Tag Archives: Zoltán Kovács

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

The Hungarian government’s flouting of European law and human rights

Two weeks ago the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) handed down a decision that may affect part of Viktor Orbán’s solution to the refugee crisis. He might not be able to continue incarcerating asylum seekers in so-called transit zones.

Hungarian civil rights activists were encouraged by the Court’s decision, especially since the latest amendments to the Law of Asylum, passed not long ago by the parliament, envisaged these container transit zones as the sole means of handling asylum applicants. In fact, it was today that the amended law came into effect.

After ECHR’s ruling, the leaders of the government parties began suggesting in all seriousness that Hungary should simply suspend its adherence to the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, originally adopted in 1950. This is not a joke, just as it is not a joke that Hungary is pursuing the issue of the red star on bottles of Heineken beer. Both are hopeless efforts by a government that is acting even more strangely of late than it normally does.

A week ago Monday, Imre Vejkey (KDNP) began the attack on the Convention: “Now is the time to think about terminating Hungary’s adherence to the Convention or at least suspending some of its provisions.” On Thursday János Lázár said at his press conference that the government considers the verdict “unacceptable and impossible to implement.” Although the decision was unanimous and the Court is unlikely to reverse itself, the Hungarian government insists on appealing the judgment. By Friday Zoltán Kovács, the government spokesman, announced on ATV that “the ministry of justice will have to examine what kinds of obligations” Hungary has under the terms of the Convention. On Sunday Lajos Kósa, the leader of Fidesz’s parliamentary caucus, said that if Strasbourg continues criticizing Hungary’s migrant policies “we must relinquish” our adherence to the treaty. He even accused the Hungarian Helsinki Commission of “profiting from the migrant crisis at the expense of the Hungarian government.” He was alluding to the fact that the Court, in addition to the 5.8 million forints awarded to each of the refugees, granted 2.7 million forints to the Hungarian Helsinki Commission for their work on the case.

Együtt, one of the smaller opposition parties, compiled a list of what Hungarians would be deprived of if Hungary turned its back on the Convention and consequently on the Council of Europe. The list is long: right to equality; freedom from discrimination; right to life, liberty, personal security; freedom from slavery; freedom from torture and degrading treatment; right to remedy by a competent tribunal; freedom from arbitrary arrest and exile; right to a fair public hearing; right to be considered innocent until proven guilty; right of free movement in and out of the country; right to asylum; right to own property; right to education. And we could continue. But Lajos Kósa sees no problem whatsoever with the suspension of the Convention because “in Hungary it is not the legal force of ECHR that guarantees human rights but the Hungarian Constitution and other international treaties.”

This is all just talk. The consequences of such a move would be so severe that no country, especially a member of the European Union, could seriously entertain it. The very first consequence of such folly would be a loss of membership in the Council of Europe. That in turn would result in serious conflict with, or even expulsion from, the European Union. So, Kósa can demand all he wants that the government in the name of Fidesz suspend adherence to the Convention. Nothing of the sort will happen. After all, in Europe there are only three countries that are not signatories: the Vatican, Kosovo, and Belarus.

As for the Hungarian Helsinki Commission, Márta Pardavi, co-chair of the organization, doesn’t seem to be at all frightened by the threats made by the government against the institution as a beneficiary of the migrant business. She reminded Kósa of the kind of business the Hungarian government is conducting via the settlement bonds, sold to thousands of people for 300,000 euros each. So, Kósa should not accuse others of financial gain from the miseries of refugees. (Of course, there are refugees and “refugees,” with staggeringly different levels of misery.) As for the 2.7 million forints for legal fees, she finds the amount perfectly reasonable. Unless she hears something similar from the government itself, she considers Kósa’s semi-incoherent words on the subject mere “political rant.”

The government is remaining quiet for the time being. But its actions show that it was’t impressed with the Court’s verdict or with the Hungarian Helsinki Commission’s repeated assertion that the government’s latest law on asylum is illegal not just according to the Court in Strasbourg but also according to the Hungarian Constitution. The Hungarian Helsinki Commission again had to turn to ECHR on Friday in order to put an immediate stop to moving a pregnant woman from Uganda and eight refugee children who had been housed in Fót to the transit zone near the Serbian border. The woman had been a victim of torture and is currently suffering from psychological trauma. As far as I know, the government refrained from the forcible removal of these people, at least for the time being.

It looks like a lecture to me / Source: Népszava / Photo József Vajda

Meanwhile Dimitris Avramopoulos, EU commissioner for migration, arrived in Budapest to conduct negotiations with Sándor Pintér, minister of the interior, and László Trócsányi, minister of justice. Avramopoulos’s job was to drive home to Budapest that all member states must comply with the Union’s rules and that human rights is one of the basic principles that must be adhered to. At the end of the negotiations it was announced that a working group will be formed to examine whether the Hungarian law infringes on the laws of the European Union. According to legal scholars, it unquestionably does. It would be time for the European Union to put an end to the Hungarian government’s games because nothing good can come of them as far as the future of the Union is concerned.

March 28, 2017

The Hungarian government was caught again: Police brutality was not fake news

Two days ago I quotedThe New York Times editorial that harshly condemned the Hungarian government’s inhumane treatment of the refugees. The Orbán government never leaves such criticism unanswered. In the past ambassadors or government spokesmen responded directly. This time, however, Zoltán Kovács, head of the international communication office, chose a different route. He published an article on an English-language site called About Hungary, which is pretty clearly the product of his own office. By the way, the amount of propaganda aimed at foreign audiences is staggering. There is already an internet website called Hungary Today, which is allegedly a privately funded publication but in fact is being financed by the government. Just today I learned of a publication called Globe’s Magazine, allegedly published by a company called Globimpex. As far as I can ascertain, it is actually financed by the Hungarian ministry of foreign affairs and trade.

The content of About Hungary deserves further investigation, but for the time being let’s just concentrate on Kovács’s answer to The New York Times. In the article Kovács explains to the editorial board of the paper that they don’t know what they are talking about. He assumes total ignorance on the part of Americans, who need to be told that inside the Schengen Area freedom of movement across borders of member states is unrestricted. “You’ll never hear [the word] terrorism from The New York Times and their ilk. Yes, it’s politically incorrect, but it’s today’s reality.” This last sentence in particular was music to the ears of the editors of Breitbart News. They promptly published practically the whole letter. In this way, given the large readership of Breitbart, Kovács’s lecture to the ignorant liberals who don’t want to talk about terrorism received a wide, and I assume receptive, audience.

Interestingly enough, Kovács didn’t try to deny the cruel treatment of the refugees. On the contrary. “It is easy to be charmed by the human rights nonsense when you’re penning editorials from an office in Midtown Manhattan. But we’re running a government responsible for the safety and security of our citizens—as well as the citizens of Europe—on the front lines of this crisis, and we see this struggle differently.”

This was not the earlier position of the government. On March 7 György Bakondi, Viktor Orbán’s adviser on internal security issues, gave an interview to ATV in which he denied any police abuse of the refugees at the Serbian-Hungarian border. During fairly aggressive questioning by Egon Rónai, Bakondi exclaimed: “Can you imagine that our soldiers and policemen beat these people? Can you imagine that our men lie? Dog bites? There are dogs but they all have muzzles on. Don’t we trust our own soldiers?” They know nothing about any abuse ever happening at the border and therefore there is nothing to investigate, Bakondi announced.

A couple of days later János Lázár and Zoltán Kovács at their joint Thursday performance repeated the same line. They categorically denied any wrongdoing on the part of either the policemen or the soldiers. It’s the refugees who lie. Viktor Orbán basically said the same thing during the press conference he gave in Brussels when he claimed that “we don’t know anyone who became injured in the territory of Hungary.” All injured persons were registered in Serbia. The media again wants to “confuse the policemen and the soldiers.”

A telling drawing by a refugee / Source: migszol.com

It was inevitable that the truth would emerge sooner and later. In fact, on the very next day Magyar Nemzet learned from the chief prosecutor’s office that since September 2015, 44 abuse cases had been reported, most of which were dropped “in the absence of a crime.” In five cases the police are still investigating. Who reported these cases? Sometimes the plaintiffs themselves or their lawyers. Doctors Without Borders reported at least nine cases, the United Nations Refugee Agency presented at least one case, and even the Hungarian police came forward with a number of cases. I assume in this last category a superior officer reported on a subordinate.

Once Magyar Nemzet was on the case, they kept going. The paper soon found out that at least two policemen were convicted in an accelerated procedure of abusing immigrants on the southern border. One of them was fined 130,000 forints, which, given these policemen’s salaries, is a fairly hefty sum. This particular brave policeman, of whom we should be proud according to Bakondi, fired teargas straight into the faces of refugees who were standing on the Serbian side of the fence. His excuse was that the refugee in question was hurling abuse at the policeman’s family and “behaved in a threatening manner.” I guess from across the fence. Moreover, given the language skills of the Hungarian police, the story doesn’t ring true.

The other case was even more serious. This particular police sergeant was found guilty of maltreatment and assault of a refugee, who happened to be sitting on the ground. Without any provocation, the policeman kicked the man’s face with his right knee. He was fined 300,000 forints. So much for the gallant Hungarian policemen Bakondi talked about. And so much for the trustworthiness of the Hungarian government and its spokesmen.

The cruel treatment of refugees The New York Times’s editorial wrote about isn’t limited to physical abuse at the border. It extends to the treatment of those few refugees who have received asylum in Hungary. The Orbán government’s chief argument against accepting Middle Eastern and North African refugees is their radically different culture and religion, which prevents their integration into the European majority culture. The two don’t mix. The Hungarian government certainly makes these people’s integration as difficult as possible. Without some initial assistance, integration will not take place easily. The refugees need shelter, some clothing, and, most important, language instruction. As long as they cannot communicate, they cannot find a job. But since June 2016 the government provides none of the above. Prior to that date a legal immigrant received a monthly stipend and some rudimentary language instruction. Right now they get nothing. Some of them must sleep in homeless shelters where they are not welcome. In this way the Orbán government can prove a point: they cannot learn the language, they don’t even want to, and naturally they don’t want to work.

I did hear about a language course offered by a Hungarian Reformed group. The Hungarian Catholic Church, however, has no intention of lending a helping hand to these poor people. The one notable exception is Miklós Beer, bishop of Vác. He suggested that each family that can afford it should “adopt” a refugee, whom they would help get through the first difficult months. He himself took in two young men. His fellow bishops are horrified. And the government newspaper, Magyar Idők, published an editorial in which György Pilhál, one of the most objectionable hacks in the government propaganda machine, intimated that the bishop must have been drunk to have suggested such an unheard-of act. The title of his piece was “I hope it wasn’t the wine for mass.” It seems that this was too much even for Magyar Idők, whose editor-in-chief apologized a week later.

All in all, Hungary’s treatment of the refugees, both those who are already inside the country and those who are locked up in the transit zone, is shameful. There is no other way of describing it.

March 17, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 2, 2017

Hungary has been steadily becoming more corrupt

Here we go again. Transparency International’s (TI) 2016 report has been published and, as usual, the message to the Hungarian government was not complimentary. Hungary’s rating dropped under the psychological level of 50, coming in at 48 points. Of the 28 member states of the European Union, Hungary is one of the five most corrupt. Hungary is tied with Romania. But while the Romanians’ efforts to curb corruption have propelled the country to increasingly better scores since 2013, Hungary’s numbers have been declining since 2012, when its score was 55. Admittedly, corruption in Italy, Greece, and Bulgaria are even greater than in Hungary, but surely that is no reason to rejoice, especially since outside of Europe Hungary is in the company of countries like Jordan, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Montenegro, and Oman. The most detailed analysis of the part of the report that concerns Hungary was published in napi.hu.

In the introduction to the report, the editors emphasized that “this year’s results highlight the connection between corruption and inequality, which feed off each other to create a vicious circle between corruption, unequal distribution of power in society, and unequal distribution of wealth.” They further stressed that “the interplay of corruption and inequality also feeds populism. When traditional politicians fail to tackle corruption, people grow cynical. Increasingly, people are turning to populist leaders who promise to break the cycle of corruption and privilege. Yet this is likely to exacerbate—rather than resolve—the tensions that fed the populist surge in the first place.” In the wake of Donald Trump’s victory, Transparency International published a detailed analysis of “Corruption and Inequality: How Populists Mislead People.”

The reason that I called attention to TI’s emphasis on populists who after acquiring power become themselves beneficiaries of corruption is because it seems that the Orbán government has taken TI’s severe criticism of populist duplicity as proof of its disapproval of their own system. At least this is what I sense from reading Magyar Idők’s touchy reaction to TI’s references to populism and corruption. Clearly, the government was mighty upset over the direct references to Hungary and Turkey, where after the introduction of populist-led governments corruption grew substantially.

Magyar Idők tries to make light of the changes in Argentina where, according to the article, “after the fall of the populist government, miracle of miracles, thanks to the blissful activities of the new liberal leadership the corruption situation has improved.” I assume that no one who is familiar with the Hungarian government’s truthfulness will be surprised to learn that this is not at all what TI’s report said about the Argentine situation. TI reported: “Recently elected President Pauricio Macri said in his inauguration speech that he ‘will be implacable with corruption.’ He has made the fight against corruption a top priority for his administration. In order to fulfill this promise the new government must urgently implement laws and reforms to improve transparency, accountability, and oversight of public institutions.” A far cry from Magyar Idők’s version.

And while we are on the topic of the Orbán government’s fabrications, we might as well point out another falsehood in the very same article. According to Magyar Idők‘s headline, Transparency International is “Soros’s organization.” It is true that in the body of the article this claim becomes less categorical. There the paper describes TI as an organization that is “also supported by George Soros.” So, I became curious about the financial backers of TI. I can assure you that the list is very long. It begins with a large number of government agencies, like the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Australia, the German Foreign Office, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (UK), and the US Department of State. (I wonder how long Trump’s State Department will contribute to TI. I have the feeling not for long.) There are also several multilateral institutions that support TI, like the European Commission and several offices of the United Nations. Ten foundations support TI, among them–yes–Soros’s Open Society Institute Foundation and the Open Society Initiative for West Africa. In addition, five corporations, including Siemens, Shell, Ernst & Young, and PriceWaterhouseCoopers, are contributors. So much for TI being Soros’s organization.

The Orbán government pretends that it doesn’t take TI’s report seriously. How can TI dare to pass judgment on Hungary year after year when they themselves, “as we learned from Szilárd Németh,” are afraid of transparency? How can anyone believe TI’s reports when “left-liberal leaders of the financial elite praise” the World Bank’s efforts at curbing corruption? “Is it possible that these people take part in discussions where Christine Lagarde, who narrowly escaped her scandalous corruption case, is also present?” Moreover, the article gleefully says, Zoltán Kovács, the government spokesman, was on target when he pointed out that Transparency International never bothered to unearth the rampant corruption that existed during the socialist-liberal governments prior to 2010.

Of course, Zoltán Kovács, as is his wont, didn’t tell the truth. Already in 2008 TI was talking about the growth of “institutionalized corruption in Hungary,” although at that point it considered “bribery more as a byproduct of democracy rather than its fundamental characteristic.” In fact, both Mihály Varga, minister of national economy today, and Viktor Orbán, then leader of the opposition, quoted the report of Transparency International as proof of the existence of rampant corruption in Hungary. Orbán learned from the report that “Hungary loses 200 billion forints every year due to the corruption that exists in public procurement cases.”

József Péter Martin, executive director of Transparency International Magyarország (TIM), called attention to the harmful effect of corruption on the national economy. He noted the significant overlap between the most competitive countries and the least corrupt countries. Similarly, corruption and reduced competitiveness are often correlated. Even as Hungarian corruption has increased, the country’s competitiveness has been sliding in the past few years. In 2001, Hungary was twenty-first on the list of the World Economic Forum. Today it occupies the sixty-ninth place.

But never mind, the Hungarian government has no incentive to clamp down on corruption, since its politicians and friends are the main culprits. The mafia state is doing well.

January 26, 2017

Viktor Orbán is back: his views on migrants, NGOs, and the Trump administration

In the last two days Viktor Orbán gave a short speech and a longer interview. He delivered his speech at the swearing-in ceremony of the newly recruited “border hunters.” It was exclusively about the dangers migrants pose to Hungary and Hungarians. The interview was conducted by one the “approved” state radio reporters and ranged over many topics. I decided to focus on two: the Orbán government’s current attitude toward non-governmental organizations and the prime minister’s thoughts on the coming Trump administration.

The migrant question

A few days ago we had quite a discussion about the Hungarian penchant for viewing Hungary as the defender of the West, the protector of Christianity during the expansion of the Ottoman Empire. In the last few decades Hungarian historians have done a tremendous amount of work on Hungarian-Ottoman relations, and today we have a very different view of this whole period than we had even fifty years ago. First of all, scholars no longer believe the traditional story of Hungary as a bulwark of European civilization against the Porte. Yet the traditional interpretation of Hungary’s role prevails, and since the beginning of the refugee crisis it has been recounted repeatedly, largely because the Orbán government can use the historical parallel to its advantage.

It was therefore no surprise that Viktor Orbán’s address to the border hunters began with this theme: “you today swore to defend the borders of Hungary, the security of Hungarian homes. With this act you also defend Europe, just as has been customary around here in the last 500 years. To protect ourselves and also Europe: this has been the fate of the Hungarian nation for centuries,” he told his audience.

Although this is certainly not the first time that Viktor Orbán has announced that, as far as he is concerned, all those millions who in the last two years or even before arrived on the territory of the European Union are “illegal immigrants” who “cannot be allowed to settle in Europe,” this is perhaps the clearest indication that for him there is no such thing as a refugee crisis or, for that matter, refugees. No one can force any nation “for the sake of human rights to commit national suicide.” Among the new arrivals are terrorists, and “innocent people have lost their lives because of the weakness of their countries.” In brief, he blames western governments for terrorist acts committed on their soil. “They would have been better off if they had followed the Hungarian solution, which is workable and useful.” In brief, if it depended on Viktor Orbán, all foreigners would be sent back to where they came from.

The rest of the speech was nothing more than pious lies, so I’ll move on to the interview.

Transparency and non-governmental organizations

Let me start by reminding readers that, in the 2016 Global Competitiveness Index of the World Economic Forum, among 138 countries Hungary ranked ahead of only Madagascar and Venezuela in the category of government transparency. Yet Orbán in his interview this morning gave a lengthy lecture on “the right of every Hungarian citizen to know exactly of every public figure who he is, and who pays him.”

But first, let’s backtrack a bit. The initial brutal attack by Szilárd Németh against the NGO’s, in which he threatened to expel them from Hungary, was somewhat blunted a day later (yesterday) when János Lázár, head of the prime minister’s office, assured the Hungarian public that Németh had gotten a bit carried away. The government is only contemplating making these organizations’ finances more transparent, although he added that “the national side” must feel sympathy for Németh’s outburst because it is very annoying that these NGOs, with the help of foreigners, attack the Hungarian government. Németh was told to retract his statement, and for a few hours those who had worried about the very existence of these watchdogs over the activities of the Orbán government could be relieved.

This morning, however, Zoltán Kovács, one of the prime minister’s many communication directors, made an appearance on ATV’s “Start.” He attacked these organizations from another angle. He claimed that they have been assisting migrants and thereby helping terrorists to pour into Europe. If possible, that sounds like an even greater threat to me than Németh’s unconstitutional suggestions regarding the expulsion of NGOs.

So, let’s see what Orbán is planning to do. The reporter asked about “the work of civic organizations that promote globalization.”  Orbán indicated that he finds these NGOs to be stooges of the United States. During the Obama administration, he said, the United States actively tried to influence Hungarian domestic affairs. “Some of the methods used were most primitive,” he remarked.

He is hoping very much that in the future nothing like that will happen. His duty as a prime minister is “to defend the country” against these attempts, but all Hungarian citizens have the right to know everything about NGO’s, especially the ones that receive money from abroad. The people ought to know whether these organizations receive money as a gift with no strings attached or whether there are certain “expectations.” “And if not, why not?” So, what Orbán wants is “transparency.” This demand from Viktor Orbán, whose government is one of the most secretive in the whole world, is steeped in irony.

Viktor Orbán on the future Trump administration

Although initially Orbán tried to be cautious, repeating that it is still too early to say anything meaningful, he is hoping for “a change of culture” after the inauguration. This “change of culture” for Orbán means first and foremost that the Trump administration will not raise its voice in defense of democratic values. Earlier, Orbán didn’t dare to attack the NGOs across the board, and most likely he would have thought twice about doing so if Hillary Clinton had succeeded Obama. With Trump, he feels liberated. Whether he is right or not we will see.

What kind of an American administration does he expect? A much better one than its predecessor. The Obama administration was “globalist,” while Trump’s will have a national focus. It will be a “vagány” government. “Vagány” is one of those words that are hard to translate, but here are a few approximations: tough, brave, maverick, determined, and fearless. Trump’s men “will not beat around the bush, they will not complicate things.”

Orbán also has a very high opinion of the members of Trump’s cabinet because “they got to where they are not because of their connections. They are self-made men.” These people don’t ever talk about whom they know but only about what they did before entering politics. “They all have achieved something in their lives; especially, they made quite a few billions. This is what gives them self-confidence.” These people don’t need any political training. “They are not timid beginners. They have ideas.”

Most of us who are a bit more familiar with the past accomplishments of Trump’s cabinet members have a different assessment of their readiness, at least in most cases, to take over the running of the government. Orbán, just like Trump, is wrong in thinking that because someone was a successful businessman he will be, for example, an outstanding secretary of state. Put it this way, Rex Tillerson’s performance at his confirmation hearing yesterday only reinforced my doubts about his ability to run the State Department.

Orbán might also be disappointed with the incoming administration’s “new culture,” which he now believes to be a great asset in future U.S.-Hungarian relations. What if all those virtues of the tough, plain-talking, down-to-earth businessmen Orbán listed turn out to hinder better U.S.-Hungarian relations instead of promoting them? What if those resolute guys in the State Department decide that Viktor Orbán is an annoying fellow who has become too big for his britches? What if the strong anti-Russian sentiment of Secretary of Defense James Mattis prevails and the U.S. government gets suspicious of Vladimir Putin’s emissary in the European Union? Any of these things could easily happen.

January 13, 2017

Hungarian politicians support their friends abroad

It seems that members of the Hungarian government don’t have enough to do at home. They feel compelled to get involved in controversies outside of the country. Today I’ll look at two such controversies, one involving a Spanish archbishop, the other the all-important British referendum on EU membership.

Cardinal Antonio Cañizares Llovera, the archbishop of Valencia, is not exactly a household name, but in Catholic circles he is well known as an arch-conservative who is described by Spain’s leading newspaper, El Pais, asa guardian of orthodoxy with an incendiary personality.” Earlier Cañizares was a typical Vatican bureaucrat and a favorite of Benedict XVI, who in 2008 named him head of the Congregation for Divine Worship. But with the pope’s resignation in 2013 his service in the Vatican came to an end. Pope Francis most likely found Cañizares far too conservative. After retiring from his Vatican job, he had to be satisfied with the archbishopric of Valencia, which is considered to be one of the lesser sees in Spain.

Cañizares often gets into trouble. For instance, in October 2015 he talked about the “invasion of immigrants” and wondered what immigration will do to Spain “in a few years.” Like so many other conspiracy theorists, he wanted to know “who is behind all this.” Earlier, in 2009, he claimed that abortion was worse than child abuse. Most recently, the archbishop lashed out at the LGBT community, feminism and gender ideology. In early June, in a homily titled “In defense and support of the family,” Cañizares said that the family, which is the most valued social institution, “is shaken to its foundations by serious, clear or subtle, threats.” In his opinion, Spanish legislation only aids attacks on the family, which is being threatened by “movements and actions of the gay empire, of ideas such as radical feminism, or the most insidious of all, gender theory.” Soon enough, pro-LGBT and feminist organizations in Spain announced that they intended to charge Cañizares with apologia, a term in Spanish law that means encouraging or defending a criminal act. On June 19 The Catholic Herald reported that Spanish feminist groups had called for the government to prosecute Cardinal Cañizares “for inciting discrimination and hatred.”

Cañizares’s remarks and what followed were reported outside of Spain mostly in Catholic publications, but the eagle-eyed Hungarian Christian Democratic youth organization (Ifjú Kereszténydemokraták or IKSZ) found the story. The president of the organization, who looks close to forty years old, issued an official public statement condemning all those “radical liberals” who objected to Cañizares’s description of the LGBT community as a “gay empire.” Young Hungarian Christian Democrats share the opinion of the cardinal and find it outrageous that “even the justice system assists ‘opinion terror’ of members of a tiny minority that call themselves human rights activists.”

In the opinion of KDNP, “the activities of the radical gay and feminist groups are harmful because they want to limit the freedom of expression and incite hatred.” Zsolt Semjén, chairman, and Miklós Soltész, vice chairman of the party, will extend an invitation to Cardinal Cañizares to visit Hungary sometime in the fall.

As usual, the Christian Democrats overreached. They have an urge to openly support the most orthodox ideas expressed within the Catholic Church. Commentators endorsing Cañizares’s position view this case as “an important, perhaps conclusive, litmus test. Will Pope Francis stand with Cardinal Cañizares?” No word has come so far from the Vatican, as the author sadly announced a couple of days ago. On the other hand, a Hungarian group that calls itself the CitizenGO team is collecting signatures online in defense of the beleaguered cardinal.

While the Christian Democrats are supporting the Spanish cardinal, Viktor Orbán is supporting his friend David Cameron. That “one of Europe’s most Eurosceptic leaders” urged Britons to vote to remain in the European Union was startling enough to warrant coverage by Reuters. The move is especially surprising since it was only a few days ago that János Lázár categorically stated that the Hungarian government will in no way commit itself one way or the other. Whatever the decision is, the Hungarian government will respect it. He added that any negative effect of a Brexit on the Hungarian economy and currency would not require the introduction of any short-term measures. At this point Zoltán Kovács, the government spokesman, interjected, assuring the audience that the country’s budgetary reserves can take care of all possible contingencies.

Brexit ad

So, great was the surprise when two and a half days later Kovács himself confirmed the news that the Hungarian government would place a full-page ad in the conservative Daily Mail today. In fact, the ad was originally supposed to appear in the Saturday edition, but because of Jo Cox’s murder it was postponed. Kovács’s explanation for the unusual campaign tactic was that a strong Europe can be built only with the cooperation of larger states. He recalled that Hungary was often accused of anti-European sentiment, but “its current pan-European attitude aptly demonstrates how resolutely and firmly [the Hungarian government] believes in the importance of the European Union’s achievements.”

The Hungarian media’s reaction to the contradictory messages was one of puzzlement. As one headline said: “It can only happen here that we don’t know whether we support England’s exit from the European Union or not.” Journalists approached the office of the prime minister for an explanation of the contradiction between Lázár’s announcement of neutrality and Orbán’s ad with his signature attached. The answer was that Orbán, by publishing the ad, is not trying to influence British public opinion. He only expresses “his point of view that we Hungarians are glad we are in an alliance of which the Brits are members. On the one hand, this is an honor because we are talking about a great nation, and on the other, we are also stronger if the Brits stay in the European Union. This is exactly what the ad emphasizes. The decision belongs to the Brits, but we let them know that Hungary is proud to be a member of the European Union alongside of them.”

Meanwhile it is quite clear that the right-wing of Fidesz and Jobbik are keeping fingers crossed for Great Britain to leave the Union. Pesti Srácok with ill-concealed glee announced today that those in favor of Brexit now have a slight lead. The article tries to calm Hungarian nerves by emphasizing that Great Britain’s exit wouldn’t have any serious consequences for Hungary and that those approximately 200,000 Hungarians living in Great Britain have nothing to fear because “those already living there arrived in the country legally.” The question is whether they would want to remain in the United Kingdom, because after Brexit “Great Britain would no longer be the same country they chose at the time of their arrival.” Alfahír, Jobbik’s official internet paper, sympathized with Nigel Farage, who “doesn’t back down.” The article published long quotations from Farage and some of those around him. It pointed to the “almost hysterical atmosphere created by the British media and the pro-EU political elite after Jo Cox’s death.” It doesn’t matter what Gábor Vona says about the party’s changed attitude toward the European Union, Jobbik would still gladly leave the Union and is therefore keeping fingers crossed for the pro-Brexit forces to win the referendum.

So, here we have two cases in which Hungarian reactions are questionable. Hungarian bishops often and in even more forceful terms than Cardinal Cañizares have gone against the wishes of Pope Francis on the refugee issue. Now the Christian Democratic Party, which considers itself the political arm of the Hungarian Catholic Church, has so much affinity with the arch-conservative Spanish archbishop that it feels compelled to extend an invitation to him to visit Hungary. At the same time Viktor Orbán has the temerity to get involved in a dispute that concerns only the citizens of Great Britain. I wonder what he would say if the European Union placed a full-page ad in a Hungarian newspaper urging people to vote against the anti-immigrant referendum he insists on holding. Perhaps one of the European prime ministers should try it. It would be fun.

June 20, 2016