Hungary

Gazprom stores some of its natural gas in Hungarian facilities

I guess it is high time to talk about Vladimir Putin and natural gas.

First, Putin’s trip to Serbia. Serbia and Russia have had close ties for more than a century. The only exception I can think of is the 1948-1954 period when Tito was considered to be the “chained dog of the imperialists.” But otherwise in all conflicts Russia stood by Serbia. Serbia’s financial situation is pretty grim at the moment, and I understand that without Russian help Belgrade would be in even greater economic and financial trouble than it is. The closeness of the two countries is demonstrated by the fact that the date of the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Belgrade by the Red Army was moved forward to accommodate Vladimir Putin’s schedule. The military pomp on display to impress the Russian president was noteworthy, especially in view of Serbia’s insistence that she wants to become part of the European Union.

Putin decided to use this opportunity to deliver a stern message to Europe. He warned Brussels that as long as the Ukrainian crisis is not settled, naturally in favor of Russia, gas supplies to Europe might be disrupted just as happened in 2006 and 2009. He said that he himself will do everything to avoid such an eventuality, but if it does happen it will be the fault of the European leaders.

Almost at the same time news reached the West that Hungary will store Gazprom gas. You may recall that Hungary purchased the German-owned E.ON gas storage facilities in 2013 for an incredibly high price. The story of that purchase is well summarized in an article in the Budapest Beacon, according to which the Hungarian state-owned company, MVM, may have lost $2.6 billion as a result of the deal. Given the pervasive corruption in Hungary, analysts were certain that the purchase of E.ON’s business units was “a success story for certain business circles but a huge loss for the national economy as a whole.” This assessment might not be on target. It is more likely that Viktor Orbán’s eagerness to purchase E.ON at whatever price stemmed from a deal with Gazprom to use Hungarian storage facilities. Aleksey Miller, CEO of Gazprom, visited Budapest in October 2012. At that time Miller agreed to such a deal, but only if the storage facilities were in the hands of the Hungarian state. A year later Orbán obliged.

gaztarolok

So, what kinds of storage facilities are we talking about? E.ON Földgáz Storage Zrt. has five underground facilities in which it can store 3,740 million cubic meters of natural gas. According to Hungarian sources, these underground storage facilities are the best and the largest in the region and  fourth in size in Europe. As a result, in 2009 Hungarians were more or less unaffected by the gas shortage when Russia stopped the flow of gas through Ukraine to Europe.

I was pretty sure by the end of September that something was afoot concerning Russia’s use of Hungary’s storage facilities, but it was only on October 10 that I read an AFP report which noted that although Hungary is steadily buying gas from Russia, it is also storing Russian-owned gas. The article noted that “it is unusual for the company to store gas still owned by Gazprom, which is locked in a dispute with Kiev that some fear could see transit through Ukraine halted for the third time in a decade.” According to the spokesman of MVM, the owner of the facilities, “with this agreement Gazprom will be able to comply with its long-term contract obligations, should there be problems on the transport routes.”

Kyiv Post tersely noted the Russian-Hungarian deal without adding any editorial comment. But Kiev must see the deal as an antagonistic move because, with it, Russia can supply gas to Europe at the same time that it squeezes Ukraine.

As for the amount of stored gas owned by Hungary, this number is difficult to estimate. Throughout September the Hungarian media was full of complaints about Hungarian tardiness in filling the country’s storage facilities. In mid-September HVG claimed that they were only 58 percent full. Moreover, if one can believe MTI, a month later, on October 16, the situation was exactly the same. Opposition politicians naturally blame the Orbán government for its tardiness and predict terrible consequences come winter. But I suspect that something else might be behind the procrastination of the Hungarians. The Russian-Hungarian deal to store Russian gas in Hungary was signed only at the end of September, and it is very possible that in return for its “generosity” Hungary managed to get a lower price on Russian gas. I can’t think of any other rational explanation for not filling the storage facilities as quickly as possible. Especially since other European facilities are 80-90% full. Perhaps we will eventually learn the real story, although I’m sure that the Hungarian government will do its best to conceal it.

The Hungarian socialists at a crossroads

While Fidesz and the Orbán government are busy hatching their latest plans to further restructure the Hungarian state and Hungarian society we cannot do more than wait for the day, which should come soon, when we find out what kind of austerity program will be introduced. There is no use talking about, for instance, all the leaked information from Fidesz politicians concerning the huge reforms of healthcare and higher education. We will turn to these topics when there are enough facts to make an assessment of the government’s plans. I should note, however, that Hungarians expect the worst. Pessimism about the future has grown in the last few months.

So, for the time being, let’s concentrate on party politics. Yesterday I wrote about the Ferenc Deák Circle, comprised of those MSZP politicians who consider cooperation with other parties of the democratic opposition essential for an effective stand against the growing “dictatorship of democracy” that Viktor Orbán has introduced in the last four and a half years. On the other side are the MSZP politicians currently running the party who have moved in the opposite direction. According  to József Tóbiás, the party chairman, there is only one party on the left and that is MSZP. He made it crystal clear in the last few days that his party will never make any compromises and will never join any other party. MSZP will break with the “authoritarian leadership of Ferenc Gyurcsány.”

Tóbiás’s dislike of Gyurcsány is common knowledge. When Gyurcsány and some of his fellow rebels left MSZP, Tóbiás was relieved. He announced that “MSZP gained an opportunity to go its own way and define itself as a leftist party.” That was in October 2011. Mind you, the departure of the “alien” elements from the party did not increase MSZP’s popularity. But Tóbiás is not one to engage in self-criticism. The current message to the other smaller parties is: never again will we have anything to do with you because you are the cause of our decline.

József Tóbiás and other MSZP politicians have been lashing out, condemning “Gyurcsány’s peremptory Führer-like politics” (Gyurcsány hatalmi, vezérelvű politikája). Leaders of three “platforms” within MSZP–the “Left-wing Gathering,” “Socialist,” and “People’s Group”–announced their support of Tóbiás and his policies. (There is also a “social-democratic platform”; Ágnes Kunhalmi belongs to that group.) The leaders of these three platforms asked the party leadership “to free the left from the trap Ferenc Gyurcsány, the former prime minister, forced them into.” Tóbiás needs no urging. In addition to breaking all ties to other democratic parties, he is ready to completely reorganize MSZP.

Source: Index / photo by Levente Haralamposz Hernádi

Source: Index / photo by Levente Haralamposz Hernádi

What kind of a party does he have in mind? Interestingly enough, his MSZP would be structured like Fidesz. Currently, the key figures in the nationwide structure of MSZP are the county chairmen. Some of these chairmen have become extremely powerful over the years and, since they hold the purse strings, they are difficult to dislodge. These chairmen were the ones who elevated Ferenc Gyurcsány to be the party’s candidate for the premiership in 2004 and they were the ones who dethroned him in 2009. Fidesz, on the other hand, is built around electoral districts. In Tóbiás’s scheme, each electoral district will have a chairman who can be removed by the central leadership if he is found wanting.

Apparently Tóbiás can’t remove the county chairmen because that would require a revision of the by-laws. What he can do without any congressional approval is to take money away from them. With that move, these formerly all-powerful local party leaders will become mere figureheads.

It is not only the structure of Fidesz that the MSZP leadership is ready to copy. The new MSZP will be “nationally committed party (nemzeti elkötelezettségű párt). This shift is not entirely new. MSZP’s leadership under Attila Mesterházy already thought that since Fidesz is so successful with its nationalist propaganda and since Viktor Orbán and Fidesz politicians constantly accuse the socialists and the liberals of “internationalism” and “cosmopolitanism,” perhaps success for the socialists requires greater emphasis on the nation. Tóbiás even managed to smuggle the concept of “Christian values” into his speech when he equated them with the socialists’ “social sensitivity.”

The divide between the left-wingers and the liberals in MSZP is fundamental. The question is whether the Orbán government can be dislodged by a united opposition or by a single, large socialist party. A similar debate went on in LMP a year and a half ago. The party’s parliamentary delegation was almost equally split between those who followed András Schiffer, who saw his party’s future in going it alone, and the rebels who were convinced that Schiffer’s tactics were suicidal. It was this debate that precipitated the split in LMP. The current situation in MSZP closely resembles what LMP went through then, although the split is not so even.

At the moment it looks as if the majority of the top leadership agrees with Tóbiás. According to them, the party’s problems began the day Ferenc Gyurcsány took over. He was too liberal, and therefore supporters of the party whose hearts were on the left abandoned them. Well, we know the answer is not that simple. Most likely Ildikó Lendvai was correct when she said in her Facebook note yesterday that the dividing line in Hungarian society is no longer between left and right. And if so, the whole reshaping of the party by József Tóbiás and his friends is most likely an exercise in futility.

Post mortem: election results of the Hungarian municipal elections

Now that I’ve had a good night sleep and listened again to all the speeches by the various party leaders, I came to the conclusion that there are two points on which everybody agrees. One, that Lajos Bokros, the candidate of the united democratic opposition, did extremely well and, two, that the greatest loser in these elections was András Schiffer’s LMP.

So, let’s first talk about the mayoralty race in Budapest. We all know the handicaps Bokros had to overcome. Months of indecision, constant bickering, especially between the twin parties Együtt and PM, and only two weeks of campaigning. I think most people were prepared for a complete fiasco. Four years ago the socialist candidate received 29.47% of the votes but, the analysts predicted, Bokros who claims to be a liberal conservative will receive even less support. Behold, he got 36% of the popular vote. As Bokros likes to say, only 13% less than the victorious István Tarlós who was reelected with 49% of the votes as opposed to his 2010 achievement of 53.37%.

As for the LMP loss, we should keep in mind that LMP’s strength is confined to Budapest. To give some idea of what has happened to LMP in Budapest over the last four years, in 2010 Benedek Jávor, LMP’s mayoral candidate, received 9.9% of the votes. (Jávor since left LMP and joined PM. He is today Együtt-PM’s representative to the European Parliament.) This year’s LMP candidate, Antal Csárdi, received only 5.69% of the votes. I suspect that LMP lost its appeal among voters who came to the conclusion that a tiny party’s lonely fight against the Fidesz colossus is hopeless and perhaps even counterproductive.

Jobbik’s candidate, Gábor Staudt, received the same percentage of votes in both 2010 and 2014, around 7%.  The liberals’ candidate, Zoltán Bodnár, received 2.1% of the votes.

Tarlós’s decrease in support and the surprisingly strong showing of Bokros should give the Fidesz leadership pause, warns even the pro-government Válasz. Árpád W. Tóta, a sharp-tongued and talented journalist, approaches the same topic from the point of view of the opposition. He takes issue with Viktor Orbán’s claim that there is unprecedented unity among Hungarians. In Budapest one-third of 41% of the Budapest adult citizens voted for Lajos Bokros, “whose middle name is Package,” referring to the extremely strict austerity program Bokros introduced as minister of finance. Therefore, he argues, “there must be considerable bitterness” in the electorate for them to vote for Bokros.

onkormanyzati valasztasok

Just as predicted, Jobbik did well. The party’s mayoral candidates received about 100,000 more votes than four years ago. In 2010 the party’s candidates won in three smaller towns but in the last four years they added a few more larger villages, mostly in the northeast corner of the country. After these elections the party has more members in the city/town/county councils than ever before. Moreover, the party’s popularity is no longer confined to its former stronghold in the poorest districts of the country. Jobbik also did quite well in Transdanubia. For example, in Somogy County four years ago Jobbik received 9.83% of the votes while this year it got 19.34%. The situation was similar in Győr-Moson-Sopron County, which is considered to be a well-off district due to a number of large foreign-owned factories.

Finally, here are some general observations and comments. Voter participation has been steadily declining in Hungary ever since 2006. As Political Capital, a think tank, observed, Fidesz’s victories are due solely to the ineptitude of the opposition and voter apathy. Fidesz keeps winning while steadily losing voters. Although the opposition in Budapest didn’t do as well as they had hoped, Fidesz did lose two districts, XIV and XV, in addition to two “towns of county rank” (megyei jogú város). Political Capital published a long list of the towns where votes for Fidesz mayors dropped considerably. Take, for instance, my own hometown, Pécs, where Zsolt Páva won 68.59% of the votes in 2010 but this time got only 39.28%. Admittedly this was the largest drop in popularity but Kecskemét, the home of the Mercedes-Benz factory, was not far behind (79.12% versus 59.31%). Yet the democratic parties are incapable of enlarging their voting base.

There are a few success stories in the otherwise grim picture of the left-liberal parties. MSZP improved its showing in places it won in both 2010 and 2014–three Budapest districts and Szeged. For example, in Szeged László Botka (MSZP) received 52.51% of the votes and his Fidesz opponent 45.84% in 2010; this year Botka got 58.21% while his “independent” opponent with Fidesz backing received only 36.88% of the votes. I might add that while after 2010 Botka had to work with a Fidesz-majority city council of 28, this year there is a clear MSZP-DK-Együtt-PM majority. So, it seems that joint political action coupled with good past performance still works.

MSZP remains the strongest of the three opposition parties, followed by DK and Együtt-PM, but the differences between MSZP and DK are not that great. For example, in Budapest in districts I , XII, and XXIII, DK did better than MSZP, and in several others the differences were minuscule. The situation was the same in some of the larger cities, for example in Debrecen and Nagykanizsa where DK received more votes than MSZP or in Zalaegerszeg where they were neck to neck. So, it’s no wonder that Ferenc Gyurcsány seems to be satisfied overall, although he is disappointed that DK won only one district mayoralty in Budapest instead of the two they had hoped for.

I’m pretty sure that we will spend a great deal more time on the repercussions of the elections and on the intra-party struggles that most likely will follow. The present MSZP leadership seems to be adamant about following LMP’s lead and going it alone against the Fidesz machinery. I suspect, however, that not everybody will follow Tóbiás and the hardliners. Gyurcsány last night announced that a new union party should be open to every democrat, from Gábor Demszky to Lajos Bokros and Ági Kunhalmi! This morning on ATV’s Start Kunhalmi (MSZP) very cleverly deflected the question about her future political plans.

Hungary and the Russian-Ukrainian crisis

A couple of days ago I wrote about the Hungarian far right and Russia and mentioned the Russian accusation that Hungary has been supplying T-72 tanks to Ukraine. At that time the Hungarian government categorically denied the charge, but the case of the “missing” Russian-made tanks is still a subject of debate. First of all, the stories out of the Ministry of Defense were confused. The spokesman for the ministry first claimed that the tanks never left the country: they were just moved from one storage area to another. Then the story took a different turn. The ministry informed the media that T-72 tanks (70 in all) were actually sold to a company called Excalibur Defense Kft. of Székesfehérvár, which received permission from the Czech Ministry of Industry and Trade to transport the tanks to Czech territory.

That deal and the transportation of the tanks to the Czech Republic is most likely for real:  Magyar Nemzet published a facsimile of the “International Import Certificate” attesting to the arrangement. On August 25 the government informed the media that the tanks had begun their j0urney to the Czech Republic. Yet the documents published by Magyar Nemzet did not convince anyone about the final destination of the tanks. Vice Magazine published an article which took it for granted that the T-72 tanks did or will end up in Ukraine. The deal with Excalibur is only a decoy. And this belief is shared by the Russians. Vyacheslav Nikonov, a Russian political scientist and adviser to Vladimir Putin who also happens to be the grandson of Vyacheslav Molotov, in an interview on CNN accused Hungary of illegally selling military supplies to Ukraine.

Today several  newspapers reported that Csaba Hende, minister of defense, may leave his post sometime after the municipal elections. The exact reasons for his sudden departure are not known, but perhaps the clumsy handling of the T-72 tanks might be one of them. Given Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s excellent relations with Vladimir Putin and his outright antagonism of any sanctions against Russia, providing Ukraine with illegal shipments of weaponry is more than strange. If true, Orbán’s relations with Putin might be greatly damaged and his tarnished reputation in the West is unlikely to improve.

This is not the only strange turn in Hungarian foreign policy. There is also the government’s sudden change of heart about its support for NATO’s anti-Russian moves. Already in his last radio talk Orbán hinted that there might be more willingness on his government’s part to spend 2% of the Hungarian GDP on defense. This figure is the minimum NATO members, including Hungary, agreed to. Since 2010 the government has spent less and less on the armed forces, with the current expenditure a mere 0.88% of the GDP. In that talk he admitted that the country is in noncompliance.

Indeed, two days ago Magyar Nemzet reported that Hungary will arrive in Newport, Wales for the NATO summit with several proposals concerning the Hungarian contribution to the common effort to contain Russian encroachment into Ukraine. The semi-official newspaper is usually very well informed, and therefore we can be pretty certain that the news is correct. Hungary will send a contingent of 100 men to the Baltics to join an international NATO force there. In addition, Hungary will develop the air force base near Pápa. Moreover, Hungary will spend more money to improve the Hungarian military.

Aerial photo of the Pápa Airbase

Aerial photo of the Pápa Airbase

Yesterday HVG reported that several NATO member countries would like to see additional NATO troops in all countries that define the eastern borders of the organization. That would naturally also involve Hungary. According to an unnamed diplomatic source, if such a request is addressed to Hungary it will be almost impossible to refuse it.

Given all these developments one can only marvel at László Kövér’s performance yesterday. The occasion was a meeting of four prominent participants in the change of regime in Hungary–Sándor Lezsák, László Kövér, Mátyás Szűrös, and Péter Tölgyessy–with 20 young historians, journalists, and artists who travel through European countries following the footsteps of 1989. The project, called Freedom Express, was organized by the European Network of Remembrance and Solidarity. The group arrived in Budapest yesterday from Gdańsk and Warsaw. Well, the young visitors were treated to quite a tirade from the third highest dignitary of the country. It was an extraordinary performance that revealed Kövér’s antagonism toward Ukraine and her aspirations.

First, Kövér got upset about some of the questions that had more to do with Hungary’s pro-Russian views than the fine points of regime change in Hungary twenty-five years ago. Then a Romanian participant in Freedom Express asked Kövér a question that included a reference to the Romanian occupation of Budapest in 1919. He indicated that the Romanian army came to Hungary to liberate it from the communists. That really set Kövér off. He began by saying that “there is no reason to bring up topics with which we only irritate each other.”  So, he was in a bad mood even before all the questions poured in about the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and Hungary’s role in it.

Kövér gave his own version of the conflict. “What is going on in Ukraine is a manipulated affair in which the Ukrainians have the smallest role,” he claimed. “The goal of this circus is that it should forever separate Europe from Russia.” Although Kövér expressed his satisfaction with the NATO umbrella over Hungary and although he understands the Poles and the Baltic people who are worried about Russian expansion, Russia has its legitimate security needs. “Who was the American or European politician who asked what the Ukrainians want?” As far as Western media coverage of the conflict is concerned, “the western press lies just as much as Pravda did in the olden days.”

Kövér is also convinced that no democratic developments can be expected from Ukraine because one of the first moves of the Ukrainian government was the suspension of minority rights. (Kövér failed to add that a day later that move was reversed.) As far as he is concerned, there can be no question about the outcome of a military encounter involving “the nonexistent army of the nonexistent Ukrainian state.” Instead, the real solution would be “normal cooperation between Europe and Russia,” but “the chance of that has been lost for the foreseeable future.”

If there is a circus anywhere, I’m afraid it is what Hungarian government politicians have managed to create in the field of diplomacy. And the clowns in this circus are not at all funny.

Learning history in Orbán’s Hungary

The new school year began yesterday and with it an entirely new system as far as textbook distribution is concerned. As you most likely know, a couple of years ago all schools were nationalized and put under the authority of one monstrous organization called Klebelsberg Intézményfenntartó Központ (KLIK), named after Kunó Klebelsberg, minister of education between 1922 and 1931. Critics predicted the failure of such a centralized system where KLIK was to be the employer of about 150,000 teachers. They were right. It was a disaster, which even Zoltán Balog, who is in charge of education, had to admit. The head of KLIK was sacked and right now the government is in the midst of a “reorganization” of KLIK.

One of the important demands of Rózsa Hoffmann, former undersecretary in charge of education, was a reduction in the number of textbooks teachers can choose from. Indeed, as of this year, teachers can only pick one out of two. The textbook publishing industry was also nationalized, so government control over education became all embracing. The new textbooks appeared on the market only a few days ago and therefore each teacher had to decide within a couple of days which one she will use. At the same time a number of “experimental” textbooks were written and introduced in 150 schools picked by the ministry.

Since the “experimental” textbooks have been available for only a few days, critics haven’t had time yet to find all the objectionable passages in them. According to some, at first glance these textbooks are “problematic” in pedagogical terms and reflect “an anti-modernization world view.” There are just too many “political-ideological” messages. One history book spends far too much time on the injustices of Trianon, which only adds to the self-pity of the current generation instilled by the nationalism of the current regime. Others looked at a book on literature (grade 7) that reflects the authors’ distaste for our modern market economy and expresses antagonistic feelings toward life in western countries. For example, to eat hamburgers, visit Disneyland, watch MTV or CNN  means to be satisfied with a lower level of culture.

The same grade 7 textbook is full of anti-American sentiments. In it one can read that “we ought to be proud that according to sociologists for the average Hungarian person the most important value is logical thinking while in the eyes of the Americans this is the least valued trait.” Hungarian medieval poetry that praises war and Petőfi’s calls for struggle can be explained by our “biological roots.”

After reading a few of these critical articles I decided to take a look at a grade 10 history book, one of the experimental textbooks available online. The book covers the period between the age of discovery (15-16th centuries) and 1848. It didn’t take me long to find some glaring problems with the book.

tortenelem 10

At the beginning the students are told–thank God–that they don’t have to learn absolutely every fact in the book but that the concepts that appear in boldface are very important. So, I decided to see how our author deals with some basic concepts. Since anti-Semitism is a topic we encounter a lot nowadays, I decided to start there. To my great surprise, the word appeared only twice in the textbook. Both times as a concept of the utmost importance. But nowhere in the book do we find a definition of the term.

My second search was for the word “nationalism.” That initially looked more promising. The word “nationalism” was mentioned eleven times, but I found no instance that dealt with the concept per se. On page 131 the student learns that after the French revolution there was a new interpretation of the historical nation (nobility) and that it was the “national idea” (nemzeti eszme) or “nationalism.” Proponents of the movement desired national renewal. They tried to form a common national identity and made efforts to discover the national past. So, what does this young man or woman learn? Nationalism is a good thing! Not a word about the negative connotations of the term.

The most controversial discussion of nationalism occurs in connection with the “nationality question” in the so-called reform period, i.e. the last twenty years or so prior to the 1848 revolution. The Hungarian “reform forces” greatly feared the Pan-Slav ideology supported by Russia and were frightened by Gottfried Herder’s vision of the Hungarian language disappearing in the sea of Slavic people. (Pan-Slavism is not explained anywhere in the book.) Therefore, the Hungarian reform generation paid a great deal of attention to the Hungarian language and culture. At the same time they wanted to be sure Hungarians maintained their political primacy in the Carpathian Basin, to which they felt entitled by their 1,000-year history of statehood. Hungarians were able to establish a viable state (államalkotó nemzet) while the others–Slovaks, Romanians, Ruthenians–were not. Rights and privileges were to be extended to all regardless of nationality. This Hungarian concept of nation was based on the definition of the term in the French Encyclopédie. What the authors neglect to mention is that the famous encyclopedia was published between 1751 and 1772, that is before the French revolution. What was a viable way to unify the people of France was no longer true in Eastern Europe.

After this brief discussion, the authors move on to interpretations of Hungarian nationality problems in the first half of the nineteenth century. “Central-European, non-Hungarian historiography unanimously consider the Hungarian language laws of this period as ‘Magyarization’. However, nowadays Hungarian historians present a more complex, more layered study of the question. It recognizes that there were abuses, but the political forces urged a liberal handling of the nationality question.”

I’m trying to imagine myself as a studious fourteen- or fifteen-year-old acquiring a basic knowledge of Hungarian history. What kind of a picture would I get of the history of my own country? By and large a very positive one. I would learn that Hungarians are superior to others living in the Carpathian Basin because they had the ability to establish a state. And that this would entitle them to have political primacy within the historic borders of Hungary. I would learn that non-Hungarian historians are prejudiced against the Hungarians and that in the past Hungarian historians were far too hard on the Hungarian political elite. Lately, I would come to understand, a much more balanced view is emerging that shows liberal tolerance toward the nationalities.

I just heard that István Hiller (MSZP), former minister of education,  is launching a kind of alternative curriculum called “School of Reasoning” (Gondolkodás iskolája). It will be a series of video lectures given by outstanding teachers who donate their time to the project. I think it is a capital idea, and next week when the project begins I will be one of those listening to the lectures on modern history. It will be interesting to compare these lectures to the experimental textbooks.

The Hungarian far right and Russia

There has been a lot of discussion about the Russian sympathies of the extreme right parties in Europe. I have written extensively about Jobbik’s close ties with Russia. I’m sure that many readers remember the strange story of Béla Kovács, Jobbik EP MP, who, by the way, was just barred from the territory of Ukraine by the Ukrainian government. The reason? Most likely Kovács’s participation in the group that found everything in perfect order in the Crimean elections. Gábor Vona also visited Moscow, accompanied by Béla Kovács, and met important Russian political leaders.

The same affinity for Russia holds for France’s National Front, whose leader, Marine Le Pen, visited Moscow last summer and met similarly high-ranking politicians of the Russian Duma. Golden Dawn, the Greek fascist party, also has close connections to Moscow from where it receives financial assistance. When the Greek government imprisoned Nikos Michaloliakos, the party’s leader, Alexander Dugin, the author of Putin’s “Eurasian” ideology, actually sent him a letter in prison. Just to remind people: Gábor Vona also met Dugin in Moscow. And then there is Bulgaria’s far-right party, Ataka, that also has links to the Russian embassy.

All these parties and other right-wing fringe organizations support Russia’s annexation of Crimea and stand by Russia in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. They are all against the European Union and the United States. Most of them are also anti-Semitic, definitely anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian and Iranian.

A previously lesser-known right-wing portal in Hungary, Hídfő (Bridgehead), has recently come into prominence. It was this site that first broke the story that Hungary is secretly supplying tanks to the Ukrainian army. One of their readers saw a tank being transported by train toward Debrecen, which the editors of the portal found suspicious. Soon enough word spread that the tanks were destined for Ukraine. The Hungarian ministry of defense explained that the tanks had been sold to a Czech businessman who deals in used military equipment.

Later the Russian foreign ministry published an official statement stating that “weapons supplied to Ukraine by the EU member-countries … violate legally binding obligations–the Arms Trade Treaty.” The Russian foreign ministry was fairly well-informed on the details: “Hungary’s Defense Ministry is supplying Ukraine with armored vehicles, including T-72 tanks, through a ‘proxy agency.'” The Hungarian Foreign Ministry denied the Russian claim as “groundless.”

As a result of its revelation Hídfő, which apparently has a readership of 3,000/day, became internationally known.  And naturally that aroused the interest of investigative journalists in Atlatszo.hu, one of those NGOs that receive financial support from the Norwegian Civic Fund. They discovered a few interesting items about the organization that is likely behind Hídfő–Magyar Nemzeti Arcvonal, a Hungarist organization that came into being in 1989. Originally it was called Magyar Nemzetiszocialista Akciócsoportok (National Socialist Action Groups) . It considers itself to be the legitimate successor to Ferenc Szálasi’s Arrow Cross Party.

Hídfő, as far as I could ascertain, was established on September 25, 2012, or at least that is the date when the first article appeared. The portal is full of anti-Israeli, anti-American, anti-European Union articles while it is fiercely pro-Russian, pro-Palestinian, and pro-Iranian. Their Russian connections must be substantial. While internet sites normally invite readers to express their satisfaction on Twitter and Facebook, Hídfő has only Vkontakte, a kind of Russian Facebook.

Hídfő is well informed on the exact military situation in Eastern Ukraine

Hídfő is well informed on the precise military situation in “New Russia”

An interesting article, originally published on tarsadalmivirtus.lapunk.hu, appeared in Hídfő in 2013. If one can believe the introduction, a single person writes all the articles; he sees himself as a great observer and analyst of international affairs. He also looks upon the European Union as an enemy that until now has been unable to grab only two countries: Ukraine and Belarus.  But the EU has plans concerning Ukraine. If it manages to get hold of Ukraine, its influence in Europe would be complete while “Russia would be squeezed into the Asian region.” European pressure is great on Ukraine and in case of a civil war “it is possible that Moscow will try to save the Russian population and the country will fall into several pieces.” This, however, will not satisfy the European Union. The final step of the evil European Union will be “the execution of Russia.” Romania will incorporate Moldova while the West will incite the Muslims of Russia to revolt. Eventually Russia will fall apart without any outside military action. Our man seems to know that “the Russian military leadership” has already worked out a strategy to prevent such an outcome. It includes the support of Russia nationalists in Ukraine, to be followed by “tremendous pressure on the Baltic states.” Whoever our man is, he predicted the events on the Russian-Ukrainian border fairly accurately.

Another far-right site is “Jövőnk” (Our Future). This Hungarist site has been in existence since January 2009. It would be fascinating to learn more about this group because the site suggests that they have plenty of money. They publish articles not only in Hungarian but also in English, French, German, Russian, Romanian, Slovak, and Serbian, which is a very expensive undertaking. The people behind Jövőnk are so enthusiastically pro-Russian that their articles could have been written in some Russian government office in Moscow and translated into Hungarian. This particular page will give you an idea about the editors’ infatuation with Vladimir Putin. In one of the articles there are enthusiastic lines about Putin building a Eurasian Empire, and not for a moment does the author worry about the implications of such an empire for his own country, Hungary.

A strange, inscrutable world about which we still know very little. We especially know very little about the nature of these groups’ ties to Russia and Iran. One can only hope that the Hungarian secret service is keeping an eye on these people, although I have my doubts about both the talent and the will of the security agents. When one reads articles in these extremist websites about the decline of the West and glowing descriptions of the East, one has the awful feeling that Viktor Orbán has quite a bit in common with these fellows. A rather frightening thought.

Procreation and pensions in Hungary

In the last month or so article after article appeared about the conclusions of a group of economists and demographers who have been discussing possible solutions to the interrelated problems of the low Hungarian birthrate and the eventual depletion of the state pension fund. This group, the Népesedési Kerekasztal (Demographic round table), seems to have the support of the Orbán government. It is deeply conservative and a promoter of family values.

One of the most vocal proponents of pension reform among the group is Katalin Botos, an economist who was a member of parliament between 1990 and 1994 and also served as minister without portfolio in charge of the banking sector in the Antall government. Prior to the change of regime she was a department head in the Ministry of Finance (1971-1987). Lately, she has been teaching economics at various universities.

The Hungarian media acts as if this is the first time the public has heard about the outlandish plans of Katalin Botos. But in May 2012 Népszava ran the following headline: “One must give birth for one’s pension.” At that time Katalin Botos and her husband József Botos were active in the Working Group for a Family Friendly Hungary, which was organized under the aegis of the Ministry of Hungarian Economy. The study that appeared at that time was entitled “A középosztály gyermekvállalási forradalma” (The revolution of childbearing of the middle classes). In it, the Botoses explained the logic behind the introduction of a sliding scale of pension payments depending on the number of children. After all, pensions are being paid by current wage earners, and if a couple did not produce at least two children they are freeloaders.

At that time the group made calculations on the basis of 2010 maximum, minimum, and average salaries and came to the conclusion that an employee earning an average salary would get 14.4 points but only if he/she produced at least two children. Extra points would be earned for each additional child. On the other hand, employees with one or no child would be docked a certain number of points. According to this system, someone with an average salary of 113,000 forints with no children would receive a pension of 70,000 forints while a person with four children would get 142,000!

Triplets

The more the merrier

Members of the working group did address the problem of couples who cannot have children for physical reasons but somewhat heartlessly remarked that “the fact still is that there is no one behind them who is responsible for their pensions.”

When this study was made public the vast majority of experts found the scheme unacceptable and ineffectual. To hope for a higher birthrate by linking it to higher pensions thirty or forty years later is totally unrealistic.

The public reception was anything but friendly, and the government promptly announced that they have no intention of introducing it in the near future. But, as we can see, this plan has remained on the government’s agenda because the latest scheme released by the Demographic Round Table is practically the same as the one in 2012. The few additions to the new report in fact make it even less attractive.

As far as the government was concerned, the original Botos plan had one huge flaw: in the Roma population families are large and girls begin to reproduce early. Surely, the argument went, you don’t want to encourage them with a pension system that might increase family sizes. So, an additional restriction was added: only children who finished high school (matriculation) or trade school would count. Not surprisingly, this was considered by critics of the plan as anti-Roma.

This time around the authors of the scheme also addressed details that were not considered in the 2012 version. For example, a person whose child died before he could finish high school would be exempt. The same would be true of children with a mental disability. But many questions remain. What will happen to young people who decide to work abroad? Will their departure be accompanied by a drastically reduced pension for their parents?

Although the plan was fleshed out a bit, by and large the “mad” scheme, as many commentators called it, remained intact.

Across the whole spectrum of the Hungarian media the reaction was uniformly negative. And real panic set in when Péter Harrach, leader of the Christian Democratic parliamentary delegation, announced that the report of the Demographic Round Table was in line with the thinking of the government and therefore there was a good possibility that the suggestions will be adopted, perhaps as early as September.

This was unfortunate from the government’s point of view. Right before the municipal elections such an announcement could have disastrous consequences, especially among those under the age of 35 whose pensions would be directly affected by the new law. Mihály Varga, minister of national economy, quickly reassured the voters after Harrach’s unfortunate interview that “it will not be necessary to have more children for higher pensions.” The Hungarian pension system is stable and there is no need to make any changes before 2030. But then why all the talk about a scheme that has been on the table for at least two years?

Well-known experts on the pension system, like György Németh, are convinced that the entire economic framework that lies behind the Botos couple’s scheme is wrong. In fact, in Németh’s opinion, it is unacceptable. Raising the birthrate is desirable, but it can be achieved only by the introduction of government measures that lower the expenses of child rearing. Compensation forty years down the road for the heavy financial burden of bringing up children today will not achieve anything. It is no coincidence that this interview appeared in Magyar Nemzet.

I would like to believe that this madcap idea will not be adopted, but I have a strong suspicion that in spite of Varga’s assurances to the contrary something is afoot. I would not be at all surprised if within a few months parliament passes a law that links procreation with pensions. If such law is passed, even more people will leave Hungary and settle elsewhere where the state does not interfere in their private lives. Oh well, at least the state won’t have to worry about their pensions.