Ildikó Vida

Hungary as a “field of operation”

Paranoia seems to have swept through the Hungarian government. Fidesz politicians are convinced that the United States wants to remove Viktor Orbán and cause his government’s fall. All this is to be achieved by means of the “phony” charge of corruption.

Recently a journalist working for Hetek, a publication of Hitgyülekezet (Assembly of Faith), managed to induce some high-ranking members of the government to speak about the general mood in Fidesz circles. The very fact that these people spoke, even about sensitive topics, to a reporter of a liberal paper points to tactical shifts that must have occurred within the party.

Their argument runs along the following lines. Until now the Obama administration paid little attention to the region, but this past summer the decision was made to “create a defensive curtain” in Central Europe between Russia and the West. The pretext is the alleged fight against corruption. The Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania are the targets. Fidesz politicians point to recent Slovak demonstrations against corruption which were “publicly supported” by the U.S. ambassador in Bratislava. Or, they claim, the Americans practically forced the Romanian government to take seriously the widespread corruption in the country. They are certain that the resignation of Petr Nečas, the former Czech prime minister, “under very strange circumstances” was also the work of the CIA.

In its fight against the targeted Central European governments Washington relies heavily on NGOs and investigative journalists specializing in unveiling corruption cases. George Soros’s name must always be invoked in such conspiracy theories. And indeed, Átlátszó.hu, sponsored in part by the Soros Foundation, was specifically mentioned as a tool of American political designs.

To these Fidesz politicians’ way of thinking, all of troubles recently encountered by the government are due solely to American interference. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that the government itself has given plenty of reason for public disenchantment. In fact, the first demonstrations were organized only against the internet tax. Admittedly, over the course of weeks new demands were added, and by now the demonstrators want to get rid of Viktor Orbán’s whole regime.

The Fidesz politicians who expressed an opinion think, I am sure incorrectly, that the Americans have no real evidence against Ildikó Vida and, if they do, they received it illegally. Vida got into the picture only because of the new “cold war” that broke out between the United States and Russia. Hungarian corruption is only an excuse for putting pressure on the Hungarian government because of its Russian policy and Paks.  As for Hungary’s “democracy deficit” and American misgivings about Orbán’s “illiberal state,” Fidesz politicians said that if the United States does not accept Orbán’s system of government as “democratic” and if they want Fidesz to return to the status quo ante, this is a hopeless demand. “Not one Hungarian right-wing politician would lend his name to such ‘retrogression.'”

The latest American “enemy” of the Orbán government is the State Department’s Sarah Sewall, Undersecretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, who a week ago gave a speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in which she said that “we [recently] denied visas to six Hungarian officials and their cronies due to their corruption. This action also bolstered public concern, and on November 9th, the streets of Budapest filled with 10,000 protesters who called for the resignation of corrupt public officials.” As soon as Hungarian officials discovered the text of that speech, André Goodfriend, the U.S. chargé in Budapest, was once again called into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

I think it would be a mistake to characterize the American fight against corruption simply as a smokescreen for exerting political pressure on foreign governments. Sewall in that speech explains the potentially dangerous political ramifications of corruption.

Corruption alienates and angers citizens, which can cause them to lose faith in the state, or, worse, fuel insurgencies and violent extremism…. Ukraine …provides [an] illustration of how corruption can both increase instability risks and cripple the state’s ability to respond to those risks. The Maidan Movement was driven in part by resentment of a kleptocratic regime parading around in democratic trappings.

All this makes sense to me, and what Sewall says about Ukraine is to some extent also true about Hungary. But the Fidesz leadership sees no merit in the American argument. In fact, today both Viktor Orbán and Péter Szijjártó used very strong words to accuse the United States of interfering in Hungary’s internal affairs.

"We can't pay as much in taxes as you steal"

“We can’t pay as much in taxes as you steal”

Viktor Orbán sent a message from Belgrade. The prime minister does not know why the United States put aside 100 million dollars for “the preparation of an action plan against two dozen Central- and East-European countries in order to put pressure on their governments.” The United States declared Hungary to be a “field of operation,” along with others. Referring to Sewall’s speech, he expressed his dissatisfaction that he has to learn about such plans from a public lecture. “If someone wants to work together with Hungary or with any Central-European government for a good cause, we are open. We don’t have to be pressured, there is no need to spend money behind our backs, there is no necessity of organizing anything against us because we are rational human beings and we are always ready to work for a good cause.” It is better, he continued, to be on the up and up because Hungarians are irritated by slyness, trickery, and diplomatic cunning. They are accustomed to straightforward talk. (He presumably said this with a straight face.)

Viktor Orbán’s reference to the military term “field of operation” captured the imagination of László Földi, a former intelligence officer during the Kádár regime as well as for a while after 1990, who announced that in secret service parlance “field of operation” means that every instrument in the intelligence service can be used to undermine the stability of a country. The Americans’ goal, as Orbán sees it, is the removal of his government.

Meanwhile the staff of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade who were brought in by Péter Szijjártó are solidly anti-American. They consider the diplomats who served under János Martonyi to be “American agents” because of their alleged trans-atlantic sentiments. So I don’t foresee any improvement in American-Hungarian relations in the near future, unless the economic and political troubles of Putin’s Russia become so crippling that Orbán will have to change his foreign policy orientation. But given the ever shriller condemnations and accusations, it will be difficult to change course.

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Viktor Orbán and László Kövér on the warpath against Washington

While we were snooping around in Felcsút and downtown Budapest over the weekend, Viktor Orbán and his old pal from college days, László Kövér, were working hard to make American-Hungarian relations even worse than they already are.

The offensive started with a letter that László Kövér addressed to American Vice President Joe Biden. In it he complained about Senator John McCain’s speech in the Senate, in which McCain called Viktor Orbán “a neo-fascist dictator.” McCain with this unfounded statement “violated the sovereignty of Hungary.” The lack of respect McCain showed toward one of the leaders of the trans-atlantic alliance is unacceptable, said Kövér. But, he continued, McCain’s outburst is not just the single misstep of an ill-informed senator but “a brutal manifestation of a process which is becoming evident by the statements, gestures, behavior of government officials and persons who are in contact with the Hungarian government.” Kövér in the letter asked Biden to use his influence to temper the statements of government officials. In plain English, Kövér demanded a change in U.S. policy toward Hungary.

Kövér’s letter to Biden was followed by a Sunday interview with an MTI reporter in which Kövér expressed the same opinion, but even more forcefully than in his letter. From the Hungarian government’s perspective, American-Hungarian relations can be improved only by a change in U.S. policy. Hungary is an innocent victim, and therefore its government has no intention of changing its current posture in either foreign or domestic affairs. In this interview he actually accused the United States of playing a concerted “geopolitical game”  in which the U.S. “is using us, the Czechs, the Romanians, and the Slovaks for their plans ‘to make order’ in the immediate hinterland of the front line.” In his opinion, the situation is worse than it seems on the surface because “on the intermediate level of the State Department there are people who have been the opponents and enemies not only of Hungary but also of Fidesz-KDNP.” Fidesz politicians are absolutely convinced that Hungary’s bad reputation at the moment is due solely to antagonistic liberal critics of the Orbán regime who influence the middle stratum of government officials in the State Department. His final word on the subject was: “The key to the normalization of the bilateral relations is not in our hands.”

Today, echoing Kövér’s tirade, Viktor Orbán delivered a speech in the Hungarian Academy of Sciences at a conference commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Timișoara/Temesvár events in December 1989 which eventually led to the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu. I must say one needs quite a fertile imagination to smuggle an attack on the United States into a speech on such an occasion, but Orbán managed. He quoted László Tőkés, the Calvinist minister who was the hero of the Romanian revolution, who apparently said on some occasion that “words uttered at the right time and place equal in value the Word of the Creator.” From here, with a sharp turn, he got to those “words uttered not at the right place” which produce destruction. Because calling another country a dictatorship, especially when uttered by those who have never in their lives lived in anything resembling a dictatorship, is wanton destruction. “Yet they think they are in possession of a description of a phantom picture of dictatorship, when they don’t see, they don’t know its essence.”

warfare

From here he moved easily to Yalta and Potsdam where “the representatives of the western world were not too worried about checks and balances” and “offered the people of Eastern Europe tyranny on a platter.” In 1989 each of those countries alone had to get rid of the shackles that were put on them in 1944-1945.

Checks and balances had to be on the Hungarian prime minister’s mind throughout the weekend because earlier he gave a very lengthy interview to Zoltán Simon of Bloomberg. Here I will summarize only those parts that have a direct bearing on U.S.-Hungarian relations. According to Orbán,”the U.S. in response to the geopolitical situation, has come up with an action plan, which they recently announced publicly, and it involves two dozen countries. This is fundamentally trying to influence alleged corruption in these two dozen countries.”

I suspect that the interview was conducted in English, a language in which the prime minister is no wordsmith, because these two sentences make no sense to me.  Perhaps what he wanted to say was that the United States is using the “fight against corruption” as an excuse to influence other countries’ foreign policies. But “this is the land of freedom fighters. And there’s public feeling in Hungary that sees a sovereignty problem in all of this. It feels that this is an attempt to influence from the outside the sovereign decisions of a freely elected parliament.”

Moving on to the U.S. criticism of Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal democracy,” he delivered the following history lesson to ignorant Americans:

Checks and balances only have meaning in the United States, or in presidential systems, where there are two identical sovereigns, that is a directly elected president and legislature. In Europe, this isn’t the case, there’s only one sovereign, there’s nowhere to “checks it or balance it,” because all of the power is delegated by parliament. In these instances it’s much more appropriate to talk about cooperation rather than checks and balances. Checks and balances is a U.S. invention that for some reason of intellectual mediocrity Europe decided to adopt and use in European politics.

Poor Montesquieu, who coined the term “checks and balances.” Or the ancient Greeks, who are generally credited with having introduced the first system of checks and balances in political life.

As for the American and European criticism of the illiberal state, Orbán’s answer is: “Hungarians welcomed illiberal democracy, the fact that in English it means something else is not my problem.”

Finally, an update on Ildikó Vida, who filed a complaint against an unnamed person who just happens to be M. André Goodfriend, the U.S. chargé d’affaires in Budapest. Everything is proceeding apace. She filed the complaint on Friday, December 12 and by today the prosecutors are already investigating. Magyar Nemzet speculates that the investigators will call in “witnesses,” but the paper admits that it is possible that “Goodfriend will easily get off.” The Hungarian judicial system, which is normally slow as molasses, can be very speedy when Viktor Orbán wants to expedite matters.

The first sign of opposition in the Fidesz parliamentary caucus: No compulsory urine tests

The furor over John McCain’s harsh words about Hungary’s “neo-fascist dictator” and his “illiberal state” hadn’t subsided when a new Hungarian bombshell exploded: Máté Kocsis, a two-bit district mayor in Budapest, had a great idea which he immediately made public on his Facebook page last Friday. Given the widespread use of drugs, it would be a good idea, he claimed, to introduce compulsory yearly drug tests for teenagers between the ages of 12 and 18 as well as for elected politicians and journalists. Why politicians and journalists? Politicians’ decisions have a lasting impact on the citizens while journalists have the power to influence public opinion. He promised that he would suggest to the Fidesz parliamentary delegation that they discuss the idea and prepare a legislative proposal to this end.

From what we have learned about this latest brainstorm of Kocsis, it looks as if the idea did not originate with the mayor of District VIII (at least not in his role as mayor) but with Viktor Orbán’s communication staff. It was, it seems, part of a desperate effort to devise a strategy that could neutralize the growing public dissatisfaction with Viktor Orbán and his government.

Directly after the election Orbán talked about creating a “new communication team” headed by the chief communication adviser, Árpád Habony. I wrote about Habony earlier. He’s a shadowy figure with enormous influence within the party and the government but without an official title or an official salary. This new group apparently meets every Friday to discuss some of the issues that cropped up during the previous week. Máté Kocsis, who is no longer a member of parliament but besides being mayor of District VIII is communication director of Fidesz, is an ex officio member of the staff. So it’s no wonder, claim investigative journalists, that Kocsis’s bright idea was published on Facebook on Friday night.

Reports of this crazy idea spread like wildfire. The Associated Press immediately picked up the story. Scores of newspapers and television stations carried the news because journalists find such bizarre items outright delicious.

By now the general consensus is that, with this whacky idea, communication strategists were trying to divert the public’s attention from the corruption case of Ildikó Vida and five unnamed others. Apparently, Viktor Orbán himself thought that the idea of yearly drug tests was a capital idea and decided to support it. And of course we know from past experience that if the Hungarian prime minister supports something it will be law in no time. The members of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation will automatically vote for it even if some MPs consider the idea to be of dubious value and/or legally questionable. By Monday, the Fidesz parliamentary caucus decided with some major changes to consider the proposal.

The idea of mandating regular drug tests for politicians and journalists was dropped by the caucus because such a law would clearly be unconstitutional. Even the Fidesz-dominated fake “constitutional court” couldn’t close their eyes to such a law. As for children’s screening, the Fidesz legislators opted to support only voluntary tests initiated by the children themselves or by their parents. This is certainly nothing like what the “communication staff” cooked up last Friday.

I wonder how Viktor Orbán will react to this unheard-of “revolt” of the Fidesz caucus. After all, the Sunday closing of stores will most likely be approved unaltered although the Fidesz delegation was deeply split on the issue. But now it looks as if Fidesz MPs finally balked at orders from above. If I were Viktor Orbán I would ponder the significance of this earlier unimaginable event.

The way Népszava sees Máté Kocsis's proposition

The way Népszava sees Máté Kocsis’s proposition

But let’s go back to the Habony-led communication staff’s activities. It is rumored that leaking the U.S. decision to bar six Hungarian citizens from entering the United States because of charges of corruption was the idea of Árpád Habony. Again, naturally, with Viktor Orbán’s blessing. We who look at events from the outside think that this was a singularly bad idea that created serious tensions between the United States and Hungary. Ever since mid-October major newspapers all over the world have been talking about the Orbán government’s systemic corruption. The leak resulted in massive anti-corruption demonstrations which in turn added to the growing dissatisfaction with the government. A huge drop in popularity followed. In brief, most independent observers would consider this particular idea of Habony outright injurious to Viktor Orbán and his government. Yet not only has Habony not been fired; his position as chief communication adviser has been strengthened. Moreover, his advice about mandatory drug tests was heeded by the prime minister.

How can we explain this seeming contradiction? In my opinion only one way: Viktor Orbán still thinks that leaking the news of the American ban was a good idea. It was a clever communication ploy. Why? Because Hungary’s position in world affairs is a great deal less important to him than his domestic standing with the electorate. And obviously he must think that the contentious American-Hungarian relations actually work in his favor at home. Fidesz supporters who lately have become disenchanted will perhaps return to the flock because of hurt national pride. He thinks that the risk is worth the gamble. After all, it seems to be working in Russia.

So far so good, but there is the growing dissatisfaction of some members of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation as demonstrated during the “stormy debates” that accompanied discussions on the Sunday closing of stores and the compulsory yearly drug test. In yesterday’s debate on drug testing Viktor Orbán came out the loser. What will happen next?

Let me bring up something that might further demonstrate intra-party dissatisfaction with Fidesz directives coming from above. You will recall that the former Fidesz mayor of Ózd, a very poor town in northeastern Hungary, was so unpopular that the citizens went out in hordes to vote for the only electable opponent, a young Jobbik candidate, who was elected with a two-thirds majority. But in the city council Fidesz was in the majority. The members of the caucus were obviously instructed from above to follow the strategy of Fidesz in Esztergom where the Fidesz majority refused to cooperate with the independent mayor and as a result nothing whatsoever could be accomplished for four long years. Within a few days it became obvious that Ózd had become ungovernable due to the refusal of the Fidesz council members to cooperate. But this time some of the Fidesz city fathers revolted. Three of the eight decided to quit the Fidesz caucus and serve as independents. Fidesz’s majority collapsed. I think we can expect more such events to take place on the local level. A certain erosion has begun that will be very difficult to stop.

György Rubovszky, a Christian Democrat member of parliament and a most faithful supporter of the Orbán government, found the drug test proposal “legally indefensible.” But he also had a personal story that he shared with a journalist of Népszabadság. His twelve-year-old granddaughter phoned him crying bitterly. “Grandpa, I must leave this country because I am not willing to pee in front of strangers.” I must say Rubovszky, who is not my favorite, has a smart granddaughter. Válasz, a pro-government site, wrote yesterday that this latest idea of Fidesz is a sure way to lose all the first-time voters in 2018. Even the party faithful recognize that some of these maneuvers may backfire.

Meanwhile those opposing the proposal are busily collecting urine and leaving it in a large bottle outside the city hall of District VIII. One really wonders whether Viktor Orbán has lost his touch–or, as some might claim, whether he is touched.

Is Viktor Orbán playing chicken?

It was only yesterday that a lengthy psychological portrait entitled “The Patient’s Name is Viktor Orbán” appeared in Népszabadság under the pseudonym Iván Mester. The author is an associate professor, I assume of psychology or psychiatry, at an unnamed university. In this article “Mester” states that because of his character traits Orbán “is unable to stop … he is insatiable.” What is going on in front of our eyes is a manifestation of his inability to let go. He has to win against all odds.

This afternoon the latest episode of this “drama” (because I’m convinced that for the prime minister this is a real drama) took place in parliament. According to house rules, Orbán had to appear in parliament to answer questions personally. Gergely Bárándy (MSZP) wanted to know “who is lying” about the corruption case involving six Hungarian citizens, of whom at least three are high officials in the Hungarian equivalent of the Internal Revenue Service. Bárándy wanted to know whether it is true that the Hungarian government knows what these people are accused of by the U.S. government. The exchange can be read in an abbreviated form on the web site of the Prime Minister’s Office.

As Orbán explained, the U.S. chargé d’affaires claims that the president of the Nemzeti Adó- és Vámhivatal (NAV) can be personally tied to corruption involving an American firm doing business in Hungary. “According to Hungarian law, in a case like that one ought to start legal proceedings. This is what I expect from the president of NAV. If she does not do so without delay, I will replace her.” In Hungary a person found guilty of corruption does not get replaced but is locked up, said Orbán. “So, the stakes are high.” If the American diplomat can prove the charge and the court finds her guilty, then the head of NAV will be incarcerated. “But if, on the other hand, the American diplomat’s charges are untrue there will be consequences.”

Viktor Orbán is forging ahead

Viktor Orbán is forging ahead

Bárándy pointed out in his rebuttal that the lawsuit Orbán is recommending cannot take place in Hungary. The only solution is what André Goodfriend, the U.S. chargé, has repeatedly recommended to Ildikó Vida, the head of NAV. She should apply for a visa at the U.S. Embassy in Budapest, whereupon she would be told the reasons for her ban.

Orbán countered that if an American chargé accuses a Hungarian official of a crime, he cannot “hide behind his diplomatic immunity. He should be a man and accept responsibility for his claims.”

What the official government version of the exchange did not mention but Népszabadság included in its coverage was the following dialogue between Orbán and Bárándy. The MSZP member of parliament asked whether Orbán “can venture to state that the Hungarian government and authorities have no knowledge of the nature of the cases that resulted in barring the president of NAV from the territory of the United States.” Orbán did not answer this question. Instead, he stressed that the solution lies “in the world of the law,” which in my opinion is a confirmation of the government’s knowledge of the American allegations.

André Goodfriend, as usual, responded promptly by posting a short note on Twitter: “US & Hungary have excellent legal cooperation, including a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty.” And indeed, back in 2009 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Balázs signed the Protocols of Exchange of Instruments of Ratification for the 2005 U.S.-Hungary Mutual Legal Assistance Protocols and the U.S.-Hungary Extradition Treaty. Clinton said at the time that “these twin agreements will give our police and prosecutors in both countries state-of-the-art tools to cooperate more effectively in bringing criminals to justice on both sides of the Atlantic. They form part of a network of similar agreements that the United States has reached with all the countries of the European Union.” Balázs, for his part, stressed the close cooperation between the two countries.

In addition to the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty, Goodfriend called attention to a legal guide for judges written by a lawyer specializing in international litigation. The message is that Hungary should turn to the United States asking for official legal assistance. Apparently, the Hungarian prosecutor’s office did ask for assistance but the request was not official. Details of the differences between the two can be found in an earlier article in 444.hu.

The question is what Viktor Orbán is trying to achieve by this latest move. Among my knowledgeable friends one thinks that the foxy prime minister is trying to find an excuse to fire Ildikó Vida because “he knows that she is guilty.” My answer to this supposition is that of course Viktor Orbán knows full well that she is corrupt because she was put there for the very purpose of running a corrupt organization. That is part of her job description. She is there as the emissary of a corrupt government headed by the prime minister himself. Another friend, following the same line of reasoning, thinks that Vida’s refusal to sue Goodfriend will give Orbán an opportunity to fire Vida in such a way that he will not be seen as bending under U.S. pressure. This way he will save face. I don’t see much merit in that hypothesis either. What prevents Ildikó Vida from bringing charges against Goodfriend? Nothing. She can certainly try. It could happen that the court refuses to hear the case, but this would not be Vida’s fault. She sued, just as Orbán demanded. Another possibility would be if the Hungarian courts decided to hear the case but the United States government forbade Goodfriend from appearing in court. Thus he would be a man who does not accept responsibility for his claims, to use Orbán’s words. In my opinion that would be the best scenario as far as Viktor Orbán is concerned. And, as opposed to my friends, I believe this is exactly what he is planning to do. What do you think?

The Hungarian government under domestic and foreign pressure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No end to the saga of the Hungarian corruption scandal

The reverberations from the news that six Hungarian citizens are not welcome in the United States don’t seem to subside. The perpetuation of the verbal battle is fueled mostly by the Hungarian side. Some of the attacks come straight from politicians, others from the accused and from so-called “civil groups” that are strong supporters of the Orbán government and operate most likely with generous financial assistance from the public purse.

These latter two sources cannot be taken terribly seriously, and in fact as time goes by their originally very loud voices have quieted down somewhat. The most spectacular retreat came from Ildikó Vida, the president of NAV, the Hungarian tax authority, and her lawyer, Barnabás Futó. As one blogger noted, when Barnabás Futó stands next to someone close to Fidesz, that person is in trouble. Futó seems to be rather good at pettifoggery at home, but he is at sea when it comes to international law. Initially he had ambitious plans for getting satisfaction for his client. Since Vida was told by M. André Goodfriend that she can ask for a visa and, if her request is rejected, she might be able to get information about the nature of the charges against her, Futó decided to do just that. Moreover, while he was at it, he contemplated suing the American chargé. Soon enough someone must have told him that members of the diplomatic corps have immunity and that his dreams of his client having her day in court were illusory. He gave up on his plan to sue. And, upon reflection, Vida decided that, after all, she did not want to know any of the details of her alleged wrongdoing and that therefore she will not apply for an American visa.

The other thread in the continuing saga is the Civil Összefogás Fórum (CÖF), an unofficial arm of the government that has helped bolster the popularity of the government. They were the ones who organized the first Békement (Peace March), which was supposed to defend the beleaguered Viktor Orbán against a dark international conspiracy that wanted to remove him from his post during the winter of 2011-12. Ever since the American revelations, the leaders of CÖF, people belonging to the extreme right wing of Fidesz, have been itching to march out again, this time against the United States. However, their beloved leader, to their great regret, held them back.

CÖF’s spokesman, Zoltán Lomnici, Jr, son of the former chief justice of the Supreme Court and a lawyer himself, shows such ignorance of the law that it is simply staggering. He and “Futó Barnabás,” to whom I gave the nickname “futóbolond” (lunatic at large), bring shame to the Hungarian legal profession. Here is Lomnici’s argument: the American chargé is a foreign national who, as can be attested by pictures and videos taken of him, left the embassy of the United States and therefore stepped on Hungarian soil. According to Hungarian law, if he knew of corruption he was supposed to press charges and provide proof of corruption. Since he neglected to do so, he could be sentenced to three years in jail. Obviously our star lawyer hasn’t heard of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (1961). I suggest that Futó and Lomnici study the document, which clearly states that “Diplomats must not be liable to any form of arrest or detention. They are immune from civil or criminal prosecution.” Let’s hope that the text is available in Hungarian because Futó at least does not know any English. Today the organizers of the Peace Marches officially announced that for the time being they will not gather the troops.

Politicians have not shown the same restraint. A few days ago Antal Rogán, the whip of the Fidesz parliamentary caucus, called Goodfriend a liar and announced that Hungary is a country of law, unlike the United States. “We all must declare that Hungary is not Guantánamo, here nobody can be accused without proof.” Rogán’s attack on the United States is most likely part of the game plan dictated from above because not long before Róbert Répássy, undersecretary of the ministry of justice, said exactly the same thing.

Calling everybody a liar who criticizes the Hungarian government is a Fidesz specialty. Diplomats, on the whole, at least in civilized countries, don’t call their foreign colleagues liars. But Hungary’s new foreign minister has no such compunctions. In an interview with Magyar Nemzet he said that “to accuse us of not conforming to the European legal system is a gross lie (orbitális hazugság).” In response to Szijjártó’s charge, the U.S. Embassy in Budapest released a statement today that included the following sentences: “As Charge d’affaires Goodfriend has said, the United States has consistently conveyed our concerns to the Hungarian government about developments that harm the health of democratic institutions, civil society, and media freedom in Hungary – including concerns about corruption,” and “the Embassy remains in close contact with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. We will continue to conduct a constructive, diplomatic dialogue with Hungary on all issues across the broad spectrum of U.S.-Hungarian engagement.” In brief, the United States will not stop its current policy of defending civil society, media freedom, and civil liberties. It will also pursue its fight against corruption.

In addition, today new information reached the public concerning the background of the American ban. The Demokratikus Koalíció, the party that seems to have good connections with the Hungarian foreign ministry where there are many disgruntled employees, learned that a week ago the American embassy did give some information to the Hungarians. Today Szabolcs Kerék-Bárczy, a DK politician, made that information public at a press conference. At this point the foreign ministry decided to fess up: yes, they received something, but it was only a “scrap of paper” (fecni) that cannot be taken seriously. However, a few hours later the ministry made the document public.

Undersecretary Levente Magyar waving "the scrap of paper" from the U.S. Embassy

Undersecretary Levente Magyar waving “the scrap of paper” from the U.S. Embassy

The two-page note describes the history of the numerous encounters between the embassy and the government of Hungary since February 2012. From October 2013 on, the American complaints multiplied. They had meetings with the “criminal directorate of the tax and customs office (NAV) on specific concerns about agricultural VAT fraud and tobacco nationalization.” A few months later the Americans were back at the “criminal directorate” but noticed “no evidence of action” on the part of NAV. In January 2014 the Americans had a meeting with the ministry of justice and public administration and they raised issues of VAT fraud, “institutionalized corruption, whistleblower protections, and Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA).” The whole list of complaints can be found on the foreign ministry’s website as well as in an article published on the subject by Index.

In brief, there were numerous complaints, and the Hungarian authorities refused to investigate. It is also clear from the document that the American authorities were fully aware that corruption is “institutionalized” in Hungary, yet the last word from NAV was that there were “no auditing complaints” and therefore the “Criminal Directorate … was unable to act.” Goodfriend  noted that “NAV’s specialized auditing unit created expressly to investigate trans-border VAT fraud … was systematically undermined and then disbanded.”

It looks to me, and obviously it was evident to the head of the American mission, that not only was no effort made to investigate but that the top leaders at NAV were doing everything in their power to make sure that corrupt activities could be continued undetected.

According to Levente Magyar, undersecretary of the ministry of foreign affairs and trade, this “scrap of paper” cannot be taken seriously. Why not? Because there is no date, no authentication, and above all, no seal. “Missing formal requirement” is a favorite excuse of Hungarian authorities.

Potpourri: shifting public mood, protest vote, continued attack on the U.S.

Well, in the two days I spent in Switzerland (alas, virtually), a lot of things happened in Hungary. Since I found it difficult to choose a single topic, today’s post will be somewhat scattershot.

Yesterday we got the first public opinion poll since the unrest caused initially by the planned introduction of an internet tax and later by the corruption cases that surfaced at NAV. The frustration vented at the three large demonstrations that took place over the past two weeks went far beyond these issues, however. The participants seemed to have had enough of the whole political system that Viktor Orbán has been systematically building since 2010.

Of course, we will have to wait for a few more polling results to know whether Nézőpont Intézet, a pro-Fidesz company, is correct in its assessment. A few years ago they were utterly unreliable, but recently their results have been quite accurate. So, what’s the word? It looks as if Fidesz has lost some of its supporters. As Gábor Török, a political scientist who is famous for being noncommittal, noted on his Facebook page, this is the first time since June 2012 that Fidesz’s support in the adult population dropped below 30%. Just between October 14-17 and November 3-7 Fidesz lost 3%, about a tenth of its supporters. Most opposition parties had gains, including Jobbik and DK. MSZP by contrast seems to be in worse shape than before. Among eligible voters the socialists are at 7% while their arch rival, the Demokratikus Koalíció, is at 6%. MSZP’s situation is even worse when it comes to “potential voters,” i.e. people who indicate that they would go and vote if elections were held next Sunday. Here DK would garner 11% of the votes while MSZP would get only 9%. DK doubled its support in the last few months while the socialists are working hard at obliterating themselves. The graph below clearly shows clearly the trends in the last four and a half years.

Source Origo / Nézőpont Intézet

Source Origo / Nézőpont Intézet

Talking about parties, Jobbik had a huge success in Ózd, a kind of Hungarian Detroit, except that Ózd in the socialist period became a center of iron smelting. After the change of regime the coke works became less profitable and many folks lost their jobs. The people of Ózd were victims of the Kádár regime’s forced industrialization that in the new competitive environment was bound to fail.

Ózd was a solidly socialist city until 2010, when Pál Fürjes (Fidesz-KDNP) was elected mayor and the city council had 9 Fidesz members out of 14. MSZP had to be satisfied with one lone seat. The desperate inhabitants of the town undoubtedly hoped that a Fidesz administration would be able the reverse the city’s downward spiral. They were disappointed. Nothing changed. In addition, people noticed with dismay that the new Fidesz administration was “arrogant, condescending and corrupt.” The locals could hardly wait to get rid of Fürjes and his friends. The DK-MSZP candidate was new with little political experience and since Jobbik was strong in town, even the DK-MSZP supporters saw little chance of winning against Fürjes. And indeed, a 27-year-old Jobbik candidate of Polish origin, Dávid Janiczak, won with a margin of 66 votes.

But no Fidesz candidate can stomach defeat after having been in office for a while. In several places losers insisted on annulling the results. In two Budapest districts their efforts failed, but in the case of Ózd, where the case went all the way to the Debrecen Appellate Court, a new election had to be held. As you will see from the results, the people of Ózd revolted. One woman told Népszabadság that in October she did not bother to vote because her feet hurt but this time she would have crawled on all fours to vote for Fürjes’s opponent. The inhabitants found Fürjes’s behavior unacceptable and wanted to “punish him.” Well, they did. First of all, they went out to vote in record numbers. While in October only 10,927 people voted, in November the number was 15,982. While in October Janiczak received 4,214 votes, in November he more than doubled that result, with 10,299 votes. Fürjes got only a few dozen extra votes. The most remarkable aspect of the Ózd situation is that while the DK-MSZP candidate in October received 2,238 votes, in November he got only 520. Even people on the left were so determined that the Fidesz mayor not be reelected that they voted for the Jobbik candidate who had a real chance. In brief, it was a protest vote.

Anyone who would like portray the Ózd results as the beginning of an era of Jobbik dominance in Hungarian politics is wrong. This was a unique situation that was created by the usual Fidesz insatiability. Fidesz politicians cannot bear losing. Moreover, they have the feeling that the whole country should be theirs. They are not satisfied until every hamlet, every position everywhere is in their hands.

Fidesz likes to frighten the West with the specter of Jobbik. The usual mantra is: “Don’t criticize the present government and Fidesz because we are the guarantee that the far-right Jobbik will not swallow up the whole country.” This time too a so-called political scientist of the by now notorious Századvég foundation wrote in his blog: “Telegram to America: Ózd.” In plain English, “Goodfriend et al., get off your high horses. You bother about such trifling matters as corruption at the tax authority when we are the bulwark that holds back the far right. You see what you did? The Jobbik revolt in Ózd resulted from your high-handed behavior.” Of course, this is all nonsense. The people of Ózd said that they had had enough of  both MSZP and Fidesz. Let’s see what Jobbik can do. Not all these voters hold  far-right views and not all are racists. They are just fed up. As for how much the Jobbik mayor will be able to achieve, I fear not much even if he is a talented politician with full of good intentions. In the council there is still a solid Fidesz majority, and we know what Fidesz politicians do in such cases. We saw four years of struggle in Esztergom between a Fidesz-majority council and an independent mayor who defeated the Fidesz candidate in 2006. In District XV, where a DK man won this year, the Fidesz majority has already boycotted council meetings, preventing the election of deputy mayors. They will try their best to prevent the DK mayor from actually running the district. Most likely something like that will also happen in Ózd. The last thing that poor city needs.

Finally, the Orbán government’s attacks on the United States continue. In fact, the volume has been turned up somewhat. According to Antal Rogán, leader of the Fidesz parliamentary caucus, M. André Goodfriend, U.S. chargé d’affaires in Budapest, is “not a truthful man” (nem szavahihető). Even the honey-tongued Zoltán Kovács, one of the many government spokesmen, couldn’t quite manage to explain today that “not truthful” means anything other than “not truthful.”

Then there is the parliamentary committee on national security whose Fidesz majority decided last week to ask André Goodfriend to appear before them. The MSZP chairman had such serious doubts about the advisability of such a move that he refused to extend the “invitation.” Well, the deputy chair, Szilárd Németh, the one I described as a perfect candidate for a bouncer in a shady part of town, decided to go ahead anyway.

But the funniest part of the American-Hungarian tug-of-war was Ildikó Vida’s visit to the U.S. Embassy yesterday. Vida, head of the Hungarian tax authority, is one of the six Hungarians who cannot enter the United States because of their possible involvement in corrupt practices in connection with American firms doing business in Hungary. Vida, accompanied by her lawyer and a reporter and cameraman from HírTV, showed up at the U.S. Embassy unannounced and uninvited. It just happened that Goodfriend was going out for a walk when he was accosted by Vida and her lawyer. The encounter is the object of great hilarity on the internet, especially since Hungarians learned that the almighty head of the tax authority does not know a word of English.

I'm saying it slowly so even Ildikó Vida would understand it: cheers

I’m saying it slowly so even Ildikó Vida would understand it: cheers

In any case, eventually Vida and her lawyer had a fairly lengthy discussion with Goodfriend, during which Vida failed to learn anything new. Afterwards, she said that she considers the chargé totally ignorant of the details of her arduous work uncovering tax corruption. She also announced that she will force the issue by applying for a visa to the United States. Today Vida’s lawyer, Barnabás Futó, who is described as “the Fidesz-mafia’s well-known lawyer,” claimed on Olga Kálmán’s Egyenes beszéd (ATV) that “the American chargé informed him that he had received documents from András Horváth,” the whistleblower who first called attention to the highly irregular practices at NAV. Horváth, who was watching the program, immediately phoned in and announced that he had never met André Goodfriend. After this, however, he said he will have to meet the American diplomat in person to find out what transpired in his meeting with Vida and her lawyer. Perhaps the reason for the misunderstanding was Vida’s and Futó’s lack of language skills.