Hungarian politics

The Hungarian mafia war

As I reread yesterday’s post, I realized that I failed to capture both the tone and the importance of what happened yesterday in Hungary. Many commentators consider the “media war” between Viktor Orbán and Lajos Simicska to be the most serious political crisis of the last twenty-five years, a crisis that may cost Viktor Orbán his political career. I agree. February 6, 2015 was a critically important day.

Simicska’s outburst offered us an opportunity to peek behind the curtain of Viktor Orbán’s regime. What we see there is devastating. Hungary is being governed by a crime syndicate, something outsiders had told us, but until yesterday we had no inside confirmation. Now we know. If you try to leave, if you fall from grace, you can easily imagine that your life might be in danger. The members of this mafia family are immoral and dangerous thieves, ready to do anything. In fact, they are more dangerous than an ordinary mafia family because in their hands is the entire state apparatus–the power of legislation, the judiciary system, the police, the army. As Ildikó Lendvai said on Facebook, “Media war? Oh no, mafia war… War of gangsters broke out.”

Viktor Orbán in nice company Source: Die Welt / Photo Getty

Viktor Orbán among his friends and comrades
Source: Die Welt / Photo Getty

Yesterday I couldn’t quote Simicska’s exchanges with reporters at any length because of all his obscenities, some of which I simply didn’t know how to translate. The Budapest Beacon, however, took up the challenge and translated the interview between Simicska and József Nagy of Hír24 in its entirety. You might want to take a look.

Simicska seems determined to go all the way with his fight. He doesn’t hide the fact that he knows all the dirt behind the rise of the Young Democrats, the crew from the István Bibó College. If he decided to tell all, Viktor Orbán would immediately fall from grace. But can Simicska reveal everything he knows about the old crew–Viktor Orbán, László Kövér, János Áder, József Szájer, just to mention the top leadership that gathered in the second half of the 1980s? Simicska might be terribly upset at the moment, but once he has calmed down he should realize that he cannot reveal the criminal activities in which these men have been involved over the years without implicating himself. He must also have figured out long before he decided on an open attack that his decision will have severe financial consequences. He can say goodbye to his lucrative business ventures, which have been conducted exclusively with the government. Of course, it is possible that Simicska decided that he is rich enough and therefore no longer needs the prime minister’s help. Perhaps he stashed away his billions somewhere outside of Hungary. In any event, Viktor Orbán seems to have the upper hand here because behind him is the power of the state. But we shouldn’t underestimate Simicska, who is an exceedingly capable fellow and a skilled manipulator. Even his former friend Viktor Orbán had to admit that “Lajos is the cleverest among us.”

For the time being the top leaders of Fidesz decided to act as if nothing happened. They made sure that the state television’s evening news buried the “news of the day.” First they talked about the excellent performance of Hungarian industry. This was followed by a story on the government’s efforts to create more jobs. Next they announced that the government decided to have a “national consultation” to determine whether Hungarians want illegal immigrants or not. Only then came the news that the editors of Magyar Nemzet, HírTV, and Lánchíd Rádió had resigned and that Simicska gave several interviews, but what he said was not reported, allegedly because of the obscenities. Not a word about his disapproval of Orbán’s pro-Russian policies or his accusation that Hungary today is building another dictatorship.

In my opinion, those people, including the Fidesz leadership, who think that this whole thing will blow over are wrong. Their argument is that very few people will even hear about the incident. I disagree. Both Origo and HVG have close to a million readers a day, and the news about the Simicska-Orbán affair has been all over the internet. Those who don’t use the internet will hear the story from colleagues at work, from neighbors, or on the streets. Even a right-wing blog, Jobbegyenes (Straight right), argued that Orbán made a mistake in turning against the right-wing media developed and financed by Simicska. Both the Antall government and the first Orbán government tried to rely exclusively on state television and radio but both had to realize that this was not enough. Once Fidesz loses power, it will also lose MTV and MR and then what? It was Simicska who between 2002 and 2010 created the pro-Fidesz media empire that made the 2010 Fidesz victory possible.

I gather from an interview with Sándor Csintalan, who currently works for Lánchíd Rádió, that a certain percentage of Lajos Simicska’s business profits has been turned over to Fidesz for at least the last fifteen years. It was Simicska’s money that kept Fidesz financially comfortable. A great deal of that money, of course, came from the European Union. The EU not only kept the country afloat economically; it also unwittingly poured money into Fidesz coffers. But now, it seems, Viktor Orbán believes he no longer needs Simicska’s financial help, especially if that assistance comes at a price, meaning political influence.

At the moment Simicska is spending a week abroad while his new editors are working hard to reshape the political messages of his television station and Magyar Nemzet. I watched HírTV ‘s newscast last night, and it seemed balanced and factual. In Magyar Nemzet an editorial appeared written by Attila Kristóf entitled “Whose responsibility?” in which he is critical of the Orbán government’s most recent unfortunate decisions. According to him, “some Fidesz politicians have a lifestyle that alienates some Fidesz loyalists.” There is already disappointment, a sentiment that might change into antipathy. Of course, at the moment there is no alternative to Fidesz. The author pessimistically remarks at the end that “we don’t know what kind of future is awaiting us.”

Neither does Lajos Simicska or, for that matter, Viktor Orbán.

A different kind of media war: Lajos Simicska versus Viktor Orbán

What a day! A shakeup–no, an earthquake–at Magyar Nemzet, Magyar Nemzet Online, HírTV, and Lánchíd Rádió, all part of Lajos Simicska’s media empire.

For those who have been following Hungarian politics over the last few years Lajos Simicska needs no introduction. He was the favorite oligarch of the Hungarian prime minister. His companies won about 40% of all government contracts financed by the European Union. What fewer Hungarians remember about him is that in the early 1990s it was Lajos Simicska who saved Fidesz from financial collapse. As Zsolt Bayer, a friend of both Simicska and Orbán, admitted, “without [Simicska] there would be no Fidesz today.”

This is not the place to go into all the gory details of this financial rescue operation. Suffice it to say that the young democrats received a piece of property from the Hungarian state for a party headquarters, which they subsequently sold. They invested the proceeds in all sorts of business ventures that failed, one after the other, leaving behind millions in company debt and unpaid value added taxes. It was Simicska and a lawyer friend of his, Csaba Schlecht, who came up with the master plan. They “sold” the failed companies to bogus individuals who couldn’t be traced. Among them were homeless people who for a few forints agreed to go to a notary and sign anything that was put in front of them. Two of these people became especially infamous. Simicska and Schlecht got hold of the passports of a Turkish guest worker in Germany, Ibrahim Kaya or, as he is known in Hungary, Kaya Ibrahim, and a Croat named Josip Tot. The scandal broke during the first Orbán government, and naturally the police made no serious effort to find the culprits. One could say that Fidesz was born in sin.

For the better part of a year rumor had it that the relationship between Orbán and Simicska had soured. All sorts of hypotheses were put forth about the reason for their fallout. The most prevalent was that Orbán no longer wants to be beholden to one person and would like to widen the financial circle around Fidesz. Soon enough there were signs of Orbán’s efforts to loosen the ties with Simicska, and of Simicska’s response. By last fall a number of journalists who were absolutely devoted to Viktor Orbán were sacked at Magyar Nemzet. In early January we learned that Orbán no longer wants to help the Simicska media empire with advertisements by state companies. These media outlets have to stand on their own feet; he will throw his financial support behind the state television and radio. It was clear that something was brewing, but what really brought matters to a head was the announcement yesterday that the Hungarian government will substantially lower the advertisement tax on RTL Klub and, instead, every media outlet, even the smallest ones, will have to pay a 5% tax on their advertising revenues. That was the last straw for Simicska, who went on a rampage today.

Source: Magyar Narancs / Photo: Dániel Németh

Source: Magyar Narancs Photo: Dániel Németh

First, Simicska got in touch with Népszava last night and told the social democratic paper that “the media war will most likely become total” from here on. He told them that he considers the government’s proposed tax on advertisements “the latest attack against democracy.” In an interview with Origo he claimed that it is not money that is his first consideration, but “what will happen if one day Viktor Orbán scratches his head and decides that he will double the tax?” In brief, he is complaining about the same thing the German businessmen did to Angela Merkel.

When Simicska really lost his cool was early afternoon after he learned from his own paper, Magyar Nemzet, that Gábor Liszkay, editor-in-chief of Magyar Nemzet and CEO of HírTV; Ottó Gajdics, editor-in-chief of Lánchíd Rádió; Gábor Élő, editor of Magyar Nemzet On Line; Péter Szikszai, deputy CEO of HírTV; Péter Csermely, deputy editor-in-chief of Magyar Nemzet; and Szabolcs Szerető, deputy editor-in-chief of Magyar Nemzet, had resigned. Their conscience, they said, does not allow them to work for a paper not in the service of Viktor Orbán.

Well, at that point Simicska went berserk. The man who in the last twenty years hardly ever appeared in public and who never gave an interview suddenly gave interviews to everybody who phoned him. He answered the phone himself and, in response to questions, spewed an array of four-letter words. First he talked to József Nagy of Hír24 and allowed him to publish their recorded conversation. He accused Viktor Orbán, whom he repeatedly called “a prick,” of being behind the resignation of his top management. He also talked about a war between two men, one of whom will fall and that fall can be “physical,” which may mean death, but he is ready even for that. “They can kill me! They can shoot me or there will be a hit-and-run accident.” From an interview with Origo we learned that Simicska and Orbán haven’t talked to each other since last April.

Perhaps the most revealing interview with Simicska was conducted by Magyar Narancs. Here he insisted that he “maximally disapproves of the government media policy” which in another interview he explained involves dividing media outlets into three categories: those who are absolutely loyal to Viktor Orbán and the government; those who here and there are critical; and the enemies. Of these three Orbán can tolerate only the absolute loyal ones and will systematically eliminate all the others.

Apparently Simicska doesn’t like Viktor Orbán’s pro-Russian foreign policy either. And let me quote him verbatim on the topic. “No, I don’t like it at all. I grew up at the time when the Soviet Union was still here and I don’t have pleasant memories of the activities of the Russians in Hungary. I can’t really see any difference between the behavior of the former Soviets and the political behavior of today’s Russians.”

At this point the interviewing journalist interrupted and reminded Simicska that, according to rumors, his disagreement with Orbán has more to do with business than anything else. For example, he was left out of very profitable business transactions connected to Russian natural gas. But Simicska insisted that “there are more important things in life than money.” He and Orbán initially got together “to dismantle a dictatorship and the post-communist regime. It turned out that this is not an easy task. One must work at it. But I did not join Orbán to build another dictatorship to replace the old one. I’m no partner in such an enterprise.”

After the journalist reminded him that he and Orbán have been close friends for thirty-give years and therefore it must be hard to part in this way, Simicska said, “I must admit that it is a great disappointment. I thought he was a statesman, but I had to come to the conclusion that he is not.”

Simicska didn’t have much time to waste. As he said, Magyar Nemzet must be published tomorrow and he has to appoint a completely new top management. Moreover, Gábor Liszkay, editor-in-chief of Magyar Nemzet and CEO of HírTV, was a shareholder in these companies. Simicska had to buy him out. Within a couple of hours the deal was completed. Simicska apparently paid Liszkay 100 million forints or “thereabouts.” Gábor D. Horváth, the only top journalist who didn’t quit, became the editor-in-chief of Magyar Nemzet, and Simicska himself took on the role of CEO of HírTV. And who became the editor-in-chief of Lánchíd Rádió? You won’t believe it. The same old Csaba Schlecht who managed to “sell” the bankrupt Fidesz companies to Ibrahim Kaya and Josip Tot.

I’m looking forward to seeing the articles published in the “new” Magyar Nemzet tomorrow and the days after. Will the pro-Russian and anti-American articles still appear, or will there be a noticeable change in the coverage of Hungary’s relations with Russia, the European Union, and the United States? If yes, then Simicska’s claim to having serious disagreements with Viktor Orbán’s foreign policy can be taken seriously. Otherwise, it is just a lot of hot air.

Viktor Orbán and the Fidesz parliamentary delegation show the way

After spending quite a bit of time on foreign affairs, we have to return to domestic policies because soon enough parliament will reconvene, and the Fidesz and KDNP caucuses are preparing for the new session. Members of the caucuses get together, normally at some resort, and are sequestered for a few days. Their agenda is to set the tone of politics for the next five or six months. This time the Fidesz caucus met at the Balneo Wellness Hotel near Mezőkövesd, the center of an area known for its distinctive folk embroidery. Obviously, there is no shortage of funds in the Fidesz coffers. The caucus has 115 members, and several ministers and undersecretaries also attend these retreats.

Balneo Wellness Hotel

Balneo Wellness Hotel

I find these gatherings amusing, especially when I hear from Antal Rogán, the whip of the caucus, “we request and authorize the government” to do this or that. Naturally, the situation is the reverse, Viktor Orbán tells Antal Rogán what he expects them to do. If they come up with an idea of their own, which doesn’t happen too often, Orbán usually decides against it. Or if they want information from the prime minister, they don’t always get it. This time, for example, apparently the MPs wanted to know more about the visits of Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin, but they heard nothing about either. It also seems they were hoping to hear more about the deal between the government and the RTL Group. They should have known better. When Viktor Orbán loses a fight, he doesn’t like to talk about it. Or, if an encounter, like the one with Merkel, is not exactly a success, he changes the subject.

So, let’s see what Viktor Orbán actually wanted to talk about. His greatest concern seems to be the immigration of “economic refugees.” In the last two years their numbers have grown substantially, and recently they’ve spiked. While last year 42,000 requests for immigrant status were received, this year, just in January, 14,000 such requests were filed. Orbán’s solution to the problem is draconian. He wants “to bolt the door to Hungary” to all “economic immigrants because we don’t need any of them.” Hungarian economic emigrants leave in droves while Hungary is bolted tight to anyone coming from “another culture.” He will not wait for the European Union, which is far too slow. Hungary will act on its own. I wonder how they will deport all those people who are currently in Hungary and what will they do with those who are on their way. An Irish proverb says “Never bolt the door with a boiled carrot.” What will the Hungarians use?

The government must have realized that the so-called school reform initiated by the second Orbán government was a failure. All schools were nationalized except for a few private schools and were put under one huge umbrella organization that turned out to be totally incapable of supervising about 120,000 employees and thousands of schools. We don’t know how the government is planning to undo the chaos created by Rózsa Hoffmann (KDNP), but it looks as if another “reform” is underway. Every time I hear of a new school reform I just shudder. So far the government hasn’t talked to educational experts or teachers’ unions, and it hasn’t spelled out the details of its plan. It has simply resurrected an old idea of Zoltán Pokorny, former minister of education in the first Orbán government (1998-2002), to extend the eight grades of compulsory education by one year. Apparently, it was inspired by the “Polish model,” which introduced a ninth year of elementary education–along with an entirely new educational philosophy. It seems, however, that Viktor Orbán doesn’t like the idea, so most likely it will be dropped.

Another concern of Viktor Orbán is the state of Hungarian healthcare, which is rapidly deteriorating instead of improving. Orbán seems to be frustrated. At the meeting he complained that 500 billion extra forints had been sunk into healthcare and yet the hospitals are still in the red. Their current debt is 70 billion forints, which must be paid out of the central budget. Their suppliers, mostly Hungarian middle-size companies, are also hurting. For the time being, the newly appointed undersecretary will remain, but I have feeling that his days are numbered. The government’s solution is simple: forbid the hospitals from accumulating any new debts. If a hospital director doesn’t follow this order he will be fired. It is hard to fathom how such a strategy will help the situation. By the way, there’s an apparent contradiction worth mentioning here. On the one hand, the government wants to reduce the number of hospitals and most likely cut back on the number of employees, while on the other hand Antal Rogán “requested and authorized” the government to make money available for a brand new hospital in Budapest. It turns out that money for this new hospital will come from the European Union while maintaining the existing hospitals must come from Hungarian government resources.

Although the Hungarian media is full of the news that Viktor Orbán had to give in to the demands of RTL Klub without the television station toning down its news coverage of government corruption, we learned today that “Fidesz authorized the government to negotiate further with Brussels” concerning the advertising levy. What can that mean exactly? Well, nothing good, I fear. Viktor Orbán will take his sweet time thinking about the deal between János Lázár and the top management of the RTL Group. Moreover, Orbán made it clear that the amount of money he was hoping to get from the advertising levies cannot be reduced as a result of the compromise with RTL Klub. So, we can all use our imaginations trying to figure out what Viktor Orbán has in mind when he talks about further negotiations with Brussels.

If I properly interpret the leaks from the meeting of the Fidesz delegation, Orbán will not back down on government supervision of non-governmental organizations. In his opinion the Hungarian government is entitled to know what kinds of foreign subsidies are given to Hungarian civic groups. So, I assume the harassment of these groups will continue. So will the “national freedom fight.” Rogán revealed that “the Hungarian people expect that the government will always stand for the national interests” and that as a result of the government’s policies “national self-esteem” has grown during the last five years. Orbán also has no intention of changing his “independent” foreign policy because “Hungary has become a strong country” thanks to his leadership. He repeated that cheap gas means inexpensive utility prices, which he considers critical to his political longevity. Only Putin can give him what he needs. What Orbán will give in return is as yet unknown.

The Orbán government is at a loss: Which way to turn?

Today even Válasz had to admit that the Hungarian government’s PR stunt that followed the less than successful Merkel-Orbán meeting was a mistake. Referring to the false news about mega-investment,” Valóság, after an earlier glowing report, had to retreat and acknowledge that “there is no BMW, there is no new Mercedes factory and Fidesz doesn’t seem to be successful in the RTL Klub affair either. This wouldn’t be drama if the government had the guts to deny Vs.hu‘s news. But now we do have a small drama.”

I don’t know whether we can call it a drama, but that the Hungarian government’s already tarnished reputation now has an ugly rusty spot as well, that’s for sure. AFP picked up the news about the gigantic German investments that were agreed on during the meeting between the German chancellor and the Hungarian prime minister, but unlike András Kósa, the author of the Vs.hu article, AFP, before publishing the article, did go to the “spokesman for the Hungarian government [who] declined to comment.” Not did the spokesman not deny the story, as Válasz would have suggested, but he purposely spread the disinformation. That leaves me to believe that this PR stunt was concocted by the large communication team around the prime minister’s office.

What can one say about a government that engages in such cheap tricks? Keep in mind that the team around Viktor Orbán was handpicked by the prime minister himself. The members of this team are the ones who manage “communication,” which seems to be the most important aspect of politics for Viktor Orbán. He is like a salesman who has only one goal: to sell his wares regardless of their value or even utility.

What were these communication wizards thinking? Surely they had to realize that sooner or later reporters will ask these companies about their alleged plans and the truth will be revealed. Indeed, Mercedes and BMW have already denied the leaked information about their plans to build factories in Hungary, and this morning we learned from the Siemens spokesman that Siemens is no longer active in industries connected to nuclear energy and therefore the news about their involvement with the Paks Nuclear Power Plant is untrue. As far as the helicopters are concerned, apparently no decision has been made. It is possible that after the meeting Airbus, the French-German company reported to have won the contract, might not be the favorite.

I can only hope that the story of this ruse will reach Angela Merkel’s office, not that I have any doubt about her assessment of the Hungarian prime minister’s character. In any case, the Orbán government’s courting of Germany as a counterbalance to the United States did not work out to Orbán’s satisfaction. Of course, he himself is partly to blame for the fiasco with his public defense of “illiberal democracy.” Even Gábor G. Fodor, a right-wing “strategic director” of Századvég, a Fidesz think tank, said that Viktor Orbán made a mistake when he openly defended his vision of “illiberal democracy.” In fact, he went so far as to say that “this debate cannot be won,” especially not before a western audience. If this absolutely devoted Orbán fan considers the prime minister’s defense of his ideology to have been a mistake, then, believe me, the mistake was a big one.

So, here we are. After all the effort the government put into good relations with Germany, it looks as if Angela Merkel was not convinced. So, where to go from here? There seems to be a serious attempt at improving U.S.-Hungarian relations. This effort was prompted by the long-awaited arrival of the new U.S. ambassador, Colleen Bell, who shortly after her arrival began a round of visits and attended to a number of official duties. Her first trip was to Csaba Hende, minister of defense, which was reported by Hungary Today, a  newly launched, thinly disguised government propaganda internet site. The news of her visit was coupled with the announcement of Hungary’s plans to purchase a new helicopter fleet. The fleet will consist of 30 helicopters that will cost 551 million euros. Discussing the helicopters and Colleen Bell’s visit in the same article was no coincidence. Most likely, the Hungarian government wants to give the impression that there is a possibility that the helicopters will be purchased from the United States.

Even more telling is the paean on the Hungarian government’s website to “successful Hungarian-U.S. economic cooperation.” The occasion was the opening of Alcoa’s “expanded wheels manufacturing plant in Hungary.” It is, if I understand it correctly, an expansion of facilities that have been in place ever since 1996. The construction cost $13 million, and it will create 35 new permanent jobs. The facility was officially opened by Colleen Bell and Péter Szijjártó. Szijjártó was effusive: “with Alcoa’s new investment, a new chapter has opened in the success story of Hungarian-U.S. economic cooperation.” We also learned that the Hungarian government “granted one billon forints for the project.”

Photo by Márton Kovács

Photo by Márton Kovács

Bell, for her part, appealed to Hungarian pride by reminding her hosts that, although Alcoa has existed for 125 years, “this is not very long in terms of Hungary’s 1000-year-old history, but for the United States, a 125-year period covers half of its existence.” Music to Hungarian ears. Of course, she also promised that in the future she will work hard to create new opportunities for both U.S. and Hungarian businesses and to further improve their cooperation. The mayor of Székesfehérvár, the city where the Alcoa factory is located, announced that the wheels of buses in the city will gradually be replaced with Alcoa products.

I somehow doubt that courting the United States in this manner will make Washington forget about the anti-American rhetoric of  pro-government papers or the incredible performance of the Orbán government in connection with the U.S. banning of Hungarian nationals because of corruption charges. Somehow I have the feeling that courting the United States without changing government policies will be just as unsuccessful as Orbán’s earlier efforts in Germany.

And one final note. Today Orbán announced that the fate of cheaper utility costs depends on his successful negotiation with Vladimir Putin on the price of gas and oil to Hungary. If he is unsuccessful, the current low utility rates cannot be maintained. The message? The Hungarian people should support his Russia policy. If not, their utility bills will rise again. Let me add that the team that came up with the idea of reducing utility prices hit a gold mine. The Orbán government’s popularity in 2012 was even lower than it is now. Yet a year and a half later the popularity of the party and the government soared. For Orbán utility rates are terribly important, and therefore I suspect that he will do everything in his power to strike a deal with Putin. The question is at what price.

Merkel-Orbán conversations: Serious differences of opinion

Yesterday, right after Angela Merkel’s plane left the runway at the Budapest Airport, I jotted down my first impressions. It was a busy day for the German chancellor, so I had to be very selective in my post. I concentrated on Merkel’s comments, largely because they were the most unexpected elements in the exchange. Moreover, I talked mostly about her reactions to Hungarian domestic issues and spent a great deal less time on the disagreements between the two leaders over foreign affairs.

Let’s start with their attitudes toward Putin’s Russia. According to Orbán, Ukraine is important for Hungary because it is a neighbor of Hungary, because there is a Hungarian minority across the border, and because the gas that Hungary needs badly travels through this country. Therefore, he said, Hungary “can stand only on the side of peace. We can imagine only a solution that will take us toward peace.” But let’s see what Merkel had to say. According to her, the Germans would also like to have a ceasefire and political stability in Ukraine that “can guarantee the territorial integrity of the country.” Something Orbán didn’t talk about. Merkel also gently reminded Orbán that Hungary is not the only country that is dependent on Russian gas, indicating that it is unacceptable for Hungary to have a different viewpoint on the question of Russian sanctions.

That last remark from Merkel prompted Orbán to open a discussion with his guest on Hungary’s unique position in this respect. Germany’s situation cannot be compared to that of Hungary; “one must take Hungary’s situation vis-à-vis Russia very seriously.” Hungary has to renew her long-term agreement on the price of gas for the next fifteen years, and therefore “it is difficult to fully support the Russian sanctions.”

Although yesterday I talked about their disagreements over the meaning of democracy, I said nothing about how the topic came up during the press conference. Orbán naturally did not bring it up; it was Merkel who announced that during her conversation with Orbán she “indicated that although the Hungarian government has a large majority, in a democracy the role of the opposition, the civil society, and the media is very important.” She added that later she will find time to have a conversation with the leaders of Hungarian civil society. From Orbán’s reaction it was clear that the Hungarian prime minister did not expect such direct involvement by Merkel in a matter he considers a domestic issue. It was after these points of disagreement that Merkel and Orbán had their rather sharp exchange on the nature of “illiberal democracy.” As the Frankfurter Rundschau pointed out, Merkel can at times be quite “undiplomatic,” as she was this time, and therefore “she annoyed Orbán.” You can see the prime minister’s annoyance and his determination to follow his own path on the picture below, taken during their debate on “illiberalism.”

Source: MTI / Photo Tibor Illyés

Source: MTI / Photo Tibor Illyés

Csaba Molnár,  the number two man in the Demokratikus Koalíció, thought that Orbán was cowed and “behaved like a scared little boy standing by his teacher’s side.” I disagree. I saw exactly the opposite: a combative Viktor Orbán who will not be swayed by any argument and who will continue to build his illiberal state. I’m afraid the same might be true when it comes to negotiations with Vladimir Putin. Even though he might sign on to further sanctions, he will try to make a deal with Putin regardless of EU disapproval. It is another matter whether Putin will swallow a big one and give preferential treatment to Orbán despite the meager returns he can expect from Budapest.

As even the right-wing media had to admit, the visit was not a great success, although it was designed to be a showcase of German-Hungarian friendship and a stamp of approval by the German chancellor of the Orbán regime. What does Fidesz do in such an awkward situation? After all, they cannot admit that Merkel and Orbán disagreed on almost everything, starting with Russia and ending with the nature of democracy. The simplest and the usual Fidesz response in such cases is to resort to outright lying. This is exactly what happened today.

Vs.hu is a relatively new internet news site that came out with the startling news that the real significance of the conversation was in the realm of new German investments in the Hungarian economy. András Kósa, a well-respected journalist who used to be on the staff of HVG, just joined Vs.hu. He was told by unnamed members of the government and local German businessmen that although on the surface there was visible friction between Merkel and Orbán, in fact “concrete important industrial agreements came into being on Monday.” Siemens will be involved in the construction of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant. In addition, Hungary will buy thirty helicopters from Airbus, not from the American Sikorsky or the Italian-British AgustaWestland. Kósa was told that “BMW is contemplating opening a factory in Hungary.” Only the exact location remains to be settled. And, on top of everything else, Mercedes will build a new factory to manufacture a new model.

Well, that was quite a scoop. The Hungarian media went crazy. Dozens and dozens of articles appeared within minutes, and every time the story was retold it became grander and grander. While the original article emphasized that all these favorable developments “might happen,” by the time the story got to Magyar Nemzet it became “Gigantic German investments are forthcoming as a result of the Merkel-Orbán meeting.” Válasz discovered that the real significance of the meeting was that new “gigantic German investments are coming to Hungary,” obviously all that taken care of during a short luncheon. Even such a reputable site as Portfolio.hu fell for the story.

The first word of warning came from a specialized internet site that deals with the car industry, Autopro.hu. It is possible that economic relations were discussed, but it is impossible that there could be negotiations between Merkel and Orbán regarding concrete projects, the author of the article remarked. This is not the first time that the possibility of a BMW factory is being heralded by the Hungarian media, but nothing ever came of it. Moreover, if there are such plans or decisions, they would not be discussed by Merkel and Orbán but by the top management of BMW and Hungarian economic experts. Autopro.hu didn’t manage to get in touch with BMW, but they were told by Mercedes that at the moment they have no intention of building another factory. Later the pro-government Napi Gazdaság  learned from BMW headquarters that “the BMW Group has no plans to build a factory in Hungary.” I don’t know whether the rest of the story, about Siemens and Airbus, is true or is also a figment of the imagination of certain government officials.

I consider Kósa a reliable and serious journalist who would not make up such a story. But why would government sources leak information about nonexistent projects? What do these so-called high government officials think when they concoct stories that are bound to be discovered to be false? Perhaps they think that the false news will spread like wildfire, as it did in this case, and that the correction will be reported by only very few media outlets. Therefore, it can be considered a successful communication stunt. Fidesz is good at that.

Angela Merkel in Budapest

Yesterday I sketched out a number of hypotheses about Angela Merkel’s objective in visiting Budapest. Almost all Hungarian foreign policy experts were certain that Merkel would not touch on Hungarian domestic issues. Her only concerns would be Viktor Orbán’s compliance with the common EU policy regarding Russia and his treatment of German businesses in Hungary. Since the Hungarian prime minister accommodated on both fronts just prior to her visit, she would have little to complain about. The consensus was that she would remain silent on the state of democracy in Hungary.

I, on the other hand, couldn’t imagine that Merkel could ignore this issue. The German press has been full of stories about Orbán’s authoritarian regime. It has given extensive coverage to Hungary’s anti-government, pro-democracy demonstrations. So there was some homegrown pressure on the German chancellor to stick her neck out and talk openly about the issue. Many people comment on Merkel’s low-key, sometimes vapid style. Those who know her better, however, assure us that in private she can be a tiger. Well, today, we caught a glimpse of that side of her character.

This morning Gregor Peter Schmitz in Der Spiegel demanded “plain talk” from Merkel in Budapest. “The whole of Europe is terrified of extremists, Angela Merkel is meeting one,” he said. It is time to speak out. If Schmitz watched the press conference after a short luncheon meeting between Angela Merkel and the Hungarian prime minister, he was most likely disappointed, at least initially. She did talk about issues that democrats at home and abroad find important: the role of civil society and the importance of the opposition, but her critique was pretty bland. She said, for instance, that “even if you have a broad majority, as the Hungarian prime minister does, it’s very important in a democracy to appreciate the role of the opposition, civil society, and the media.” Merkel had said the same thing many times before.

The real surprise, “the plain talk” Schmitz demanded, came at the end when Stephan Löweinstein of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung asked Merkel her opinion about Orbán’s “illiberal democracy.” After explaining that liberalism is part and parcel of the ideology of her own party, she added: “I personally don’t know what to do with the term.” In her opinion there is no such animal. Orbán did not back down. He repeated his belief that not all democracies are liberal and that liberalism cannot have a privileged position in the political landscape. I should add that the Hungarian state television station omitted this exchange in its broadcast of the press conference.

Source: HVG / Photo: Gergely Túry

Source: HVG / Photo: Gergely Túry

Viktor Orbán was not a happy man. I’m certain that he expected concessions from Merkel after he was so “generous” on the RTL Klub case. It seems that Merkel did not appreciate his efforts to the extent hoped for in Budapest.

During the press conference Orbán talked mostly about German-Hungarian economic relations and thanked Germany for its investment, which resulted in 300,000 jobs in Hungary. But he became more insistent and strident as time went on, especially when Merkel began talking about a common European energy policy. He indicated that in his opinion the European Union doesn’t appreciate Hungary’s utter dependence on Russian gas. He stressed, in a raised voice, that the Russian-Hungarian long-term gas supply contract will be expiring soon and that Hungary must have a new agreement with the Russians. Hence the forthcoming Putin-Orbán meeting in Budapest.

An opposition politician called my attention to the fact that Merkel referred to Orbán as “ein Kollege” instead of the customary designation “friend.” An American acquaintance noted that the new American ambassador also talks about Hungary as an “ally” and no longer as a friend.

The German papers are already full of articles about the trip, and I’m sure that in the next few days there will be dozens of articles and op/ed pieces analyzing Merkel’s day in Budapest. I’m also certain that I will spend more than one post on this visit. Here are a few initial observations.

Merkel spent very little time with Viktor Orbán. Just a little over an hour, including a meal. With János Áder no more than 15-20 minutes. On the other hand, the event at the German-language Andrássy University was quite long where differences of opinion between the two politicians became evident. The introductory remarks by the president of Andrássy University were lengthy as was the speech by the president of the University of Szeged, which bestowed an honorary degree on Angela Merkel. Her own speech was not short either. What was most surprising was the number of questions allowed. Some of the questions were not political but personal. Perhaps the students didn’t have the guts to ask politically risky questions. Her answers showed her to be quite an open person, very different from what I expected. One brave soul did bring up the topic of terrorism and immigration, indicating that Orbán inflames prejudice against people from different cultural backgrounds. Merkel stood by her guns, stressing the need for tolerance, openness, and diversity. Another question was about Russian aggression. Here she used strong words against aggression and condemned Putin’s use of force.

Finally, a few words about Merkel’s final destination, the synagogue on Dohány utca, where she talked to Hungarian Jewish religious leaders. Apparently, the Hungarians first suggested that Viktor Orbán accompany Merkel. The Germans turned that kind offer down. I find it significant that Merkel’s visit to the synagogue was longer than planned. Her plane left Budapest half an hour later than scheduled.

All in all, those people who were afraid that by going to Budapest Angela Merkel would give her stamp of approval to Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal democracy” can breathe a sigh of relief. Nothing of the sort happened.

Thoughts in advance of the German and Russian visits to Budapest

Yesterday the Neue Zürcher Zeitung published an article about the forthcoming visits of Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin to Budapest titled “Orbans Tanz auf zwei Hochzeiten,” indicating that Viktor Orbán will be able to have his cake and eat it too. He will remain a member in good standing of the European Union and will be a close friend of Russia at the same time. I, on the other hand, maintain that he will not be able to pull off that extraordinary feat. There are many signs that the Hungarian prime minister is already in retreat.

Let’s start with the Merkel visit. Hungarian and foreign observers have come up with all sorts of explanations for her trip, starting with the simplest one–that she could no longer postpone it. After all, she has not visited the Hungarian capital in the last five years, ever since Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz, which professes to be a Christian Democratic party, won a stunning victory in 2010. Her last trip took place in 2009, on the twentieth anniversary of the Hungarian opening of the Austro-Hungarian border for East German refugees, when the socialist-liberal government of Gordon Bajnai was still in power. If the purpose of the trip was to have a serious discussion about the Russian-Ukrainian crisis and Hungary’s role in it, Merkel’s five-hour stay, with very little face time with Viktor Orbán, would not suffice. She is coming because she promised to and because, according to a 1992 agreement between Hungary and Germany, she has to.

There are analysts who are convinced that Angela Merkel will not even mention the erosion of Hungarian democracy under Viktor Orbán’s regime, the systematic transformation of a fledgling democracy into an autocratic regime akin to the political setup that existed in Hungary between the two world wars. She has more pressing issues on her agenda: Greece, the sanctions against Russia, and the growth of the German anti-immigration movement–PEGIDA (Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes / Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West), especially popular in the former East Germany. It is unlikely that Merkel will waste any time on the woes of Hungarian democracy. Her only aim is to make sure that Viktor Orbán stands by the extension of the sanctions. This hypothesis, in part at least, is outdated: Hungary obediently voted for the extension on January 29.

Others are more optimistic. They maintain that the trouble with Angela Merkel’s visit is that it seems to put a stamp of approval on the illiberal regime of Viktor Orbán. This is certainly how the Orbán government is portraying it. If Merkel says nothing about the state of democracy in Hungary, Orbán’s regime scores a victory. There is pressure on Merkel at home, however, to do something about the Hungarian situation. She has to give the appearance that her visit is something of a warning to Viktor Orbán.

There is some truth in this interpretation. In fact, there are signs that behind the scenes some “disciplinary measures” have already taken place. The successful negotiations with the leaders of  the RTL Group indicate that Orbán got the message: there will be consequences if the Hungarian government blatantly and illegally discriminates against a media outlet just because it doesn’t like RTL’s news broadcast. Orbán caved, and I for one am certain that he didn’t get much in return. I find it interesting that the official announcement of Merkel’s visit occurred very late, on January 28, the day when according to Népszava‘s information the Hungarian government agreed to a substantial reduction in the enormous tax it had levied on RTL Klub. Was this agreement the price, or part of the price, of Merkel’s visit?

Because that’s not all. In his regular Friday morning interview Orbán announced that the exorbitant tax levies on the banking sector will most likely be gradually reduced because the Hungarian economy has greatly improved. “If possible, the interests of the country and the businessmen must be reconciled,” said the man who until now had laid all the financial burdens of his erroneous economic policies on businesses, especially foreign ones.

There might be several reasons for Orbán’s cooperation in addition to German negotiations. One is that the Americans undoubtedly know more about the Hungarian mafia state and Viktor Orbán’s role in it than they let on, but the Hungarian prime minister doesn’t know how much they know. That must be a powerful incentive to stick with the countries that provide Hungary with economic aid and military shelter. Another consideration might be the effect of the sanctions and the sinking price of oil on the Russian economy, which makes close ties with Putin’s Russia a less desirable option than, let’s say, a year ago.

And that leads us to the Putin visit on February 17. It was almost a year ago, in March of 2014, that the United States and the European Union began applying sanctions against Russia. Although Hungary agreed to support the move, in August Viktor Orbán declared that “Europe shot itself in the foot,” meaning that the sanctions actually hurt only the West and did nothing to weaken the Russian economy. Just about this time, however, oil prices began falling. The combination of sanctions and falling energy prices has made the Russian economic situation close to desperate by now.

Orbán was initially very proud of what he considered to be the crowning achievements of his Russia policy: the Southern Stream, which would have brought gas to Hungary circumventing Ukraine, and the Russian loan for the extension of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant. Since then, Russia abandoned the Southern Stream project because of lack of funds, and many people think that the much heralded Paks deal is also in trouble. Thus, the rationale for close relations with Russia has more or less evaporated, which leaves Viktor Orbán in the unenviable position of suffering the ill effects of his overly cozy relation with Putin while reaping practically no benefits.

Depiction of the Trojan Horse at the Schlilemann Museum in Akershagen, Germany

Depiction of the Trojan Horse at the Schliemann Museum in Akershagen, Germany

Under these circumstances I doubt that the initiative for the Putin visit came from Budapest. It is no longer to Orbán’s benefit to make a lavish display of friendship with Russia. And indeed, the government is trying to downplay the importance of Putin’s visit, noting that it is only a working trip and not a state visit with the usual fanfare. For Putin, by contrast, it is an important trip at a time when nobody wants to have anything to do with him. Just think of the humiliation he suffered in Brisbane, Australia. He wants to demonstrate that he has at least one good friend  in the European Union.

Putin’s second reason for the trip, I suspect along with others, is to find out how much he can rely on Viktor Orbán. Will he deliver as promised? Or it was just talk? Perhaps Orbán oversold his usefulness to Putin and is turning out to be a useless ally from the Russian point of view. Last August Jan-Werner Müller wrote an article in Foreign Affairs titled “Moscow’s Trojan Horse: In Europe’s Ideological War, Hungary Picks Putinism.” Well, the Trojan Horse may be just an empty shell and the damage it can cause within the European Union little to none.

Sándor Kerekes: Letter to Angela Merkel

Dear Chancellor Merkel:

I am impelled to write to you on the occasion of your impending visit to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary in February. I have no doubt that your able staff is more than adequately preparing your visit; however, I wish to add to that a point of view representing the Hungarian perspective.

Surely, you are aware that the government of PM Orbán and his Fidesz Party have relentlessly attacked and emasculated most institutions of the democratic state ever since their election in May 2010. But, just to keep up appearances, they have maintained them as a façade, populating them with their own appointees, often for nine and twelve-year terms, thus rendering them unable and unwilling to carry out their original, constitutional functions, since the appointees only follow Fidesz instructions. From the outside they look like checks and balances to the unsuspecting viewer. However, nothing could be further from the facts. All those institutions are interconnected through the invisible network of personal and party connections, all serving to promote the political and financial interests of a selected few of Viktor Orbán’s friends. In fact, those institutions are only there to serve as a disguise, hiding the actual operations of a government whose single and concentrated aim is to siphon as much of the country’s resources to the hands of this small coterie, as possible.

The street demonstrations of recent days mobilizing tens of thousands of people almost every other day, demanding democracy and fair government, are largely concerned with the ever-increasing corruption of the government. Those thousands are in dire need of help that could surely come from you Madame Chancellor. This monumental, institutional corruption is seemingly unassailable by the people, because Parliament, as the Prime Minister’s voting machine, legislates and legalizes the constant, obvious thievery. And as it so often happens, if a superficially constructed piece of legislation should prove insufficient to cover up the crime, either a subsequent retroactive law will bend the rules after the fact, or all complaints will be rejected or ignored by the Prosecutor’s Office. Since the election in 2010, not one single corruption case was launched against any corrupt government official, despite the numerous cases submitted. It is not surprising; therefore, if many consider the government of Viktor Orbán as a well-functioning Mafia operation.

The presently concluded contract with Vladimir Putin’s Russia for the building and financing of the Paks 2 nuclear power plant is hugely disadvantageous to Hungary and yet a most rational pact in view of the rapacious corruption system. The contract includes a 20% Hungarian share in the financing – 2.5 billion Euros – that is available for stealing. Since the Hungarian state otherwise has run out of sources for available money to steal, this gigantic project will provide a copious source of corruption money for the coterie. At the same time, it may bankrupt the country, but by the time that will become clear, this Mafia will be long gone.

Under these circumstances, even the government of the United States raised a strenuous complaint and took the unprecedented step of banning certain government officials from its territory for reasons of corruption. At the same time, the United States government made it clear that it will not shirk from the confrontation, and insists that the Hungarian government must address the systemic corruption. So far, Viktor Orbán has resorted to lies, denial, and communications trickery, but taken no action.

Apart from some prestige projects, such as football stadiums and municipal beautifications, public investments ground to a halt years ago. Private capital is fleeing the country. If there is any investment at all in Hungary today, it is funded by European Union transfer money. In fact, over 90% of all public investment projects are financed by the European Union. But invariably, those projects are “one-off” short term ones that create neither lasting effect, nor permanent jobs for people. In fact, all that European Union financing is squandered on useless, short-term veneer, merely creating appearances and an opportunity for kickbacks. Presently, any government public bidding process is tailor-made for the single, Orbán-friendly bidder, and the general consensus is that the “usual” kickback is between 20 and 40%. Despite all this, the Orbán government is conducting an unrelenting verbal and political campaign against the European Union, the United States and most of all the ideals of liberal democracy.

The barren Hungarian puszta

The barren Hungarian puszta

When the European Parliament commissioned the Tavares Report, it was assumed in good faith that the problems of the Orbán Government were mere mistakes and with the help of the Report itself, with some good advice, and genteel prodding, the system could be corrected. Today it is clear that the Orbán government is by no means acting in good faith. In fact, the Tavares Report failed to recognize that Hungary is rapidly and intentionally sliding towards a one-party, single-ruler, authoritarian, illiberal regime. The Report was to no avail; the Hungarian government not only ignored it, but also legislated its rejection. All this was done in front of the uncaring eyes of the European Union.

While the officials and friends of the Orbán government are getting obviously and obscenely rich, the population of the country is sliding into deep poverty. Today, four million people are living under the poverty level, hundreds of thousands are starving and tens of thousands of children cannot get enough to eat. Poverty today is endemic in Hungary and it is increasing. Over the last four years, 500,000 of the mobile, enterprising people of Hungary have emigrated to other countries in the European Union, Germany amongst them.

Not wanting to extend needlessly the list of reasons for writing this letter, I wish to come to the obvious implications.

Hungary today is a disturbing foreign object in the very middle of the European Union. But because its transformation, running counter to everything European, is far from complete, it is likely that in the future she will be a cause for much more, and much more painful headaches within the European Union. The process of transformation is accelerating unbridled, and Hungary will be a source of an unhealthy inspiration, inviting any self-appointed tin-pot dictator to repeat the exercise: build an illiberal, single-ruler dictatorship and do it at the expense of the European Union. Why not? Nobody is raising any objections and the money keeps flowing to finance the process.

Madame Chancellor:

The interest of the European Union, the people of Hungary, and basic common sense dictate to submit to you the humble request that you, a dominant person in the European Union and in the World, give an unmistakable expression of disapproval to Mr. Orbán about what is happening in Hungary. It is inconceivable, and yet a strange fact of life, that the European Union and its citizenry should generously finance Hungary’s corruption, its war against Western Values and Mr. Orbán’s campaign against the people of his own country. Why should the European Union pour billions of Euros into a few people’s pockets, just to enable them to steal even more?

The suspension or denial of the transfer payments would bring the insane policies of the Orbán government to a screeching halt since nothing but these payments keeps it going.

The European Union, on the other hand, would greatly benefit from saving those billions by using them for more worthy purposes than stuffing the pockets of a corrupt regime that uses them as an opportunity to conduct a surreptitious anti-European, anti-liberal, people-busting war in peace time.

Dear Madame Chancellor:

I fervently hope that my suggestions coincide with your own intentions, and that your highly anticipated visit to Hungary will bring the beneficial results most of us are hoping for. It would be a bitter disappointment for the entire country if Prime Minister Orbán could in any way interpret your visit as a public relations success and a stamp of approval on his policies.

Very truly yours,

Sándor Kerekes

—-

Sándor Kerekes is a freelance journalist whose articles regularly appear in Kanadai Magyar Hírlap. He also wrote several articles in the past for Hungarian Spectrum.

Ferenc Gyurcsány on the Merkel and Putin visits to Budapest

Reckless Despair

The first days and weeks of the new year are ideal for making promises, trying to find explanations, and perhaps also posing questions of great importance, i.e. strategic questions. This is all the more so in the discourse of leading Western European politicians. On the one hand, the beginning of the new year and, on the other hand, the tragedies and challenges that happened in the first days of this year have drawn their attention – just as their voters’ – to a number of questions. For this very reason, they have been mainly occupied with European issues, while putting their own domestic policy issues onto the back burner.

Obligation, contract, agreement Yes, lately the wind has gotten stronger but  I'm master of the situation

Obligation, contract, agreement
Yes, lately the wind has gotten stronger but I’m the master of the situation

For example, in his speech to the European Parliament on January 12, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi – besides evaluating the Italian presidency of the EU in the second half of 2014 – called for the strengthening of European solidarity. He also criticised populists and the pessimistic views concerning the future of the Union. In addition, he called attention to the benefits stemming from the economic stimulus of the European investment plan unveiled by Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Union.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls gave a rousing speech to the French National Assembly – interrupted multiple times by the warm applause of the parliamentary caucuses. Even right-wing parties
described the speech as ‘historic’. The session was opened with a minute of silence in remembrance of the victims of the Paris terrorist attacks. After that, members of parliament – in a move unprecedented since 1918 – spontaneously sung the Marseillaise.

In a speech delivered onboard the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle (which was just leaving a French port), the President of the French Republic, François Hollande, promised to review the decision on the reduction of the national armed forces. He called attention to the fact that terrorism must be fought wherever it rears its head: if needed, beyond the borders of France, but if necessary, within France as well. Hollande’s decisive action following the Paris terrorist attacks was praised by French newspapers, which argue that now Hollande truly has become the President of France in spite of the fact that he is still unpopular in certain segments of French society.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel – in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin – talked to the leading figures of the German political landscape about the importance of Europe’s and Germany’s unity. British Prime Minister David Cameron conducted negotiations in Washington with President Barack Obama concerning the new situation. Before, he had mentioned that he would be happy about an early referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union. Meanwhile, British newspapers published articles saying that Europe’s very essence has been attacked.

Thus Europe’s political leaders will not focus on Hungary in the coming months but on preserving the continent’s security, freedom and its democratic system. It is hard to believe that the present situation in Hungary would be seriously raised and dealt with during more important EU discussions. Therefore, the German Chancellor’s visit to Budapest on February 2 will most likely not focus on the domestic political situation in Hungary. Should the well-known differences of opinion on this issue be raised, Angela Merkel will present them in private in accordance with diplomatic rules and in an extremely polite manner. Thus, expectations in Hungarian opposition circles should be lowered. It will not be Merkel who will accomplish the most important task of Hungary’s democrats, which is overturning the Orbán regime.

Will everything stay the same? I would not say that with certainty. Although there is still no alternative political force that could lead Hungary out of the crisis – which was precipitated by the Fidesz regime and the System of National Cooperation, leaders in the West – in Washington, Brussels and, of course, in Berlin – have also realized that the regime itself is the major cause of the crisis; so if someone wants to put an end to the chaos in Hungary, which is looming more and more as a result of the government’s measures, the Orbán regime must be changed. Replacing certain people in the government and reshuffling some institutions will no longer suffice. When the time comes, the whole direction must be changed, and it must be changed drastically.

What will show the way for the future is not what follows the visit of Angela Merkel, but what follows the visit of Vladimir Putin. The first visit might be viewed as a test probe by the West, but the Russian President’s visit is no less important. Let us see what we can expect.

The West wants to know whether Viktor Orbán understands the American and European message, which are becoming increasingly the same. Their message is not that they refuse Orbán’s domestic and foreign policy line, which has been well known to the Hungarian prime minister for some time, but that playing both sides is now over.

Putin wants to know the real content of Orbán’s proffer of friendship, which may have contained promises he cannot or no longer wants to fulfill. He wants to know whether he can expect Orbán to serve – in the long term as well – the interests that guide the Kremlin’s anti-European and anti-American policies, or will his promises, which hitherto have remained unfulfilled, continue to ring hollow? After all, when the chips were down Hungary always voted with the rest of the EU countries.

Merkel and Putin will face a Budapest that expects too much from the former and wants less and less from the latter. Both leaders might appreciate the emotions shown them, which will be slightly intrusive in the case of Merkel, and, by contrast, very dismissive in the case of Putin. They might also perceive the vacuum the prime minister got himself into as a result of selling his country’s interests for pennies on the dollar (instead of protecting them) and the audacious hopelessness with which the Hungarian people nowadays look toward their future. It will be an illuminating visit for both leaders.

—–

Ferenc Gyurcsány is the chairman of the Democratic Coalition and former prime minister of Hungary. The original Hungarian appeared in Népszabadság on January 28, 2015.

 

 

The Orbán government and RTL Group: a cease-fire?

Soon enough it will be a year since the Orbán government decided to levy an exorbitant tax on the largest and most profitable commercial television station in the country, RTL Klub. I wrote extensively about the tug of war between the Hungarian government and the German-owned station. According to rumors, the government plan was to squeeze the station’s owners into selling and then have the station be purchased by some “well-deserving,” meaning pro-government, individual or individuals whose newscasts would be as lopsided as those of HírTV and the state-owned MTV. Apparently, RTL was not ready to sell, so the government had to settle for the second largest commercial station, TV2, which was eventually sold to a shadowy group of people. The special levy that specifically targeted RTL Klub was intended as a form of punishment. Knowing Viktor Orbán’s warped psyche, I’m sure that this story is more than mere rumor.

So, the war began. RTL Klub coughed up the money. What else could they do?  But they paid the government back many times over. Their newscast, which used to consist of short, mostly tabloid items and police reports, was extended to an hour with a heavy emphasis on political news. Suddenly the dirt that emerges daily around this government could be seen on a commercial station’s evening news, watched by 1 million people as opposed to the state television’s propaganda news with its 400,000 viewers. The people who in the past had watched RTL Klub for its “entertainment lite” programming suddenly were confronted with the kind of news that earlier had never reached them. The result was stupendous. Although some commentators wondered whether RTL Klub’s viewers would be turned off and would switch to TV2, exactly the opposite happened. RTL Klub’s viewership grew substantially. Political analysts are convinced that Fidesz’s tremendous loss of popularity is due, at least in part, to RTL Klub’s newscasts.

From the beginning RTL Klub planned to take its case to Brussels because, while RTL Klub’s share of the Hungarian advertising market is 13.5%, it is obliged to pay 90% of all revenues received from taxes on advertising. Indeed, last October RTL Klub lawyers turned in an official complaint to the European Commission. Yet for months we heard nothing. Then, on January 19, Népszava reported that some Fidesz politicians would be very happpy if Viktor Orbán “made peace” with RTL Klub. The paper added that “according to some sources, the Orbán government is counting on ‘a cease-fire’ before the arrival of Angela Merkel” in Budapest on Monday.

RTL Group headquarters in Luxembourg

RTL Group headquarters in Luxembourg

A week later 444.hu learned that János Lázár had already had several conversations, not with the Hungarian CEO of RTL Klub but with Andreas Rudas, director of East European operations, and Guillaume de Posch, CEO of the international RTL Group. Earlier they met in Munich and last week in Budapest. 444.hu claimed to know that they will meet again in Berlin sometime this week. The government allegedly wants to end the war with the German firm, which complained about its treatment in Hungary to Angela Merkel herself. The paper also seemed to know that the top management of RTL Group was ready to make a deal but that Dirk Gerkens, the man who is heading the Hungarian RTL Klub, refuses to compromise. Gerkens was indeed outspoken and combative, which raised the ire of some true believers. Gerkens told Bloomberg that he received threats of violence, delivered via friends and e-mails. He added that he moved his family out of the country, left his apartment for a hotel in central Budapest, and hired bodyguards.

After the report of 444.hu about the ongoing negotiations, rumors began to circulate in the media, especially after Népszava yesterday came out with the alleged details of the deal. According to the paper, the 50% tax on RTL Klub will be reduced to 5-10% but only if the station “tones down” its newscasts and fires Dirk Gerkens. Not surprisingly, journalists are up in arms. FSP (Péter Földes), whose blog regularly appears on Népszabadság On Line (NOL), summarized the sentiment. If what 444.hu and Népszava reported is true, then “RTL is preparing to commit public suicide combined with betrayal.” I agree, and that’s why I think such an outcome is unlikely. It would not only be ruinous for the RTL Group’s reputation but would also make the Hungarian government’s interference in the media, which they steadfastly deny, blatantly obvious. I don’t think it is in the interest of either party to cut such a “dirty deal.”

Meanwhile, in the last few hours HVG learned that the Orbán government’s decision to retreat on the 50% levy on RTL Klub resulted from diplomatic pressure: both the German chancellor and the prime minister of Luxembourg, where RTL Group is headquartered, strongly suggested to Viktor Orbán that he settle his dispute with Europe’s largest media firm.

Apparently, contrary to Népszava‘s claim, negotiations have not yet ended and the deal has not been sealed. Lázár, who is negotiating for the Hungarian side, admitted that his job as negotiator has been very difficult because “the prime minister insists on upholding the advertising tax.” For Orbán “this is a question of principle.” But it looks as if principle will have to be sacrificed in the face of diplomatic pressure and the hopelessness of Hungary’s case if the RTL Group actually sues. It seems that the prime minister will sketch out changes in the advertising tax tomorrow morning during his regularly scheduled radio interview, with details about the exact figures to be revealed later.

So, another defeat, another retreat. These are hard times for Viktor Orbán. Moreover, I suspect that the newscasts of the Hungarian RTL Klub will not change substantially in the future. RTL Group cannot afford it. Neither can Viktor Orbán.