Tag Archives: Viktor Orbán

Viktor Orbán turns his back on the Polish government

Although Viktor Orbán’s press conference this morning was anything but upbeat, a few hours later both the Polish left and right in addition to the Hungarian government media were full of praise for the prime minister’s superb diplomatic talents. In a Polish conservative opinion piece he was called the Talleyrand of our times who has been winning every major battle with “raging liberals and the Left in Europe.” He is a man who knows what Realpolitik is all about. Why this praise? Orbán had the good sense not to support the Szydło government in its hopeless fight against the reelection of Donald Tusk as president of the European Council.

Donald Tusk, who served as prime minister of Poland between 2007 and 2014, is the bête-noire of Jarosław Kaczyński, chairman of the Law and Justice party. Kaczyński’s enmity toward Tusk has a long history. First of all, at one point the two men were political rivals. Second, Kaczyński, who is convinced that the Russians were responsible for the death of his twin brother, President Lech Kaczyński, in 2010 when his plane went down in Russia, considers Tusk “politically responsible” for his brother’s death by allowing the Russians to investigate the case ahead of the Poles. But perhaps what is even more important, the far-right Polish government accuses Tusk, as president of the European Council, of wanting to bring down the right-wing Szydło government. The current Polish leadership decided to resist the reelection of the man who dared to criticize the present government in defense of democracy. Mind you, Tusk is not a “flaming liberal.” His party, the Civic Platform, is right of center.

Warsaw put up a counter-candidate–Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, like Tusk a Civic Platform member of the European People’s Party. To understand the dynamics of the situation we must keep in mind that the EP members of Kaczyński’s Law and Justice party belong to the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), basically a Euroskeptic lot. ECR doesn’t have the gravitas of EPP, to which Fidesz EP representatives also belong.

The Polish plan to block Tusk’s reelection didn’t go as planned. As soon as Saryusz-Wolski’s nomination was announced, he was removed from Civic Platform. And EPP removed him from all responsibilities within the party.

After this somewhat lengthy introduction let me turn to Viktor Orbán’s role in this ill-fated Polish political maneuver. Apparently, Warsaw was counting on Great Britain and the Visegrád Four for support. But it became apparent soon enough that neither Slovakia nor the Czech Republic would support Saryusz-Wolski’s nomination. The Polish government still hoped that Viktor Orbán would stand by their side, especially since, as we learned this morning from Viktor Orbán himself, at one point he promised that he would vote against Tusk. Orbán didn’t keep that promise.

As Orbán explained at his press conference in Brussels, since EPP’s only candidate was Tusk and since Fidesz is a constituent part of EPP, he had no choice. This is how the European Parliament functions, he explained. Otherwise, he claimed that he had tried his best to broker a deal but, unfortunately, he failed. He added that a couple of days ago he had informed the Polish government of his decision to vote for Tusk because circumstances didn’t allow him to do anything else.

Well, as usual, Viktor Orbán didn’t tell the whole truth. It wasn’t party protocol that forced him to vote as he did since there was another important European Council vote where he did not support the EPP candidate. I’m talking about the election of Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission in June 2014. Juncker was EPP’s candidate for the post. At that time David Cameron and Viktor Orbán voted against Juncker, which didn’t prevent him from getting the job. Then, perhaps feeling safe under the protective wing of Cameron, Orbán had no trouble voting against the favored candidate. So his decision had nothing to do with party obligations. Moreover, he could have voted against Tusk as a gesture to his Polish friends because his “no” vote wouldn’t have made any difference: Tusk would have been elected anyway. But, for reasons known only to him, he decided to go with the flow. He even went so far in his press conference as to laud the European Union as the best place to live in the whole wide world. It is a place where people can be truly happy and satisfied with life. A rather amusing comment considering all his earlier talk about the EU being in decline with the attendant miseries for the people.

I don’t want to dwell on the foolish behavior of the Polish government, but I’m afraid the Polish media’s unanimous condemnation of their government’s incompetence is well deserved. The Polish government should be only too well aware of the misfortunes that have befallen the country as a result of the territorial ambitions of its neighbors. Poland is rightfully worried about Vladimir Putin’s Russia. But then common sense would dictate good relations with the countries of Western Europe, especially with Germany. Yet the current Polish government treats Germany like its enemy. Perhaps this disastrous defeat will be a wake-up call, but the mindset of the present Polish political leadership doesn’t inspire confidence that it will happen any time soon.

In addition to the Polish fiasco, Orbán covered two other topics at some length in his press conference. One was the “migrant issue,” which had elicited widespread condemnation in the media and in international organizations involved with the refugee crisis and human rights. It turned out that the matter of the amendment to the Asylum Law came up during the summit. As Orbán described it, he “informed the prime ministers about the new [asylum] law, who didn’t raise any objections and did not protest.” He took this as a good sign, adding that the real fight will be with the bureaucrats of the European Union. Whether this silence was a sign of approval or an indication of a reluctance to get into a discussion of the issue we don’t know.

Orbán then explained the real meaning of the detention centers, which he compared to airports as transit zones. He was again quite explicit about the differences between the attitudes of the Hungarian government and the European Union when it comes to the refugee crisis. Hungary’s goal is not to handle the issue “humanely,” which the EU insists on, but to make sure that the refugees are stopped.

The other topic was the most recent conflict between Austria and Hungary. As is well known, an incredible number of Hungarians work in Austria. In 2016 more than 63,500 Hungarians lived in Austria, in addition to those who live in Hungary but cross the border daily to work on the other side. The Austrians recently floated the idea that Romanian, Hungarian and Czech employees would not receive extra family benefits. The Hungarians claim that as a result of such a new law Hungarian workers would receive 50% less than native Austrians for the same work. This is unacceptable for Hungary. Sophie Karmasin, the Austrian minister responsible for family affairs, visited Hungary only yesterday, and Viktor Orbán set up a meeting with Chancellor Christian Kern while in Brussels. On this topic, Orbán was forceful. He called the issue “a serious conflict” which he will take all the way to the top, meaning the European Commission and even the European Court of Justice. Hungarians cannot be discriminated against. If the Austrians discriminate against Hungarians, “we will respond in kind.” That is, if the Austrians proceed with this cut in family benefits, the Hungarian government will make certain that opportunities for Austrian businesses in Hungary will be curtailed. So, if I understand it correctly, Orbán fights against the European Commission at every turn, but once he feels that Hungarian citizens are being slighted he is ready to appeal for protection from the European Union.

March 10, 2017

The Hungarian government’s shameful treatment of asylum seekers

On Sunday, March 5, 2017, a report from Belgrade was published in the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet. It claimed that refugees “with visible traces of Hungary’s brutal policies” had told the Swedish journalist about severe beatings with batons by Hungarian policeman. The officers also used attack dogs. Their stories were confirmed by Andrea Contenta of Doctors Without Borders. According to him, the number of incidents has multiplied of late. There was at least one day when 20 people needed medical attention. One of the asylum seekers ended up into the emergency room of the nearby hospital. Accompanying the story were photos of the men with visible wounds and bruises.

In no time all the major newspapers of Europe and the United States picked up Aftonbladet’s story, which was followed by a worldwide condemnation of the Hungarian government’s treatment of asylum seekers. A day later the Hungarian ministry of interior released a statement that Magyar Nemzet described as an “ill-tempered personal attack.” In it, the ministry “categorically repudiated the unproven accusations that appeared in the international and domestic media” leveled against the Hungarian government. The ministry called attention to the fact that such accusations usually occur when “Hungary is forced, in the defense of the European Union and its own citizens, to strengthen its borders.” The press release also noted that Doctors Without Borders is supported by George Soros. As for the few possible incidents, Hungarian prosecutors have already investigated eight cases, six of which turned out to be bogus. The denial of these reports continued today when Zoltán Kovács, a government spokesman, declared that the report of Doctors Without Borders is nothing more than a pack of lies.

But that was not all. On March 7, two days after the Swedish newspaper story, the Hungarian parliament passed a new piece of legislation that will force all asylum seekers into detention camps. UPI’s report specifically recounted that “although [the law] was fiercely criticized after its submission last month, the legislation won near-unanimous approval … by a vote of 138-6.” This lopsided vote was the result of the abstention of MSZP members of parliament, a sign of their usual ambivalence when it comes to the migrant issue. While their cases are being decided, asylum seekers, including women and children over the age of 14, will be herded into shipping containers surrounded by a high razor-fence on the Hungarian side. These camps will be wide open on the Serbian side. Therefore, Hungarian government officials can declare with some justification that the people inside these camps are not incarcerated; they just can’t step onto Hungarian soil.

On the very same day that Fidesz-KDNP and Jobbik members of parliament voted for the bill that was to receive worldwide opprobrium, Viktor Orbán delivered a short speech at the swearing-in ceremony of 462 new “border hunters.” In the speech he called the new recruits’ job a “calling” in “the service of the country and the defense of the Hungarian people.” He pointed out that even if there is at the moment no migrant pressure at the borders of Europe, Hungary must be prepared for repeated onslaughts of migrants. It is for that reason that the Hungarian government will build a new fence which, according to some reports, might be attached to a source of low-voltage electricity. He described “migration as a Trojan horse of terrorism,” which assumes that all migrants are potential terrorists. Or perhaps one could go even further and interpret this sentence as akin to the contention of those American Islamophobes who say that Islam is not really a religion but rather an ideology of terrorism.

Another memorable Orbán line from this speech addressed the dichotomy between human rights and the law. Those migrants who cross Hungary’s border break the law. “This is reality which cannot be overwritten by all that rarified claptrap about human rights.” Orbán certainly doesn’t beat around the bush. Human rights are not something he worries or cares about. In fact, he is ready to transgress them in the name of “reality.”

A day later Magyar Nemzet reported that Nils Muižnieks, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, expressed his “deep concern” over the detention of asylum seekers in guarded camps which, in his opinion, violates the obligations spelled out in the European Convention of Human Rights. And he is not alone. Two rapporteurs of the Council, Tineke Strik and Doris Fiala, asked János Áder to refuse to countersign this new law that most likely is in violation of international agreements. Zeid bin Ra’ad al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, considers it “a far cry from international norms” and recommends its withdrawal.

As far as the European Commission is concerned, there seems to be a shift in its position toward this latest outrage. At first Margaritis Schinas, the chief spokesperson of the Commission, informed inquiring journalists that the Commission would not make a statement now but would wait until the law comes into effect. A day later, however, another spokesperson, Natasha Bertaud, told Népszava’s correspondent in Brussels that Dimitris Avramopoulos, EU commissioner for migration, will be dispatched to Budapest “to conduct serious negotiations with the Hungarian authorities about the amendments to the Asylum Act.”

By now I don’t have much hope that any international organization, be it the United Nations, the Council of Europe, or the European Commission, will be able to influence Hungarian policies either on the migrant question or on the transgression of democratic norms. Here and there one can hear from European politicians that the Hungarian government’s behavior should at least have financial consequences, but so far Brussels has been unwilling to punish Hungary for the actions of its government.

There are times when Viktor Orbán, despite all his bluster, quietly falls into line. Like today, when he cast his vote for the reelection of Donald Tusk as president of the European Council. Orbán abandoned his best friend and comrade Jarosław Kaczyński and voted for “the icon of immorality and stupidity,” as the Polish foreign minister called Donald Tusk. There are steps which even Orbán is reluctant to take.

March 9, 2017

A multi-speed Europe and the Visegrád Four

While Viktor Orbán is celebrating his “victory” in his fight with the European Commission over the expansion of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant, politicians in the western half of the continent are busily working on laying the foundation for a new type of European Union, one that might be able to avoid the pitfalls that have besieged Brussels ever since the abrupt enlargement of the Union in 2004.

On March 1 the European Commission published a White Paper on the future of Europe, “Avenues for the EU at 27.” The White Paper sets out five scenarios, each offering a glimpse into the potential state of the Union by 2025 depending on the choices Europe makes. Scenario 1: Carrying On. Scenario 2: Nothing but the Single Market. Scenario 3: Those Who Want More Do More, which means that the 27 members proceed as today but willing member states can do more together in areas such as defense, internal security, or social matters. Thus one or several “coalitions of the willing” will emerge. What will that mean exactly? To give but one example, 15 member states set up a police and magistrates corps to tackle cross-border criminal activities; security information is exchanged as national databases are fully interconnected. Scenario 4: Doing Less More Efficiently, which means delivering more and faster in selected areas, while doing less in other areas. Scenario 5: Doing Much More Together, in other words something close to a real union.

Although Juncker tried to deliver these five options in a neutral tone, it soon became evident that he and the other policy makers preferred scenario 3. “This is the way we want to go,” said an EU official to Euroaktiv.

On March 25 the White Paper will be officially handed over to the 27 governments in Rome at the sixtieth anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, which signaled the first step toward the idea of a united Europe. It is there that the Visegrád 4 countries were planning to propose amendments to the EU treaties, but their hopes are most likely misplaced. As an unnamed EU official said, “for treaty change, there is no market.”

The idea of a multi-speed Europe has been in the air for some time as an answer to the feared disintegration of the European Union after Brexit. But it was only on February 3, at the informal summit of the European Council in Malta, that Angela Merkel spoke of such a solution publicly. Since then behind the scenes preparations for the implementation of this solution have been progressing with spectacular speed.

Today the “Big Four” officially called for a new dynamic, multi-speed Europe. In the Palace of Versailles Angela Merkel, François Hollande, Mariano Rajoy, and Paolo Gentiloni announced their support for a newly revitalized multi-speed Europe. The leaders of Germany, France, Spain, and Italy want to do more than celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the EU. They want “to reaffirm [their] commitment to the future,” said Hollande. Merkel added that “we should have the courage to allow some countries to move ahead, to advance more quickly than others.” To translate these diplomatic words into less polite language, these four countries, most likely supported by a fair number of other western and perhaps also Baltic states, are sick and tired of countries like members of the Visegrád 4. If they don’t want deeper integration and a common policy on defense, the economy, security and immigration, so be it. They will be left behind.

European leaders at the Palace of Versailles / Euroactiv.fr

What is Viktor Orbán’s reaction to these plans? As we know, the Hungarian prime minister can change his positions quickly and frequently, and it looks as if in the last month his ideas on the subject have hardened. Bruxinfo received information from sources close to Orbán at the time of the Malta Summit that the Hungarian prime minister didn’t consider the formation of a multi-speed Europe a necessarily adverse development as far as Hungary is concerned.

On March 2, however, a day after Juncker’s White Paper came to light, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary issued a joint declaration to the effect that the Visegrád 4, strongly supported by Viktor Orbán, find the idea of a multi-speed Europe unacceptable. The declaration said that the Visegrád 4 countries want neither federalization nor a return to the single market. What they find most odious, however, is Scenario 3. They look upon a multi-speed Europe as a sign that they will be treated as poor relatives, second-class citizens. Unfortunately, the four Visegrád countries, besides not wanting to be left behind, can’t agree on the extent of integration they are ready to accept.

Slovakia and the Czech Republic, unlike Poland and Hungary, are ready to cooperate with Brussels in certain areas such as asylum, migration policy, and the digital agenda in the spirit of “Bratislava Plus” adopted in September 2016. You may recall that after the Bratislava Summit Viktor Orbán was the only political leader who announced that the summit was a failure. He was especially unhappy that his Visegrád 4 friends didn’t stick with him during the negotiations. It looks as if Poland and Hungary didn’t manage to force their rigid attitude on the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Because of their differences, the common denominator of the Visegrád 4’s declaration was merely a description of their gripes. As a result, their message was defensive and weak. The four countries “express their concerns about creating exclusive clubs, they demand the equality of member states, and they want to involve national parliaments more in the political process that would control the subnational institutions,” as Vit Dostál, editor-in-chief of Euroaktiv.cz, remarked in his op/ed piece. The news about the decision of the German, French, Spanish and Italian prime ministers yesterday had to come as very bad news for the Visegrád 4. A multi-speed Europe is a frightening prospect for these countries.

Of course, they wouldn’t have to worry so much if they, especially Poland and Hungary, were more accommodating in their attitudes and would accept the fact that by joining the European Union they gave up some of their countries’ sovereignty. If they accepted the fact that the refugee problem is something that can be solved only together. As Merkel said in Versailles yesterday: “Cooperation can be kept open to those that have fallen behind.” We will see which road Orbán will choose, but cooperation is not Orbán’s strong suit.

March 7, 2017

Russian-Hungarian exchange of top security information

After a lot of suspense, the fate of Paks II, to be built by Rosatom and financed by the Russian government, has been settled. The European Commission threw in the towel. Admittedly, there is still a possibility that the Austrian government will take the case to the European Court of Justice as it did with Great Britain’s Hinkley Point Nuclear Power Plant. The British case is still pending, and a verdict against Hinkley Point might have some bearing on Paks II. But that is a long shot.

Although the specific points of the final agreement on Paks II are of great interest, here I would rather look at another, possibly nefarious instance of Russian-Hungarian relations: an agreement between Russia and Hungary “on the mutual protection of classified information.” News that this agreement would come into force on April 1 was announced on March 3, 2017 on the last pages of the Official Gazette. It was discovered by the staff of Magyar Nemzet. Interestingly, with the exception of very few media outlets, this agreement has been ignored.

What is even more surprising is that the agreement itself was signed in September 2016 without anyone noticing it. Bernadett Szél (LMP), for example, who is a member of the parliamentary committee on national security, had no inkling of the document’s existence. This is what happens when the opposition parties lack the resources to hire a research staff.

Of course, the agreement is not especially significant by itself because it only defines rules and regulations governing the transfer of secret information between the two countries. What is of considerable interest, however, is the extent of the working relationship between the Russian and Hungarian national security forces or, as the agreement states, “the competent authorities responsible for the implementation of [the] Agreement.” These “competent authorities” are the National Security Authority in Hungary and, in Russia, the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB), the successor to the KGB of Soviet times.

The agreement reveals that top secret documents change hands between Hungary and Russia which cannot be shared by a third party. How many such documents are we talking about? The agreement at one point states that “for the transfer of classified information carriers of considerable volumes of classified information, the authorized bodies shall, in accordance with the laws and other regulatory legal acts of their States, agree on the modalities of their transportation, itinerary and escorting method.” There are also detailed instructions about the destruction of certain secret documents, including the proviso that “classified information carriers marked Szigorúan titkos!/Совершенно секретно (Top secret) shall not be destroyed and shall be returned to the authorized body of the originating Party, when they are no longer deemed necessary.” All this indicates to me a close working relationship between the Russian FSB and the Hungarian NSA.

We don’t know, of course, what kinds of top secret documents are being exchanged by the Russian and Hungarian national security agencies. It is certainly not immaterial what kind of information the Hungarian partner passes on to the Russians, especially in view of Hungary’s membership in NATO and the European Union. In fact, Magyar Nemzet specifically asked the Ministry of Foreign Relations and Trade whether the Hungarian authorities gave information about the details of cooperation between Russian and Hungarian national security forces to the European Union and NATO. No answer has yet been received. Bernadett Szél told the paper that she was certain the Hungarians don’t pass any sensitive information on to the Russians and that the European Union and NATO are fully aware of all such exchanges between the two countries. I wish I were that confident that the Orbán government is playing by the book.

Tamás Szele in Huppa.hu is convinced that such an exchange of secret documents greatly favors Russia “because considering the weight and strength of the two organizations, it is hard to imagine the arrangement as one of cooperation between equal partners.” For Szele this means that “we have become unreliable diplomatic partners, surrogates of Russia with whom one cannot candidly negotiate or conclude secret agreements because everything that has been said or written will be in the Kremlin within an hour.” Let’s hope that Szele exaggerates, but as far as I know western diplomats are already worried about the trustworthiness of the Hungarian diplomatic corps. And as Attila Juhász of Political Capital, a political science think tank, said the other day, “the government seemed to have forgotten that Hungary is a member of the European Union and NATO. It replaced a friend with a foe, contemplating idly the growing use of Russian propaganda.”

Hungarian state media spread fake Russian news / Source: Budapest Beacon

There is another danger in this cozy Russian-Hungarian exchange of top secret information, which is the possibility that the Russians disseminate disinformation that may lead the Hungarian agents astray. Given our knowledge of Russian disinformation efforts in the United States and the European Union, I don’t think it is too far-fetched to assume such a possibility. The use of disinformation via the internet is one of Russia’s weapons in the destabilization of Europe.

The far-right Hungarian-language internet sites under Russian tutelage work hard to turn Hungarians against Western Europe and the United States in favor of Russia. This is bad enough. But the real problem is that the Hungarian government media outlets consistently join the chorus of pro-Russian far-right groups, which only reinforces the worst instincts of a large segment of the population. According to a recent study on the attitude of the Visegrád 4 countries toward Russia, “the Hungarian government disguises its pro-Russian stance behind a mask of pragmatism,” but there is reason to believe that the government media’s love affair with Russia is not against the wishes of the Orbán government. The Orbán government’s long-range economic and financial dependence on Russia in connection with the Paks II project further ties Hungary to Putin’s Russia, whose plans for Europe don’t bode well for Hungary either.

March 6, 2017

Mária Vásárhelyi: George Soros’s foundation in Hungary

It was in July 1988 that my youngest child was born at the First Gynecological Clinic with serious respiratory and visual problems. When I visited her in the unit where premature babies were being cared for, on the incubator in which she was lying was a sign: “this instrument is a gift of the Soros Foundation.” The doctors explained that previously the hospital didn’t have such up-to-date equipment despite the fact that the greatest danger for premature babies is possible blindness as a result of too much pressure being applied in the neonatal ventilator. This new machine, on the other hand, constantly measures and regulates the air pressure. Possibly it was this machine that saved my daughter’s eyesight. Before and after my child, hundreds of premature babies began their fragile lives on this ventilator. They all had the same chance: the premature child of the poverty-stricken Roma, the worker from Csepel, the party functionary, or the street vendor who had his own business. These families had not the foggiest idea that their newborns could become healthy children thanks to the support of the George Soros Foundation.

Today, when the name of George Soros together with the concepts of an open society and liberalism have become dirty words and when newly formed civic organizations are eager to announce that they are in no way supported by the satanic billionaire, it is worthwhile recalling in what ways George Soros helped Hungarian society before the regime change and after. Because it is unfair that when George Soros’s name is being mentioned in connection with his activities in Hungary, even those who try to defend him recall only the support he gave to the members of the opposition to the Kádár regime, including Viktor Orbán and other Fidesz politicians. I don’t think that Orbán and his associates owe Soros any gratitude for the scholarships they received. The Soros Foundation helped the members of the opposition because their goals aligned with the objectives of the Soros Foundation: democratizing  Hungary and building the institutional structure of an open society. Neither George Soros nor the board members of the Soros Foundation expected any gratitude for the support given. Moreover, it is particularly unfair that in connection with Soros, pro or con, only those scholarship recipients are mentioned who later became well-known politicians when the activities of the Foundation from the very beginning were much more diverse. The assistance given to organizations and members of the democratic opposition was insignificant in comparison to the amount of money spent on public education, medical science, and educational institutions in addition to cultural and scientific life.

Over two decades (1984-2004) the Soros Foundation spent 150 million dollars (worth today at least 100 billion forints) on the development of the rule of law and civic society, the convergence of disadvantaged groups, Roma integration, education, healthcare, public education, science, and the arts. During those twenty years 40,000 of 90,000 applicants received assistance based on the evaluation of 500 associates of the Foundation and as many outside experts.

During the first five years of its existence, the Foundation supported authors, educators, researchers, and projects deemed worthwhile with grants totaling 3 million dollars (approximately 3 billion forints today). As George Soros said in an interview, “we didn’t pay people for what they had done, we only helped them attain what they wanted to accomplish.” Half of the annual 3 billion forints was given in dollars, the other half in forints. Most of this money was spent not on scholarships but on Hungarian healthcare and educational facilities.

Between 1984 and 1988 the Foundation spent 800 million forints for business management training, 800 million forints for copy machines, 600 million forints for medical equipment, 800 million forints for English language training for high school students and their teachers, 500 million forints for video equipment for educational and scientific institutions, 200 million forints for the propagation of Hungarian culture abroad, 180 million forints for audio libraries for the blind, and 270 million for Hungarian scholars to attend foreign conferences. And these are just a few items that couldn’t have become a reality without financial assistance. For example, in 1987 175 English teachers and English-major college and high school students could study in the United States. In the same year, the Foundation spent 1.5 million dollars on the purchase of medicine available only outside Hungary. The Foundation had a key role to play in the blossoming of Hungarian periodical literature (which by the way has since been destroyed by the present government) by assisting publications regardless of their ideological affiliation. It assisted scores of publications from Beszélő, a famous samizdat publication in the Kádár era, to Vigilia, a Catholic publication. It also assisted specialized colleges attached to universities where talented students received extracurricular instruction by financing the organization of discussion forums, enabling them to invite guest lecturers for their lecture series and so on.

At the same time the Foundation never made a secret of the fact that its primary objective was the support of cultural and communal pursuits that would be the basis of a future civic society that would promote the country’s democratic development. These objectives are antithetical to all dictatorial, autocratic powers, including the current Hungarian government.

The five-ten per semester scholarships that were awarded, although they fit into the Foundation’s philosophy, amounted to a very small portion of the amount spent by the Foundation. They were given primarily to people who, as the enemies of the dictatorship, couldn’t travel abroad and who, for the most part, lived in deprivation and insecurity, being unable to get a job. These foreign scholarships provided them time for peaceful work, for self-improvement and information gathering, in addition to a few months of existential security. Naturally these scholarships created the most political conflict because they widened the opposition’s room for maneuverability and limited the totalitarian power’s pressure on the opposition.

The assistance given to members and organizations of the opposition irritated the functionaries of the dictatorship just as today it irritates the representatives of the illiberal state. But at least the functionaries of the dictatorship had enough sense to realize that “the Soros Foundation’s activities are in a sector where our possibilities have always been limited and which in the future will be even more so…. If we don’t allow the Foundation to function, its termination would create a gap that would produce unmet needs. Creative research possibilities of interesting people would come to naught,” wrote János Knopp, a ministry of interior police officer, in his report to the “Agit-Prop” Department of MSZMP’s Politburo in September 1987.

In 1989—as a result of the political changes—the structure of the assistance itself changed. U.S. law forbids the financing of political parties, and consequently the Foundation’s primary task became the strengthening of the civic underpinnings of the newly-born political parties. In that year, over and above the three million dollar annual budget, Soros provided another million for assistance to democratic organizations and communities in this transitional period. Civic bases of both left- and right-leaning parties received an equal amount of assistance. The person in charge of this particular project was László Sólyom, who led the right-of-center Magyar Demokrata Fórum (MDF) at the negotiations that resulted in regime change. With this program, the Foundation helped bring to life hundreds of self-governing communities and civic groups. Parallel with this project another one million dollars was spent on a program to provide foreign currency for small businessmen to purchase necessary equipment. (At that time the Hungarian forint was not convertible.)

After the formation of the first freely elected parliament, the assistance structure of the Foundation was once again altered. Although in the 1980s George Soros didn’t want charitable programs to be a major part of the work of the Foundation, after the change of regime, facing rapidly sharpening social tension after the mass impoverishment and marginalization of millions, the focus increasingly shifted to public education, healthcare, unresolved social problems, and Roma integration.

The first large social project was the distribution of free milk to school children, starting in 1991. Every needy child, initially only in Budapest, received at least one glass of milk and a fresh bun daily. The founder insisted, however, that other sponsors and individuals, like better-off parents, should also help with the project. This outside sponsorship not only fizzled out after a few months, but the project was under fire from the right, which accused the project of serving only to popularize Budapest’s liberal leadership. It was also a sad lesson that “in many schools the teachers didn’t want to cooperate, or if they did, they didn’t want to do the work without extra pay, and therefore the delivered milk and baked goods remained undistributed.” A couple of years later the project was revived, and by 1993 134,000 children across the country received a regular free breakfast at school. The history of the milk project says a lot about the attitude of right-wing parties and the majority of the middle class toward those who live in dire poverty. It is not a coincidence that the project, later taken over by the government, was eliminated recently by the Orbán government, surely in the spirit of Christian charity.

The two important projects in the period between 1993 and 2000 were raising the quality of education and Roma integration. During this period the Foundation spent at least 15 billion forints in today’s terms on integration programs. At the beginning the Foundation concentrated on Roma organization projects, which were intended to promote self-governance, the preservation of Roma culture, and a decrease in inequality. Over the years, however, the emphasis shifted to the education of Roma students. During this period 1,691 Roma teachers and students received scholarships within the Teacher-Student Program, 1,212 received rewards for outstanding scholarship, 1,286 Roma families received financial help to continue their children’s education after the compulsory eight grades, and more than 3,000 Roma college students received scholarships from the Foundation.

Another 15 billion forints was spent between 1994 and 2004 on the development of Hungarian higher education. Assistance was extended to college students as well as professors for study abroad, and a considerable amount of money was spent on the development of innovative teaching methods, the creation of alternative schools, assistance to disadvantaged and disabled children, and a number of other projects aiming at the modernization of education.

Deciding whether the amount of money George Soros spent supporting Hungary’s democratic transformation, the strengthening of its civic society, culture, science, arts and education was a lot or a little depends on your viewpoint. If we compare it to Soros’s total wealth or to the amount of money the government spends on these areas in toto, it wasn’t much. But if we compare it to the amount of money the government spends individually on these areas or if we consider that the amount of money Soros spent on Hungarian society would make Soros one of the ten richest men in the country, then it is a lot. If we keep in mind that in Hungary—where the culture of giving, solidarity, and philanthropy even considering the country’s economic development is very low—no other single individual contributed as generously as George Soros did in the last 100 years, then we can surely state that this was more than a lot. We should add that the Foundation’s finances were totally transparent, and during its existence not a shadow of corruption ever fell on it. It can be said that the Soros Foundation, currently under the crossfire of political attacks, was both in its philosophy and its activities an exemplary institution, serving modernization and social solidarity.

It is not only immoral and distasteful of Viktor Orbán and his oligarchs to incite the hate campaign against George Soros because many of them were recipients of the Foundation’s grants but because—over and above hate’s destructive force—to the best of my knowledge up to now none of them gave a penny for the common good and the well-being of Hungary from their own money grabbed from the public purse. We know only too well how government politicians and their family members amassed immense wealth and how János Lázár declared that “mothers with girls should realize that their children can be a very good match” for some eligible young man in twenty years’ time. But I have never heard them say that they would have supported a child who lived in deep poverty in order to make his life a bit easier in the future.

Sometime in the 1990s the brother of George Soros, Paul, who is also one of the richest Americans, said in a documentary film that he gives money only to countries that were hit by epidemics and/or natural disasters. To attain political goals—however noble they may be—he never extends help because sooner or later they take a different turn and become weapons against the donor. At that time I listened to these words with some incomprehension, but by now I have a much better idea what he meant.

March 5, 2017

Scandal after scandal: trying to hide the real meaning of “ethnic homogeneity”

It doesn’t happen too often that I have to return to a topic that I thought we had discussed quite thoroughly only yesterday. But this time such a revisit is definitely warranted. Without it, the story is incomplete. Readers would not be able to grasp the extent of the depravity and duplicity of the government that rules Hungary today.

Of course, I’m talking about the controversial speech Viktor Orbán delivered on February 28 at the annual gathering of the Hungarian Chamber of Commerce. When I’m writing about a speech, I normally wait to have the full text in front of me as opposed to relying on summaries that appear right after it is delivered. I consider the written text to be more reliable and more detailed, allowing me greater room for analysis. So, I checked the prime minister’s website several times for the appearance of the complete text.

In my piece I concentrated on two paragraphs. The first was about the “ethnic homogeneity” desired by Orbán, and the second was about “the greatness” of the Hungarian nation. In both cases I translated practically the whole text.

There was one sentence, which happened to be the lead sentence of the paragraph on “ethnic homogeneity,” that after some pondering I decided to leave out. It was jarring. It didn’t make any sense. So I decided that the best solution was simply to omit it, especially since it wasn’t vital to our understanding of Orbán’s message. It read: “First, I find the preservation of cultural homogeneity very important.” This lead sentence was followed by two sentences that I did translate: “By now one can say such things. A few years ago one could be executed for such sentences, but today one can say it because life confirmed that too much mixing brings trouble.” These sentences, coming one after the other, made no sense to me. One may think that “cultural homogeneity” is desirable, but one cannot be branded for life for espousing such a thought. So, as I said, I decided that the best solution was to drop that first sentence.

It now seems that my instinct was correct. We learned today that someone in the prime minister’s office changed the original sentence “I find the preservation of ethnic homogeneity very important” to “I find the preservation of cultural homogeneity very important.” Who ordered the change we don’t know. Was it the prime minister himself who upon reflection decided that such a statement was inappropriate or was it one of his subordinates who concluded that this sentence would cause an uproar? It really doesn’t matter because the falsification of facts is unacceptable, or at least it should be unacceptable. But in Hungary’s case one can say with confidence that there will be no fallout from this latest “editing.”

It is bad enough that high government officials fiddled with the true message of the prime minister, but one would have expected more finesse from them. What good does it do to change the wording in one instance but in four other cases in the same paragraph leave “ethnic homogeneity” unaltered? Moreover, when the video of the speech becomes available on the government website, this tinkering with the transcript will be called out in no time, as it was this afternoon at János Lázár’s Thursday afternoon séance, “government info.”

Faithful readers of Hungarian Spectrum surely remember Ildikó Csuhaj of Népszabadság, who was known for her scoops on the affairs of Fidesz. She was always the first one to come up with breaking news on people close to Viktor Orbán. Now that there is no more Népszabadság, Csuhaj got a job at ATV as a provider of background news. She was the one who brought up the presence of “ethnic homogeneity” in Orbán’s speech at Lázár’s press conference. Lázár and his faithful companion at these occasions, Zoltán Kovács, were outraged: Hungary’s prime minister said nothing of the sort. Lázár even told Csuhaj to stop bothering them with such annoying and obviously nonexistent claims. Kolozsvári Szalonna captured their pique in its headline to the story: “Ildikó, you little goose, don’t bother the gentlemen with your nonsensical questions.”

I’ll bet they were not so happy after the press conference was over

Interestingly, Ildikó Csuhaj’s take on Orbán’s racist remarks came from a vantage point quite different from that of the reports and analyses coming from abroad. Foreign assessments objected to the racism inherent in the concept of “ethnic homogeneity” in general. Ildikó Csuhaj’s probe, on the other hand, centered around Orbán’s attitude toward the introduction of a guaranteed basic income, which had been proposed by László Botka of MSZP and the leadership of Párbeszéd. Orbán, as a believer in a “work-based society,” naturally rejects such a plan out of hand, but he finds its introduction especially problematic in his own country because “ethnic relations in Hungary are complicated.” That was translated to be a specifically racist remark in connection with Hungary’s Roma population. Even if Orbán were in favor of a guaranteed basic income, given the presence of the large Roma population the idea couldn’t be introduced in Hungary because of the enormous unemployment in the Gypsy community. The reasons for this high unemployment? Well, “ethnic relations in Hungary are complicated.”

The Orbán government must have been embarrassed because it moved to salvage what could be salvaged abroad. Zoltán Kovács wrote an opinion piece for a new government propaganda site called About Hungary. Here we learn that it wasn’t the Orbán government that falsified the prime minister’s remarks; the culprit was “the liberal media.” Kovács had the temerity to summarize Orbán’s speech this way: “The prime minister, after delivering a speech at the Hungarian Chamber of Industry and Commerce, was talking about threats to Hungary’s strong economic performance and stability. One of those threats is illegal migration, and he said that preserving the European cultural identity of Hungary is a priority for the well-being of the country.” After these introductory words, he quoted Orbán’s lead sentence correctly but cagily left out all the sentences in which the phrase “ethnic homogeneity” appears. As Kovács put it, “if you’re having trouble seeing why that’s racist, that’s because it’s not. He was talking about preserving the ethnic identity we have, and that’s associated with culture, language, sometimes religion, and so on.” Indeed, in his version it is difficult to find the original meaning of Orbán’s message. According to Kovács, “the loud, ideologically-driven press simply don’t have ears to hear the real meaning of a statement and refuse to report the full picture. Instead, these journalists with an agenda quote out of context.”

I was spared, unlike Lili Bayer, a freelance journalist working out of Budapest, who has written some excellent articles on Hungarian affairs for Politico and lately a piece for The Forward on Sebastian Gorka’s connections with the Hungarian far right. Kovács discovered the following tweet by Bayer: “Today Orban called for ethnic homogeneity in Hungary. 73 years ago my grandma was taken to concentration camp by others making same argument.” Kovács accused her of “manipulative editing” and decried “the rigged media [which] is … blinded by their own bias.”

The Hungarian government works exceedingly hard to massage the news to their political advantage, and domestically they have had significant success with their propaganda campaigns. Internationally, however, as is clear from Kovács’s pitiful attempt to explain away this latest scandal, they are much less successful at pulling the wool over our eyes.

March 2, 2017

Viktor Orbán’s “ethnically homogeneous” Hungary

Viktor Orbán’s latest address, delivered yesterday at the Hungarian Chamber of Commerce’s annual gathering, has already become notorious. The lengthy speech was intended to give an overview of the Hungarian economy, which the Hungarian prime minister described as “not good but promising.” As usual, he said nothing noteworthy on that front. He did, however, give the Chamber a lecture on genetics, ethnicity, and culture which without exaggeration can be described as unadulterated racism.

The portion of the speech devoted to “cultural and ethnic homogeneity” is relatively short but damning nonetheless. One commentator, András Hont of HVG, who used to be a friend of Orbán back in the early 1990s, recorded the changes of his feelings about the prime minister. First, he felt admiration, later disappointment and suspicion, but after reading this speech he “feels only revulsion.” Strong words but not undeserved.

Let’s turn to the text that elicited such a strong reaction not just in Hungary but abroad as well. Orbán probably realized the risk involved in entering into a discussion of such a “delicate” subject. Thus he began this part of his speech by paying homage to the resurgence of politically incorrect speech in Hungary: “By now one can say such things. A few years ago one could be executed for such sentences, but today one can say it because life confirmed that too much mixing brings trouble.” What’s too much mixing and what’s not? I think it is pretty clear from the text that mixing within the European community is acceptable as far as Orbán is concerned, but any mixing with people coming from “different cultures” is not. He admits—he can’t do otherwise—that today’s Hungarians are ethnically extremely varied, but he looks upon the Hungarian nation as ethnically homogeneous because it is made up of European stock.

Naturally, when a Hungarian speaks of ethnic diversity, sooner or later we will hear the advice of Hungary’s first king to his son about the wisdom of inviting foreigners into the country “because a kingdom where only one language is spoken and only one custom is followed is weak and fragile.” And indeed Orbán made a fleeting reference to St. Stephen’s wisdom, but he added that “one mustn’t endanger the country’s basic ethnic character.” The presence of an alien stock wouldn’t improve the value of the country; on the contrary, “it would devalue it and thrust it into chaos.” He is all for “cultural diversity within [the European] context, but the existence of parallel societies that are incapable of assimilation” must be avoided at all costs. Orbán is convinced that if “we manage to uphold the [country’s] ethnic homogeneity and its cultural uniformity, then Hungary will be upgraded as a place. Hungary will be the kind of place that will be able to show other, more developed countries what they lost.”

A few weeks ago we were laughing over Orbán’s remarks about the West European refugees who will be coming to Hungary. We thought he was joking. Well, he is not joking. He truly believes that Hungary will be a European paradise which white Europeans will envy and perhaps move to.

The same theme cropped up again in a later part of the speech, when Orbán said that he doesn’t want the importation of “guest workers,” although it is becoming painfully clear that there is a serious labor shortage in Hungary. He wants a country where all jobs are filled by Hungarians, from the cleaning lady to the president of the Hungarian National Academy. In Western European countries immigrants do the menial jobs. But not in Hungary, where ethnic purity will enhance the value of the country. It will be a country that is being run from top to bottom by Hungarians.

The Chamber also received a lecture about the “idea of greatness.” Hungary might be small, but Hungarians understand the “meaning of greatness.” Hungarians “cannot relinquish the idea of greatness in culture, greatness in sports, greatness in science.” He continued: “We are not simply a nation in the Carpathian Basin but we are a great nation, quite independently from the fact that at the moment we are shrunken and demographically declining. However, that doesn’t change the thousand-year-old fact that we are a great nation. People who live in this country think of themselves as such.” This attitude, to Orbán’s way of thinking, is also a plus in the eyes of others, which I very much doubt. Perhaps megalomania would be a better description of Orbán’s ideas on the greatness of his nation.

Most commentators misunderstood the message. Some people got stuck on the ethnic diversity of Hungarians and brought up examples to prove that Orbán doesn’t know what he is talking about. For example, 24.hu gave the ethnic backgrounds of the thirteen generals who were executed after the 1848-49 revolution and war of independence and triumphantly announced that only four of them were ethnically Hungarians. But this is not what Orbán was talking about. He has nothing against white Europeans. He was talking about people whose skin is darker and who are not Christians. This was a speech with a racist message, pure and simple. Normally, Orbán couches his less than acceptable ideas in coded phrases that can easily be explained away if necessary. But he seems to be emboldened as a result of the political changes in the United States, and he no longer even pretends when it comes to the subject of race relations.

The Jewish weekly Szombat published an opinion piece which analyzed the text more deeply. The author discovered a sentence that stood apart from the passage on ethnic homogeneity. Here Orbán called “Hungary’s ethnic relations complicated.” He was undoubtedly referring to the large Roma population in the country. Thus, the commentator translated Orbán’s thinking on the subject: “We have enough problems with our own ethnic relations. We don’t need an immigrant ethnic group.” What really bothered the author, however, was the “ethnic homogeneity” phrase, which can be understood as “ethnic purity.” With this, he wrote, “we are back to the word usage of the Central European dictatorships of the 1930s.” I’m afraid I have to agree with him. This time it is impossible to explain away Viktor Orbán’s message.

March 1, 2017