Tag Archives: Zoltán Kovács

Wholesale harassment of foreign journalists in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary

Although the transcript of Orbán’s speech about his government’s accomplishments in the last eight years, which he delivered this afternoon, is already available on the prime minister’s website, I will either postpone or perhaps even skip an analysis of it. Instead, today I will cover the muzzling of foreign correspondents who are posted in Budapest.

The phenomenon is not entirely new, but until recently only the government-sponsored media took it upon itself to attack journalists by name, some of whom were actually Hungarian nationals writing for foreign publications. Soon enough, however, Zoltán Kovács, who has the fancy title of Director of the International Communication Office, also entered the fray.

Kovács’s first victim was Lili Bayer, who did an interview with him for Politico in which she lauded Kovács by saying that “if Orbán’s critics, in Brussels and beyond, often seem unable to put a glove on him, it is thanks in large part to Kovács’s mastery of the political spin. He’s won respect, grudging from his detractors, as an effective and tireless mouthpiece of his boss.” But a Twitter comment that Bayer wrote raised the ire of Kovács. Bayer said that the anti-Soros campaign that started in September 2017 was anti-Semitic, and she compared it to the numerus clausus of 1920. Whether this is a correct comparison or not is beside the point. Governments must put up with an awful lot of criticism, some of which might not be fair but must be endured. In most civilized countries the law protects freedom of expression. Officialdom can’t blacklist journalists whose opinions they don’t like. But this is exactly what’s happening in Hungary. Since that incident Bayer is not allowed to attend official functions.

And she is not the only one who has encountered difficulties getting information. Zoltán Kovács admitted in an interview that on the very same day that he accused Bayer of being under the influence of drugs when she wrote her Twitter entry, two other journalists, a German and a Brit, also had to be “disciplined.” And, I’m afraid, the list is growing.

Just today newspapers reported that in the last year fewer articles about Hungary have appeared in the foreign press, but what has appeared has been more critical than previously. Mária Schmidt’s Figyelő accused foreign newspapers of meddling in the Hungarian election campaign on the side of the opposition. Three publications have been singled out: Foreign Policy, The Guardian, and The New York Times. This list, I’m sure, will expand in the coming months because I understand that several important papers that had no special correspondents in the region are planning to send journalists to Budapest. Also, the number of articles dealing with Hungary will undoubtedly multiply in the wake of the scandal created by OLAF’s revelations of widespread corruption linked to the family of Viktor Orbán. No matter how often Zoltán Kovács tells journalists that they are concentrating on unimportant issues instead of reporting the successes of the Orbán government in the last eight years, it is unlikely that critical articles will cease to appear in the foreign press. And if Kovács refuses to have any dealings with those critical voices, soon enough he will not be able to exchange a word with any of the foreign reporters.

Zoltán Kovács has a blog where he comments frequently on domestic and foreign affairs. On February 12 Patrick Kingsley wrote a biting article about Viktor Orbán in The New York Times, calling him one of the modern autocrats. In return, Kovács composed a letter of sorts titled “Dear New York Times: Hungarians are not stupid.” He told Kingsley that what he wrote in his article is actually old hat. Already in 2011 The Guardian was talking about “Hungary’s democratic ‘dictator in the making’ [who] takes center stage in Europe.” Kovács went on about all those articles that complain about the assault on the media, the judiciary, checks and balances, and the constitution. The article is “a classic example of the herd behavior of international journalists writing about Hungary, simply repeating without questioning.” Foreign journalists rely on information gleaned exclusively from spokesmen of the opposition, Kovács claimed. Actually, Kingsley did manage to get an interview with Kovács, but he was the only government official who was willing to talk to him. After this lecture, Kovács told Kingsley what he should have written about. He should have addressed successes like low unemployment, cutting the deficit, reducing the debt, restoring the credit rating to investment grade, and so on. These are the things that affect the lives of Hungarians, not what he and other foreign journalists write about.

Kovács continued: “We look forward to the visit of many international journalists to Budapest in the coming weeks in the run-up to that big day in April. For those journalists, here are a few suggestions. Try not to write your story before you arrive. Set yourself apart from the herd by starting your reporting from a different perspective. Try to answer the fundamental question at play in this election: if Prime Minister Viktor Orbán enjoys such strong popular support (and the opposition such dismal support) that he is predicted to win a third consecutive term, why is that? And if you want to find a thoughtful answer to that question, get out and talk to real people.”

Kovács had scarcely finished his opus to The New York Times when two articles by Jennifer Rankin appeared in The Guardian on February 12 with the telling titles: “How Hungarian PM’s supporters profit from EU-backed projects” and “Orbán allies could use EU as cash register, MEPs say.” By that time, Kovács must have given up because he refrained from delivering another sermon about proper journalistic practices. But The Guardian was already one of the bête noires of the Orbán government on account of an article that appeared on January 11 titled “Viktor Orbán’s reckless football obsession.” It is a lengthy, thorough, beautifully written article that must have made Viktor Orbán and his closest associates extremely unhappy. I heard an interview with György Szöllősi, who is now the editor-in-chief of Nemzeti Sport, Orbán’s favorite sports paper, about the article shortly after it appeared in print. He was very upset about the negative picture of Viktor Orbán that emerged. That is not what they expected, especially after the journalists even had a chance encounter with Viktor Orbán himself, who opened up about his love of the game.

One of the authors of this article was Daniel Nolan, a freelance journalist who has a sterling reputation. He has written for The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, VICE News, Deutsche Welle, and the Blizzard, among others. He writes mainly on Central and Eastern European media, culture, politics, and human rights.  In 2016 he was shortlisted for the 2016 European Press Prize for his article “Spinning the Crisis: How the Hungarian Government Played Europe’s Migrant Influx.” The Orbán government considers Nolan to be a paid propagandist, just as Kovács called Lili Bayer. He is one of those who are now taking part in the election campaign against Viktor Orbán and his government.

What happened to Nolan at János Lázár’s “government info” this past Thursday shows that a journalist doesn’t have to be banned from official government press conferences. It is enough to ignore him because his questions might be embarrassing or because the government bigwigs consider him to be unfriendly.

Mr. Nolan. There is an order of things. The rule is that it is I who calls on you.

Dan Nolan, who is currently working on a piece for Al Jazeera, was unable to get an interview with Zoltán Kovács, so he decided to attend János Lázár’s weekly press conference where Kovács serves as a kind of emcee. It mattered not how hard he tried to get recognized, Kovács ignored him until, I guess out of frustration, Nolan grabbed the mike and began asking a question. Or, rather, tried to ask a question. Kovács immediately intervened. When Nolan insisted, saying that he had only one short question, Kovács indicated that if he doesn’t stop he will be removed from the premises.

After opposition parties called the event “an outrage,” Kovács decided to address a letter to Nolan, whom he mistakenly identified as The Guardian’s correspondent. There are rules, Kovács explained, and “here is a basic one: A journalist who wishes to ask a question requests permission and may pose the question after being granted permission.” So far, one could even agree, but this was not the reason for Kovács’s ignoring Nolan. The problem was that he is “more a partisan activist than a professional journalist. Once upon a time, there was a rule for journalists, part of the code of ethics of the profession, to strive to be objective in covering the news and avoid behavior that would seem partisan or biased.”

Just as in the Lili Bayer case, Nolan is considered to be “a partisan activist” because on Twitter he posted some unflattering comments about the Orbán government. A day later an unnamed author in Magyar Idők explained the situation more fully. “It should be known that Daniel Nolan played the hero in the middle of the migration crisis. He called the reception centers concentration camps.” The powers-that-be have a good memory. They don’t forget and they don’t forgive.

Even old-timer Nick Thorpe of the BBC, who has had the reputation of being far too soft on the Orbán government, complained the other day on BBC Radio 4 that he has been unable to get interviews with government officials. In fact, a day after the Nolan affair he was called in by Zoltán Kovács and was read the riot act about his biased reporting and being a partisan activist. The last time Thorpe, who has been in Hungary since 1988, experienced something very similar, he said, was in the Kádár regime. That’s what Hungary has come to.

If Zoltán Kovács continues his harassment of foreign journalists, I can assure him that the coverage of his country in the international press will be even more critical. With good reason.

February 18, 2018

The Financial Times in the crosshairs of the Orbán government

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fighting Evil

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

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

February 4, 2018

Anne Applebaum’s encounter with Mária Schmidt

In an inversion of normal practice, the transcript of an interview that Mária Schmidt gave to Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anne Applebaum appeared on Schmidt’s blog, Látószög (Viewing Angle). If Schmidt was the interviewee, how could it happen that that she was the one who translated the interview into Hungarian and published it? János Széky, a columnist for Élet és Irodalom, expressed his astonishment on Twitter: “I just don’t get it.” If Applebaum arranges an interview with “Orbánist ideologist Mária Schmidt, spewing govt propaganda, why is it published on Schmidt’s own blog first?” Good question. As far as Anne Applebaum is concerned, the interview, which she initiated, was part of a research project she was planning for next year. In Mária Schmidt’s version, the interview took place because she “wanted to understand the changes in [Applebaum’s] thinking; why the independence and freedom of the region is no longer important to her.”

Schmidt obviously considered the publication of this interview to be politically significant, so she made sure that the right-wing Hungarian media was informed of its impending release. Identical articles appeared in Origo and Pesti Srácok, two of the most extreme right-wing media outlets of the Orbán government, articles which I suspect she herself wrote. Both had the same title: “Mária Schmidt: We are in a war of cultures.” In it we learned that Schmidt and Applebaum used to be good friends, but because Applebaum wrote several articles recently that “attacked the Hungarian government and the region” they became somewhat estranged. She didn’t neglect to mention that Applebaum was the recipient of the Petőfi Prize established by the Public Foundation for the Research of Central and East European History and Society in 2010, when Schmidt was on the board of the foundation. The day after the Origo and Pesti Srácok articles, the official government-edited Híradó, which is distributed to all media outlets, announced the interview’s availability. Naturally, her newly-acquired newspaper, Figyelő, also called attention to it. She made sure that the rather lengthy interview would reach a lot of people.

Anne Applebaum began the interview with her reactions to one of Mária Schmidt’s articles, “The grave digger of the left,” which appeared in April on the same blog in which she published the interview. The grave digger is, of course, George Soros. Applebaum was not exaggerating when she said in the interview that the accusations Schmidt piled on Soros are “absurd”; they have nothing to do with reality. But that’s not the only trouble. As I said in the first installment of my two-part review of this infamous article, “Schmidt’s piece is the result of shockingly bad research” or, even worse, an offering of “alternative historical facts.” There is no need to dissect this deplorable piece of scholarship again, but perhaps a quick read of my summary might be in order.

I must say that I’m not as charitable as Anne Applebaum, who thought highly of Schmidt as a historian, at least until she saw this blog post on Soros. I wouldn’t even call her a historian. She is a propagandist. I have never read anything by her that I consider to be a serious piece of scholarship. She has been working hard for years to come up with an alternative Hungarian history and a newly minted present reality. It is time to give up the idea of finding common ground with the Hungarian far right or, as Anne Applebaum called them, the Hungarian “neo-Bolsheviks.” Almost two years ago, Applebaum gave an interview to a Hungarian journalist whose writings at that time were supportive of the Orbán government. He cornered her at the GLOBSEC Tatra Summit Conference, where she expressed her reluctance to engage in political discussions with supporters of the government who refuse to admit the real nature of the regime. I think her instincts at that time were right. There is no use trying to have a rational conversation with someone like Mária Schmidt.

Anne Applebaum has been under attack ever since her op-ed piece appeared in the November 7 issue of The Washington Post on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. In this article she committed a mortal sin in the eyes of Viktor Orbán’s minions. She included their hero in a group of politicians—Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, and Jarosław Kaczyński—and called them neo-Bolsheviks who “have little to do with the right that has been part of Western politics since World War II, and … have no connection to existing conservative parties.” An accurate description of the current state of affairs.

The Hungarian reaction to this article was swift. Zoltán Kovács, the diligent spokesman for the prime minister’s office, announced that Anne Applebaum is suffering from “irrational Orbanophobia.” Instead of thinking of the one hundred million victims of communism, Applebaum used this date “as an opportunity to disparage democratic political parties and leaders—including Prime Minister Orbán—whom she dislikes, bizarrely comparing them to Bolsheviks.” What a disgrace to call him a neo-Bolshevik when in 1989 he “courageously stood up … to demand that the occupying Soviet troops leave the territory of Hungary.” With this article, Applebaum joins “an illustrious group, including the communist collaborator Paul Lendvai.”

The comments of Kovács were at least halfway civil, which one couldn’t say about the articles in government papers. According to János Csontos, one of the worst of the bunch at Magyar Idők, “if political baseness were part of the Olympic Games, The Washington Post would receive a gold medal” for allowing Applebaum to publish that article. Her epithet for Orbán and his populist colleagues is not the result of “stupid prejudice” and “intellectual torpidity.” Here “a new tortuous ideology is being prepared.” In another article, a right-wing commentator alleged that “Applebaum’s pills have rolled away,” a turn of phrase indicating that the person in question has lost his/her mind. 888.hu described her article as “massive screaming,” a term most often used to describe pigs just before they are slaughtered. Another article, also in 888.hu, described her as a woman prone to hysterics who “since her husband is no longer foreign minister [of Poland], has been like an offended beast of prey that circulates around the world.” The article referred to her as Mrs. Sikorski (Sikorskiné). It described her article in The Washington Post as a piece of “overarching triteness.”

As you can see, the loyal followers have been rushing to the aid of their leader. They are aghast. It is bad enough that some critics call Orbán a populist, a fascist, a Mafioso, but a Bolshevik? I suspect that Mária Schmidt felt compelled to join the choir and come up with a contribution of her own, which just happened to be an interview which wasn’t hers. This interview with Anne Applebaum was the perfect vehicle to show her loyalty to “the anti-communist hero,” as she calls him in the interview whom Applebaum dared to call a neo-Bolshevik.

November 30, 2017

Belligerency rarely works in diplomacy: Hungary and Ukraine

The Budapest Beacon published an article today in which Ben Novák called attention to a brief address by Michele Siders, acting deputy chief of mission and director of the Office of Resource Management at the U.S. Mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). It was a speech to welcome Lamberto Zannier, an Italian diplomat, as OSCE’s High Commissioner on National Minorities. In this speech there was one mysterious paragraph: “We support your comment regarding the need to respect confidentiality in the pursuit of quiet diplomacy. One participating State knowingly misrepresented your recent comments regarding education issues in Ukraine. We are concerned that this does not contribute to the Permanent Council’s goal of rebuilding trust. A statement from your office clarifying your findings on this issue would be helpful.”

What does Siders mean by rebuilding trust among the nations represented by OSCE? In 2016 German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier talked about the necessity of “rebuilding trust among participating States and maintaining efforts for achieving a political solution to the conflict in and around Ukraine.” In her speech Siders said that one of the member states had violated this effort.

Who is that guilty state? I’m afraid it is most likely Hungary, whose foreign minister, Péter Szijjártó, apparently “knowingly misrepresented” Zannier’s comments on the contentious Article 7 of the Ukrainian law on education. Szijjártó was attending OSCE’s Mediterranean Conference in Palermo in late October where, after talking to Zannier, he informed MTI by phone that so far OSCE had been “the most helpful international organization” of those whose assistance Hungary had solicited in connection with the Ukrainian education law, which the Hungarian government finds unacceptable. The statement released by the Hungarian Foreign Ministry indicated that Zannier would soon visit Ukraine, where he would most likely represent the Hungarian point of view on the language issue. Zoltán Kovács, undersecretary for public diplomacy and relations, went even further. In his blog, About Hungary, he stated that “OSCE is throwing its support behind Hungary in relation to Ukraine’s education law.”

But articles that appear on OSCE’s website show that OSCE is taking a much more balanced approach. The High Commissioner is paying attention to concerns expressed by the national minorities, but he “has also taken note of the Ukrainian government’s assessment that the low level of state language knowledge among school graduates … impedes their effective participation in public life.” OSCE apparently “constantly recommended” the adoption of balanced views that would preserve and promote the minorities’ language and identity and, at the same time, would foster the integration of society through the teaching and learning of the state language.

Zannier is trying to mediate between the two sides, but the Hungarian government is unwilling to engage in any dialogue with Ukraine. In the meantime, the other countries involved are already close to an understanding with the Ukrainian government.

Graduation at a Hungarian high school in Ukraine

Although Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin visited Budapest at the beginning of October, the talks with Szijjártó led nowhere. Magyar Nemzet reluctantly agreed to publish an opinion piece by Klimkin in which he asked for “considered dialogue.” He especially called attention to the exodus of young Hungarians from Ukraine because their lack of knowledge of Ukrainian prevents them from entering university. Therefore, they go to study in Hungary where at first they are welcome, but these students most likely will never return to the Subcarpathian region of Ukraine, and this in the long run is not in the interest of Hungary.

Meanwhile, the Hungarian government, this time fully supported by the opposition parties, unleashed irredentist sentiments in far-right circles. Lóránt Hegedűs, a Hungarian Reformed minister, organized a demonstration in front of the Ukrainian embassy in which he demanded “the right of self-determination of the Subcarpathian region.” The region is officially called Zakarpattia Oblast, where only about 12.1% of the population is Hungarian. The Hungarian foreign ministry dutifully informed the Ukrainian Embassy about the impending demonstration, in response to which the Ukrainians asked whether “Budapest is supporting separatism” of the region. Pavlo Klimkin, in a statement of objection, expressed his hope that Hungary will honor the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

The rigid Hungarian attitude has turned even some American conservatives against Budapest. Mike Gonzalez, senior fellow at the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, called on Viktor Orbán to “stop meddling in Ukrainian politics.” Gonzalez approves of Orbán’s policies on migrant issues and praises him for his vigorous defense of his nation’s sovereignty, but “he’s at his worst … when interfering in the self-determination of other sovereign nation-states around him.” According to Gonzalez,“Orbán is stirring up trouble with Ukraine and Romania.” What’s the issue? he asks. “You can put many different names on it—minority rights, multiculturalism, diversity—but some would say it borders on ‘irredentism.’” This article originally appeared in Daily Signal, a publication that is described by the Media Bias Fact Checker as strongly biased toward conservative causes.

I very much doubt that Mike Gonzalez is familiar enough with Hungarian affairs to talk about this issue with authority, but he put his finger on something that is not very far from reality. Tamás Bauer, a sharp-eyed observer of Hungarian politics, sees dual citizenship as “a partial revision” of the peace treaties. Since there is no possibility of territorial revision, Orbán has brought about a “population revision.” I may point out here that Zsolt Semjén, deputy prime minister in charge of national issues, just announced that the number of new citizens has reached one million. That means that about half of the Hungarians living beyond Hungary’s borders have been amalgamated into the Hungarian community.

English-language government publications talk about “cross-border Hungarians,” which is interesting by itself, but the Hungarian designation is even more suggestive. A few years ago the ministry of human resources published a list of designations that must be used and others that must be avoided. Hungarians must call their compatriots not “külföldi magyarok” but “külhoni magyarok.” The former is the mirror translation of the German ausländisch. “Külhoni,” according to the dictionary, means the same thing, except it sounds a bit old-fashioned to my ears. But then why do Hungarians now have to use “külhoni” instead of “külföldi”? I suspect the reason is that “hon” is a somewhat poetic word for “homeland.” Another related word is “otthon,” which means “at home.” Thus these Hungarians don’t live abroad but in a homeland that just happens to be across borders. I know that this distinction might be too subtle and perhaps many people don’t grasp its significance, but I consider it a sign of what’s going on in the Fidesz leaders’ minds.

November 16, 2017

Another European summit, with special attention to the Visegrád 4

The official word sent by the Hungarian government to foreign news agencies about the meeting of the Visegrád 4 prime ministers with President Jean-Claude Juncker over a lavish dinner, which included Jerusalem artichokes and foie gras, was that the meeting was a “success.” Viktor Orbán claimed that the V4 leaders presented a united front on every issue and succeeded in demonstrating to the EC president that the V4 is “a tight, effective, and successful alliance.” It is almost certain that, over and above the migrant issue, the “accelerating drift … toward authoritarianism” in some of the East European countries which most diplomats in Brussels consider “a more serious threat for the EU than Brexit” was also discussed. According to Bloomberg, the dinner “yielded a promise that the commission will seek to build an environment of consensus” between the Visegrád 4 countries and the rest of the European Union.

Source: Népszava / Photo: AFP/Dario Pignatelli

Viktor Orbán, who is capable of staging a fight even with a nonexistent foe, couldn’t go home empty-handed and simply say that the meeting was useful and that he, together with all the others, signed the closing document of the summit. Therefore, the Hungarian government media focused attention on a report by the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee (LIBE) of the European Parliament, which would impose mandatory migrant quotas and strip non-complying member states of EU funding in an effort to revamp the present asylum law. The rapporteur of the report is Cecilia Wikström, a Swedish liberal member of parliament.

What is this new plan all about? It does demand a “permanent and automatic relocation mechanism without thresholds,” calculated on GDP and population size. Refugees with relatives in countries will be able to join them; others will be offered four countries on a rotating basis, from which they can choose one where their case will be decided. As Wikström explained, “it means if the person enters Greece, chooses to go to Hungary, God forbid, then that person is allocated to Hungary.” I’m sure that the committee members spent a great deal of time and effort on this report, but anyone who has been following the ups and downs of the refugee crisis in Europe knows that this plan is dead in the water, especially since the day after it passed Donald Tusk made clear that any and all distribution of the refugees must be voluntary.

The Hungarian government papers are full of stories about the limitless compulsory distribution of migrants, without explaining the status of a parliamentary committee report, which may or may not be approved by the European Parliament. And even if it sails through the plenary session, it must be approved by the European Council, that is, all the heads of governments of the member states, including Viktor Orbán. It was only HVG that pointed out that a committee report means little in the legislative process. Looking upon it as a weighty final decision is just a political ploy. So, Viktor Orbán’s talk about “the bullet already in the barrel,” which will force all countries to accept migrants without limit, merely serves his political agenda. He knows as well as anyone that the general drift of thinking in Europe has been moving away from compulsory quotas and toward effective border control and limited acceptance of bona fide refugees. The European Commission would still like all member countries to participate in the processing of the refugees and their distribution, but only on a voluntary basis.

The closing statement which Orbán signed urges the implementation of Turkey’s acceptance of ineligible migrants; it presses for the strengthening of the EU borders; it doubles efforts at the curbing of human trafficking; it supports easier transfer of information between member states; and, finally, it advocates financial assistance to Libya and other African countries. According to news reports, Viktor Orbán suggested setting up a common fund to assist Italy in the defense of its borders.

The domestic propaganda effort is concentrating on the Wikström report. Zoltán Kovács, government spokesman, was dispatched to the state radio where he assured listeners that “the Hungarian government intends to oppose [the suggestions of the report] by all means possible.” What “LIBE is doing is nothing other than what we call the Soros plan.”

Kinga Gál (Fidesz), one of the deputy chairpersons of LIBE, gave an interview to Magyar Idők in which she called the report a “European invitation to all the migrants of the world.” She added that she hopes that “the European Council will have a sense of responsibility and common sense” and will, if it ever comes to that, refuse to endorse this plan. The Hungarian government still has to struggle “to save a small slice of the country’s national sovereignty.” Orbán described the Wikström report as “the strongest attack against the sovereignty of the country” to date.” National unity would be needed, but “the opposition parties support the migrant policy of Brussels that is based on compulsory quotas,” a false claim, by the way.

What did Viktor Orbán have to say about the Visegrád 4-Juncker dinner? He came to the conclusion that the difference between East and West is “worrisome, almost hopeless” and that “these differences are not so much political in nature but are rooted in cultural differences.” Nonetheless, the meeting was useful because “we could tell Mr. Juncker that we would like to receive more respect for the citizens of the Central European states, including the Hungarians.” Mina Andreeva, spokeswoman of EC President Juncker, called the meeting “friendly and constructive.” As Népszava’s correspondent in Brussels put it, “the president of the European Commission offered compromise and consensus as the main course to the four guests.” Since they agreed to repeat the meetings in the future, I assume the offers were accepted.

Viktor Orbán gave no press conference to the four or five Hungarian reporters who were waiting for him both after the dinner and a day later, at the end of the summit. With his refusal to talk to the reporters, he broke with his past practice of showering reporters with a litany of complaints about the decisions reached or trying to convince them of his own importance during the negotiations. Perhaps his silence indicates a less belligerent stance as far as the European Union is concerned. In any case, his attacks at home this time were directed only against the European Parliament and not against the “Brussels” bureaucrats.

October 20, 2017

Censured journalists: The case of Lili Bayer

On September 5 the notorious 888.hu, one of the many government news sites, published a list of “foreign propagandists” of George Soros. These “foreign propagandists” for the most part are Hungarian nationals who work for various foreign-language media outlets. Some of them earlier worked for left-of-center Hungarian papers, like Népszabadság, Népszava, and Magyar Narancs but now write for the likes of Bloomberg, Reuters, and Deutsche Welle. According to 888.hu, “the international media’s accredited reporters in Budapest also look upon Uncle Georgie as their sugar daddy,” and therefore they ought to be censured.

Seven journalists and a photo journalist were included in this infamous list, among them Lili Bayer, a freelance writer whose articles regularly appear in The Budapest Beacon and the European edition of Politico. Bayer is an American national with Hungarian roots and an advanced degree from Oxford University. She writes from Budapest, although she makes frequent trips to the neighboring countries as well.

888.hu first took note of Lili Bayer in March of this year after her article, “Hungarian law targets Soros, foreign-backed NGOs,” appeared in Politico. 888.hu claimed that she is “ill-informed [and] a news fabricator.” It is unfortunate that she often writes about Hungary, they said, because she has proved many times that she doesn’t have even a basic knowledge of Hungarian politics. She merely transmits “misleading opinions.”

That was the first attack on Lili Bayer but not the last. On March 24 she was again the subject of an article. Here she was described as someone who, “besides poisoning the readers of Politico,” now “hustles Gábor Vona on the largest American Jewish portal.” The reference was to an interview Bayer did with Vona on “the conversion” of Jobbik. But the reason that 888.hu denounced “Soros’s court journalist” this time was her investigative work on Sebastian Gorka’s Hungarian past. 888.hu falsely accused her of not knowing the difference between the Horthy-established Vitézi Rend and Nazism. “The lesson, don’t ever believe anything from a liberal Sorosist.”

The next occasion for an attack came in May when Politico asked Lili Bayer to interview Zoltán Kovács, the Orbán government’s spokesman who specifically deals with the foreign media. In “Orbán’s (big) mouth” Bayer said that “if Orbán’s critics, in Brussels and beyond, often seem unable to put a glove on him, it is thanks in large part to Kovács’s mastery of the political spin. He’s won respect, grudging from his detractors, as an effective and tireless mouthpiece of his boss.” The picture that emerges from this article, I think, is fair. But obviously, Zoltán Kovács was not thrilled because, from that point on, he joined the attacks against Lili Bayer.

After the appearance of this Politico article, it was again 888.hu that led the way with a piece titled “Lili Bayer: The (big) mouth of Soros.” This time, the 888.hu journalist couldn’t come up with a single valid criticism of the article. He quoted a short passage describing Kovács’s way of handling questions: “The crackdown against watchdog NGOs? A fight for transparency. The legislation seemingly targeting the Central European University, an institution funded by the Hungarian-American billionaire and Orbán adversary George Soros? Simply an initiative to ensure equality among universities. The detention of asylum seekers during their application process? A generous offer of shelter and food.” This time the complaint was that Lili Bayer “forgets to suggest an alternative.” Why a journalist describing the manner in which a government spokesman handles questions should offer “alternatives” is beyond me.

The next day István Lovas in his blog wrote a short comment on the interview with the title “Lily [sic] Bayer’s big mug.” He complained that Politico bothered to spend that much time on a government spokesman and accused Bayer of blaming Kovács for doing his job. “One of Lili Bayer’s accusations against Zoltán Kovács is that he faithfully interprets Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s position.”

On the September 5th 888.hu “black list” Bayer is described as someone with Hungarian roots who is a contributor to the European edition of Politico. She was one of the first people to accuse Viktor Orbán of anti-Semitism after Orbán raised his voice against the subversive activities of George Soros. In addition, she published articles in the leading newspaper of the American Jewry, The Forward, in which “interestingly” she conducted an interview with Gábor Vona.

Obviously, as far as the Hungarian government is concerned, anti-Semitism is a sensitive topic. I don’t want to speculate on the reasons for this, although I could offer some plausible explanations. In any case, on September 28 the following exchange took place on Twitter. Lili Bayer wrote: “On September 26, 1920 the Hungarian parliament voted in its first anti-Jewish measures. September 2017: state-funded anti-Semitic campaign.” Zoltán Kovács, who is very active on Twitter, answered with a South Park cartoon: “Drugs are bad M’Kaaay?” which was not left unanswered: “I’m really lost for words now. The spokesman of the government of Hungary publicly accused me of being on drugs because I tweet on politics.”

888.hu, again on hand, this time called Lili Bayer “the number one American journalist of Soros” who dared to talk about the 1920 numerus clausus, but “luckily Zoltán Kovács put the agitprop blessed with modest historical knowledge in her place.” This was followed by a vigorous denial of any anti-Semitism connected to the anti-Soros campaign. Support for 888.hu’s argument in favor of the government’s position came from an article by David Ha’ivri that appeared in the Israeli Jewish Press. It claimed that anti-Soros activity has nothing to do with anti-Semitism.

One would assume that after this exchange a responsible government official would have the good sense to stop this unseemly exercise. But no, both Kovács and his staff seem to be fixated on everything Lili Bayer writes and are intent on keeping the “debate” going. For example, back in August someone from the prime minister’s office accused her of writing about Hungarian politics without knowing a word of Hungarian. She posted a video to her Facebook page in which she proved otherwise. Apparently, an apology followed. But obviously, that was an aberration.

On September 28, the very same day that Kovács responded to her on Twitter, Kovács spent a considerable amount of time Bayer-bashing in an interview with Egon Rónai of Egyenes beszéd. He used the South Park cartoon, he explained, because Lili Bayer is affected by “the drug of calling certain people Nazis and anti-Semites.” He said that “we don’t consider her a journalist but a political activist.” She is coming “from the same universe as George Soros,” which naturally is a cardinal sin for the Hungarian government. Kovács admitted that he had already complained about her to the editor-in-chief of Politico “sometime at the beginning of the year.”

During the conversation it became clear that Lili Bayer is not the only journalist who has crossed Kovács. On the very same day two other journalists had to be “disciplined.” A German and a Brit. They had to be straightened out because, who knows, maybe Kovács will refuse to work with them in the future. The government has already declined to give interviews to certain domestic media outlets or doesn’t allow them to be present at key government functions. Now it seems that Kovács is contemplating extending the ban to certain foreign papers as well. At least this is what his threat of not working with Lili Bayer implies.

September 30, 2017

The Orbán government and its American media supporters

While researching media reactions to Jean-Claude Juncker’s state of the union address, I came across Breitbart News‘s take on the speech, which was illustrated with a photo of Juncker in the company of George Soros. Breitbart, as well as other alt-right publications, are riding high on Soros-bashing. What does Soros have to do with Juncker’s vision for the future of Europe? Nothing. The article otherwise was sprinkled with Nigel Farage quotations. In general, Breitbart News is fascinated with both George Soros and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán.

I also visited Fox News, where I found an elevating article on the same subject titled “EU power grab: A hunk of Junck” by John Moody, executive editor and executive VP of Fox News. This opinion piece is also peppered with Nigel Farage comments, but Moody also devotes considerable space to Viktor Orbán, who called immigration “poison” and a “Trojan horse for terrorism.” Orbán is Moody’s man, someone who “will not bend” no matter how much he is being threatened by the European Union. “Sounds like a tough-talking populist candidate who bucked the political system in the United States last year. Whatever became of him?” he asks mournfully.

If some of the mainstream English-language newspapers spent as much time on Hungary as Breitbart News does, the world would be a great deal better informed about Hungarian reality. Alt-right publications are indiscriminate supporters of the Orbán regime. Here are a few headlines: “Hungary looks to ‘sweep away’ Soros-linked organizations,” “Hungary: Left-wing EU Soros puppets are attacking us for opposing mass immigration,” “Hungarian PM: We won’t let ‘Europe’s kingmaker’ Soros have the last laugh,” just to mention a few. Many of these articles were written by Thomas D. Williams, Ph.D., the Vatican analyst for CBS, who left the priesthood in 2012 after fathering a child. Two days ago he published an article in which he rejoiced over the fact that “Hungary takes NY Times to school on Europe’s migrant crisis.” He is referring to an article Zoltán Kovács wrote as an answer to a New York Times editorial titled “Hungary is making Europe’s migrant crisis worse,” which appeared on September 8.

Kovács’s answer, which appeared on his official website, was subsequently reprinted in several English-language government publications. Williams located it on abouthungary.hu, and he found Kovács’s answer to the “sanctimonious op-ed rife with errors and misconceptions regarding Europe’s migrant crisis and Hungary’s role in protecting Europe’s borders” to be brilliant.

I took a good look at The New York Times editorial and couldn’t find all the errors and misconceptions Williams was talking about. The editorial bemoans the fact that Hungary, which opened its borders in 1989 because it was guided “by generally accepted international principles of human rights and humanitarian considerations” now behaves very differently. The country now refuses to allow refugees even to enter the country, despite the verdict of the European Court of Justice that found Hungary and Slovakia’s refusal illegal. “It is particularly sad to see countries that so poignantly celebrated the lifting of the Iron Curtain now argue, as Hungary does, that being asked to take in a small number of Muslim immigrants is somehow a violation of European laws and values.”

Zoltán Kovács’s response was titled “The New York Times editors really still don’t get it.” Why did Kovács insert the word “still”? Because Kovács already wrote a letter to The New York Times: “Dear New York Times Editors: You just don’t get it, do you?,” which Breitbart News faithfully reported on at the time. His objections to the Times’s editorial are numerous. He questions the assertion that East European countries “have stubbornly blocked entry to refugees.” He objects to the description of Viktor Orbán as a “hard-liner,” and he bristles at calling Orbán’s demand for EU reimbursement of half of the cost of the fence Hungary built to keep the refuges out “arrogant.” The overarching problem with the editorial, Kovács asserts, is that the editors simply don’t understand the European migrant situation. As he puts it, “Admittedly, it’s not easy to grasp this ‘indisputably difficult problem’ from the comforts of Midtown Manhattan.” However, Kovács is ready to share “some basic facts”–for example, that “Hungary is securing an external border of the 510 million-strong European community,” which is “a meaningful demonstration of [Hungary’s] solidarity.” He objects to the editorial’s references to international law and European values that “appeal to the ‘limousine liberal’ readership of the Times” because there is no international law, no European treaty that gives Brussels the authority to decide on immigration. Kovács closes his response with these ringing words: “As the government responsible for the safety and security of Hungarian citizens—as well as the citizens of Europe—we will not apologize for continuing to assert our right to make our own decisions on immigration and to keep Europe’s borders strong.”

Although Kovács thoroughly dissected the text, he ignored the editorial’s reference to “Hungary’s callousness.” Perhaps he decided to ignore the affront since the treatment of refugees in Hungary is widely known to be glaringly inhumane. Unfortunately, it is not only officials who treat them abominably; ordinary citizens also often show them no mercy. Perhaps you recall Index‘s report on an Iranian-Afghan couple with their three children and a fourth on its way. I told their story in a post titled “Life in the Hungarian transit zones” about a month ago. In this particular instance the husband didn’t get any rations because he had gone through Hungary once on his way to rescue his family in Macedonia. The sequel to their story was just published, which is every bit as heart-wrenching.

The Iranian-Afghan couple at the EU-financed refugee camp

After months of imprisonment in the transit zone came a surprising development: the family received asylum. They could go to a refugee camp in Hungary and be safe but outside of the transit zone they continued to receive harsh treatment. One has the distinct feeling that this behavior is intended to encourage even those who receive asylum to move on. For example, throughout the long trip the officers didn’t allow the couple to have baby formula on hand. As a result, the ten-month-old baby cried bitterly for hours. The husband was forbidden to accompany his wife to the gynecologist, although she doesn’t speak any English. They asked for an interpreter; their request was denied. As for the behavior of ordinary Hungarians, the poor man had another bad experience. He and one of his children, who had cut his hand, were taken to the hospital in Győr (18 km away), but they had to take the bus back to the camp. He gave the driver 5 euros since he had no forints. The driver took the money but wouldn’t allow them on the bus. It took them three hours to walk back to the camp.

Two days after he told his story to the reporter, the family was already in Germany. He is certain that he will not be deported back to Hungary because “people abroad know how Hungarians treat the refugees. The European Court of Justice decided in our favor twice. I have the decisions on my phone. If I tell them what treatment we received here, they will not send us back.” And, indeed, Germany hasn’t sent any refugees back to Hungary since April 11. Defending the borders of Europe is one thing, cruelty is another.

September 15, 2017