure, was the U.S. State Department’s  “funding opportunity” for support of “objective media in Hungary.” Szijjártó noted that “the Hungarian government views this plan as interference in Hungary’s domestic affairs.”

No one has any idea how long the conversation between Mitchell and Szijjártó lasted because, since his meetings with the assistant secretary and the two White House officials, Szijjártó has said nothing about the encounters. Not one word. Certain Hungarian news outlets reported earlier that Szijjártó, in addition to having discussions on U.S.-Hungarian relations, was supposed to prepare Viktor Orbán’s visit to the United States in February. As Klub Rádió’s “Tények, Vélemények” (Facts, Opinions) put it, “the Hungarian prime minister is planning to attend the National Prayer Breakfast.” This annual event, which is held at the Washington Hilton, is a gathering of 3,000-3,500 invited guests from 100 countries. Therefore, it is immaterial what Viktor Orbán “is planning.” The question is whether he has an invitation or not. By the way, this event is not organized by the White House. The president is just one of the invitees.

The only record so far of the meeting between Szijjártó and Mitchell is a photograph taken of the two men shaking hands, but it doesn’t look as if they were standing in the State Department. Klub Rádió’s guess is that the photo was taken at the Hungarian Embassy, a rather strange arrangement if true.

In any event, Szijjártó’s silence indicates to me that wherever this important meeting took place, it was not a success, that the anticipated breakthrough didn’t materialize. The usual explanation for the still icy relations between the two countries is that the holdover diplomats from the Obama administration continue to run the show in the State Department. The hope in Budapest is that soon enough Donald Trump’s people will be in charge and that they will appreciate the American president’s kindred soul in Europe. But Orbán’s diplomats are overlooking a major stumbling block: the worrisomely close relationship between Putin’s Russia and Orbán’s Hungary, which, given the climate in the United States, is not the best recommendation for closer ties with the Orbán regime.

MTI /EPA/ Photo: Georgi Licovszki

On the very day of Szijjártó’s negotiations in the United States, Magyar Idők ran an article on its front page with the following headline: “Lavrov: America is not doing any favor to the world.” Lavrov, according to the article, accused the United States of using illegitimate means to maintain its waning supremacy in a multi-polar world. Not the best way of endearing oneself to the United States, claimed the commentator from Népszava. This editorial, I’m afraid, is a bit naïve. Diplomats of the State Department don’t need the Hungarian government’s propaganda machinery to be aware of the state of Russian-Hungarian relations. They are fully cognizant of them and find them troubling. Mátyás Eörsi, former undersecretary of foreign affairs and former leader of the ALDE-Pace Group in the Council of Europe, wrote an excellent opinion piece in HVG about the Orbán administration’s total incomprehension of the futility of trying to build a close relationship with the United States under the present circumstances.

I agree. Orbán will have to choose: either Putin’s Russia or the United States. There is no middle ground now. I also suspect that as the investigation of Russian involvement in the U.S. election process unfolds, more suspicion will be focused on Hungary as a client state and Viktor Orbán as a Trojan horse. These are not the best recommendations in Washington today or in the foreseeable future.

In recent days the Orbán government welcomed a letter written on January 11 by ten extremely conservative members of Congress addressed to Secretary of State Tillerson, urging him “to strengthen the strategic cooperation between the United States and Hungary,” claiming common threats from an unnamed source. They suggest “high-level meetings between the leaders of [the] two countries in order to build mutual trust.” The leader of the group, Andy Harris, must have received word from Connie Mack III, Orbán’s lobbyist in Washington, that one of Viktor Orbán’s greatest desires is to be invited to the Oval Office. At this point we don’t even know whether he will be one of the 3,000-3,500 invitees at the National Prayer Breakfast on February 8.

January 19, 2018

Church and State in Orbán’s Hungary

Let me return briefly to Hódmezővásárhely because, since we left this Fidesz stronghold, the city has acquired a special significance. Péter Márki-Zay’s decision to stand as an independent against the Fidesz candidate for the post of mayor has had a greater impact than a local campaign in a provincial town of Hódmezővásárhely’s size would warrant.

As an offshoot of this seemingly ordinary local election, a national discourse on the role of the churches in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary has emerged. The relation between church and state has been seriously out of kilter in Hungary, an allegedly secular state, for some time. People simply needed a catalyst to begin challenging the incredible amount of taxpayer money that is being spent on churches, not just in Hungary but in the whole Carpathian Basin. And, perhaps more importantly, to ask how appropriate it is to sell the churches’ good will for hard cash. Márki-Zay’s parish priest provided this catalyst.

We knew from the beginning that Márki-Zay is a religious Catholic. Given his close association with the church, he certainly wasn’t expecting what he got from László Németh, whom he calls Father Laci. As Father László promised, on Sunday he delivered a short speech to the congregation in which he made it clear that his flock must vote for the Fidesz candidate because “not since World War II have the Hungarian churches, not just the Catholic Church, had such opportunities as they are getting now—in education, healthcare, social services, publications, and the list goes on. In Hódmezővásárhely we already have the money in our bank account; we are just starting construction of a third Catholic church in town. People knowing all this, knowing the facts, can make the right decision regarding whom they will vote for when they enter the voting booth.” Many people in the congregation were shocked and disgusted, especially because of the implication of the speech: the Orbán government had bought the Hungarian Catholic Church lock, stock, and barrel. Márki-Zay wasn’t expecting “all the hate and evil which erupted in the last ten days.” He and his friends apparently prayed at a Eucharistic Adoration last night for Father Laci, who must be having a hard time after his performance on Sunday.

György Gábor, an expert on the philosophy of religion, has a devastating opinion of Father László’s attitude toward his own religion and his church. “He put a price on the teachings of Jesus. The first person who valorized the teachings of Jesus was Judas; he asked for thirty pieces of silver for the betrayal of him.” In Hódmezővásárhely, as Father László revealed, there is a symbiosis of church and state that is the result of a dirty financial deal.

Let’s take a look at a few recent cases of large sums of money showered on the churches. Defense Minister István Simicskó and Undersecretary Miklós Soltész, who is in charge of state-church relations, just announced a two billion forint grant to two Catholic gymnasiums in District XI. This is over and above the 2.5 billion that had already been dispersed among religious organizations, mostly Catholic, in the district. They explained that giving financial assistance to churches is especially necessary now that “Christian civilization and the lives of Europeans are threatened by other civilizations.” Simicskó added, quoting Carl von Clausewitz, that without faith one cannot have a strong army. We can ponder the meaning of this strange remark.

The same Miklós Soltész proudly talked the other day about the renovation of 5,500 churches in the Carpathian Basin on Hungarian taxpayer money over the last four years. I don’t know how many of these churches are in Hungary and how many in the neighboring countries. And of course, a lot of brand new churches have been built since Fidesz won the election in 2010. Not that Hungary is in dire need of new churches. We know from statistics that the number of regular churchgoers in Hungary is very small. For instance, from the article about Father László’s speech in his church we learned that there was such interest in the event that the number of attendees was about three times normal. As one of the parishioners said, the size of the congregation could be compared only to mass on Christmas Day. So, one cannot help wondering why Hódmezővásárhely needs another Catholic church.

I assume that the situation is no different with the Protestants, yet a number of new church buildings have been erected lately with generous government assistance. The Hungarian Reformed Church is especially favored. After all, Orbán is “református” and so is Zoltán Balog, whose ministry is in charge of church affairs.

Here is one example from the many. The prime minister is apparently a member of the Svábhegyi Református Gyülekezet (Reformed Congregation of Svábhegy), which received a new building seven years ago. Svábhegy/Swabian Hill is one of swankiest parts of Buda. But the congregation had larger plans. It wanted a church center, and its most famous parishioner promised to help. He kept his word. In December the Magyar Nemzeti Vagyonkezelő (Hungarian National Asset Management) purchased two lots adjacent to the church to the tune of almost 650 million forints. One was owned by the City of Budapest and the other by District XII. On the one was a workers’ hostel and on the other, two small apartment buildings. No problem. The workers were moved into another building somewhere in the city and the tenants were given new apartments elsewhere. The two lots, free of charge, will be at the disposal of the Hungarian Reformed Church for the Svábhegyi Református Központ for 50 years. I assume that the money for the construction of the center will also come from the taxpayers.

The church of the Reformed Congregation of Svábhegy

Finally, about a week ago Index reported that the government is launching a scholarship program for priests and ministers who will be serving communities in the Hungarian diaspora in the Carpathian Basin as well as in Western Europe and the Americas. Apparently there is a shortage of clerics who can serve Hungarian parishes abroad.

A member of Index’s staff questioned the constitutionality of this planned program. She quoted from the new Basic Laws’ Article VII(3), which states that “the State and religious communities shall operate separately. Religious communities shall be autonomous.” The trouble is that she overlooked Article VII(4), which reads: “The State and religious communities may cooperate to achieve community goals. At the request of the religious community, the National Assembly shall decide on such cooperation. The religious communities participating in such cooperation shall operate as established churches with regard to their participation in the fulfillment of tasks that serve to achieve community goals.” So, forget the unconstitutionality of launching a “clerical scholarship program.”

I might add that the 1989 Constitution read very differently. In it one cannot find the kind of loophole Fidesz put into its own constitution. Article 60(3) says that “The church and the State shall operate in separation in the Republic of Hungary.” No ifs, ands, or buts. Fidesz made sure that everything in the new constitution would serve its plans for reshaping Hungarian society from the ground up.

January 16, 2018

Surprise, surprise! OLAF found “serious irregularities” on Orbán’s home turf

On January 12 The Wall Street Journal reported that, after a two-year investigation, the European Union’s Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) is recommending legal proceedings over “serious irregularities” found in a company that was co-owned by the son-in-law of Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, between 2011 and 2015.

I have been following the rising fortunes of István Tiborcz, the 32-year-old millionaire businessman who married Orbán’s eldest child, Ráhel. A couple of journalists began investigating Tiborcz’s business dealings in the summer of 2014 after Ráhel Orbán boasted on Facebook that she and her husband don’t need her father’s assistance in paying her lofty tuition fees in Switzerland because they “stand on their own two feet” financially. It was this comment that inspired András Becker and Babett Oroszi, two investigative journalists from Átlátszó, to look into Tiborcz’s business affairs. After a few months of hard work they produced a thorough article, published shortly before Christmas 2014. On the same day I wrote a post titled “How do European Union funds end up in the hands of the Orbán family?” The two journalists found that Tiborcz’s firm, Elios Innovatív Zrt., bid and won, more often than not without any competition, 2.9 billion forints worth of government contracts, mostly financed by the European Union. In addition to serious irregularities in the bidding process, OLAF also found “evidence of conflict of interest.” As we have known since 2014, Endre Hamar, a business partner of István Tiborcz, was the owner of a company that “helped municipalities prepare the tender process.”

That article was so hard hitting and so thoroughly researched that in February 2015 Csaba Molnár, DK member of the European Parliament, turned to OLAF in connection with the shady business affairs of István Tiborcz. By March even the Hungarian police had begun investigating Elios’s business transactions. The Orbán family council must have realized that the situation was serious and that the best thing was to get rid of Elios as quickly as possible. By May 2015 Tiborcz “sold” his company to one of his father-in-law’s oligarchs. In July Csaba Molnár announced that OLAF had found the information he provided sufficient grounds for investigation. In fact, as it turned out, the irregularities were so serious that OLAF is suggesting the return of €40 million to the European Union, money that it claims was illegally obtained.

The Wall Street Journal noted that these “allegations could prove embarrassing for Mr. Orbán, an outspoken critic of the EU in recent years.” Indeed, every effort is being made in the pro-government media to minimize the significance of OLAF’s findings regarding the possible misappropriation of funds by Tiborcz’s company. Magyar Idők published an editorial shortly after the appearance of The Wall Street Journal article that tried to give the impression that there is a direct connection between the forthcoming national election and OLAF’s suggestion of an investigation by the appropriate Hungarian authorities into Elios’s business affairs.

The best that Zoltán Kovács, the communication wizard, could come up with was that “it has been possible ever since 2004 to use EU resources for the development of public lighting.” Moreover, he continued, “the objects of the OLAF investigation are tenders that were initiated during the tenure of the Bajnai government.” In brief, it was Viktor Orbán’s predecessor who was responsible for the current prime minister’s son-in-law’s allegedly fraudulent business practices by offering an opportunity to develop public lighting in Hungarian cities. Gordon Bajnai couldn’t resist and wrote the following comment on his Facebook page: “Perhaps we should have been more careful and indicated on the application forms that applicants are obliged to follow the seventh and government spokesmen the eighth of the Ten Commandments. Of course, we thought that it is enough if it is in the Bible.” In case some of you need a refresher course, the seventh commandment says “Thou shalt not steal” and the eighth, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.”

As for the alleged connection between the forthcoming election and the OLAF investigation, the Hungarian government seems to be exceedingly well-informed about all the alleged recent decisions and moves of OLAF. Magyar Idők claims that in the last few months OLAF rushed to complete the work on this particular case. They were in such a hurry that “they neglected to ask for the comments of the concerned party.” In brief, the announcement was timed to coincide with the start of the election campaign. OLAF is giving the opposition an opportunity to use the case against Fidesz and the Orbán government.

Ottó Gajdics, editor of Magyar Idők and a particularly distasteful character on the far-right Echo TV, took upon himself the task of writing an opinion piece on the OLAF investigation. In his interpretation, the real culprit in this affair is the opposition. “They pounced on the object of their hatred” and “in their usual sly ways, they entrusted their foreign agents” to do the dirty work. But, he continued, one ought not to be terribly worried about this whole affair. It will take months for the prosecutor’s office to investigate the case. It is “in our interest not to allow anyone to take advantage of these investigations in this base political game.” Indeed, I am sure that Mr. Gajdics is right. The prosecutor’s office, a veritable Fidesz bastion led by Péter Polt, will do its utmost to see that nothing comes of the investigation. Viktor Orbán and his son-in-law have nothing to fear.

January 15, 2018

The Congressional Hungarian-American Caucus: Documents

Today I will concentrate on the Congressional Hungarian-American Caucus which, according to the Hungarian Embassy in Washington, “provides a strong voice for Hungarian-American issues in Congress and seeks to promote constructive dialogue between Hungary and the 1.5 million Hungarian Americans in the United States.”

The Caucus was established in 2003 by the late Tom Lantos, Democratic congressman from California. After his death in 2008, the Caucus leadership was taken over by Dennis Kucinich, a Democrat, and Steve LaTourette, a moderate Republican, both from Ohio. At that time, in addition to the two chairmen, the Caucus had four members: two Republicans and two Democrats.

Shortly after the departure of the two chairmen in 2013, the leadership fell into the hands of an entirely new group of people. The Hungarian-American Caucus was “reconstituted.” Three new people took over the leadership: Andy Harris (R-MD), Marcy Kaptur (D-OH), and David Joyce (R-OH). At that time, “the co-chairs congratulated Hungary on the adoption of its new constitution which closes an important chapter of its post-communist past and will help secure the freedoms and liberties of all of its citizens.” The press release indicated that the leadership was actually in the hands of Andy Harris, “the only Hungarian American currently serving in Congress.” Indeed, Andy Harris’s father, Zoltán, originally from Miskolc, emigrated to the United States in 1950. His mother’s family came from Poland. Harris feels that “Hungarians and Americans are bound inextricably together by their commitment to freedom and opportunity.”

The Caucus by now has 14 members, nine Republicans and five Democrats. Most of the Republicans in the Caucus are very conservative, beginning with Andy Harris himself. Almost all of them are Trump supporters, most of them are strong gun rights advocates and opponents of abortion and LGBT rights.

Harris, who is a medical doctor, was elected to congress in 2010 as part of the Tea Party wave. He joined the House’s Freedom Caucus, a gathering place for right-wing Republicans. He has been a great supporter of Donald Trump, and he endorsed Roy Moore for the Alabama Senate seat. While many conservatives withdrew their endorsement of Moore after multiple women accused him of sexual misconduct when they were teenagers, Harris stood by him.

Harris has been very active as co-chair of the Hungarian-American Caucus. Last November he and two other Republican members of the Caucus addressed a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. In it, he complained about the speech that U.S. Chargé d’Affaires David Kostelancik delivered before members of the diplomatic corps and journalists at the headquarters of Magyar Újságírók Országos Szövetsége/National Association of Hungarian Journalists on October 17, 2017. I summarized the speech in a post written that day, but the complete text is available on the website of the U.S. Embassy in Budapest.

We don’t know the exact date of the letter, but on November 20 Magyar Idők reported that “American representatives stood by Hungary.” We learn from Hungarian sources that the letter was signed by Dennis Ross (R-FL), Andy Harris (R-MD, and Mike Coffmann (R-CO). Since the letter was never made public either in the United States or in Hungary, the Hungarian government must have learned the identities of the signatories from the leadership of the Congressional Hungarian-American Caucus.

In any case, on November 14 former senior members of the State Department, who had served both Republican and Democratic administrations, wrote a letter to the members of the Hungarian-American Caucus, standing by David Kostelancik. I’m sure you will recognize at least two of the authors of the letter: Rob Berschinski and Thomas O. Melia. I have written about both, the former in connection with the Bálint Hóman controversy and the latter in connection with the abuse he received from the Orbán government. The letter is reproduced below.

The second document is a so-called Dear Colleague letter, which is official correspondence sent by a member, committee, or officer of the United States House of Representatives or United States Senate and which is distributed in bulk to other congressional offices. This particular Dear Colleague letter is signed only by Andy Harris in his capacity as co-chair of the Hungarian-American Caucus. A day later Magyar Idők jubilantly reported that a “Republican representative urged the immediate improvement of American-Hungarian relations.” News travels fast, especially when there is a direct line of communication between Andy Harris’s Caucus and the Hungarian government.

I hope that the publication of these documents will shed some light on forces working in Washington on behalf of the illiberal Orbán administration.

ormer State Department Officials to Members of the Hungarian-American Caucus

November 14, 2017

Dear Members of the House Hungarian Caucus,

As former senior State Department officials who served both Republican and Democratic administrations, and proponents of a strong and vibrant U.S.-Hungary relationship, we write to express our strong support for U.S. Chargé d’affaires David Kostelancik’s recent remarks concerning the importance of Hungary maintaining a free, diverse, and independent media environment.

Time and again, our experiences in government demonstrated that the United States’ strongest, most durable alliances and partnerships are rooted in a common foundation of shared values and worldview. That premise stands at the heart of the NATO alliance, whose charter begins by affirming that alliance members “are determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilisation of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.”

The insight underpinning the North Atlantic Treaty underscores why we view with alarm the Hungarian government’s well-documented effort to erode many of the democratic institutions and rule of law-based protections established by the country’s citizens in the wake of Hungary’s emergence from communist rule.

In keeping with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s pledge to turn Hungary into an “illiberal state,” in recent years his government has all but eliminated the judiciary as an independent, co-equal branch of government. It has serially harassed non- governmental organizations, recently passing a law targeting civic organizations modeled on repressive Russian legislation. It has defied common decency in essentially criminalizing those fleeing persecution and war. It has made no secret of its desire to expand bilateral ties with Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin, whose goals include the weakening of the European Union and NATO, and ending Western sanctions against Moscow. The government of Hungary has also dabbled in state- sponsored anti-Semitism, including by attempting the historical rehabilitation of fascist-aligned World War II-era figures, including the man responsible for the laws that ultimately led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews at Auschwitz.

In addition to these actions, the Hungarian government has unquestionably sought to circumscribe what was once a flourishing independent press.

The government of Viktor Orbán and its allies are engaged in a process that is systematically undercutting the country’s independent media outlets, all but a few of which have been shuttered or acquired by government-aligned actors in recent years and forced to censor their reporting.

A final fact is worth highlighting. The proximate context for Chargé Kostelancik’s speech of September 17, 2017 was this: on September 5, 2017, the pro-government Hungarian internet portal “888.hu” and other government-aligned media sources published a by-name list of eight journalists working for foreign media outlets.

These included reporters working for respected news sources like Reuters, Bloomberg, and Politico.

These journalists were described as “foreign propagandists,” and accused of working for George Soros, the American against whom the Hungarian government has launched a taxpayer funded national vilification campaign that has included plastering the country with posters reminiscent of the anti-Semitic tropes of the 1930s.

Among the eight journalists named as enemies seeking to “discredit” Hungary was an American citizen resident in Hungary, who subsequently began to receive death threats.

As you may know, just prior to his arrival in Budapest, Chargé Kostelancik spent a year on Capitol Hill as the senior State Department official at the U.S. Helsinki Commission, where he worked with Members of Congress to advance bipartisan foreign policy objectives through a comprehensive approach to security, which includes promotion of universal human rights.

In publicly defending press freedom as an essential safeguard in any democratic society, Chargé Kostelancik eloquently and responsibly spoke on behalf of a First Amendment value that Americans hold dear. He also stood up bravely for an American facing unconscionable threats. He did so in a nuanced, respectful manner, taking care to affirm the close ties that continue to bind the people of the United States and Hungary. His actions reflect the best in what it means to be an American diplomat serving the United States and our interests abroad.

We hope you will join us in celebrating his excellent remarks, the full text of which we’ve attached to this letter.

Sincerely,

David J. Kramer
Former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

Tom Malinowski
Former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

Thomas O. Melia
Former USAID Assistant Administrator for Europe & Eurasia

Daniel B. Baer
Former U.S. Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe

Rob Berschinski
Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

Attachment: Remarks by Chargé d’Affaires David Kostelancik, “Freedom of the Press: Enduring Values in a Dynamic Media Environment,” as prepared for delivery at the Hungarian Association of Journalists, October 17, 201

 

Andy Harris’s Dear Colleague letter

Request for Signature(s)

SIGN LETTER TO SUPPORT HUNGARIAN-AMERICAN RELATIONS

Overturn Obama Era Policy to Fund Media to Interfere in Hungarian Elections

Dear Colleagues,

Please join me in a letter to Secretary Tillerson urging him to take immediate steps to improve relations with Hungary.

As you may know, the Obama Administration cold-shouldered Hungary and distorted the record of its center-right government led by Prime Minister Victor OrbanUnder Obama, the State Department tried to turn Hungary into a pariah state, denying high-level meetings. Orban has been an outspoken defender of Western civilization and Hungary’s traditional values and cultural heritage – and the leading European voice against mass immigration and the hegemony of Brussels. At the same time Hungarians have ratified his leadership on these issues and his economic policies with repeated election victories. Most notably, under Orban’s direction, Hungary was the first member of the European Union to recognize the security crises represented by the uncontrolled flow of refugees into the EU and the his was the first government to take action to prevent that flow. Though heavily criticized at the time, Hungary’s erection of a border fence is now praised as a prudent and necessary measure to protect the integrity and security of not just Hungary, but the entire EU. Hungary under PM Orban has also been Israel’s strongest supporters in Europe.

Under President Trump, the policy has improved yet the Obama policy course has not been completely corrected. Most shocking, the State Department recently issued a Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) for a grant of up to $700,000 to support “objective media” to “lead to democratic reforms” in Hungary – in other words, the State Department seeks to fund opposition media in a democratic country that is a member of NATO and the EU. This represents the latest in a string of State Department actions insulting and undermining the center-right government of one of the United States’ closest allies in Europe.

As a co-chair of the Congressional Hungarian-American Caucus, I ask you to join me in encouraging the Secretary to ensure that implementation of the NOFO is immediately suspended and decisively  develop the natural alliance between the US and Hungary. Prime Minister Orban has been a vocal supporter of President Trump since early on in the campaign and Orban’s approaches to many policy issues including defense, security, antiterrorism, foreign policy or immigration closely mirror those of President Trump. Just as President Trump has declared “America First” so too has Hungary pursued its own national interests, many times in the face of liberal, Soros funded, opposition. Throughout that legitimate pursuit, the State Department has often interjected itself with critical statements of domestic policy issued in an official capacity. The NOFO represents an escalation in the State Department’s misguided antagonism of our democratic ally. To be added to this letter, please contact
Timothy.Daniels@mail.house.gov by
COB Wednesday, January 10th.

Sincerely,

Andy Harris, M.D.

January 13, 2018

The far-right Orbán government’s attack on György Konrád

It has been going on by now for a whole week, and there is no end in sight. I’m talking about the incredible onslaught against György Konrád, the internationally renowned Hungarian writer, recipient of numerous prestigious prizes, and the president of the International PEN Club between 1990 and 1993. Abroad his best known work is The Case Worker, which made a deep impression on me. He is a wise man whom I admire.

Although Konrád is tolerant, he finds Viktor Orbán dangerous and harmful. On the basis of a recent interview, I suspect that Konrád’s dislike of Orbán goes back a long way, maybe even as far as 1989 when the young firebrand demanded the immediate withdrawal of Soviet troops despite an earlier agreement with the organizers of the reburial of Imre Nagy and his comrades. Konrád doesn’t hide his true feelings about the Hungarian prime minister. Last April, at the time the Orbán government was trying its best to shutter Central European University, he wrote an open letter to Orbán in which he listed the prime minister’s sins. Konrád ended his letter with these words: “The most valiant patriotic act on your part, Sir, would be to resign. In your retirement, you could amuse yourself with your toy train and your little stadium (stadionka) where you could kick the ball into the empty gate.”

The theme of Orbán’s retirement returned in a somewhat stronger form in an interview with HVG that appeared on January 4. The occasion was the appearance of Konrád’s last book, Falevelek szélben (Leaves in the Wind). The conversation was mostly about his life because the book is part of a trilogy on Konrád’s past. However, at the very end he answered a few questions about recent political events. He told the reporter that he could see the end of the Kádár regime and the fall of the Berlin Wall ahead of time. The reporter wanted to know what “his prediction is in the present situation.” He wished for unity of the opposition and was pleased that “a great force pulls Hungarians to the European Union and not to their dictators.” And then came the final sentences, which has caused incredible upheaval in right-wing circles. Konrád said that “mysterious movements one day can take such a turn that the prime minister, if he doesn’t want to share the fate of Nicolae Ceaușescu, will voluntarily go somewhere. As a benevolent man, I want him to go to Felcsút.”

György Konrád / Source: HVG / Photo: István Fazekas

That sentence sent the government propaganda machine into high gear. The first government financed publication that took notice was Pesti Srácok, which published a short article titled “György Konrád is dreaming of the execution of Viktor Orbán by firing squad.” Clearly, Konrád has become senile, says the author. After all, not long  ago “he told tales” about the anti-Soros campaign being “anti-Semitic.” He would find it “reasonable” if Hungary were punished because of the laws enacted by the Orbán government against NGOs and Central European University. And a year ago “he was gushing over Soros” who, in his opinion, “is as great a benefactor of Hungary as István Széchenyi was in the 1830s and 1840s.” Surely, comparing George Soros to Széchenyi is blatant blasphemy for the staff of Pesti Srácok.

This article obviously got under the skin of the editor-in-chief of HVG, who “hysterically threatened our site with a lawsuit,” arguing that the Pesti Srácok article was “a lie from beginning to end.” That prompted the far-right site to write another article. Here three authors sat down to outdo each other. This time Konrád was accused of Jim Crow justice. As if that weren’t enough, the authors decided that Konrád “would have no mercy even on Orbán’s wife. After all, the Romanians also executed Ceaușescu’s wife.”

It took Magyar Idők four days to come up with its first opinion piece on the Konrád quotation, written by János Dénes Orbán. His article is somewhat more sophisticated than the primitive pieces of Pesti Srácok. The bulk of the article is about the Twilight Zone the liberals have built, which bears no resemblance to reality. In their world there is dictatorship, poverty, a lack of media freedom. Then he tries to decode Konrád’s closing sentences. What really excited his imagination was the reference to “mysterious movements.” Perhaps Konrád knows about some hidden forces, which Charles Gati talked about in 2012 when he outlined the possible ways the Orbán regime could end. Of course, this namesake of the prime minister twisted Gati’s words beyond recognition, just as is now doing with Konrád’s. Konrád, he charges, is plagiarizing. About a year ago Gáspár Miklós Tamás brought up the example of Ceaușescu in connection with the possible end of a dictatorship.

Once Magyar Idők discovered the topic, it had difficulty letting it go. A few hours after the first opinion piece came the second, with the intriguing title “Bolshevism kicked down the door.” Bálint Botond, apparently a sociologist, once thought that Konrád was a good writer, but that was before 1990. When as a young man he read a new Konrád book titled The melancholy of rebirth, he discovered that the book was nothing but “a dastardly diatribe of a pathologically extreme man written in a somewhat acceptable style.”

Perhaps the most interesting part of the opinion piece is his interpretation of the 1970s and 1980s and the role of Konrád and his friends, who were victims of the Kádár regime. One way that Kádár handled pesky writers, philosophers, and sociologists, he writes, was actually quite ingenious. He forced them out of the country. This is what happened to Iván Szelényi, Ágnes Heller, and, of course, Konrád himself. According to this great anti-Bolshevik author, Kádár was smart because if he let them stay in Hungary, they might have gotten the upper hand in intraparty fights. And “these extreme liberal groups could toss the strongest dictatorship into chaos.”

Magyar Hírlap couldn’t miss the opportunity to publish an opinion piece by Dániel Galsai, a frequent contributor to this far-right paper. He asks: “Will the world be more beautiful, better, more truthful, and more humane when György Konrád is no longer alive? A Christian can give only an embarrassing answer to this embarrassing question: Yes.” By the way, the title of this masterpiece is “Letter to a peddler of souls.”

Although I’ve shared only snippets from these articles, I believe that even this much gives readers a sense of the tone of the Orbán government’s propaganda machine.

January 11, 2018

To run against Fidesz might be injurious to your health: The case of Péter Márki-Zay

While we await the fallout from the opposition parties’ refusal to pay the fines the State Accounting Office meted out to them, I thought we ought to visit Hódmezővásárhely, a Fidesz city par excellence.

Ever since 1990 Vásárhely, as the locals call their city, has never had a mayor who was not a member of Fidesz. In 1990, at the first municipal election, András Rapcsák, an engineer, became mayor and was reelected in 1994, 1998, and 2002. In December of 2002 he died suddenly, and his young personal secretary, János Lázár (Fidesz), ran in a by-election and won. Lázár remained Vásárhely’s very popular mayor until 2012, when Viktor Orbán recruited him to be his chief-of-staff. In 2012 one of the deputy mayors, István Almási (Fidesz), ran and won with 52% of the votes. In 2014 he received strong support from the party and got 61.03% of the votes. Just to give you a sense of the strength of the opposition at the last election, Jobbik’s candidate got 17.11% and MSZP-DK-Együtt, 14.99%.

It was under these circumstances that a political novice, Péter Márki-Zay, decided to try his luck as an independent candidate. Márki-Zay is a conservative man with strong ties to the Catholic Church. He and his wife Felicia have seven children, which by itself is remarkable in a country of small families. The other remarkable thing about them is that they spent five years in Canada and the United States and returned to Hungary only in 2009. The apparent reason for their return was their patriotism; they wanted their children to receive a Hungarian education.

I don’t know when Márki-Zay discovered that he may have made a mistake, but shortly after his arrival in Hungary he made some critical observations, according to an article Délmagyar wrote about the family. How is it possible that, despite the international economic crisis, he sees more BMWs in Hungary than in the United States? He told the journalist that “Americans don’t expect help from above. They are not more talented than Hungarians, but their outlook on life is different.” He was impressed with the American habit of doing volunteer work, and he and his wife were planning to do the same in Vásárhely.

The five years in North America most likely contributed to his dissatisfaction with the state of affairs in Vásárhely. And so, after the unexpected death of Mayor István Almási in November 2017, he decided to enter the race against the Fidesz candidate, Zoltán Hegedűs.

Péter Mári-Zay / Source: Magyar Nemzet / Photo: Béla Nagy

On December 29 Vásárhely24, the internet news site of the municipality, reported that Márki-Zay will be the common candidate of Jobbik and MSZP, which turned out to be untrue. The candidate thinks that the fake news was concocted in order to discredit him. It looks as if the very idea of possible united front against the Fidesz candidate in Vásárhely worried the government party, which quickly moved into action against the candidate.

Two days after he announced his candidacy, he was informed that the company for which he has been working for years no longer has any need for him. The municipality placed four or five cameras along the street where he lives, which the city claimed has nothing to do with Márki-Zay, but the timing is suspicious. As an answer to the fierce attack on the independent candidate, all opposition parties decided to support the disillusioned former Fidesz voter who is convinced that “Orbán’s regime is already a failure in the moral sense.” What he sees in Hungary is no longer democracy.

The local Fidesz leadership moved into high gear. Katalin Havasi, the local party chairman, rang the alarm bell and asked “God to save the city from a mayor who is being supported by Gyula Molnár and Ferenc Gyurcsány, people who wanted to close the hospital in Hódmezővásárhely.” The city needs a mayor “who is being supported by Viktor Orbán and who will defend the hospital.” On his Facebook page Márki-Zay expressed his puzzlement over being seen as a threat to the hospital. Why the hospital? Perhaps if he had been in Hungary in 2007 he wouldn’t be so surprised. In that year Mayor János Lázár created total panic over the death of an old drunkard, well-known in the hospital, who died while being transported from one hospital to another. Lázár blamed the healthcare reforms introduced by the Gyurcsány government for the man’s death.

It seems that the Fidesz locals asked János Lázár to take an active part in the campaign. Lázár still lives in Hódmezővásárhely and commutes daily to Budapest. Those close to the scene claim that nothing happens in the city without Viktor Orbán’s chief-of-staff knowing about it. So, János Lázár showed up and offered to work for Zoltán Hegedűs’s campaign. He brought along some promises too. He told residents that the government is planning a very large “industrial program” and that Vásárhely will be one of the beneficiaries.

Meanwhile both Magyar Nemzet and Index sent reporters to the city, hoping to learn more about the mood in Vásárhely. The former reported total apathy. The few people who were willing to talk would vote for the Fidesz candidate, but they were less than happy with the current situation. As one woman said, she was only hoping that “things will not become worse.” People complained about the lack of job opportunities, but they added that without a Fidesz mayor very little money would come from Budapest. Index also found mostly Fidesz supporters, including a man who spoke glowingly about all the development in the city but at the end admitted that he is planning to leave his job that pays 100,000 Ft. and settle in Germany to wash dishes for 1,200 euros. He also added that he had heard Márki-Zay speak, “and he said a few good things.” The reporter found one person who admitted that she doesn’t know for whom she will vote and had a fairly critical view of Fidesz’s migrant policy, complaining about 1,200 refugees but allowing 20,000 Arabs, Chinese, and Russians.

The pro-Fidesz papers, from Origo to Magyar Idők and Pest Srácok, continue their smear campaign against Márki-Zay, calling the candidate a liar with a persecution complex. Unfortunately, we are not dealing with a psychological disorder. Márki-Zay is not alone in reporting abuse because of his political activities. Just the other day a Fidesz local representative in Budapest’s District XV shared the travails she underwent because she didn’t follow the political orders from above to the letter. That’s not a pretty story either.

And the latest is that Momentum Chairman András Fekete-Győr’s father lost his job as executive director of the National Deposit Insurance Fund of Hungary. He was deputy director between 1993 and 2010, when he was appointed executive director for five years. Two years ago his appointment was renewed for another five years — that is, until 2020, when he reaches retirement age.

This is how life goes in Hungary for those who don’t walk in lockstep with Viktor Orbán.

January 9, 2018

Who is the real winner of the Austrian election? Perhaps not Viktor Orbán, after all

On October 16, 2017, Hungarian government propaganda papers were ecstatic. It looked almost certain that the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), led by the young Sebastian Kurz, would emerge as the strongest party after the national election. The Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) finished second, only slightly ahead of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), but most people expected Kurz to turn to Heinz-Christian Strache’s FPÖ to form a government. And indeed, four days later, coalition talks began between ÖVP and FPÖ.

The pro-government Origo exclaimed, as soon as Kurz’s victory seemed assured, that “Viktor Orbán also won in the Austrian election.” The paper quoted Russia Today, which predicted an even deeper division within the European Union with Kurz’s victory. The position of Berlin and Paris, it said, will be weakened when Austria joins the Visegrád 4 countries in opposition to open borders, which in turn will lessen the likelihood of a federalist solution in the near future.

Right-wing analysts like Ágoston Sámuel Mráz echoed Russia Today, adding that, although Austria is unlikely to join the Visegrád 4, with Kurz’s election “the Central European concept will be strengthened.” As he put it, in Austria “Sebastian Kurz was victorious, but it was Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán who won.”

After the announcement of the conclusion of successful coalition negotiations on December 18, there was general optimism concerning closer relations between Austria and Hungary under the leadership of a government without the socialists. Austrian pundits made all sorts of predictions about cooperation, especially on matters of immigration. Hungarian government experts emphasized with satisfaction that ÖVP, as far as the refugees are concerned, had adopted FPÖ’s more radical approach. They noted, however, most likely with some regret, that the coalition agreement contains a reference to Austria as an integral part of the European Union. 888.hu was especially happy about the large presence of FPÖ in the coalition and published an article on Austrian Interior Minister Herbert Kickl (FPÖ), who considers Viktor Orbán a prophet and a model for Austrian politicians to emulate.

It is not at all clear at the moment how close a relationship Sebastian Kurz wants to maintain with the Visegrád 4, especially after he warned against “overinterpreting things.” As he put it, “there are measures and initiatives where we have goodwill in western European countries … [and] there are others where we will perhaps get applause from the Visegrad countries, and still others where we agree with all other 27 EU member states.” Híradó, the official Hungarian government news outlet, put it even more bluntly when it reported that “Sebastian Kurz rejected speculation that Austria would draw closer to the V4 countries as opposed to its Western European allies.” Kurz announced that he is planning to visit Paris and Berlin in the coming weeks, stressing that Germany is Austria’s biggest neighbor and most important economic partner. In brief, it is unlikely that Viktor Orbán can rely on Kurz in his anti-Merkel moves.

Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache at the cabinet meeting in Seggau / Source: Der Standard

I found the comments that the new Czech Prime Minister, Andrej Babiš, made a couple of days ago amusing. He announced that the Visegrád 4 countries must convince Brussels that the refugee quotas are senseless, and he “has a clear plan how to fight against the quotas and find new allies.” In the next few weeks he is planning to visit the Bulgarian prime minister and Jean-Claude Juncker. He is also going to Davos, where he will meet the Austrian chancellor. That is his plan. If the neophyte Czech prime minister thinks that a couple of private chats will change the solid opposition to the Polish, Czech, and Hungarian refusal to abide by EU rules, he still has much to learn.

I don’t think that Viktor Orbán ever seriously believed that Austria would be part of the Visegrád 4 any time in the future, but I suspect that he didn’t anticipate a potential source of friction between the two governments only a few days after the formation of Kurz’s government. After the first cabinet meeting, Kurz and Strache announced that the Austrian government will reduce the amount of child support for children of “guest workers” whose families remain behind. In 2016, the Austrian government paid 273 million euros for 132,000 children living outside of the country. Hungary and Slovakia received the largest amounts of money: Hungary 80 million and Slovakia 63 million.

This move is part of a broader Austrian government agenda that includes cutting taxes, reducing benefits for refugees, and restricting new immigrants’ access to many social services for five years. Or, as Péter Techet wrote in a thought-provoking article on Austria, this government wants to end the Austrian welfare state as it currently exists.

Discriminating between EU citizens is illegal according to the EU Constitution. Yet Kurz seems confident that his government won’t violate EU laws by reducing family allowances. At least this is the opinion of the party’s expert, who argued that the size of the benefit should be determined by the purchasing power of the country of the child’s residence. It is ridiculous, he said, that a Romanian family with two children receives €300, which is the equivalent of an average salary in Romania. However, it may not be as simple as the Austrian labor lawyer thinks. Jean Claude Juncker’s deputy chief spokeswoman already issued a warning that the European Commission is closely monitoring the situation, and I wouldn’t be too sanguine about Austrian success in this matter. Earlier such attempts by Germany to discriminate against so-called foreigners were squashed.

In an ironic twist, Orbán, who fights so valiantly for the rights of Hungarians in the United Kingdom, may have to turn to the hated Brussels for protection against the Austrian government he greeted with such enthusiasm.

January 8, 2018