The Hungarian government under domestic and foreign pressure

As I’m writing this post thousands are again demonstrating against the government. The crowd gathered in front of the parliament, which one of the organizers called “the puppet show,” and then is heading toward the Castle District, where Viktor Orbán is planning to move. The move will cost an incredible amount of money but, as one of the undersecretaries in the prime minister’s office said, the citizens of Hungary will be really happy once the prime minister moves to quarters befitting his position. Given the mood of these crowds, I very much doubt that that will be the case. The good citizens of Hungary who are out on the street actually wish Orbán not to the Castle District but straight to hell.

The demonstration was organized against corruption but, as usually happens at these mass demonstrations, the crowd went beyond the limited goal of the organizers and demanded the resignation of Viktor Orbán and his government. Fidesz politicians, it seems, have been caught flat-footed. They surely believed that these demonstrations would peter out. Winter is approaching and Christmas will soon be upon us. It was hoped that people would be busy shopping and preparing for family gatherings. But this time they were wrong. Suddenly something inexplicable happened: the totally lethargic Hungarian public was awakened. What happened? After all, the misuse of power and the network of corruption have been features of the Orbán regime ever since 2010 and yet the public was not aroused against its unrelenting abuse of power. Most people knew that Fidesz politicians are corrupt and that they stuff their pockets with money stolen from the public, but they felt powerless to do anything about it.

I see a number of reasons for this change in the Hungarian political atmosphere. I would start with the influence of the book Hungarian Octopus: The Post-Communist Mafia State, edited by Bálint Magyar, in which dozens of political scientists, economists, sociologists, and media experts published articles that presented for the first time a comprehensive picture of the institutionalized corruption which is the hallmark of the Fidesz regime. Fairly quickly the terms “mafia state” and “mafia government” became part of everyday vocabulary, and the government’s dealings came to be understood within the context of The Godfather. The sinister nature of the enterprise was slowly grasped.

A second reason for the optimism and activism was the success of the first two mass demonstrations against the “internet tax.” Viktor Orbán had to retreat. If he retreated once, more demonstrations might force him to reverse earlier decisions. The success of the first demonstrations gave impetus to the others.

Last but not least was the Hungarian government’s own stupidity when it decided to leak the news about American dissatisfaction with the National Tax Authority and the corrupt officials who tried extract kickbacks from at least one American company. Hungarians expected their politicians to be corrupt, but the news that high officials at the Hungarian Tax Authority were also on the take was too much for them. Moreover, they felt that they now have an ally, the United States of America.

According to most observers, U.S.-Hungarian relations are at their lowest point since the post-1956 period. U.S. policy toward Hungary seems to me at least to be finely calibrated. At the beginning we were told about the six unnamed people who were barred from entering the United States. A few days later we learned that the president of the Tax Authority was definitely on the list. A few more days and we were told that the president is not the only person on the list, there are a couple more. Another week went by and André Goodfriend, U.S. chargé d’affaires, indicated that there might be more Hungarians who would face the same fate as the six already on the list. Another few days and we learned from the American chargé that he had given the Hungarian government all the information necessary for investigating the cases. And it was not the “useless scrap of paper” Viktor Orbán pointed to. In plain language, we found out once again that the Hungarian government lies. And yesterday we learned from an interview with Goodfriend that the sin of Tax Office Chief Ildikó Vida goes beyond not investigating obvious corruption cases within her office; she herself was an active participant in the corruption scheme at her office. Of course, Vida is outraged, but she cannot do more than write an open letter to Goodfriend claiming innocence. As time goes by the Hungarian government is increasingly embroiled in a web of lies and Orbán’s regime comes to resemble ever more closely the government of a third-rate banana republic.

The good old days: George W. Bush in Budapest, June 22, 2006

The good old days: George W. Bush in Budapest, June 22, 2006

While the State Department is using the corruption cases as a club, Senator John McCain is pursuing his own individual crusade. The senator, who is no friend of Putin, has been keeping an eye on Viktor Orbán’s illiberal state and found it to be troubling. What we saw two days ago was his frustration that Hungary will again have a political appointee as an ambassador. As he emphasized over and over, Hungary is a very important country that deserves a professional diplomat. His outburst about Orbán as a “neo-fascist dictator” was a bit strong, although Orbán’s system does have features in common with some of the fascist regimes of the past. But the Hungarian charge that McCain is ignorant of the Hungarian political situation is entirely baseless. Once he calmed down, he put it into writing what he finds objectionable about Orbán’s illiberal state. At the time of the release of his statement on Hungary he wrote a brief tweet saying, “Deeply concerned by PM Orban eroding democracy, rule of law, civil society & free press in Hungary.”

Below I republish Senator McCain’s statement on Hungary because I find it important and because it proves that, regardless of what the Hungarian government says, McCain (undoubtedly with the help of his staff) knows what he is talking about.

Since Prime Minister Viktor Orban came to power in 2010, antidemocratic constitutional changes have been enacted, the independence of Hungary’s courts have been restricted, nongovernmental organizations raided and civil society prosecuted, the freedom of the press curtailed, and much more. These actions threaten the principles of institutional independence and checks and balances that are the hallmark of democratic governance and have left me deeply concerned about the erosion of democratic norms in Hungary.

These concerns are shared by many. A ruling by the Venice Commission in 2013 found that Prime Minister Orban’s constitutional changes threaten democracy and rule of law in Hungary, stating that the amendments ‘contradict principles of the Fundamental Law and European standards,’ and ‘leads to a risk that it may negatively affect all three pillars of the Council of Europe: the separation of powers as an essential tenet of democracy, the protection of human rights and the rule of law.’

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Committee to Protect Journalists have condemned Hungary’s media laws, saying that they create a climate of fear and media self-censorship, even after critical changes were made to account for previous complaints from the European Commission. ‘The changes to the Hungarian media law only add to the existing concerns over the curbing of critical or differing views in the country,’ said Dunja Mijatovic, OSCE’s representative on Freedom of the Media.

The European Central Bank has repeatedly warned that Prime Minister Orban’s government is encroaching on the independence of its central bank, calling for him to respect the independence of monetary policymakers and condemning attempts by the government to threaten central bankers with dismissal if they oppose government policy.

And just last month, six Hungarians were banned from entering the United States over alleged corruption. U.S. Chargé d’Affaires André Goodfriend reportedly called the ban a warning to reverse policies that threaten democratic values, citing ‘negative disappointing trends’ in Hungary and a ‘weakening of rule of law, attacks on civil society, [and] a lack of transparency.’

Democracy without respect for rule of law, separation of powers, and the protection of economic, civil, and religious liberties is not only inadequate, it is dangerous. It brings with it the erosion of liberty, the abuse of power, ethnic divisions, and economic restrictions – all of which we have witnessed in Hungary since Prime Minister Orban took power. Prime Minister Orban has justified his actions by calling for a new state model based on ‘illiberal democracy,’ but his vision defies the core values of the European Union and NATO. These alliances are founded not only on the principle of democracy, but also rule of law and the protection of individual liberty and fundamental freedoms. All members must remain committed to these values.

Meanwhile both Hungarian and foreign newspapers are full of stories about the demonstrations and about McCain’s characterization of Orbán as a “neo-fascist dictator.” As the Hungarian prime minister continues to come under attack, both from within and from without, it’s unclear how he will fight back and how effective his counterattack will be. If the proposed Sunday store closings are any indication of the government’s new game plan, the counterattack will be a colossal failure.

53 comments

  1. Today Magyar Szo in Vojvodina did what it called an “editorial summary” of Senator McCain’s comments on the floor of the US Senate yesterday. What is remarkable about this editorial was it included this sub-headline: Zoltan Kovacs said Sen. John McCain’s use of the term “neo-fascist dictator” did not refer to the Hungarian government per se. “Kovács Zoltán szóvivő szerint John McCain szenátor az „újfasiszta diktátor” kifejezéssel nem a magyar kormányfőre utalt.”

    When one reads the text of the editorial, none of the additional information and clarifications made by Senator McCain’s staff that he was referring to PM Orban directly when he made that comment is noted in this editorial. This gives us all a pretty good idea of how these comments are being spun in Vojvodina.

    See http://www.magyarszo.com/hu/2543/kulfold_magyarsag/119253/Bek%C3%A9rett%C3%A9k-az-amerikai-%C3%BCgyviv%C5%91t.htm

    American Népsszava published in New York City got it completely right stating the newspaper fully endorsed Senator McCain’s comments and went further stating “Orban is not a “neo-fascist” but a fascist dictator.” To see this article go to http://nepszava.com/2014/12/magyarorszag/az-an-udvozli-mccain-szenator-bejelenteset.html

  2. Excellent analysis! You are absolutely correct when you write that “the Hungarian charge that McCain is ignorant of the Hungarian political situation is entirely baseless.”

    McCain’s foreign policy advisor is Kurt Volker and he certainly “knows what he is talking about.”

  3. Let’s not get excited about a few thousand people in Budapest demonstrating against Orbán. I’ll start to believe there is a change afoot when there are serious demonstrations in cities like Győr, though even then all Orbán has to do is label the protesters “agents of the Americans”, and rally the faithful to counter-demonstrate (or just pay them), then lower some fee for something (like utilities, again). He has literally hundreds of answers to these demonstrations, and they will fizzle out like the earlier student demonstrations.

    One thing this can do, though, is start to bring some changes in the opposition parties, to the point that people become disgusted with the way MSZP has essentially handed the recent elections to Fidesz. Once MSZP really reforms (or is destroyed and replaced by a relatively honest leftist party, maybe a splinter faction), there is a slight hope of success in the next elections, nearly four years hence. Remember, MSZP hung onto power after 2006, despite massive demonstrations and a collapse in their support. They are amateurs at holding power, compared to Fidesz. The only thing that will bring early elections that might be enough to truly change the system (overturn the “constitution”) is a decisive move by the EU, which I do not expect at all in the near future, without serious provocation by Fidesz. Hopefully Köver will get his way, and Hungary will “back out of the EU”. That would be a heaven-sent gift to the opposition.

    Fidesz learned more from the communists than propaganda and nationalisation of private companies (most likely from “former” communists working for them). They will be almost as difficult to dislodge as Alexander Lukashenko, in my opinion.

  4. Yes Buddy it was amazingly funny, in particular because of the underlying truth that Ms Bell who was born ans raised in a suburb next to Chicago has absolutely no knowledge about Hungary. Worse yet
    Colleen Bell married into her job. Her inlaws developed the soap opera she today produces. As an American Hungarian I find it to be a slap in the face. There are numerous loyal American Hungarians with many skills who could have represented our country far more competently. I hope she listens to advise well from the State Department professionals.

  5. For all of you concerned about Hungary-US relations, no need to worry. Orbán said today he supports suing Andre Goodfriend. I’m sure that will make things much better.

  6. Extradition of a diplomat can be asked only in the case of felony. André Goodfriend is a diplomat and cannot be sued in Hungary for defamation.
    Mrs. Vida could apply against the watchlist in the USA. In that case the US gov. will open up the files. So she will think twice before opening that pandora box.

  7. Orban this morning:

    “The independence of Hungary is under attack”
    “I am not willing to become a vice king in Hungary” [he wants to be the king]
    “I talked to the chair of NAV [Vida] yesterday.” …
    “We should start an anti-defamation suit against [Mr Goodfriend]”
    “We are not a colony”
    “Brussels attacks our utility rate cuts”

    from 1:38, 180 perc, http://www.mediaklikk.hu/kossuth/

    No comment on my part.

  8. @Istvan

    The Hungarian minority in Voivodina is almost entirely in the hands of fidesz-loyal poeple, whether it is minority newspapers, theatres, civil organizations we talk about. It’s a small and quite concentrated community unlike the ethnic Hungarians living in Romania, so it’s rather easy to organize and control them from Budapest. Voivodina was a very important part of Fidesz’ get out the vote machinery at the April general elections. There are hundreds of thousands of people (I’m guessing just like in Ukraine, many have no ethnic Hungarian origin at all) who got the Hungarian citizenship from Serbia, and who are immensely thankful to Orban because it allows them to work and move to Western Europe.

  9. Orban on fideszization:

    “It is not the most important thing that the [newly acquired Budapest Bank] should be in state hands, but it should be in Hungarian [private] hands.”

  10. Industrial production, January through September 2014 [2013], in billions of HUFs

    for domestic consumption 8710 [8850], – 1.6%
    for export: 13769 [12294], +12.0%

  11. “We should start an anti-defamation suit against [Mr Goodfriend]”

    Orban knows he can’t sue Goodfriend. All he can do is withdraw is have him withdrawn from the list of people who can work as US diplomats in Hungary. If won’t do that because if he does that will surely result in retaliation from Washington.

    @tappanch, so, the Bank was bought by the state to be passed into private hands… awesome!

  12. Arpi Habony was seen at Budapest Airport waiting for the Moscow flight. Could have been her in laws since his girlfriend is Ukrainian/Russian or he could have waited for Surkov’s people.

  13. Jean P,

    What is wrong with you? Have you regressed to your childhood? Your comment was not only uncalled-for, it was completely without basis. Just because I caution against over-exuberance does not at all mean that I am not happy for the demonstrations and not hoping they get bigger.

    If you have a problem with my analysis of the situation, why don’t you act like an adult and dispute me with logic and observations? I could easily make a childish comment in return, such as “according to Jean P, we should start applying for jobs in the new government, because these demonstrations will overthrow Fidesz by Christmas, ushering DK into a 2/3 majority all by itself.

    Why did you even bother to write a comment at all? This is what is wrong with the opposition in Hungary right now – thanks for giving us a little taste of it right here on Hungarian Spectrum.

  14. @beg
    “Surkov”

    Do you mean the Chechen-Russian Surkov, who served in Hungary between 1983 and 1985, and now an adviser to Putin?

  15. 2007:
    “Russia’s major university has marked the 125th birthday of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt ”

    “Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the Russian presidential administration, was the first to speak at the conference, steering the discussion in quite another direction. In an obvious parallel between Vladimir Putin’s Russia and FDR’s United States, Mr. Surkov recalled that America’s GDP “almost halved” in the Great Depression just like in the crisis-ridden Russia in the 1990s. “Franklin Roosevelt rose to power at a time when media and finances were fully under the control of irresponsible oligarchic groupings which thought that democracy existed only for them,” he said in a clear comparison with the late 1990s in Russia.

    “Democracy means justice for everyone,” the official said quoting President Roosevelt. “Freedom from fear and need is more important that freedom of speech and religious freedom.” According to the second-ranking man in the Russian president’s staff, Franklin Roosevelt embodied “supreme power of nation”. What is more, “he was that power himself”. Afterwards, Mr. Surkov noted that “Putin ought to use the potential of the presidential power to the full.”

    http://www.kommersant.com/p741228/Putin_Roosevelt_Third_Term/

  16. Eva, its not the point, not Orbán’s anyway.
    He want to loyal people of Hungary – loyal to him: after all, who else are listening his weekly sermons – to hear just how tough their heroic leader is with these American ‘infidels’, no more.

    By the other hand, they indeed are outright mad, no doubt.
    Not to mention that being the loudest little rooster on the Felcsútian dung-heap has the added ‘benefit’ of total ignorance toward diplomacy and international law altogether.

    Just look at the excerpt ‘tappanch’ posted, it speaks volumes!

  17. @Karl Pfeiffer Well, I think Orban find the perfect middle road. Instead of suing the USA Government he is going after Goodfriend. THe distraction still be there. I am still not sure if he will not sue the government.

  18. @Some1

    Regardless of the feasibility/likelihood of actually suing the ranking diplomat at the US embassy, I think just the PM stating that he supports such an thing raises this spat to an entirely new level, don’t you think? Like, just when you think it can’t get any worse…

  19. @Webber

    I can very well imagine that the case will be admitted.

    Orban probably settled the matter with Tünde Handó (best friends with Orban’s wife and wife of Jozsef Szajer and co-head of the judiciary responsible for HR issues) that the case will be admitted and at least on the admissibility question there will be a many year long legal procedure.

    I can well imagine that some judges would assist to this, I’m sure it would look great on the CV for the next round of promotions (to be decided by Ms. Handó).

    Plus Hungarian judges very rarely reject cases out of hand (keresetlevél idézés kibocsátása nélküli elutastása), admissibility issues are usually tried together with the merits. This is actually quite a standard practice.

    There have been cases all over the world about private law issues like non-payment of utility fees by embassies (even the New York consulate of Hungary was embroiled in some legal matter, although it was a tax matter and did not reach the courts).

    The courts will likely reject the case — but only in the very end, which will be beyond Mr. Goodfriends term in Budapest. Until then Vida can show that she is an aggrieved party and that she has a “case”.

  20. Szabadsag ter …

    They (the local government) have just erected a rather large nativity scene with a large numbers of christmas trees in front of the ‘victims’ monument.

    It obscures the view of the Holocaust survivors’ memories placed there by protestors …

  21. Carpathian Basket-Case Cracking…

    via @tappanch
    “The independence of Hungary is under attack”
    “We are not a colony”
    “I talked to the chair of NAV [Vida] yesterday.” …
    “We should start an anti-defamation suit against [Mr Goodfriend]”
    “Brussels is attacking our utility rate cuts”
    “I am not willing to become a viceroy in Hungary” [he wants to be the king]

  22. Eva: “I highly recommend to take a look at the video of Orbán’s interview this morning. …… Watch his hands. Even if you don’t understand what he says his posture tells a lot about his psychological state.”

    His hands are most of the time trying to liberate his neck. The diagnosis may be timor tentorium.

  23. @Eva I agree with you, it’s very uncomfortable to watch him in that video, he doesn’t look very at ease with himself

    Interesting exchange at 4:52 (rough translation):

    Interviewer: “In fact, they [the Americans] also said that allegedly the proof of this [i.e. Vida’s crime] was forwarded to the [Hungarian] government.”

    Orbán: “Yes, this is a serious allegation. There’s only one thing to do, which I expect from the NAV chief…I spoke with her yesterday…the NAV chief has good legal sense, I don’t have to tell her – she can take this step on her own – we have to immediately use legal means to resolve this dispute…”

    In other words, Orbán completely ignored the interviewer’s comment, or pretended that he had asked a different question. But the interviewer seemed to hit upon the heart of the matter exactly, and why there’s no grounds for a lawsuit for slander (which is probably why Orbán ignored it).

  24. Orban is visibly sick, but this is not so acute yet that it would prevent him from acting with full power. Having said that I imagine that the smarter background players are thinking hard how long can Orban continue with this.

    I am reminded of Gabor Bruck’s opinion that Orban probably haven’t had a happy moment in his life for years. Orban is visibly exhausted, tired, why does he do it?

    I love the moment at about 5.55-5.57 when he says something like ‘if a person is proven to be guilty of corruption such person will go to jail’ but he has a little smile on his face, looks down. Even he doesn’t believe this bullshit.

  25. Bowen
    December 5, 2014 at 8:56 am
    Szabadsag ter …

    They (the local government) have just erected a rather large nativity scene with a large numbers of christmas trees in front of the ‘victims’ monument.

    It obscures the view of the Holocaust survivors’ memories placed there by protestors …

    It was set up two weeks ago. THe funniest comment I heard when I was on the site “THey should of have a bigger Christmas tree so they would block our view to see the the Monument”. When I was there (twice) the tourists were taking pictures and were more interested about the memorial then about he dreadful looking Monument. By the way the Eagle does look like it tries to kick off the apple from the hands of Gabriel. The Memorial part is gorgeous. I have to say that I like the Monument now. Without this piece of dreadful art the totally organic, and lovely memorial would never been born. THere are stones put down all the way that sidewalk, lovely photos, stories and artifacts hang. The tourist squids have to explain to each tourist group the whole situation. THey educate tourists about the true history of Hungary’s disposition to wwii, and to the Jews. I will send some photos to Eva.

  26. Btw it seems that he was in Korea this week. I do not know which part though North or South. As per his pictures on his facebook one of the North Korea guards was saying something to him. Probably, something like, it was good to have you, next time you can stay here permanently.

  27. I would love to see Orban sending Goodfriend home because then the US would probably retaliate with something really tough, perhaps ending diplomatic relations even to show to other misbehaving (potentially) Russia-loyal Eastern European countries like Slovakia or Bulgaria what might lie ahead.

    At that point perhaps even the loyal siloviki would realize that Orban went mad.

    I think Orban would love to send Goodfriend home. Whether he can actually refrain from doing so is another question. It’s like looking down the abyss, it’s dangerous not because we might fall into it, but because we might want to jump into it.

  28. Re body language: Usually to read someone’s body language it is necessary to watch them for some time, to get a baseline of their movements, gestures, postural changes. I have watched some video of Orbán, so have an idea of his usual movements. The initial moments were especially alarming–collar tugs, triangular support using his arms on the table, with very small, rapid pelvic shifts around 1:00. The face-mashing and pimple-picking(?) on his right jaw seemed extreme behavior of self-touching, self-reassurance. I am much less sure of his habit of interrupting the interviewer and if in this video it showed a different pattern. Once he began speaking, things became more familiar and sure for him. But there were occasional collar tugs. Later on he finds something on the desk to fiddle with–this is enough to provide some security for him and the self-touching all but goes away. Note–self-touch is a normal, reassuring thing we all do, but, as with many other social activities, has norms too.
    There was no evidence of the tongue-thrusting that was seen in a video a few years ago. I saw the moment Gergely refers to at 5:55-57, and am thankful for Gergely’s translation.

  29. I can’t get past 2:32 in the Orban video, where it looks like he’s picking a scab from his neck. What a dignified world leader he is!

  30. Mad or not, Orban’s backroom boys will never abandon him. Their jobs are too lucrative. And some of them are lunatics, too.

  31. OT:

    I loved index.hu’s article about the proposal to ban shopping on Sundays.

    Fidesz’ caucus opposed the idea or at least many did until Orban – according to the article – “persuaded” them.

    Needless to say there were no arguments, Orban just appeared at the meeting of the Fidesz MPs and “persuaded” them, ie. he simply told them, that’s what he wants. That’s his way of persuasion.

    So the idea will soon be a law.

    http://index.hu/gazdasag/2014/12/05/vasarnapi_zarva_tartas_cba/

  32. @becon. An addendum. A new Fidesz amendment would close all the “national tobacco shops.” Wow, that will be fun. All those Hungarians who will find that they ran out of cigarettes and there are no places to buy them. Those people can get very angry because they are hooked on nicotine.

  33. Orban’s theme was consistent with Putin’s speech yesterday, the national sovereignty of Hungary is at stake just as Putin argued the sovereignty of Russia was at stake in its conflict with the USA yesterday. This reminds me of some of the speeches of Kadar where he rephrased what the Russians had said at their party congresses only a few days earlier. Believe it or not I still have in my library “Janos Kadar:Selected Speeches and Interviews” in English. Has Eva burned her copy?

    Kadar looked calmer in 1950s than Orban did today. Go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bsateB-QRnk to see Kadar’s interview with NBC news.

  34. @István, On the contrary, I have THREE volumes of Kádár speeches: “Tovább a lenini úton,” “A szocializmus teljes győzelméért,” and “Szilárd népi hatalom: Független Magyarország.”

  35. The Hungarian Tax Authority (aka NAV, headed by Ms. Dr. jur. Ildiko Vida) alleges tax evasion at, you guess it, RTL Klub.

    RTL might have to pay a couple of billion forints of unpaid taxes plus fines, plus the case might even lead to criminal charges too.

    If RTL thought it could defy Orban, Lazar and the rest of this cabal of lawyers, well, it might have to rethink its strategy — so hopes Orban at least.

    Yes, Orban seems to be retaliating against his perceived enemies which gives us hope that he will send Mr. Goodfriend packing.

    http://hvg.hu/gazdasag/20141205_Hirado_NAVvizsgalat_folyik_az_RTL_Klub_e

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