Tag Archives: Viktor Orbán

Viktor Orbán avoids humiliation at the hands of the International Olympic Committee

It may not be official yet, but Budapest’s bid for the 2024 Olympic Games is dead. It is only a question of time when the proposal will be formally withdrawn.

The resounding success of the Momentum Movement’s referendum drive is widely interpreted as the first sign of the awakening of a depressingly inactive and uncaring public. The time might be ripe for action if there is a political force that can take advantage of the mood of the country. According to the latest poll, of the 1.5 million undecided potential voters only 300,000 would like to perpetuate Viktor Orbán’s political stranglehold on the country. All in all, the number of people who are dissatisfied with the present government far surpasses the 2.2 million core Fidesz voters even without the 1.2 million undecided voters who, given a viable alternative, would be inclined to vote for an opposition force.

Fidesz politicians themselves indirectly admit that what happened was a political defeat. They talk disparagingly about Momentum’s leaders, who used Viktor Orbán’s Olympic “dream” as a vehicle to fulfill their political ambitions. These unpatriotic youngsters made a political issue out of a “national cause,” they argue. There was once absolute unity on the issue, but oppositional forces drove a wedge between people for political reasons. Or, at least this is the story Viktor Orbán wants Hungarians to believe.

This morning in his Friday interview Viktor Orbán expounded on the topic of the Olympic Games and hinted at the real problem with Budapest’s bid. The telling sentence was his very first on the subject: “Look, the referendum is a Hungarian affair but the Olympic Games must be won abroad in an international race in Switzerland, in Lausanne, before the International Olympic Committee.” Indeed, this is the case. Hungary was supposed to convince 88 men and women who determine the venue of the 2024 Olympic Games, and the likelihood of persuading the majority in Hungary’s favor was slim. Perhaps even impossible. That is the truth which most likely Viktor Orbán has known for some time. According to rumor, he learned the sad truth of Hungary’s poor chances in Rio de Janiero. The referendum drive therefore came in handy. He can withdraw from the competition and blame the opposition for it.

In fact, this is exactly what he decided to do after a few days of hesitation. While Orbán was trying to figure out a good story, Fidesz politicians gave interviews with wildly disparate messages, as usually happens when an autocrat rules a country. His minions, lacking instructions, are completely lost. Now that they have the word from above, the parrot commando can begin to work in earnest.

The story is as follows. Cities which in the past held referendums, even if these referendums were successful, were never awarded the privilege of holding an Olympics. Thus, with this referendum drive Hungary’s chances have become practically nil. It is therefore useless to hold the referendum because the whole enterprise has become hopeless. In fact, so hopeless that “it is questionable whether we would be able to garner even one vote.” This would be exceedingly shameful. “One can lose but one shouldn’t be beaten to smithereens.” According to Orbán, “we shouldn’t expose the country to such shame because we deserve better.” Hungary’s proposal was excellent, “we were honest, we really wanted to do it, and after all that, the world downgrades us to zero or just one or two votes while the other two [contenders] receive the trust of the members of the International Olympic Committee. This would be a humiliating defeat.” What these young people did was “a murder of a dream.”

To be the murderers of Viktor Orbán’s dream is no small feat, so from here on we can be certain that Orbán’s propaganda machine will be hard at work trying to discredit the organizers of the referendum drive. In fact, the character assassination has already begun. Orbán compared the group to SZDSZ, and we know what that means for Hungary’s illiberal leader. They are the greatest enemies of everything Orbán has been fighting for. He already sees a repeat scenario of what happened in 1994 when the leadership of the liberal SZDSZ, despite the fact that the socialists won an absolute majority in the national election, decided to join them in a coalition government. Orbán is certain that this young crew, which at the moment claims that their future party will face the electorate alone, will, after all, make peace with MSZP. “We must be ready for that scenario.” I’m sure he has already made plans.

According to those who are in the know, Orbán’s “whole story is nothing but a lie.” Hungary’s chances had been slim from day one. Initially commentators couldn’t understand how Momentum got permission to hold a referendum drive when earlier attempts had failed. I think it is pretty clear why Momentum’s request for a referendum was approved: it gave Orbán a way out. Some people thought that perhaps the approval had been simply an oversight on the part of the government; others argued that Fidesz thought the drive would either never get off the ground or would fail spectacularly. I think today we can safely say that Viktor Orbán is begrudgingly grateful to Momentum for allowing him to avoid a major embarrassment at the hands of the IOC.

As for Orbán’s decision to withdraw the bid, anti-Orbán forces, including the leadership of Momentum, consider it a sign of cowardliness. In general, large segments of the Hungarian public consider Orbán to be a coward, and not without reason. For instance, the last time he agreed to a political debate with his opponent was in 2006, when he cut a pitiful figure in his debate with Ferenc Gyurcsány. That was a lesson he never forgot. And his reticence is not limited to political debates. He consistently refuses to answer questions from reporters and rejects all requests for interviews from any organ that is not part of the government media empire.

It seems that portraying Orbán as a coward is not limited to his antagonists. Just yesterday a forceful article appeared in the right-wing Mandiner accusing Orbán of being afraid to discuss the pros and cons of holding the Olympics in Budapest and refusing to ask the people their opinion on the matter. Even his supporters are coming to the conclusion that their idol’s brave countenance is but a mask. Inside there is a quavering little fellow.

February 24, 2017

The chairman of the Hungarian central bank discovered a U.S. plot to topple the Orbán government

The independent media outlets have a jolly good time every time György Matolcsy, the chairman of Hungary’s Central Bank, opens his mouth. Well, he spoke again today. By now even usually polite politicians have gotten to the point that they openly say that Matolcsy is not quite of sound mind and suggest that the chairman of the National Bank seek medical help.

So what happened to prompt such a response? The bank chairman delivered his report to parliament on the performance of the Hungarian National Bank in the last two years. As expected, he said that the institution under his direction had performed superbly. Under his excellent stewardship the bank’s monetary strategy added at least 1.5 percentage points to Hungary’s already respectable economic growth.

Not too many members of parliament were interested in Matolcsy’s self-praise. Only four or five MPs, just those who had to attend, were sitting in the huge chamber. I must say that those who were absent missed a great performance and a by and large incoherent speech about “a very grave shadow, a very dark shadow, a deep grey shadow” that darkened the otherwise sparklingly sunny Hungarian sky. This shadow was a treacherous ally’s attempt to topple the Orbán government with the help—you won’t believe it—of Hungary’s National Bank. But thanks to Matolcsy’s vigilance, the coup was averted.

I believe that for readers to truly appreciate Matolcsy’s muddled, rambling speech I must translate the relevant passages:

Here we should stop for a minute because there was a shadow on the year 2015, right at the beginning, in the first four months. That shadow had been visible already from August 2014 on. In 2015 one brokerage firm after another went belly up. First it was the deceitful Buda-Cash, then the deceitful Hungária Insurance Company, and finally the even more deceitful Quaestor failed; it failed because the central bank with its new methods of investigation found all the tricks this company had used in the last 10-15 years.

However, this shadow was actually good tidings. It was a good piece of news, something the whole country can be happy about, because we cleansed the Hungarian financial system by removing these robber barons. . . . But this good news was overshadowed by the fact that a large country which is a NATO ally via its embassy in Budapest began activities aimed at toppling the government and the central bank in the fall of 2014. . . . The central bank naturally would have found the deceitful brokerage firms, but it mattered when we found them: in January, February, and March. Why did we find them in January, February, and March?

Because some people wanted to use the Hungarian National Bank to create a bank panic in Hungary in April. And this bank panic actually occurred. It lasted for four hours in four different cities. We could say that this isn’t much. But it was shocking that some people, our allies and friends, wanted to use the Hungarian National Bank to topple the government by methods using the military and intelligence services.

This is a very grave shadow, a very dark shadow, a deep grey shadow. It has no different shades: it is just dark.

The few people in the chamber were stunned. It was immediately clear to everybody that Matolcsy was talking about the United States.

This muddle is full of unanswered questions. In what way did the United States want to influence either the brokerage firms or the central bank? Why was the so-called coup timed for April? How did Matolcsy manage to foil the Americans’ plans?

Source: 444.hu

The opposition politicians who had gathered to engage in the usual parliamentary debate after such a report were stunned. They were simply not prepared for such astonishing nonsense and concentrated instead on refuting the glowing report presented to them by the chairman of the central bank. János Volner of Jobbik pointed out that the bank did nothing until Quaestor actually went under although it had been known ever since April 2010 that Quaestor was misleading its customers. LMP’s Erzsébet Schmuck also questioned the success story reported by Matolcsy and commented on the unorthodox way the central bank operates nowadays. It was only Attila Mesterházy who had recovered enough from the shock to question Matolcsy’s accusations against the United States. He even managed to inquire whether the bank chairman had reported his knowledge of a foreign power’s meddling in Hungary’s internal affairs to the competent authorities. He called on the appropriate politicians to convene the parliamentary committee on national security to ask the Hungarian intelligence services to clarify the situation.

Well, I have a few questions of my own. My very first one would be whether Matolcsy shared the information he received about this alleged American plot with Viktor Orbán. I suspect he did and that, for one reason or another, Orbán decided that the so-called revelation was useful at this time. I wouldn’t be surprised if Orbán, banking on Donald Trump’s extremely low opinion of his predecessor’s “democracy export,” thinks that this kind of news, coming from the chairman of the Hungarian National Bank, will float in Donald Trump’s Washington.

The U.S. Embassy rarely gets engaged in arguments with the Hungarian government, but Matolcsy’s accusation was too much even for the normally calm American diplomats in Budapest. Both Népszava and Index wanted to know the U.S. reaction to Matolcsy’s garbled nonsense. The Embassy spokesman, Richard Damstra, released the following statement: “Hungary and the United States are partners and NATO allies. The United States didn’t attempt to overthrow the Hungarian government either in 2014 or at any other time and we can’t find it credible that any other NATO member state would attempt such a move.” Perhaps this will convince the Hungarian government that American diplomacy, at least for the time being, hasn’t changed all that much and that even the Trump State Department, such as it is, won’t believe that the Obama administration was planning to stage a coup in Hungary.

February 23, 2017

The Hungarian opposition shows signs of life

Momentum’s victory

The major news of the day is the overwhelming success of Momentum’s signature drive for a referendum on holding the 2024 Olympic Games in Budapest. They needed 138,000 signatures; they collected 266,151. Although the young leaders of the movement don’t seem to be overly grateful, about 60,000 of these signatures were collected by political parties on the left. LMP and Párbeszéd were especially active.

Momentum’s plan at the moment is to become a self-sufficient party. But I wouldn’t be surprised if closer cooperation among Momentum, Párbeszéd, and LMP would materialize, especially now that Párbeszéd has withdrawn from negotiations with MSZP and DK.

Viktor Orbán, who a few months ago considered hosting the 2024 Olympic Games “a matter of national significance,” a couple of days ago instructed the Fidesz-KDNP parliamentary delegation to refrain from any comment in the event that Momentum gets the necessary number of signatures. His position now is that the central government supported the idea only after the Budapest City Council, including opposition members, voted to submit an application to the IOC.

Budapest mayor István Tarlós, although initially against holding the Olympics in Budapest, now stands by Viktor Orbán. He complains about “the betrayal of the opposition,” which a year and a half ago supported the idea heart and soul and now portrays itself as the defender of the people and the country. Unfortunately, there is a great deal of truth in this charge. Csaba Horváth (MSZP), József Tóth (MSZP), and Gergely Karácsony (Párbeszéd) supported the application. Even Erzsébet Gy. Németh (DK), who verbally disapproved of it, had the courage only to abstain. The sole person to vote against it was Antal Csárdi (LMP). Bravery and consistency are not the strong points of the Hungarian socialists and liberals.

Granted, given government pressure and the general Fidesz enthusiasm for the project, it was guaranteed to sail through the Budapest City Council. Still, those opposition city fathers who have been so loud of late in their disapproval of the project would look a great deal better if they had not bent under pressure and had instead voted their conscience. MSZP is especially hesitant to take a stand when its leaders believe, rightly or wrongly, that its voters might not approve of the party’s actions.

Tarlós indicated that once the final verdict on the number of signatures is announced, he “will think very seriously about withdrawing the application.” Given the enormous number of signatures collected, there is no doubt that the referendum request will be valid. And if the referendum were actually held, the “no’s” would carry the day. Tomorrow Publicus Intézet will publish its latest poll, according to which 76% of the total population would use the money for something much more important. The respondents could pick from several categories and obviously, since the numbers add up to more than 100%, could choose to allocate the saved funds to more than one urgent need. 65% of them opted for healthcare, 32% for education, 16% for the elimination of poverty, 11% for the creation of new jobs, and 8% for better infrastructure.

András Fekete-Győr proudly displaying the fruit of Momentum’s labor

The leaders of Momentum will embark on a two-month tour of the countryside where they plan to establish local party cells. András Fekete-Győr announced a few hours ago that the new party will have candidates in all 120 electoral districts. It intends to compete against the other opposition parties, although we know that fracturing the anti-Orbán forces is political suicide. Under the current electoral law, which is designed for a two-party system, a divided opposition can only lose. Nonetheless, for the time being Momentum is planning to follow in the footsteps of LMP, which doesn’t bode well for either Momentum or Hungarian democracy. László Bartus of Amerikai Magyar Népszava has already written an opinion piece in which he expresses his fears that Momentum is glossing over the distinction between Hungary prior to and after 2010.

László Botka’s program is shaping up

The anti-Orbán forces got some good news yesterday when Republikon Intézet published its poll on the popularity of current candidates for the post of prime minister. Viktor Orbán and László Botka are essentially neck to neck. Botka is only two percentage points behind Viktor Orbán (46% to 44%). What is especially significant is that Botka is by far the more popular candidate among undecided voters, 44% against Orbán’s 29%, a result that didn’t surprise me as much as it seems to have surprised the media. I have been convinced for a long time that if someone could inspire this group to vote, the majority would vote for a candidate on the left.

Many voters who sympathize with the “liberal” democratic parties in Hungary have been impatient with László Botka’s relative inaction since he announced that he intended to throw his hat in the ring. For example, although he promised to visit the chairmen of the smaller parties, he hasn’t gotten around to it yet. Yesterday I read that the first party he will visit will be LMP, an odd choice, I would say, since LMP’s willingness to negotiate with Botka is about zero.

On the other hand, Botka at last came out with an article, published in 168 Óra, in which he spells out at least part of his program. He embraces the idea of introducing a guaranteed basic income on an experimental basis in the most underdeveloped and poorest regions of the country. I assume that would be the northeastern corner and the County of Baranya along the Croatian-Hungarian border, both with large Roma populations. He also envisages introducing a supplement to pensions that do not provide enough income for survival. He would like to alleviate the difficulties younger people have in gaining access to affordable housing. He proposes that municipalities build apartment complexes, with apartments to be rented out at reasonable prices. He wants to change the flat tax system introduced by the second Orbán government to a progressive one. Moreover, he wants to introduce a property tax on high-priced real estate and luxury cars. In addition, Botka emphasized that education and health will his government’s priority.

I am curiously awaiting the reaction of the media and the general public. I’m sure that most of these goals will meet the expectations of the majority, although I don’t know how people will feel about the idea of a guaranteed basic income. I assume that MSZP will fully support these goals, but they will also have to be approved by those parties that are ready to stand behind Botka. The way things are going, very soon it will be only DK that Botka will have to negotiate with.

We already know the reaction of the government media to Republikon Intézet’s poll on Botka’s popularity. Here are some headlines: “Few people support László Botka on the left,” “Botka is not supported even on the left,” “László Botka is not popular.” The source of this information? Fidesz’s own pollster, Századvég.

February 17, 2017

Neo-Nazis, Hungarists, and anti-Semites

I have written twice about far-right, neo-Nazi groups which at this time of the year gather to commemorate the anniversary of the breakout of German and Hungarian soldiers from Buda, which had been completely surrounded by Soviet troops between December 24 and 27, 1944. What followed was the siege of Budapest, one of the bloodiest encounters of World War II. Hitler specifically forbade his troops to retreat in the face of the encirclement or to escape after it was in place.

The Pest ghetto was liberated on January 17, but fighting on the Buda side was just beginning. Between January 20 and February 11 about 13,000 soldiers were killed or captured. Under these circumstances, attempting a breakout was a suicidal undertaking. Indeed, over 19,000 soldiers were killed in the attempt and only 700 individuals managed to break through the Soviet lines.

Every year domestic and foreign extremists, neo-Nazis, remember the event. The commemoration includes a short demonstration studded with speeches in addition to the so-called “breakout tours.” A breakout tour is a walk, something of an obstacle course, along the route the escapees took. It is 56 km long and must be finished within 18 hours. Naturally, this event takes place in Buda and the surrounding hills. There was only one exception: last year for some strange reason the demonstration was held in Székesfehérvár, far away from the place where this madness happened.

Since 1997 thousands have gathered every February for what they call the “Day of Honor” or “Becsület napja.” The man who came up with the idea for the commemoration was István Győrkös, leader of the National Front (Nemzeti Arcvonal). Last October Győrkös shot and killed a Hungarian policeman who was checking Győrkös’s house for illegal weapons. Members of the National Front did not attend the event this year, but the Army of Outlaws and László Toroczkai’s Sixty-Four Counties group once again participated.

Viktor Orbán was extremely critical of the socialist-liberal administration which allowed these demonstrations to take place, and he promised that once he becomes prime minister again he will put an end to these neo-Nazi, Arrow Cross, and Hungarist demonstrations. Of course, the demonstrations have continued. The neo-Nazis go to the police station and announce their plans, and the police say “go ahead.”

The only thing that has happened since 2010 is that Nazi and Communist symbols were outlawed, demonstrators were forbidden to cover their faces, and it became illegal to wear a uniform. So, what happened on February 11 this year? The mostly young neo-Nazis appeared in black uniform-like outfits, some of them covered their faces, and they wore the forbidden neo-Nazi symbols.

The media reported that about 600 mostly young people participated who, as Népszava noted, “wouldn’t be insulted to be called neo-Nazis or neo-Arrow Cross men.” In addition to the Hungarian contingent there were quite a few Germans and Italians. One could also see a few Polish flags and so-called Szekler flags from Romania.

One can gauge the ideology of these groups by listening to any of the speeches. One of the speakers assessed the significance of the 1945 event this way: “We didn’t win, but in every little sacrifice there was the potential for victory.” Zsolt Tyirityán of the Army of Outlaws said that “the world is determined by a struggle for Lebensraum.” He ended his speech with “Recognition of and due respect for the Waffen SS! Glory to the Waffen SS!”

The “troops” are ready for their tour, February 11, 2017

A couple of days later Mazsihisz, the umbrella organization of Jewish religious groups, issued a somewhat resigned statement about the sad fact that “one can celebrate the enemies of the Hungarian people, the German Nazis and Hungarian Arrow Cross men, who blew up the bridges of the Hungarian capital and who caused so much suffering to its inhabitants…. But to hoist a flag with a swastika, to wear an armband with a swastika, to generate fear is prohibited and punishable according to the law.” Because anyone who places a Nazi flag on a light fixture makes it clear that he approves of the Holocaust. Mazsihisz asked the police to investigate the case.

Since then, the president of Mazsihisz, András Heisler, paid a visit to Viktor Orbán. The meeting had been arranged a month earlier and was supposed to be a financial discussion about the rebuilding of a Budapest synagogue that was recently devastated by fire and a Jewish Hospital specializing in gerontology. However, in light of the latest neo-Nazi demonstration, Heisler brought up the Jewish community’s concerns. Apparently, Orbán showed real or feigned surprise about the passivity of the police and promised to find ways, just like in earlier years, to prevent the display of such Nazi symbols.

If the ministry of interior could handle these situations in the past, how could it happen that this year the police calmly looked on while Nazi flags and swastikas were being displayed? One hypothesis is that László Toroczkai’s Sixty-Four Counties group participated. Toroczkai is the vice president of Jobbik, the party that is the target of Fidesz’s political wrath at the moment. In this struggle, it would come in handy to show that Gábor Vona’s move away from anti-Semitism is nothing but a political trick without any substance.

Finally, there is an unsigned opinion piece in Népszava, the oldest Hungarian-language daily in the United States. The title is “The promises of a selective anti-Semite.” The American Népszava is known to be highly critical of Viktor Orbán and his regime. This piece contends that Orbán has “problems only with liberal, secular Jews who infect decent Hungarian Christians with their liberal ideas.” He has no problems, the article contends, with observant Jews who “don’t mix” with the “members of the host country.” He doesn’t hate them because they don’t pose a threat to him. He likes talking to the leaders of Chabad who hate secular Jews as much as he does. Our anonymous author believes that Orbán’s ill feelings toward Jewish intellectuals stem from the fact that “they didn’t accept him” and therefore “he has developed an inferiority complex.” The author goes so far as to describe Orbán’s entire political career as a struggle to win over Hungarian Jewish intellectuals inside and outside of Hungary.

I actually toned down Népszava’s article somewhat. In fact, the author calls Orbán someone “who was an anti-Semite first and only later found the anti-Semitic ‘Christian’ ideology.” This is certainly a bold thesis, which many will doubt. Viktor Orbán is a master of double talk, so no one will ever catch him saying anything, at least in public, that could be labelled as being outright anti-Semitic.

February 16, 2017

Viktor Orbán’s vision of a new world order is fading

I was all set to ignore Viktor Orbán’s nineteenth yearly “assessment,” to skip the whole rigmarole. After all, there is absolutely nothing new to be found in his ramblings sprinkled with archaic and pious phrases mixed with affected folksiness. We have heard him speak countless times about his clairvoyant powers, predicting the coming of a new illiberal world which is partly his own creation. And this latest speech is no different from any of the others he has delivered lately. But as I was going through my early morning perusal of news in the United States and Europe, I decided that in light of the latest developments in world affairs it might be useful to spend a little time on Orbán’s latest pronouncements.

Although critics complain that the speech, which was supposed to be about the government’s achievements in the past year, was mostly about foreign affairs, I found a fair amount of bragging about the great accomplishments, economic and otherwise, of the third Orbán government. Nonetheless, I was much more interested in his “vision” of the present and the future, not of Hungary but of the world.

According to Viktor Orbán, 2017 “promises to be an exhilarating year.” There will be “surprises, scratching of heads, raising of eyebrows, rubbing of eyes.” People will ask each other: “Is everything that is coming undone and taking shape in front of our eyes really possible?” The existing world order is coming to an end. History beckons the prophets of liberal politics, the beneficiaries and defenders of the present international order, the globalists, the liberals, the influential talking heads in their ivory towers and television studios. A new world is coming, a world where populists like Viktor Orbán , Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Recep Erdoğan, Marine Le Pen, and other right-wing populists elsewhere in Europe will decide the fate of the western world.

Perhaps I have been inattentive, but this is the first time that I noticed a recurring adjective in an Orbán speech: “open world, “open world order,” “open society.” Orbán is “paying homage” to his nemesis, George Soros. He very much hopes that with the “exhilarating” 2017 the “open world order” will come to an end. As far as he is concerned, the beginning of his new world looks promising: Brexit, the American presidential election, “booting out” the Italian government, the “successful” Hungarian referendum on the migrants, all of these take us closer to the promising new world.

Orbán’s next sentence can be fully understood only if I provide its poetic backdrop. Sándor Petőfi (1823-1849) was a political radical who, in December 1848, wrote a poem titled “Hang the Kings!” The poem begins “Knife in Lamberg’s heart and rope around the neck of Latour and after them perhaps others will follow. At last, you people are becoming great!” Lamberg and Latour were high government officials who were killed in Pest and Vienna by angry mobs. So, Orbán, of course without mentioning the two murdered gentlemen, sums up the happy events of late in Great Britain, Italy, the United States, and Hungary: “after them perhaps more will follow. At last, you people are becoming great.” So, Orbán is in a revolutionary mood, no doubt about it. And he is also full of hope, although given the fate of the 1848 revolutions in the Habsburg Empire, I wouldn’t be so sanguine in his place.

As I look around the world, however, Orbán’s dream world may not come into being as fast, if at all, as he thinks. Let’s start with Austria’s presidential election last year. Orbán and the government media kept fingers crossed for Norbert Hofer, the candidate of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria, yet Alexander Van der Bellen, a member of the Austrian Greens, won the election by a fairly large margin. The first effort of a self-described far-right party in Europe to win high office failed.

Orbán’s next hope is for a huge victory by Marine Le Pen in France. But the centrist Emmanuel Macron’s chances of beating Le Pen look good. At least the Elabe poll shows Le Pen losing the run-off 37% to 63%. Another poll, Ifop Fiducial, predicts 36% to 64%. Two different polls, very similar results.

Then there is Germany. Former foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a social democrat, was elected Germany’s president. He won 931 of the 1,239 valid votes cast by members of the Bundestag and representatives of the 14 federal states. When the result was announced by Norbert Lammert, president of the Bundestag, there was a standing ovation. Even more importantly, Angela Merkel’s solid lead a few months ago is beginning to fade. The reason is the socialist Martin Schulz’s appearance on the German political scene. According to the latest polls, the two candidates are neck to neck. One also should mention the latest developments in the nationalist Alternative for Germany Party (AfD), which would certainly be Orbán’s choice. According to the German media, since Schulz announced his candidacy for the chancellorship, “the number of people who did not vote in 2013 and are now planning to vote for the SPD has risen by roughly 70 percent in the last 14 days.” And what is more important from Orbán’s point of view, “AfD—which brought the most non-voters to the polls in several state elections last year—also lost support dramatically. Forty percent fewer former non-voters expressed their support for the party.”

One ought to keep in mind that the Hungarian government propaganda has succeeded in making Angela Merkel generally despised by the Hungarian public. Vladimir Putin is more popular in Hungary than Merkel. But given the choice between Merkel and Schulz, Orbán should actually campaign for Merkel’s reelection because Schulz, who until now was the president of the European Parliament, is one of the loudest critics of Orbán and his illiberal populism.

Finally, let’s talk about the situation in the United States. What has been going in Washington since Donald Trump’s inauguration as president of the United States has surpassed people’s worst fears. Total chaos, a non-functioning government, and very strong suspicions about the Trump team’s questionable relations with Russian intelligence. Michael Flynn, Trump’s choice to be his national security adviser, was forced to resign because of his direct contact with the Russian ambassador to Washington. A few minutes ago, we learned that Andy Puzder withdrew as labor secretary nominee in order to avoid a pretty hopeless confirmation hearing.

Donald Trump on the phone with Vladimir Putin / Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

The list of incredible happenings in Washington is so long that one could spend days trying to cover them. What I would like to stress here is that I’m almost certain that Trump’s original friendly overtures to Putin’s Russia have been derailed. The Russians did their best to bolster Trump’s chances, but by now Putin must realize that the new American president cannot deliver.

Now let’s return to Viktor Orbán, who was an early admirer of Donald Trump. His admiration of Trump was based on the presidential hopeful’s anti-migration policies, his disregard of political correctness, and his anti-establishment rhetoric. Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, Orbán found Trump’s pro-Russian views and his promise to “make a deal” with Russia and lift the sanctions against Moscow especially appealing. In such an event, Orbán believed he would play a more important role than he as the prime minister of a small country could otherwise have expected.

Now these hopes are vanishing with the tough stand both Democrats and Republicans have taken on Russia’s military occupation of Crimea and its efforts to stoke a civil war in Eastern Ukraine. Moreover, given the investigation into Russia’s interference in the U.S. presidential election and the ties of members of the Trump team to Russian intelligence, Trump is not in a position to hand out favors to Russia. So Putin won’t be best friends with the American president. And Europe seems disinclined to follow the U.S. into political chaos. Orbán, if he has any sense, should tone down his rhetoric about a new, exhilarating future where the old establishment sinks into oblivion.

February 15, 2017

One can always count on a good friend (or an alter ego): Lőrinc Mészáros and Viktor Orbán

I have the feeling that as long as Hungary has the misfortune of having Viktor Orbán as its prime minister there will be no end to the scandalous affairs surrounding Lőrinc Mészáros, the pipefitter from the village of Felcsút whose brilliant business acumen is the marvel not just of Hungary but perhaps the whole world. Since 2010 he has become one of the wealthiest men in the country thanks to, as he himself admitted, God, hard work, and, last but not least, his friendship with Viktor Orbán. Every time one turns around the miracle pipefitter has made a new acquisition. By now he himself is confused about the businesses and properties he owns. Occasionally he has to be reminded by others that he is the owner of this or that property or business. It could be amusing if it weren’t so sad.

I don’t think you would find too many Hungarians who think that Mészáros’s businesses are actually his own. The information made public today only reinforces this skepticism. One of Mészáros’s companies paid a 3 billion forint debt of Cider Alma [Apple] Kft., a company in part owned by Viktor Orbán’s brother-in-law and nephew. No, this figure is not a mistake; we are talking about 3 billion forints or $10.3 million.

To understand this transaction, let’s go back a little in time to the establishment of a number of centers, representing the Hungarian National Trading House (MNKH), under the aegis of the newly reorganized ministry of foreign affairs and trade. An incredible amount of money was poured into these trading centers in far-flung places across the globe. They were supposed to promote Hungarian business abroad. Unfortunately, in the last two years the foreign ministry’s business venture has lost something like 6 billion forints without bringing in an appreciable amount of money as a result of international trade.

At the end of September 2016 444.hu found out that a certain Cider Alma Kft. owes MNKH 3.2 billion forints and that the trading house now has in its possession 5 million packages of 425 ml vacuum-packed corn and 1.5 million 720 ml packets of pitted sour cherries. 444.hu’s investigative team was a bit puzzled and at first couldn’t see the connection between the corn and sour cherries on the one hand and Cider Alma Kft. on the other. But then they found an item from 2015 which revealed that MNKH had lent 3.2 billion forints to Cider Alma to produce apple sauce (not, as its name would indicate, apple cider). A year went by and only 280 million forints were paid back. Obviously something went wrong and Cider Alma was broke. Or, using a slang expression, the whole thing went “alma,” in this sense meaning “went bust.” 444.hu couldn’t resist a good line: “Would you like to have some apple sauce? Call the foreign ministry.”

Close friends with lots of secrets

It didn’t take more than a couple of days for 444.hu to learn that “Orbán’s relatives are dropping from the spaces between the packets of corn and sour cherries.” It turned out that Gizella Lévai, sister-in-law of Viktor Orbán, and her partner, Imre Ökrös, are business partners in three different subsidiaries of Cider Alma Kft. The relationship between the owners of Cider Alma and the Orbán relatives is so close that Ökrös’s two companies, Érvölgye Konzerv Kft. and Kelet Konzerv Kft., became the guarantors of the loan MNKH extended to Cider Alma. There are other Orbán relatives in this particular business venture as well. Most notably, Ádám Szeghalmi, Gizella Lévai’s son, cousin of the Orbán children, is the CEO of Drogida Hungaro, also a subsidiary of Cider Alma.

Hír TV immediately went after the story and asked for details of the deal. Specifically, they launched an inquiry into the fate of that loan. Ordinary citizens are entitled to get such information because MNKH is a state company and therefore the sum in question is public money. Five months later, Hír TV learned that the debt had been sold to Hórusz Faktorház Zrt., which happens to be a business venture in which Lőrinc Mészáros is involved. Factoring is a financial transaction and a type of debtor finance in which a business sells its accounts receivable to a third party at a discount. It is hard to find out much about this factoring company, except the name of its CEO.

Factoring is a common tool of finance, so Jobbik’s spokesman, Ádám Mirkóczki, was uninformed when he said: “I have never heard of a case where one company pays another company’s debt.” Admittedly, this arrangement is atypical. Cider Alma, it seems, had no accounts receivable, only some inventory to sell. Perhaps Mészáros and his business partners thought that the corn and sour cherries could be sold for more than they paid to settle Cider Alma’s debt. Of course, it is also possible, perhaps even likely, that Hórusz Faktorház took over the debt knowing full well that the firm will never see a penny. It was simply an arrangement among relatives. Whether we will learn more about this case I very much doubt. I agree with Ágnes Vadai of Demokratikus Koalíció that Fidesz corruption cases are simply dropped by the prosecutor’s office and this is especially so when the prime minister’s relatives are involved.

The funniest piece on the case was written by Bálint Molnár in Kolozsvári Szalonna (Bacon à la Kolozsvár). It bears the title “Is it surprising that with such stupid relatives the prime minister is flat broke?” The reference is to Viktor Orbán’s latest financial statement in which he went a bit too far in trying to make himself an average Joe financially. He was already quite poor in 2015 according to that year’s financial statement, but by the end of 2016 he was outright poverty-stricken. He does have one and a half pieces of real estate. He is half owner of the family’s Budapest home and sole owner of the house in Felcsút, right next to the stadium. But he and his wife have only 743,000 forints ($2,551) in their checking account, and they owe 5,999,694 forints ($20,600). He still has four dependent children, and his monthly pay as prime minister is 1,558,333 forints ($5,350). Let me add that an average Hungarian family has over 2,500,000 forints ($8,580) in its checking account. Anikó Lévai must be a very frugal housewife. On the other hand, Mészáros is busily buying one piece of property after the other. According to the latest account he is building a football stadium in Osijek, Croatia, where he wants to establish Europe’s best football academy. Oh my, and what will happen to Felcsút?

February 14, 2017

Viktor Orbán’s next target: Central European University in Budapest

One after the other, independent publications have been taken over by Fidesz loyalists. I covered the sad fate of Népszabadság and spent a considerable amount of time on the acquisition of regional papers, which are valuable additions to the growing network of the government propaganda machine.

One takeover I didn’t cover was the purchase of Figyelő (Observer), a highly respected financial weekly established 60 years ago. The new owner is Mária Schmidt, court historian of Viktor Orbán and director of the historically misleading House of Terror. Of course, Mária Schmidt is well known to the readers of Hungarian Spectrum, but perhaps I didn’t report sufficiently on her wealth. She inherited a fortune when, in 2006, her husband died suddenly at the age of 53.

Figyelő had been ailing financially for over a year when Schmidt decided to “save” the paper in December 2016. She promised not to intervene in the day-to-day running of the paper or to interfere with its content. A month later, however, she appointed three prominent Fidesz ideologues to head the editorial board. Several journalists promptly resigned. That was at the end of January.

A few days later the new issue of Figyelő appeared with an article titled “Can the Soros-School stay?” Unfortunately, the article is not available online, but from the summaries by other publications we can reconstruct the gist of the story. According to Figyelő, in the summer of 2016 Viktor Orbán and George Soros had a discussion about Soros’s pride and joy, Central European University (CEU), which he established in Budapest. At that meeting the strong man of Hungary apparently reassured Soros that “he will not touch” CEU. But, continued Figyelő, “since last summer the international situation, with the election of Donald Trump as president, [has changed]. The Hungarian government might think that it can risk attacks against the university that it wouldn’t have tried earlier.” Figyelő claimed to know that one of Orbán’s ministers talked about CEU “as the main target in 2017.” He indicated that what they would really like is the departure of the whole institution from Budapest. The article was also full of untrue assertions about CEU, its students, and its faculty.

Michael Ignatieff, the new president of CEU, responded with a dignified open letter addressed to the “editor-in-chief” of Figyelő. He pointed out the benefits CEU has brought to Hungary in the last 25 years and the excellent relationships the university has with other academic institutions in Hungary and abroad. At the end of the letter he noted that the university is proud of George Soros, a Hungarian patriot, but the administration of the university is entirely free from outside pressure.

Anyone familiar with Mária Schmidt’s modus operandi should have known that President Ignatieff would get an answer. And that it would not be dignified as Ignatieff’s was. Instead, it would be a base attack on him, the university, and anything that has anything to do with liberalism.

Indeed, her response is a disgusting piece of prose, at the center of which is an attack on the speech Ignatieff gave at the launch of a project called Re-thinking Open Society. (A summary of the speech is available online.) In her rambling article, titled “An open society and a liberal revolution,” Schmidt talks about foundations financed by Soros as “military outposts of the U.S. State Department” and Ignatieff as “the Canadian liberal” whose “field of operation happens to be” in Hungary at the moment. He is “a passionate liberal.” That for Schmidt is the greatest sin anyone can commit.

Ignatieff is further accused of being soft on communism, which she says is especially disgraceful from someone whose ancestors were refugees from the Red Terror, “a fact that he doesn’t consider especially important.” (Ignatieff’s paternal grandfather was Count Pavel Ignatieff, the Russian minister of education during World War I, and his great-grandfather was Count Nikolay Ignatieff, a Russian statesman and diplomat.) How do we know that Ignatieff, who gives lectures on the subject, doesn’t know the first thing about the horrors of communism? Because “he always talks about communism in connection with Nazism and he always compares Hitler to Stalin.” Until now, Hungarian anti-Communists accused liberals of making excuses for communism and focusing only on Nazism, but if we can take Schmidt seriously they now consider communism even worse than Nazism and the horrors it brought to the world.

Ignatieff mentioned Václav Havel in his speech, who is not exactly Schmidt’s favorite. “Havel is significant for Ignatieff and the other liberals only because he published several articles in their most important publication, the New York Review of Books.” So much for Václav Havel.

Soros himself is accused of collaborating with the communists in the late 1980s and preferring left-wingers and liberals when it came to his grants. (Schmidt herself was a beneficiary of Soros’s generosity.) To quote her precisely: “Soros in Hungary as well as in other countries became the keeper of washed-out komcsik and libik. He is the embodiment of everything that deserves our contempt. Today Soros’s name means liberal and liberal means SZDSZ and SZDSZ means everything that is loathsome, unpatriotic, arrogant, and unacceptable.”

I guess these few lines will give the readers of Hungarian Spectrum a sense of Mária Schmidt’s latest masterpiece. I could go on and on about her defense of populism, Brexit, and Donald Trump, but that would take us too far from our topic: the fate of Central European University. The essence of the lengthy article comes at the very end: “CEU is George Soros’s outpost in Europe.” The implied verdict: Soros’s university has to go.

Schmidt’s attack opened a floodgate. A few days after her article appeared, Magyar Idők reported that CEU is letting 17 faculty members go because the university’s business school will merge with the department of economics. The pro-government mouthpiece claimed that all 17 professors were Hungarians and that they were extremely popular with the students. Magyar Idők also stated that the salaries of foreign faculty members are double those of Hungarians at CEU. A day later another article was published in the same paper, titled “They are cooking something in Soros’s witch’s kitchen.” The same unfounded and unverified accusation that Hungarian faculty members were fired solely because they were Hungarians was repeated. In vain did CEU try to explain that the faculty members of the Business School were not all Hungarians and that there are not different pay scales for foreign and native faculty members. Magyar Idők was not giving up. Today a new article was published in which they try to discredit CEU’s press release that pointed out the paper’s false statements. Magyar Idők claimed that CEU didn’t satisfactorily deny that only Hungarians were fired.

That’s where we are at the moment. What happens to CEU may depend, at least in part, on how successful Donald Trump is at implementing his plans at home and abroad. If he moves American democracy toward an illiberal state and if his followers keep bashing Soros, most likely Viktor Orbán will feel free to banish CEU from Hungary. But if he fails because of internal opposition and foreign resistance, perhaps these attacks will subside. Let’s hope so.

February 11, 2017