Tag Archives: Zsolt Semjén

How did Calvinism survive in Hungary?

Foreigners are always surprised when I tell them that I am not a Catholic. People who are only superficially acquainted with Hungary assume that, just like in Poland, every Hungarian is a Catholic. These same people would be surprised to learn that in the second half of the sixteenth century about 80% of the country’s population was Protestant–mostly Calvinists and to a lesser extent Lutherans. The situation was the same in Poland, where 90% of the nobles who were members of the sejm, the Polish parliament, were Protestants. But then came the counter-reformation, which in Poland’s case was so successful that, according to the latest statistics, 87.5% of the population declare themselves to be Catholic. The rest either refuse to answer or claim to be non-believers.

In Hungary the situation is different, due mostly to the semi-independent Transylvanian Principality (1570-1711) and the Ottoman occupation of the central parts of the Kingdom of Hungary (1541-1699). In the principality, the elected princes were either converts to Calvinism, as in the case of János Zsigmond, the first prince of Transylvania (1565-1571), or were already born as Calvinists and were therefore promoters of freedom of religion. In the case of the Ottoman-held territories, Catholic aristocratic families fled north or west into so-called Royal Hungary, and therefore their former serfs could follow their own religious inclinations. Just to give you an idea of how widespread the Calvinist and Lutheran denominations were, the great Hungarian churchman Péter Pázmány (1570-1637), the towering figure of the Hungarian counter-reformation, was born into a Calvinist family in 1570. He converted to Catholicism while attending a Catholic school in Kolozsvár/Cluj.

Martin Luther’s teachings reached Hungary very early. Luther’s famous Ninety-Five Theses were published in 1517, and two or three years later his teaching spread to those Hungarian towns that were inhabited largely by German-speaking people.

From 1540 on, however, the teachings of John Calvin became much more popular, especially in the villages. The changes in religious affiliation came about in an ad hoc fashion. In the early days individual parish priests attracted to the reform movement began to change the liturgy, slightly or more substantially. They began conducting services in Hungarian. Depictions of saints were painted over in white, in keeping with the puritanism of Calvinists. And when there was no priest ready to change his religion, wandering preachers went from village to village to spread the teachings of the new Protestant churches. Initially these people were ordinary tradesmen without much education, but soon enough highly educated men who had returned from western universities began working as missionaries. One of the early foreign-educated preachers was Mihály Sztárai (d. 1575?), who was active on both sides of the Dráva River. He established 120 Protestant congregations in Baranya County and in Slavonia (the northern part of Croatia) between 1544 and 1551. It was most likely under his influence that my ancestors became first (perhaps) Lutherans and later Calvinists. At the time the dividing line wasn’t that clear.

During the seventeenth century the Catholic Habsburgs used drastic measures against Calvinist and Lutheran ministers, and pressure was exerted on aristocratic families to convert to Catholicism. Once that was accomplished, the Crown used the principle of “cuius regio, eius religio” (whose land it is decides the religion), which was an alien concept in Hungarian constitutional law. Thus masses of common folk were returned to the fold. Until the majority of the inhabitants became Catholic again.

Because of the ardent Catholicism of the House of Habsburg, Calvinism became a “Hungarian religion.” With it came an anti-establishment attitude. Hungarian Calvinists believed that they were second-class citizens, a persecuted minority, which they certainly were until Joseph II’s Toleration Act of 1781. This edict put an end to more than 100 years of religious persecution of non-Catholics. But even it imposed restrictions on Protestants. For example, their churches couldn’t have a steeple, and no gate of a Protestant church could open onto the street.

Hungarian Reformed Church with the typical Star of Calvin instead of the cross

Hungarian Reformed Church with the typical Star of Calvin instead of a cross

The number of Calvinists in Hungary today is difficult to ascertain because at census time the declaration of religion is voluntary. According to the 2011 census, 39% of Hungarians declared themselves to be Catholics, 11.6% Calvinists, 2.2% Lutherans, 16.7% non-religious, and 2.5% atheists. The number of Jews is practically impossible to determine because they are leery about declaring their Jewishness. They most likely can be found in the non-religious category.

This 11.6% translates into 1,622,000 people. In addition, there is a large number of Calvinists (almost all Hungarians) living in Transylvania. Of the 1,227,623 people who claim Hungarian ethnicity there are 600,000 Calvinists. In 2009 they became part of a single Hungarian Reformed Church.

Reading the official history of the Hungarian Reformed Church, I was struck by the pent-up resentment against the authorities who through the ages looked upon the church and its followers as second-class citizens. The Catholic church and the state lived in a symbiotic relationship which the Calvinist hierarchy couldn’t share, even during the interwar period when Miklós Horthy, the governor, was a Calvinist. They hoped to find some “redress of past injuries and great losses” which, they feel even today, they didn’t receive.

As for the present state of the Hungarian Reformed Church, I would say that they are still “trying to climb into the position of being a second-tier state religion,” as the official history claims about the interwar period. But they are on the losing side when the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP), which was described by Zsolt Semjén, its chairman, as “the political arm of the Catholic Church,” is in coalition with Fidesz. The centuries-old symbiosis between the secular power of the state and the Catholic Church is far too strong.

Here is one example. Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources, is a Calvinist minister. Prior to his appointment, the undersecretary in charge of church affairs was also a Calvinist. When Balog took over the ministry, Semjén insisted on the resignation of the Protestant undersecretary. Having two Calvinists in this ministry was unacceptable to the Catholic Church.

I don’t follow the affairs of the Hungarian Reformed Church very closely, but my impression is that its leaders are inclined to sympathize with the far right, or at least they tolerate the presence of such ministers as Lóránt Hegedűs, Jr. This anti-Semitic minister, whose wife is a member of Jobbik, has been delivering the most horrendous sermons, but the official church has been unable to muster enough courage to throw him out of the church. Or they may in fact sympathize with his ideas. It was only in October of this year that he was “disciplined” for such offenses as having no biblical message whatsoever in his objectionable sermon and for being “unprepared.”

Public patience is coming to an end: What can Viktor Orbán do? Not much

Some of you want me to outline a scenario that could follow the unheard-of loss of popularity of the government, Fidesz, and Viktor Orbán personally. I am no fortune teller but, contrary to those readers who believe that the events of the last two months will have no adverse effect on the Orbán government in the long run, I see some signs that may lead to the eventual collapse of the system.

I base this admittedly hedged forecast (note the “some” and “may” in it) on data suggesting that Viktor Orbán has lost the trust of millions of his followers. I understand from news reports that Orbán and the Fidesz leadership by now have come to recognize the seriousness of the situation. Apparently they are preparing the ground to rebuild the prime minister’s tarnished reputation. The word is that he is planning to be more “active,” which in this context means that he will show his compassionate side. Today he visited an orphanage and held one of the little girls in his lap. The picture was shown all over, of course.

But I think the situation in which the prime minister finds himself won’t be fixed by a few smiles and friendly gestures toward his constituency. He has lost the people’s trust. And for that development he alone is to blame.

ATV showed a short video today on which a journalist confronts people on the street and tells some of Orbán’s latest fairy tales about the decrease in poverty, the increase in job opportunities, the excellent GDP figures, and the reduced utility prices. First of all, a few months ago when journalists tried to engage people on the street in conversation about political issues most people either refused to answer or the few who did usually praised the government and Orbán. Today’s video shows that people are no longer afraid to speak, and when they speak they don’t hide their opinions. The most frequently recurring answer was: Orbán is lying! What he says is not true. If that belief takes hold among the electorate, Orbán’s political future is in doubt.

There is another problem that, in my opinion, will prevent Orbán’s political comeback–and we know that without him there is no Fidesz either. The coffers are empty. No longer can the government appease the populace by throwing a few thousand forints their way, as they did when they lowered utility prices, an admittedly brilliant political stroke. Today they cannot give anything. On the contrary, they have to extract more and more money from the people in the form of taxes because otherwise they cannot keep the deficit under 3%. And if they overstep this magic figure, the excessive deficit procedure may be imposed, and this may mean the loss of subsidies from Brussels. It is obvious that they are desperate. They know that they should not irritate the already antagonistic voters with more and more taxes, but they seem to have no choice because they already spent the money on all sorts of superfluous projects, like stadiums, MOL shares, bank purchases, and so on. And then there is the corruption that has resulted in the loss to the public purse of billions in taxpayer money. Their past irresponsible (and worse) financial maneuvers may well be their undoing.

Another consideration is what I see as an erosion within Fidesz-KDNP. I already mentioned the revolt of KDNP’s chief Zsolt Semjén on the issue of a new law on the status of churches. He was joined a few hours later by Rózsa Hoffmann, who in the past was a faithful executor of Viktor Orbán’s ideas on education. Suddenly Hoffmann discovered that diverting children from gymnasiums is a very bad idea and that making employees of the Prime Minister’s Office work ten hours a day is not even legal. Or, there is the case of János Bencsik, a Fidesz member of parliament since 1998, who expressed his strong opposition to compulsory drug testing of children. As he put it, not even László Trócsányi, minister of justice, or Gergely Gulyás, the legal wizard of Fidesz, could make such a law constitutional. Even Gulyás thought that Máté Kocsis’s suggestion was “unorthodox” while “the world of the law is generally orthodox.”

The latest attempt at acquiring another 20 billion forints by making M0, a six-lane highway that more or less encircles Budapest, a toll road enraged not only commuters from nearby towns but also the Fidesz mayors whose districts would be affected by the decision. Again it was a last-minute ad hoc decision without any consultation. The mayors are not the only ones up in arms. Attila Chickán, minister of the economy in the first Orbán government, said that the decision will have a negative impact on the lifestyle of the people of Budapest.

The M0 will be a toll road Are these people tired of governing?

Highway M0 will also be a toll road.
Are these people tired of governing?

And finally, young until now pro-Fidesz journalists have become disillusioned. Perhaps the best example I can cite is Ákos Balogh, editor-in-chief of Mandiner. I highly recommend his opinion piece that appeared today. The title is telling: “When ‘The Anything is Possible’ Ends.” Everything that worked in the past no longer works or, even worse, is counterproductive. In fact, Balogh goes so far as to state that the Orbán government, instead of remedying the “mistakes” of the last twenty years, itself became part of it. It did not finish the regime change as it promised but “it completed its failure.” Fidesz is good at campaigning but “sparkles less when it comes to governing.” Fidesz does not want to recognize that “something has changed,” and not only in foreign affairs as a result of the Ukrainian developments but also at home. Although “in theory” there will be no elections until 2018, “a government can be demobilized by broken public trust.” The lesson: “There is never such a thing as ‘Anything is Possible’ because there is always a fault line after which everything falls apart.” “The borders of  ‘Anything is Possible’ are not sharp, one can only conjecture about them. One can know only after the fact when someone has overstepped them. Perhaps he already has overstepped them.” Harsh words from a former true believer.

Viktor Orbán and Fidesz are in trouble: Record loss of popularity

A few weeks ago Tárki, one of the three or four reliable opinion polls, announced a serious slide in Fidesz’s popularity. HVG introduced the news by calling it an avalanche. The poll was taken between November 13 and 23 and showed that Fidesz-KDNP had lost 12% of its sympathizers within one month. The drop was so great that I’m sure Endre Sík, the lead researcher at Tárki, must have worried whether something went wrong with their methodology. Well, he can relax. Médián came out with its latest poll, and its figures show that no party has lost as much as fast since the change of regime in 1990.

Just to give an idea of the kinds of numbers we are talking about, in a single month Fidesz lost 900,000 voters. Two-thirds of eligible voters think that the country is heading in the wrong direction. For a party that is so proud of its two-thirds majority in parliament, achieved only a few months ago, that is a devastating statistic.

Among the voting-age population Médian, just like Tárki, found that before the attempted introduction of the internet tax and everything that followed Fidesz-KDNP had a comfortable lead: 38% of the electorate would have voted for the government party. That figure by the end of November when the poll was taken had shrunk to 26%. Although 5% of those who abandoned Fidesz are still undecided, others joined some of the opposition parties. There was a 4% rise for MSZP and 2% for Jobbik.

When it comes to those who claim they would definitely vote if elections were held next Sunday, Fidesz-KDNP’s drop of popularity is even more glaring. In October 57% of those asked said that they would definitely vote for Fidesz. A month later Médián measured only 34%.

Médián collected another interesting data point. Fidesz voters’ enthusiasm for voting has waned. The party’s inability to mobilize the troops was especially noticeable in the repeated election in Budapest’s 11th electoral district where the MSZP candidate won with a very large majority. According to Médián, today only 52% of Fidesz voters say they would vote come hell or high water. This figure is significantly lower than for Jobbik (64%), DK (63%), or MSZP (59%). Another telling sign is that 22% of those who voted for Fidesz in April would not vote for the government party today, as opposed to the October figure of 4%. In October only 48% of the respondents thought that the country was heading in the wrong direction. Today that figure is 68%. When it comes to satisfaction with the performance of the government, only 31% of the voters still approve of the government, 14% less than in October.

The popularity of Fidesz politicians also dropped precipitously. The great loser was the prime minister himself who lost 16 points, followed by his closest associates: János Lázár (14 points), Antal Rogán (13 points), and Lajos Kósa (13 points). Even János Áder lost 10 points. Endre Hann of Médián noted in an interview with György Bolgár that even Ferenc Gyurcsány after the introduction of the austerity program after the 2006 election lost only 8 points. At the same time opposition politicians all gained. Not much, but a few percentage points. Viktor Orbán with his 32 points is tied with Gergely Karácsony (Együtt) and Gábor Vona (Jobbik).

Popularity of politicians: October and November

Popularity of politicians: October and November

These findings correspond with anecdotal observations. People openly criticize the government and call Fidesz politicians all sorts of names.

Viktor Orbán yesterday visited Blikk, a tabloid that the prime minister uses for his own political purposes, and agreed to answer questions from readers. Twenty-five in all. This is the second time that he participated in something called Sztárchat. As opposed to last year, this time 95% of the questions were antagonistic. The very first was a whopper from “a former Fidesz voter” who wanted to know about “the useless scrap of paper that was actually full of concrete details,” or what the prime minister thinks of Antal Rogán “conducting business with an ordinary criminal.” Someone wanted to know how it is possible that “the whole country and half the world knows what is going on here, except you. What kind of dimension do you live in that you have no idea about the real world?” Zoltán and his family wondered how “the government has money to buy banks and build stadiums and move [your office] but there is no money for hungry children, pensioners, hospitals.” He was the second person who accused the prime minister “of taking our extra money away for working on Sundays.” Someone asked why Orbán “does not dare to stand in front of people and instead tells his story in an empty studio.” There was a question about whether Orbán’s daughter is studying some manual profession in Switzerland. Sándor wanted to know when Orbán is going to resign, and “ráadás” asked him “why he thinks that the Hungarian people are so stupid” that they believe all the humbug his government feeds them.

It was, in brief, not a friendly crowd. Among the questions I found only one or two that were not antagonistic and only one that supported his anti-American policy.

His drop in the polls and the brutally honest questions addressed to him are not his only woes. Zsolt Semjén, until now a most faithful ally, decided to show his independence. He announced that as far as he knows government officials visited Germany to talk to officials there about their church law which the Hungarians allegedly want to copy. As we know, the present arrangement concerning the churches was not accepted by the European Court of Human Rights and the Hungarian government is obliged to change it. Today Semjén threatened Orbán with the KDNP caucus’s refusal to support the law once it gets to the floor.

To tell you the truth, I have been suspecting for some time that Viktor Orbán’s change of heart concerning the Sunday closing of stores might have had something to do with pressure brought to bear on him by the Christian Democrats. Perhaps Orbán thought that he could appease the KDNP caucus by supporting their proposal to shut all the stores on Sundays. Obviously, he was wrong.

There’s trouble everywhere. I wonder how he can escape from the hole he dug for himself and his government with his shoddy governance, his irresponsible foreign policy, his taxing the population to death and not producing sustainable economic growth. Hungarians are getting more and more fed up and antagonistic. If Orbán continues down the same path he has been following in the last five years, the end might not be pretty.

Sunday shopping? The Christian Democrats against the multinational chains

It was only yesterday that Viktor Orbán had to retreat, even if only temporarily, on the issue of taxing internet usage. A hundred thousand people were out on the streets of Budapest and elsewhere in the country. Now the government may be preparing the way for a new debacle, although I personally can’t believe they will be so dim-witted.

The Orbán government on paper is a coalition government. Fidesz’s partner is the Christian Democratic People’s Party or KDNP whose chairman, Zsolt Semjén, is Viktor Orbán’s deputy. The funny thing about KDNP is that it is a non-party. It’s like a private club where the party leaders get together now and again, but for over a decade the party has been absent as a separate entity at national elections.

The Christian Democrats don’t disturb much water. Their parliamentary members dutifully vote alongside the Fidesz PMs. In fact, it seems almost random who sits with the KDNP caucus and who with Fidesz. The important thing is that KDNP’s caucus should be bigger than that of MSZP, Jobbik, or LMP. The Christian Democrats don’t contribute much to Fidesz and Orbán’s government. Their main purpose is to provide Christian trimmings to a Christian-national regime. Occasionally, thankfully only very rarely, they come out with ideas of their own. Three years ago they proposed that stores should be closed on Sundays. Good Christian families should attend church instead of shopping in department stores and malls. And the poor workers who are forced to work on Sundays must be protected from those awful foreign capitalists. At that time, the government–where of course the last word is that of Fidesz–refused to introduce the measure, which would have had disastrous consequences for the economy.

Source: Europress / AFP

Source: Europress / AFP

But these Christian Democrats are tenacious; they don’t give up easily. They came out with a new version of a bill which was leaked to Magyar NemzetThe proposed bill is an attack on supermarket chains and discount stores owned by international companies because the bill’s provisions would affect only shopping centers and stores larger than 400m². Tobacconists, pharmacies, gas stations, flower shops, newspaper stands, and bakeries would be able to remain open with some restrictions. For example, they could sell their wares only until noon. Restaurants, stores in airports and railway stations, and open-air markets could continue doing business as usual.

But restricting Sunday shopping is not enough for our Christian Democrats. They are upset over those foxy owners of chains who try to sidestep the controversial “plaza stop” law by establishing smaller stores and thus competing with those mom and pop stores the “plaza stop” legislation is designed to protect. They opened stores in buildings that are now deemed to be of historic significance or in world heritage sites. If the proposal is adopted, these intruders would have to vacate their current premises by January 2016.

If the KDNP’s bill on Sunday closings was a bad idea three years, it is doubly so today. The government has enough on its plate: corruption cases, strained relations with the United States, the internet tax, and the growing displeasure of Brussels over the Hungarian government’s flaunting of every rule in the book. This move is blatantly discriminatory against foreign companies.

A blogger who happens to be familiar with the retail trade brought up multiple arguments against the proposal. It is injurious not only to the financial well-being of the stores but also to the employees who receive a higher salary (+50%) for working on Sundays. Stores also often hire outsiders for the weekends. These people are happy to supplement their meager salaries with some extra work. In these chains Sunday is the third busiest day of the week, after Saturday and Friday.

How would people feel about this restriction? The Christian Democrats claim that they discussed the matter with employees and with families who have many children and that they were most enthusiastic about the plan. I doubt that the party is basing its estimates on scientifically conducted polls because I’m almost certain that the great majority of the population would be outraged at the very idea. I talked to people who went through the times during the Kádár regime when everything closed at 5 p.m. and who said how happy people were when stores were open on Thursday nights. Apparently everybody felt liberated when, after the change of regime, stores were open all day long, including Sundays. The Christian Democrats bring up the examples of Austria and Germany where stores are closed on Sundays. But it is one thing to have a long tradition of Sunday closings, to which people are accustomed, and another thing entirely when people who are used to stores being open seven days a week for  the last twenty-five years are now being told that, sorry Charlie, no more family shopping on Sundays.

A couple of online sites offer their readers the possibility to vote on the matter. I checked out both, and a sizable (although again unscientific) majority opposes the measure. On one site: 69%. Another blogger makes fun of the Christian Democrats, saying “nonexistence must be hard for a party.” They feel that they have to come up with something now and again, but they surely picked a very bad time to introduce this bill. I must agree with him. I can already see another 100,000 demonstrators on the streets all over the country if the government makes Sunday shopping impossible.

Hungarian citizenship offers escape route from troubled Ukraine

The Hungarian citizenship scandal is naturally growing by the hour, especially since today the second installment of Index’s revelations became public. Before I go into some of the details, let me first tell you about the official reaction of Fidesz and specifically of Zsolt Semjén, whose only job seems to be the “unification of the nation.” He claimed yesterday that the process of granting citizenship has been carefully monitored all along by the administration, which if necessary calls on the police and the Hungarian secret service to uncover fraud. The attack against the government’s citizenship program is most likely the work of  foreign powers who want to dissuade Hungarians from applying for Hungarian citizenship. I assume these foreign powers are Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, and Serbia. Semjén also had a few friendly words for his own compatriots: he warned them that cooperation with foreign secret service agencies is treason. So, Bálint Szalai of Index had best start preparing for a long jail sentence! The same fate might also befall those politicians who dare inquire about the irregularities.

Today Fidesz called on the “left” to refrain from inflaming the public “against Hungarians living outside the homeland.” The statement claimed that the news that broke about the thousands of phony new citizens was actually orchestrated by the opposition parties. It is “part of a campaign against dual citizenship” that the politicians of MSZP and DK opposed already in 2004.

Although the government and Fidesz try to minimize the gravity of the situation, if the news turns out to be true and the details are accurate, the European Union might be alarmed by these developments. As Attila Ara-Kovács, head of DK’s foreign policy cabinet, pointed out this morning on ATV’s Start, one reason that Romania has so much difficulty joining the Schengen nations is its earlier decision to offer Romanian citizenship to residents of Moldova. If the estimates of the number of people in Ukraine who now hold Hungarian citizenship legally or illegally as well as those who may apply for citizenship in the near future are at all accurate, it might mean an eventual exodus of as many as 120,000-150,000 people from Ukraine where the current political and military situation is grave. As the Ukrainian-Hungarian Miklós Kovács, whom I quoted yesterday, said today in an interview with György Bolgár of Klubrádió, a newly granted Hungarian citizenship is like Noah’s Ark for Ukrainians. These people are convinced that a flood is coming that will engulf the country in the form of the Russian army. In this case, they will have a means of escape.

Hungarian citizenship is Noah's Ark for Ukrainian citizens

For the time being there are no comparable problems in Serbia, but the country is in terrible financial straits and it looks as if Serbia will not be able to join the European Union any time soon. There are 250,000 Hungarians living in Serbia, in addition to all those non-Hungarians who can easily find an ancestor who was a citizen of Hungary before 1920. A fair number of those who took out Hungarian citizenship plan to use the Hungarian passport as a way to get to Western Europe.

In his second article Bálint Szalai gave more details about how the whole scheme works. As I wrote yesterday, right after January 2011 the government set out to acquire as many new Fidesz-friendly citizens as possible. Semjén appeared from time to time to triumphantly announce the latest figures. As it stands now, 654,534 people have applied for Hungarian citizenship since the beginning of the program.

The Index article has a breakdown of these applicants by country. Perhaps most shocking are the figures for Ukraine whose Hungarian population was 150,000 in 2001, a number that most likely has decreased since. Yet 91,275 people applied for and about 80,000 received Hungarian citizenship. The numbers for Serbia are also high: 124,811 out of a Hungarian population of about 250,000.  The Romanian figures are modest in comparison: 420,345  applied for citizenship out of a Hungarian population of 1,230,000.

Altogether only 20,867 applications have been rejected since January 1, 2011. These rejections most likely took place after March 2013 when the rules were tightened somewhat. Prior to that date even village notaries or mayors were allowed to grant citizenship, and we know they could easily be bribed. After March 2013 only government offices of járások, sub-units of counties, could handle citizenship matters. Instead of many thousands of offices, an applicant could get a passport at only 300 locations. That meant that the price of Hungarian citizenship went up considerably. The village notary might be satisfied with 500 euros, the officials higher up wanted more. And with tighter scrutiny corrupt officials could no longer approve every case that came to them. They had to be selective. Nonetheless, according to the article, people close to this business venture estimate that 30% of these phony cases still go through.

The Index articles obviously hit home in government circles. Suddenly the authorities became vigilant. The Kemecsei Járási Hivatal (Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg) just informed the county police headquarters that a twenty-one-year-old Ukrainian man tried to get citizenship in their office although he does not speak or understand Hungarian. The poor fellow picked the wrong time.

There might be a lull in the sale of Hungarian citizenship, but unless the whole procedure is tightened up the problem cannot be solved. Tightening up means abandoning the “simplified” procedure that was adopted for the sole reason of getting votes for the Fidesz government. Citizenship is a serious matter; it should involve a thorough background check that takes time. I doubt, however, that the present government is willing to be that scrupulous. Their “unification of nation” factory has a fast-moving citizenship assembly line with virtually no quality control. And hence the fraud will continue. It might just cost a little more money for the hopefuls.

Plans to destroy independent Hungarian civil society: The Norway Fund

A few days ago I wrote a post about János Lázár’s attack on the commercial television stations, especially on RTL Klub. I discussed how the station retaliated by including news that until now it had avoided broadcasting, perhaps not wanting to raise the hackles of the Orbán government. They were hoping, I assume, that by avoiding risky topics the station might be left alone. The strategy didn’t work. It has become obvious that the Orbán government wants to destroy RTL Klub because it is owned by a foreign company.

Just today György Barcza, the new pro-government editor-in-chief of Napi Gazdaság, attacked the CEO of RTL Klub, demanding “more humility and less arrogance from someone who is eating the bread of Hungarians and who at times must fall back on the assistance of Hungarians.” What caused the outburst? Napi Gazdaság, a paper allegedly dealing with economics and finance, accused RTL of spending 1,650,000,000 forints on honoraria, thereby demonstrating the vast riches accumulated by the firm. The correct number was 1,650,000. The very idea that a private firm is accused of living off of Hungarians is pretty outrageous, and that this was said by a so-called economist is truly outlandish.

Now let’s move on to the NGOs that the government finds objectionable. 444 got hold of the government’s list of thirteen NGOs which are, so to speak, black-listed.  The government objects to organizations involved in civil and human rights, like TASZ (Társaság a Szabadságjogokért), and organizations dealing with women’s issues, like Nők a Nőkért Együtt az Erőszak Ellen Egyesület (Nane), the feminist Magyar Női Érdekérvényesítő Alapítvány, and Patriarchátust Ellenzők Társasága (Patent). Orbán and Co. have a real aversion to transparency, so it is not surprising that Transparency International Magyarország Alapítvány is on the list together with K-Monitor Közhasznú Egyesület and the Asimov Alapítvány that is connected to Átlátszó, a site dealing with investigative journalism. Anything that has either “liberal” or “democracy” in its name is out, and finally there are the gays and lesbians who have been attacked lately by Imre Kerényi, a close adviser of Viktor Orbán, and by Zsolt Semjén, head of the Christian Democratic party and between 2010 and 2014 deputy prime minister. So, both Labrisz Leszbikus Egyesület and Szivárvány (Rainbow) Misszió Alapítvány are on the list. And let’s not forget the Roma Sajtóközpont (a press agency on Roma affairs).

NGOsOn June 19 KEHI (Kormányzati Ellenőrző Hivatal = State Audit) sent out letters to these organizations and gave them one week to release all documents having anything to do with the Norway Fund. Most of them have already refused to “cooperate” because they claim, as does the management of the Norway Fund in Brussels, that KEHI has no legal right to audit; the funds these NGOs received are not under the jurisdiction of the Hungarian state. Of course, the Hungarian government has a different opinion on the matter.

Átlátszó and the Asimov Alapítvány announced that they “would not even open the door” to the officials of KEHI if they show up. Krétakör, a theater group, also refused to cooperate and for good measure posted a video on Facebook depicting the head of the group leaving a brief message to the appropriate official of KEHI refusing to allow KEHI to investigate. Szivárvány Misszió also sent a letter to the official in charge in which they said that they “don’t handle state funds” and therefore they don’t know on what basis they are included in the investigation of state funds.

The sad fate of Hungarian NGOs has already received international publicity. Huffington Post published an article by Jon Van Til, professor emeritus of Urban Studies and Community Planning at Rutgers University, who spent some time teaching in Hungary. The title of the article is “Even the ruler of Hungary needs an independent third sector.” Van Til realizes, as by now most people who follow Hungarian politics do, that in Hungary “a duly elected government seems bent on creating a one-party state that controls nearly every aspect of the country’s life–public, civic, voluntary and even religious.”  Van Til considers the conflict between the Norwegian and Hungarian governments “bizarre” because the Hungarian government’s position is that “grants may be received from sources outside the government, but only if they are managed by the government and are directed to organizations it approves.”

The list of the thirteen organizations tells us a lot about the Orbán government. All that talk about the democracy that the Orbán government allegedly established between 2010 and 2014 is hogwash. Instead, Viktor Orbán is striving to establish a one-party system. Whoever doesn’t see this is blind. All those who stand in his way, be they RTL Klub or TASZ, will be crushed one way or the other.

One final word on the possibility that the attack on the gay and lesbian organizations that received funds from the NorwayFund might be part of a general governmental campaign against homosexuals. I already wrote about Imre Kerényi’s outburst, but now we have another high government official and politician, Zsolt Semjén, bringing up the subject. I should mention that Semjén is not the sharpest knife in the drawer and there is good reason to believe that he, just like former President Pál Schmitt, plagiarized his dissertation.

Semjén had a long interview on HírTV’s P8, a program that can be seen on Friday (péntek) at 8:oo p.m. During the interview he talked about the composition of the new Orbán government, the role of the Christian Democratic party, the preponderance of Protestants in the government, and, of all things, homosexuality. According to Semjén, “a small, yet loud interest group that wants to force this deviant behavior receives serious assistance from Brussels.” Actually, he used the word “brutális támogatás” instead of “serious assistance” where “brutális” nowadays is used to indicate something large and concentrated. As for same-sex marriage, Semjén opined that if two men can get married, “why not three?” A rather odd idea that popped into his head which he, I’m sure, finds hilarious. I assume the huge assistance from Brussels refers to the Norway Fund’s two recipients, the Labrisz Leszbikus Egyesület which received €62,436 and Szivárvány Misszió Alapítvány, a mere €4,163.

The Hungarian Liberal Party’s youth organization wrote an open letter to Zsolt Semjén in which they accused him of discrimination, which is unacceptable in a real democracy. But the problem is that we have to face the fact that Hungary is no longer a democracy and if the Norway Fund gives in on this score, it will acquiesce in Hungarian democracy’s systematic dismemberment.

Ukrainian-Hungarian relations during the Orbán years

Today I’m going to survey Hungarian-Ukrainian relations over the course of the last four years, since Viktor Orbán won the election. You may recall that the new prime minister began his diplomatic rounds with a trip to Poland, which was supposed to signal a foreign policy that would put the emphasis not so much on relations with western Europe as on relations with other central and eastern European nations. Of course, he also made several official visits to Brussels, but they were quick trips related to Hungary’s membership in the Union. There is a handy list, compiled by MTI, on Orbán’s foreign visits, showing that Ukraine was one of the first countries he visited. It was on November 12, 2010 that he traveled to Kiev. Shortly thereafter, on November 30, he went to Moscow.

Ukrainian-Hungarian flagsSo, let’s see what Orbán had to say about Hungarian-Ukrainian relations at the time. He claimed that former Hungarian governments hadn’t paid enough attention to Ukraine, but from here on everything would change because “the current Ukrainian leadership stabilized Ukraine” even as he is “working on stabilizing Hungary.” He was looking forward to cooperation between two stable countries, and he expressed his appreciation that Viktor Yanukovych’s government had withdrawn some legislation that was injurious to the Hungarian minority in Subcarpathia. A few months earlier, during one of his visits to Brussels, Orbán had a meeting with Anders Fogh Rasmussen, secretary-general of NATO, during which he commented favorably on the new Ukrainian government (Yanukovych became president of Ukraine on February 25, 2010), which he considered to be a “reliable” partner.

Since 2010 Ukrainian-Hungarian relations have been friendly. In fact, behind the scenes they were quite close. Here I will give just one example of how close: the story of Oleksandr Shepelev, former member of the Ukrainian parliament. Shepelev belonged to Yulia Tymoshenko’s party from 2006 until December 2012. The Ukrainian government charged him with three contract killings and one attempted murder. In addition, he was alleged to have embezzled one billion dollars of government funds which, they contended, he pumped into Rodovid, an ailing bank with which he was associated. He fled Ukraine, fearing for his safety. The Ukrainian government went to Interpol asking for his arrest. He and his family were found in Budapest in July 2013 where he was seeking political asylum. The Ukrainian online newspaper Kyiv Post triumphantly announced on September 30 that “the Hungarian authorities have denied refugee status to former Ukrainian member of parliament Oleksandr Shepelev, a diplomatic source told Interfax-Ukraine.” The Hungarian judicial system ordered the Shepelev couple to be incarcerated until the immigration authorities decided their fate. Half a year went by and there was still no decision about the Shepelevs.

According to Indexthe Hungarian government that was asked to extradite the Shepelevs to Ukraine was quite eager to oblige. Vitali Zakharchenko, the just recently dismissed minister of interior, came to Budapest several times to confer with his Hungarian colleague, Sándor Pintér, about the fate of Shepelev. Viktor Pshonka, the prosecutor-general of Ukraine whose garish house we admired online, who since was also dismissed by the Ukrainian parliament and is currently in hiding, also paid a visit to Budapest to confer with Hungary’s own chief prosecutor, Péter Polt. In fact, the Hungarian government was certain that Shepelev would be in Kiev soon enough, and they leaked the impending extradition to reporters. The Hungarian courts, however, intervened. In a December 9 hearing the judge ruled that the reasons given by the immigration office for a denial of political asylum were insufficient. Shepelev, who might have been thrown into jail for life in Ukraine, was temporarily saved by the Hungarian judiciary despite the best efforts of the Orbán government.

The immigration office had to make a decision by January 6 but nothing happened. At this point Galina Shepeleva threatened the prison authorities with a hunger strike. Shepelev’s lawyer, after looking at the documents submitted by the immigration office, came to the conclusion that the office was following the explicit orders of the Hungarian government. In brief, Viktor Orbán was effectively assisting Yanukovych’s thoroughly corrupt government go after a political opponent, possibly on trumped-up charges.

As long as Vladimir Putin and Viktor Yanukovych were both in power Viktor Orbán’s situation was easy. He could have excellent relations with both. But now Yanukovych, who according to Orbán brought “stability to Ukraine,” is gone and Putin has sent troops to the Crimea. Orbán, as prime minister of a country that is a member state of the European Union, is supposed to follow the lead of the European Union. The prime ministers or presidents of most European countries, including Hungary’s neighbors, have openly condemned the Russian military action. Viktor Orbán is silent.

The Russian military move is clearly illegal. The reference point is the so-called Budapest Memorandum of 1994 signed by Bill Clinton, John Major, Boris Yeltsin, and Leonid Kuchma, who was then the president of Ukraine. The complete text of the Budapest Memorandum is available on the Internet. The parties agreed, among other things, “to refrain from economic coercion designed to subordinate to their own interest the exercise by Ukraine of the rights inherent in its sovereignty and thus to secure advantages of kind.” In this light, Putin’s economic pressure on Ukraine was already a violation of the agreement. Point 2 of the agreement states that “the United States of America, the Russian Federation, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, reaffirm their obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine.”

The ineffectual János Martonyi did go to Ukraine with the Czech and Slovak foreign ministers. Poland sent only an undersecretary. They went to Kiev and the Donetsk region where they held most likely absolutely useless talks with Ukrainian leaders. Martonyi subsequently visited the Subcarpathian region where he conferred with leaders of the Hungarians living there who hold conflicting political opinions. Ever since Orbán won the election in 2010 the Hungarian government has given financial help to one faction while it has ignored the other. It looks as if the main difference between the two groups is their attitude toward the Yanukovych government. The Yanukovych government, most likely as a sign of its appreciation for Viktor Orbán’s support, lifted some of the discriminatory pieces of legislation previously enacted. That made some of the Hungarians supporters of the Yanukovych regime. Others sided with the supporters of the European Union. Throughout his visit to the region Martonyi kept emphasizing the need for unity. However, under the present circumstances I’m not at all sure what this means. Supporting whom? The parliament in Kiev rather foolishly abrogated the language law enacted in 2012 but thanks to the intervention of the acting president it is still in force. Therefore it is also difficult to figure out what Martonyi’s silly motto, “Don’t hurt the Hungarians,” which he repeated on this occasion, means in this particular case.

For a good laugh, which we all need today, here is what the sophisticated deputy prime minister, Zsolt Semjén, said about the Ukrainian crisis last night in an interview on HírTV. “It is a good thing to have something between us and Russia.” Let’s hope that this statement, however primitive, means that Hungary stands behind the territorial integrity of Ukraine.