Tag Archives: Viktor Orbán

Putin’s Night Wolves pay a visit to Budapest

The Hungarian public is becoming familiar with the name of a Russian motorcycle club–Night Wolves (Nochnye Volki)–whose beginnings date back to 1989 when a group of rock music fans and motorcycle enthusiasts got together to form a club during the perestroika era of the Soviet Union. It was the first official bike club in the USSR, led by Alexander Zaldostanov, known as the Surgeon. Currently, the club has 5,000 members and seven chapters outside of Russia–in Ukraine, Latvia, Germany, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, and Macedonia.

Zaldostanov and Putin may have known each other from their days in East Germany, where both resided in the 1980s. Some people suspect that Zaldostanov was also a KGB agent. Perhaps because of the supposed relationship between the two men in Germany, Zaldostanov and his club are fervent supporters of Vladimir Putin and Russian nationalism. Putin considers the Night Wolves his friends. At one point he even led their rally on a Harley-Davidson trike. Because of its close relations with the Kremlin, the club is well taken care of financially. According to at least one observer of the Russian scene, the club receives “several hundred million rubles a year.” In return, club members have performed such patriotic duties as fighting on the side of pro-Russian militants during the Crimean crisis and the war in Donbass.

The Wolves are not welcome in too many countries. For example, in 2015 when they were planning to celebrate “Victory Day” in Berlin, their trip was rudely interrupted by the government of Poland, which refused them entry. At that time they were not welcome in Germany either; their Schengen visas were cancelled. Some Wolves who tried to enter Germany by plane were denied entry. In December 2014 the United States announced sanctions against the bikers because of their recruitment of fighters for the war in Donbass. Canada followed suit a month later. I might add that the Wolves are great admirers of Stalin, “who was sent by God” to do great things on earth.

Poland and the Baltic States didn’t soften their hearts when it came to letting the Wolves through their countries to visit Berlin this year. (For some reason Germany relented.) On May 1 they were turned away from the Polish border. A day later another group of bikers was forbidden to enter Georgia. One group drove to Sebastopol, from where they went to Romania by ship. Riders from all seven chapters headed to Budapest. For example, Novorossia Today reported that the Bulgarian chapter of the Night Wolves began their journey in Sofia and met the other contingents in Budapest.

On May 4 the bikers, accompanied by members of the Russian Embassy, visited the famous cemetery on Fiumei út where Soviet soldiers are buried. Here they laid wreaths at the memorial erected in their honor. The ceremony can be seen on this video.

Given the excellent relationship that exists between Putin’s Russia and Orbán’s Hungary, it is not surprising that Hungary allowed the bikers to cross into Hungarian territory and from there move on to Bratislava, Prague, Dresden, and Berlin. But the Hungarian public, which has had enough of the overly friendly relations between Moscow and Budapest, was less than thrilled seeing the Wolves in Hungary. The majority of the population opposes the construction of a nuclear power plant in Hungary by a Russian firm and, as a result, Hungary’s being indebted for decades to come to Russia. The encounter between the Chechen-Russian patriot who threatened a Hungarian citizen didn’t go over well either. And now here are these grim-looking bikers carrying red flags with a hammer and sickle and a star. How is it possible that the Hungarian government makes a huge fuss over the red star in the logo of Heineken, the Dutch beer manufacturer, while these guys proudly display the real star (albeit in white), the symbol of the communist Soviet Union? A Hungarian citizen displaying these symbols can receive a jail sentence, according to §335 of the criminal code. So, in no time, an individual paid a visit to the central police station and filed charges. Naturally, the police had no intention of interfering. It was too late in any case. Once the bikers were inside the country, their display of these symbols was inevitable.

The opposition members of the parliamentary committee on national security asked a few questions from the police about their inaction. According to Bernadett Szél, the explanation offered by the police was “horribly embarrassing.” On the one hand, they argued that the cemetery is considered to be private property and therefore the police couldn’t enter the premises while, on the other hand, they explained that the bikers’ refusal to follow Hungarian law was justified by “the special circumstances.” The police report that was issued simply stated that “no criminal offense was committed” and therefore no action was necessary.

Péter Tarjányi, a national security expert and former police detective, told Olga Kálmán, who has a new program on HírTV, that through these Victory Rides the Night Wolves, with their powerful bikes and their frightening demeanor, intimidate the locals. And yet the Hungarian government doesn’t dare stand up to them. On the contrary. The Wolves were allowed to pay homage to the Soviet heroes and to the Great Patriotic War. They can thus be seen as a “communication arm” of a strong and powerful Russia and its leader.

It is hard to say whether Viktor Orbán is afraid to stand up to the Russians as Tarján claims or whether by now his involvement with Putin’s Russia is so extensive that he cannot extricate himself from Putin’s embrace. He committed his country too much to Russia while he practically burned his bridges to the West. To be able to say “no” to Putin could be done only if he were ready to abandon everything he has stood for in the last seven years. Such a reversal at the moment or perhaps ever is unimaginable.

May 12, 2017

The Hungarian government media’s portraits of Macron

Two days ago, when I wrote a post about Emmanuel Macron’s victory in the French presidential election and its reception by the Hungarian government, I had rely on the relatively few analyses that appeared in the government media. They didn’t address most of the reforms Macron proposes but were preoccupied with his ire against the Polish and Hungarian governments and his support for a two-speed Europe, both of which concern Hungary directly. Still, the basic message was (and still is) that with Macron’s victory, everything will remain the same. The decline of Europe will continue. The French voted for the wrong person.

Macron has ambitious plans for revitalizing France, especially in economic terms, and even more ambitious ideas for restructuring the European Union. We don’t know whether any of Macron’s ideas will materialize, but nothing is further from the truth than that Macron is a man who is stuck in the present. Here are a few of Macron’s ideas for the Eurozone, premised on a two-speed Europe, as outlined in the Eurobserver. He would like to see a Eurozone parliament, finance minister, and budget, which we already know Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, opposes. Jean-Claude Juncker doesn’t seem supportive of Macron’s plans either. He warned that “not all euro member states agree that someone based in Brussels or somewhere else should call the shots on budgets instead of national parliaments.” Macron also wants to have a set of social rights introduced at the European level, setting up standards for job training, health insurance, unemployment benefits, and the minimum wage. At the same time he would like to see closer cooperation on defense, security, and intelligence. In brief, he wants “more Europe” than perhaps even Orbán’s “bureaucrats in Brussels.”

So, when Tamás Ulicza in Magyar Hírlap claims that “Macron’s answers are the same as all the earlier unsuccessful attempts to date except only to a higher degree,” he is misrepresenting Macron’s position. In Ulicza’s view, the European Union is still heading toward the abyss. Macron’s election is only giving the leaders of the EU a false sense of security. Le Pen, Ulicza writes, almost certainly wouldn’t have led France out of the European Union, but “she wouldn’t have swept the existing problems under the carpet.” Macron lacks a political vision for his own country; “he can think only in terms of Europe,” he insists, although even Híradó, the official news that is distributed to all media outlets, fairly accurately reported on his plans for revitalizing the French economy. Macron proposes cuts to state spending, wants to ease the existing labor laws, and wants to introduce social protection for the self-employed.

Magyar Idők offered no substantive analysis of Macron’s economic or political ideas. The editors were satisfied with a partial reprinting of a conversation with György Nógrádi, the “national security expert,” a former informer during the Kádár period about whose outrageous claims I wrote several times. I especially recommend the post titled “The truth caught up with the ‘national security expert,’ György Nógrádi.” But at least Nógrádi did tell the television audience, accurately in this case, that Macron wants to reduce the size of the French government by letting 120,000 civil servants go.

Perhaps the most intriguing article appeared in the solidly pro-government Origo with the title “We are introducing the French Gyurcsány.” According to the unnamed journalist, “the career of the former banker and minister of economy eerily resembles the life and ideology of Ferenc Gyurcsány.” As we know, there is no greater condemnation in Orbán’s Hungary than comparing anyone to the former prime minister. What follows is a description of the two politicians’ careers, starting with both entering the political arena only after successful careers in business in the case of Gyurcsány and banking in the case of Macron. Both, the article continues, are followers of third-road socialism, following in the footsteps of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and Gerhard Schröder.

One thing is certain: both believe in an eventual United States of Europe. They believe there should be a European government with a prime minister and a strong parliament and a second chamber made up of the heads of the member states. “Neither of them stands by the idea of strong nation states.” The article claims that both men belittle the culture, history, and heritage of their own countries. Macron, for example, stands against the view that French culture is superior to all others. Mon dieu! And what did Gyurcsány say? In 2007, when Merkel visited Hungary, he told her that the Holy Crown’s place in not in the parliament. Macron has a disparaging opinion of boeuf bourguignon, a favorite of the French. Gyurcsány is guilty because “to this day he would take away the voting rights of Hungarians living in the neighboring countries.” And what was obviously his greatest sin: in a speech delivered in 2013 he said that “we [the democratic opposition] are the real patriotic heirs of St. Stephen.”

It is true that Ferenc Gyurcsány and his party, the Demokratikus Koalíció, are totally committed to the European Union. Only a few days ago DK organized a conference in which Frank Engel (EPP), Ulrike Lunacek (Greens), and Josef Weidenholzer (Socialists and Democrats) participated. DK’s slogan as a counterpoint to the “Stop Brussels!” campaign is “Let’s catch up with Brussels!” Gyurcsány would like to see a new European constitution, dual citizenship, joint border defense, and common social security. The final goal is a United States of Europe.

As far as Macron’s ideas on the economy are concerned, he seems to me a combination of Ferenc Gyurcsány and Lajos Bokros.

Of course, Viktor Orbán also wants to reform the European Union, but what he would like to achieve cannot be called “reform.” He would like to go backwards, taking away the present prerogatives of the European Commission and Parliament and giving more power to the 27 member states. The EU does need reform, but not the kind that Poland and Hungary are proposing. Macron might not succeed in everything he hopes to do, but he is correct in his belief that the solution lies in more, not less integration.

May 10, 2017

“The saddest video of the year”–Orbán’s encounter with Bözsi néni

Viktor Orbán traveled more than 300 miles to visit the town of Csenger, where he opened a swimming pool. The trip was actually a homage to the work of Imre Makovecz, an architect whose worldview and nationalism were close to Viktor Orbán’s heart. Personally, I don’t like either Makovecz’s architectural style or his shocking views. But Viktor Orbán embraced his architecture and was comfortable with at least some of his views. After Makovecz’s death, practically all the buildings built for the Puskás Academy, including the arena, were designed in the Makovecz style. So, it’s no wonder that Orbán took time to visit Csenger, because this is Makovecz land. Beginning in the 1980s Csenger’s center was rebuilt, mostly by Makovecz’s architectural firm. And once Orbán was in Csenger it was natural for him to take a look at another Makovecz-style creation, the Memorial Park in Nagygéc, where there are several Makovecz-inspired buildings, including the House of Survival, the Lookout, and the Visitor’s Center.

What captured the imagination of the public, however, was neither the swimming pool in Csenger nor the Memorial Park in Nagygéc but a short video Viktor Orbán shared with his admirers on Facebook. Antal Rogán’s propaganda team, which is attached to the prime minister’s office, decided that a visit to one of the six inhabitants of Nagygéc, a village that in fact no longer exists, would be a splendid idea. The plan backfired. Reactions to the video were decidedly negative. Pro-government media outlets opted simply to ignore it, while independent news sites wrote sarcastic articles about the encounter.

Nagygéc, once a village of about 700 inhabitants, was in the floodplain of the River Szamos/Someș, about 10 km from the Hungarian-Romanian border. In 1970 the whole village was destroyed, and the decision was made to abandon it. The inhabitants were given land elsewhere as well as a certain amount of money to build new houses and rebuild their lives. But a handful of people whose houses survived the flood refused to move. Today there are six inhabitants of the area that was once Nagygéc, two original villagers and four newcomers from Romania.

Nagygéc’s Hungarian Reformed Church is a historical monument. One part of it was built in the twelfth century and the other part during the reign of King Mathias (1458-1490). The church was close to collapse when a couple of years ago 560 million forints were spent on its renovation and the creation of the Memorial Park. The money, of course, came from the European Union. The rescue of the church was appropriate, but whether money should have been spent on a memorial park in the middle of nowhere I’m not at all sure.

But let’s go back to the video taken in the extremely modest abode of the widowed Mrs. Imre Csúcs, or as she is known to her friends Bözsi (nickname of Erzsébet) néni. Néni is an annoying Hungarian epithet used for older women, especially those of lower socioeconomic status. Her dwelling is a two-room adobe house which, as we learned elsewhere, she can’t afford to heat properly. She has some chickens and two very clever pigs. Later we also found out that she had started a little business growing cucumbers. It was to this poverty that “the good king” arrived with a bouquet of flowers. The video reminded most people of Mátyás Rákosi’s similar visits to the homes of industrial workers or peasants of cooperatives where short discussions took place about the blessings of socialism even though years after the war food rationing had to be reintroduced.

Bözsi néni’s house / Source: HVG

Judging from an article written after the video went viral, the actual encounter may not have been as bad as the video. But on the video Orbán seems to be singularly uninterested in Bözsi néni’s daily existence. People noted that the prime minister perked up only when he paid a visit to the pig sty to see the two pigs. Otherwise, commentators concentrated on a short exchange about the size of Bözsi néni’s pension. She wished that there were elections every year because in every election year her pension is raised. It was at this point that Orbán, in the fashion of a true autocrat, asked: “Do I raise it normally?” Bözsi néni did remember that she got a 1.6% higher pension the last time, but Orbán reminded her that this was not all. “And I sent you a check too, do you remember?” She remembered that “gift” as well. Orbán told her that if at the end of the year the numbers are in order “I will raise it again.” The reaction to this exchange was one of total disgust. Orbán acted as if it depended on his generosity whether pensioners receive an increase in their stipends or not when in fact the law orders the government to raise pensions, depending on the rate of inflation. In American terms, pensioners are automatically given an annual cost of living adjustment.

Most of the commentators were nauseated because of cheap propaganda, and some of them wrote caustic remarks about the encounter. I found one on, of all places, alfahir.hu, Jobbik’s internet news site, which dubbed the meeting of Orbán and Bözsi néni “the saddest video of the year.” Here is a village of six inhabitants with no future. Even its present is “just, just.” Interestingly, this is not the first public appearance of Bözsi néni. Half a year ago Vasárnapi Hírek published a report about her. It said that she has money to heat only one room and even that only at night. The mention of the little raise in her pension “breaks one’s heart and clenches one’s fist.” According to the author, “Nagygéc is not only a little village condemned to death but the perfect, terrifying symbol of this whole wretched country and this vile and hypocritical regime.” Where from the millions coming from the EU they build a memorial park instead of building a road and bringing in gas and plumbing. “A memory country (emlékország) which sends messages to the past instead of to the future.”

Grotesque? Sad? Both, I’m afraid.

May 9, 2017

Orbán is unhappy with the results of the French election

Last summer Viktor Orbán predicted that 2017 would be “the year of revolt.” People under the thumb of a liberal political elite incapable of understanding the real needs of the citizens would rebel in the voting booths and vote for right-wing parties like the Austrian Freedom Party, the German Alternative für Deutschland, the Dutch Party for Freedom and Democracy, and the French National Front of Marine Le Pen. Since then, three elections were held, and in all three cases Orbán’s predictions turned out to be wrong. There is one more to go: the German election in September, but the likelihood of AfD winning is about zero.

Since the stakes were highest in France, Emmanuel Macron’s win was perhaps the most disappointing for Orbán. He could hardly hide his bitter feelings in his very brief congratulatory letter to the new French president. While he was the first EU politician to congratulate President Recep Erdoğan on winning the referendum that endows the Turkish leader with practically unlimited power, Orbán was in no hurry in Macron’s case. The perfunctory letter is most likely a true reflection of Orbán’s feelings toward Macron’s victory. “I look forward to our cooperation and trust that in the future we will have the opportunity to further develop our bilateral relations and also to discuss our ideas with relation to the future of Europe.” President János Áder was a bit more expansive. He said in his letter that Hungary considers France an important ally; he talked about the “thriving relationship” that exists between the two countries, which he hopes will be further “enriched in the coming years.” He added that he hopes that he and Macron will have an opportunity to discuss these issues in person in the near future.

Over the years I have been collecting relevant articles on Hungary’s bilateral relations with other countries, but I never managed to find even one event that significantly furthered relations between France and Hungary. I remember only one visit of Orbán to France, in November 2010, when he more or less invited himself to several EU countries, allegedly to discuss matters pertaining to Hungary’s presidency beginning in January 2011. Today, the relationship isn’t exactly, to use Áder’s adjective, thriving.

Viktor Orbán was a great deal more cautious in the case of the French election than he had been in the U.S. election when he openly supported Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, whom he considered to be a disaster for Hungary. When Orbán was asked by reporters of Le Monde a couple of weeks before the election whether he supports Le Pen since the two share similar worldviews, Orbán was evasive. “My star among the candidates was François Fillon, whom I fully supported…. We worked together. We had our differences, but I still have an exchange of letters which is a basic document on modern friendship between men.” Orbán, as usual, might be overstating their friendship. He first met Fillon in November of 2010 when Fillon was prime minister of France. The meeting lasted less than an hour. By May 2012 Fillon resigned, after which he “retired” from politics.

Macron is an ardent supporter of the European Union and no friend of Viktor Orbán. Just the other day Macron said that the National Front’s “program of protectionism, isolationism, and nationalism leads to economic war, misery, and war in general.” It was at this point that the candidate said: “We all know who the friends and allies of Mrs. Le Pen are: Orbán, Kaczynski, and Putin. These aren’t regimes with an open and free society. Every day freedoms and rules are violated there along with our principles.”

István Lovas, a journalist with a checkered career who recently moved over to Magyar Idők as an “expert” on foreign affairs, doesn’t hide his antagonism for everything Macron stands for. Lovas is pro-Russian and by and large anti-American. He sang the praises of Donald Trump for a while, but lately he is no longer sure what he can expect from the new president. Lovas got the job of writing an article on the French election. He opted for a press review of sorts on Macron’s victory, which was an easy way to keep his opinions of the man to himself. Quoting Ryan Heath, the author of “Playbook Plus,” a regular feature of Politico, he stressed that Macron is “shell-shocked” because of the difficulties he is facing. And there is “Macron mania in Brussels.” French people voted for him just because they were against Le Pen. Not outright unfriendly, but Lovas’s disappointment is clear.

His deepest feelings are normally reserved for a blog in which he writes scores of short notes on his readings in the Russian, American, German, and French press. A day before the election he quoted Russia Today, which pointed out that Libération broke the campaign silence imposed on the French press by running an ad for Macron. Lovas introduced this bit of news with: “This is how liberal villains break the French campaign silence.” If one goes to the source, it’s not at all certain that Libération broke the law. But some people on Twitter thought it had.

A few hours later he quoted Deutsche Wirtschafts Nachrichten in a misleading fashion. In the Lovas version, “the campaign team of Macron said to be victim of a hacker attack” (Macron választási csapata hekkertámadás áldozatának mondta magát). The original states that “Emmanuel Macron’s campaign team announced later Friday night that it had become the victim of a massive hacker attack” (Das Wahlkampfteam von Emmanuel Macron teilte am späten Freitagabend mit, dass es Opfer eines massiven Hackerangriffs geworden sei). The Hungarian version intimates that the campaign team’s claim might not be true. The German original is a simple statement of fact. Moreover, the title of Lovas’s note is: “French authorities: No one should dare publish information on Macron acquired by hackers,” which, though true, subtly suggests that the French authorities were suppressing important evidence in favor of Macron and thereby were working against Le Pen.

In his last note Lovas quoted an American publication called The Gateway Pundit, according to which “Macron Busted! Lied about Tax Evasion?” For those (like me) who were unfamiliar with this source, Wikipedia describes it as “a conservative political blog…. It is allied with Donald Trump and elements of the alt-right and extreme right in American politics and is often linked to or cited by Fox News, Drudge Report, Sarah Palin and other well-known conservative people and sites. The website is known for publishing falsehoods and spreading hoaxes.” It’s depressing that István Lovas, the foreign policy “expert” of the foremost government paper in Hungary, receives his information from publications like The Gateway Pundit. Foreign news is filtered through people like Lovas before it reaches the readers of Magyar Idők and other government media outlets.

I suspect that a propaganda campaign against Macron will start soon enough. Such a strong supporter of European integration and an enemy of nationalism will by definition be a foe of Viktor Orbán.

May 8, 2017

Physical force used against Hungarian journalists

We have seen signs of nervousness and even some fear in Fidesz circles despite all the polls that show the party leading with a comfortable margin. Fidesz politicians should be superbly self-confident, but instead they increasingly act like besieged soldiers in a fortress. Perhaps the clearest expression of that feeling came from Viktor Orbán himself when, during a recent visit in Győr, he asked the 50 or so admiring elderly ladies to root for him because he “at times is encircled and has the feeling some people want him to perish” (időnként be van kerítve, és úgy érzi, el akarják veszejteni). Enemies inside and outside the country have been making every effort to put an end to the splendid experiment that has made Hungary the most successful country in Europe and if possible to remove him and his party from power. I believe that it is this fear that has been making Fidesz politicians increasingly belligerent in the last couple of years.

Of course, these so-called enemies are largely creatures of their own making, but the fear may not be totally unfounded. At the moment the Orbán regime is the victim of its own mistaken policies. Although the regime, under internal and external pressure, is acting aggressively, this doesn’t mean that its actions are based on self-assurance. On the contrary, aggressiveness is often the manifestation of desperation and insecurity.

Verbal aggressiveness against foreign and domestic adversaries has always been the hallmark of Fidesz discourse, but lately it has often been accompanied by physical force. In the last few months the victims of Fidesz frustration were journalists, who more often than not happened to be women.

Let me start with the non-violent case of Katalin Halmai, who used to be the Brussels correspondent for the by now defunct Népszabadság. In December 2016 Halmai, working as a freelancer with a valid press pass, was told to leave Orbán’s press conference in Brussels. Halmai meekly followed instructions and left the press conference. After her departure one of the journalists asked Orbán about George Soros, to which he received the following answer: “A man of proper upbringing doesn’t like talking about people who are not present. Especially not if the journalist who represents them is also absent,” referring to Katalin Halmai.

This vicious remark was something new and unexpected, but by now I think we can say with some certainty that it was not an off-the-cuff quip but an indication that members of the critical press are viewed as agents of foreign powers and thus are to be eliminated one way or the other. Fidesz Deputy Chairman Szilárd Németh, in his primitive brutality, said: “I don’t consider the men and women of the media empire supported by Soros real journalists just as I don’t regard the pseudo-civic groups supported by Soros civic activists. They tend to provoke, and their activities amount to being mere agents” for foreign interests. Journalists whose media outlet receives any money from abroad are enemies of the nation. From here it is but a single step, which at times has already been taken, to conclude that all journalists who are critical of the government are also agents. In the last few days we heard several times that George Soros wants to overthrow the Hungarian government. Anyone who with his or her critical writings assists this effort is equally guilty. Unless someone stops Viktor Orbán, the fate of critical journalists may be similar to that of the journalists who languish in Turkish jails for treason.

Recently there have been three occasions when physical force was used against female journalists. The macho Fidesz guys usually don’t take on other men. They prefer women, who can be intimidated or easily overpowered by sheer strength. Halmai in Brussels, instead of refusing to leave the premises where she had every right to be, walked out. Moreover, a few minutes later when Viktor Orbán, wanting to sound magnanimous, called her back for a friendly chat not as a journalist but as a Hungarian citizen, she even obliged. Women don’t want to create a scene. I think she made a huge mistake when she left the press conference and an even greater mistake when she accepted Orbán’s qualified invitation for a friendly conversation.

In January of this year the spokesman for the ministry of national economy grabbed the microphone out of the hand of HírTV’s reporter when she dared to ask a question which Undersecretary András Tállai didn’t like. On May 3 another reporter of HírTV was prevented from conducting an interview. The brave Fidesz politician twisted the arm of a female journalist when she asked a couple of questions the official didn’t like. But these were trivial matters in comparison to what happened to a female reporter for 444 two days ago.

The government decided to have a campaign to explain the real meaning of the questions and answers of the notorious “Stop Brussels!” national consultation. One hundred and twenty meetings will be held all over the country for the further enlightenment of the population. Although the government announced that 900,000 questionnaires have already been returned, this number (real or invented) is nothing to brag about considering that over eight million questionnaires were sent out. High government officials were instructed to hit the road. Mihály Varga, minister of the national economy, and István Simicskó, minister of defense, held the first such gathering in the Buda Cistercian Saint Imre Gymnasium in District XI. It was a public gathering, and 444 sent a female reporter to cover the event. She was planning to video the gathering but was told she had no permission to do so. She obliged, which again in my opinion was a mistake. No such restriction had been announced earlier. After the speeches were over, she received a telephone call, so she left the room to go into the corridor. When she wanted to return to gather her equipment, she was prevented from doing so. The local Fidesz organizer of the event, who turned out to be the program director of the ministry of defense, grabbed her telephone, deleted the couple of pictures she took, forcibly dragged her down the staircase, and threw her out on the street. Once outside, she phoned the police. When they arrived they couldn’t find the culprit, who apparently had split as soon as he realized that he might be in trouble. The reporter filed charges with the local police.

Fidesz embraces the adage that the best defense is a strong offense. It took them a few hours, but the District XI Fidesz headquarters eventually came out with a statement that accused 444 of sending out reporters to Fidesz events to provoke the members of the audience and disturb the proceedings. The organizers suddenly decided that the gathering was a private forum to which 444 didn’t receive an invitation. They are outraged at the journalist’s description of what happened, which included such words as “jostle,” “intimidate,” and “attack,” none of which is true. Therefore the Fidesz group in Újbuda will file charges against her for defamation.

Soon enough a demonstration was organized on the internet, and yesterday about one thousand people gathered in front of the District XI Fidesz office. Media-related associations are outraged because of the uptick in incidents of this sort. There is a concerted effort on the part of the government to obstruct the work of the independent media. Reporters are excluded from public events and are boycotted by state institutions.

Amerikai Népszava published an editorial yesterday which summarized the situation very well. “Orbán by now is irritated not only by the independent journalists’ activity but their sheer existence.” If Viktor Orbán keeps up his constant attacks on “foreign powers and their agents,” we may see physical attacks on journalists by Fidesz loyalists who blindly follow the instructions of their leader. Back in the fall of 2006 Fidesz employed such tactics, and later it used football hooligans to prevent MSZP from filing a referendum question that was not to its liking. But the mood of the country is different today, and I would advise caution.

May 7, 2017

Is Orbán an anti-Semite? Is Putin blackmailing him? A day of charges and countercharges

The Hungarian political arena was hyperactive today, so this post will be somewhat scattershot.

Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó gave a press conference, followed by his ministry’s issuance of a statement demanding the resignation of Vice President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans for “having accused Hungary’s Prime Minister and the country’s government of anti-Semitism.” Szijjártó insisted that the present government is in fact a benefactor of Hungary’s Jewish community, which “can always count on the respect, friendship and protection of the Hungarian government.” Yet Timmermans in an interview given to Die Zeit described Viktor Orbán as “clearly anti-Semitic” for “calling George Soros a financial speculator” in the European Parliament a week ago. Szijjártó retorted that the vice president was a coward for making the “strong and furthermore unfounded accusation” in an interview instead of face-to-face with Viktor Orbán.

The fact is that the government-induced Soros-bashing that has been going on for some time uses a vocabulary that is usually reserved in Hungary for anti-Semitic discourse: speculator, financial circles, globalization, multi-national business circles, and other similar epithets. Timmermans is not the first person to suspect that the government’s constant references to professions or occupations often associated with Jews are meant to awaken anti-Semitic feelings in Hungarians.

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with a journalist from a German radio station who asked me whether all these attacks against Soros have something to do with his Jewish background. That was her first thought.

György Konrád, the internationally recognized Hungarian author, wrote an open letter to Viktor Orbán, whom he knew personally from the days when Orbán was a liberal, accusing him of anti-Semitism. The letter was translated into English and published in The Tablet. Bálint Magyar, the author of many books on the “mafia state,” wrote a brief note on his Facebook page a few days ago in which he reported on the results of his Google search for the following word combinations: “spekuláns-tőzsde” (stock market) (27,400), “spekuláns-zsidó” (28,700), and “spekuláns-zsidó-Soros” (18,500). Clearly, the vocabulary of the government in connection with George Soros does resonate. I did my own search on “Jewish speculators” in  Google Images. And what did I find? The portrait of George Soros accompanying an article in The Greanville Post titled “Judeo-Centrism: Myths and Mania.” According to Fakenewschecker.com, “this publication is among the most untrustworthy sources in the media.” The article is pure anti-Semitic drivel. The portrait of Soros was put up to adorn this dreadful article only three days ago. So, it’s no wonder that people are suspicious of the language used by Viktor Orbán and the Hungarian government.

The search for “Jewish speculator” produced this portrait of George Soros

Once the foreign ministry finished with Timmermans, it was time to summon Canada’s ambassador, Isabelle Poupart, for a dressing down after she expressed concern over the fate of Central European University and academic freedom in general. She added that Canada “encourages a constructive dialogue” to resolve the matter. Nowadays even such a mild statement is cause enough for an ambassador to be dragged into the foreign ministry.

And that takes me to an article written by László Palkovics and published by the conservative Canadian National Post. The original title of the piece was “Calling out Michael Ignatieff,” a phrase that appeared in Palkovics’s piece, which was subsequently changed to “Michael Ignatieff is waging a media war against my government to suit his own ambitions.” In it, Palkovics accuses Ignatieff of “hijacking academic freedom in Hungary,” a curious interpretation in view of what has been happening in Hungary in the last four or five weeks. Although his alleged aim was “to dispel Ignatieff’s myths and set the record straight once and for all,” he simply repeated the lies that we have heard from government sources all along. Ignatieff responded to Palkovics’s accusations. He began by saying that “a battle to defend academic freedom is underway in Budapest and Canadians need to know what is at stake,” and he went on to point out all the factual errors in Palkovics’s article. I wonder what the reaction of the National Post editors was when they got the news today about the Hungarian government’s treatment of the Canadian ambassador. Perhaps Palkovics’s claims were not quite true after all.

Now let’s move to a topic that has been the talk of the town for at least two weeks: Ferenc Gyurcsány’s repeated statements that he was approached by unnamed men who claim to have hard evidence of Viktor Orbán’s unlawful or perhaps criminal financial activities, which would make the prime minister the subject of blackmail. The blackmailer, according to the story, is none other than Vladimir Putin. This would explain the sudden and otherwise inexplicable change in Viktor Orbán’s foreign policy orientation. Prior to 2010, he was a fierce opponent of anything to do with Russia and Putin, but after that date he became Putin’s Trojan horse inside the European Union.

Gyurcsány gave tantalizing interviews. Every time he appeared he offered up a few more details. He indicated that although he saw the documents, they were not in his possession. But he claimed that if Orbán sued him, then those people holding the documents would be compelled to release them and testify. At one point he gave Orbán 72 hours to make a move, which of course came and went without Orbán doing anything. Many people were skeptical of Gyurcsány’s revelations in the first place, but after the Gyurcsány “ultimatum” had no results, more and more people became convinced that the story was just the figment of Gyurcsány’s imagination. After all, they said, Gyurcsány uses these kinds of tricks to call attention to himself and his party.

Since the appearance of László Botka as MSZP’s candidate to be Hungary’s next prime minister, the left-of-center parties have been fighting each other instead of Viktor Orbán and Fidesz. Botka’s bête-noire is Ferenc Gyurcsány. He declared on many occasions that Gyurcsány cannot have a political role. In brief, he would like to have the votes of Gyurcsány’s followers without Gyurcsány. Two days ago Botka in an interview decided to join forces with those who consider Gyurcsány’s revelations bogus. “Gyurcsány must leave politics if he has no proof of the Russians’ having information about financial transactions that can be connected to Fidesz and personally to Viktor Orbán.”

MSZP’s position was that the allegation was simply not credible enough to hold hearings on it in the parliamentary committee on national security. Chairman Zsolt Molnár (MSZP) decided not to call a session to discuss the matter. Bernadett Szél (LMP), also a fierce opponent of Gyurcsány, agreed. As they put it, they’re not getting involved in a political soap opera.

That was the situation until today, when Bertalan Tóth, leader of the MSZP parliamentary delegation, announced that his party will after all demand hearings on the issue. Both Viktor Orbán and Ferenc Gyurcsány, he said, will be invited to testify. Molnár added that he wants information from the civilian and military secret services as well. Gyurcsány responded promptly, saying that he would attend as long as Viktor Orbán also makes an appearance, which, let’s face it, is unlikely. However, he is willing to personally and officially hand over all information in his possession to the chairman of the committee.

Depending on the nature of the information, this development might have very serious consequences. The only thing that is not at all clear to me is why the MSZP leadership suddenly changed its mind and now supports a further probe into the issue. One possibility is that they came to the conclusion that since Orbán will not attend, Gyurcsány would also refuse to testify. In that case, it would be patently obvious that his stories were inventions. Perhaps that would ruin his political career, which would make their job of getting rid of him simple. I’m sure they were not expecting Gyurcsány to offer to share all the information he has about Orbán’s possible criminal activities. What will happen if the accusations are credible? That may improve his standing, which would not be in the interest of MSZP, whose popularity, despite Botka’s month-long campaigning, is stagnating. MSZP has embarked on a dangerous journey, and no one knows at the moment where it will end.

May 5, 2017

The state of the Hungarian press on World Press Day

Yesterday was World Press Freedom Day, proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in December 1993 following the recommendation of UNESCO’s General Conference. So, I think it is fitting to devote a post to media freedom in Hungary.

Only a few days ago I took a look at Freedom House’s latest assessment of press freedom in 199 countries, which concluded that Hungarian media freedom has been severely constrained since 2010 when Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party won the election. Although the Orbán government proclaims that the media enjoys total freedom, the fact is that by now the overwhelming majority of the media outlets in Hungary are either under state control, like the so-called public television and public radio, or have been acquired by Fidesz oligarchs who are willing conduits of government propaganda. Media experts estimate that by now 90% of all media content is in Fidesz hands.

Lőrinc Mészáros, Viktor Orbán’s alter ego and front man, owns, by the latest count, 192 newspapers in Hungary. Most of these are regional papers, which are essential for the Orbán propaganda machine. Relatively few people subscribe to national newspapers anymore. Népszabadság, before it was shut down, had the largest circulation, which by 2016 was only around 40,000. On the other hand, regional papers are sold in great numbers. Propaganda through these newspapers reaches far more people than propaganda placed in the few nationwide dailies.

The real bonus of these papers from the government’s point of view is not so much what they report on but what they leave out. A few days ago I read a fascinating study of a week’s worth of “non-news” in regional papers about the demonstrations in Budapest and some other cities. That’s why I was surprised to learn from Medián’s latest poll that people outside of Budapest were well informed about recent events in connection with the government’s attempt to close Central European University.

Outside observers might be horrified at the overwhelming presence of pro-government media in Hungary, but the government is still not satisfied. I understand that Mészáros’s company would like to acquire the few remaining regional papers that are owned by companies not connected to the government. Origo, once one of the two best internet news sites, has become a servile mouthpiece of the Orbán government rivaling Magyar Idők. Mária Schmidt’s acquisition of Figyelő is another sign of the insatiable appetite of the Orbán government. They even made an attempt to grab Népszava, which was eventually saved in the last minute by László Puch, the former financial director of MSZP. The government wants to have all the media under its control, just like in the good old days of János Kádár.

Apparently Orbán’s next victim was to be Index, considered by many to be the crown jewel of Hungarian-language internet news sites. But 444.hu reported a few days ago that in February 2014 Lajos Simicska, who became Viktor Orbán’s archenemy after March 2015, signed an agreement with Zoltán Spéder, the owner of Index, which stipulated that in the event Spéder decided to sell the site Simicska would have the right of first refusal. Simicska took advantage of this agreement on April 20, 2017, apparently in the nick of time because Orbán, through Árpád Habony and Mária Schmidt, had for some time been pressuring Spéder to sell Index. Simicska will not personally own Index. He transferred ownership of the site to a newly established foundation called Magyar Fejlődésért Alapítvány (Foundation for Hungarian Development), headed by László Bodolai, lawyer for both Lajos Simicska and Index. Without this move, Index would undoubtedly have been gobbled up by the Orbán government or one of its surrogates.

The reaction in the government media to the sale of Index was predictable. In the last couple of days one article after another has bemoaned the loss of Index. What is especially galling is that it was Simicska who prevented the takeover of the internet site. Well, it’s too late for the government to gain control of Index, but it has many ways of discriminating against the site. Independent organs normally don’t receive any advertising income from the government or from state-owned companies, but papers and television stations owned by Simicska are subject to additional hardships. One standard government ploy is that government officials are forbidden to give interviews to Simicska’s Magyar Nemzet and HírTV. Fidesz did the same thing while in opposition, when its politicians were forbidden to appear on Napkelte (Sunrise), an independently produced program Orbán deemed to be too liberal and antagonistic toward Fidesz.

Zoltán Balog has been leading the troops against Magyar Nemzet and HírTV. Simicska treated his brother-in-arms (bajtárs) shabbily, so Balog first announced that he and his ministry will refuse to have anything to do with Simicska’s media empire. Although Balog was aware that the law on public information forbids such discrimination, that didn’t seem to bother him. Moreover, that wasn’t punitive enough for Balog. By December 2016 all employees of institutions under the ministry of human resources–for example hospitals–had to get written permission from the ministry to give interviews or make statements about simple facts to anyone. For example, on December 6, 2016 a reporter for Magyar Nemzet wanted to write a heartwarming story about patients in a children’s hospital receiving gifts on St. Nicholas Day. Two hours before the event she received a telephone call from the hospital saying that she needs written permission to attend. Permission was denied. Not surprisingly, the reporter for MTI, the official news agency, had no trouble receiving permission. I assume that the legal problem of discriminating against certain media outlets and not others is supposed to be solved by requiring every news organization to obtain the requisite permissions. Meanwhile, the ministry’s boycott of Magyar Nemzet continues. When the paper filed charges against the ministry, Péter Polt’s prosecutor’s office decided that everything was in order.

Now Index has been added to the blacklist. Yesterday Sándor Joób, a well-known reporter at the news site, shared a revealing story. Index has been sending hundreds of requests for information about hospitals, for which the ministry’s permission is required. Joób wanted to talk to an official in charge of the reconstruction of Budapest hospitals. The official was most willing, but he needed permission. By mistake the reporter himself was included among the recipients of the message: “We ask you to refrain from giving this interview.” Magyar Nemzet immediately responded: “Welcome to the Club!”

Journalists at independent or opposition media outlets work under extremely difficult circumstances. For instance, Fidesz members of parliament refuse to answer any of their questions, and just the other day Lajos Kósa, head of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation, called reporters hyenas. Under these circumstances one can only admire the commitment of the journalists working for Magyar Nemzet and Index as well as other outlets like 24.hu, 444.hu, and Népszava. These journalists work for low wages and their job security is nonexistent. I just read about the former editor-in-chief of Dunántúli Napló, a regional paper in Pécs with a large circulation. After Lőrinc Mészáros’s Mediaworks took over the old Pécs standby, he lost his job. Now he is selling sausages as a street vendor.

May 4, 2017