Tag Archives: Viktor Orbán

Two “Unite The Right” organizers and Hungary

A couple of months ago I wrote a post on far right western politicians in Hungary who found Budapest a place very much to their liking. At that time I talked about two Britishers: Jim Dowson and Nick Griffin. Viktor Orbán in his “address to the nation” told his audience that instead of admitting migrants from the Middle East and Africa, “we will let in true refugees: Germans, Dutch, French, and Italians, terrified politicians and journalists who here in Hungary want to find the Europe they have lost in their homelands.” The fact is that a number of people—nationalists, opponents of liberal values, members of extreme far-right parties or movements—have been gathering in Hungary for some time.

Today I will concentrate on two men who have had relationships with Hungary and who are closely connected to the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville: Richard Spencer and Daniel Friberg. Both were involved with the organization of the rally and were scheduled speakers, but their speeches were scrapped due to the tragic end of the white supremacists’ demonstration.

Maybe I should start with Daniel Friberg, a Swede, who has been living in Hungary for some time. He is the co-founder and editor of AltRight.com, in addition to being a businessman connected to the Swedish mining industry. He is the co-founder and CEO of Arktos Media Ltd., which altright.com describes as “one of the world’s leading publishers of traditionalist and right-wing literature.” As for “traditionalist literature,” Arktos titles, according to Carol Schaeffer, “largely promote a viewpoint it characterizes as ‘alternatives to modernity’ that are critical of liberalism, human rights, and modern democracy.” It was Arktos that published full-text English translations of Russian theorist Alexander Dugin, “the intellectual guru of Putinism.” Friberg and his American editor-in-chief John B. Morgan moved the operation from the United Kingdom to Hungary in January 2016. (I should add that since then Morgan left Arktos and joined Counter-Currents, a white-nationalist publishing house and website also partially based in Budapest.)

With Friberg and Arktos moving to Budapest in early 2014, it made sense for Richard Spencer, president of the National Policy Institute, a white nationalist think tank, to organize The National Policy Institute Conference in the Hungarian capital in October of the same year. Although by that time several American, French, and Swedish right-wing extremists lived in Hungary, Viktor Orbán decided not to allow the gathering on Hungarian soil, allegedly because propagating white supremacist messages is unconstitutional. Therefore, he instructed Sándor Pintér, minister of the interior, to prevent the speakers and organizers from entering the country. But there was a problem: there was no legal way of stopping these men from entering Hungary. And indeed, no one interfered with Richard Spencer, who after landing in Vienna took the train to Budapest.

Once it became clear that the Hungarian police had no authority to deny him entry, the decision was made to forbid the conference. But as TASZ, the Hungarian equivalent of the American Civil Liberties Union, pointed out, such an action was also illegal. Even white supremacists have the right to express their opinions. But the Hungarian authorities’ bag is full of tricks. Spencer and about 40 of the would-be participants decided to spend the evening prior to the opening of the conference in a pub. Suddenly at least a dozen policemen arrived on the scene and asked Spencer for identification, which in this case would have been his passport. Hungarians are required to have their IDs on them at all times. Spencer, however, wasn’t carrying his passport. He was therefore arrested and held in jail for 72 hours, after which he was deported from Hungary. Because of the Schengen Agreement he was banned from all EU countries for three years.

Source: Népszabadság / Photo: Miklós Teknős

Before he was arrested and deported, Népszabadság had an interview with Spencer, from which we learn that one of the reasons the Institute chose Budapest as the venue for the conference was the presence of Arktos. He never contemplated holding the conference in Germany because of that country’s anti-hate laws. He thought that in Hungary they would be safe. And now, he said, he is confronted with “this political persecution.” He also expressed an aversion toward Jobbik because of the party’s “Asian fantasies,” which emphasize Hungarians’ relations with the Turks and other Central Asian people. From the interview we also learn that Spencer had friendly contacts with some Hungarian journalists. I assume these journalists came from Magyar Hírlap and perhaps Magyar Nemzet. Certainly, in later years Friberg was a welcome visitor at Magyar Hírlap. In the middle of 2016 the editors ran a whole series of articles about him as well as interviews with him.

Despite this unpleasant encounter, Spencer keeps his eyes on Hungarian events. For example, he reads The Hungarian Free Press, which he labelled as “neither Hungarian nor free nor a press,” in which he found an article about Zsolt Bayer. Bayer had just published an article in which he portrayed the current refugee crisis in Hungary and Europe as a racial war intended to annihilate white people. Based on this article, Christopher Adam, the author of The Hungarian Free Press’s opinion piece, concluded that “Fidesz is now more extreme than the ominous opposition party” Jobbik. Spencer agreed with Adam because “from an identitarian perspective Orban and his party are far sounder ideologically than Jobbik, whose leaders believe, perhaps accurately, that Turks are their brothers and sisters. Orban, on the other hand, has spoken of ‘Europe for Europeans.’” He found the Orbán quotation in an article about the prime minister’s 2015 speech at Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad, which appeared in Hungary Today, a government propaganda publication. At the end of the article Spencer comes to the conclusion that Bayer, and perhaps Orbán also, have been reading the literature of the alt-right because “Bayer does not speak the language of your standard European ‘ethno-nationalist.’ And it is Hungarians—and not us … at least not yet—who are in the position to realize the ideals of identitarianism.” So, Hungary’s prospect for achieving Spencer’s ideal society is far greater than that of Western Europe and the United States. Obviously kindred souls.

August 15, 2017

Charlottesville from a Hungarian perspective

White supremacists, neo-Nazis, and Ku Klux Klan members rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia, yesterday afternoon “to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump” to “take our country back.” The event ended in tragedy: a full-fledged terrorist attack by a white supremacist. In the end three people were dead and 19 injured. This was the first terrorist attack on U.S. soil since Donald Trump became the 45th president of the United States, and ironically it was committed not by an Islamic extremist but by a man who is most likely an admirer of the president.

David Duke, the former KKK grand wizard who was one of the organizers, announced before the event that the neo-Nazi rally was the fulfillment of President Trump’s vision for the United States. Duke was an enthusiastic supporter of Trump as far back as the Republican primaries. In turn, Trump was reluctant to disavow him when asked to do so by the Anti-Defamation League. He claimed that he didn’t know enough about the group or David Duke. Just as he was unwilling to repudiate his white supremacist followers back in February 2016, he is equally averse now to name the real culprits of the terrorist attack. “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides. On many sides,” he added for emphasis. Most Americans found Trump’s statement, which “couldn’t distinguish between the instigators and the dead,” morally unacceptable. David Duke was also unhappy, but for a different reason. “I would recommend you take a good look in the mirror & remember it was White Americans who put you in the presidency, not radical leftists,” he tweeted.

Some commentators believe that it was Trump’s public show of admiration for Andrew Jackson that told white nationalists their time had come. The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website, considered it fitting that Trump was honoring Jackson, whom they call “a white supremacist extremist.” The group created a poster with a quotation from Bannon: “Like Andrew Jackson’s populism, we’re going to build an entirely new political movement.” Trump’s admiration for Jackson also lent credence to the position of Steve King (R-Iowa), a Tea Party conservative for whom America looks very much like the country from the days of the Founding Fathers. King does not welcome immigrants from Central and South America or the Middle East because “we can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” I should add that Steve King is a great admirer of Viktor Orbán and his regime. In March-April, when Orbán moved against Central European University and the NGOs, Steve King was elated. “Prime Minister Viktor Orbán leads the way again,” he tweeted. “Marxist billionaire Soros cannot be allowed to influence U.S. elections either.”

Given this background, it is perhaps more understandable why some leading Republicans and Democrats are demanding the immediate removal of Steve Bannon and his sidekick Sebastian Gorka from the White House. These critics call both of them “alt-right neo-fascists.” For example, Richard Painter, who was the chief White House ethics lawyer in the George W. Bush administration, said in an MSNBC panel discussion that “Breitbart News is a racist organization…. This is Breitbart News that you’re watching on the streets of Charlottesville.” For good measure he added that “Bannon needs to be fired, Sebastian Gorka and the rest of the fascists or we have to remove this president.” Democratic Congressman Ruben Gallego called Trump “an absolute racist” on a SiriusXM radio show. He recalled that Trump had refused to comment on the attack or show his support for the American Muslim community in Bloomington, Minnesota. Moreover, his adviser Sebastian Gorka suggested on MSNBC that the bombing may have been faked “by the left.” One ought not to be surprised, Gallego continued, because Trump has surrounded himself with racists like Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, and Stephen Miller.

So Sebastian Gorka is back in the news big time. Not that he has been quiet in the last few months, but at the beginning he was mostly defending himself against charges of being a member of the Vitézi Rend, a knightly order created by Miklós Horthy for heroes of World War I. I have written many articles on the subject, most of which appeared on Hungarian Spectrum. The Vitézi Rend wasn’t a fascist or Nazi organization per se, but after Hungary entered World War II the order ended up on the U.S. State Department’s blacklist of pro-Nazi institutions. On the other hand, given the anti-Semitic nature of the Horthy regime and the anti-Semitism of the governor himself, no Jews could be admitted to the order regardless of military valor. Gorka steadfastly denies his membership, but current leaders of the Vitézi Rend confirmed his participation in the group. We also know that Gorka was involved with an extreme-right group that made its appearance in 2006 during the long vigil of hundreds of people on the square in front of the parliamentary building. He was as well a regular contributor to the anti-Semitic Demokrata, a still existing periodical under the editorship of András Bencsik, a friend and colleague of Zsolt Bayer.

Otherwise, as the White House “pit bull,” Gorka was often on television touting the greatness of Donald Trump, who was apparently thrilled every time he heard Gorka expounding on Fox News. Gorka’s first serious “political comment,” however, didn’t turn out too well. He gave an interview to BBC radio in which he said, in connection with Trump’s threat to North Korea, that “You should listen to the president; the idea that Secretary Tillerson is going to discuss military matters is simply nonsensical.” This comment went too far, and Gorka was forced to backtrack. He claimed that his words were misconstrued and that he was merely saying that the media shouldn’t ask Tillerson questions about military matters.

Gorka survived the Tillerson misstep, but this time he might be in more trouble because a couple of days ago, in a radio interview with Breitbart News, he belittled the danger white supremacists pose. “It’s this constant, ‘Oh, it’s the white man. It’s the white supremacists. That’s the problem.’ No, it isn’t.” And a few hours later comes the Charlottesville tragedy. Unfortunately Charlottesville wasn’t an isolated incident. In the decade after 9/11 the number of right-wing extremist attacks averaged 337 per year, causing a total of 254 fatalities, while Muslim extremists were responsible for a total of 50 deaths in the United States during the same period.

Is Gorka a racist? We have no idea, but some of his words are supportive of a racist culture.

The same question can be asked about Viktor Orbán, and pretty much the same answer given. Orbán’s views on the purity of European culture, which is under siege by outsiders, can easily be interpreted in a racial sense. Viktor Orbán is a devilishly clever politician who can rarely be caught saying something truly inappropriate or something that could be interpreted as a racial slur or as anti-Semitic. On the other hand, there have been innumerable occasions when he uttered sentences that were ambiguous, which only those who are familiar with the cultural context in which they are uttered can properly decipher. It is relatively easy to find Orbán speeches in which he talked about Europeans as a distinct group whose culture must be defended. At one point he even talked about ethnic purity, which his staff found too offensive and removed from the transcript of the speech, only to be found out and forced to reinsert it.

Racism is rampant in Hungary. According to a 2014 poll, 59% of Hungarians wouldn’t consent to a black neighbor and by 2016 80% wouldn’t want to live next door to an Arab. In the United States, according to the Brookings Institute, in 1958 44 percent of American whites said they would move if a black family moved next door; 40 years later, in 1998, the figure was 1 percent. By refusing to disavow white supremacists, Trump and his White House advisers may be helping to turn the clock back to the 1950s.

August 13, 2017

Introducing patriotic physical education classes

Back to education of sorts. Of sorts because the Orbán government, like all authoritarian regimes, looks upon education as a vehicle for its political agenda. It has been constantly fiddling with education ever since 2010, trying to adapt it to its own ideas and needs. Acquiring knowledge is taking a back seat to nationalistic indoctrination. As the latest test results attest, these “improvements” produced lower scores in all categories–math, science, and verbal skills. Instead of beefing up academic skills appropriate to the modern age, the government added subjects such as religious education (or ethics), and it increased the number of physical education classes. Of course, rote learning is still the pedagogical method of choice. As a result, children spend an inordinate number of hours in the classroom with less and less to show for it.

The Orbán government’s real aim is to use the school system for the infusion of values that the political leadership deems essential. Among these values, perhaps the most important is nationalistic patriotism, which they think young Hungarians lack. Therefore, the Orbán government’s new curriculum places special emphasis on pride in Hungarian cultural and scientific achievements and, in general, on historical and folk traditions. As the ministry of human resources put it, teachers of history and literature are supposed to instill national pride in their pupils.

Over the past seven years the government’s educational “experts” floated several ideas that were supposed to arouse students’ interest in what the Orbán government considers to be Hungarian specialties. Examples were the introduction of horseback riding and the compulsory daily singing of folk songs in schools. Luckily, the crazy idea of daily singing was soon abandoned.

Here I would like to focus on one notion that was put into practice: five gym classes a week instead of the earlier three. In theory, this might have been a good idea, but as usual it was introduced without due preparation and there are still many students who must do their exercises in the corridors instead of a gym due to lack of space. I was also very suspicious about the real reason for this great emphasis on physical education. We all know that a daily exercise program is good for us, and everywhere in the world only a small percentage of children and adults are physically active. Hungary is no exception. So, more gym classes could be a step in the right direction. Still, I was worried from the beginning that the greater emphasis on gym was not for the sole benefit of physical well-being but that the powers-that-be had a hidden agenda. Soon enough there were signs that my fears were justified.

The first sign that the government was thinking about general military training was Viktor Orbán’s surprising announcement that those men who received military training during the Kádár era and afterward, until it was abolished in 2004, gained immeasurably from the experience. The announcement was surprising because Orbán loathed his year in the military between high school and law school. According to his own admission, this was the time when he came to hate the regime and decided to turn against it. But today he seems to be convinced that Hungary must be able to defend itself and therefore must have a strong army. I believe that if the idea of conscription weren’t so unpopular, he wouldn’t mind reinstating compulsory military service. But since this is not possible politically, at least at the moment, he would like to have a strong reserve force.

István Simicskó, minister of defense, has been for the longest time a promoter of the idea of a “home army.” A year ago there was a lot of talk about building one, but it seems that the army found it difficult to convince men and women to enlist. Once that failed, Simicskó floated the idea of establishing shooting galleries in every “járás,” an administrative unit smaller than a county. Today not much can be heard about this idea either. Instead, at the beginning of June RTL Klub reported that the Klebelsberg Center (KLIK), which oversees Hungary’s educational system, inquired from school principals about the feasibility of establishing shooting galleries on school premises. A day later Magyar Nemzet learned that KLIK is also interested in the practicality of introducing martial arts. KLIK wanted to know what kinds of martial arts they teach now, because as of May students can replace gym classes not just with football but also with some kind of martial art. I should add that Simicskó is a practitioner of Wing Chun, a traditional Chinese martial art specializing in close range combat. Simicskó achieved the 4th master level.

The word is now out that by the end of this year schools will have to change the curriculum of gym classes to reflect “a program of patriotism and national defense.” Critics of the Orbán government’s educational policies are baffled and somewhat worried about these plans because of the coupling of patriotism/nationalism and the defense of the homeland. As it is, Hungarian education is supposed to instill an admiration for those who over the years have fought against “foreign oppression.” One only wishes the curriculum placed as much emphasis on the fight against domestic oppressors and the love of individual freedom.

It looks as if it is never too early to start patriotic/nationalistic indoctrination. According to the description of the project, it will begin when children enter kindergarten at the age of three. It is still not clear when students will have to start learning the rudiment of “the basics of military training.”

The plan strongly resembles the “levente movement,” which was introduced in 1921 and came to an end in 1945. It was the primary organization for pre-military training in the Horthy era. According to the Treaty of Trianon, Hungary could maintain only a very small army, so the introduction of the levente movement helped to circumvent the military restrictions imposed on the country. Every male between the ages of 12 and 21 who no longer attended school had to join a local levente group, where he was forced for 8-9 months a year to take physical education classes for three hours a week. So, it’s no wonder that some educational experts are worried that the patriotic physical education classes signal plans to reintroduce conscription sometime in the future.

Members of the levente movement practicing the shot put, 1928

But the very idea of “teaching” patriotism/nationalism to youngsters is frightening by itself. Often the distinction between patriotism and nationalism is blurred. It’s enough to take a look at the dictionary definitions of the two terms. Patriotism is “love and devotion to one’s country” while nationalism is “devotion, especially excessive or undiscriminating devotion to the interests or culture of a particular nation state.” But what is excessive? The second meaning of nationalism is even more telling. Nationalism is “the belief that nations will benefit from acting independently rather than collectively, emphasizing national rather than international goals,” which is certainly true of the “patriotic” aspirations of the Orbán government.

In brief, the present regime is introducing the teaching of blatant nationalism into the school curriculum. This highly questionable project is being financed to the tune of 318 million forints by, I’m sorry to say, the European Union. It is one of the many paradoxes that most of us find intolerable. Here is the European Union, which is supposed to stand for international cooperation and ever closer integration at the expense of nationalistic egotism, and that organization finances Viktor Orbán’s latest plans to bring up a generation of Hungarians antagonistic to the very ideas the European Union stands for.

August 6, 2017

What happened to Momentum? The loss of youthful innocence

I think it’s time to return to Momentum, a new political formation that became an overnight sensation after their activists, with some help from left-liberal parties, collected 260,000 signatures in the dead of winter in support of a referendum about holding the Olympic Games in Budapest in 2024. The overwhelming support for the initiative forced the Orbán government to retreat and abandon one of Viktor Orbán’s most cherished dreams.

The last time I wrote about Momentum was in March, after a number of disastrous interviews that András Fekete-Győr, the leader of the group, gave to ATV and HírTV. I titled that post “What’s behind Momentum? Banal clichés.” I’m afraid nothing has happened since to make me change my mind. But, if we can believe Republikon Intézet’s telephone poll, Momentum is so popular in Budapest that 9% of active voters would vote for it at the next election. Momentum’s standing nationwide, as measured by several polling companies, is 2%.

Many commentators compare Momentum to the youthful Fidesz in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was also a generational party that came from practically nowhere. A few months later it won enough votes to be represented in parliament. In July 1989 Fidesz organized a three-four-day gathering that included political discussions. It was held in Bálványosfűrdő/Băile Bálványos, which over the years has become a gathering place for Hungarians, mostly from Romania, to listen to the political messages of Viktor Orbán. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the leadership of Momentum decided to organize a three-day gathering called “Opening Festival” in Bodajk, a town of 4,000 inhabitants in Fejér County. During the day they held panel discussions and at night it was all fun and games. Lots of music and dancing. The event, as we learned later, cost quite a bit of money, but the business-minded Momentum leadership believed that it was a good investment, even in financial terms. By all accounts relatively few people attended. According to the journalist from Index, on the first day there were no more than 200-300 people.

In March, when I looked at Momentum’s so-called program, it was practically nonexistent. Unfortunately, the situation hasn’t changed since. They promise a party program for October 15. Otherwise, Momentum’s strongest message is that it rejects not only the last seven years of Fidesz rule but everything that has happened in Hungary since 1989. As for the general political orientation of the party, Fekete-Győr likened Momentum to Emmanuel Macron’s “En Marche!” The general impression is that Momentum is neither on the right nor on the left, perhaps because so far it seems devoid of ideas.

It is almost impossible to figure out what Momentum actually wants. They made only a few concrete political announcements, the most important of which was that in no way would they consider cooperation with any other party unless “there is a danger of a two-thirds Fidesz majority,” as Fekete-Győr put it. This makes no sense to me. By the time it seems likely that Fidesz’s strength would result in a two-thirds majority, no cooperation among opposition parties could do anything to change the situation.

Momentum seems not to know whether it is a serious political party or a charitable organization. In the midst of talking about matters like Hungary’s place in the European Union and the benefits of the Eurozone, Fekete-Győr could tell his audience about a project of theirs to supply soap and towels to schools and hospitals where they are currently in short supply.

Árpád W. Tóta of HVG, whom I consider one of the most astute observers of the current Hungarian political scene, asked the leaders of Momentum some probing questions. What Tóta learned from Fekete-Győr was that the political profile of Momentum, which today is fuzzy, will be shaped by whatever the people want. Of course, this is a very dangerous populist notion which can lead a party to adopt even extremist views. This is exactly what happened in Fidesz’s case when Viktor Orbán discovered what people wanted to hear. I don’t think the leaders of Momentum ever thought through the dangers of such a populist approach to politics. I’m sorry that the video has no subtitles, but those who understand the language should definitely spend 10 minutes on Tóta’s conversations with the leaders of Momentum. It is worth it.

The “Opening Festival” was lavish, and questions were raised where the money came from to fund the event. Tóta himself in that interview asked Fekete-Győr about the cost, but the Momentum leader feigned ignorance of the amount. He maintained, however, that the only money they have comes from membership dues. Another student leader, Miklós Hajnal, on ATV claimed that the cost of the festival was a “trade secret.” Eventually Momentum announced the real cost. The party spent 23 million forints (about $89,000); the income received from the participants was only 11 million. Apparently, currently Momentum has 1,100 card-carrying party members who pay 1,000 forints a month as a membership fee.

The less than transparent finances of Momentum have aroused the interest of the media. A few days ago Heti Válasz, a right-of-center weekly, discovered that at least two well-known businessmen have helped the party financially. One is Gábor Bojár of Graphisoft, a software company, and the founder of the Aquincum Institute of Technology, who told the paper that he gave them one million forints. The other is György Raskó, MDF’s undersecretary of agriculture in the Antall government, who is now a successful agro businessman. The amount Raskó gave to Momentum is unknown, but there were strings attached to the gift. He wanted the party to include an education program that would be similar to the successful Finnish model. Apparently, he also wanted to receive assurances that Momentum would not cooperate on any level with MSZP and the Demokratikus Koalíció. In addition, Raskó also warned that he doesn’t want Momentum to become a “Budapest downtown liberal intellectual” party.

Momentum, right turn / Photo: HVG

Not surprisingly the government media attacked both Momentum and its wealthy supporters. Magyar Idők hypocritically expressed its concern over “the undue influence of entrepreneurs over party politics” and declared that Momentum is not an independent party but an instrument in the hands of men with definite political goals. But left-liberal publications aren’t exactly thrilled either. Pesti Bulvár, a relatively new internet news site, repeated the general dissatisfaction on the left with Momentum’s refusal to cooperate with anyone, which further weakens the anti-Orbán forces. Garai, the author of the article, titled “A party is for sale,” estimates that Momentum has already spent 100-150 million forints. He charges that the leaders of Momentum, by accepting Raskó’s demands, admitted that they don’t really want regime change because they ought to know that small parties running alone can lead only to Fidesz victory. Moreover, given Raskó’s political views, he says, Momentum is moving over to the right.

I have had heard interviews with both Bojár and Raskó and found most of what they had to say eminently reasonable. Raskó is normally asked to comment on matters related to agriculture, and he shows great knowledge of the subject. However, I must admit that his categorical refusal to make common cause with other anti-Orbán forces shows a shortsighted and rigidly ideological posture that is not in the interest of the country.

We don’t know how long Raskó has been supporting Momentum financially, but my feeling is that it has been from the very beginning. We know that he gave these young people money at the time of their signature drive for a referendum on the Olympic Games. Moreover, Raskó’s son is a member of Momentum. As for the extent to which Raskó has been influencing these young people’s ideas, that remains an open question. We know, for example, that Raskó is a believer in the establishment of large agro businesses instead of small family farms and that Momentum also supports this idea.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with getting advice from experts. In the case of Momentum, when I think back, I was struck how often András Fekete-Győr boasted about unnamed, very important advisers who worked with them. All political parties need experts in a range of fields, but in this case we have a bunch of young people without any political experience who may not know what to do with the advice they receive. And, of course, I am disheartened by Raskó’s advice of noncooperation. It is the worst advice he could have given the leaders of Momentum.

Finally, Edina Pottyondy, a member of Momentum’s board of governors, quit her post two days ago. She remains a member of the party and will be one of the organizers of the party’s efforts to recruit followers in the countryside, said the spokesman for the party. I cannot escape the feeling that the less than transparent handling of the party’s finances might have had something to do with her departure. In any case, whatever has transpired since July 22, the first day of the “Opening Festival,” has done a lot of damage to Momentum. The reputation of the seemingly innocent, young, bright boys and girls has suffered a serious blow.

August 5, 2017

A Hungarian reassessment of Donald Trump

The Orbán government, as we know, was initially delighted over Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States. Viktor Orbán expected a favorable change in U.S.-Hungarian relations, especially since the Hungarian prime minister was the only European leader to express a preference for Donald Trump over Hilary Clinton during the election campaign. A reciprocal sign of goodwill on the part of Trump was presumed, not just by the Hungarian administration but by the public as well. The prime minister undoubtedly expected an early invitation to the White House in addition to friendlier gestures from the U.S. State Department. None of these expectations has materialized. On the contrary, Viktor Orbán’s attack on Central European University was sharply denounced by the State Department. At the same time U.S.-Russian relations, instead of getting better, have soured. By now there’s a Cold-War-like chill in the relationship between the two countries.

In the last few weeks we have seen signs that the Orbán government is in the process of reassessing its opinion of the American president, who lost his first rounds against the Washington establishment and might already have been mortally wounded under the barrage of revelations about his and his family’s questionable conduct. Thus, I assume, the journalists of the government media received permission to use stronger language against the American president which, given their pro-Russian views, comes naturally to them.

Leading the way is István Lovas, who used to be Magyar Nemzet’s Brussels correspondent at the time the paper was the main mouthpiece of Fidesz. Lovas, after 20 years of living in Canada, the United States, and Germany where he worked for Radio Free Europe, returned to Hungary. He began writing for right-wing papers, like the now defunct Pesti Hírlap, Magyar Demokrata, Magyar Hírlap, and Magyar Idők. He is also a regular participant in a political roundtable program alongside Zsolt Bayer on the far-right Echo TV, now owned by Lőrinc Mészáros. His expertise is foreign policy. In addition, he maintains a blog.

Lovas published two articles on Trump today, one in Magyar Hírlap and the other in Magyar Idők. The first deals with “The collapse of Trump” and the other with the forthcoming economic sanctions against “dishonest” China. In addition, Magyar Idők added an editorial on the “economic saber rattling” of the United States. So, the honeymoon, if there ever was one, is over.

In Lovas’s assessment, the last remnants of Trump’s “pretense of power” evaporated when he signed the sanctions against Russia, Iran, and North Korea. It was a cowardly and unconstitutional act, in Lovas’s opinion. His performance as president has been disgraceful, and all those who believed his campaign promises about his plans for good relations with Russia are greatly disappointed. Trump is universally despised—at one point Lovas calls him a cockchafer’s grub—and therefore, in Lovas’s opinion, “it is not worth meeting this man.” I guess this is a message to Viktor Orbán: “Don’t be too disappointed that you haven’t been invited to Washington to meet the failed president. It’s not worth the bother.”

Lovas’s other article, on America’s possible trade war with China, is not an original piece but a summary of an article originally published in Deutsche Wirtschafts Nachrichten. Lovas, who spent more than a week in China recently, is impressed with the super-modern world the Chinese created in the last few decades and therefore is worried about American plans that might result in a full-fledged trade war between the two countries.

The third article, “Trumps attacks on many fronts,” by Attila Mártonffy, deals with U.S. sanctions against Russia, China, and Iran which in turn hurt the economic interests of the European Union. The author calls the American moves “saber rattling.”

All in all, after relative media silence, the open criticism of Donald Trump has begun. Knowing the practices of the Hungarian government media, the articles that appear in Magyar Idők and Magyar Hírlap will a few days later be followed by pieces on all the lesser right-wing internet sites. We can expect article after article reassessing the role of Donald Trump as “the leader of the free world.”

Meanwhile, it might be educational to take a look at a by-now admittedly dated study (the material was collected from February 16 to May 8 and the report published in late June) by the Pew Research Center. It focuses on the opinions of people living in 37 countries about Donald Trump and the United States. We are lucky because Hungary was one of the 10 European countries included in the survey.

Overall, confidence in the U.S. president to do the right thing in world affairs dropped sharply (from 64% to 22%) after Trump became president. This is true in Hungary as well. Hungarian trust in the presidency in the closing years of Obama’s second term was 58%, but by the time of the survey it was only 29%. I should add that there are only two countries of the 37 included in the survey where confidence in Trump was greater than it was in Obama: Israel (from 49% to 56%) and Russia (from 11% to 56%). Disappointment among Russians must be great nowadays.

When the researchers wanted to pinpoint the effect of the change in U.S. administration on public opinion in the countries studied some interesting results surfaced. Ten European countries were included in the survey: Hungary, Poland, Greece, Italy, France, United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and Sweden. In most of these countries there was a sizable drop in people’s favorable views of the United States after Trump moved into the White House. For example, this drop was 28 percentage points in Spain and 26 percentage points in the Netherlands. Hungary and Greece were the only two exceptions. In Hungary’s case there was a +1 move (62% to 63%) and in Greece a +5 change after Trump was elected.

Confidence in Trump as president is low everywhere in Europe. For example, 92% of Spaniards have no confidence in him, but even other European countries, including Greece and Italy, expressed very strong anti-Trump sentiments. Poland and Hungary are the last two countries on the list, each with only a 57% disapproval rate. In its opinion of the U.S.-Mexican wall, Hungary is at the bottom of the list, with a 49% disapproval rate, which may not sound like much of an endorsement until we compare it to the other European countries. The European median is 86%. Another telling figure is Hungarians’ strong approval of restrictions on entry to the United States from majority-Muslim countries. Hungary heads the list with 70% as opposed to the European median of 36%.

At the time Hungarians were also a great deal less critical of Donald Trump’s qualifications for the presidency. The European figures are devastating, but in Hungary more people believe he is qualified for the job (39%) than in any other European country. This is also true when it comes to questions about his personal traits, like his alleged arrogance and intolerance. Hungary is always at the end of the list, often together with Poland, in being the least critical. It is also telling that while overwhelming majority of Spaniards, French, Swedes, Dutch, and Germans consider Trump to be very dangerous as far as the world is concerned (76%-69%), only 42% of Hungarians do.

An intriguing situation. Within the European context Hungarians are less inclined to be harsh in their assessment of Donald Trump’s presidency. At least this was the case a few months ago. It will be fascinating to watch what happens in the coming months, especially if government media criticism of Trump’s policies becomes more widespread.

August 4, 2017

Whither MSZP? It seems to be stalled

Before going into the latest follies of the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), I should briefly summarize the findings of the most recent opinion polls in order to illustrate the true state of the party’s popularity among Hungarian voters. All four polls I consulted show Fidesz to have an enormous lead over its opponents. In all four, Jobbik was the second largest party in the country. Third place is occupied by MSZP and fourth by DK. Support for the other parties, with the exception of LMP, hovers around 1%. LMP has 3%.

Since the beginning of the year not much has changed in the popularity of the parties. A couple of percentage point differences here and there, but the ranking has stayed the same and, most importantly for our purposes here, support for MSZP hasn’t grown substantially since January. Combining the four opinion polls (Republikon, Závecz, Tárki, and Medián), the average support for MSZP is only 12% among active voters. In the same category, Fidesz would receive 50.25% and Jobbik 19%. DK’s support is 6%, which is nothing to brag about, but it is still a voting bloc one must reckon with, especially given the low popularity of the socialists.

Republikon also included a question about people’s opinion of the four declared candidates for the post of prime minister. The respondents were offered a choice of three people in two combinations. The first included Viktor Orbán, Gábor Vona, and László Botka; the second, Viktor Orbán, Gábor Vona, and Gergely Karácsony (Párbeszéd). The result is telling. In the first option Orbán received 38% of the votes, Botka 16%, and Vona 15%. The rest had no opinion. In the second option, where Karácsony took the place of Botka, the results for Orbán and Vona were practically the same and Karácsony received 14%, compared to Botka’s 16%. Not much of a difference. Once Republikon looked at party affiliations, it turned out that, as opposed to Fidesz and Jobbik voters who overwhelmingly support their candidates, only 60% of the left-of-center voters find Botka a desirable candidate. Karácsony, chairman of a party with 1% support, received a fairly impressive 48% popularity rating.

It looks as if MSZP’s leadership is blind to the reality of the numbers presented here. Otherwise, it is inexplicable that the party hasn’t considered changing course. After a while they should have recognized that László Botka’s remedies aren’t working. His “go-it-alone” strategy could have worked only if there was a spectacular growth in MSZP’s popularity, which in turn would have inspired the smaller parties to flock behind him. Since this hasn’t happened, a good politician would have changed strategy. But there was no sign of any soul-searching in MSZP until a few days ago, when Zsolt Molnár, one of the leading politicians in the party, wrote a short article in which he suggested that Botka should start negotiations with Ferenc Gyurcsány of DK, whom until now he had refused even to meet. I wrote about the subsequent unpleasant exchange between Botka and Molnár a few days ago.

When I summarized the Botka-Molnár controversy, I had no idea what the final outcome of this latest party quarrel would be. A couple of days ago there was a glimmer of hope that Gyula Molnár, the party’s chairman, would take matters into his own hands and would initiate some sensible alternative to the present hopeless course. But I’m afraid Gyula Molnár is not a strong leader, and instead of “summoning” Botka and Zsolt Molnár to party headquarters, as he first promised, we learned yesterday that it was Zsolt Molnár who traveled to Szeged. After a two-hour, apparently “amiable meeting,” as Molnár described it, he threw in the towel and assured Botka of his full support.

It is hard to know exactly what happened at this “amiable meeting” because it seems that Molnár either misunderstood what Botka told him or he was double-crossed. I suspect the latter. Molnár was supposed be in charge of negotiations with the other parties regarding the election campaign in Budapest and, as he recalled, this particular topic wasn’t even discussed at the meeting. However, the other politicians in the party already knew last night that Molnár would be stripped of all of his functions related to the elections.

The official confirmation of that fact came today at a press conference Botka gave. There it became clear that Botka had already come to an agreement with József Tóth, the very successful socialist mayor of District XIII, to take charge of negotiating with the other parties regarding the allocation of candidates of the united front of the democratic opposition in all 18 electoral districts of Budapest. These negotiations would include DK as well but, according to Botka’s wishes, without Ferenc Gyurcsány. Good luck to József Tóth, since there is no way that anyone from DK would sit down to negotiate with him if the price of cooperation is the shuttering out of the party’s chairman. And, according to analysts, Budapest cannot be won without DK. Even Tóth’s own very socialist district might be in jeopardy without it.

Botka, at least for now, is holding fast to his earlier position that every democratic politician will have to decide whether his own political future is more important than the removal of the Orbán government from power. He made no secret of the fact that he has Ferenc Gyurcsány in mind. Successfully pinning the blame on Gyurcsány, however, would work only if Botka himself weren’t carrying so much baggage in the eyes of the electorate. First of all, there is the problem of his lackluster support among left-wing voters. His high-handed treatment of Ferenc Gyurcsány also alienated a great number of people. His belittling of the politicians of the smaller parties as dupes didn’t endear him to the ones with whom MSZP is now supposed to negotiate. And finally, his ill-tempered attack on Zsolt Molnár is apparently disapproved of by the majority of the leading MSZP politicians. It can thus easily happen that it will be Botka who will end up being seen as the impediment to unity, not Ferenc Gyurcsány.

August 1, 2017

The next victims of Orbán’s hate campaign will be the journalists

Hungarian commentators know from past experience that one ought to pay close attention to every word Viktor Orbán utters because his future plans are normally embedded in his speeches way ahead of time. Sometimes these references are too subtle to notice easily; more often, they are dropped in a phrase or two which those who listen to his speeches, especially the soporific ones, are likely to miss.

With the exception of the hired hands of the government media, all other commentators at home and abroad found that Viktor Orbán’s speech in Tusnádfürdő-Băile Tușnad was on the dull side, containing practically nothing new. He refrained from announcing any controversial idea that would be greeted with consternation in political circles in the European Union. There was, however, something in that speech that upset Hungarian journalists to no end. Amidst the seemingly endless braggadocio there was one sentence that strongly indicated that, after the attacks on the NGOs and George Soros, the next victims will be journalists critical of the Orbán government, especially investigative journalists who have been unearthing the corruption endemic in Fidesz and government circles.

Orbán made no secret of the fact that, between now and the election sometime in April 2018, Fidesz’s “adversaries will not be the opposition parties at home.” In the forthcoming election campaign “first and foremost [they] will have to hold their own against external forces; against the bureaucrats of Brussels; the Soros mafia network and its media.” That last sentence sent chills down the spines of journalists working for media outlets considered to be unfriendly to the Orbán government.

Magyar Nemzet actually received information from Fidesz circles that this is not the first time that Viktor Orbán has expressed his strong disapproval of the activities of some journalists. Insiders reported that he often talked about the “liberal media” and its unwarranted bias and enmity toward the government, resulting in unfair reporting. The paper learned from several sources that this year’s speech in Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad was the beginning of a new anti-media campaign. Thus far Fidesz’s targets have been media outlets owned by Lajos Simicska, but now they are apparently planning to go against individual journalists. The informants intimated that investigative journalists concentrating on economic matters will be in his cross hairs. A new enemy is needed after Brussels and George Soros, and the media is an obvious next choice. Especially since Donald Trump’s anti-media campaign has had its influence in Hungary, where the expression “fake news” is spreading in the English original.

Orbán has a point. The opposition in its current state is no threat to him whatsoever. If the chaos that exists on the political left isn’t resolved over the next nine months, Fidesz, especially with the assistance of Romanian-Hungarian voters, will be able to win the election easily and most likely will have the coveted two-thirds majority of parliamentary seats. By now the only threat comes from high-profile NGOs, who insist on legality and diligently pursue government wrongdoings. They keep going to the European Court of Justice or to the European Court of Human Rights, and more often than not they win against the Orbán government. It’s no wonder that Orbán wants to get rid of them. Investigative journalists are also “enemies” as far as Fidesz is concerned. They have been working hard to discover the sources of the newly acquired riches of the Orbán family and to unearth the criminal activities of the oligarchs who are actively supported by the prime minister. If these NGOs and journalists would just disappear, life would be a great deal easier for Orbán and friends.

But Hungary is still not like Russia or Turkey where journalists are killed or jailed. Orbán most likely will choose a different tack. The suspicion in Hungarian journalistic circles is that the plan is to undermine the reputation of the most active investigative journalists. The government will try to find some dirt and, if there is nothing juicy enough, they will create stories from half-truths. As for character assassination, we know that Orbán is a master of the craft. It is enough to think of how effectively he managed to create a monster out of Ferenc Gyurcsány simply because he believed him to be his only effective political foe in the country. In comparison to that, the task of finishing off some journalists’ careers will be child’s play.

The journalists who either work for the handful of media outlets owned by non-Fidesz businessmen or those who have been supported by George Soros’s Open Society Foundation are worried. They wanted to know more about the targets of the new campaign from Szilárd Németh, deputy to Chairman Viktor Orbán, who gave a press conference on the subject. Németh immediately got into an argument with the journalists who were present. He accused Gergely Nyilas of Index of not being a journalist but an emissary of Lajos Simicska, the owner of the internet site. According to Németh, Nyilas is simply performing the task assigned to him, which is attacking Simicska’s enemy Viktor Orbán. Another journalist representing the Simicska-owned HírTV didn’t fare better. He was accused of reciting his questions, which were actually written for him by someone else. Németh most likely again had Lajos Simicska in mind.

The journalists naturally wanted to know which media outlets are the latest targets of the government, but Németh refused to name them, claiming that both he and the journalists know full well which ones the government has in mind. However, in the course of the conversation he talked about “criminal organizations” that will have to be dealt with by the prosecutor’s office.

In addition to Szilárd Németh, the almost forgotten Rózsa Hoffmann, former undersecretary of education, also spoke about the ill-willed, irresponsible journalists. While claiming that Hungary’s reputation in Brussels is improving, “certain journalistic organizations falsely accuse Hungary on many accounts.” She also seems certain that these journalists are following a prescribed script.

We can expect a heightened assault on journalists as well as NGOs. In fact, Orbán promised that much when answering a man in Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad who demanded harsher treatment of NGOs. It sounds ominous.

July 26, 2017