Tag Archives: Vladimir Putin

Putin’s award: 50s-style investigation of protesting Debrecen professors

Let’s continue with the Russian theme today: in this case, the scandal that has been growing ever since the senate of the University of Debrecen bestowed the title of Civis Honoris Causa on Vladimir Putin. The Russian president allegedly received the award because “both the Hungarian government and the Russian Federation intend to assign an important role to the University of Debrecen in the Paks2 project.” But the University of Debrecen is already the recipient of a sizable grant from a Russian foundation called Russkiy Mir, a soft power initiative created by decree by Putin in 2007, which aims at promoting the Russian language and “forming the Russian World as a global project.”

The University of Debrecen is not the only Hungarian university to receive grants from Russkiy Mir. ELTE was the first beneficiary, and the University of Pécs also got money from the Russian foundation. But, according to Dániel Hegedüs, a political scientist specializing in Russian penetration into western institutions, the University of Debrecen’s arrangement with Russkiy Mir is fundamentally different from the others because of the intensity of the relationship. For example, a new Russian center was established recently where students can have tuition-free Russian language instruction. The university has close contacts with many Russian institutions: Tyumen State Medical Academy, Belgorod Agricultural Academy, ITMO University in St. Petersburg, Russian State Social University, and the Chuvash State University.

According to people familiar with the scene, pro-Russian sentiment is quite strong at the university. A young historian who represents undergraduates and graduate students in the senate, for example, voted for Putin’s award and expressed pro-Russian views, including an endorsement of the Russian occupation of foreign territories by means of arms. Mind you, this same student is keeping a portrait of Miklós Horthy in his room, which he intends to take home once he no longer has an office in the university.

It took only a few days after the announcement of the award for a handful of departments at the University of Debrecen to object to bestowing an honorary title on an autocrat whose rule in Russia is dotted with grievous attacks on democratic institutions and who is most likely behind the murders of politicians and journalists who are in his way. It was these professors whom the rector of the university, Zoltán Szilvássy, called “balfácánok,” which is a somewhat milder synonym of “balfaszok” (two-left-handed pricks). It means “blundering dolts or simpletons.” Who is this cultured academic?

In 2013 it wasn’t Szilvássy who won the most senate votes when three professors were vying for the job of rector of the university. In fact, he received less than one-third of the votes, which didn’t please the Orbán government. The vote was followed by two and a half months of behind-the-scenes negotiations and deals, resulting in the appointment of Szilvássy. At that time, the Oktatói Hálózat/OH (Faculty Network) protested against the violation of university autonomy. OH asked President János Áder not to affirm Szilvássy’s appointment, of course to no avail. In fact, since then “he was reelected with an overwhelming majority,” as Origo put it. What a surprise, especially since this time no other “balfácán” bothered to challenge him.

Since it was the Orbán government that placed Szilvássy in his position against the express wishes of the majority, he gladly does everything the government wants. One such occasion was the granting of another honorary doctorate, this time to Lajos Mocsai, a handball coach whom the government wanted to name rector of the University of Physical Education. As a handball coach he didn’t have any higher degrees or academic achievements, which were requirements for the job. (One could argue the merits of the case, but once the Magyar Testnevelési Főiskola under Semmelweis University became a separate university at Viktor Orbán’s insistence, the rules applicable to universities in general had to apply to this new creation as well.) So, Mocsai had to have a degree, and if he didn’t have a real one, an honorary degree would do. Szilvássy was ready to do the dirty work. In a ten-person committee only one person voted for the handball coach, but a month later, through some clever finagling, Mocsai received the honorary doctorate, which was accepted as a real one. Today he is a professor and the rector of the University of Physical Education.

There is relatively little available about Zoltán Szilvássy’s academic career, but it seems that, although he is an M.D., he moved over to the field of pharmaceuticals. In addition to his university duties, he also has several quite profitable business ventures. According to an anonymous commenter, who claims to be a former student and instructor at University of Debrecen, Szilvássy is by now a very rich man who “with disgusting mafia-like means carries out the cruelest professional personal decisions. He destroys professional careers with the typical vengeance of petty and untalented people.” These harsh words might not be unwarranted because, in the throes of the upheaval created by Putin’s honorary degree, an associate professor who heads the department of infectious diseases and child immunology returned an award she had received from Szilvássy in 2014 because the rector “together with his subordinates destroyed in a mafia-like manner” her department. She asserted that what’s going on in the university is “an unprecedented evil destruction” of the university’s scientific reputation. These words are quite similar to the ones used by the anonymous commenter on Index’s Fórum. The general opinion of the man is that “he completely lacks the modern European point of view based on democratic values.”

Szilvássy was furious at those who dared to criticize his decision on Putin’s award. He instructed his chief-of-staff—because a Hungarian rector does have such a thing—to call in the rebellious “balfácánok” one by one for something that in the 50s was known as self-criticism. The faculty members were smart enough to say “no” to that suggestion. They were, however, ready to meet the dean of the faculty of science and technology, and a time was set for the meeting. But when the 50-60 professors showed up, they were faced not with the dean but with the same chief-of-staff, József Mészáros, whom they had refused to deal with earlier. Mészáros is an old Fidesz apparatchik and a good friend of Lajos Kósa, the former mayor of Debrecen. He gave each person a piece of paper with a number of questions on it, aimed at finding out who the initiators of the “rebellion” were. After the faculty members answered the questions and signed their piece of paper, he was going to have a talk with them, one by one. Well, at that point patience ran out. The professors refused to answer the questions and accused the university’s administration of using 1950s methods. Some tore the piece of paper into bits right there, while others gave it back without signing their names. A member of the department of constitutional law gave a legal lecture to Mészáros, and the former rector expressed his opinion that the questions led him to believe that they want to pin the blame on him and the department heads as the organizers of the protest.

This case lets us see Viktor Orbán’s system more granularly. This is how intimidation works at each level, in each school, in each hospital, in each university, and even in private companies if the boss or the supervisor is a Fidesz man or woman. Fear is spreading, and not without reason.

September 22, 2017

The strangest encounter: Vladimir Putin in Budapest

I believe that in the past I’ve called attention to the troubling fact that the Hungarian public more often than not learns from foreign sources what its own government is up to. This is definitely the case when it comes to Russian-Hungarian relations. The other country that comes to mind is Iran, and I suspect that in both cases there are some weighty reasons for the secrecy.

We have known for some time that Russian President Putin, a black belt judo champion and honorary chairman of the International Judo Federation, was planning to attend the World Judo Championship held in Budapest on August 28, but it was only from a statement issued by the Kremlin that we learned a few hours before Putin’s arrival that it was “at the invitation of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán [that] the head of the Russian state will visit Budapest.” It looks as if, for one reason or another, Orbán didn’t want to publicize the fact that the World Judo Championship was, at least in part, an excuse for the Russian president to make his second visit to Budapest this year. Since 2010 this is Putin’s seventh visit to Hungary. As Péter Krekó, director of Political Capital, noted, Putin visits only dictatorships like Belarus and Kazakhstan that often.

While Putin was in Hungary the Senate of the University of Debrecen bestowed upon him the title of Civis Honoris Causa. Because of Putin’s busy schedule, the honorary degree was handed to him in Budapest. The university awards this degree to individuals for outstanding public and/or artistic achievement. Individuals who contribute in some way to the reputation or the financial well-being of the university are also eligible. Putin allegedly received the award because “both the Hungarian government and the Russian Federation intend to assign an important role to the University of Debrecen in the Paks2 project.” There is apparently an arrangement with Rosatom that the university will create a center to train Hungarian engineers in atomic technology.

The University of Debrecen gave the first such honorary doctorate in 2012 to George Habsburg, the grandson of Charles IV, the last Hungarian king. In 2016 the recipient was Rudolf Schuster, the former president of Slovakia. A couple of days ago László Majtényi, head of the legal think tank EKINT, sarcastically inquired when the university will bestow its fourth Civis Honoris Causa to Recep Erdoğan.

Viktor Orbán and Vladimir Putin at the World Judo Championship

Some time ago the Hungarian government promised 3.5 billion forints for the restoration of Russian orthodox churches. This pleased Putin to no end, but little work has been done on the buildings. A few days prior to Putin’s arrival the government decided to expedite matters by buying the old orthodox church in Tokaj from the municipality for 313 million forints. After this purchase the Hungarian Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church will be able to begin restoration work on the building. The money for the restoration also comes from the Hungarian government.

Political scientists who got together yesterday to discuss Russian-Hungarian relations pretty much agree on what Russia’s foreign policy aims are and how it uses Hungary to achieve its goals: weakening of the European Union and NATO, achieving acceptance of the annexation of Crimea, and ending sanctions against Russia. But when it comes to the question of Hungarian policy toward Russia, the analysts are stymied, mostly because the Orbán government doesn’t communicate in a transparent manner on the subject. They noted that the relationship between Putin and Orbán seems to be close and friendly, although others are convinced that the great friendship between the two leaders doesn’t really exist and that perhaps there is even friction between the two men.

Szabolcs Vörös of Válasz is one of those journalists well versed in foreign affairs who finds this visit worrisome. He called attention to the fact that no statement was released about the visit on the government website. The only notice on the visit was released on August 28 at 2:00 p.m. by MTI, the Hungarian wire service. It quoted the press secretary of the prime minister, who announced that “after the successful Aquatic World Championships another sports event will begin in the Hungarian capital…. The prime minister on the day of the opening and on the following days will have discussions with sports and state leaders, for example with Marius Vizer, the president of the International Judo Federation; with Vladimir Putin, the honorary president of the International Judo Federation and president of Russia; with Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee; and with Kaltma Battulga, the head of the Mongolian Judo Association and president of Mongolia.” Well, if that release isn’t strange I don’t know what is.

There’s no question that the Hungarian government was trying to minimize the visit as much as possible. I am not sure why, but this statement was truly bizarre. Mentioning Putin only after the president of the International Judo Federation and placing his position in the Federation ahead of his political status borders on the ludicrous. The Russian government refused to be a partner in this minimizing game and said that in fact it was the Hungarian government that invited the Russian president to Budapest.

Vörös also noted that the total cost of the Paks project was supposed to be about 12 billion euros, 80% of which, 10 billion euros, would have been covered by the Russian loan. In February, however, during Putin’s last visit, at the joint press conference the Russian president announced that Russia is willing to lend 100% of the cost of the project, “but then we must change certain parts of the contract.” It looks as if these changes have been made because Putin yesterday was talking about a Russian loan of 12 billion euros. Putin has been very eager to get the project underway as soon as possible and has been putting pressure on the Hungarian government, or to be more precise on Viktor Orbán. Some people fear that Putin is in possession of compromising information on Viktor Orbán, which the Hungarian politician certainly doesn’t want to become public knowledge. One thing is sure. Orbán, who before 2010 was a rabid anti-Russian politician, suddenly became a close friend of Vladimir Putin.

Aside from the nagging question of compromising information on Orbán, there is another problem. We know next to nothing about the details of the deal. Who knows what these changes in the contract entail? Why did the two men have to meet, especially since their meeting was extremely short? Why did they arrange this whole charade? We have no idea. In any case, if we can believe Péter Szijjártó, work on the Paks project will begin in January.

August 29, 2017

The Three Seas Initiative and Donald Trump

On June 9 the White House Office of the Press Secretary announced the upcoming visit of President Trump to Poland at the invitation of Polish President Andrzej Duda in advance of the G20 Summit in Hamburg. At the end of the short statement we learned that, in addition to meeting with Duda and delivering a major speech, “he will attend the Three Seas Initiative Summit to demonstrate our strong ties to Central Europe.”

SouthFront: Analysis & Intelligence announced that “this visit deserves to be closely monitored for it will reveal more about the Trump Administration’s foreign policy agenda than his previous actions.” The opinion piece considered Trump’s presence at the Three Seas Initiative Summit especially meaningful since Poland’s current political elite is advancing the idea of Intermarium, a Polish-dominated confederation that would include the Baltic States, Ukraine, and possibly also the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, and Slovenia. It is supposed to serve “as a ‘cordon sanitaire’ against Russia and a counterweight to the power of Germany and the European Union.”

Before we embark on current opinions on the Three Seas Initiative, let’s look at its precedent–Intermarium, or in Polish Międzymorze, between the seas. It was a plan proposed by Józef Piłsudski, an important political figure and military leader of interwar Poland. He envisaged a confederation that, by its third iteration, would have included practically the whole of Central Europe, including Hungary. Nothing came of the plan because there were just too many conflicting national interests at work. In addition, other countries were suspicious of the whole project, which they viewed as an attempt to re-establish the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which in the seventeenth century included half of today’s Estonia, all of Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, the westernmost parts of Russia, and the larger part of Ukraine.

Józef Piłsudski’s Intermarium Plan and its different stages

A revival of the Intermarium project surfaced after the 2014 Ukrainian crisis when the present Euroatlantic arrangement couldn’t prevent the annexation of Crimea and the armed conflict in Donbas. Ukraine and its neighbors were looking for alternative models for regional cooperation. At that time the concept of a modern Intermarium began gaining adherents, among them Polish President Andrzej Duda, who “is attempting to recreate the Polish long-life plan of building a natural defensive alliance among like-minded neighbors in the face of the Russian threat, and with NATO military support.”

Duda looks upon the formation of the Three Seas Initiative (TSI) as his great diplomatic feat. On August 28, 2016 a two-day meeting took place in Dubrovnik, Croatia, which was attended by representatives of 12 countries, including Hungary’s president, János Áder. The Croatian president called the area between the Adriatic, the Baltic, and the Black Sea “the lifeblood of Europe.”

It is the second summit of this group that Donald Trump agreed to attend. Trump’s attendance, according to Wojciech Przybylski writing for Euobserver, will definitely put the spotlight on TSI. It is not impossible that Trump’s Polish visit is intended as “a slight against German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Emmanuel Macron.” In addition, some European leaders fear that the Polish ministry of foreign affairs can’t handle such a diplomatically sensitive visit. There is also the possibility that, after Trump’s visit, the Poles will be even more confrontational than before when dealing with the European Union, Przybylski concludes. Others, like the pro-Russian World Socialist Web Site, use stronger language. They are certain that “Trump’s meeting with the leaders of this alliance is a clear signal that the White House is reintroducing the Intermarium strategy which will exacerbate conflicts with Germany.”

Last December Vit Dostál, writing for visegradplus.org, called the Three Seas Initiative a “pipe-dream coming from Warsaw.” He may have been right because the Polish Gazeta Wyborcza cited at least one Czech diplomat who said that Prague will not attend the Three Seas event because it is far too close to the “concept of Piłsudski.” Sputnik Polska conducted an interview with Adam Wielomski, a Polish political science professor, who considers Trump’s visit to Poland and his presence at the TSI summit “support of Duda’s governing Law and Justice Party and the initiative to forge a Central and Eastern European union.”

The TSI project or, in Hungarian, “Három Tenger Kezdeményezés” was not widely covered in Hungary before the news of Trump’s attendance. MTI reported on the Dubrovnik summit, but no one was really interested in what was described as a round table discussion on energy. On the other hand, in November 2015, at a conference attended by politicians, both Jobbik’s Gábor Vona and LMP’s András Schiffer envisaged Hungary’s future in an East-Central European Union. I have not followed Schiffer’s foreign policy ideas, but Vona’s adherence to such a regional solution didn’t surprise me because a couple of months ago Matthew Kott of New Eastern Europe reported that Intermarium was hijacked by the far right in certain countries of the region.

The only serious Hungarian piece on the Three Seas Initiative and Donald Trump’s decision to attend its summit is by Attila Ara-Kovács, a foreign policy analyst, which appeared a couple of days ago. He is skeptical of the success of Duda’s project and Trump’s power to substantially influence the present geopolitical situation in Europe.

Donald Trump’s visit to Warsaw is fraught with danger. He knows absolutely nothing about the situation in Poland or, for that matter, about the whole complicated region. His visit will give a boost to the present Polish government, which is good neither for the Polish people nor for the people of the European Union.

June 29, 2017

Viktor Orbán’s friends: Vladimir Putin, Recep Erdoğan, and Ilham Aliyev

Yesterday around noon Moscow time the Kremlin published a short announcement regarding a telephone conversation that had taken place earlier that day. It was brief and to the point: Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orbán “discussed current issues on the bilateral agenda, in particular the implementation of agreements reached during the visit to Budapest by the President of Russia on February 2, 2017. The two leaders also stressed the importance of the construction, carried out by Rosatom State Corporation, of two new power units at the Paks Nuclear Power Plant, as well as joint gas projects.” About half an hour later the news of the telephone conversation was also announced in Budapest. It was even briefer than the Russian version. “Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and President Vladimir Putin held a telephone conversation about current questions of Hungarian-Russian bilateral relations.”

Most newspapers and internet sites republished the short MTI announcement without any comment or interpretation. I found only two exceptions. One was 168 Óra, which was certain that it was Viktor Orbán who called the Russian president “only a few hours after he had returned from the NATO summit in Brussels,” implying that perhaps the topic of conversation wasn’t so much Paks, as the Kremlin communiqué claimed. Perhaps Viktor Orbán reported to Putin on his impressions of the NATO summit.

The other was a longer opinion piece by Gábor Stier, Magyar Nemzet’s Russian expert. Stier is a pro-Russian journalist specializing in foreign affairs. As opposed to 168 Óra, he is certain that it was Putin who called Orbán. Stier might be a great friend of Russia, but even he doesn’t believe that the conversation between the two men was about “current bilateral relations.” Putin visited Budapest only a couple of months ago, and about two weeks ago the two men spent some time together in Beijing at the summit of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. Stier also can’t imagine that, now that all the obstacles have been removed to the financing and construction of Paks, the nuclear power plant merited a telephone call.

So, why was such an encounter arranged? Stier believes that the key to the content of the exchange lies in the brief Russian reference to “joint gas projects” which, in Stier’s opinion, is the construction of the “Turkish Stream,” which “would benefit not only Moscow and Budapest but the whole Mediterranean region.” Now that U.S. policy toward Europe is changing and “its relations with Russia may become more pragmatic, there is a chance that Washington will not hinder these plans,” says Stier. In that case, he believes, Berlin will be less antagonistic to the project. Apparently on the same day Putin also phoned Borut Pahor, president of Slovenia, an event that, according to Stier, supports his interpretation of this unexpected telephone conversation between Putin and Orbán. This second telephone conversation, however, was prompted by the twenty-fifth anniversary of diplomatic relations between Russia and an independent Slovenia, which took place on May 25, 1992. I’m therefore less sure than Stier that the phone call had anything to with the pipeline.

Given the paucity of information, all of the above is just conjecture, but the frequency of Putin-Orbán meetings and telephone conversations is striking. So is Orbán’s increasing diplomatic isolation, at least when it comes to Western countries. On the other hand, relations with autocratic countries like Turkey and Azerbaijan are excellent.

Let’s take a look at Turkish-Hungarian relations of late. President Recep Erdoğan was supposed to visit Hungary already in 2016, but the trip had to be postponed because of the Turkish military coup that occurred in July. According to the latest information, the trip might take place soon, to coincide with the opening of the restored “türbe” (tomb) of Gül Baba (d. 1541), a dervish poet and companion of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, which is in the hills of Buda.

There was also at least one telephone conversation between the two men that Orbán initiated. Orbán congratulated the Turkish president on his victory at the polls that made him an autocrat for life. In return, Erdoğan suggested bilateral talks in Beijing at the summit. At that time Erdoğan also invited Orbán to Ankara, which Orbán naturally gladly accepted.

Recep Erdoğan in Budapest in 2013

I might also add that while Orbán often justifies his anti-Muslim stance and Hungarians’ unwillingness to have Muslims in their country by reminding the world of the 150-year occupation of the central part of Hungary by the Ottomans, a veritable love affair is going on between the Hungarian and Turkish governments.

Not too many people are aware of the fact that Suleiman the Magnificent (1494-1566) died during the Battle of Szigetvár in Hungary. His body was taken back to Istanbul to be buried, but his heart, liver, and some other organs were buried just outside of Szigetvár. The Battle of Szigetvár is also an important site for Hungarians, who celebrate the heroism of the captain of the fort, Miklós/Nikola Zrínyi/Zrinski, who also died there. In any case, the Turkish government has generously contributed to archaeological work conducted to find the exact location of Suleiman’s burial. For its part, the Hungarian government is planning enormous busts of both Suleiman and Zrínyi. A rather strange way to commemorate the victory of 20,000 invading Ottoman troops over 2,500 Hungarian-Croatian defenders.

Another politician Orbán has warm relations with is Ilham Aliyev, president of Azerbaijan, who visited Budapest in 2014. Two years later Viktor Orbán and his wife paid a visit to Baku, where the two men agreed to repeat their visits to each other’s capitals. This year it is Aliyev’s turn to visit. Mind you, the Hungarian media had to learn from Azeri sources that their president will visit Budapest in October. Aliyev inherited “the throne” from his father in 2003, and he has been president ever since. This spring Aliyev designated his wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, first vice president. She would replace him in the event of his death. In 2016 at Orbán’s suggestion President János Áder bestowed a high state decoration on Aliyeva.

Putin, Erdoğan, Aliev—these are the people Orbán feels comfortable with. And they are are the ones who are willing to visit the Hungarian capital on a somewhat regular basis. A sad commentary on Hungary’s standing in the world of diplomacy.

May 27, 2017

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

An American LGBT hate group will enjoy the hospitality of the Orbán government

This is not the first time that I’m writing about the World Congress of Families. Through its annual gatherings, each year in a different country, WCF, as it is known in the United States, promotes Christian right-wing family values internationally. WCF was designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center an anti-LGBT hate group in February 2014 based on its involvement in the 2013 Russian LGBT propaganda law.

My earlier piece focused on its congress three years ago. The congress was scheduled to be held in Moscow in the fall of 2014, but then came the annexation of Crimea and several U.S. organizations pulled out of the project. Nonetheless, the congress proceeded as planned. Several leaders of right-wing European parties attended and were among the speakers, people like Aymeric Chauprade (National Front) and Heinz-Christian Strache (FPÖ). Hungary was represented by Gergely Prőhle, who was one of the speakers at the gathering. The journalist for Cink.hu who wrote an article about this far-right gathering was told by the ministry that the Hungarian government doesn’t care who took part in the conference; Prőhle was there to represent the government’s family policy. I should add that the congress issued a manifesto lambasting liberal Europe and calling for a ban on “homosexual propaganda.”

WCF is again in the news, this time for its impending gathering in Budapest between May 25 and May 28. Átlátszó published a lengthy article about the Orbán government’s sponsorship of this year’s conference. I was already stunned in 2014 because I thought that the Hungarian government’s official representation at such a conference was inappropriate. Now, in 2017, the Orbán government is actually organizing and financially supporting the affair. According to the official site, the chief organizer of the event is Katalin Novák, undersecretary for family, youth, and international affairs.

The event’s site explains that “the values of accepting life, undertaking to give birth to and raise children, and families based on the marriage of a man and a woman have been compromised in the past decades but need to be restored in order to implement a sustainable future.” WCF’s goal is the spread of the idea of the “natural family” as opposed to households where children are cared for by single parents or grandparents or are brought up in same-sex marriages. The group is well known for its anti-LGBT propaganda. Its influence is especially strong in Africa, where several countries’ anti-LGBT legislation resulted from WCF’s lobbying efforts. Most notably, it helped inspire harsh anti-LGBT laws in Nigeria and Uganda.

Just last year the director of the National Organization for Marriage, Brian Brown, was elected president of WCF, which was seen as “a logical trajectory for Brown, one of the best-known anti-LGBT activists in the United States.” According to the announcement of his appointment by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Brown over the past few years has gradually refocused his opposition to marriage equality on international work, especially after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality. Brown’s ideas find fertile soil in Hungarian government circles. SPLC gave a good summary of Brown’s ideas and checkered career at the time of his appointment as president of WCF.

Brian Brown, president of WCF / Source: AP Images

WCF’s platform is bad enough. But perhaps even more worrisome is its close cooperation with Russian nationalists, serving Russia’s geopolitical agenda. In fact, the World Congress of Families has its roots in Moscow. In 1995 the leader of an Illinois-based group, the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society, was invited to Russia by two professors at Lomonosov Moscow State University. The three men agreed that unfavorable demographic trends were the result of feminism and homosexuality. So, they came up with the idea of “pro-family” conferences in Europe and Russia and agreed to share their ideas with American evangelical thinkers.

WCF has had its greatest influence in Russia. It has deep ties to the Russian Orthodox Church and the Putin regime. Apparently, WCF has nothing but praise for Vladimir Putin and his policies. One its leaders wrote that Putin “is the one defending laws and morality consistent with the freedom in the U.S. Constitution.” Another leader called Putin “a power player who cares more about Russia’s national interests … than … that mythical force known as world opinion.”

Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBT civil rights advocacy group and lobbying organization in the United States, put together a comprehensive history of WCF, in which a chapter is devoted to Eastern Europe. In the region it was Poland that was most eager to welcome WCF. The Polish government hosted WCF’s annual gathering in 2007, during the brief tenure of Jarosław Kaczyński as prime minister of Poland. The group made its first excursion into Serbia in 2013, where WCF leaders attended an anti-LGBT rally which led to the cancellation of the Belgrade Pride Parade. A year later they organized a regional conference in Kiev. In 2014 a WCF partner, Alliance Defending Freedom, submitted an amicus brief to the Constitutional Court of Slovakia supporting the proposed referendum on a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union between one man and one woman. They are also active in Albania, Latvia, Romania, and the Czech Republic. In Hungary there was no need to lobby for a restriction of the meaning of marriage because the Orbán government incorporated it into the new constitution.

Looking through the very thorough history of WCF by the Human Rights Campaign, I found only two countries outside of Russia–namely, Poland and Hungary–where the organization has received official support. Suggestions by the independent media in Hungary that WCF is actually a homophobic hate organization were swept aside by Zoltán Balog, who is obviously a great supporter of the organization. According to Balog, “all sorts of nonsense has been published about ‘who’s who’ among the participants.” The Hungarian government certainly would not participate in any event that spreads hatred of LGBT people. He proudly announced that at the end of May Budapest will be the capital of families.

Hungary has its own conference on the family, the Budapest Demographic Forum—Families in Focus, which held its first gathering in June 2015. This year the Budapest Demographic Forum will hold its second conference in conjunction with WCF’s annual gathering. The Forum’s keynote speaker will be Viktor Orbán himself. A former Spanish minister of interior and the Croatian and Polish ministers responsible for family affairs will attend. Thus, an allegedly scientific gathering on demographics is subsumed into a four-day WCF extravaganza. Further and further down a very slippery slope.

May 11, 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