Tag Archives: Zoltán Kovács

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

Infringement proceedings galore, but what good will they do?

Lawyers working on infringement proceedings launched by the European Commission against the Hungarian government must have been especially busy in the past few months. Yesterday the Orbán government received notices of three such infringement proceedings. Although infringement proceedings against Hungary are numerous, I have the feeling that three notices in one day is a record of sorts. One is a “letter of formal notice” and two are “reasoned opinions.”

Notices that bear the odd name “reasoned opinions” represent the second stage in the infringement proceedings. In these cases the European Commission had already sent a”letter of formal notice” concerning a piece of legislation but found the corresponding answers to their objections unsatisfactory. If the answers to the reasoned opinion are still unsatisfactory, the case will go to the European Court of Justice.

I will start with the odd man out here: the reasoned opinion concerning restrictions on loss-making enterprises in the retail sector. You may recall that recent Hungarian law prohibits supermarkets to continue operation if they operate at a loss for two consecutive years. Not surprisingly, the Commission considers such a measure unacceptable because it runs counter to “the freedom of establishment and the principle of non-discrimination” (Article 49 TFEU) and “the free movement of capital” (Article 63 TFEU). Hungary has two months to respond.

Although this is a horrendous piece of legislation and one very much hopes that it will be abolished one way or the other, it is taking back stage to the two other infringement proceedings. The first, another reasoned opinion, concerns the Higher Education Law, which as amended on April 4, 2017 in practical terms makes the continued existence of Central European University (CEU), founded by George Soros, impossible. The other infringement proceeding, this one a letter of formal notice, addresses the law, adopted on June 13, dealing with foreign-funded NGOs.

The European Union is often accused of dilatoriness, but this time such criticism cannot be leveled against “the bureaucrats of Brussels,” as Viktor Orbán likes to call the officials and politicians of the European Union. They acted quite promptly. In the case of the Higher Education law, the note the Orbán government received is a reasoned opinion and the Hungarian government has only one month to respond instead of the customary three. As for the foreign-funded NGO case, it took the EC only one month to send out a letter of formal notice. Again, the Hungarian government has only one month to respond. Zoltán Kovács, who is in charge of foreign communications, has already complained bitterly about the unfair treatment Hungary received in these cases because of the very short time limit given.

So, let’s see what the EC’s objections are to the amendment of the Higher Education Law. In the opinion of the European Union, “it is incompatible with the freedom for higher education institutions to provide services and establish themselves anywhere in the European Union.” In addition, it “runs counter to the right of academic freedom, the right to education and the freedom to conduct a business as proved by the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and the Union’s legal obligations under international trade law.”

The law on foreign-funded NGOs introduces new obligations for certain categories of NGOs, for example, to register and label themselves as “organizations supported from abroad.” Again, in this case the European Commission decided that this law doesn’t comply with EU law. (1) It interferes with the right to freedom of association. It could prevent NGOs from raising funds and would therefore restrict their ability to do their work. (2) The law introduces unjustified and disproportionate restrictions to the free movement of capital. (3) It raises concerns as regards the respect of the right to protection of private life and personal data. In plain language, the exact amounts of transactions and detailed information about donors would have to be reported to the Hungarian authorities, which in turn would make the data public.

Anyone who thought that the Orbán government would be terribly impressed by the legal arguments outlined above would be wrong. Zoltán Kovács told Politico that “we, of course, maintain our position.” If necessary, the government will go to court. Politico also got in touch with Márta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, who correctly pointed out that “infringement procedures alone are inadequate to redress the combined impact of retrogressive reforms that have taken place since 2010.” The European Parliament would need to vote on an appropriately damaging report which, if passed by two-thirds of the European Parliament, could trigger Article 7(1), which would result in the withdrawal of Hungary’s voting rights.

The Hungarian government’s response to these latest infringement proceedings is defiance. Pál Völner, undersecretary in the ministry of justice, said that “the government is ready to face infringement proceedings with relation to the NGO Act. These are organizations that want to weaken Hungary’s defense capabilities in the fight against illegal immigration.” The charge that organizations like Transparency International or the Hungarian Helsinki Commission want to weaken Hungary’s defense capabilities is of course nonsense. The Hungarian government wants to curtail their activities because it considers them opponents of the Orbán government’s unlawful modus operandi.

Márta Parvadi is right: the Orbán government cares not one whit about all these threats of legal proceedings under the aegis of the European Court of Justice. Viktor Orbán doesn’t mind paying fines, even heavy fines. For political gain he has no compunctions about spending billions of forints of the Hungarian taxpayers’ money. That’s why the only hope of the anti-Orbán forces is that the European Parliament report that may trigger Article 7(1) will be prepared soon. Well, there is good news on this front. On July 11 Judith Sargentini of the Greens/EFA was appointed rapporteur for the European Parliament’s investigation into whether Hungary is in breach of the values of the European Union. But more about that tomorrow.

July 14, 2017

Viktor Orbán’s next victims: The civic organizations

The Orbán government, at least on the surface, is not intimidated by the growing criticism of and demonstrations against its hurriedly accepted amendments to the law on higher education, which makes Central European University’s life in Hungary impossible. On the contrary, Zoltán Kovács, spokesman for the Hungarian government, attacked those who raised their voices in defense of the university. For example, when Ulrike Demmer, deputy spokesman of the German government, expressed her government’s concern over the amendments, Kovács fired back, saying that it looks as if George Soros can mislead even the German government with his lies. He also called it regrettable that a serious and responsible government such as the government of Germany would make such a statement.

In addition to its legislation against CEU, the Orbán government decided to proceed with its long-planned move against those civic organizations that receive financial assistance from abroad. I began collecting information on this issue sometime in February when I spotted a statement by László Trócsányi, minister of justice. He accused the NGOs of being political actors without any legitimacy as opposed to parliament, which is elected by the people. Soon enough Viktor Orbán himself attacked them. By late March the situation seemed grave enough for a group of scholars from the United States and Great Britain to sign a statement, “No to NGO crackdown in Hungary.” What was remarkable about this statement was that a fair number of the signatories came from decidedly conservative organizations and think tanks, like the American Enterprise Institute, the Hudson Institute, the Atlantic Council, and the Adam Smith Institute. Their concern didn’t impress Viktor Orbán, who in Warsaw at the summit of the Visegrád Four countries accused the NGOs of being in the “migrant business,” which would require new regulations to ensure the “transparency” of their finances.

One didn’t have to wait long for follow-up action. On April 2, 444.hu obtained a copy of a proposal that would regulate all NGOs that receive foreign financial support. The reason given was long-winded and confused. Basically, the government was afraid that foreign interest groups might be able to influence Hungarian civic organizations to perform tasks that don’t serve the interests of the community but only the selfish interests of these foreign groups. Foreign-funded NGOs thus “endanger the political and economic interests … sovereignty and national security of Hungary.” For good measure, the proposed bill cited the danger of money laundering, financing extremist groups, and lending a helping hand to terrorists. The complete text of the draft can be read here.

HVG, with the help of its legal experts, took a quick look at the draft and decided that the bill in its present form doesn’t make the affected NGOs’ existence impossible. It is just nasty and humiliating. One of the humiliating items is that every time associates of these NGOs make a statement, give an interview, or provide informational material they must identify themselves as representing “an organization supported from abroad.” The experts decided that this is not as bad as the original idea, which apparently would have called the associates of these organizations “foreign agents.”

Spokesmen for these organizations were not as optimistic as HVG’s legal experts. According to Amnesty International, this new law can have the same devastating effect as the Russian law had after its introduction. Áron Demeter, Amnesty International’s human rights expert, considers the proposed bill a serious violation of the right of association and freedom of expression. Márta Pardavi of the Helsinki Commission regards the notion of “foreign subsidy” far too vague. It looks as if even EU grants are considered to be foreign subsidies and would thus be viewed as “foreign interference” that endangers Hungary’s national security. Or, there is a fund that was created from the budgets of the foreign ministers of the Visegrád Four countries. Is this also considered to be “foreign money”? She noted that churches and sports clubs are exempt from any such restrictions. Political think tanks and media outlets that also receive sizable amounts of money from abroad are exempt as well, although, as Pardavi rightly points out, they have a more direct influence on politics than, for example, the Helsinki Commission.

As it stands now, any civic organization that receives more than 7.2 million forints (about $25,000) a year from outside of Hungary must describe itself as an “organization supported from abroad.” Each time an organization receives any money from abroad, it must report the transaction to the courts within 15 days. The details of each organization’s finances will be listed on a new website called Civil Információs Portál. If an organization misses this deadline it can be fined and, in certain cases, can be taken off the list, which means that it will be shut down for at least five years.

Gergely Gulyás, one of the deputy leaders of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation, invited all those parties that have individual caucuses for a discussion of the bill. At the meeting, held this afternoon, it became clear that none of the opposition parties wants anything to do with the bill, which will be submitted to parliament this week. Even Jobbik said “no” to the proposal. As Gulyás Gergely said after the meeting, “George Soros’s hands even reached as far as Jobbik.” As the Fidesz statement insisted, “every Hungarian must know who George Soros’s men are; what kind of money and what kinds of interests are behind these organizations supported from abroad.” The bill will be voted into law before the week is out.

But, as 444.hu pointed out, by attacking the NGOs the Orbán government is treading on dangerous ground because Hungary in 1999, during the first Orbán government, signed the Charter for European Security of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. In the charter we find the following: “We pledge ourselves to enhance the ability of NGOs to make their full contribution to the further development of civil society and respect for human rights and fundamental freedom.” 444.hu predicts that this piece of legislation, if passed, will prompt even greater protest in Europe and the United States than the Hungarian government’s action against CEU.

Given Hungarian political developments in the last seven years, I assume it doesn’t come as a great surprise that one of the key findings of Freedom House’s “Nations in Transit 2017” is that, with regard to democracy, “Hungary now has the lowest ranking in the Central European region,” behind Bulgaria and Romania. The trajectory of Hungary’s fall from grace is shown below.

April 5, 2017