Retreat or another “peacock dance” by Viktor Orbán?

Something must have happened between yesterday afternoon and this morning in the Prime Minister’s Office. János Lázár, the minister in charge of the office, has been waging war for some time on at least two fronts, the Norwegian government and the Hungarian Jewish community. In both cases he now seems to be retreating, although his move may turn out to be, as has happened so often in the past, merely a tactical ruse–one step back and, once the glare of the spotlight dims, two steps forward.

Lázár has been trying to make changes in the original agreement regarding the disbursement of the Norwegian Funds, changes that the Norwegian government refused to accept. Then, in order to pressure the Norwegians to release the funds that they had withheld, the Hungarian government began to harass an independent foundation that was in charge of grants given to NGOs by the Norwegian Civic Funds. The latest attack, about which I wrote yesterday, was the most aggressive to date, but it did not shake the resolve of the Norwegian government. By noon today Vidar Helgesen, Norwegian minister in charge of European Union affairs, made it crystal clear that what happened yesterday in the office of the Ökotárs Foundation was unacceptable as far as his government was concerned.

Moreover, yesterday’s raids produced no damning evidence against the foundation. They will not be able to jail Veronika Móra, the director of the foundation, because she has done nothing wrong. At least, according to legal opinions I heard. It was thus high time for the government to throw in the towel.

As we know, Viktor Orbán, because naturally he is the man behind the attacks on the foundation and the NGOs, is not the kind of guy who likes to admit defeat. And he really wanted to stifle the anti-government voices being funded by the Norwegians. But the 45 billion forints the Norwegians were withholding, the bulk of their grant money that goes directly to the government, was hurting the public purse. This morning János Lázár announced that the Hungarian government will ask the European Commission to be the arbiter between the Hungarian and the Norwegian governments. Since a special EU office in Brussels has been supervising the activities of Ökotárs Foundation and has found nothing illegal about its activities, the outcome of the decision is not really in question. But at least Viktor Orbán can tell his people that, although his government is right, the bureaucrats in Brussels decided otherwise. Hungary had no choice but to oblige.

There might have been two other considerations that tipped the scales in favor of retreat. One is that, according to unnamed sources, Tibor Navracsics’s nomination has been unfavorably influenced by, among other things, the Norwegian-Hungarian controversy. Moreover, the raid on the foundation’s office, which was received with dismay abroad, coincided with the appearance of an op/ed piece in The New York Times by Philips N. Howard, a professor at the Central European University and the University of Washington, which only reinforced the commonly held view that Viktor Orbán is a man who cannot tolerate a free media. And, as the Norwegian controversy made evident, he would like to silence independent NGOs as well. The biting illustration that accompanied the article has since been reprinted in several Hungarian publications. If it had not been clear before, it had to be obvious by now that Viktor Orbán had gone too far. It was time to recall the troops.

The same thing seems to be happening on the Hungarian Jewish front. The government alienated the Hungarian Jewish community by making several controversial, unilateral moves. I wrote earlier about these government actions, starting with the appointment of Sándor Szakály as the director of a new historical institute and the designation of Mária Schmidt, director of the House of Terror, to head a new Holocaust Museum. The final straw was the decision to erect a memorial to commemorate the German occupation of Hungary on March 19, 1944. The result was a complete breakdown in communication–and trust–between János Lázár and the leaders of the Jewish community. Then, after months of silence, at the end August it became known that the government was ready to make concessions. The routinely scheduled  September meeting took place today and, indeed, it seems that the Hungarian government finally decided that it was time to come to some understanding with the Jewish community.

The meeting that lasted for four hours was a large gathering, including 60 people representing several Jewish organizations. Yet, according to András Heisler, president of Mazsihisz, thanks to the disciplined behavior of the representatives real progress was made on all eight points that were on the agenda. Although the Jewish organizations did not change their attitude on such vital issues as the House of Fates, the government offered several peace offerings. The government promised, for example, to spend up to a billion forints to fix up Jewish cemeteries that are in very bad shape in most cities and towns. Lázár promised to invite the head of the Kúria, Hungary’s supreme court, the minister of interior, and the head of the judicial office to talk over practical moves to be taken in cases of anti-Semitic activity. Lázár seemed to be ready to discuss the renovation of the synagogue on Sebestyén Rumbach Street that might serve two functions: it will be a functioning place of worship as well as a museum. Lázár also promised to renovate the synagogue in Miskolc.

The large gathering of the Jewish Round this morning Népszava / Photo József Vajda

The Jewish Round Table this morning
Népszava / Photo József Vajda

Although all these goodies were offered to the Jewish communities, the representatives refused to change their position on the boycott of the government organized events commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust. They remained steadfast even though the government gave in on one serious bone of contention–the exhibit at the House of Fates. Lázár personally guaranteed that no exhibit will be mounted without the active cooperation of the Hungarian and international Jewish community. Interestingly, the controversial designated head of the project, Mária Schmidt, was not present.

All in all, it seems that there is a general retreat. Whether it is real or not we will find out soon enough.


  1. Talking about freedom of the press. One of the reporters of Blikk who reported on a possible crime committed by Sandor Oszter a media darling, huge fan, and supporter of Fidesz found himself being forced by the police to hand over his phone that may contain the information on the tipster who provided the reporter with information about the case.
    The reporter declined to give up information about his informer. The reporter was threatened, and harassed by the police, and his phone was confiscated.
    So much for media freedom…

  2. The Riverside Holocaust Memorial has been vandalized.

    Apparently, some wag who had been trying out a portion of his homebrew palinka allowance, had taken some of the shoes–he seemed to have trouble finding a proper fit.
    The police have a solid lead–a ragged MBT shoe was found floating close by in the Duna.
    It is now undergoing extensive lab tests.

  3. The results of the lab tests are in: it belongs to Viktor Orban. Apparently, el presidente kept the shoe around because he had scored a goal with it some 20 years ago. It ended up in the Duna because he had flunk it at Lazar after his report on the meeting with the jewish roundtable. The
    shoe had bounced off Lazar’s head, hit Kover who was just damping some unknown liquid off his mustache by the window. Lazar had been sent out to recover the shoe but before he could do so,
    the Teka detachment had gotten to it and turned it in to the gendarmes. Presently, the cabinet
    is convening to try to explain why Orban’s shoe was discovered at the site of the vandalized memorial…

  4. “If it had not been clear before, it had to be obvious by now that Viktor Orbán had gone too far. It was time to recall the troops.”

    Orban has two brains: the pragmatic one and the irrational, hateful, spiteful one. The first brain ensures that he stays in power with the popular will of at least a large minority of the Hungarian voters. The second one causes him problems which he really could have left alone without and real damage to him or his fellow thugs.

    He knows the NGOs have little to no influence where it really matters (amongst the Hungarian electorate) and what should he ultimately care about what nasty things the NYT or the Guardian says about him. But like with RTL his irrational hatred and bitterness has pushed him to take on an enemy which (unlike almost all other elements of Hungarian society and the EU) is prepared to stand up to him.

    Intimidation; physical (*unofficial* thugs following NGOers around town, dodgy late night phonecalls etc) as well as the official, which we saw yesterday, has had no effect on their resolve.
    So what next PM Thug?
    Going to follow your Russian idol and start beating up and murdering innocent NGO and charity workers because they refuse to surrender to your fascist regime?

  5. I’m not sure you can say “the raids found no damming evidence” because a) it is too early and b) the police are making up the rules as to what damming is. The real scandal is that the police and prosecution service don’t even pretend to be anything other than an extension of the ruling party. I was astonished (I’m lying, it was what I expected) to see the chief prosecutor, Peter Polt, sitting with the Fidesz big-wigs at the Northern Ireland football match last Sunday. It is a message loud and clear to Hungarian society (or the world) that we, the party, control everything …

  6. There is no retreat, that’s ridiculous. This is the usual good cop-bad cop game. Orban and Lázár will not retreat because they know they don’t have to, so they won’t.

    Anybody who thinks Orban can be forced into retreat without crystal clear brute force (eg, turning off the EU funds or something similar) should go back to school and forget politics.

    In any case and remember this Orban and Lazar upped the ante already (and they are far from finishing upping it) so much that any potential retreat by Orban will only create a new equilibrium at a much more Fidesz-friendly position than was the case before Lazar started this project. They will not let the game to continue as before, say in 2013. That’s out of the question for them and they know that they will win this game. They have zero doubts.

    In other words, the criminal cases will slowly go away (no so quickly, though, because, hey, in Hungary the prosecution and judiciary are independent, how can you expect that politics can just order the ending of any legal procedure) but Lazar will – through his proxies – have a say in the distribution of moneys starting – let’s have a compromise – 2016.

    Just like with the bloodthirsty EU commissioner Viviane Reading: the end of the cock fight was that Orban did not retreat an inch, but Reading was still beaming what great “compromises” she could reach.

    West European politicians are just too weak and don’t dare to get tough. They just won’t. Putin knows this and Orban knows it too.

  7. “it was time to come to some understanding with the Jewish community.”

    Éva, were you surprised that such an understanding was reached so quickly. Or if not reached there was some progress towards it. In any case the meeting seemed like a step in the right direction. Could it be that Zoltai sitting at the table had some positive influence in this. Or do you think his presence was more of a negative influence on the negotiations?

  8. Luidzsi

    “West European politicians are just too weak and don’t dare to get tough. They just won’t. Putin knows this and Orban knows it too.”

    The truth is, you can’t win over an authoritarian rezime with democratic means. If the EU suddenly became tough and turned off the subsidies tap for instance, it would be just as undemocratic and not governed by the rule of law as Orban’s system. Besides: such a move would make many Hungarians hostile towards the EU and they are too weak at the moment to not care. They need his votes in the Council and they need his support against Russia.

    Don’t get me wrong: I’m also disappointed by the EU’s lack of reaction over Orban. They should have stopped him right at the beginning, because it is too late now in many ways – his system is in place and working.
    I just kind of understand what is in their minds.

  9. @Eva S. Balogh, re: Navracsis

    Unexpected, that’s for sure. And it’s one of the ‘small’ portfolios, while other CE members get very interesting positions. Yet, it may become interesting.

    Firstly, because a debate on the Hungarian anti-democratic drift will certainly be held at the EP for the confirmation of Tibor Navracsis. No way it can be avoided now.

    Second, because he’s not the only one in the Juncker Commission to be cast against type. The French, British, Spanish and Greek commissioners come to mind. This may be a strategy, a loyalty test – though I don’t know if it will play well.

  10. @kommentelo. Heisler was asked about this on Egyenes beszéd and he does not think so. The relationship between the current leadership of Mazsihisz and Zoltai is very bad.

  11. Switzerland will be involved too.

    The more complex the case, the more likely a “compromise” (I love this word, as it simply obscures a victory for Orban, it is like the term “semi-presidential” system Orban will introduce by 2017 the latest, which will simply be a presidential dictatorship but will still sound so European) will be reached (i.e. the Swiss may not be as tough as the Norwegians have been — so far).

    Orban and Lazar will win this too and they will spend the money and after we have the deal we all gonna lough a lot about these tense days, be friends again.

    Orban and Lazar are always open to a good “deal”, see, deep down they are just sweet guys, no nonsense country boys, really, and one has to understand them, they have a half-Asian country to lead which is still full of post-communist saboteurs, we have to understand that at times they are a bit more aggressive than usual, but that’s part of the job in this part of Europe. But I believe other than this we can actually work with Orban on issues pretty well.

  12. I have a distinct feeling that one by one, piece by piece the Orbanian nonsense just going to reach that critical level when the powers who holds the strings of the purse have no other choice but pull the whole thing tight.
    Remember, everything and everyone has its/his limit, wether or not they’re aware of it.

    Sooner or later Orbán will pull one too many tricks too, and comes the hardcore version of the “Illiberal soccer player in pursuit of Holiness – Final Season edition” with a dubious outcome, but it won’t be pretty in any way, that’s for sure.

    Wanna bet?

  13. spectator, I believe you are right but so far he crossed easily all lines that I would have expected to suffice to make people interested in their country and future to the point that they would have unseated OV. Unless people understand it is them who should do something and who should not wait for some “weak Western politicians”, the country can easily continue on its path towards more poverty and less liberty. There is still some space to rock bottom.
    As regards Eva’s question (probably only rhetorical), I do not believe they are seriously retreating. Just part of their general strategy, perhaps Tibor Navracsics asked for this favour on the day of his nomination.

  14. spectator: Jobbik is waiting for exactly such a critical level. Jobbik is next in line for power. In any case a shock is needed to change the situation. This current Fidesz-lead power conglomerate will not let power out of its hands peacefully, that’s obvious. One can blame the opposition, but even if they were super focused and organised Fidesz would not let it win, that’s out of the question. Meanwhile Orban is preparing for his crowning: he desperately wants to look down on his domain from atop the castle hill. He isn’t leaving anytime soon.

  15. Kirsten, I agree that Hungarians will have to sort this problem out. Having said that, the staying power of any autocrat is usually underestimated even when the circumstances are precarious. And for Orban the stars have never aligned better, the ECB will keep printing money for years to come, the EU and the US are bogged down in countless conflicts and the Europeans are anyway hopelessly weak.

    The staying power of autocrats is the norm actually. So what we see is pretty natural.

    Orban will not retreat, there should be no question about this. Let’s try to understand finally that Orban or Putin do not regard retreat as a viable option. Retreat is a hated Western concept, it comes from the decadent weakened West which values compromise. Orban cannot be forced into retreat without brute force, same with Putin. Why is this so hard to comprehend?

    Look, nobody rises up in Western Europe either even though 50% of the younger generations have no work in Spain or in Greece. That’s worse than during WWII. Nobody will in Hungary either. People are catatonic, nobody is fired up except for Fideszniks who volunteer to fight for Orban in the coming elections…

    All those indignados and Occupy kids just wanted to have their IPhones, but otherwise had no ideas what to do. They were nothing more than frustrated consumers.

    The only real critical opposition force these days comes from the far right. In Hungary Jobbik and its extreme supporters are ultimately controlled by Fidesz (though also by Russia, but Fidesz and Russia are now great pals, whatever fairy tales Orban feeds to the EU or NATO) so there is no real danger from them.

    Hungary will stay as it is now, only it will lag more and more behind the West. But people are OK with that, the Serbians also voted for Slobo in election after election even when they were in free fall. In fact, if there is any peer for Hungary it is not Austria, Slovakia or Romania, it is Serbia.

  16. “He isn’t leaving anytime soon.”

    – Not by his own will, this is clear since a few decades back, no. Not even a retreat is an option, I agree with Kristen on this.

    But then again none of his predecessors did, and all of them went out of fashion one way or another, at least in Europe.This time will come for sure, the question is when.

    The really interesting event right now – I think – is that he managed to manoeuvre himself – and the country – into a quite sensitive spot, when whatever move he makes is wrong in a sense.
    If he stands by the EU, he risking the Russian money, and without it his economic house of cards is in a grave danger, and if he goes on pro-Russian, he would jeopardise the EU funds.

    In my opinion he counted on both, its only bad luck that Putin was so insensitive toward our beloved Viktor and started a war at the wrong time. Bad boy, indeed.

    Looks to me, that the peacock has some serious coordination disorder, let alone dancing…

    By the other hand it certainly would need people with higher moral standards to get rid of these parasites at once, so I’m afraid we will “enjoy” the blessings of the flexible spines for awhile more, unless the outside pressure will force something to happen.

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