Gábor Vona

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.

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Evidence is presented in the Jobbik espionage case

Shortly after the news broke on May 14 that Péter Polt, the Hungarian chief prosecutor, had asked Martin Schulz, president of the European Union, to suspend the parliamentary immunity of Béla Kovács (Jobbik), Fidesz moved to convene the Hungarian parliamentary committee on national security. The committee is chaired by Zsolt Molnár (MSZP), whose plate is full of his own problems. Two weeks ago a picture from 1992 of the 18-year-old hooded Molnár was made public. Magyar Nemzet accused the socialist politician of being a skinhead in his youth. I guess it was just tit for tat: the opposition was outraged over Fidesz’s support of a Jobbik candidate for the post of deputy president of the House.

A couple of days ago I expressed doubts about the charge of espionage in the case of the Jobbik MEP. First of all, we know only too well the Fidesz practice of accusing their political opponents of some serious crime that years later turns out to be bogus. The acquittal comes far too late; the political damage is instantaneous. After the 2010 election wholesale accusations were launched against socialist politicians and now, four years later, most of the accused have been acquitted. Among those court cases one dealt with espionage, but because the case was considered to belong to the rather large realm of state secrets we still have no idea about the charges or the evidence. Early reactions from Ágnes Vadai (DK), who at that point was a member of the parliamentary committee, indicated that both bordered on the ludicrous.

Since I consider the national security office an arm of the Orbán government that is often used for political purposes, my first reaction was to be very skeptical of the charges leveled against Kovács. Until now, Viktor Orbán concentrated on the left (MSZP, DK, E14-PM) and ignored Jobbik. Now that everybody predicts a resounding success for the extremist Jobbik party at the polls on Sunday, it seems that Orbán decided to turn his attention to his adversaries on the right. After all, he has the magic two-thirds majority in parliament and doesn’t need Jobbik.

There is no question of Kovács’s pro-Russian sentiments. He spent the larger part of his life in that country, and he is an ardent supporter of Vladimir Putin and his vision of Russia and the world. In Brussels he is considered to be a “Russian lobbyist,” and I’m sure that he represented Russia more than Hungary in the EP. At least some of his speeches indicate that much. But espionage is something different from making propaganda at the behest of a country.

Viktor Orbán, never known to worry about linguistic niceties, is capitalizing on the situation. On Friday night on MTV he equated espionage against the European Union with treason. He claimed that “the Hungarian public is familiar with the treasonous activities of internationalists who don’t consider the nation important, but that a party that considers itself national (nemzeti) would want to send such people to Brussels where they are supposed to represent Hungarian interests is really unprecedented.”

Let’s analyze this sentence. First of all, he is accusing some (actually, probably most) left-wing politicians of being traitors, while suggesting that there might be more spies among the proposed representatives of Jobbik to the European Parliament. I’m sure that Viktor Orbán means every word he says in this sentence. He is convinced that everyone who disagrees with him and criticizes him is not only unpatriotic but also a traitor; if it depended on him, he would gladly jail all of them. Also, there are signs that Béla Kovács might be only the first target. Perhaps the grand prize would be Gábor Vona himself.  As it is, Lajos Pősze, a disillusioned former Jobbik member, claimed on HírTV that Vona is Moscow’s agent.

In any case, the parliamentary committee on national security was called together this morning. Both Béla Kovács and Gábor Vona were obliged to appear before the committee. It seems that everyone who was present, with the exception of Jobbik member Ádám Mirkóczki, is convinced on the basis of the evidence presented by the national security office that Béla Kovács committed espionage.

Gábor Vona, Ádám Mirkóczy, and Béla Kovács Source: Index / Photo; Szabolcs Barakonyi

Gábor Vona, Ádám Mirkóczki, and Béla Kovács after the hearing
Source: Index / Photo; Szabolcs Barakonyi

What did we learn about the proceedings? Not much, because the information will be classified for a number of years. We do know that the Hungarian national security office has been investigating Kovács ever since 2009 and that they have pictures and recordings of conversations. Chairman Zsolt Molnár (MSZP) found the evidence convincing but added, “there is espionage but no James Bond.” Apparently, what he means is that the case is not like espionage concerning military secrets but “an activity that can be more widely defined.” Bernadett Szél (LMP) was also impressed, but she added that “a person can commit espionage even if he is not a professional spy.” These two comments lead me to believe that we are faced here not so much with espionage as with “influence peddling.” On the other hand, Szilárd Németh (Fidesz), deputy chairman of the committee, was more explicit and more damaging. He indicated that “Kovács had connections to the Russian secret service and these connections were organized and conspiratorial.” Attila Mesterházy, who was not present, also seems to accept the story at face value. The liberal-socialist politicians all appear to have lined up. Interestingly enough, not one of them seems to remember similar Fidesz attacks on people on their side that turned out to be bogus. Yes, I understand that Jobbik is a despicable party, but that’s not a sufficient reason to call Kovács a spy if he is no more than a zealous promoter of Putin’s cause.

Ágnes Vadai (DK) used to be the chair of the committee when she was still a member of MSZP and thus has the necessary clearance to attend the sessions. Since she had to retire from the chairmanship due to her change of political allegiance, she asked admission to some of the more important meetings of the committee. Normally, she receives permission. But not this time. Her reaction was:  “We always suspected that Jobbik has reasons to be secretive but it seems that Fidesz does also.” She promised to ask the Ministry of Interior to supply her with documents connected to the case. I doubt that she will receive anything.

Gáspár Miklós Tamás, the political philosopher whose views I normally don’t share, wrote an opinion piece that pretty well echoes what I had to say about the case three days ago. He calls attention to a double standard. The liberal journalists view Fidesz’s attack on the left-liberal political side with healthy skepticism, but this time they seemed to have swallowed the espionage story hook, line, and sinker. Kovács is most likely an agent d’influence but no more than that. TGM–as everybody calls him–considers the “criminalization of political opponents the overture to dictatorship,” which should be rejected regardless of whether it is directed against the right or the left.

Interestingly, Jobbik’s pro-Russian bias finds many adherents in Hungary. Apparently, whereas in most of the Eastern European countries the public is anti-Russian, especially after the Ukrainian crisis, Hungarian public opinion is divided. And the right-wingers, including some of the Fidesz voters, consider Putin’s intervention in Ukraine at the behest of the ethnic Russians justified. This sympathy most likely has a lot to do with the existence of Hungarian minorities in the neighboring countries.

How will Orbán achieve both of his goals–to ruin Jobbik with a Russian espionage case and at the same time defend Russia’s support of autonomy in Ukraine? He may well succeed. His track record when it comes to threading the needle is very good.

Jobbik and the Russian connection: The role of Béla Kovács

A few days ago I mentioned a possible connection between Jobbik (and other extremist parties in Europe as well) and Putin’s Russia. In that post I quoted a 2009 study from the Hungarian think tank, Political Capital. Considering the importance of the subject I would like to call attention to a new revised, up-t0-date study of Jobbik’s relationship with Russia by Political Capital. It can be read in English here. At that time I didn’t go into any details because, quite frankly, I wasn’t well versed in the matter. But this morning I discovered an English-language blog written by Anton Shekhovtsov. Yesterday he posted an article entitled “Fascist vultures of the Hungarian Jobbik and the Russian connection.” The title was intriguing and what followed were some details I hadn’t found in the Hungarian media. For example, a speech delivered by Jobbik EPM Tamás Gaudi-Nagy in a T-shirt with the following message: “Crimea legally belongs to Russia! Transcarpathia legally belongs to Hungary!” May I remind everybody that Gaudi-Nagy was the man who threw the flag of the European Union out of one of the windows of the Hungarian parliament. Here is Gaudi Nagy’s English-language speech with Hungarian subtitles.

There is widespread belief that Jobbik is being supported by Moscow, although we have no direct evidence of such financial support. One thing is sure. Jobbik has more money than the party could possibly collect from its Hungarian followers. Jobbik couldn’t have run the extensive campaign it did on the meager subsidies the government hands out to the parties. Besides Russia, Iran has also been mentioned as a possible source of revenue.

In any case, Shekhovtsov suggests that Gábor Vona, the party’s chairman, was invited to Russia by Aleksandr Dugin, a professor at Moscow State University “who is known for his proximity to fascism.” He seems to be a political eclectic. He is, for instance, one of the most popular advocates of the creation of a Eurasian empire. And he helped write the program for the Communist Party of the Russian Federation.

Vona had an opportunity while in the Russian capital to deliver a lecture entitled “Russia and Europe.” In this speech Vona called the European Union a “treacherous organization” and declared that it would be better for Hungary to join the Russia-dominated Eurasian Union should the occasion arise.

While in Russia, according to ATV, Vona also had a meeting with Ivan Grachov, chairman of the Russian Duma’s commission on energy, and Leonid Kalashnikov, deputy chairman of the Duma’s committee on international affairs. Kalashnikov is a member of the top leadership of the Russian communist party.

Gábor Vona, Ivan Grachov, and Béla Kovács in Moscow in May 2013 / Photo: Facebook

Gábor Vona, Ivan Grachov, and Béla Kovács in Moscow in May 2013 / Photo: Facebook

The plot only thickens with the entrance of Béla Kovács, a man about whom we know very little but enough for some people to suspect that he is a Russian agent.  He was born in Budapest, but after finishing high school he moved with his parents to Japan, sometime in the late 1970s. His father was apparently employed by the Hungarian Embassy in Tokyo. It is possible that he also spent four years at “one of the private universities” in the United States, but he graduated from the Institute of International Relations, known for its close ties to the KGB. In addition to Hungarian, Kovács speaks Russian, English, French, German, Japanese, and Polish.

He returned to Hungary in 1986 but in 1988 went back to Moscow where he apparently worked for several Russian companies involved in international trade. We don’t know why, but in 2003 he again returned to Hungary, where he established a small salad bar which failed. In 2005 he discovered Jobbik, whose “bright enthusiastic young men” changed his life. Soon enough he became a very important man in the party. He handles the party’s finances, and in 2010 he was chosen to represent Jobbik in Brussels. There he is considered to be a Russian lobbyist.

Kovács is a man of the world and seems to have  connections with leading members of far right parties all over Europe and the United Kingdom. As his Jobbik colleagues said, without him they wouldn’t have been able to find their bearings in Brussels so easily. It was his idea to create the Alliance of European National Movements, which includes all important far-right parties.

He was one of the representatives of extremist parties whom Russia invited “to monitor” the Crimean referendum last month. Most of the overseers came from right radical circles, although there were a few from the far left parties of Finland, Germany, and Greece.

I discovered an article about Kovács on the website of the new neo-Nazi party, Magyar Hajnal (Hungarian Dawn). It claims that in 2010 he was penniless but a couple of years later he managed to live lavishly, a fact that was confirmed by other sources. According to József Gulyás, a former member of the parliamentary committee on national security, Kovács’s background and activities are “entirely impenetrable.”  Mind you, Gulyás is convinced that Jobbik “is a phony nationalist party which serves only Russian interests.”

I assume that, given his background, the Hungarian national security office is keeping an eye on Kovács. Given their poor performance in the past, however, I have the feeling they know no more about Kovács than anyone can discover by diligently searching the Internet for clues.

Viktor Orbán is the real danger, not the Hungarian far right

While commentators in the western media were not at all surprised about Fidesz’s electoral sweep, they were shocked at the substantial growth of the neo-Nazi racist party Jobbik. The original name of the organization was Jobb Magyarországért Mozgalom (Movement for a Better Hungary), which eventually was shortened to Jobbik, meaning “Better.”

Almost all the articles dealing with the election mention that “every fifth Hungarian” voted for an extremist party. Of course, this is not quite accurate because only 62% of the eligible voters actually bothered to vote, and it is a well-known fact that Jobbik followers turn out in high numbers. They even surpass Fidesz sympathizers. Nonetheless, this result must be a disappointment to Viktor Orbán, who has been trying for years to convince the West that his party is the guarantee that Hungary will not fall prey to extremists. After all, he argues, Fidesz is a party of the moderate right-of-center. On the far right are the neo-Nazis and on the left the “communists.” Naturally, with the exception of a very small communist party that hasn’t managed to get into parliament in the last twenty-four years, there are no communists in Hungary, a detail that doesn’t seem to bother the propagandists of Fidesz.

Now Orbán has to face the fact that all his efforts at weakening Jobbik’s base have failed. He thought that if he moved his own party farther and farther to the right he would be able “to steal” the Jobbik sympathizers. He showed Jobbik voters that his own government could satisfy all their demands. In his last termViktor Orbán gave numerous unexpected gifts to Jobbik. This was especially true when it came to media policy and questions of unifying the nation across borders. The rehabilitation of the Horthy regime was also originally a Jobbik demand. Moreover, it is possible that Orbán’s pro-Russian stance was inspired by Jobbik.

Despite Orbán’s best efforts, the 10% growth in Jobbik’s voting base came largely from the ranks of former Fidesz voters. On the last day of the campaign in Debrecen Orbán warned his audience that splitting their votes between Fidesz and some other party would weaken the Fidesz cause. Although he didn’t mention the party by name, it is clear that he was thinking of Jobbik. And indeed, once we have all the numbers I suspect we will find that a fairly large number of Fidesz voters split their votes between Fidesz and Jobbik. They voted for a Fidesz candidate locally but chose to use their second vote for the Jobbik list. In the final tally 100,000 more people voted for Jobbik than four years ago.

Jan-Werner Mueller in his article in The Guardian sees a correlation between the growth of Jobbik and Viktor Orbán’s pro-Russian policy. In order to understand the connection between Jobbik and Orbán’s pro-Russian policy we have to go back a bit. The first time I learned of Jobbik’s infatuation with Putin’s Russia was in 2009 when I read a study on “Russia’s Far-Right Friends.” According to this study, Jobbik’s attachment to Russia became evident for the first time during the Russian-Georgian border dispute. It also turned out that Gábor Vona, Jobbik party chairman, made at least two trips to Moscow even before 2009. Jobbik wanted “to open Hungary to eastern markets and to sell Hungarian products to Russia, China or even Iran instead of the European Union.” Jobbik also wanted to expand Hungary’s nuclear capacity and even then, the authors of the study believe, Jobbik had the Russian Rosatom in mind when it came to the Paks power plant’s expansion. Keep in mind that at this point Viktor Orbán had very different ideas about Russia, which he considered to be a danger to Europe and Hungary. It seems that Jobbik managed to convince him otherwise. He saw the light and more or less copied Jobbik’s ideas on Russo-Hungarian relations.

These moves didn’t slow the growth of Jobbik, just as government policies didn’t help the position of the conservatives vis-à-vis the extreme right in interwar Hungary. Orbán followed a policy of appeasement in dealing with MIÉP, the precursor of Jobbik, during his first government (1998-2002) just as he did in handling Jobbik. Give them what they want and perhaps they will be satisfied with Fidesz rule. That strategy didn’t work in the Horthy era as it doesn’t work now.

Viktor Orbán at the victory celebration, April 7, 2014 /Photo picture alliance/dpa

Viktor Orbán at the victory celebration, April 7, 2014 /Photo dpa

To be fair to Horthy, there’s appeasement (at a distance) and appeasement (embracing). I think we can safely say that Orbán’s ideas are closer to the extreme right today than were those of any of Horthy’s governments. After all, Orbán is a populist while Horthy and his ministers were hard-core conservatives. The leaders of the extreme right in the 1930s held some “revolutionary ideas” when it came to social policy. Many of the party’s ideologues were outright admirers of the Soviet experiment with its planned economy and egalitarian ideology. Szálasi, for example, was well versed in Marxism. For Horthy all that was anathema. It would have been unimaginable for Horthy to allow his government to conduct a pro-Russian/Soviet policy or to get too cozy with Ferenc Szálasi and his friends. On the other hand, Orbán seems quite willing to take over Jobbik’s ideas–their pro-Russian foreign policy as well as their views on modern Hungarian history–and pass them off as his own.

There is a paper thin line between Jobbik and Fidesz. I know that the western media is preoccupied with the growth of Jobbik, but I think everybody would be better off realizing that the real problem is Fidesz and the system Viktor Orbán created. Jobbik will be in opposition, but Viktor Orbán, who often carries the Jobbik banner, has practically unlimited power. He is the much greater danger, not Gábor Vona.

Viktor Orbán and Recep Tayyip Erdogan are the best of friends

Surprise! Yesterday late afternoon when most likely Viktor Orbán and his entourage, numbering some 120 government officials and businessmen, had already boarded the plane to Istanbul, the prime minister’s press department announced his trip to Turkey. The schedule was crowded. That same evening Orbán opened the Hungarian House, a cultural center, and a Hungarian trading center, both in Istanbul. And he still had energy to deliver a speech before Hungarian and Turkish businessmen about the great prospects that Turkish-Hungarian economic relations offered to both countries.

According to the prime minister’s website, Orbán’s speech was delivered in front of about 200 people, which leads me to believe that the Turks were in the minority at the event. However, those present could learn that “foreign capital is arriving in Hungary at an exceptionally fast pace” and that the Orbán government “had already laid the foundations of a successful Hungarian economy of the future.” When I hear such brazen lies from Viktor Orbán, I really wonder whether perhaps his ambitious plans for expanding Hungary’s horizons toward the business world outside of the European Union falter in part because of such claims that lack any foundation whatsoever. Surely, the businessmen who attend these gatherings are well informed on economic and financial matters, and therefore they must know that it is simply not true that foreign capital is pouring into Hungary. In fact, exactly the opposite is the case. The same must be true about the business friendliness of the Hungarian government when all foreign financial papers are full of stories about the incredible governmental attacks on the banking sector and multinational firms operating in Hungary.

This morning he gave another speech entitled “Hungary and Europe in a Changing World” at the Marmara University in Istanbul, where he also received an honorary doctorate for his work on Turkish-Hungarian relations and for his efforts on behalf of Turkey’s quest for membership in the European Union. Here he expounded on his ideas about the future of the European Union which in his view will be successful only if it expands and includes Turkey and the Balkans. At the same time, member countries should have more say in conducting their own economic policy. He also claimed that the European Union’s “relations with Russia must be reevaluated.” Gépnarancs.hu reminded his readers that Gábor Vona was also a guest of the University only a month ago. He didn’t get an honorary degree, however, only a plaque from the dean of the university for his efforts at  reviving Turkish-Hungarian traditions.)

I mentioned only a couple of days ago that Péter Szijjártó, who by the way accompanied Viktor Orbán to Turkey, expressed his hope that the Israelis would take advantage of Hungary’s enormous gas storage facilities. It seems that  negotiations with Turkey to the same end were already under way. Magyar Földgáztároló Zrt. (Hungarian Gas Storage Corp.) and the Turkish Naturgaz signed a letter of intent. A similar agreement was signed between Eximbank, a Hungarian export-import bank, and the Industrial Development Bank of Turkey (TSKB). The Hungarians emphasized that the storage of Turkish gas in Hungary wouldn’t need any further work on infrastructure because the pipeline between Turkey and Hungary already exists.

Today the Hungarian delegation moved on to Ankara where Orbán met Abdullah Gül, the president of Turkey. I do hope that he was well prepped and didn’t praise Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whom he obviously greatly admires. The night before at the opening of Magyar Ház he said: “Thirteen years ago, when I last came to Turkey, there was a different prime minister in the country and different politics. Now 13 years later, I can see huge differences, not only in technical terms, but also developments with roads and bridges, as well as high-speed train projects, buildings, and also the people who believe in their strength.” It is a known fact that Gül’s relations with Erdogan are anything but friendly, mostly because of Erdogan’s authoritarian rule. Only recently Gül hinted that he was prepared to challenge Erdogan, who is contemplating a run for the presidency next year. Erdogan has been prime minister of Turkey since 2003 and under rules adopted by his own party is barred from seeking a fourth term as prime minister. Therefore he has his eye on the presidency.

The joint press conference held by Erdogan and Orbán reflected their mutual admiration. These two are soul mates.

Hungary received a gift from Erdogan: Hungarians no longer need a visa to visit Turkey. In turn, Hungary made it as easy as possible for visiting Turkish businessmen, artists, and athletes to stay in Hungary for extended periods of time. In return, Erdogan promised that the Visegrád countries will be the most important trading partners of Turkey.

A telling picture. Viktor Orbán and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara. MTI/AP Burhan Ozbilici

A telling picture. Viktor Orbán and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara
MTI/AP Burhan Ozbilici

Orbán naturally emphasized Hungary’s support for Turkey’s integration into the European Union. He expressed his firm belief that Turkish citizens shouldn’t be required to have visas to travel in countries of the European Union. Such a gesture wouldn’t be a “gift but a sign of appreciation of the fantastic Turkish economic accomplishments.” Again, he went over the top when he announced that without Turkey’s presence in the European Union “it will be impossible to turn around the current economic tendencies” in Europe. Turkey’s message to Hungary is that “one’s own road is always the best road” to success. Finally, the Hungarian government will give 150 scholarships to Turkish students who wish to study in Hungary. One can certainly admire Orbán’s generosity when he vetoed all efforts at giving scholarships to Hungarian students. They can get only student loans.

Members of the two governments conducted the first meeting of the joint council of strategic cooperation just established between Turkey and Hungary.

MTVA, Orbán’s new organ in charge of funneling news to the Hungarian state television and radio, and TRT, the Turkish public radio and television, also signed an agreement. Another was signed by MTI and the Turkish Anadolu Agency. One should note that for the second year in a row Turkey jailed more journalists than any other country (with Iran and China close behind) according to an annual report released by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. Forty journalists are currently in jail in Turkey. In Hungary, at least, no journalist has yet been incarcerated.

The new Hungarian ombudsman: László Székely

The news of the day in Hungary, aside from record temperatures over 40ºC, is President János Áder’s announcement that the next ombudsman will be László Székely, an associate professor of civil law at ELTE’s Law School. Just as today’s record temperature was not a great surprise given the weather forecasts, Székely’s nomination for the post wasn’t exactly unexpected.

As in almost all facets of the administration of the country, Fidesz made fundamental changes in the function and position of the Hungarian ombudsman. Earlier there were several ombudsmen, each with a specific field of expertise: environmental issues, data protection, minority rights, etc. Viktor Orbán obviously decided that he didn’t want to be bothered by too many nosy ombudsmen and therefore completely reorganized the system. Today there is only one ombudsman who has to handle all complaints. Moreover, this new position became a great deal more important than before with the introduction of a new constitutional provision that gives only the ombudsman, in addition to parliament and the president, the right to ask the constitutional court for a review of laws passed by parliament.

The sole ombudsman who kept his job when Orbán came into power was Máté Szabó who earlier, in my opinion, didn’t distinguish himself. Most of the issues that interested him sounded petty to me. I guess at the time of his reappointment it was this  aspect of Szabó’s activities that actually appealed to Viktor Orbán. He most likely thought that Szabó would get bogged down in picayune issues and would be too busy to spend much time on the constitutionally questionable legislative work of the Fidesz voting machine. To everybody’s surprise Szabó became a very active ombudsman who resolutely fought to salvage Hungarian democracy. By now he is the only man in an important position who can be called independent. Since Szabó’s tenure ends on September 24, János Áder was required by law to nominate someone to replace him by August 10.

A couple of days ago Áder, emphasizing that he is not obliged to listen to the heads of the parliamentary caucuses on his choice of ombudsman, declared his willingness to get together with the parliamentary leaders, including András Schiffer whose party just lately regained its right to form an official caucus. In addition to Schiffer, there were leaders of Fidesz, KDNP, MSZP, and Jobbik. Neither PM (Párbeszéd Magyarországért) nor DK Demokratikus Koalícíó was represented because of the parliamentary rules introduced by László Kövér according to which they couldn’t form a separate delegation.

Fidesz-style consultations shouldn’t mislead anyone, especially if they are initiated by János Áder. It’s true that occasionally he makes gestures to demonstrate his “independence,” but by and large he is faithful to Fidesz dogma. There is no question in my mind that the person was already picked after some consultation between Viktor Orbán and his closest associates way before the leaders of the parliamentary delegations were invited to Sándor Palota. During the consultation no name was mentioned. Áder only wanted to know what kind of a man his visitors had in mind. The laundry list included such characteristics as independent, highly qualified, not someone too closely associated with one party, etc.  At the end of the meeting Áder announced that they had agreed on an ideal candidate. He will act accordingly.

Today Áder emphasized that Székely “was never a member of any party either before or after the change of regime.” Every time I hear someone proudly announce on talk shows that “I have never been a member of any party,” I know full well what’s coming next: an emphatically right-wing assessment of the present political situation. As if lack of party membership would ensure political independence. Of course this is not at all the case.

László Székely the nominee for the position of ombudsman

László Székely, the nominee for the position of ombudsman

What we know about László Székely is that he held government positions in both the first and the second Orbán governments. Otherwise, he is a professor of civil law and, according to his students, is a good lecturer, a fair grader, and “if you’re prepared you have nothing to fear at his exams.” He also makes his lectures interesting. Otherwise, at least according to Áder, he is no stranger to international law because in 1984 he received a diploma from the “Seminar of International Comparative Law of the University of Strasbourg” which sounded a bit strange to my ears. How can you receive a diploma from a seminar? I managed to find a Regent University School of Law at the University of Strasbourg which offers a six-week  course for international students as part of the Strasbourg Study Abroad program. Perhaps this is what Áder had in mind, but if this is the case this mini-course can’t really be called a proper grounding in international law.

András Schiffer, who was most likely a student of Székely, admits that he is an excellent teacher and a good theoretician but claims that his knowledge of constitutional law is scanty when under the present circumstances the ombudsman is “the last bastion of constitutionality.” Schiffer also objected to Székely’s constitutional philosophy. Székely’s last government job was to coordinate the work done by several scholars on the new civil code where he had no objections to discrimination against people not officially married. Or, perhaps even worse, Székely’s main field of interest is the media. But he approaches this subject not from the point of view of freedom of expression and freedom of the press; rather, he is much more interested in regulating the media. Not a good omen.

Fidesz and KDNP leaders are naturally delighted with the choice. Gábor Vona was less polite than Schiffer. He announced that “László Székely’s ties to Fidesz are well known” and therefore his party will formulate its opinion on the subject on this basis.

MSZP was very restrained. Pál Steiner, a member of the parliamentary committee on the constitution and justice, announced that “they will take the President’s suggestion seriously and the MSZP caucus will decide on the issue at its first meeting of the fall session of parliament.”

For the time being it is hard to say what kind of ombudsman Székely will be. After all, Szabó turned out to be excellent despite earlier indications and predictions to the contrary. It may happen again, but Viktor Orbán rarely makes mistakes on personnel choices.

Getting ready for the World Jewish Congress in Budapest: What is the message?

I don’t know exactly when the World Jewish Congress (WJC) decided to hold its next meeting, the largest ever, in Budapest. I became aware of it only at the beginning of April, at about the same time that Ronald S. Lauder, the president of WJC, wrote an opinion piece in the Süddeutsche Zeitung. One can find the English version of it on the website of the WJC.

Ronald S. Lauder is the younger son of Estée Lauder, one of the most influential businesswomen of the twentieth century. Estée Lauder was born in the United States, but both of her parents came from Hungary. The Lauders are still deeply involved with Hungarian-Jewish affairs and, judging from the article I just mentioned, Ronald Lauder seems to know the Hungarian political situation quite well. In his opinion, “Viktor Orbán has lost his political compass.” Orbán’s second term as premier has been marked by “an increasing narrow-mindedness.” Moreover, with respect to Orbán’s promised protection of the Jews and the Roma, Lauder notes that although “words are important, they are not sufficient.” Moreover, the Hungarian prime minister has “turned into an ideologue of Hungarian nationalism” who, instead of uniting, polarizes Hungarian society.

What Lauder didn’t mention in this article is Orbán’s penchant for double talk. One of the first opinion pieces that I read was a satire of the speech that Viktor Orbán will deliver to the audience gathered at the congress. He will try to dazzle the audience with his stories of the Jewish renaissance that is taking place in Budapest and the government’s efforts at curbing anti-Semitism.

Why did Lauder and the leadership of the WJC decide to hold this gathering in Budapest? No one seems to be able to give a compelling answer to this question. Those who oppose the decision point out that Viktor Orbán will use the occasion to launch a propaganda campaign on behalf of his government when, in fact, his efforts to curb anti-Semitism are less than half-hearted. And indeed, Foreign Minister János Martonyi in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung expressed his satisfaction that the WJC decided to come to Hungary where the delegates can see for themselves whether reports about the Hungarian situation are warranted or not. Naturally, he added that the “far right gained strength during the left-wing government” while Orbán’s government is trying its best “to lead the followers of the far right back to a consolidated democratic society.” A far cry from the truth.

Viktor Orbán himself prepared the ground in Israel. He gave an interview to a Tel Aviv paper, Yedioth Ahronoth, on Friday. My attempts to get hold of the original have so far been unsuccessful, so I’ll have to rely on the Hungarian summary of it with some direct quotations. First, he rejected the “accusation” that Hungary is the most anti-Semitic country in the European Union. Unfortunately, according to the latest polls, the country is up there, right next to or just ahead of Spain. Orbán simply couldn’t  figure out the reason for that perception until he hit upon the most likely reason. “Look around in Europe, especially around its eastern part. Hungary is the only country in which, despite the Nazi reign of terror, there is a large original Jewish community. Therefore Hungarian anti-Semitism is not a theoretical question, it is a personal issue…. There are Jewish families who survived the Holocaust and Hungarians who collaborated with the Nazis. This coexistence brings more problems in Hungary than in other countries.”

Well, this sounds pretty terrible to me. First of all, there is the problem of Jews versus Hungarians. Perhaps outside of Hungary this doesn’t sound as awful as it does in Hungary. Hungarian Jewry never considered itself to be an ethnic minority. “Izraelita” in Hungarian was simply a religious term. Hungarian Jews are very sensitive about this issue. But Viktor Orbán, especially lately, draws a sharp line between Jews and Hungarians. “We Hungarians will defend the Jewish minority.” This is unacceptable to most Hungarian Jews.

There are other problems with this passage. Take, for instance, the theoretical versus personal issue. By now relatively few people who were old enough in 1944 to collaborate with the Nazis are still alive. Most likely there are more survivors of the Holocaust, considering that some of these people might have been only babies at the time. Is there a personal antagonism between these two groups that translates into today’s anti-Semitism? This makes absolutely no sense to me.

The conversation turned at one point to Ronald S. Lauder’s critical op/ed piece. Orbán not too diplomatically charged Lauder with a personal grudge against his regime because of the active lawsuit between the Hungarian state and Lauder. In case the readers of Hungarian Spectrum have forgotten, Lauder was one of the investors who wanted to construct a wellness center and casino at Lake Velence. The plans of Lauder and his fellow investors were aborted and were used to build a criminal case against Ferenc Gyurcsány. Lauder’s financial losses were considerable. Anyone who wants to know more about this case should read an earlier post on “What can happen to investors in Hungary.”

Orbán also touched on his personal feelings about anti-Semitism and claimed that “it is his Christianity that protects him from this sin.” Quite a few people would doubt Orbán’s Christian devotion and would therefore also doubt his sincerity. He claimed that he discovered why some people charge him with anti-Semitism. “The root of this charge is that I’m a national [nemzeti] politician. I’m for Europe but I am a Hungarian and a Christian Democrat.” Of course, there is no such thing as a “national politician.” Let’s face it, all the talk about “nemzeti” simply means “nationalistic.” And indeed, the most potent political weapon in Orbán’s hand is his nationalistic propaganda. It always seems to work, perhaps with even the majority of Hungarians.

Orbán admitted that the far right poses a danger in Hungary but naturally portrayed himself and his party as the bulwark against this growing tide of extremism. This is standard Fidesz strategy. If the outside world criticizes and attacks his government and his party, it only opens the door to the extreme right. Fidesz is the only party that can stop the growth of Jobbik, a neo-Nazi party. In reality, the extreme right and Fidesz live in a symbiotic relationship. In this interview, however, he categorically denied that he would ever work politically with Jobbik or that he would accept Jobbik’s assistance in case he has to form a minority government. We heard such a promise before in 1998 when he said that he would never form a coalition government with the Smallholders.What happened? As soon as it became clear after the first round of voting that he wouldn’t win the election without the assistance of József Torgyán, the leader of the Smallholders, he made a deal.

By the end of the interview Orbán became outright poetic. He described the Jews in Hungary as “the gifts of God. God created the Hungarian nation to be a colorful one and the Jews also as part of this nation.” An interesting twist especially because a couple of lines later he said that “it is difficult look squarely at the past because those Jewish and Hungarian victims of the Holocaust whom we didn’t defend properly are among us.” First, I didn’t realize that there were non-Jewish Hungarian victims of the Holocaust unless he is talking about the Roma. And when it came to defending the Jews, unfortunately it was the Hungarian government that handled the transports with deadly efficiency. The simple truth is that the Hungarian people, unlike the Germans, refuse to admit their active participation in the Holocaust.

Gábor Vona at today's anti-Zionist demonstration

Gábor Vona at today’s anti-Zionist demonstration

Meanwhile Jobbik also made preparations for the WJC meeting tomorrow. Although the prime minister ordered his minister of the interior to forbid the anti-Zionist demonstration, Jobbik managed to get at least 1,000 people on the street. Gábor Vona delivered a speech with the message: “We won because we are here!” He also promised to sue Viktor Orbán for trying to stop their lawful demonstration. As I’ve argued before, instead of relying on illegal interference by the prime minister, Hungary either should have laws preventing anti-Semitic, anti-Roma gatherings or should allow them in the name of free speech. The present situation is unacceptable.

Ilan Mor, the Israeli ambassador to Hungary, is pleased that the WJC is holding its meeting in Budapest. In this way Jewry all over the world is showing its solidarity with the Hungarian Jewish community during trying times. Moreover, the Hungarian government is showing its readiness to handle the difficult problem of anti-Semitism.

When the reporter from Népszava noted that the Orbán government’s responses to the problem are not always unequivocal, Mor responded that “this meeting marks a new beginning, a new dialogue about the importance of the struggle against anti-Semitism. The conference might prompt the Hungarian government to make a more serious effort in the fight against racism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Israeli sentiments.” Mor is a good diplomat, but I somehow doubt that deep down he really believes that the WJC’s conference in Budapest will be a watershed moment as far as the Hungarian government’s attitude is concerned.