Tag Archives: Zsolt Semjén

Conservative awakening in Hungary

About a year and a half ago I created a folder devoted to “internal divisions” within Fidesz. At that time there were a few signs of differences of opinion among the top Fidesz leaders, which to me signaled the possibility of a chink in the armor of this monolithic party. I was wrong. In no time Lázár, Kövér, Balog, and some others buried the hatchet–if there ever was such a thing as a hatchet in the first place.

This time there can be no question. An internal opposition has emerged, comprised of politicians who had once occupied important positions in Viktor Orbán’s governments. Even earlier, one had the distinct feeling that people like Foreign Minister János Martonyi, who served Viktor Orbán faithfully for eight years, István Stumpf, who served as Minister of the Prime Minister’s Office between 1998 and 2002 and since July 2010 as a Fidesz-appointed member of the Constitutional Court, and Tibor Navracsics, former head of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation (2006-2010), minister of justice and administration, deputy prime minister (2010-2014), who was “exiled to Brussels” in November 2014 to become European commissioner in charge of education, culture, and youth, disapproved of Viktor Orbán’s growing shift to the right, his foreign policy, and his illiberalism. But there was little or no public display of their dissatisfaction. It now looks as if their concerns have become grave enough to overcome their reluctance to turn against the regime they so faithfully supported earlier.

About two weeks ago János Martonyi and István Stumpf delivered lectures at a conference organized by the Hungarian Business Leaders Forum, where  Martonyi took issue with Viktor Orbán’s attachment to “ethnic homogeneity.” In February of this year Viktor Orbán, in a lecture delivered at the Hungarian Chamber of Commerce, had talked quite openly about “safeguarding the ethnic homogeneity” of the country. Later, during his last trip to Poland, at the joint press conference with Prime Minister Beata Szydło, he repeated his vision for Europe and for Hungary that included references to ethnic homogeneity. Martonyi said he couldn’t reconcile Orbán’s concept of ethnically homogeneous nation states with the fact that three or four million Hungarians live outside the country’s present borders. Martonyi is right. Orbán’s ideological struggles with the European Union led him to an irreconcilable contradiction on this issue.

István Stump was even more outspoken. He criticized the limits the Orbán government placed on the competence of the constitutional court. He was specifically talking about the suspension of the court’s competency over economic matters, which he called “an open wound on the body of Hungarian constitutionalism.” He also complained about the practice of retroactive legislation, which “in the long run, eliminates the maneuverability of future governments.”

Then there is Tibor Navracsics, who said that “the Soros Plan is not part of the European Commission’s agenda.” That upset Zsolt Semjén, KDNP deputy prime minister, mightily. In a radio interview he declared that Tibor Navracsics, as a European commissioner, knows that “his colleagues, his surroundings, people as well as organizations, are not only in the hands of George Soros, but also in his pocket.” Semjén accused Navracsics of disloyalty and called on him to decide where his real allegiance lies: with his own country or with the international community. Navracsics didn’t seem to be intimidated and called Semjén’s reaction “hysteria” which leads to wrong political decisions. Semjén’s attacks on Navracsics, however, continue unabated. Only today one could read that Navracsics’s denial of the Soros Plan is being used by the opposition “as a knife in the back of the government.”

One of the harshest critics of the Orbán government is Géza Jeszenszky, minister of foreign affairs in the government of József Antall (1990-1994), who during the first Orbán government (1998-2002) continued his political activities as ambassador to the United States. In 2011 he was named ambassador to Norway and Iceland. In October 2014 he resigned because he disagreed with the government’s attack on the Norway Fund, which achieved nothing and ruined the relations between Norway and Hungary for some time. Jeszenszky is no friend of George Soros who, in his opinion, was “an unfair adversary of the Antall government,” but he finds the anti-Soros campaign “shameful.” He believes that Orbán’s “aggressive” foreign policy is wrong and his pro-Russian orientation dangerous. He gives many interviews in which he doesn’t hide his true feelings about the Orbán government. He even expressed his willingness to help the opposition parties with his advice and support. Naturally, Jeszenszky’s criticisms couldn’t be left unanswered. Tamás Deutsch, a Fidesz member of the European Parliament, described Jeszenszky as being “in a state of political dementia.” Magyar Idők was brief and to the point: “Whoever is (was) Géza Jeszenszky, he should be ashamed of himself.”

Meanwhile, more and more former politicians and professionals who used to work for the Antall and earlier Fidesz governments are ready to join the efforts of the opposition to dislodge the present government. Tamás Mellár, a conservative economist at the University of Pécs who used to work for the Fidesz think tank Századvég, announced his intention to run as an independent candidate for parliament if all the opposition parties would support him. Given the disastrous Fidesz administration in the city, I have no doubt that Mellár could easily win one of the two parliamentary seats from Pécs.

Some of the disenchanted conservatives: Attila Chikán, László Sólyom, and Péter Ákos Bod / Source: Magyar Nemzet

Péter Ákos Bod, minister of industry and trade in the Antall government (1990-1991) and later chairman of the Hungarian National Bank (1991-1994), has been a severe critic of the Orbán government for a couple of years. By now he is openly talking about the need to remove Viktor Orbán from power because he fears economic disaster if the present government prevails. In order to appreciate the significance of Bod’s present stance, one should keep in mind that in 2006, when Viktor Orbán was desperate because he realized that his party might lose the election again, he offered the post of prime minister to Bod between the first and second rounds of election in the hope of reversing the trend. So, Bod’s presence at an LMP event where Bernadett Szél announced the party’s cooperation with a small, right-of-center party called Új Kezdet (New beginning) established by György Gémesi, mayor of Gödöllő since 1994, is significant. It shows Bod’s total disillusionment with Viktor Orbán and his regime. György Gémesi’s decision to work together with LMP is also noteworthy. Gémesi was once an important MDF leader.

Analysts have been saying for years that the Orbán regime cannot be removed only by the left-of-center parties. Disappointed Fidesz voters who most likely would never vote for MSZP or DK must have their place in the sun. The awakening of these conservatives might be the harbinger of a new, truly right-of-center political formation that could help stop those far-right forces that Fidesz let loose on the country.

October 25, 2017

Hungary leads the way in defense of persecuted Christians

Yesterday Viktor Orbán delivered a speech at the International Consultation on Christian Persecution, organized by the Hungarian government and held in Budapest between October 11 and 13. We know that the prime minister considered this speech to be of great importance because it was made available in its entirety, in both Hungarian and English, on his website within hours. Such speed normally attests to Orbán’s belief that the content of a message is particularly significant.

I must say that I have to strain my imagination to see the political implications in this address, but Zoltán Lakner, whom I consider a sharp-eyed commentator, sees this talk as a new stage in the Hungarian government’s assault on the European Union. Others, like Tibor Pethő in a Magyar Nemzet editorial titled “Crusade” (Keresztes háború), views the Christian Democratic András Aradszki’s reference to the rosary as a weapon against the Satanic George Soros as an introduction to Viktor Orbán’s speech, in which he said that Hungary will take the lead in the defense of the Christians of Europe and the world. He is not the only one who is convinced that Aradszki’s remarks in the Hungarian parliament were inspired, if not dictated, by the highest authority of the land.

In the last few months high-level politicians and government officials have taken up the cause of Christianity, the most persecuted religion. As Viktor Orbán put it, “215 million Christians in 108 countries around the world are suffering some form of persecution.” These figures are being repeated practically everywhere. I encountered one site where the claim was made that even in Mexico Christians are suffering “a high persecution level” from “organized corruption.” From remarks by Hungarian church officials and Christian Democratic politicians I learned, to my great surprise, that Hungary is also one of those countries where the persecution of Christians takes place.

According to Viktor Orbán, Christian persecution in Europe “operates with sophisticated methods of an intellectual nature.” Admittedly, it cannot be compared to the sufferings of Christian communities elsewhere, but greater dangers are lurking for European Christians, which many people don’t want to notice. He recalled the watchman in the Book of Ezekiel who, neglecting to warn people of the danger, was held accountable for the blood spilled by the enemy. Surely, Orbán sees himself as the watchman bearing news of the coming danger to the “indifferent, apathetic silence of a Europe which denies its Christian roots.” But there will be a price for this neglect of European interests. The present immigration policy will result in the transformation of Europe’s Christian identity.

Hungary is a small country without many relatives, but it has something other richer and bigger countries don’t have, Orbán claims. Many larger countries may have well-intentioned politicians, but they are not strong enough because “they work in coalition governments; they are at the mercy of media industries.” Hungary, by contrast, is a “stable country” whose current government has won two-third majorities in two consequent elections and, what is also important, “the public’s general attitude is robust.” Therefore, “fate and God have compelled Hungary to take the initiative.” I puzzled over the meaning of Orbán’s reference to the “robust attitude” of Hungarians and, since it didn’t make much sense to me, I turned to the original Hungarian text where I found that the prime minister was talking about the “healthy attitude” of the population. What are the characteristics of this healthy attitude? What about those who, unlike Hungarians, don’t have a healthy attitude? It is a good topic for a debate.

These are the main points of Orbán’s speech. Hungarian assistance in Iraq, which he briefly described at the end of his speech, needs no elaboration. I already wrote about it a couple of weeks ago in a post titled “Two New Hungarian citizens: Part of assistance to persecuted Christians.”

So, let’s see what the other shining lights of the Fidesz world had to say. After all, the conference lasted three days and those days had to be filled somehow. As a result, there were many, many speeches on the subject of Christian persecution.

One of the first men to greet the participants was András Veres, bishop of Győr, who currently serves as president of the Conference of Hungarian Catholic Bishops. He was the one who, in his sermon on the August 20 national holiday, felt compelled to talk disapprovingly about increased government support for the in-vitro fertilization program. His words created quite a storm. After some hesitation, the government stood by its position. Details of the controversy can be found in my August 25 post. At the conference he admitted that the persecution of European Christians still means only mocking them, “but all bloody persecutions” began like that. The reason that Hungarians understand the plight of Middle Eastern Christians better than Western Europeans do is because “there is persecution of Christians in Hungary today.” You can imagine what some bloggers had to say to that when the government is pouring money into the churches–well, at least into the government-approved churches; it financially “persecutes” the others.

Zoltán Balog, head of the ministry of human resources who himself is a Protestant minister and who, over the years, has acquired the reputation of formulating high-flown ideas that usually fall flat, decided that “the conservation of Christian values, worldview, and culture also means the conservation of democracy.” I assume that for most people this assertion makes no historical sense whatsoever. Balog, presumably following Viktor Orbán’s lead, sees in Hungary’s assistance to the Christians of the Middle East “an opportunity to reform the foundations of European Christianity.” Well, that’s quite an ambitious undertaking. It seems that Hungary is not only defending Christian Europe but also wants to reshape it.

Péter Szijjártó was more modest. He only wants to make Budapest “the engine of the fight against the persecution of Christians.” We learned from him that “work is a Christian value,” as if working hard was alien to other cultures. He also had the temerity to say, after the government propaganda against migrants and lately against George Soros, that “a good Christian cannot be against anyone.”

Zsolt Semjén and Zoltán Balog at the press conference / MTI / Photo: Attila Kovács

Zsolt Semjén didn’t disappoint either. He gave a press conference after the “consultation” was over. He argued that Islamists who commit anti-Christian genocide should be brought before the International Court of Justice. He also said that the persecution of Christians in Europe is of “the light variety,” which is “not without its dangers because what’s going on in Europe is the conscious destruction and apostasy of Christianity.”

I’m pretty sure that Semjén was not happy with a question he got about the 1,000 Coptic Christian families from Egypt and Iraq the Hungarian government allegedly generously settled and gave Hungarian citizenship to during 2014 and 2015. Both Zoltán Balog and Péter Szijjártó insisted at the time on these people’s presence in Hungary, but the problem was that the leaders of the already existing, though small Coptic community had never heard of them. Or, rather they knew about “a few businessmen who have permission to live in Hungary but who don’t live in the country on a permanent basis. They come and go in Europe and the world.” The government couldn’t give a coherent explanation for the invisible Coptic Christians. After all, 1,000 families should mean about 4,000 people. I devoted a whole post to the story at the time. Now Semjén insists that the government cannot say anything about these 1,000 Coptic families because their lives are in danger. I guess that’s one way for a good Christian to avoid the issue.

October 13, 2017

Freemasons, Satanic forces, the Soros Plan, and the kitchen sink

This morning I was listening off and on to a call-in program on Klub Rádió in which a man phoned in, asking a sensible question. What financial benefits does George Soros reap from settling millions of migrants in Europe? He complained that no one in the opposition asks this very simple question, when such an inquiry could unveil the total absurdity of the government’s charges against Soros. Clearly, no one could possibly give a rational explanation for how Soros would benefit financially from the millions of migrants he allegedly wants to settle in Europe.

The caller was right. Some obvious questions are never asked of Fidesz politicians, although I have to admit that even the best questions can be sidestepped or simply left unanswered. And that takes me to a lecture Tibor Navracsics, European commissioner for education, culture, youth and sport, gave Saturday on the future of Europe. From the media coverage of the event it seems that Navracsics is a supporter of the vision Jean-Claude Juncker outlined a few weeks ago of a closely-knit European Union, which many of my readers found far too optimistic and most likely unattainable. As he should, Navracsics refrained from talking about Hungarian domestic politics, but he did answer a question concerning the “Soros Plan.” Navracsics assured his audience that no such plan is on the agenda of the European Commission. About a month ago he called it merely campaign rhetoric. But today, when Ildikó Csuhaj of ATV confronted Viktor Orbán with Navracsics’s denial of the existence of the Soros Plan, the prime minister summarily announced that he is right and Navracsics is wrong. End of discussion. Another good example of the primitive games the Orbán government is playing is its answer to the tongue-in-cheek request by Bernadett Szél for a copy of the “Soros Plan.” She was instructed to go to the national consultation questionnaire where, in the infoboxes, she will find all the information she needs.

Viktor Orbán may have cut short the discussion on the existence of the Soros Plan and the European Commission’s adoption of it, but Navracsics’s denial of an essential part of the election campaign must have irritated him to no end. He sent his deputy, Zsolt Semjén, after him. Semjén is not known for his brains, as you will see from the way he took on Navracsics in an interview on an early Sunday morning Kossuth Rádió program. Five years ago HVG was alerted to the possibility that about 40% of Semjén’s doctoral dissertation was plagiarized. If you want to know more about the case, read my post “Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén, the modern St. Sebastian.” Semjén’s modest intellectual prowess was painfully obvious in this interview. After repeating the accusation that “George Soros holds in his hand and pocket the world of which Navracsics’s work is a part,” he decided to demonstrate his knowledge of history and philosophy, which in Semjén’s case usually results in hair-raising absurdities. In his view, the reason for the current “migrant crisis” is, believe it or not, the ideas of Freemasonry, which have gone through several mutations like Jacobinism, Bolshevism, and finally “Soros’s extreme liberal thing,” which hates Christian traditions and nation states. Soros’s philosophy wants “to abolish” them. The world according to Soros would be a United States of Europe led by bureaucrats who “would pass power over to NGOs,” whatever that means. Of course, all this is utter nonsense. I got a real kick out of Semjén’s claim that “Hungarian culture defines itself against Islam as the shield of Christian Europe.” Hungarian culture is really going up in the world. I should add that several people believed that Semjén expressed anti-Semitic sentiments in this interview. It reminded Viktor Szigetvári of Együtt of the “hateful, anti-Semitic talk of the 1930s.” Éva Hajnal of Amerikai Népszava asked, “Why doesn’t Semjén finally say that it is the Jews?”

Zsolt Semjén is an admiring and loyal servant of Viktor Orbán

I left the best to last. A KDNP member of parliament, András Aradszki, who is also undersecretary in charge of matters related to energy in the ministry of national development, had a few startling “revelations” about George Soros. Aradszki spent most of his adult life working as a counselor to MOL. He is a devout Catholic who joined the Christian Democratic People’s Party at the earliest possible moment, in 1990. Otherwise, he doesn’t seem to have any experience in public speaking because he could barely read the text of his parliamentary address, titled “The Christian duty to fight against the Satan/Soros Plan.” I will not go through the nonsense this man put together line by line because an excellent English rendition of the speech is available on YouTube.

It is also available in the original Hungarian.

Here I will only pick a few bones with Aradszki. I was so fascinated by his claim that, according to the Three Secrets of Fátima, Satan’s greatest and final attack against the Church will be the attack against families that I decided to read up on the subject. I personally don’t believe in the apocalyptic visions and prophecies given by the Virgin Mary to three young Portuguese shepherds. But at least Aradszki should have stuck with the real version of the three secrets: World War I, World War II, and the twentieth-century persecution of Christians. Not a word about an attack on families. I also wonder whether Aradszki knows anything about “forced politicization of gender theory.” I very much doubt it. Aradszki’s text at places is horribly muddled, but I was struck by his claim that Lucifer tricks people “with deceptive catch-phrases about humane treatment and love for one’s neighbor by lecturing the Church.” Aradszki is obviously trying to deflect criticism of the Hungarian Catholic Church for failing to practice their Christian duty, but he doesn’t offer any proof of the humane treatment of the refugees by the clergy. In fact, if you read the text carefully, he defends their behavior by calling the Soros Plan “a sin against man” which is also “a sin against God,” and therefore it is justifiable to resist any humanitarian impulses.

What is Aradszki’s remedy for the Satan-Soros Plan? First and foremost, Hungarians should fill out the national consultation questionnaire. This act will also give them an opportunity to make their opinions known about what “we think of our homeland’s thousand-year-old history, our national sovereignty, our freedom, our beloved Europe.” In addition, Aradszki has another weapon against Soros. As “Popes John Paul II and Benedict and other exorcists” believed, “the rosary is the strongest weapon against evil, and it is capable of changing history.” I am flabbergasted.

The question is whether this incredible performance was approved by the leader of the KDNP delegation. Unfortunately, I have only a vague recollection that approval by the whip is a prerequisite, but I will inquire from people who have parliamentary experience. Péter Harrach, the head of the KDNP delegation, called Aradszki’s views on the Soros Plan “a religious approach” that is his privilege to express. “This is what he thinks, but this is not a political message.” It is hard to know what Harrach means by this mysterious sentence. I assume he’s trying to distance KDNP from Aradszki’s speech. In any case, “the leader of the delegation is not competent either to criticize or to penalize a member’s private opinion,” claims Harrach. A friend called my attention to the fact that, with the exception of this brief response by Harrach in Magyar Idők, no government media outlet said a word about this mad speech in parliament. Perhaps even they decided that it was too much.

October 9, 2017

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