Author: Eva S. Balogh

The Hungarian government turns up the heat on the NGOs

Yesterday I wrote about Viktor Orbán’s pro-Russian policy, which does not endear him to Washington. Another sore point is the Hungarian treatment of certain NGOs and the attacks of late on independent organizations that receive money from the Norwegian Civic Fund. Barack Obama specifically mentioned the importance of NGOs as watchdogs over rogue states like Hungary. One would think that Viktor Orbán might try to mend fences with the U.S. by retreating a bit on this issue and not pursuing the controversial attacks on the Ökotárs Foundation, the distributor of the Norwegian Civic Funds. But no, these attacks have shifted into even higher gear.

In May the government ordered KEHI (Kormányzati Ellenőrző Hivatal = State Audit) to investigate the case. The Norwegians consider the investigation illegal because in their opinion the money Ökotárs distributed among several NGOs was not part of the Hungarian budget. The money never entered the Hungarian treasury in any way. The funds came straight from an office entrusted with the task located in Brussels.

If the Hungarian government had wanted to remove at least this particular sore point from the agenda, they could have quietly dropped the case and simply forgotten about the report KEHI prepared. Or they could have come out with a very mild reprimand for some lax practices. But Viktor Orbán wouldn’t be Viktor Orbán if he had chosen that path. Instead, yesterday KEHI released its 40-page report in which it accused Ökotárs of mismanagement, fraud, forgery of private documents, and unauthorized financial activities.

As usual, Magyar Nemzet was the first publication to write about the report. Their initial article indicated that the KEHI document is already in the hands of János Lázár. From that point on Magyar Nemzet kept publishing shocking reports about the frivolous items these NGOs spent their money on. The one that caused the greatest uproar was the purchase of tampons. It turned out that the Kékpont Foundation was guilty of this particular crime. The foundation, which deals with drug addicts, gave “motivational” hygienic packages to the addicts, and the tampons were in packages distributed to the women. All these stories came out in Magyar Nemzet before the report was made available to the Ökotárs Foundation.

Yesterday at last the document itself appeared on KEHI’s website. Okotárs over the years distributed 500 million forints and KEHI found something wrong with 200 million worth of the grants. Actually, the questionable items amounted to only 10 million (about $41,000). Yet Lázár is outraged and wants to renegotiate the contract with the Norwegian government. He promptly invited the “appropriate Norwegian minister” to Hungary for a friendly chat. Then, perhaps realizing the absurdity of his suggestion, he added that after all he would be ready to meet the Norwegian politician in Brussels.

Norwegian flag

What will Lázár tell the “appropriate Norwegian minister”? Norway should break the contract with the Ökotárs Foundation since it is not worthy of Norway’s trust. The funds should be distributed by “state or private organizations.” The English translation of the report will be sent to the Norwegian ambassador in Budapest as well as to the European Commission.

But not all accusations are in the KEHI report. Népszabadság reported that investigators at KEHI complained about Veronika Móra’s frequent meetings with American diplomats as well as her visits to the Norwegian embassy. These kinds of contacts are suspect in the eyes of the regime, as we know from Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal” speech in Romania.

Meanwhile Magyar Nemzet kept attacking both the Norwegian government and Ökotárs. Yesterday morning an article appeared in the paper which claimed, on the basis of information coming from KEHI, that Ökotárs passed on important documents for safekeeping to the Norwegian embassy. And that is not all. Officials at the embassy postdated certain documents. While KEHI investigators were at it, they decided to accuse the Financial Mechanism Office (FMO) that handles the Norwegian funds in Brussels of complicity because its official suggested to Ökotárs that it move all its documents out of Hungary.

Late last night journalists from more independent media outlets began looking at the findings of KEHI. András Földes of Index observed that only in history books could one find examples of such accusations that used to lay the groundwork for show trials in the Rákosi period. And, he added, “the officials are actually proud of it.” The proof presented to the journalists did not convince them, but they surmised that the officials of KEHI simply did what was expected of them by the Hungarian government. The results were preordained. Without going into the details, the KEHI officials, by pasting together parts of different sentences, actually falsified the intended meaning of Ökotárs’s CEO. The reporter for Index cites several dubious practices of KEHI that call into question the validity of the charges.

In light of the above it is no surprise that Veronika Móra, CEO of Ökotárs, said to MTI today that it is impossible to respond to “accusations that are not supported by facts.” If the KEHI officials found irregularities, they should have described them precisely, but in the document one finds only generalizations. It is full of phrases like: “it also happened,” “there was also such a case.” Ökotárs is ready to go to court and hopes for a favorable verdict.

As for the Norwegian response to the publication of the KEHI report, according to a brief English-language article on the Norwegian internet site, The Local, the Norwegian government already considered the KEHI probe illegal and it is unlikely that after this most likely fraudulent report they will change their minds. It is worth quoting some passages from this article:

Hungary’s squeeze on foreign-funded NGOs has been criticized by Norway and the United States…. US President Barack Obama last month included Hungary in a list of countries where “endless regulations and overt intimidation increasingly target civil society.”…  Relations between the US and Hungary sank further last week when Washington issued entry bans to six unnamed Hungarian government officials it suspected of corruption. The US charge d’affaires in Budapest, Andre Goodfriend, told AFP on Tuesday that “intimidation of civil society” as well as “centralisation of authority, lack of transparency, and corruption” could prevent the US continuing as an ally of Hungary.

Norway was tough all along but now it must feel even more hardened since the United States is supporting its stance on this matter.

Viktor Orbán picks another fight with the West, this time over the Southern Stream

I know that everybody is intensely interested in the Hungarian government’s latest brainstorm, the introduction of an internet tax, but I would rather wait with an analysis of this latest scandal until it becomes clear what the fate of the proposal will be. So far the reaction to this new tax has been so vehement that the government most likely will have to retreat. When an article in the right-wing Válasz predicts that “if we had an election today Fidesz would lose big,” I think it’s time to order a quick turnabout. I would like to add just one observation on a related topic: the Hungarian budget must be in a sorry state if an additional tax must be levied on soap and detergent, allegedly because they are harmful to the environment. Let’s not contemplate the detrimental effect of curtailing the use of soap because this would take us too far afield.

So, instead of dealing with the effects of an internet tax, I will look at other recent governmental decisions that have been detrimental to Hungary’s relations with the United States and the European Union. What I have in mind is Viktor Orbán’s flirtation with Putin’s Russia, which is being watched with growing concern in Washington and Brussels. Already there have been a couple of moves indicating close cooperation with Russia that raised eyebrows in the democratic world: the building of a nuclear power plant by a Russian firm on Russian money, Hungary’s refusal to support the common European position on the Russian sanctions, a tête-à-tête between Gazprom and the Hungarian prime minister followed by the Hungarian decision to stop supplying gas to Ukraine, and the government’s decision to let Gazprom use Hungarian facilities to store gas in case Russia cuts off the flow of gas through Ukraine.

These moves worried and irritated the United States and the European Union, only compounding their concerns about all the transgressions of the rules of democracy committed by the Fidesz government against the Hungarian people. Years have gone by; at last western politicians are slowly, ever so slowly deciding that they have had enough. After Norway it was the United States that openly showed its dissatisfaction with the domestic and foreign policies of the Orbán government. Yet, as the last few days have demonstrated, Viktor Orbán is not changing tactics. On the contrary, as I wrote yesterday, he is strengthening ties with countries whose relations with the United States and the European Union are strained. Almost as if Viktor Orbán purposefully wanted to have an open break with Hungary’s western allies.

Yesterday one could still hope that Viktor Orbán would  come to his senses and would at least make some gestures, but as yesterday’s meeting between Péter Szijjártó and Victoria Nuland indicated, the new Hungarian foreign minister was sent to Washington without a Plan B. By today, however, most likely in his absence, the government came out with a new idea. What if the Hungarian office of taxation and customs (NAV) announces that in the last several years they have been diligently pursuing their investigation of those criminal elements who through tax fraud unfairly competed against the American company Bunge? Maybe it will work. Mihály Varga, minister of national economy, announced this morning that four of the culprits are already in jail. Very nice, but there is a fly in the ointment. Most likely the U.S. State Department remembers, as I do, that András Horváth, the whistleblower at NAV, months ago gave a detailed description of the ways in which these criminals operated. He asked NAV to investigate and disclose their findings, but the managers of the tax office first fired Horváth and a couple of days later announced that after an internal investigation found everything in perfect order. So I doubt that the Americans will fall for that bogus story.

Yesterday Portfólió asked “how to make the USA more angry with Hungary,” but they “did not have the faintest idea that the government has been holding the best answer to that and it beats every idea [the Portfólió] have ever had.” So, what is it? In order to understand the situation we have to go back to the controversy over Russia’s new pipeline already under construction–the Southern Stream–that would supply Russian gas to Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, Slovenia, Greece, and Italy. The United States and the European Union were never too happy about the project and now, in the middle of the Russian-Ukrainian crisis, they are especially leery of Putin’s plans. In fact, the European Commission asked the Bulgarians to stop the construction of the pipeline in their country. They obliged. The European Union also warned Serbia that they can forget about future membership in the European Union if they agree to support the project right now.

southern stream

In Hungary construction has not yet begun, but the Orbán government seemed to be afraid that something similar would happen to them what happened to the Bulgarians. They decided to act. Changing the law by now has become a Fidesz pastime. Today Antal Rogán proposed an amendment to a 2008 law on natural gas that will allow any gas company to construct a pipeline. The original law, in harmony with laws of a similar nature in other countries, specified that the company in charge of the construction has to be a certified transmission system operator who must conform to international rules. Since pipelines are transnational projects, the countries involved must coordinate their individual projects. What the Hungarians hope is that as a result of this amendment Hungary will not be bound by any international constraint. Starting the project will depend only on the Hungarian Energy Office, which could give permission to any company it chooses to construct the pipeline. Portfólió suspects that both the European Union and the United States will be “furious” upon hearing this latest Hungarian ruse.

Clever Hungarian lawyers, who seem to specialize in circumventing the letter of the law, might think that this scheme is foolproof, but I suspect that EU lawyers will find the legislation full of holes. Hungarian papers suggest that the Orbán government is playing for time. But the case is settled, they argue; the pipeline will be built. Surely no one will force Hungary to destroy it.

Let’s contemplate another scenario. What if the European Union and the United States in joint action put such pressure on the Hungarian government that the plan must be abandoned? As it is, according to analysts, Budapest is already between a rock and a hard place. When political scientist Gábor Török, who has the annoying habit of sitting on the fence, says that “the Orbán government is in big trouble. It was before but now it is different. It will not fall, surely not now…. But if it does not recognize the fork in the road or if it chooses the wrong road, we will mark the events of today as a definite turning point.” And in an interview this afternoon Ferenc Gyurcsány twice repeated his belief that Hungary is at the verge of leaving the Union and, when it happens, it will not be Viktor Orbán’s choice.

I wouldn’t go that far, but I do predict that the screws will be tightened. Among those who will apply pressure will be Norway since the Hungarian government audit office just came out with its report claiming that Ökotárs, the organization in charge of distributing the Norwegian Civil Funds, has used the money inappropriately. A criminal investigation will be launched.

We know that Barack Obama said that the American government supports NGOs in countries where they are under fire. Today we learned that Veronika Móra, chairman of Ökotárs, was a member of a delegation that visited Washington in late September. During that trip the NGO leaders were received by President Obama in the White House. By contrast, Péter Szijjártó did not get any higher than one of the assistant undersecretaries of the State Department. If I were Viktor Orbán, I would take that as a warning.

Hungarian foreign minister in Washington: A stalemate

Let’s cut to the chase: neither the Hungarian nor the American position has changed despite Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó’s meeting with Assistant Undersecretary Victoria Nuland in Washington today. So far we have two brief reports on the meeting. The first was published in Magyar Nemzet; its source is HírTV, which sent its own crew to Washington for the occasion. The second is from the Washington correspondent of MTI, which I found in HVG. The former is a more expansive summary of what transpired between Nuland and Szijjártó, complete with direct quotations from Szijjártó himself.

What did we learn from this report? Despite repeated American explanations of why the U.S. government is unable to reveal the names of the individuals who have been banned from entering the U.S., Szijjártó was still hoping for such information. Here is Szijjártó in his own words: “I asked the government of the United States to share with us creditable information on the basis of which they accuse certain Hungarian citizens of corruption.” As long as there is no such information “we cannot move forward…. It is only the United States that can make the first move.” A stalemate. The United States expects the Hungarian government to clean up the country’s thoroughly corrupt behavior toward international businesses while the Hungarian government’s interpretation of the situation is much more narrowly defined. As far as the Hungarians are concerned, there may be some corrupt officials but unless the United States names these people the Hungarian government can do nothing. The only positive development, according to Szijjártó, was that Nuland did not repeat the threat uttered by Goodfriend that “if that trend continues it may reach a level where the United States can no longer cooperate with Hungary as an ally.” I do hope that Szijjártó doesn’t interpret this omission to mean that Goodfriend made an empty threat  because I’m almost certain that if Hungary stonewalls, other harsh steps will be taken against the Orbán government. And for the time being stonewalling seems to be the Hungarian diplomatic strategy.

The MTI report was more upbeat. Who knows why Szijjártó changed his story, but he did. No more talk about who will have to take the next step. Instead, he emphasized his government’s willingness to fight corruption and said that in this fight the two governments can count on each other. Economic and military relations between the two countries are excellent. According to Szijjártó, Nuland was full of praise for Hungary’s decision to supply gas to Ukraine. There was an interesting remark made in passing. It turned out that Nuland brought up some specific criticisms of certain pieces of Hungarian legislation, but Szijjártó brushed these objections aside as being irrelevant because they have been accepted and approved by the European Commission.

György Szapáry, Hungarian ambassador to Washington, and Péter Szijjártó MTI / Ministry of Forreign Affairs and Trade / Tamás Szémann

György Szapáry, Hungarian ambassador to Washington, and Péter Szijjártó
MTI / Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade / Photo: Tamás Szémann

What did the Hungarian government know about the coming storm? It seems a lot, and not only about the corruption cases. One had to be blind and deaf not to notice the growing dissatisfaction of foreign governments with the Orbán regime. One also assumes that Hungarian diplomats do their job and write reports on the current attitude toward Hungary in their host countries. Of course, given the atmosphere in government offices in the Orbán regime, it is possible that the ambassadors don’t dare tell the truth. Still, although there was a stream of denials of any wrongdoing and everything was chalked up to Hungarian liberals’ squealing and turning against their own country, I believe they knew full well that trouble was brewing all around. And yet Népszabadság‘s Ildikó Csuhaj, who seems to have good Fidesz sources, claimed today that Viktor Orbán himself knew nothing about the NAV affair. One wonders how much disinformation from “reliable” Fidesz sources lands on Csuhaj’s desk. This seems to be one of them.

Although there was plenty of evidence of growing U.S. dissatisfaction with Viktor Orbán’s policies, he did not change his ways on issues that seemed important to Washington. He even ignored Zsolt Németh’s warning. I wrote about a conference held in Washington on October 2 where one of the speakers was Németh, an old friend of Orbán–at least until recently, who received a very chilly reception. It was here that Victoria Nuland delivered the speech I republished in Hungarian Spectrum. Today Németh decided to speak and tell the world that he had forewarned Orbán about the impending bomb that might be coming from Washington. The interview with Németh appeared in Válasz. In it Németh expressed his hope that “several of the questions surrounding the [NAV] affair will be cleared up.” (As we know by now they were not.) Hungarian right-wing journalists dismiss corruption as the real cause of the present situation. In their interpretation the reference to corruption is only a pretext. Válasz‘s reporter also wanted to know whether the real reason for the ban on corrupt officials is Viktor Orbán’s relations with Russia. Németh wouldn’t dismiss corruption entirely, but he thinks that in addition to the Russian connection there are other very irritating issues: the NGOs, Hungary’s attitude toward Ukraine, the Russian sanctions, and the speech on “illiberalism.” Németh sensed all that, and on his return to Budapest he informed the foreign minister–still Tibor Navracsics then–and the prime minister of his experience. At the end of the interview Németh indicated that a new chapter should open in U.S.-Hungarian relations: “we are right after the election, both countries will send new ambassadors. Let’s see the good side of this affair: we are at a point from which we can take off.” Although not in so many words, what Németh suggests is an entirely new Hungarian foreign and domestic orientation.

Németh is most likely right. I can see no room for improvement in U.S.-Hungarian relations if the Orbán foreign policy proceeds apace. I even have my doubts about improvement if Orbán makes some adjustments in his domestic and foreign policies. By now Orbán strongly believes in his vision of a new Hungary in which liberalism has no place. This new Hungary is an authoritarian country with pseudo-democratic trappings. He is also convinced in the declining West and the rising East. He will not change course. He really can’t. He is what he is. He can never satisfy the demands of western democracies.

Just to reinforce my point about Orbán’s mindset, here are two pieces of news about the latest Hungarian diplomatic moves. Hungary may be experiencing a serious diplomatic crisis with the United States but the foreign ministry just announced that Hungary will open a cultural and commercial agency in Northern Cyprus, a “country” recognized by only one country, Turkey. This move might make Hungary’s relations with two EU countries, Greece and Cyprus, less than friendly. This is a gesture toward Turkey, whose “illiberal democracy” is a thorn in the side of western democracies.

The second diplomatic move also sends a not too cordial message to the United States. Two days ago the Iranian Tasmin News Agency announced that a Hungarian parliamentary delegation is scheduled to pay an official visit to Iran. The visit will be fairly long. The delegation is headed by deputy speaker János Latorcai (KDNP). The invitation to the Hungarians was extended by the deputy speaker of the Iranian parliament Seyed Mohammad Hassan Abu Torbifard. It is interesting that reports of controversial Hungarian diplomatic moves usually don’t appear in the Hungarian press. Hungarians hear about the events from the other countries’ news agencies. From a later Tasmin News Agency report we learned that Latorcai had a meeting with the chairman of the Iranian parliament’s national security and foreign policy commission, Alaeddin Boroujerdi. According to the report, Boroujerdi made the following comment during their conversation: “the illogical and wrong policies adopted by the US and its regional allies have caused the spread of terrorism and instability across the region and their continuation has turned terrorism into a global concern.” As for Iranian-Hungarian relations, the Iranian politician said that “the two nations have great potential for the enhancement of relations in the political, economic, and cultural fields.” Latorcai, for his part, emphasized that “Budapest is determined to strengthen its ties with the Eastern nations, with Iran in particular.” One must wonder whether these diplomatic moves are the result of inexperience or, as I suspect, are designed to irritate Hungary’s allies and flaunt the country’s total independence. Whatever it is, this attitude will eventually lead to diplomatic disaster. It’s just a question of time.

American-Hungarian relations are crumbling

Let me summarize what we know so far about the U.S. action against certain Hungarian businessmen and government employees.

Initially it was reported that ten people were banned from entering the United States, but by now that number has been reduced to six. We definitely know of one businessman who reported on his fate to ATV. It was he who mentioned three employees of the Office of Taxation and Customs (NAV). One of the three was allegedly the president of NAV, Anikó Vida. The spokesman for the tax office did not deny the charge. If the number six is correct, there are still two people about whom we know nothing.

Although the Hungarian government feigns total ignorance of the details and keeps repeating that it is unable to move against the corrupt officials, in fact they have known for two weeks about the American resolve to pursue those Hungarians who have been trying to blackmail American firms and extort kickbacks of billions of forints from them.

M. André Goodfriend, chargé d’affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Budapest, sketched the timeline of events this afternoon. According to him, on October 6 he had a talk with Levente Magyar, one of the undersecretaries in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. During the meeting Goodfriend explained the significance of Proclamation 7750, which is an executive order signed by George W. Bush in 2004. The Proclamation gives the State Department power to ban corrupt individuals and their families from entering the United States. Such a ban can be imposed only by the undersecretary for political affairs–in our case by Wendy Sherman, who is the department’s fourth-ranking official. (Here is a handy chart of the structure of the State Department.)

Levente Magyar must have understood the gravity of the situation because a subsequent meeting was arranged at the request of the Hungarian foreign ministry between Péter Szijjártó and André Goodfriend. This meeting took place on October 13. The American chargé repeated everything he had already told Magyar. Szijjártó then insisted that he reveal the names of those would be affected by the ban. Goodfriend in turn explained that the American government never reveals names in cases connected to Proclamation 7750. What the U.S. expects is swift action against the culprits.

Let’s stop here for a minute. I assume that Viktor Orbán was notified immediately after the encounter between Magyar and Goodfriend on October 6, and I also suspect that the prime minister’s advice was to insist on “proof” from the Americans. When that failed, in typical Orbán fashion the decision was made to launch a counterattack. NAV leaked information to Napi Gazdaság, a financial paper owned by Századvég, a consulting firm and think tank close to Fidesz, that the United States is contemplating evoking Proclamation 7750 against certain Hungarian businessmen in retaliation for NAV’s tax probes against certain American firms. If the Hungarian government hadn’t decided on this counterattack, we perhaps would never have found out about the travel ban on the six, still unnamed individuals. Colossally stupid move, but I think it is typical. Viktor Orbán always has to have the last word.

Since October 16, the day that Napi Gazdaság published its article containing the disinformation concocted by the Hungarian government, the controversy between the United States and Hungary has been escalating rapidly. The Hungarians kept insisting on “creditable proof” while the Americans steadfastly refused to fall into the trap. Moreover, while at the beginning the controversy seemed to be connected only to widespread corruption in Hungary, as time went by it became obvious that the United States might also take action against the Orbán government’s increasingly anti-democratic behavior. A day after the appearance of the accusations against American businesses in Napi Gazdaság, an article was published in Foreign Policy magazine from which we learned that “at a meeting last month, the Community [of Democracies] set in motion a process that could result in Hungary’s removal from the council and withdrawal from the Community. If Hungary leaves, it will be an international acknowledgment  that the nation has ceased to be a democracy.”

What is the Community of Democracies? It is a global intergovernmental coalition of states founded in 2000 at the common initiative of Madeleine Albright and Polish foreign minister Bronislaw Geremek. The organization is headed by a Governing Council consisting of 26 countries, among them Hungary. Apparently it was the United States that suggested that Hungary be removed from the Council and perhaps even from the organization. Or perhaps Hungary might consider a voluntary withdrawal from the Community in order to avoid embarrassment. The likelihood of an American initiative in this case was reinforced by André Goodfriend’s observation that such a move might be warranted under the circumstances.

M. André Goodfriend at one of his press conferences

M. André Goodfriend at one of his press conferences

While the Hungarian government is stonewalling, the U.S. chargé d’affaires in Budapest, most likely following instructions from the State Department, is delivering tougher and tougher messages to the Hungarian government during fairly frequent press conferences at the embassy. Perhaps the strongest language could be heard this afternoon when Goodfriend explained the reason for American action. In Hungary prior to 2010 the level of democracy and transparency, especially in comparison to some other post-socialist countries, was high. But while in other countries the trend is toward greater democracy and transparency, in Hungary the opposite is true. “If that trend continues it may reach a level where the United States can no longer cooperate with Hungary as an ally.” Clearly, the United States is not joking–as Antal Rogán assumed only yesterday during an interview.

Let’s return briefly to the three high officials of the Hungarian tax office who most likely are implicated in the case. In what way can they engage in fraud and corruption? Here is an explanation offered by Dávid Jancsics, who is currently conducting research at the City University of New York. His expertise is corruption. He learned from two independent sources that the NAV employees demanded kickbacks from two American companies in exchange for tax breaks and a lower VAT. Apparently they demanded 2 billion forints in exchange for these favors, money that the American companies were supposed to pay to a foundation associated with Fidesz for purposes of “research and analysis.” In addition, the NAV officials promised heavy fines on the American firms’ competitors. When the Americans didn’t bite, the NAV officials began threatening them with tax probes. It was at this point that the firms turned to the American embassy and reported the bribery attempts. The implication of this analysis, if it is accurate, is frightening because in this case the tax office is part and parcel of a corruption scheme that appears to be centrally organized.

This takes us back to an old story about a whistleblower at NAV who claimed that high NAV officials refused to investigate obvious fraud cases. András Horváth, the whistleblower, said that he was mostly involved in investigating companies that dealt in agricultural products. Index came to the conclusion that one of the two American companies in question was Bunge, a leading agribusiness and food company. It is a global firm with 35,000 employees in forty countries, including Hungary. They produce among many other things cooking oil sold in Hungary under the label Vénusz. It was well known that the management of Bunge was very unhappy about the VAT fraud and that their efforts to enlist the help of NAV were fruitless. It is possible that after a lot of complaints from the Bunge management NAV officials offered to do something about the competition’s fraudulent business practices but only at a price.

Hungarian journalists in the last few days have asked several business groups, like the German-Hungarian Chamber of Commerce, about the extent of corruption in Hungary. The answer is that foreign companies have known for years about corruption involving billions. “Hungary is a part of the Balkans” by now, and the situation is only becoming worse. According to foreign business leaders, Hungarian business life is corrupt through and through. Healthy competition is impossible under such circumstances.

Péter Szijjártó is leaving Budapest for Washington tomorrow to meet Victoria Nuland. I wouldn’t like to be in his shoes.

The state of the churches in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary: An exchange of views

Today I’m republishing an exchange of letters between György Hölvényi, a Christian Democrat who is a member of the Fidesz European Parliamentary delegation, and H. David Baer, associate professor at the Texas Lutheran University. The reason for the exchange was an article that appeared in The Economist entitled “A slippery Magyar slope.” The article was about the “ill-named law on ‘the Right to Freedom of Conscience and Religion, and on the Legal Status of Churches, Religious Denominations and Religious Communities.’” Hölvényi, who before becoming a MEP was deputy undersecretary in charge of the government’s relations with churches, national minorities and civil society, came to the defense of the much criticized law. Since the article in The Economist was republished by Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF), Hölvényi sent his reply to that organization, which subsequently included it in its newsletter. Baer, an expert on Hungarian religious affairs, decided to respond. His reply was also published in HRWF’s newsletter. I thought that this exchange of letters, which shines a light on the Orbán regime’s attitude toward religious freedom, was worth republishing.

First a few words about György Hölvényi. He comes from a devout Catholic family. His father was a Cistercian priest who eventually left the order and married. The young Hölvényi became involved with the Christian Democratic movement and in 1989 was one of the founders of the Christian Democratic Union. He spent many years in Brussels serving the parliamentary delegation of the European People’s Party in various capacities. As a result, his name was practically unknown in Hungary. That changed in May 2012 when he was named assistant undersecretary in Zoltán Balog’s Ministry of Human Resources.

Prior to that date the post was occupied by László Szászfalvi, who was a Hungarian Reformed minister just like Balog himself. Apparently the Catholics in the Christian Democratic Party raised a stink: two Protestant ministers were at least one too many. A Catholic must be found. Szászfalvi had to depart and came Hölvényi.

In the most recent elections for the EU parliament Hölvényi was number 12 on the Fidesz list. The party had to do very well for Hölvényi to get to Brussels. One reason for his low rank on the list was that certain positions were reserved for ethnic Hungarians from Ukraine, Romania, and Serbia. But the size of the Fidesz victory was such that he made it, and now he is a member of the new European Parliament.

The article in The Economist pointed out that “getting recognition as an ‘incorporated church’ required a two-thirds majority in Parliament. So what should be a simple administrative decision was turned into a political one, in which legislators have to assess the merits of a religion…. As a result of the law, at least 200 religious communities, including Methodists, Pentecostalists, Seventh Day Adventists, Reform Jews, Buddhists and Hindus faced a downgrading of their status…. In February 2013, Hungary’s Constitutional Court ruled that 67 groups had been deregistered unconstitutionally. However the government seems to have ignored the ruling. A government ministry rejected the written requests of at least four deregistered bodies to be added to the list of incorporated churches.”

Gábor Iványi, one of the victim's of the Orbán regime's church law

Gábor Iványi, one of the victims of the Orbán regime’s church law

With this introduction here is the exchange of letters. First, György Hölvényi’s letter written immediately after the appearance of the article in The Economist. David Baer’s letter was published only a few days ago in the HRWF newsletter.

 * * *

Response to the Erasmus blog post “A slippery Magyar slope,” September 25th 2014

The recent post of The Economist’s blog Erasmus on religious freedom in Central Europe (“A slippery Magyar slope”” by B. C., September 25th 2014) makes several misleading statements and offers a rather personal interpretation of the existing legal regulations on churches in Hungary.

Basic aspects on the registration process of churches have not been detailed in your blog post. Firstly, all associations dealing with religious activities are registered solely by the courts in Hungary. A politically highly neutral system. These communities operate independetly from the state, acoording to their own principles of faith and rituals.

The blog post makes references on “incorporated churches” in Hungary. It is crucial to know that the category of “incorporated churches,” as you call it, does not affect religious freedom at all. It is simply about financial aspects such as state subsidies for churches running social activities for the common good of the society.

It must be pointed out that many European countries apply legal distinctions between different religious organisations for various reasons. Quite often it is the Parliament who is entitled to grant them a special status (e.g. in Lithuania, Belgium). Besides, there are a number of European countries where the constitution itself places an established religion above the rest of the religious communities (e. g. in Denmark, Finland, Greece, Malta). For the record, it needs to be mentioned that the Parliament is involved in special recognition processes of the churches at different later stages also in Austria, Denmark, Portugal or Spain. In general, the European Union leaves the rules on the foundation of churches in the Member States’ competence.

As the post correctly recalls, the original Hungarian regulation on churches of 1990 was probably the most permissive in Europe. Uniquely in the world, more than 300 registered churches operated in Hungary for decades, enjoying the widest range of financial entitlements provided by the state, with no respect to their real social activities. The amended Church Act provides for a complete freedom of conscience and religion in Hungary, at the same time it eliminates errors of the uniquely permissive regulation.

When looking at international commentaries of the issue let us focus on the facts again. The relevant opinion of Venice Commission on the issue of religious freedom in Hungary stated that the Hungarian regulation in place “constitutes a liberal and generous framework for the freedom of religion.” The resolution of the Constitutional Court in Hungary referred to in your blog post did not make any reference to the freedom of religion in Hungary. On the contrary, the government’s intention with the new legislation was widely acknowledged by the Court. The US State Department’s report on religious freedem of 2013 does underline that the Fundamental Law and all legislation in Hungary defends religious freedom. Facts that have been disregarded by the author of your post.

Last but not least, the alliances of the non-incorporated churches in Hungary recognised and declared in a joint statement with the responsible Hungarian minister that they enjoy religious freedom in Hungary.

In contrast to the statements of your article, incorporated churches in Hungary include the Methodists: the United Methodist Church in Hungary is a widely recognised and active community in Hungary, as well as internationally. The fact is that Mr Iványi’s group has not been included in the UMC itself and is not recognised at all by the international Methodist bodies. Describing it as a “highly respected” church is again a serious factual mistake, reflecting a lack of information on the issue.

Coming finally to the issue of the European Court on Human Rights’ decision: some of the member judges formed special opinions to the appeal of the affected churches. Although the Hungarian government is challenging the decision, at the same time it started negotiations with the appealing communities on the remedy process.

In conclusion, I would highly recommend that your blogger B.C. pay wider attention to the facts to better understand regulations on church affairs that have been in place in Europe for decades and centuries.

HÖLVÉNYI György
Member of the European Parliament for Hungary / EPP Group

 * * *

H. David Baer’s reply:

Mr. Hölvényi writes to defend a church law that the ECtHR has found to breach the European Convention and which the Hungarian government refuses to amend.  He would thus have us believe that religious communities in Hungary enjoy religious freedom even as they are not protected by the rule of law.

Mr. Hölvényi urges that we stick to the facts. The fact is that in 2011 the government of Hungary retroactively “deregistered” religious communities already recognized as churches under Hungarian law.  The fact is that in 2013 Hungary’s Constitutional Court found this deregistration procedure unconstitutional.  The fact is that after 2013 the government of Hungary blatantly ignored the Court’s decision, refusing to treat unconstitutionally deregistered religious communities as legal churches.  The fact is that in 2014 the European Court of Human Rights found that Hungary’s unconstitutional church law also violated the right of religious freedom and the European Convention.  The fact is that the Hungarian government has still not, as of this day, acted to abide by the European Court’s decision.

Mr. Hölvényi knows these facts, because prior to being an MP in the European Parliament he was the state undersecretary responsible for dealing with the churches in Viktor Orbán’s government.  As undersecretary, Hölvényi worked closely with Zoltán Balog, Minister of Human Capacities, to obstruct implementation of the Constitutional Court’s decision so as to deny deregistered religious communities their constitutional rights. Just this past month, Péter Paczolay, the president of Hungary’s Constitutional Court, lamented openly in a public address that the Court’s decision on Hungary’s church law had never been respected or implemented.  Mr. Hölvényi bears direct responsibility for this.  Thus, to listen to him aver that Hungary’s deregistered churches enjoy religious freedom is a little like listening to a man caught stealing his neighbor’s shirt and pants aver that his neighbor has the freedom to wear underwear.

Religious communities in Hungary enjoy religious freedom the way NGO’s in Hungary enjoy freedom of association. Denied equality under the law and subject to opaque regulations, deregistered religious communities, like unpopular NGO’s, are subjected to arbitrary and expensive audits, hindered or prevented from raising money, attacked in the government controlled media, and harassed by local officials.  Mr. Hölvényi, a member of the European Parliament, should know that when citizens aren’t equal under the law they aren’t equally free.

Instead of defending Hungary’s indefensible church law, perhaps Mr. Hölvényi should encourage the government of his country to respect the rule of law, uphold its international commitments, and abide by the European Convention.

David Baer
Texas Lutheran University
USA

Mária Schmidt’s latest opus: The love story

Mária Schmidt is familiar to the readers of Hungarian Spectrum. This latest article of hers also appeared in Heti Válasz, her favorite publication. Her vision of  Jewish-non-Jewish relations as a love affair goes against everything we know about the period between the two world wars. If Sorsok Háza (House of Fates) becomes an embodiment of that love affair, we will have a totally false depiction of Hungarian reality. No wonder that the Hungarian Jewish community has great reservations about the project.

I have no doubt that the Sorsok Háza will open its doors and that what we find inside will mirror Mária Schmidt’s strange vision of modern Hungarian history. She makes it clear here that the project is a government-funded undertaking and thus no one has the right to have any say in its execution.

Mária Schmidt started off as a promising historian in the late 1980s, but soon enough she changed her chosen profession to become a party propagandist. She became chief adviser to Viktor Orbán in the second half of the 1990s and provided the underpinning of  Fidesz’s historical ideology.

The question is how long she will be useful to Viktor Orbán. Her latest excursion into the field of historical propaganda was not exactly a success story. The controversial memorial to “all the victims of  the German occupation” of March 1944 did serious damage to the already badly tarnished reputation of Viktor Orbán and his regime. 

* * *

“The Holocaust represents a value, because it has led to immeasurable knowledge at the cost of immeasurable sufferings;
thus, there is an immeasurable moral margin in it.”

Imre Kertész

I have not seen S. Z. for decades. The last time I met him was in New York in the early nineties at the place of the outstanding historian T. J., a common friend of ours, who has sadly deceased since. We got to know each other in Oxford where both of them were teaching then. S. taught Jewish history, of which subject he is one of the most widely acknowledged American academic experts, and I spent some time there on a research grant. Then S. came to Budapest for a conference, and after he gave his presentation, we went out for dinner. We talked for hours, and a lot of topics came up including the “House of Fates,” about which he had already heard a lot back in Washington and of course also during his stay here. Those who volunteered to bring him up to date concerning the state of affairs in Hungary, about me and the would-be Holocaust museum, had spared no effort to dissuade him from meeting me, both via e-mail and then personally. They were probably unaware of our long time acquaintence  which gave me the advantage that he wanted to ask me his questions and hear my answers, which is what he did. So we talked at length about the new memorial site which is in the making. I told him about the concept of the exhibitions and of the education and training center. I showed him the exterior and interior visual designs, the interior fit-out and furnishing concept. We discussed the prospective permanent exhibition in most detail. Finally he said: “If I get it right, this is a love story. A story of love between Hungarian Jews and non-Jews. A love that has survived everything. As a result of which there is still a large Hungarian Jewish community living in this country.”

Yes. This is exactly what the “House of Fates – European Education Center” is all about. This is about decision makers’ intent to take an oath on a common fate shared by all Hungarians: Jews and non-Jews alike. About the commitment to make sure that just like our predecessors we can also plan a shared future despite the cataclysms of the 20th century. This is why it is crucial for young generations to get to know and understand what the tragedy of the holocaust meant for our national community as well as what the causes, circumstances, intents and forces that had underlain and fuelled anti-Semitism in Hungary and in Europewere. Who and why had poisoned the lives of our fellow countrymen categorized as Jews even before the fateful Nazi occupation of Hungary. How and why part of the last, nearly intact European Jewish community could be so swiftly annihilated in Nazi death camps. Who are responsible for all that? Who were the ones who remained humans amidst inhumanity because they opted for what is good, at the risk of even their lives and freedom in some cases. How could the survivors start anew and process what can hardly be processed. Why the majority of those people decided to stay here, to start their lives at home again and share what their fellow countrymen had to share. For this is something unparalleled, something that is not self-evident at all, particularly if we consider the fact that in this Central and Eastern European region, and nearly in the whole of Europe, survivors decided to leave and part with their past.

The House of Fates is made up of three parts, namely an exhibition, an education and a training section. Moreover, it has an up-to-date, well-equipped conference room, a room for hosting and staging temporary exhibitions and the required infrastructural background.

The exhibition section is divided into three units: A permanent exhibition that takes 50-60 minutes to tour. The area of this exhibition is shielded so that visitors cannot use any electronic device there. The story that is related here focuses on the period between 1938 and 1948, based nearly exclusively on recollections of survivors, and is supposed to touch the feelings of the visitor, make him interested and, ideally, to prompt him to ask questions. The installation and the narrative are both targeted at the 14 to 24 year-old generation.  Having toured this exhibition unit the visitor can proceed to see the “exploration” section or go on to look at the remaining “chamber” exhibitions.  Upon entering the exploration section the visitor is (or may be) given a tablet, with the most important information concerning the items on display, including names, dates, and a lexicon, along with questions and assignments. Those interested in the chamber exhibitions may decide to see them or to come back and visit them at a later date. As our plans stand at present, the chamber exhibitions will show Hanna Szenes, the Zionist resistance, Raoul Wallenberg, Margit Slachta, Sára Salkaházi and the 1944 story of the Józsefváros Railroad Station as well as the story of the Jewish community of Budapest’s 8th  district called Józsefváros. This is where the walls of perpetrators, those responsible and the humanitarian rescuers will be installed. A videostream will be played in the exploration room, showing visitors the most important events and personalities of those years. A number of computer workstations will also be installed where additional information and data can be collected and studied. Interactive workplaces will be created for browsing and searching for information.

At the training center there will be programs bringing as close as possible to members of the “Y generation” the very feeling and experience of being excluded, outcast and persecuted, while drawing their attention to the importance and inevitability of making a choice between good and evil and individual responsibility.

Importance is also attached to offering a training program to enable teachers to teach their students about the collective persecution to which entire social groups had been exposed under the dictatorships of the 20th century, with particular focus on the tragedy of the Holocaust.

It was seventy years ago, in 1944, that Hungary suffered one of the most horrendous tragedies in its modern-age history. The second Orbán cabinet took its decision on the creation of what is known as the “House of Fates” in the context of the memorial year relating to the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust. In remembering the national tragedy seven decades after, this memorial year is intended to be a site of “creating order in our common matters” and have “peace flow through our rembrance and regard”1. In the context of the memorial year, the government has allocated a HUF 1.5 billion budget to social programs and it adopted a decision building up the Memorial to the Child Victims of the Holocaust – European Education Center at the site of the former Józsefváros Railroad Station.  I was entrusted with the role of leading the professional project team, while the implementation of the investment project was assigned to Government Commissioner Dr. Balázs Fürjes.

This assignment is a real honor for me but it is an immense responsibility and workload at the same time. It took me quite a while, wavering whether to undertake it at all. My children tried to dissuade me. As did some of my friends. One argument against taking up this job was that I would be exposed to relentless and fierce attacks. And even if all goes well, which I have staunchly believed up to this very day, I may expect nothing but denigration. Finally, I answered yes, out of love for my country. I hoped that through such an immense and successful undertaking I could perhaps make a contribution to reconciliation, to a discussion of the tragedies of the past to settle issues and to at least alleviating, if not bringing to an end, all of the evil and purposeless accusations constantly experienced even today. Thereby neutralizing or at least weakening the forces continuously calling Hungary an anti-Semitic and fascist country, using these unfounded stigmata as a political weapon to discredit the Hungarian nation as a whole. Indeed, I expected all of those who already started a media campaign against the  House of Terror Museum and spared no effort to discredit it both in Hungary and abroad, to activate themselves again, and, alas, so they did, wasting no time. The same individuals and circles, with the same vehemence, started the same ruthless attack driven by the same motives both in Hungary and abroad, against me and the prospective memorial site, unleashing that orgy of hate which is so characteristic of them. This is why the “House of Fates” project became, right from the beginning, a target of a series of attacks lead, most unfortunately, by the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Faith Communities (MAZSIHISZ). For as we were approaching the 2014 election campaign the neolog Jewish religious organization undertook to launch a frontal attack against the government – yielding to circles of intellectuals dissatisfied by the weakness and wavering of the anti-government forces – threatening to boycott the memorial year. They put together a package of three demands, calling for the discontinuation of the sculpture composition designed for Szabadság Square in remembrance of Hungary’s Nazi occupation, the removal of director-general Sándor Szakály from the helm of Veritas, a new historical research institute and a right to control and supervise the creation of the House of Fates.

sorsok haza projekt

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán tried to remove the politically motivated onslaught from among the campaign themes by inviting Jewish organizations to consultations after the elections.  Nonetheless, MAZSIHISZ and  its supporters continued their relentless campaign and their  attacks on the House of Fates. They threatened and tried to blackmail everybody cooperating with us or even considering accepting our invitation. They bombarded the members of the International Advisory Board with e-mail messages, as well as anybody else whom they could contact. They spread their accusations all over the place both in Hungary and abroad. In collaboration with certain leaders of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington – who have, to be honest, been rather negatively biased against us in the first place –, they turned Yad Vashem against us.

They are continuously inciting the Israeli Hungarian community as well. Among other charges, they argue that the name “House of Fates” is wrong or misleading, the location is not authentic, or if it is, then it is too particular; the deadline set by the government is too short for such complex work to be carried out properly, and then within one month of my appointment I was attacked for not having worked out a finished scenario. A public auto-da-fé was staged in the “Bálint House” where Professor András Gerő, arguing in favor of and working in the project team, was subjected to a ritual execution (also instead of me) by MAZSIHISZ employee László Karsai posing in the role of the grand inquisitor, in unison with the rather hot-tempered audience.

INTERNATIONAL PRESSURE

This had seemed likely to come; indeed it was to be expected. I went and kept going through this before, during, and for years after, the opening of the House of Terror Museum. However, the like of the direct and intensive international pressure I have experienced in relation to this assignment I did not even have to face at the time of the creation of the House of Terror Museum.  At that time it was only Mr. Mussatov, the then Ambassador of Russia, who protested against the new museum but his objections were settled through a joint tour of the exhibition and a discussion. The former diplomat has delivered presentations at several of our conferences since then. In regard to the “House of Fates”, however, ambassadors of a number of western countries feel compelled to lecture me on how to interpret, indeed, how we all Hungarians should interpret our 20th century history, with a special focus on the role of Miklós Horthy. I have had to sit through countless lectures delivered by western diplomats about Horthy, Hungary’s “revisionism”, the collaboration of Hungarians etc., and all of them represented countries whose history offers at least as many, if not even more, very good opportunities to raise uncomfortable questions. I was asked as early as just before Christmas 2013 by US Deputy Chief of Mission Mr. André Goodfriend – of course on a strictly “friendly” basis – for a list of the names of those working on the House of Fates project. Then a fortnight later he told me – again, on a friendly basis – that he did not agree with the participation of some of those included in the list. “I wasn’t aware that you needed to agree” was my response, also on a friendly basis. The Ambassador of the UK to Hungary assured me that Her Majesty’s government was avidly interested in the Hungarian Holocaust. This is very nice of them, particularly in view of the fact that their predecessors weren’t so very deeply concerned while the annihilation of European and particularly of Hungarian Jewry was underway. Both these gentlemen and a dozen or so of their fellow diplomats expressed their expectations and wishes in regard to the prospective exhibition. Hungary’s ambassadors in both Tel Aviv and Washington were summoned by the Departments of Foreign Affairs because of me, complaining about a remark I had made at a book presentation event, along the lines that the post-World War I system of dishonest peace treaties had been the most devastating tragedy of the 20th century and that a fair and unbiased approach should be taken when forming an opinion about Horthy’s role in history just like in the case of Kádár’s role, rather than viewing these political leaders strictly in black and white. Foreign diplomats, particularly some of the responsible officers of the US voiced their definite expectation that it should only be appropriate and necessary for the Hungarian Government to invite an international committee of historians to commit Hungary’s 20th century history to paper for us, Hungarians. They keep applying pressure to achieve such a governmental assignment. Even the US Foreign Secretary had been mobilized to achieve this end. I am particularly proud of the fact that during the latest Arab-Israeli armed conflict, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanjahu managed to find the time to send a letter to Viktor Orbán, voicing his concerns about my humble self and the House of Fates project.

As a consequence of internal political skirmishes and the unprecedented international pressure applied, both MAZSIHISZ and Yad Vashem withdrew from the International Advisory Board of the House of Fates project.  The rest of the members were also brought under pressure, to make it impossible for that board to continue its work. Therefore, instead of the next scheduled meeting of the international advisory board, we could only hold a consultation where the members present (Michael Wolffsohn and Joshua Muravchik) liked and were satisfied with our concept.

The situation changed somewhat by the middle of this summer. Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues Douglas Davidson and Sir Andrew Burns of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) ascertained, each of his own, that the misgivings concerning and attacks against the project are utterly groundless, and therefore it would be rather difficult to explain why they withdraw their support from a memorial site that will be Europe’s largest and very likely most grandiose and sophisticated such project.

Based on an initiative put forth by Director of International Jewish Affairs for the American Jewish Committee Rabbi Andrew Baker, a consultation took place in Budapest on July 28 among the House of Fates, the Páva Street Holocaust Memorial Center, MAZSIHISZ and IHRA, to remove obstacles from continued cooperation. The experts participating in the meeting raised no objection whatsoever against the contents of the exhibition and had no proposal or idea of relevance to be put on the table.  After half a day of discussions the parties agreed that a working group to be formed of the representatives of international Holocaust experts would help us with our work in regard to both the exhibition and education. The agreement so reached was broken up by MAZSIHISZ within 24 hours, again without any sound reason at all, asserting that the text that was published in the form of a press release was not the same as the one that had been agreed on, despite the fact that the president of MAZSIHISZ had approved this text beforehand in an e-mail message. Within another 24 hours IHRA  gave its support to this attitude.

The attitude of the foreign experts and officials is characterized by nothing better than what IHRA’s English Chairman Sir Burns told me at the end of the meeting in July – suggesting, again, of course, on a strictly friendly basis that I should no longer write articles, thereby referring to my text entitled Captive of the Past concerning the Szabadság Square memorial which had appeared a few weeks earlier in the weekly Heti Válasz. He and Mr. David Cesarini justified this piece of advice by referring to my responsibility for the House of Fates project which I must not jeopardize by publishing essays of sorts. All of these developments only deepened my awe and admiration of the developed western world, on account of its deep and staunch commitment to the freedom of speech and thought, even if I am beginning to vaguely recognize how much there still is for us to learn here, on the outskirts of the developed world, before we can also fully enjoy this privilege. Until then, we should best refrain from writing articles or doing things such as thinking about our own history – rather, we should be grateful and accept that all of these missions will be undertaken by them instead of ourselves, for our benefit.

MAZSIHISZ

The party-state dictatorship set up a single tightly controlled organization to lead Hungarian Jews actively practicing their religion through which it could simultaneously control both the internal affairs and the international relations of the Hungarian Jewry. Only the most determined individuals remained members of Jewish organizations during the decades of the party-state rule, partly owing to the above mentioned strict supervision and partly because open expression and practicing of one’s Jewish identity definitely did not meet the approval of the Communist authorities, in some cases entailing the devastating accusation of being a “Zionist”, in most cases with gruesome consequences. Members failed to flock to religious communities in large numbers despite the “Jewish Renaissance” that followed the political regime change. Those communities are still made up primarily of a few hundred – mostly elderly pensioner – devotees. Consequently, the leaders of those religious communities – just like the organizations they are heading – enjoy no general acceptance in Hungarian society, as has been increasingly revealed by a long series of scandals that have broken up in recent times.

No matter how a variety of influential international Jewish organizations as well as Israel’s representatives and diplomats have hastened to back them up, Hungarian society cannot be persuaded or forced to accept an official who first turned from transvestite performing artist into Lutheran theologian and Catholic parish choir master, and then on to the executive director of the Budapest Jewish Community, who is, according to the chairman of the Community, is not even of Jewish origin; or a former executive director banker who had been convicted for bribery. It is also clear for all interested outsiders that the current Chairman of MAZSIHISZ is not seeking an agreement in relation to the House of Fates but he is trying to improve his position to get re-elected by fully exploiting the media interest concerning the prospective memorial center. The Chairman of MAZSIHISZ is posing in the role of a relentless representative and promoter of the organization’s interests to prove his indispensability towards a handful of voters as well as international Jewish organizations and Israel. This is why he keeps upsetting all agreements and imposing new and then further demands and conditions. This is why he has formulated such demands in relation to the House of Fates that had never been and are still not considered to be of importance in relation to the Páva Street Holocaust Memorial Center, which is alleged to be very important to both him and the international Jewish organizations. During the past more than a decade the leaders of the Jewish religious community have never been able to contribute to creating the necessary environment and conditions for undisturbed and efficient work at the Páva Street institution, as is eloquently proven by the miserably low numbers of visitors and the unceasing internal skirmishes. And these unblessed circumstances were not in the least different during the eight-year period when they were cooperating with a Socialist-Free Democrat coalition government.  As a matter of fact, MAZSIHISZ leaders are driven by their own self-interests when they keep provoking fruitless conflicts with the government, whatever action the government happens to take. In attacking the House of Fates, they will even find it worthwhile to obstruct worthy remembrance of the victims of the Holocaust and our murdered compatriots.

In the autumn of 2014, Mr János Lázár the minister in charge of the Prime Minister’s Office who played a leading role in devising and organizing the memorial year for the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust; in putting in place the Szabadság Square memorial and the launching of the creation of the House of Fates, offered an adviser’s contract, much to the consternation of all, to Mr Gusztáv Zoltai, who had  played a leading role in blocking all of the above programs, until his dismissal in early April 2014. According to the arguments then put forth by MAZSIHISZ Chairman András Heisler, Holocaust surviving Zoltai had been so severely affected by the government’s intent to erect a memorial for the victims of Hungary’s German occupation, that he resigned from all of his positions. Heisler himself opted for a different strategy, by turning for help as usual to international public opinion. Zoltai, who used to be a 1956 Communist militiaman, a member of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party (MSZMP), a former member of the communist workers’ militia, headed MAZSIHISZ as an executive director from 1991.

His demonstrative inclusion on the government side was explained by the minister by pointing out that he “did not regard advisory services as some monkey business” and that they had known each other for quite some time. Public consternation was only further aggravated by János Lázár’s promise that the House of Fates would be opened “only in the framework of a consensual solution “, i.e. only if the domestic and international Jewish organizations, most recently, Hungarian Holocaust survivors and “those who suffered the tragedy”, find it to be acceptable and agree with its “professionalism”. Nothing could be more natural than Mr. Heisler’s interpretation: the minister gave them the right of veto concerning the House of Fates project.

Accordingly, the Faith Community, a religious organization representing about two thousand individuals will exercise censorship over the contents of one of the government’s important large scale projects, and will determine its view of history and its message. No such thing has happened in Hungary ever since the separation of state and church towards the end of the 19th century.

To let international Jewish organizations have a say without having contributed a single penny to the costs of setting up the institution is contrary to the responsibility of the sovereign Hungarian state for its own past, present and future.
In an interview with the daily Népszabadság (September 26, 2014) János Lázár repeatedly expressed that the moral values, the kind of community of shared values determining the political right, mean nothing to him. He finds criticism concerning his employment of Zoltay to be immaterial; indeed, he considers “any form of ex-post evaluation from the outside” of his newly hired adviser, to be a mistake. Let us not be surprised when using the same argument he invites one of these days the very Ferenc Gyurcsány to work for him as a government advisor, to whose Őszöd address Mr. Lázár referred the other day as a positive example.

Mr. Lázár apparently fails to understand that this time we are dealing with our very identity. This is not about practices in wielding power or safe bargains concluded in the background, but about principles, belief, all of the things on which our whole life, including our political community rests and is built. We have seen lots of examples during the past 25 years how disregarding principles and moral convictions lead to the loss of all values and then the collapse of entire political communities. When politics appear to be reduced to all-pervasive cynicism and bare immorality, the countdown will immediately start.

When I undertook to create what will be called the House of Fates, I knew what attacks I would be in for.  I undertook the job nonetheless, because I am convinced that my country needs to make sure that young generations also learn that preserving solidarity towards each other is one of our most important common values, and giving it up leads to immense losses and tragedies in the past, and the same would be bound to happen in the future as well. I am convinced that processing the past of our nation as well as presenting and teaching the lessons drawn from it are our tasks and responsibilities which we do not want to and will not evade. This is a cause for our national community that cannot be influenced by any particular or external interests. Not even if Mr. Lázár holds other views on this. The happy ending of the Love Story is at stake.
We must not let it get botched up. I for one will definitely do my share to prevent that.

Ten Hungarian businessmen and government officials can never enter the United States

A bombshell: the U.S. government placed ten Hungarian businessmen and government officials on a blacklist of sorts. They are barred from ever entering the United States. The businessmen in question are known to belong to a small circle of people very close to Fidesz. As for the government officials, they are apparently employees of the Hungarian equivalent of the Internal Revenue Service.

As of now there are two narratives of the event circulating in the Hungarian media. One is the government version, leaked to Napi Gazdaság, a financial paper recently purchased by Századvég, a Fidesz think tank. The other comes from the U.S. Embassy in Budapest.

Let’s start with the government version of the story. The Hungarian internal revenue service became suspicious of some American firms doing business in Hungary and launched investigations into their  finances and tax returns. The U.S. government decided to retaliate by barring several Hungarians from ever entering the United States. Behind this “diplomatic duel” are the recent critical statements of former President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama with regard to the Hungarian government’s attacks on NGOs. The two American Democratic leaders were especially upset over the fate of the Ökotárs Foundation, the distributor of the Norwegian Civic Funds, whose tax number was recently suspended. Why this particular concern? Because, the article contends, the Norwegians are also generous contributors to the Clinton Global Initiative.

At the end of the article Napi Gazdaság casually mentions that because of the link between the American Democratic Party and the Norwegian government, the Ökotárs Foundation “will not go against the interests of the Democratic Party.” So, the Hungarian government’s investigation of Ökotárs will actually have a beneficial effect. It may “place Hungary’s reputation on neutral ground in the political warfare between Democrats and Republicans.” Here Századvég is speaking, the think tank that owns Napi Gazdaság. Századvég just received a huge contract from the Orbán government to engage in public relations/propaganda in Washington over the next few years. But there might be a bit of a problem here; as we will see later, its CEO is barred from entering the U.S., which might crimp its effectiveness.

Napi Gazdaság contacted the U.S. Embassy, where they were told that they know nothing about any investigation of American firms and that the decision of the U.S. government to bar some individuals from entering the United States has nothing to do with alleged probes by the Hungarian internal revenue service. However, they have good reason to believe that the people on the black list were engaged in criminal activities. They tried either to force American firms to give them kickbacks or to extort special favors from them. They cannot release the names because of American laws prohibiting it.

It didn’t take long for one of the people involved to arrive at the doorstep of ATV and to offer some details about the case. According to him, he and nine others were asked to visit the U.S. Embassy where they were administered the bitter pill. ATV was not allowed to reveal the name of the informer, but the article described him as “an especially important partner of the Hungarian government who currently is participating in several important projects. In the last few years his name appeared frequently in the Hungarian media…. He considers himself a businessmen who is very close to Fidesz.” There is a sentence in this report that strongly suggests that our mystery businessman is not entirely innocent. After all, he found “the measure disproportionate, which further damages American-Hungarian relations.” So he did something illegal, but he thinks that the punishment is too harsh.

corruption4

Both the Fidesz parliamentary delegation and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade reacted promptly to the news. Fidesz sticks to the story leaked to Napi Gazdaság. The United States government is putting pressure on Hungary because they want to avoid the investigation of certain American firms by the tax office. M. André Goodfriend, the U.S. chargé d’affaires, was called into the ministry, but before his appearance Judit Fülöp, the ministry spokeswoman, gave a short press conference. She stressed the Hungarian government’s zero tolerance toward corruption. She announced that they  are ready to investigate the cases but are waiting for documentation from the American Embassy.

Meanwhile investigative journalists were hard at work. From unofficial sources 444 learned that in the last year and a half there were several instances where government officials and businessmen closely associated with the government party approached American firms for kickbacks. In one case a large American firm applied for an EU grant. At first the government turned them down, but in the second round the management was told that they would receive the money but only if they hire a certain consulting firm that would perform no work at all.

A few hours later some names also appeared. Among them is Péter Heim, CEO of Századvég, the think tank that was launched by Fidesz in its infancy and that is now tasked with improving Hungary’s image in Washington. The news about the Hungarian internal revenue service seems to have been on target. Ildikó Vida, the head of the office, is on the list. Vida is one of the original founders of Fidesz. She is the same age as Viktor Orbán and was a fellow student in the college where the party was born. This is not the first time that she is in charge of the tax office. She held the same position during the first Orbán administration between 1999 and 2002. One must keep in mind that the Orbán government uses the internal revenue service as a political club. Index reported that in addition to Vida two other employees of the tax office are also involved. And then there is Árpád Habony, the eminence grise of Fidesz. He has no official position, but  he is perhaps one of the most important men behind Viktor Orbán. I devoted a whole post to him a while back. Rumors about his shady financial affairs have been circulating for some time. His source of income is shrouded in mystery. According to the latest information, Habony denies being on the list and is planning to visit the United States shortly.

On the surface the affair is solely about corruption, but the American reaction to these cases is politically charged. One has to assume that in countries with rampant corruption such as Hungary the U.S. Embassy receives reports of bribery attempts often enough. There are several ways of dealing with such cases. For instance, one can pay a visit to the country’s foreign ministry and report that such behavior is unacceptable. At the same time the American official can express his hope that in the future there will be no discriminatory measures against American firms and that extortionist activities will stop. But in this case the United States government came out with the big gun. The Americans in Budapest must have known for years about the high level of corruption in government and its satellite business circles, yet it is only now that they decided to move into high gear. This is, in my opinion, a political message to the Orbán government and part and parcel of a new, more forceful policy being conducted by the U.S. government toward Hungary.