Tag Archives: Viktor Orbán

The Financial Times in the crosshairs of the Orbán government

On January 15 a lengthy, detailed article appeared in The Financial Times written by Neil Buckley, the paper’s Eastern European editor, and Andrew Byrne, its correspondent for Hungary, Romania, and the Western Balkans.

The article, titled “The rise and rise of Viktor Orbán,” spans the life of the Hungarian prime minister, from his childhood and his anti-communism as a university student to his long political career at the head of the party he and his fellow students founded in 1988. The article reflects a solid familiarity with its subject and, as one can learn from Zoltán Kovács, who as undersecretary for public diplomacy and relations was also interviewed, it has been in the making for months, during which time the authors interviewed dozens of people with an intimate knowledge of Viktor Orbán. The authors naturally wanted to have an interview with Orbán himself, but he declined. The Financial Times isn’t a favorite in Hungarian government circles.

For anyone with a less than thorough knowledge of recent Hungarian politics, the article is a gold mine because it provides the kind of concise background information that enables English-speaking readers to begin to understand the rogue country with its illiberal politics that gives the European Union so many headaches. Who is Viktor Orbán? What makes him tick? For those of us who know Viktor Orbán well, there are no great surprises here. But I liked the quotation from a former senior official who said that “the problem is he has no scruples. He has no moral limits.” I also liked László Kéri’s recollection of Orbán describing Fidesz as a collection of “kind of spare parts” of diverse political tools. Otherwise, Orbán is described as a man with “an overwhelming will to power,” and the article correctly describes his regime as an incredibly centralized political system where all power is in his hands.

In brief, there was nothing more in this article, except in greater detail and perhaps with more  insights, than what other German, British, American, and French newspapers have published about Viktor Orbán and his illiberal political system. Yet the reaction to the article in government circles was vehement. Big guns came out to counter what Buckley and Byrne had to say about Viktor Orbán.

The opening salvo came from Zoltán Kovács, who was sorry that the article didn’t offer something “new and insightful” about the reasons for Orbán’s success. In his article titled “Here’s how the Financial Times missed the story—again,” Kovács complained that the final product of Buckley and Byrne was just “another installment of the standard Financial Times narrative about Viktor Orbán.” The same old story about a once liberal democrat and radical activist who became a  “nationalist-populist” and “turned Hungary into a semi-authoritarian regime.” Kovács was especially offended by the intimation that Orbán’s religious conversion was just a cynical, tactical maneuver.

So, what should Buckley and Byrne have written instead, according to Kovács? They should have explained the real reasons for Orbán’s success: the country’s “robust economic recovery,” for example. They could have written about the government’s “workfare policies” that brought tens of thousands of people back into the labor force. They ignored the fact that Hungary’s credit rating, which earlier was classified as junk, is once again investment grade. They should have talked about “an upswing in investment” and the “lowest corporate tax in the EU.”

Unfortunately, the truthfulness of these claims is questionable. Yes, in the last year Hungary’s credit rating was upgraded from junk status, but Kovács neglected to mention that it had been rated as investment grade in 2010 when Orbán took over the reins of the government. Because of his government’s economic mismanagement, it was subsequently downgraded. I have no idea where Kovács got the idea that there is an upswing in investment; I hear exactly the opposite. It is true that the economy is doing well, but that is true of the European Union as a whole. In addition, there is the incredible amount of money coming from the European Union, which the Orbán government is spending in a great hurry, preferably before the election. And despite the recent good economic numbers, Hungary is still doing poorly in comparison to other countries in the region. In brief, it wouldn’t have been good journalism to follow Kovács’s advice.

It wasn’t only Kovács who came to Viktor Orbán’s rescue. That is more or less expected of a government spokesman. Mária Schmidt also appeared with an article titled “How Fantastic.” It is difficult to figure out what is so fantastic, but perhaps it is supposed to be a sarcastic remark about the article’s emphasis on Orbán’s unusually strong “will to power” and his lack of scruples to achieve that power. Subsequently, Schmidt sets out to teach us something about power. “In order to grab power, in fact, one needs to make horrible sacrifices. Keeping power, on the other hand, is a value in itself, which requires excellent performance, indefatigable work, self-limitation and self-sacrifice” — and naturally that is what Orbán has done.

Unlike Kovács’s measured demands for a different kind of information that would give a more accurate picture of the state of the country, Schmidt’s piece is full of expressions of a bruised nationalist ego when she sarcastically calls people in the West “the advanced ones” who feel superior to the people of the less advanced nations of Eastern Europe. She talks about The Financial Times in disparaging terms, describing it as “this newspaper, apparently the authoritative daily of the business world.” Western academics are also in her crosshairs. For example, “It’s great to know that Timothy Garton Ash has also offered his opinion from Oxford. It was with great relief that I learned that expertise has been heard at last. He says Hungary is ‘not in the strict sense a dictatorship’ [and] that Orbán ‘has turned Hungary into a semi-authoritarian regime.’” Timothy Garton Ash is wrong, she insists. Hungary is a true democracy and, “as for Orbán, he started out as a freedom fighter and that is what he has remained.” According to Schmidt, “the problem the ‘advanced’ countries of the Union have with Orbán is that he has remained a freedom fighter and a democrat.” As for the complaints that Hungary is not a liberal democracy, Schmidt offers the following comparison. When Hungarians lived under a “people’s democracy,” everybody knew that that the adjective “people’s” meant dictatorship. “The adjective ‘liberal’ plays the same role that ‘people’s’ played in those years.”

Fighting Evil

That’s Mária Schmidt’s interpretation of Viktor Orbán’s place in the European Union. Viktor Orbán, the solitary freedom fighter who is struggling against the liberal dictatorship of the western leaders who think that they are superior to East Europeans.

A recent interview with Mária Schmidt warrants a mention here. Yesterday an excellent article appeared in The Guardian which included an interview with the “court historian” of Viktor Orbán. In the middle of a history lesson Schmidt said: “There is a debate about the future of Europe: whether it can remain an alliance of nation states, or whether it should become an empire. I don’t believe in empires. Where is the Soviet Union now? Where is the Third Reich? Where is the Ottoman empire? Where is the British Empire? Meanwhile, Hungary is still here. This is a state which is 1,100 years old. Germany, by comparison, is a young country,” Schmidt added, raising her voice. “I don’t like being lectured by people who couldn’t even set up a nation state before 1871.” Schmidt’s office later emailed to clarify that she had intended this as a joke. We can be sure of one thing: she wasn’t joking.

February 4, 2018

Picking a fight with the United Nations

Viktor Orbán, at his regular biweekly radio interview two weeks ago, on January 19, without any prodding from the reporter, began talking about the United Nations’ migrant policy. He warned his audience that the UN is contemplating the introduction of programs that would “assist worldwide migration.” This is a danger that the Hungarian government must tackle, and therefore the national security cabinet will get together to discuss the matter, which is “contrary to the interests of Hungary.” He added that the United States had already sensed the dangers inherent in the plans underway at the United Nations and had announced its intention to boycott the discussions on the refugee and migrant crisis.

Ten days later the Hungarian media reported that the national security cabinet is in the process of discussing the matter. The public attacks by members of the Orbán government against the UN’s migration policies left little doubt that the cabinet would decide to follow the United States and boycott the negotiations of the UN’s Global Compact for Migration. Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó, for example, found Secretary-General António Guterres’s writings ahead of the actual negotiations “unacceptable.”

Szijjártó revealed in an interview on Magyar Rádió on January 28 that, unless there are significant changes to the document, he will suggest withdrawing from the negotiations. A few days later, on February 2, Reuters reported that the Hungarian foreign minister had announced that “Hungary could quit talks on a United Nations pact on migration because its pro-migration tone threatened Hungary’s security interests.” In fact, Szijjártó specifically stated that if the draft that is scheduled to be released on February 5 is “as pro-migrant as the declaration upon which it is based,” the Hungarian government will not take part in the negotiations.

The Hungarian flag at the UN

The declaration that Péter Szijjártó referenced is the “New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants” adopted by the General Assembly on September 19, 2016, which Hungary signed. Here are a few items in the declaration that the Orbán government put its name to: profound solidarity with, and support for, people who are forced to leave the place of their birth; shared responsibility and compassion; condemnation of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and intolerance toward refugees and migrants; invitation to the private sector and civil society to join the effort of solving the refugee problem; asking for effective strategies to ensure adequate protection and assistance for displaced persons. Should I continue? The Orbán government signed this declaration without a murmur. But now, most likely encouraged by the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the talks, Viktor Orbán realized that a similar action on the part of his government would reap domestic benefits from the solidly anti-migrant population. In the case of the United States, Donald Trump can at least say that it was the Obama administration that signed the 2016 declaration; the Orbán government doesn’t have that excuse.

The very first topic in Viktor Orbán’s Friday morning chat on Magyar Rádió yesterday was the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants and the forthcoming Global Compact on Refugees, indicating that the prime minister considers this question to be of the utmost importance. First, he said he wanted “to detach ourselves from the Americans.” He remembers the days when Hungary’s actions in the United Nations slavishly followed Moscow’s. Hungary’s decision is totally independent of the U.S. action, he claims. He has only Hungary’s interests in mind.

The reporter identified UN Secretary-General António Guterres as the former president of the Socialist International and therefore ab ovo suspect. In the conversation between Orbán and the reporter, a picture of Guterres emerged that bears little resemblance to reality. For instance, they agreed that if the Secretary-General’s views prevail, “even the right to border defense is at risk.”

Orbán found the idea of including NGOs in the work of handling migration especially odious. “God should save Hungary” from having civic organizations involved because “Hungary has had enough bad experiences with NGOs, pseudo-civic organizations bankrolled by Soros.” Viktor Orbán, it seems, suddenly discovered that the New York Declaration he signed is actually “a copy of the Soros Plan.”

The potential action directed against the UN Global Compact is a repeat of the charade Viktor Orbán specializes in. The stakes of signing the final document are minimal. Whatever is signed will not be a formal international agreement. As several Hungarian commentators noted, “it is not really more than an affirmation of the signatories’ adherence to universal human rights.”

What set Orbán off was a report of the secretary-general, published on January 11, titled “Making migration work for all.” Almost every point in this report is anathema to Orbán and like-minded anti-migration advocates. Guterres argues that worldwide migration has been a fact of life for some time and that it will be with us even more so in the future. Countries must therefore be ready to accept and integrate these people. He would like to see an “orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility of people … as part of a wider push to reduce inequality within and between States.” Over and above that, he contends that “migration powers economic growth, reduces inequalities, and connects diverse societies.” Therefore, “Member States should make a collective effort to expand and strengthen pathways for regular migration to match the realities of labor market needs, including anticipating future demographic trends and future demands for labor.”

Viktor Orbán, before he decided that whipping up Hungarian nationalism helps him stay in power, had advocated accepting two million immigrants in order to help ensure sustainable economic growth. As we know, the Hungarian birthrate has been very low ever since the 1970s. The result is a serious labor shortage. In the last eight years, the Orbán government has spent a considerable amount of money in an attempt to boost the birthrate. But even if, by some miracle, every woman under the age of 35 suddenly decided to have a baby, it would take at least 20 years before this baby boom would have an effect on the job market. And this miracle is not happening. All of the government’s efforts to facilitate the creation of larger families have been in vain. According to the latest statistics, under the Orbán government 50,000 fewer babies were born between January 1, 2010 and December 31, 2017 than were born during the Medgyessy-Gyurcsány-Bajnai administration between 2002 and 2009. Maintaining healthy population growth without immigration is not a realistic undertaking.

February 3, 2018

Chinks in Fidesz’s political armor

There is great excitement in opposition circles because today HVG published Medián’s latest opinion poll on the current standing of Hungarian political parties. Medián, which has the reputation of being the most reliable polling company, came out with results that seem to indicate that the solid, abnormally high public support for Fidesz-KDNP has suffered a considerable setback.

Medián’s previous polling results were published on December 13 with a rather depressing title: “The voting blocks are frozen and the opposition is increasingly disliked.” Fidesz at that point had the support of 60% of respondents who were definitely planning to vote. The only bright spot in the poll was that 56% of eligible voters were planning to cast their votes as opposed to the earlier Medián poll, published on November 1, which measured only 52%. The electorate was evenly split between those who wanted the Orbán government to stay and those who wanted a change of administration.

This was the situation in the first week of December, but by January 19, when Medián began its latest poll, “party preferences conspicuously changed.” Jobbik as well as the so-called democratic opposition parties moved up while Fidesz lost. This decline is especially striking among those who were determined to vote for Fidesz at the beginning of December. The earlier Medián poll recorded that 60% of active voters would have voted for Fidesz, but in the last few weeks this number shrank to 53%. That is a significant change.

There is, as the article written by Endre Hann and Zsuzsa Lakatos points out in today’s HVG, “a degree of uncertainty that has set in among Fidesz voters.” At the beginning of December, 75% of them said that they would definitely vote on April 8; today only 70% of them are sure. As for party support, I will include here the most important group’s results: those who have a preferred party and who will most likely vote. Here are the numbers: Fidesz 53%, Jobbik 18%, MSZP 11%, DK 9%, and LMP 6%. The rest: Együtt, Momentum, Two-Tailed Dog, Workers’ Party are all at 1%. (Red = electorate as a whole; green = active voters; yellow = can pick a party; teal = have a party and will vote.)

Endre Hann and Zsuzsa Lakatos believe that “the MSZP-Párbeszéd common list, standing at only 8% among the electorate as a whole, has the largest potential because 14% of those asked are considering voting for the party.” They attribute MSZP’s growing popularity to the party’s decision to ask Gergely Karácsony, the chairman of Párbeszéd and mayor of Zugló (District XIV), to be its candidate for the premiership. In Medián’s interpretation, Karácsony’s popularity and acceptance by socialists (90%), DK voters (81%), Jobbik supporters (42%), and even Fidesz (24%) is a sign that the MSZP-Párbeszéd ticket will be a strong draw.  But this is a bit misleading since the same Medián poll shows that although Karácsony leads the popularity list among the opposition candidates, his lead is not that substantial. Karácsony got 27%, but he is followed by Bernadett Szél (22%), Gábor Vona (21%), and Gyurcsány, who is not officially a candidate (19%).

There is no question that Gergely Karácsony, a boyish 42-year-old, is an extremely attractive candidate. He is soft-spoken and, unlike many of his compatriots, is ready for reasonable compromises. MSZP’s “face,” Ágnes Kunhalmi, a 35-year-old energetic woman, who accompanies Karácsony on his nationwide campaigning, is an equally sympathetic person. I admired the leadership of MSZP for realizing that there was no viable candidate within their own ranks to lead the troops into the election campaign and for having the courage to embrace someone from the outside.

Gergely Karácsony

I do, however, take issue with Medián’s conclusion that the recent pullback in support for Fidesz is in large measure due to Karácsony’s candidacy. First of all, one can go back as far as October 2017 when Iránytű Intézet spotted Karácsony as the most popular opposition politician. Practically every month and in every poll, he, Bernadett Szél, and Viktor Orbán were in the top three spots. Now that he’s officially MSZP’s candidate for prime minister and is extensively campaigning, he is much better known. With greater visibility (+12%) it’s not surprising that his popularity also went up. As I said, Karácsony is an extremely likable man.

But what really makes me doubtful about the direct connection between Gergely Karácsony’s candidacy and Fidesz’s loss of popularity is that MSZP gained only one percentage point in electoral support between the November and the January polls. It is still languishing at 11% among active voters. If Medián’s interpretation were correct, MSZP should have picked up at least two or three percentage points in additional support. Karácsony’s choice as MSZP’s candidate became finalized on December 12 and he, alongside Kunhalmi, began campaigning right away. Yet, five weeks later, when Medián began its most recent polling, MSZP’s support moved only from 10 to 11% as compared to the November Medián poll. Moreover, the other opposition parties also gained a percentage point or two.

What is dramatic in Medián’s latest poll is the 7% drop among Fidesz’s most active supporters.  So, something must have happened on the Fidesz side rather than among the opposition parties. And this “something,” I suspect, was the news that reached Hungary on January 11 that a day before Assistant Undersecretary Kristóf Altusz had revealed in an interview to The Times of Malta that in 2017 Hungary permitted almost 1,300 refugees to settle temporarily in the country. A few days later it became clear that “the government’s communication had collapsed.” Members of the government kept contradicting themselves. And the opposition parties launched a full-court press, attacking the government that for over two years had campaigned on the promise that no “migrant” will ever set foot on Hungarian soil. After a week, on January 16, the government finally made public the exact number and status of the accepted refugees. Three days later, on January 19, Medián began polling.

I propose that it was Fidesz’s propaganda going astray that caused Fidesz voters to have second thoughts about Viktor Orbán and his party. Most of Fidesz voters had believed the propaganda, and now they felt hoodwinked, cheated, taken for a ride. Not an unexpected reaction. And not surprisingly, the number of those who want the “cheating and lying” government out of office has risen. In November the population was equally divided on the subject. The satisfied group was almost as high (46%) as the dissatisfied one (47%). Now, however, 49% would like the Orbán government to be defeated and only 42% have remained faithful to Fidesz.

Of course, all this might be only a flash in the pan, but after months of discouraging sameness this latest turn of events shows the potential vulnerability of the governing party. If everything is bet on one card and something goes wrong, the result can be fatal. And yet the Fidesz strategy is still centered on the same old anti-migrant, anti-Soros propaganda which, I believe, is responsible for the polling setback Viktor Orbán just suffered.

February 1, 2018

Austria as an ally of Orbán’s Hungary?

Viktor Orbán’s planned meeting yesterday with Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s youthful new chancellor, was made public almost a week ago which, given the secretiveness of the Orbán government, was quite unusual. As for the physical trip itself, the Hungarian prime minister opted for an ordinary train ride between Budapest and Vienna. But one of his Volkswagen minibuses was waiting for him in the Austrian capital. A strange arrangement.

There was something else that was out of the ordinary regarding this trip. During the train ride Viktor Orbán had a video made, on which he announced that “in Vienna he wants to sign an agreement on migration, the two countries’ joint defense, and mutual assistance.” This was certainly an ambitious agenda. If Orbán actually meant to say that he would like to return with concrete assurances from the Austrian government concerning those issues, he must be disappointed. What the talk produced was merely a reiteration of long-held views shared by the two governments. No, they don’t want to harbor “illegal migrants”; they want to strengthen the Schengen borders; they don’t think that the quota system is working.

As far as Austria’s joining the Visegrád 4 alliance is concerned, the Austrian right-wing coalition wants to be only “a bridge” between Brussels and the not-so-steady Visegrád 4, even though the far-right Austrian Freedom party said before the October 15 election that it wanted Austria to join the group. Their plans were obviously quashed during the coalition negotiations. What Orbán’s views are on Austria’s joining is not known, but I would be surprised if he didn’t covet such a development.

The Austrian and Hungarian papers, by and large, consider the meeting of little consequence, which might be the reason for the Hungarian party’s reluctance to have any contact with the media after the negotiations were over. According to Die Presse, a conservative Austrian daily, Orbán originally didn’t even want to hold a press conference after his meeting with Kurz. It took some cajoling by Kurz to convince him to allow four questions, two from each country. On the Hungarian side, only M1 TV and the new Fidesz favorite, Echo TV, got a chance to ask questions, which were safe from Orbán’s perspective. The Austrian journalists naturally were more forthcoming, and the Austrian public television’s reporter managed to squeeze in a question about Orbán’s ideas on “illiberal democracy.” The encounter that followed was “politely” left out of the Hungarian news agency’s report. According to Austrian sources, Orbán insisted that his political system is called “illiberal” simply because there are no liberals in his government. “We don’t accept the equation of democracy with liberalism. The only true democracy is democracy without any adjective.” Kurz diplomatically added that he is liberal and Christian and he is happy that the people of Austria live in a strong democratic political system. He added that democracy is the best form of government for any country.

The topic that interested Hungarians most was Austria’s decision to cut child benefits for non-Austrian workers from East European countries, the largest contingent coming from Hungary. Hungarian opposition parties expected Orbán to fight hard for equal rights for these guest workers, but the general impression they got was that Orbán had not done so. This is one of those occasions when I have to defend Orbán. It is the European Court of Justice that will rule on the constitutionality of the issue. Bilateral negotiations with Kurz and his government have no relevance here. The same is true about Austria’s suit against the construction of Paks II. This is a matter between Austria and the European Commission.

Although Austrian and Hungarian commentators might believe that the meeting was a flop, one English-language paper wrote about the two politicians who came away from the meeting “with a pledge for close cooperation in Europe if not a formal alliance.” Euobserver believes that “while Kurz might seem less friendly than his anti-immigration campaign perhaps suggested to Budapest, the Hungarian leader can count on one more ally in opposing the EU’s migrant relocation scheme.” This fear might be exaggerated. Because of the presence of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) in the coalition, Kurz is trying doubly hard to assure the European Union of his trustworthiness. He tweeted after his meeting with Orbán that “Austria can and wants to make a contribution to reinforce cohesion in the European Union and reduce tensions.”

The question is whether the young, relatively inexperienced Sebastian Kurz is capable of taming Viktor Orbán. Zsuzsanna Földvári, a journalist living in Vienna, gave a lengthy interview to the Független Hírügynökség (fuhu.hu) on the encounter, which I found most perceptive. Földvári attended the press conference and gained the impression that “Orbán played the role of the fatherly elder statesman to the young Austrian chancellor, who behaved like a scared schoolboy.” Apparently, Orbán’s experience was evident in the way he handled questions. “He was more informative, more active, and more interesting than Kurz.” Of course, Orbán has the advantage of having spent decades in the political arena. Also, I would not underestimate his charm, which he exhibits on certain occasions. For a while, Orbán most likely will have the advantage, although Kurz just today showed that he can be tough when he announced that “there will be political consequences” of an FPÖ member of parliament’s membership in a neo-Nazi fraternity.

In addition to Sebastian Kurz, Orbán also talked with Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache of the far-right FPÖ. Western papers paid little attention to this meeting, although for Orbán this meeting was just as important as his conversation with Kurz. Maybe even more so. For years Orbán has been most eager to meet Strache, whom he considers “the man of the future.” In September 2015 a planned meeting between the two was reluctantly cancelled in the last minute. Although the Austrian and English-language papers didn’t say much about Orbán’s meeting with Strache, Origo devoted a detailed article to the meeting, which centered on “the closest, most professional, and friendliest relations” between the FPÖ minister of defense and minister for transport, innovation and technology and their Hungarian counterparts.

I don’t want to underestimate the importance of a right-wing government in neighboring Austria, especially after the strained relations that existed during the Social Democratic-People’s Party coalition. At the same time, I would be reluctant to call the Kurz government an absolute bonanza for Orbán, whose expectations, I believe, exceeded what he actually got in Vienna yesterday. He can only hope that with time he will be able to draw Austria closer to the Visegrád 4 Group, gaining tangible support when the Visegrád countries flex their muscles. However, if Poland’s intransigence continues, cooperation between Austria and the Visegrád Group might be out of the question. In fact, it might even threaten the continued existence of the Visegrád 4 alliance.

January 31, 2018

The Orbán government is contemplating restrictions on media freedom

The latest nefarious plan of the Orbán government came to light yesterday. Népszava learned that the government has been considering the establishment of a chamber of journalists (sajtókamara). Apparently, the government was originally planning to introduce the idea a year ago, but in view of the upheaval surrounding the shuttering of Népszabadság, they tabled it.

The government, which is surely the instigator of this plan, is remaining in the background and letting its obsequious supporters in the profession do the dirty work. The leaders of the Association of Hungarian Catholic Journalists, the Association of Protestant Journalists, and the Association of Hungarian Sportswriters have been meeting over the past few months to come up with a chamber of journalists that would suit the Orbán government’s ideal of an obedient press. The largest interest group of journalists in Hungary is the Magyar Újságírók Országos Szövetsége (MÚOSZ), with a membership of 3,000, but MÚOSZ was left out of these behind-the-scenes negotiations.

Membership, unlike in the case of the Orbán-government-created chambers of teachers, doctors, and healthcare workers, wouldn’t be compulsory for everyone, but the benefits of membership would encourage publishers of newspapers and magazines to join. Publishers with membership in the chamber would receive a substantial reduction in their tax obligations. Some publishers would have no choice but to join. For example, publications with a nationwide distribution could lose their status if they didn’t become members.

Publishers who join the chamber would have to fulfill certain obligations. For example, they would be required to sign an ethical code. They would be able to hire only journalists who are also members of the chamber, and journalists’ membership might be restricted by such criteria as educational attainment or journalism school attendance. As far as internet publications are concerned, it looks as if the publishers of “larger ones,” I guess like 444, Index, and HVG, would have to be members, but smaller ones and bloggers could escape membership and, with it, restrictions on their activities or their privileges to access of information.

The man who is behind the idea of setting up a chamber of journalists is György Szöllősi, formerly the communication director of the Puskás Academy in Felcsút. It is pretty easy to figure out that he is just a conduit for the plans and desires of Viktor Orbán. Szöllősi is a much favored character in the Orbán orbit. As soon as Nemzeti Sport, Orbán’s favorite newspaper, was taken over by Mediaworks, Szöllősi was made the daily paper’s editor-in-chief. He was also named a roving ambassador, whose sole job is to promote the fame of Ferenc Puskás, the idol of Viktor Orbán.

Tamás Szele, who writes for huppa.hu, outlined in an opinion piece some of the dire consequences of this latest scheme of Viktor Orbán. In the last eight years independent journalists buried the Hungarian media several times, but “this is the moment when the pall is already prepared; they are nailing the coffin, and the day of the burial is fixed.” In his analysis of the information Népszava obtained, Szele posits several possible consequences of having a chamber of journalists. First and foremost, there would be a stark distinction drawn between those who were allowed to join and those who for one reason or another were barred from the organization. For example, a “registered” journalist of Magyar Hírlap would have extra privileges, although the readership of this right-wing, pro-government paper is smaller than some of the so-called “small” internet publications. The government could, for example, restrict the attendance of non-chamber members at press conferences. László Kövér, president of the parliament who has often resorted to excluding journalists from independent media outlets in the past, after the establishment of such a chamber could simply announce that only members of the chamber could enter the parliament building. Marianna Biró of 168 Óra is equally pessimistic. “The autonomy morsels of the media might be at stake in the election on April 8,” she writes. “If Fidesz again receives two-thirds of the parliamentary seats, we are finished.”

Pass it on. Without freedom of the media there is no democracy

In 2010 the Center for International Media Assistance, a project of the National Endowment for Democracy, published a study in 2010 by Steven Strasser titled “Registering Reporters: How Licensing of Journalists Threatens Independent News Media.” Licensing and registering journalists is one of the ways by which “governments control the press.” Such licensing practices are especially prevalent “in the developing world, where governments feel they must control the power of the press as an element of their countries’ domestic and national security.” Strasser also notes that “the echoes [of licensing or registering] still help shape media policies in some of the remains of the communist world.” So, Orbán can choose into which group he would like to place his country: the developing nations or the former member states of the Soviet Union, like Belarus, Azerbaijan, or Kazakhstan.

Almost all commentators call attention to the fact that Hungary once had a chamber of journalists. It was in 1938 during the Imrédy government. The chamber was the brainstorm of “Christian” right-wing journalists who set up membership requirements on the basis of race and ideology. When it was established, almost two thousand Jewish and left-wing journalists didn’t receive admission to the chamber. Initially, membership of Jewish journalists was limited to 20%. A year later the share of Jewish members was further restricted to 6%.

Some people might consider the comparison between the chamber of journalists in 1938 and the Orbán government’s “sajtókamara” in 2018 far-fetched, but there are haunting similarities. The proponents of the present chamber of journalists come from groups who identify themselves as Catholics or Protestants, which in Hungary means not Jewish. Could it happen that journalists who are not members of either the Catholic or Protestant association of journalists and who are critical of the present government would find themselves outside the favored group of chamber members? Either by choice or by design? I would say yes, easily.

January 28, 2018

A new job for OLAF? Győző Orbán, the father of Viktor Orbán

Today’s Financial Times carries a lengthy portrait of Viktor Orbán by Neil Buckley, FT’s East European editor, and Andrew Byrne, the paper’s correspondent for Hungary, Romania, and Western Balkans. In this overview of the political career of Hungary’s maverick prime minister, the authors quote George Soros, who said that Orbán “started really going wrong when he made his father rich by giving him a quasi-monopoly on road-building materials, which was a big source of wealth. That’s when [he] started building a mafia state. It’s really when he actually gained power.”

As a matter of fact, immoral financial dealings have been part and parcel of Orbán’s whole career. In 1990 the new democratic parties were penniless and, in order to conduct their activities, they all received a large amount of seed money. Fidesz’s share was half of a very valuable downtown building, which the party sold for cash. Out of this money, quite fraudulently, a few million forints was given to Viktor Orbán’s father, Győző Orbán, who was short of the cash he needed to purchase a stone quarry owned by the state, of which he was the manager at the time.

As time went by, Orbán’s financial appetite grew. After he became prime minister in 1998, he was in the perfect position to work on fattening himself, his friends, and his family through inside information. He was especially interested in agricultural land because he knew that the landowners would receive considerable EU subsidies in the future.

His father’s quarry, just as George Soros remembered, became practically the sole supplier of crushed stone to state-owned companies involved in government-funded road construction. Once all this was discovered, there was an outcry, especially after the 2000 publication of a book on the shady affairs of the “first family.” Orbán, who in those days was a great deal less brazen, had a talk with his father which, according to the prime minister, wasn’t pleasant. His father couldn’t understand why he couldn’t continue supplying crushed rock for government projects.

Father and son

Although there has been less talk about Győző Orbán’s business activities since his son’s return to power, some investigative journalists are convinced that Orbán’s father still has his finger in the “government project” pie. The journalists who are most curious about the business affairs of the extended Orbán family work for Direkt36. It is a center for investigative journalists who work hand in hand with 444, the internet news site. Direct36 has a separate column called “business concerns of the Orbán family.” Two journalists, András Pethő and Blanka Zöldi, are especially busy collecting data on the elder Győző Orbán and his two sons, Győző, Jr., and Áron. Many of their articles can be found here. (As a point of linguistic and psychological curiosity: Győző is the Hungarian equivalent of Victor/Viktor. So Elder Győző named two of his sons after himself.)

In May of last year the journalists of Direkt36 reported that Győző’s crushed rock and concrete building materials were being transported to government projects, most of which are financed by European Union funds, like sewage systems and railroad construction in Érd, Budapest, Jászberény, and Püspökladány. While visiting these sites, the journalists noticed trucks with the name “Nehéz Kő” (Heavy Stone) delivering large amounts of crushed rock and building materials to the government projects. The journalists found out that the trucking company belonged to Áron Orbán (subsequently, it seems, Győző Orbán became the owner), and they suspected that the material Nehéz Kő was carrying came from Dolomit Kft., Győző Orbán’s company.

Dolomit was active throughout the country, but the journalists were especially interested in a mega-project, the construction of a 53 km  railroad line between Szántód and Balatonszentgyörgy with an estimated cost of 72.4 billion forints. The work is being done by a consortium of three firms: R-Kord Építőipari Kft., V-Híd Zrt., and Swietelsky Vasúttechnikai Kft. R-Kord is owned by (who else?) Lőrinc Mészáros.

Direkt36 suspected that they had just encountered a tightly-knit family business, but the reporters were unable to get hold of the documentation necessary to show that the elder Orbán was actually doing business with the government. Today, after months of litigation, Direkt36 received proof that, despite the denial by the prime minister, Nehéz Kő is one of the subcontractors of this EU-funded government project. By setting up a trucking company that doesn’t display the Dolomit name, the Orbáns presumably wanted to hide the fact that the material comes from the family company.

Last summer Blanka Zöldi of Direct36 confronted the prime minister with her findings that Győző Orbán is the supplier of stone and building material to important government projects. Viktor Orbán, during that Q&A session, made a distinction between general contractors, subcontractors, and suppliers. Hungarian law forbids, he claimed, the participation of close relatives of important political figures from being general and subcontractors, but not from being suppliers. Clearly, he said, his father and brother have no business dealings with the government. They have a contract with one of the general contractors. But the documents received today show that Nehéz Kő was a subcontractor on the southern Balaton railroad project to the tune of 300 million forints or $1.2 million.

The Demokratikus Koalíció, which helped call attention to the shady business dealings of Viktor Orbán’s son-in-law, István Tiborcz, is ready to turn to OLAF again. The party’s spokesman declared that “there is no civilized, democratic country where, after such a revelation, the prime minister remains in office. … The money coming from [Brussels] goes toward the enrichment of his family.”

This may be the case (although Trump stretches the limits of what it means to personally benefit from political office), but Hungary at the moment doesn’t belong to the group of civilized and democratic countries. In a mafia state, a designation popularized by Bálint Magyar, earlier minister of education, like-minded people in high political office work together for their own and their families’ enrichment. Here we have the quarry business of Győző Orbán, whose initial capital came from his son’s newly-formed party. His company, Dolomit, supplies stone and cement products to government projects, which are being trucked by his company, Nehéz Kő. The goods are taken to the work site of the firm owned by Lőrinc Mészáros, who is suspected of being the stróman or front man of Viktor Orbán. All in the family.

January 25, 2018

The spectacular business career of Lőrinc Mészáros

On January 2 HVG published a short article with the title “The new year barely begun, Mészáros already grabbed more than one hundred billion.” Of course, they were talking about the “fabulously talented” Hungarian businessman, former pipe fitter, mayor of the village of Felcsút, and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s friend or, what more and more people believe, his front man, Lőrinc Mészáros. The information about this latest grab came from the Public Procurement Authority, according to which Mészáros and Mészáros Kft. got the job of reconstructing a 15.7 km railroad line between Százhalombatta and Ercsi, which will cost 49 billion forints. The same company, together with Euro Asphalt, will build a waste disposal system in Ózd at the other end of the country for 4.3 billion forints.

A few days later, on January 10, Válasz reported: “Hang on! Suddenly Lőrinc Mészáros owns 203 companies.” Anyone who’s interested can now look at the list Válasz put together. Less than a year earlier the same internet site recorded only 103 companies owned by this business wizard, whose assets have grown faster in ten years, especially in the last three years, than Facebook’s. When journalists asked Mészáros about his striking outperformance, he responded that “it is possible that I was smarter than Zuckerberg, don’t you think?”

The Hungarian media had lots of fun with Mészáros comparing himself to Mark Zuckerberg

Most of the amassed wealth has come from the European Union. Átlátszó calculated that between 2010 and 2017 Lőrinc Mészáros and his family won public tenders worth €1.56 billion, 83% of which came from EU funds. I might add that of the 203 companies Mészáros and family own, only nine have been the recipients of public procurements, but they were richly rewarded. All told, they won 97 public tenders, half of which were open tenders where the Mészáros firms had no competition whatsoever. A list of the public tenders won over the years can be seen here.

The English-speaking world was introduced to Lőrinc Mészáros’s fantastic business acumen last summer when Bloomberg published an article about him. The story that caught the eye of journalists was that stock in a Hungarian company called Konzum Nyrt., whose sales in 2016 had dropped 99 percent and whose debt ballooned, a year later, after Mészáros bought a 20% share of the firm, grew fifty-fold on the Budapest stock exchange. The article noted that in three short years Mészáros had become the fifth richest man in the country.

It doesn’t matter how emphatically Viktor Orbán insisted during a parliamentary debate that Lőrinc Mészáros is not his front man (stróman in Hungarian), an overwhelming majority of Hungarians are convinced that behind him and some of the other oligarchs is Viktor Orbán himself. Only a tiny minority, 6% of the adult population, can’t imagine that such a connection exists, while 78% consider a connection “very probable and/or possible.” Even Fidesz voters suspect their party leader is hiding behind hand-picked oligarchs. Among them, 31% believe in his innocence, but 60% are either certain (10%) or consider it possible (50%) that the prime minister is heavily involved in the corruption scheme which the majority of voters consider systemic. Of course, opposition leaders like Ferenc Gyurcsány of DK and Viktor Szigetvári of Együtt are convinced that the richest Hungarian today is Viktor Orbán.

Átlátszó came out with a fascinating article in December that tried to put the wealth of Orbán’s oligarchs into historical perspective. They picked the three richest men in the country in 1935: Count László Károlyi, Count Sándor Festetics, and Prince József Habsburg. Their wealth in pengő, the Hungarian currency at the time, is known, but it is hellishly difficult to translate that into today’s forints. Átlátszó asked two economists to come up with some comparable figures. Their results were wide apart, but in both cases they were only tiny fractions of Lőrinc Mészáros’s estimated wealth. Péter Szakonyi, who maintains an annual list of the 100 richest Hungarians, told Átlátszó that “there has never been anyone who got from zero to 120 billion in three years.” Indeed, in the last three years Mészáros has seen an exponential growth in his wealth.

There is no end to the Mészáros story. It doesn’t seem to bother Viktor Orbán that more and more people consider him a crook who through Mészáros is amassing a fortune. Just yesterday it was all over the media that Mészáros’s three children, who in 2015 established a company called Fejér-B.Á.L. Zrt., a construction company, had just won a public tender for the new building of the University of Physical Education. As for the company’s name, B stands for Beatrix, Á for Ágnes, and L for Lőrinc, Jr. According to their website, the company currently employs 120 construction workers and 27 office personnel. The company will share the job with Magyar Építő, one of the favorite companies of the Orbán government. It is this company that is in the process of building the new Ferenc Puskás Stadium and did the work on the Ludovika Campus. Both of these projects are extremely close to Viktor Orbán’s heart. The job that the Mészáros children got, at least on paper, is worth 1.2 billion forints.

The Mészáros children have every reason to smile

The Hungarian edition of Forbes described Mészáros’s wealth as something he didn’t take away from someone; he didn’t acquire it through his business acumen; he simply received it through the good offices of the prime minister of Hungary, who for one reason or other finds this man useful for his purposes. This simple pipefitter must play a key role in Viktor Orbán’s scheme to build his own financial empire. Mészáros is also used to increase the government’s presence in the Hungarian media through his purchase of regional newspapers. From the outside, this relationship between Orbán and Mészáros is hard to fathom, but I’m sure Orbán knows what he’s doing.

January 21, 2018