András Schiffer

The world according to László Kövér

Just when I think that Viktor Orbán and his fellow politicians must have exhausted their inventory of outrageous pronouncements comes another shocker. This time László Kövér, president of the Hungarian parliament and the third most important dignitary of the country after the president and the prime minister, decided to share his grievances and accusations. His message was intended for the Fidesz faithful, but soon it will reach Hungary’s allies from Washington to Brussels. I don’t think they will be pleased.

I guess the Fidesz leadership wants to make sure that everybody understands the Hungarian position, and therefore they must repeat their shrill message at least three times: first János Lázár, then Viktor Orbán, and now László Kövér. Although the underlying message remains the same, each repetition reflects the personality of the speaker. Kövér is perhaps our best source on the thinking of Viktor Orbán and the members of his closest circle. And what we find there is frightening–a completely distorted view of the world and Hungary’s place in it.

The basic outline is old hat by now: the United States wants to rule the European Union and is currently trying to teach Putin’s Russia a thing or two. Hungary is only a pawn in this game, but the United States is still trying to influence political developments in the country. Therefore, the most urgent task of the Orbán government is to retain the sovereignty of the Hungarian state. Also they “must assure the nation’s survival.” Their paranoia, they would argue, is grounded in reality.

The charge of American interference is based on a speech by Sarah Sewell, U.S. undersecretary for civilian security, democracy, and human rights, in which she stated that “addressing corruption is tough, but we are using a range of tools – and often working with other states and international institutions – to encourage and assist anti-corruption activity. At the State Department, our Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement works on corruption along with our bureaus that handle economics, energy, and human rights, and together State collaborates with USAID, Treasury, the Department of Justice, Interior, and Commerce – each of which brings specialized tools to the table.” For the Fidesz leaders this means direct interference in the internal affairs of East European countries. Kövér even suspects that the Americans had a hand in the recent election of Klaus Johannis as Romania’s president.

As far as U.S.-Hungarian relations are concerned, Hungary shouldn’t even try “to make the Americans love [them].” They must find other allies in the countries of Central Europe. The Slovaks and the Romanians shouldn’t put “the Hungarian question,” which for Kövér means “their phobia,” at the top of their agenda. They should think about their common fate. “Our goal should be emancipation within the framework of the European Union.”

Source: Magyar Hírlap / Photo Péter Gyula Horváth

Source: Magyar Hírlap / Photo: Péter Gyula Horváth

According to Kövér, the United States was always partial to the left. In 1990 U.S. Ambassador Mark Palmer ( 1986-1990) “favored the SZDSZ politicians” while Donald Blinken (1994-1997) during the Horn-Kuncze administration “sent exclusively negative information home about the activities of all the opposition parties.” He didn’t even want to meet the opposition leaders because he didn’t consider them to be human beings. To be fair, Kövér mentioned a few “good ambassadors.” For example, Charles Thomas (1990-1994), Peter Tufo (1997-2001), George H. Walker (2003-2006), April Foley (2006 and 2009), and Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis (2010-2013) “at least as long as the State Department didn’t discipline her.” Every time there was a right-wing government the United States found “problems that should be solved.”

Until recently the Americans only wanted a simple change of government if they were dissatisfied with the one in power. But lately they have been thinking of “a complete elite change.” Their favorite was always the liberal SZDSZ and when it ceased to exist they supported LMP (Lehet Más a Politika/Politics Can Be Different). Then the U.S. supported Gordon Bajnai, who “became the Americans’ new favorite.” Now that Bajnai is gone “the new season of the soap opera will open.”

According to Kövér, the U.S. at the moment is looking for new faces in the crowd of “hired demonstrators” or perhaps they just want to maintain the constant tension so that “at the appropriate moment they can come up with a new Bajnai.” But surely, he continued, sane advisers to the U.S. government cannot possibly think that a new political elite can be created by 2018 that will be capable of governance. Perhaps their goal is to fill the place of the defunct SZDSZ with a new party that would be able to tip the balance of power in favor of the minority. This worked very well in the past when a small party, SZDSZ, managed to pursue a policy that was to the liking of the United States by blackmailing MSZP.

At this point the reporter interjected an observation: “But Jobbik did not exist then.” Yes, that’s true, Kövér answered, but the alleged American scheme would still work. Jobbik has gained some ground lately, but when Jobbik is stronger, more and more unacceptable, more and more considered to be anti-Semitic and racist and therefore cannot be considered to be a coalition partner, “it will be easy to patch together a coalition government on the other side in which perhaps Fidesz could also participate with its own weight. The important thing is that no government could be formed without the post-SZDSZ against Jobbik.”

I think this paragraph deserves closer scrutiny. As I read it, the most important consideration of the United States, according to Kövér, is to smuggle back a post-SZDSZ that would be, as SZDSZ was, a liberal party. To this end, the U.S. would make sure that Jobbik will grow and will be such an extremist party that Fidesz couldn’t possibly pick it as a coalition partner. Therefore, Fidesz would be forced to join MSZP and a second SZDSZ in an unnatural cooperation with the left. This post-SZDSZ would shape government policy to the great satisfaction of the United States of America. Although I don’t think it was Kövér’s intention, he unwittingly revealed in this statement that Fidesz might be so weakened in the coming years that it would have to resort to a coalition government with Jobbik.

Finally, a side issue that has only domestic significance. Here I would like to return to Kövér’s accusation of American manipulation in the formation of LMP. The party, currently led by András Schiffer and Bernadett Szél, has steadfastly refused any cooperation with the other democratic opposition parties. Therefore, the party’s leadership has been accused of working on some level with Fidesz because their “independence” was beneficial only to Viktor Orbán. András Schiffer’s refusal to have anything to do with the other opposition parties led to a split in the party in November 2012. Out of the sixteen LMP parliamentary members only seven remained faithful to Schiffer; the others joined Gordon Bajnai’s “Together” party. According to house rules at the time, a party needed twelve seats to form a caucus. The Fidesz majority was most obliging and changed the rules. LMP could have its own caucus with only seven members. The nine who left, on the other hand, had to be satisfied with the status of independents.

From the very beginning, the suspicion has lingered that Fidesz might have been involved in some way in the formation of LMP as a separate party. Now we learn from Kövér’s indiscretion that “the current politicians of LMP, until the split in the party, wouldn’t believe us when we explained to them why the Americans were supporting them. Then they suddenly realized how those who left the party in 2012–who were sent there in the first place–interpreted the phrase ‘politics can be different.’ They stood by Gordon Bajnai, who was the favorite of the Americans.” Thus Fidesz was in close contact with András Schiffer and warned him that his party was being infiltrated by “American agents.”

Kövér admits in this interview that “we, Hungarians, have never been any good when it came to diplomacy,” but now the Hungarian leadership thinks that their foreign policy strategy will be successful. They should make no overtures to the United States, in fact, they should turn sharply against Washington and instead rely on Germany. After all, Kövér is convinced that U.S.-German relations are very bad as a result of American spying on German politicians, including Angela Merkel. If Hungary keeps courting the Germans, perhaps Berlin will take Hungary’s side on the Russian question. Some friends think that Viktor Orbán may just be successful in pitting Germany against the United States. I, on the other hand, doubt such an outcome despite the fact that at the moment the European Union is very restrained in its criticism of Hungary.

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An unexpected turn of events: Tibor Navracsics has to be satisfied with the post of education, culture, and youth

Today around noon Jean-Claude Juncker, future president of the European Commission, made his final decision on his “cabinet” or, in EU speak, the “college.” EurActiv published an excellent and telling infographic that depicts the structure of the cabinet as well as the relative importance of the commissioner-designates. Juncker will have seven deputies, the most important of whom is Frans Timmermans of the Netherlands who will be “first vice-president.” He will be in charge of “better regulation, inter-institutional relations, rule of law and charter of fundamental rights.” The other six come from Italy, Bulgaria, Estonia, Slovenia, Latvia, and Finland. So, as you can see, the new member states are well represented. One must also keep in mind that the future president of the European Council will be the Polish Donald Tusk.

In the infographic the seven vice-presidents are followed by the rest, not in alphabetical order but by what seems to me a ranking of the importance of the posts. Hungary’s nominee, Tibor Navracsics, who to everybody’s surprise got the post of commissioner of education, culture, youth & citizenship, is in the penultimate place, just before Cyprus’s Christos Stylianides (humanitarian aid & crisis management).  Most papers published in Brussels dealing with European affairs describe the post as lightweight. According to Euobserver, “the least weighty dossiers have gone to Belgium’s Marianne Thyssen (employment) and Hungary’s Tibor Navracsics (citizenship). ” The paper added that “the latter may face difficulties in the EP, which has to hear all commissioners, because he belongs to the increasingly authoritarian government of Viktor Orban.” The Hungarian-language Bruxinfo also pointed out that “the portfolio does not belong to the most heavyweight ones” but notes that Navracsics’s staff is huge, the second largest within the commission. As for his possible difficulties in the European Parliament, Benedek Jávor, the Együtt-PM EP member, reported on his Facebook page that, according to rumors in Brussels, Navracsics might be drilled hard at his hearing and there is a possibility that he will not be confirmed.

Navracsics himself was also surprised, and most likely disappointed, with the post because he was hoping for a job that has something to do with foreign affairs. But he put on a good face. Naturally, for Fidesz the position was elevated to one of the utmost importance. As a Fidesz official statement said, the future of Europe depends on Navracsics’s work in the next five years. Indeed, education is very important and it is true that many European countries could do a great deal better in that department. The problem is that education is the domain of the member states, and therefore Navracsics will not be able to make a substantial difference in educational policies across the EU.

Navracsics and his fight with Vice-President Vivien Reding was not forgotten

Navracsics and his fight with Vice-President Vivien Reding was not forgotten

Juncker initiated a major structural change, whereby the vice-presidents will be the overseers of the rest of the commissioners. In his letter to Tibor Navracsics he described the new system this way:

I will entrust a number of well defined priority projects to the Vice-Presidents and ask them to steer and coordinate work across the Commission in the key areas of the Political Guidelines.  This will allow for a better focus and a much stronger cooperation amongst Members of the College, with several Commissioners working closely together as a team, led by the Vice-Presidents, in compositions that may change according to need and as new projects develop over time.

In Navracsics’s case this will entail close cooperation with  the Finnish Jyrki Katainen, vice-president for jobs, growth, investment and competitiveness; with Latvia’s Valdis Dombrovskis, vice-president for euro and social dialogue; and with Estonia’s Andrus Ansip, vice-president for digital single market. Keep in mind that under Navracsics’s short tenure as foreign minister Hungary closed its embassy in Tallinn. Juncker emphasized in the letter than the vice-presidents have his total trust and their decisions on certain projects are final. They speak in his name. The success of the Juncker Commission will largely depend on these “über-commissioners,” as Eurobserver called them.

Navracsics gave a press conference for Hungarian journalists where he admitted that “it is possible that education in comparison to the portfolio of internal market is considered to be less weighty but every job is worth as much as we manage to make of it,” which is certainly true. The commissioner for internal market, industry, entrepreneurship & SMEs is the Polish Elźbieta Bieńkowska, and the fact that Navracsics mentioned this particular post I think says something about the frustration of the Hungarians. There are all those others in the region who did much better.

According to the new government spokesman, Éva Kurucz, Navracsics’s post is about the future and his nomination to the post is an “outstanding success.” Fidesz’s EP delegation agrees. The youth of Europe is of the utmost importance and Navracsics has twenty years of academic experience behind him. Of course, there is nothing surprising about Fidesz and the government extolling the importance of Navracsics’s new job, but the enthusiasm of LMP’s András Schiffer is hard to understand. Perhaps he would like to get a few more brownie points from Viktor Orbán and a few more invitations to Fidesz and government functions. According to him, the education portfolio is strategically more important than any of the others that had been mentioned in the last few weeks, which is patently not true.

The opposition parties’ opinion of the post was predictable. Jobbik blamed the Orbán government for not lobbying harder for a more important post. MSZP’s József Tóbiás blamed the Orbán government and Viktor Orbán himself for getting this lowly portfolio. According to him, the fault lies not with the Hungarian people but with Viktor Orbán and his regime. “It is a slap in the face for Orbán but it is we Hungarians who feel the pain.” DK’s spokesman, Zsolt Gréczy, called this particular portfolio the weakest of the twenty-eight. After all, the EU has no common educational or cultural program. He added that DK will not support Navracsics’s candidacy. That means that DK’s two delegates in EP’s socialist delegation will vote against him. MSZP, as far as I know, hasn’t decided yet.  Benedek Jávor, the sole representative of Együtt-PM, rightly pointed out that it will be difficult for Navracsics “to promote cultural diversity while at home his government dictates what real culture is, how youth should be educated, and wants to make self-organization of the citizenry impossible.” All very true.

Final approval of the Juncker Commission will take place in October at the plenary session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg. I agree with some of the commentators: there might still be surprises concerning Navracsics’s appointment. If I were Viktor Orbán I would hold my tongue for a couple of more months. Otherwise, “the slap in the face” might be even harder and more painful than it is now.

Attacks on Charles Gati and the American media

Charles Gati’s article “The Mask is Off”appeared on August 7 in The American Interest and a day later in Hungarian Spectrum. I guess readers will not be surprised to hear that it created quite a storm in Hungary, especially in the right-wing press. And in a counterattack Válasz published a piece by an Italian politician assailing Gati and whitewashing Viktor Orbán’s ideas on the “illiberal state.”

Let’s start with the reception of Gati’s article, which was not translated word for word but was extensively summarized in Népszabadság on the very day of its appearance. Other left-of-center publications followed suit. Two days later Magyar Nemzet, the unofficial mouthpiece of Fidesz, published an unsigned piece that condemned the article and accused Charles Gati of willfully misinterpreting Viktor Orbán’s concepts and of meddling in the internal affairs of Hungary. His article, it argued, was intended as an instrument of political pressure.

Magyar Nemzet reported on Hungarian reactions to the article, starting with Fidesz’s official position. The answer the paper received emphasized that “Hungary is an independent, democratic state whose government and prime minister were chosen by the Hungarian people.”

Magyar Nemzet, Fidesz if you wish, received additional ammunition from András Schiffer of LMP. After paying lip-service to the importance of checks and balances, Schiffer declared that “Hungary must be governed from Hungary and no matter how serious a situation was created by the ‘system of national cynicism’ it can be remedied only at home as a result of the will of the Hungarian people…. Those from overseas who entertain visions of a cultural war don’t realize that with their pronouncements they hurt the self-esteem of the Hungarian people and unwittingly extend Viktor Orbán’s stay in power.”

Magyar Nemzet also asked a “political scientist” from the Nézőpont Intézet who is a committed supporter of Fidesz and the current government. Gati’s article struck him as “desperate” and, he said, the “foreign misgivings” repeated by Gati “have been ordered” by unnamed foes of the Hungarian government. So, it seems, the sin Charles Gati committed was to dare to “meddle” in Hungarian affairs by voicing his opinion about Viktor Orbán’s regime and by outlining options the United States could pursue under the circumstances. András Schiffer, whose position vis-à-vis the Orbán government is anything but clear, was perhaps the most explicit: foreigners shouldn’t have “visions” about the Hungarian situation, especially since such criticism damages the self-esteem of the Hungarian people. But even the somewhat meaningless Fidesz statement makes a sharp enough distinction between “Hungarians” who have a right to express their opinions and foreigners who don’t.

But then what can we do with Viktor Orbán’s “vision” of the Hungarian nation as a “world-nation” (világnemzet)? This concept is supposed to express the unity of the Hungarian nation regardless of where these Hungarians happen to live. Of course, we all know the reason behind this generous gesture, and we also know the efforts the Orbán government made to limit the number of possible voters from the West while actively recruiting voters from Romania and Serbia. But still, he can’t have it both ways. Either those who are Hungarian by birth are part of the nation and can have a say in the governance of the country or not. Once the Orbán government extended that privilege and made all of us members of this wonderful world-nation he has to take the bad with the good. He cannot pick and choose.

Right-wing Hungarian media is convinced that Viktor Orbán is an innocent political target

The right-wing Hungarian media is convinced that Viktor Orbán is an innocent political target

As for foreign powers “meddling” in another country’s internal affairs, it happens all the time. Viktor Orbán in his long political career openly sided with George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney during U.S. presidential campaigns. But others are not supposed to speak their mind about Hungary. Even non-Hungarian Europeans know this. The pro-government Válasz published an article by Luca Volontè, an Italian Christian Democratic politician who was at one time the whip of the European People’s Party in the Council of Europe. Válasz gave this title to Volontè’s polemic against Charles Gati: “Hands Off Hungary!”

Luca Volontè is the only outsider the Orbán government managed to recruit so far. His article sounds not a little suspicious. Almost as if he received some help from Budapest. He seems to be too familiar with the current Hungarian political scene, and the interpretation of Orbán’s speech bears a suspicious resemblance to some of the Hungarian right-wing media’s efforts at explaining Orbán’s message away. We will see whether Fidesz will be able to gather a few more supporters from Europe. The emphasis is on Europe because the current Hungarian line is that in Europe the speech did not make waves; that happened only in the “anti-Hungarian” United States. In fact, Válasz‘s byline made it clear that the anti-Gati voice came from Europe.

And finally, an illustration of the right-wing media’s efforts to control the damage caused by Viktor Orbán’s speech. Today a brief exchange was published, also in Válasz, between Harold Meyerson and Zoltán Laky. Meyerson wrote an opinion piece on August 6 entitled “Hungary’s prime minister a champion for illiberalism” in The Washington Post. Laky, a journalist who obviously thinks that The Washington Post is the mouthpiece of the U.S. government just as Válasz is of the Hungarian government, wanted to know whether Meyerson received instructions concerning Viktor Orbán’s crossing the Rubicon with this speech either from the U.S. government or from the editors of The Washington Post. Meyerson set his Hungarian colleague straight. He has no idea what the U.S. government thinks of Viktor Orbán’s speech and, as far as The Washington Post is concerned, he is not an employee of the paper; the editors don’t even know what he will write about. He is an independent journalist. Yet the title of the Válasz article was titillating: “Permission to target Orbán? The journalist of The Washington Post speaks.”

As for damage control in the United States, I believe the Hungarian government’s chances are slim to none. Budapest can send a new ambassador, as it will in September, and it can spend millions of dollars on lobbying efforts, but its quest is hopeless as long as Viktor Orbán is the prime minister of the country. When the conservative Washington Times publishes an opinion piece entitled “Democracy’s dangerous descent in Hungary,” then Hungary’s chances in Washington are close to hopeless. Viktor Orbán managed to alienate even the paper that in the past usually defended his government.

Domestic reactions to Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal democracy”

In the wake of Viktor Orbán’s speech in Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad on July 26 politicians on the left have been united in their condemnation while journalists on the right have been scrambling to make the speech more palatable.

The reactions of MSZP, DK, and Együtt-PM to the horrendous political message about establishing an “illiberal democracy” were fairly similar. They all deplored the fact that the Hungarian prime minister seems to be following the example of Putin’s Russia.

József Tóbiás, the newly elected chairman of MSZP, was perhaps the least forceful  in his condemnation of Viktor Orbán’s political philosophy. Tóbiás pointed out that Orbán with this speech demonstrated that he has turned against all those who don’t share his vision: the socialists, the liberals, and even the conservatives. Because all of these ideologies try to find political solutions within the framework of liberal democracy.

Együtt-PM found the speech appalling: “The former vice-president of Liberal International today buried the liberal state. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán not only lay to rest liberal democracy but democracy itself.” Subsequently, the party decided to turn to Brussels, asking the European Commission to protect the independent NGOs.

Gábor Fodor in the name of the Hungarian Liberal Party recalled Viktor Orbán’s liberal past and declared that “democracy is dead in our country.” The prime minister “made it expressly clear that it’s either him or us, freedom loving people.”

Szabolcs Kerék-Bárczy in the name of the Democratic Coalition (DK) was the most explicit. He said what many people have been hinting at for a while: that “a fascist state” is in the making in Hungary. “Unfortunately,” he added, Orbán “is either insane or a traitor, or both.”

LMP’s András Schiffer, as usual, had a different take on the speech. According to him, Orbán’s critique of liberal democracy is on target. Only his conclusions are wrong. LMP, which likes to describe itself as a green party, is an enemy of capitalism and also, it seems, of liberal democracy.

Magyar Nemzet published an interesting editorial by Csaba Lukács. He fairly faithfully summarized the main points of  the speech with one notable omission. There was no mention of “illiberal democracy.” And no mention of “democracy” either. Instead, he went on for almost two paragraphs about the notion of a work-based state and expressed his astonishment that liberals are so much against work. “Perhaps they don’t like to work and that’s why they panic.” Lukács clumsily tried to lead the discussion astray. Surely, he himself must know that the liberals are not worried about work but about the “illiberal democracy” he refused to mention in his article.

Journalists who normally support the government and defend all its actions seem to be at a loss in dealing with Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal democracy.” Deep down most likely they also know that this so-called “illiberal democracy” will not be democracy at all. So, they simply skirt the issue.

Válasz‘s editorial avoided the term as well, but at least István Dévényi wanted to know more about Viktor Orbán’s plans. After discussing the reactions of the opposition parties which talk about the end of democracy, he added: “I don’t think that for the time being there is reason to worry, but it would be good to know what exactly the prime minister has in mind when he talks about a nation-state, a work-based state that will follow the welfare state.”

A new English-language paper entitled Hungary Today managed to summarize the speech that lasted for 30 minutes in 212 words. Not surprisingly this Hungarian propaganda organ also kept the news of “illiberal democracy” a secret. Instead, the reader learns that “copying the west is provincialism, and we must leave it behind, as it could ‘kill us.'”

As for DK’s reference to Italian fascism, it is not a new claim. For a number of years here and there one could find references to the similarities between the ideas of Prime Minister Gyula Gömbös (1932-1936) and those of Benito Mussolini. As prime  minister of Hungary, Gömbös made great strides toward establishing a fascist state in Hungary. József Debreczeni, an astute critic of Viktor Orbán who uncannily predicted what will happen if and when Viktor Orbán becomes prime minister again, quipped at one point that comparing Orbán to Horthy is a mistake; the comparison with Gömbös is much more apt.

Népszava's headline: "He already speaks as a dictator / Getty Images

Népszava’s headline: “He already speaks like a dictator / Getty Images

Péter Új, editor-in-chief of 444.hu, rushed to the library to find a Hungarian-language collection of the Duce’s memorable speeches. I might add that the book was published in 1928 and that István Bethlen, who happened to be prime minister at the time, wrote the preface to Benito Mussolini gondolatai (The thoughts of Benito Mussolini). In this book Új found some real gems: “The century of democracy over.” Or, “Unlimited freedom … does not exist.” “Freedom is not a right but a duty.” “It would be suicidal to follow the ideology of liberalism … I declare myself to be anti-liberal.” “The nation of tomorrow will be the nation of workers.”

Others searched for additional sources of Orbán’s assorted thoughts and claims in the speech. I already mentioned Fareed Zakaria’s article on illiberal democracies. Gábor Filippov of Magyar Progressive Institute concentrated on Orbán’s assertion that a well-known American political scientist had described American liberalism as hotbed of corruption, sex, drugs, and crime. Filippov found an article by Joseph S. Nye, former dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, in the June 2004 issue of Foreign Affairs entitled “The Decline of America’s Soft Power.” (You may recall that Zakaria’s article also appeared in that periodical. It seems that one of Orbán’s speechwriters has a set of Foreign Affairs on hand!) But whoever wrote the speech badly misunderstood the text. The original English is as follows:

Autocratic regimes in the Middle East have eradicated their liberal opposition, and radical Islamists are in most cases the only dissenters left. They feed on anger toward corrupt regimes, opposition to U.S. policies, and popular fears of modernization. Liberal democracy, as they portray it, is full of corruption, sex, and violence—an impression reinforced by American movies and television and often exacerbated by the extreme statements of some especially virulent Christian preachers in the United States.

Radical Islamists are the ones who claim that liberal democracy is full of corruption, sex, and violence. Viktor Orbán is now joining their ranks. Putin, Mussolini, radical Islamists–these are Orbán’s ideological friends. And he has unfettered power to transform this frightening ideology into government policy.

Is Deutsche Telekom lending a helping hand to the Orbán government to suppress media freedom?

Scandals in Hungary often fizzle out, as one of our readers correctly stated, but abroad scandals don’t die so fast. They spread via the international media. This is what happened with the case of Origo, an internet news organ, whose latest editor-in-chief, Gergő Sáling, was forced to resign, most likely for political reasons. Soon enough the deputy editor-in-chief followed suit, and by now practically the whole news team is gone. A fairly large demonstration was organized immediately after the sacking of the editor-in-chief, and more demonstrations are planned for next week.

Yesterday 444.hu, a relatively new internet newspaper, came out with additional information on the case which, if true, isn’t pretty. Origo Zrt. is a subsidiary of Magyar Telekom, which is in turn a subsidiary of Deutsche Telekom, which is partly owned by the German government. 444.hu learned from a high-ranking member of the government that the firing of Gergő Sáling was the result of a deal between Magyar Telekom and the Orbán government.

Kerstin Günther / Source: Portfolio

Kerstin Günther / Source: Portfolio

One of the problems with the Hungarian economy is the preponderance of the state in all facets of economic life, which means that good relations with the government are very important for any company. In 2010 and 2011 relations between Magyar Telekom and the government were strained, mainly because of the extra taxes levied on communications companies. Apparently Hungarian politicians didn’t particularly like the CEO of Magyar Telekom, the American Christopher Mattheisen. Then in April 2013 the post of CEO was split in two, carving out a separate post of chairperson of the board. This new job was created for Kerstin Günther, who was very knowledgeable about Hungary because she began her Telekom career in Budapest in the 1990s. According to 444.hu‘s informer, she was sent to Hungary for the purpose of improving relations between the company and the Orbán government.

The company needed the goodwill of the Hungarian government because it is the government that decides the fates of frequencies that T-Mobil, a large part of Magyar Telekom’s business, uses. In 2013 it was time to renew these frequencies. Their renewal was vital for the company. At the end of the year, the government decided to renew the frequencies of all three cell phone companies operating in Hungary until 2022. For these frequencies the government asked a total of 100 billion forints. Magyar Telekom’s share was approximately 35 billion forints. It is 444.hu‘s claim, based on information received from its source, that Origo’s fate was sealed by the end of 2013. The deal was that Magyar Telekom would get an extension of its frequencies and that in return the management would make sure that Origo plays ball. Apparently, János Lázár “was often unhappy” about some of the articles that appeared on the site about various Fidesz and government wrongdoings, including his own.

According to the informer, Günther and Lázár met even before Günther arrived in Hungary. Lázár apparently showed her a 150-page analysis of the news items that had appeared in Origo and Híradó, the government mouthpiece that provides news to all state radio and television stations. Given Híradó‘s pro-government stance, it’s no wonder that Origo looked “dramatically oppositional.” It seems, however, that Magyar Telekom found the “study” well founded and often referred to it in arguments with Origo.

In the last two years pressure mounted on the internet site, hence the frequent personnel changes at the head of the editorial board. In three years there have been four different editors-in-chief. In government circles it was common knowledge that Lázár believed that “one must do something about RTL Klub and Origo.”

The relationship between Magyar Telekom and the Orbán government is excellent at the moment. In fact, it looks as if Deutsche Telekom will be entrusted with “the government’s comprehensive development of rural broadband access” that will cover the whole country. Or at least this is what János Lázár said in his parliamentary hearing that approved his suitability for the post of minister at the head of the prime minister’s office.

444.hu immediately translated the article into English, and naturally the story was picked up by several important German papers, especially since DPA (Deutsche Presse-Agentur) reported on it. A long and detailed article, not based on the DPA summary, entitled “Under Pressure” appeared in Süddeutsche Zeitung by Cathrin Kahlweit. She operates out of Vienna but knows the Hungarian scene quite well. In the article she reminds her readers that four years ago the controversial media law “drew international protests,”  and says that it seems that the Orbán government is again using “money and new legal provisions to impede critical reporting.” According to her, Deutsche Telekom received a one-billion euro contract from the Hungarian government for the “expansion of the broadband network,” the price of which was the taming of Origo. Deutsche Welle also reported on the attempted censorship by the Orbán government. And naturally, Reporters Without Borders protested as well.

Up to now two opposition politicians, Gergely Karácsony (E14-PM) and András Schiffer (LMP), have written letters to Timotheus Höttges, CEO of Deutsche Telekom, in which both strongly disapproved of the alleged “deal” between Deutsche Telekom and the Hungarian government. Karácsony called the deal unethical and expressed his hope that Deutsche Telekom would not be a partner to such a dirty affair. Surely, he said, Höttges considers freedom of the press a basic right. Schiffer’s letter was equally hard hitting and expressed amazement that a respectable firm operating in a democratic country would lend its name to such shady business.

Deutsche Telekom is washing its hands of the affair. The spokesman for the firm emphasized that they are all for freedom of the press but reiterated that they have nothing to do with personnel changes within Origo, which are the “result of internal restructuring.” I fear that will not be enough.

Budapest municipal election: MSZP-LMP deal?

I think it’s time to pay some attention to LMP which, against all expectations, managed to garner 5.34% of the votes on April 6 and thus will be represented in parliament. LMP is a relatively new party. Its origins go back to a group of environmentalists who were responsible for the nomination of László Sólyom, himself an ardent environmentalist, for the position of president in 2005. Several members of this civic organization, called “Védegylet,” came up with the idea of forming a new political party which, as the party’s name indicates, would be a different kind of political actor. Obviously pure as the driven snow. This message resonated with many voters who were convinced that all politicians are corrupt and all politics outright dirty. The party received 7.48% of the votes in 2010 and was able to send 16 of its members to parliament.

The LMP delegation which represented the party was very active. Women comprised half of the delegation, a welcome addition to the otherwise monotonously male makeup of Hungarian politics. Their ambitious leader, András Schiffer, had great plans. Eventually, he wanted to have LMP be the premier party. A party that could win elections by itself. Therefore, he always refused to tie LMP to any other opposition party. It was this stance that eventually led to a split within the party. More than half of the party’s parliamentary delegation left LMP. They considered Schiffer’s position injurious to the democratic opposition which should have united to concentrate their efforts against Viktor Orbán, whom they considered to be the greatest danger to Hungarian democracy. When Schiffer and six other people in the caucus rejected their argument for unity, they left and joined Gordon Bajnai’s Együtt 2014. At the time Schiffer accused these people of selling their honor for parliamentary seats. As it turned out, none of the former LMP politicians who joined Bajnai managed to get into parliament, whereas the rump LMP will be represented by six MPs in the new parliament.

In comparison to 2010 LMP lost a considerable number of votes. In 2010, 383,876  people voted for Schiffer’s party while in 2014 that number was only 269,414, a loss of about 30%. In Budapest, however, they did a little better than four years ago. They were especially strong in the center districts. In districts I and V, which are known to be conservative areas, they received over 10% of the votes, one percentage point higher than in 2010. Schiffer is certain that this slightly improved performance means that he is making headway with conservative voters. I somehow doubt that this interpretation holds water. LMP’s fiercely anti-capitalist rhetoric shouldn’t appeal to conservatives.

Whatever the case, according to reliable sources many members of the MSZP leadership are thinking of enticing Schiffer to cooperate with MSZP in the forthcoming municipal election in Budapest. MSZP’s original candidate for the post was Csaba Horváth, who lost to István Tarlós (Fidesz) in 2010. At that time LMP had its own candidate, Benedek Jávor (who got 9.98% of the votes), who today is the co-chairman of Együtt 2014-PM. (The Jobbik candidate, it should be noted, received 7.27% of the votes.) At that time, right after the large Fidesz victory in the spring, it was clear that the Fidesz candidate was practically unbeatable. Since then, polls indicate that Tarlós can be beaten, but MSZP believes that LMP votes are necessary for a victory. Thus, apparently, some people came up with the idea of dumping Csaba Horváth and instead making a deal with LMP: Schiffer’s party can name its candidate for lord mayor (főpolgármester) and MSZP will support him/her.

Apparently, MSZP is ready to abandon Horváth because Együtt 2014-PM refuses to support the MSZP candidate. Moreover, I am almost certain that important MSZP politicians consider Horváth a weak candidate and hence are quite ready to look for someone else. The cooperation would work the following way: MSZP and LMP would start the campaign with their own candidates but eventually the MSZP candidate would throw his weight behind the LMP person. A generous offer, but it looks as if LMP politicians are not crazy about the idea. They feel that in the long run any kind of electoral cooperation with other parties will harm LMP’s prospects.

Critics of the idea of MSZP-LMP cooperation in the Budapest municipal election, especially those who don’t think much of LMP and András Schiffer, have already announced that the MSZP leaders lost their minds. LMP wouldn’t be able to come up with a viable candidate. Well, I could come up with a name: Péter Róna, the American banker and economist. Róna left Hungary with his mother in 1956 when he was 14 years old. He is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and received a law degree from Oxford University. Lately, he threw in his lot with LMP and seems to be in LMP’s inner circle. I’m not surprised at Róna’s attraction to LMP: he considers himself a socialist and, despite the fact that he headed an investment bank before returning to Hungary, is a fierce critic of banks and capitalism in general. Róna also seems to be popular among those who are regular listeners of Klubrádió and ATV. It is another matter whether Róna, who is over 70 and has no political or administrative experience, would accept the nomination.

Péter Róna

Péter Róna

Today a caller to György Bolgár’s program, “Let’s talk it over,” announced that the opposition should simply give up the city and let Tarlós continue in office. If the candidate of a united opposition wins, Viktor Orbán will make sure that Budapest is “bulldozered.” Whoever the new mayor is, his life will be hell as will that of the city. Let Fidesz have Budapest for four more years. Sooner or later the Orbán regime will collapse because such a system cannot be maintained for too long. Maybe there is something in that argument.

Week-long demonstration in Budapest was not in vain

Many people labeled the dogged effort of a small group of protesters against the erection of the proposed  monument to the victims of the German “occupation” of Hungary a waste of time and energy. What will they achieve? Nothing. They dismantled the barricade around the proposed site ten or eleven times, but work on the foundation for the monument continued unabated. The monument showing Archangel Gabriel being attacked by the German eagle will be in place before the end of May. They achieved nothing.

Well, this seems not to be the case. The protestors on Szabadság tér (Freedom Square) accomplished something, after all. This morning the US Embassy in Budapest released a statement in which the United States urges the Hungarian government “to seek an honest, open, and factual assessment of the Holocaust in Hungary [which] includes soliciting and considering the opinions of all segments of Hungarian society, and especially those who are rightly most sensitive to the government’s plans during this 70th anniversary year.” The statement also reminded the Hungarian government that it “had indicated in February it would resume dialogue after Easter with stakeholders concerned about Memorial Year plans.”

Hard at work / Népszabadság

Hard at work / Népszabadság

It took no more than a couple of hours for The Wall Street Journal to report on the US initiative which, by the way, coincided with Mazsihisz’s own effort to resume dialogue with the Hungarian government. We have no idea what will happen, but perhaps the US’s unequivocal support for those who object to Viktor Orbán’s high-handed attitude toward Hungarian guilt may help focus the dialogue. The controversy is more than a debate over some fine points of history. The 7oth anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust could provide an opportunity for Hungarian self-assessment. Unfortunately it is precisely that self-assessment which the current Hungarian government wants to prevent.

Meanwhile there were a couple issues in connection with the demonstrations that caused quite a furor. One was an interview with András Schiffer, co-chair of LMP, who seemed to be in an even worse mood than is his usual wont a couple of days after the election. He should have been elated because, after all, his party managed to receive more than 5% of the votes and thus he and five of his colleagues will be able to take part in the work of the parliament. Yet he was morose. When asked by Olga Kálmán what he had to say about the work that had begun on the monument in spite of Viktor Orbán’s explicit promises, Schiffer answered that he had nothing to say. He called the response “disproportionate hysterics.” The opposition shouldn’t waste its energy on this monument. Instead, they should busy themselves with the current very serious problems of the country. Kálmán was so stunned that she committed a  journalistic mistake: she let her own feelings interfere with her professionalism and expressed her disapproval of Schiffer’s response, which she obviously considered callous. Right-wing papers were delighted that András Schiffer, a descendant of Holocaust survivors, shared their view on the issue and pointed the finger at Olga Kálmán. Others, mostly in opposition circles, were horrified at Schiffer’s response.

Here I would like to quote Endre Aczél, a veteran journalist with a vast knowledge of foreign affairs, domestic politics, history, and sports. Aczél remembered an old political-literary event from 1937. In that year the cream of Hungarian literati decided to issue a proclamation protesting artificially inflamed anti-Semitism. Milán Füst (1888-1967), who happened to be Jewish, refused to sign it. These were the words he used explaining his reasons for not joining his fellow writers: “There is the Jewish question and perhaps it could even be solved. But it is not the most important question of the country because there are more burning questions. . . . I will not allow all our troubles to be pilfered on account of the Jewish issue.” A year later the first anti-Jewish law was enacted. The moral of the story is obvious.

András Schiffer’s response resembles what Péter Boross, former prime minister (1993-1994), had to say in an interview on HírTV despite the fact that Boross is a right-wing nationalist and an apologist for the Horthy regime while Schiffer is allegedly a democrat.  I wrote an article about Boross’s seemingly sudden political shift after Viktor Orbán won the election in 2010. Formerly, Boross acted like a true conservative who was afraid of the extreme right. He kept bringing up stories from the 1930s and talked about the consequences of this dangerous ideology. But in the last four years Boross showed himself to be a reactionary right-winger, in many respects sharing the views of the Hungarian extreme right. So, it’s no wonder that Boross considers the demonstrations no more than a hysterical reaction of the left-leaning intelligentsia. The demonstrations are not really about the memorial; they reflect “the hatred of the left fed by their loss at the election.” In an interesting twist he accused “the demonstrators of inflaming fears, especially in older people who went through those terrible years.” So, if I understand him correctly, the demonstrators are the ones who are frightening the Jewish population who, as he added, want to live in peace. “This is an intellectual crime.” And, he added, it is these Budapest intellectuals who are partly responsible for the critical voices from abroad as well. I think, knowing Péter Boross’s ideology, that we can safely replace the adjective “Budapest” with “Jewish.”

I have no idea whether Mazsihisz’s latest effort at continuing a dialogue with the government will succeed. I don’t even know whether the United States government’s statement addressed to the Orbán government will achieve anything. But at least we can say that the efforts of the people who were on that square every afternoon were not wasted. They drew attention once again to the Hungarian government’s unwillingness to acknowledge–and to accept Hungary’s responsibility for–heinous actions of the past.