Tag Archives: Zsolt Semjén

Who is planning physical violence on the streets of Budapest?

In the last few days more and more political observers have become aware of Fidesz politicians’ frequent references to the violent disturbances that will take place on the streets of Budapest in the coming months. The weak and desperate opposition, encouraged by the foreign enemies of the present government, will forcibly turn against the democratically elected Orbán government, they claim.

The fact is that Fidesz’s forecast of such an eventuality is not new. Already in March of this year three important government politicians, within a few days of one another, predicted a “brutal election campaign” accompanied by possible physical force.

On March 24, 2017, Zsolt Semjén (KDNP), deputy prime minister, was the first to speak of such a possibility in an interview he gave to Magyar Idők. What will make the election “brutal,” he said, is the fact that the opposition will be fighting for their “sheer survival,” and in their “desperation” they will be ready for anything. This will especially be the case if “there is someone abroad” who will give them a blank check and munition. Under these circumstances, Fidesz’s campaign slogan should be: “We must defend the country.”

A few days later László Kövér (Fidesz), president of the parliament, talked about street disturbances instigated by George Soros himself. Kövér envisaged “an undisguised coalition, which might be established between the Hungarian opposition and the Soros organizations with the aim of fomenting attacks against the institutional system of democracy before the elections.” The dirty work will be done by activists of the Soros-financed organizations. “They will try to create a civil-war-like atmosphere.”

The next day János Lázár (Fidesz), chief of staff, picked up the thread and called attention to the forthcoming election campaign that will be more brutal than any in the last 30 years. More recently, Antal Rogán (Fidesz), propaganda minister, frightened his audience by describing dreadful scenes that will take place on the streets of Budapest.

The charge that Fidesz would face a “brutal campaign” became more intense as time went by. Now, it seems, defensive measures are underway. The latest piece of news is that László Földi, a high-ranking intelligence officer in the Kádár regime, has been hired by István Tarlós, mayor of Budapest, to be his “security adviser.” Földi remained in the intelligence apparatus until 1996, when he was removed from his post by the Horn government because Földi and his men had a strange notion of “intelligence work.” They were watching and reporting on MSZP politicians. Földi is a devoted supporter of the Fidesz government, which uses him as a “national security expert.” I don’t think I’m alone in regarding Földi as raving mad. Unfortunately he spreads his outlandish interpretation of world affairs in the government-sponsored media. I devoted a post to him about a year and a half ago. There I expressed my suspicion that Földi may work for the Orbán government behind the scenes. This suspicion was reinforced by the news of Földi’s association with Tarlós.

I must say that I was stunned to find Földi in the city hall of Budapest, because although I have a low opinion of Tarlós, I didn’t think he was so naïve and gullible that he would listen to a man who is clearly a lunatic. But then, I remembered Tarlós expounding on the block that was masterfully crafted to fit the door of the Russian-made metro car in order to create public dissatisfaction. It was Földi’s voice talking there. In an interview Földi gave to Demokrata a few days ago, he expounded on “a new political style” developed by the opposition, which “will create chaos by attacking the city’s infrastructure,” as, for example, in case of the metro cars. But there will be other problems cropping up in the future, like in the water and gas supply or in garbage collection. The opposition will take advantage of these small problems to turn the population against the government.

In the fall, when the trouble starts, Földi said, the government must be resolute and the powers-that-be mustn’t retreat. Földi noticed that there were many foreigners among the demonstrators who went out on the streets during the spring and early summer. These are paid troublemakers who go from city to city all over Europe to create chaos. Behind them is the “clandestine power” Viktor Orbán and others talk about. But if you think that it is George Soros who is at the apex of this hidden power structure, you are wrong. According to Földi, he is just “the delivery boy.” The real decisions are made by hidden groups for whom his open society is only an instrument, not the goal. Budapest must be ready for this onslaught, and the police must act firmly. Tarlós seems to fall for Földi’s scenario, as was evident during his press conference after the transit authorities’ e-ticket disaster.

“Peaceful demonstrators” in October 2006

All in all, something is going on in the heads of Fidesz politicians and their “advisers.” Mátyás Eörsi, a former SZDSZ politician with many years in the Hungarian parliament, wrote a lengthier post on the subject on his Facebook page. In his experience, Fidesz talks about its “own sins” quite openly but with great finesse. Whatever they have done in the past or plan to do in the future appears in their parliamentary speeches as accusations directed at their opponents. It is a devilishly clever strategy because the opposition is immediately forced into a defensive posture. Those of us who follow Hungarian events know that the current Hungarian opposition has no intention of wreaking havoc on the streets of Budapest. So, based on Eörsi’s past experiences, he thinks it likely that Fidesz itself plans to provoke disturbances, which would be a bonanza for the Orbán government.

In addition, Eörsi makes another important observation. Let me quote him: “For me, the words of Kövér and Rogán about riots on the streets are the clearest proof of the true story of what happened in Budapest between 2006 and 2008. If anyone, it is the leaders of Fidesz who know exactly who stood where and what party interests were behind the street riots. Fidesz, when accusing others of organizing riots, is actually making a confession. From the words of Kövér and Rogán we can understand who generated the street disturbances in Budapest between 2006 and 2008.”

September 4, 2017

Orbán’s latest foray into world affairs: the Iranian-Hungarian nuclear deal

A couple of months ago I reported that Iran and Hungary were on the verge of signing an agreement to expand nuclear cooperation. The lack of transparency of the Orbán government is such that the Hungarian public learns about deals between Budapest and countries like Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, etc. from foreign sources. This was also the case with the Iranian-Hungarian “declaration of intent” regarding nuclear cooperation that was signed by the two countries on April 8 in Tehran.

Cozy relations between Iran and Hungary began with a visit of Viktor Orbán to Tehran in late November 2015 and continued in February 2016 with negotiations on a joint project to develop a small, 25 megawatt nuclear reactor. In November László Kövér, president of the Hungarian parliament, spent a whole week in Iran where he praised Iran’s “expansive capabilities in the area of technical and engineering services” and promised Hungary’s support of Iran’s fight against terrorism. In order “to facilitate cooperation between Hungarian and Iranian businesses and to finance export-import transactions and the founding of joint ventures,” Hungary’s Eximbank extended an 85 million euro line of credit to Iran.

The news that Zsolt Semjén, deputy prime minister, had signed such an agreement stunned the government-critical media as well as the opposition. After all, it was only in January 2016 that sanctions against Iran, because of its alleged development of nuclear weapons, were lifted. It also seemed to be out of character for the Orbán government, which is so keen on Christian virtues, to do business with Iran, number six on the list of Muslim countries with anti-Christian laws on the books. Moreover, if the Orbán government expects better treatment at the hand of the Trump White House, making a nuclear deal with Iran is not the best way to curry favor. It is a well-known fact that Donald Trump eyes the Iranian regime with even greater suspicion than his predecessor did and until very recently was ready to scrap the Iranian nuclear deal of 2015 altogether.

The timing of the signing was also unfortunate. The agreement between Iran and Hungary took place on the very same day, April 8, that Russia notified the United States that it was suspending a communication hotline between Moscow and the Pentagon following a U.S. air strike on the Shayrat airfield. Iran and Syria are close strategic allies, and Iran has provided significant support for the government in the Syrian civil war. At the time of the signing of the Iranian-Hungarian agreement, Iran was considering the deployment of ground forces “to counter U.S. intervention in Syria.” Iran and the United States are also on a collision course in Yemen. Only a couple of months earlier, in February, Trump said that “nothing is off the table” in dealing with Iran. In addition, at about the same time, the U.S. Treasury Department announced sanctions on 13 people and 12 entities under the U.S. Iran sanctions authority. As Csaba Káncz, whose articles on foreign affairs appear regularly on Privatbankar.hu, said, the Hungarian “government poked its nose into the mid-eastern powder-keg,” which is not the wisest move in these fluid circumstances. In any case, if Viktor Orbán seriously wants to develop good relations with the Trump administration, the road to that goal is certainly not through Tehran.

A month later, on May 6, Zsolt Semjén showed up in Belgrade, where he met Iran’s ambassador to Budapest, Gholamali Rajabi Yazdi. Of course, Hungarians learned about this meeting from an Iranian source, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA). Why these two men had to meet in Belgrade is a puzzle in and of itself. Otherwise, IRNA’s description of the topics discussed sounded innocent enough. “Semjén called for the enhancement of cooperation between the Iranian and Hungarian cities of Tehran and Budapest, Shiraz and Pécs, and Yazd and Jászberény.” As for increased economic and commercial cooperation between the two countries, he expressed his hope that stronger banking relations between Hungary and Iran would bolster trade between them.

Zsolt Semjén with the Iranian ambassador in Belgrade / IRNA

Meanwhile, Bernadett Szél (LMP), a tenacious opponent of nuclear energy and the construction of the Paks II Nuclear Power Plant, demanded the release of the agreement’s text on nuclear cooperation signed in April. Since it is only a “declaration of intent,” little can be learned about specifics from the text, but the emphasis is on education, training and research, and the free flow of information between the parties. There is, however, mention of “joint investment projects” related to nuclear energy. It is also likely that the Orbán government wants to use EU funds for some of these joint projects because the “declaration of intent” states that “the Parties shall endeavor to use the funds set up by the European Union for nuclear safety cooperation between the European Union and Iran within the framework of this Declaration of Intent.”

What truly worries people who are distrustful of Iran’s intention is that the “declaration of intent,” although it talks only about the peaceful use of nuclear power, doesn’t contain any guarantee that Iran will actually use whatever information it receives from the Hungarians for peaceful purposes. There is no bilateral monitoring or international mechanism mentioned in the document. The likely scenario is that Iranian nuclear experts and students will come to Hungary to work together on the development of the 25-watt mini-reactor. And then, critics ask, what will happen to the nuclear waste produced in the process? LMP politicians find the “the deal extremely risky.” Moreover, they don’t quite understand why Hungary has to get involved in any kind of cooperation with Iran “in the field of nuclear energy.”

Meanwhile, Iranian-U.S. relations are going from bad to worse. A few days ago the U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly to advance a bill that would impose new sanctions on Iran over its ballistic missile development, arms transfers, support for Islamist militant groups, and human rights violations. To become law, the measure must pass the Republican-led House of Representatives and be signed by Donald Trump which, I think, can be taken for granted. I should also mention that Iran, perhaps not without reason, considers Trump’s response to the twin terrorist attacks in Tehran “repugnant.” Trump said that “we grieve and pray for the innocent victims of the terrorist attacks in Iran, and for the Iranian people who are going through such challenging times.” However, he added, “we underscore that states that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote.”

Given the Trump administration’s support for Saudi Arabia and Israel and its antagonism toward Iran, it is indeed difficult to figure out what Viktor Orbán has in mind when he signs nuclear deals, however innocent the “declaration of intent” may sound, with the Iran of the ayatollahs. Has he already decided that pursuing a U.S.-friendly policy, even with Trump in power, is a fool’s errand?

June 11, 2017

Hungary, as a partner of Iran, is now in the nuclear business

As is customary in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, the Hungarian public learned that Iran and Hungary are on the verge of signing an agreement to expand nuclear cooperation from The Tehran Times, the English-language voice of the Islamic Revolution. The short notice announcing the arrival of Deputy Foreign Minister Zsolt Semjén said that “following the lifting of international sanctions on Iran, Tehran has strived to fully utilize economic and scientific opportunities, including the pursuit of peaceful nuclear activities.” The paper, quoting the English-language Russian publication Sputnik, noted that last week President Hassan Rouhani and Vladimir Putin “decided to sign a memorandum on the development of peaceful nuclear cooperation.” Amerikai Magyar Népszava believes that Putin “blackmailed” Orbán into participating in a nuclear deal with Iran. I’m not sure that Viktor Orbán needed too much prodding. I suspect that the prospect of partnering with Iran in a project to build small nuclear reactors to sell in Africa and Asia boosted the ego of Hungary’s prime minister.

Since having closer economic relations with Iran fits in with Orbán’s “Eastern Opening,” his state visit to Tehran in late November 2015, where the two partners signed a number of bilateral agreements, wasn’t considered extraordinary. What was more telling was a Reuters report from Budapest on February 18, 2016 that Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, had proposed a project to design and develop a small, 25 megawatt nuclear reactor. It would be followed a second project to develop a reactor perhaps as large as 100 megawatts. This proposal was well received by the Hungarian government. As Népszabadság put it, the reactor was offered on a “Persian rug.” It may have been a coincidence, but Salehi’s offer coincided with Viktor Orbán’s visit to Moscow. In any case, Russia is extremely active in the development of Iranian nuclear energy. In the coming years eight power plants will be built with Russian help.

In the months following the Iranian proposal there were frequent visits back and forth between Budapest and Tehran. László Kövér, president of the Hungarian parliament, spent almost a whole week in Tehran in November 2016, where he was warmly received. President Hassan Rouhani, after meeting with Kövér, said that Iran’s “expansive capabilities in the area of technical and engineering services and the implementation of infrastructure projects as well as Hungary’s competence in the field of industry and agriculture have created proper bases for the expansion of Tehran-Budapest ties.” Kövér assured the Iranians that “Budapest was prepared to cooperate with Tehran in the fight against terrorism.”

On February 8 the English-language section of the Hungarian government’s website announced that “several agreements had already been concluded at the first session of the Hungarian-Iranian Joint Economic Committee,” one of which was that “Eximbank has established an 85 million euro credit line to facilitate cooperation between Hungarian and Iranian businesses, and to finance export-import transactions and the founding of joint ventures.” The Hungarian media didn’t pick up this news item, but the Iranian press, including the Iranian Financial Tribune, reported it.

These were the preliminaries to the news on April 5, 2017, which stunned a lot of people in Hungary, that Iran and Hungary plan to sign an agreement on April 8 to expand nuclear cooperation between the two countries. As is clear from the diplomatic traffic between Hungary and Iran, at least since November 2015, this news shouldn’t have surprised anyone–and most likely didn’t outside of Hungary. But in Hungary there were no follow-up reports about this nuclear deal after February 18, 2016, when Ali Akbar Salehi made his initial offer. In fact, the Hungarian media was completely unaware of Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén’s presence in Tehran until two days after Iran’s Financial Tribune reported it. According to the Iranian paper, Semjén arrived with a delegation of five ministers and about 100 businessmen. Semjén apparently assured the Iranians of Hungary’s “profound respect for President Rouhani’s policies” and stressed that Hungary has “always been against sanctions, as [it] tried to hold talks with Iran even before JCPOA’s conclusion.” Semjén is referring here to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action negotiated by China, France, Germany, the European Union, Iran, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén and Vice President Hossein Ali Amiri

Once it sank in that Hungary and Iran are indeed in the “nuclear business,” the independent media was up in arms. Népszava found the idea “absurd.” After all, it was only in 2016 that sanctions against Iran because of its alleged development of nuclear weapons were lifted. It is also an absurdity that the Orbán government, which is so keen on Christian virtues, decided to do business with Iran, number six on the list of Muslim countries with anti-Christian legislation on the books. 24.hu found the timing most unfortunate: “Quite a week for Hungary’s turning away from the West. On Tuesday Parliament votes on amendments that make the functioning of the largest and best American university in Central Europe impossible. On Saturday Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén will sign an agreement on cooperation in the field of nuclear energy.” Zsolt Kerner of 24.hu predicted that this agreement with Iran will further tarnish Hungary’s not so “shiny relations” with the United States.

LMP, Hungary’s green party, was naturally outraged. The co-chair of LMP, Bernadett Szél, has been battling against the expansion of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant ever since it was first proposed. The party published the following statement: “The Hungarian public learned today that Hungary will sign an agreement on nuclear cooperation with Iran. With Iran, a country about which we cannot exclude the possibility that it is developing nuclear weapons. In addition, it is a well-known fact that Iran is a major sponsor of terrorism.”

More than two months before this news broke, on February 1, 2017, George Lázár wrote an article which appeared in The Hungarian Free Press. Lázár spotted a photo taken at the Hungarian Embassy in Washington where Ambassador Réka Szemerkényi can be seen in the company of Republican Representative Marsha Blackburn and her husband. Marsha Blackburn is apparently quite close to Ivanka Trump, and Lázár suspects that Szemerkényi’s courting of Blackburn was an attempt to get closer to the White House in order to wangle an invitation for Viktor Orbán. However, says Lázár, Blackburn was known to be a strong critic of President Obama’s nuclear deal. She released a statement in 2015 which said in part: “Iranians were chanting ‘Down with America’ and ‘Death to Israel’ as they celebrated Al-Quds day. How can we possibly trust them to act in good faith?” Lázár pointed out that “Prime Minister Orbán is not only a casual friend of Iran but also supports nuclear cooperation with them.” His conclusion was that perhaps Szemerkényi didn’t do her homework before she picked Marsha Blackburn as an emissary between Orbán’s Hungary and the Trump White House.

We know by now that President Michael Ignatieff of Central European University did get to the White House by contacting Fiona Hill, who recently joined the National Security Council as deputy assistant to the president and senior director for European and Russian Affairs. In addition to being the author of an excellent book on Putin, she has written extensively on energy issues. We already know that Mr. Ignatieff has been assured that the U.S. State Department is sending people to Budapest next week. While they are at it, they might inquire about Hungary’s growing friendship with Iran as well.

April 7, 2017

Politics and the Hungarian socialists–Not a winning combination

The ineptness of MSZP politicians never ceases to amaze me, but their latest stunt really deserves a booby prize. While their new hope, László Botka, lectures on taking away from the rich and giving to the poor, high-ranking MSZP politicians endorsed a proposal to give away the state-owned Grassalkovich Mansion in Hatvan to the Széchenyi Zsigmond Kárpát-medencei Magyar Vadászati Múzeum (Zsigmond Széchenyi Hungarian Hunting Museum of the Carpathian Basin).

Hunting has become a favorite pastime of Fidesz politicians, who show a great affinity for the lifestyle of the traditional Hungarian landowning class, which included a love of hunting. Even during the Kádár regime high-ranking party functionaries indulged in this aristocratic pursuit. Zsolt Semjén (KDNP), deputy prime minister, and János Lázár, chief of the prime minister’s office, are the best known avid hunters.

First, a few words about the mansion that stands on the main square of Hatvan and that is named for Count Antal Grassalkovich (1694-1771), a wealthy man who owned vast tracks of land around Gödöllő, Hatvan, and Bag. In 1867 the mansion was purchased by the Deutsch-Hatvany family. After the German occupation of Hungary, the Gestapo settled there. It was also used as a military hospital. By 1979 the building was declared to be uninhabitable. After a lengthy reconstruction effort, the mansion’s restoration was more or less finished with the help of 3.15 billion forints provided by the European Union and the Hungarian government. In 2012 the decision was made to house the Hunting Museum, named after Zsigmond Széchenyi (1898-1967), a well-known explorer and writer, in the state-owned mansion.

A nice gift for the Hunting Association

On March 14 eight members of parliament, three from Fidesz-KDNP and five from MSZP, proposed an amendment to a law passed in 2011 that regulates the ways and means of giving away state-owned properties to private persons or private organizations. The three Fidesz-KDNP signatories were Zsolt Semjén, János Lázár, and János Halász, undersecretary for culture in the prime minister’s office. As for five MSZP members, they included well-known, important names: István Hiller, Gergely Bárándy, Dezső Hiszékeny, István Józsa, and Árpád Velez. According to the document, these eight men proposed giving the newly reconstructed Grassalkovich Mansion to the National Hungarian Hunting Association (Országos Magyar Vadászkamara/OMVK). The justification for the move was that this transfer of ownership will offer an opportunity for the museum to function “on a professional basis.” Because, the government politicians argued, at the moment the museum attracts very few visitors. Instead of the expected 100,000 a year, barely 30,000 visitors were registered in the last few years. That shortfall happened because the current management is not doing a professional enough job. Once the Hunting Association owns the mansion outright, however, it will have a more effective way of supervising the museum.

I must say that I do not see the connection between ownership of the building and management of the museum. Anyone with half a brain should have noticed that there is something wrong here. One of the Hungarian papers claimed that “the socialists were misled.” Well, it doesn’t seem to be very difficult to mislead these political geniuses.

There was another reason the MSZP politicians should have been suspicious. The privatization of public property needs a two-thirds majority in parliament. As we know, Fidesz doesn’t have that majority anymore. Most likely, they knew that Jobbik would never agree to cooperate with them on an issue like this. So, they turned to the patsies of MSZP instead. And it very nearly worked.

The reaction from the other parties on the left was swift. As usual, Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Demokratikus Koalíció was the first to respond. Zsolt Gréczy, the spokesman for DK, said: “We always knew that Fidesz politicians steal,” but it is unacceptable for MSZP politicians to assist in this enterprise. According to Gréczy, MSZP must offer some kind of reasonable explanation for lending a helping hand to Fidesz in its quest to steal the country blind. MSZP’s leadership was unmoved. They answered that this is not about hunting but about a museum that serves the public good. Viktor Szigetvári of Együtt was the next to issue a statement. He went so far as to call this cooperation between Fidesz and MSZP “a grand coalition.” Shame, shame, he added.

A day later, on March 17, MSZP published a terse announcement: “MSZP wants to avoid even the appearance of working together with Fidesz in the privatization of state property, and therefore it withdraws its support for the privatization of the property destined for OMVK.” Before this announcement was made, however, Gyula Molnár, chairman of MSZP, had stood by the party’s decision and repeated that cooperation with Fidesz for the sake of the museum was correct and justified. Gergely Bárándy, son of former Minister of Justice Péter Bárándy, accused the DK spokesman of “creating a scandal.” If he hadn’t opened his mouth, the public would have heard nothing about “this noble cause from the point of view of Hungarian culture.”

Who was responsible for this politically suicidal act? I’m afraid all the bigwigs of MSZP. I don’t have any knowledge of the interplay between the parliamentary caucus and the leadership of the party, but I would like to believe that the chairman of the party, Gyula Molnár, was informed that cooperation with Fidesz on the issue had been sanctioned by the parliamentary delegation. The leader (or whip) of the MSZP delegation is Bertalan Tóth. He is new at his job, but until now he struck me as an intelligent fellow. Perhaps he didn’t feel secure enough to go against people like Hiller, Bárándy, and Józsa. We know that the Fidesz politicians came to MSZP with the suggestion, which then was discussed at length. At the end, they decided to support the joint proposal. And now, here is this embarrassing retreat which was apparently initiated by László Botka, who must have hit the ceiling upon finding out about it. I don’t blame him. According to Népszava, Botka “specifically requested” the party’s immediate withdrawal from the joint project.

After this fiasco the party leadership is threatening MSZP members of parliament with immediate removal from the caucus if they dare vote for the bill. This indicates to me that some of the original signatories are giving the party leadership a hard time about prohibiting any further cooperation. MSZP, as usual, failed miserably as an effective opposition to the politically savvy Fidesz party machinery.

March 19, 2017

Beer and nationalist madness

I have been sitting here for at least an hour trying to find the right words to describe the madhouse Hungary has become, thanks to Fidesz politicians. This metamorphosis has occurred incrementally, starting in 2002 when Viktor Orbán lost an election he believed was his. Ever since, he has been whipping up prejudices buried deep–or not so deep–in people’s psyches, poisoning the very soul of the population. Wars against the enemies of the country are declared practically every day. Right now the Hungarian government is fighting against Brussels, against the migrants, and, yes, against Heineken, the well-known Dutch brewery. And while they are at it, they are declaring war against all foreign breweries.

Heineken’s encounter with the Orbán government is one of the strangest stories you will run across anywhere because I very much doubt that any government of a western country (probably not even the Trump White House) would engage in such a futile, idiotic fight over an issue which in fact has nothing to do with Hungary.

Heineken moved to Romania in 1998 and five years later bought a run-down brewery in Miercurea Ciuc/Csíkszereda, the county seat of Harghita/Hargita County in an area where the majority of the population is Hungarian. With the brewery came the name of one of the beers brewed in Miercurea Ciuc–Ciuc Premium, or as local Hungarians called it, “csíki sőr.” In 2014 a new, small brewery was set up in Sânsimion/Csíkszentsimon which produced what they called “Igazi Csíki Sőr,” or “Real Csíki Beer.” The company that produces the “real stuff” is owned by András Lénárd, a Romanian-Hungarian businessman, and Lixid Holding BV, a Dutch company. Heineken’s Romanian subsidiary sued for trademark infringement and won.

Soon enough a simple commercial legal case became a national issue. Apparently, the upheaval around the court’s verdict came in handy for the struggling brewery that was producing the Real Csíki Beer. The case was portrayed as a struggle of David against Goliath, a small local company against a heartless, profit-oriented multi-national.

The story is not new. The Transylvanian division of Átlátszó.hu produced a long report on the case already in July 2015, but it was only at the end of January 2017 that the decision was handed down. Real Csíki Beer cannot be produced under this brand name.

The verdict was met with indignation by supporters of the Dutch-Hungarian mini-brewery. They argued that one cannot confuse the names of the two brands since they don’t really resemble one another. One is in Hungarian and the other is in Romanian. However, as locals pointed out, the Hungarians in the area never asked for a bottle of Ciuc but always for a bottle of Csíki sőr. In any event, the case quickly became a national issue: András Lénárd, the co-owner, became a symbol of the oppression of Romania.

In no time the matter became a political football in Hungary. The first party that took up the cause of the brewery was Jobbik. It asked for a boycott of Heineken beer and urged the government to declare Igazi Csíki Sőr a Hungaricum, whose trade name then couldn’t be touched. Fidesz had to move. It couldn’t let Jobbik reap the political benefits of such a potentially inflammatory issue.

By March 13, 2017, Fidesz devised a strategy that could make Heineken’s Hungarian subsidiary miserable in punishment for what Heineken Romania did to the Szeklers of Romania. János Lázár and Zsolt Semjén proposed modifications to the law on the use of totalitarian symbols for commercial purposes. Heineken’s red star, which Hungarian law considers a totalitarian symbol, is the symbol of the company. As of now, the commercial use of such symbols is permitted, but if the Lázár-Semjén modification of the law is passed by parliament (and why shouldn’t it be passed?) Heineken would have to change its logo in Hungary. If not, Lázár announced, the culprit could be jailed for two years for noncompliance. I should add that Heineken’s red star has nothing to do with communism or the Bolshevik revolution. Apparently it was a medieval symbol whose points symbolize water, earth, air, fire, and magic power. Heineken adopted it to highlight the uniqueness of its brew.

The owners of the small brewery in Transylvania invited Lázár to visit the place to see the production of the same beer under a different name: “Tiltott sőr” (forbidden beer). Lázár, who is a busy man, readily agreed. Lázár’s enthusiasm for the tour is amusing since he claims to be completely unfamiliar with the taste of beer.

As far as totalitarian symbols are concerned, one ought to remind Lázár that in the past the Orbán government lost two such cases in the European Court of Human Rights. I somehow doubt that they would fare any better this time. And to compound their potential legal problems, a few days later Semjén came very close to offering financial assistance to the brewery of Real Csíki Sőr, to the chagrin of some internet publications such as Kolozsvári Szalonna.

Antagonism toward foreign-owned breweries incited by the government is now spreading all over Hungary. The case encouraged the president of the Association of Mini-Breweries to blame the four large multi-national breweries for the difficulties these small companies encounter in the market place. He of course didn’t mention that craft beer is very expensive and that, as a result, demand is low.

Now that Lázár and Semjén have begun a war against foreign-owned breweries it looks as if the government is seriously contemplating giving financial assistance to the mini-breweries. Lázár also announced that regulations governing breweries should be reconsidered, which I assume means passing legislation that would discriminate against the large companies and promote the business interests of small Hungarian firms. The government news site 888.hu went so far as to claim that “there is no good and inexpensive Hungarian beer because of the multi-national companies.”

So, soon enough the four large companies–the U.S.-Canadian Borsodi Brewery, the Austrian Pécs Brewery, the Japanese-owned Dreher, and Heineken–can join the foreign-owned supermarket chains in facing extra taxes and other discriminatory measures. All this because Igazi Csíki Sőr many miles away in a foreign country lost a fight over a trade name. Utter madness.

March 18, 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

Religion is not a private matter according to the Hungarian government

A month ago Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources and an ordained Hungarian Reformed minister, ruffled the feathers of those who take the separation of church and state seriously. The occasion was a speech he delivered in Szombathely at a thanksgiving service upon the completion of a steeple for the local Hungarian Reformed church and the installation of three new bells.

Balog was present because his ministry gave a 43.3 million forint grant for the steeple and five million for the bells. When all was said and done, the 29-meter steeple cost 73 million and the price tag of the bells, which were cast in Poland, turned out to be 10 million forints. From the Népszabadság article it is not clear who paid for the cost overrun.

Balog in his speech announced that “religion is not a private matter. The confession of faith is the most personal public issue.” It is for that reason that the government considers it important to support the construction of churches. Népszabadság’s reaction to the news was “Back to the Middle Ages? According to Balog, religion is not a private matter.”

Balog’s pronouncement shouldn’t surprise anyone because the Hungarian right’s belief in a close relationship between church and state has been of long standing. The first reference I found to this “personal public” concept was Lóránt Hegedűs’s assertion in 1998 that “religion is not a private affair but the most personal public matter.” The same language Balog used. Hegedűs, the openly anti-Semitic Hungarian Reformed minister, is, after all, Balog’s colleague.

In 2006, during the heat of the election campaign, Zsolt Semjén, chairman of the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP), attacked Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, who had announced earlier that “religion is a private matter.” Semjén at this point turned to Cardinal József Mindszenty, who in 1946 had claimed that “where religion is a private matter there is corruption, sin, and cruelty.” He added that Hitler also thought that religion is a private matter and “soon enough came the Gestapo, Auschwitz, and jail.” Because of the machinations of SZDSZ politicians, an “amok-runner” was let loose on the country, who is now destroying the heritage of St. Stephen. A huge outcry followed Semjén’s accusations.

A couple of years ago members of Catholic Radio met with church leaders. During this meeting Bishop László Rigó-Kiss, one of the most reactionary Catholic bishops, expressed the church’s demand that church news should be spread widely in the media because “religion is the most personal public matter.” The same notion was expressed by Fidesz Mayor Attila Ughy of Budapest’s District XVIII, who added that for this reason the District financially supports, to the tune of 25 million forints, both Catholic and Hungarian Reformed churches.

The debate over the private versus public nature of religion has a long history. Perhaps the best known expression of the belief that religion is a private matter comes from Thomas Jefferson, who in his letter to the Danbury Baptists wrote: “religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship.”

Jefferson

What led me to this topic today was a recent opinion piece by Gábor Czakó, a Catholic writer who established a separate association of Catholic journalists. The article appeared in Magyar Idők. We learn from Czakó that the Kádár regime “transformed religion, the greatest public matter, into a private affair.” It was “inspired by a liberal idea.” The Kádár regime was so successful at implanting this erroneous idea into the heads of people that even right-wing “thinkers” believe that “the Christian faith is a private matter while Islam is a way of life.” But this is not so as long as there is a “templum,” which is a community gathering place. Liberals and socialists, however, first harassed Christians and Christian churches and finally declared the Christian religion to be a private matter.

Here are a couple of historical examples of real religiosity that Czakó cites. “Who remembers nowadays that during the kings of the House of Árpád there were more than one hundred holy days when work was forbidden and even later people devoted a third of the year to God? It was the Freemason Joseph, the hatted one, that suppressed them.” Czakó is talking about Joseph II (1741-1790), who declined to be crowned king of Hungary because he refused to swear to Hungary’s feudal constitution. Therefore people called him “kalapos király,” the hatted king. According to Czakó, the “snake of liberalism” is seemingly on the winning side against God and man, but slowly people are returning to God and away from liberalism.

Nowadays talk about Christianity in Hungary often ends by asserting its superiority over Islam. Czakó points to Jesus’s teaching “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” which he claims is unique among world religions. Czakó finds clear examples of such Christian charity among Hungarian kings. His first example is St. Stephen, who successfully repelled Emperor Konrad II, whose army in 1030 got as far as Győr but had to retreat. The Hungarians even occupied Vienna. So far the story is true, but I found nothing about Hungary’s saintly king feeding Konrad’s starving troops, as Czakó claims. His second example is another incursion into Hungary, this time in 1051 by the troops of Henry III, Holy Roman Emperor. In Czakó’s story András I fed the starving German soldiers. Again, I found nothing about this great act of generosity.

Hungarian churchmen and devoted members of the Catholic and Hungarian Reformed churches categorically reject the notion of religion being at heart a private matter. This goes against mainstream thinking on the subject in western thought. Today, the overwhelming majority of people consider their relationship to God or to organized religion to be private. With the rejection of liberalism, this important tenet is being attacked in Hungary, not only by the churches but also by the government.

May 22, 2016