János Áder

Viktor Orbán: “No significant minority among ourselves”

A day before yesterday I wrote about the Hungarian reaction to the terrorist attacks in Paris. Or, to be more precise, about Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s long-held views on immigration and multiculturalism and the right-wing media’s attitude toward freedom of the press. Orbán is against immigration, and right-wing journalists blamed the victims for the tragedy.

A few hours after I posted my article we learned that Viktor Orbán, along with many other prime ministers and presidents, was invited to join the Paris march against terrorism and on behalf of freedom of speech. All told, 44 high-level politicians from all over the world gathered in Paris yesterday, Viktor Orbán among them. The Hungarian media immediately reported that Orbán would fly to Paris on the private jet that belongs to OTP, Hungary’s largest private bank, and that on the way back he would stop in Zurich, apparently to attend a gala gathering of FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) today.

From the very first moment, news of Orbán’s attendance was received with misgivings in the opposition media. Zsolt Sebes in Gépnarancs  was one of the first who questioned Orbán’s right to be among those marchers who are committed to liberal democracy, to freedom of the press and freedom of speech. He is anything but a democrat, in fact he himself admitted that he wants to build an illiberal democracy, the journalist pointed out. “Orban n’est pas Charlie, what is he doing in Paris?” asked Sebes. Sztárklikk considered Orbán’s attendance one of “his most hypocritical gestures since 2010.” This march was about “the republic, freedom of the press, unity of Europe, about everything which is the essence of Europe. What is Orbán doing there?”

But Hungarian opposition papers were not the only ones who considered his presence in Paris incongruous. Le Monde expressed its surprise at seeing such politicians as Benjamin Netanyahu, Sergey Lavrov, Viktor Orbán, Ahmet Davutoğlu, and Ali Bongo in the front rows of the march. Le Monde‘s criticism of Orbán focused on his government’s attacks against the media. Le Monde was not the only paper to object to the presence of certain politicians. Libération and Metro followed suit. And The Independent had the same kind of negative opinion of Viktor Orbán: “In Hungary, Mr Orban pushed through a law in 2010 which restricts independent media and gives the government extensive power over the flow of information.” In brief, he shouldn’t have been among the marchers.

The French president’s reception of Orbán seems not to have been the warmest, as Hungarian opposition papers gleefully pointed out. It stood in sharp contrast to his warm embrace of other dignitaries. Indeed, judging from the pictures taken at the scene, Hollande extended his hand at a moment when Viktor Orbán was still quite far from him, two steps down. Apparently a sign of distancing in the world of diplomacy.

Hollande and Orban

Viktor Orbán is not the kind of man who, when encountering resistance, tries to keep a low profile. On the contrary, in situations like his unwelcome presence in Paris he makes sure that he further incites ill feelings toward him by making inappropriate pronouncements. The rally he attended was “in support of free speech and tolerance in Europe” yet Orbán right on the spot told the Hungarian state television that the Charlie Hebdo murders should make the EU restrict access to migrants. According to him, economic immigration is undesirable and “only brings trouble and danger to the peoples of Europe.” Therefore “immigration must be stopped. That’s the Hungarian stance.” He added that “Hungary will not become a target destination for immigrants…. We will not allow it, at least as long as I am prime minister and as long as this government is in power.” As he said, “we do not want to see a significant minority among ourselves that has different cultural characteristics and a different background. We would like to keep Hungary as Hungary.”

These words got extensive press coverage in the last couple of days not only in Hungary but also abroad because they go against the common values of the European Union to which he himself officially adheres. As the spokesman for the European Commission tersely said: “I don’t comment on statements of any prime minister but the Commission’s viewpoint in connection with migration is unambiguous.”

All opposition parties criticized Viktor Orbán’s nationalistic, xenophobic statement with the exception of Jobbik, whose spokesman praised the prime minister for speaking “almost like a member of Jobbik.”

Lajos Bokros was perhaps the most eloquent. Bokros is the chairman of the Movement for a Modern Hungary which he describes as a liberal conservative party. He wrote an open letter to Orbán, published on Facebook, in which he told the prime minister that he should not speak in the name of all Hungarians. “This is the view of you and your extremist xenophobe allies.” He asked the prime minister why he went to the rally when he does not understand what the whole thing was all about. Bokros repeated Orbán’s words about Hungarians who don’t want to see among themselves people who are different from them, who have different cultural characteristics. It is “terrible even to repeat these words…. If Hungary belongs to the Hungarians, then why doesn’t Romania belong to Romanians? Or Slovakia belong to the Slovaks? What would happen to Hungarians if the neighboring states thought the same way you do?”

DK pointed out that Viktor Orbán’s politics have gotten closer and closer to the extremist attitudes of Jobbik. Orbán’s “chronic populism” has reached a point where he is capable of uttering anti-freedom thoughts at the march for the republic. Orbán’s statement is especially disgusting since about half a million Hungarians currently work in Western Europe and the British Isles. PM joined in, stressing the ever decreasing differences between Fidesz and Jobbik. József Tóbás of MSZP added that “Viktor Orbán sent a message to David Cameron and Angela Merkel to send those Hungarians working in their countries back home.”

If you want to reflect on the irony of the prime minister’s xenophobic position you need look no further than yesterday’s celebration of the country’s German minority, an event that occurs every year on January 11. For the occasion President János Áder made a speech praising multiculturalism. “During the one-thousand-year-history of Hungary it has become evident many times that the members of our national minorities became great Hungarian patriots who enriched our common values, cultures, language.” And he quoted, as is usual on such occasions, the famous line from St. Stephen’s Exhortations to his son Imre: “nam unius linguae uniusque moris regnum, imbecille et fragile est” (a kingdom where only one language is spoken and only one custom is followed is weak and fragile).

M. André Goodfriend, the U.S. chargé d’affaires, recalled this quotation in a tweet: “Over lunch, among other things, discussed St. Stephen’s advice about the benefit of diversity.” And he gave a link to the bilingual text available in the Hungarian Electronic Library. Lajos Bokros also asked Orbán: “Didn’t you learn anything from the history of Central Europe? When was the last time you turned the pages of St. Stephen’s Exhortations?” A very long time ago, if ever.

Viktor Orbán is up to something and that something is nothing good

Index came out with it first. It seems that feelers are being put out, most likely indirectly by the prime minister’s office, about people’s opinion of changing the Hungarian governmental structure from a parliamentary to a semi-presidential system. The client who ordered the survey seems to be specifically interested in whom people would like to see in the post of president.

A few months ago Péter Hack, a former member of parliament and a constitutional lawyer, called the topic of Viktor Orbán as the next president “an evergreen subject” which has been around for at least twenty-five years. Indeed, the topic was hotly debated during the discussions of the opposition in 1989. If it had depended on MDF, a right of center party, the president would have been directly elected by the voters, and they even had their favorite candidate, former member of the Politburo Imre Pozsgay. Fidesz and SZDSZ managed to thwart that plan and Hungary remained a purely parliamentary system in which the president has little power and is elected by the parliament.

After the 1989-1990 debate no one brought up the desirability of changing the constitutional order until 2004 when István Stumpf talked about the advantages of such a system. Four years later in a television interview he specifically spoke of the possibility that Viktor Orbán could become president one day, but naturally only if “the presidency would be reinforced.” Surely, a mostly ceremonial role would not suit Viktor Orbán’s temperament and political ambitions.

As usual, Viktor Orbán changed his mind on the subject frequently. In the fall of 2009 he declared that he is a devotee of the parliamentary system, which has a long tradition in Hungary. Yet when in 2010, after the election, a preliminary committee was assembled to write a new constitution, a change to a semi-presidential system was envisaged. As you may recall, that preliminary constitutional draft was thrown out the window so to speak, and instead the final text was written by József Szájer on his iPad on the train between Budapest and Brussels.

So, in the new constitution that was adopted in 2011 there was no mention of enlarged presidential powers. Yet we know that Orbán preferred the semi-presidential system, as he made clear in a speech delivered in the same year. There was a simple reason he did not agree to the change in the constitution: the timing was not right. No wonder that he vetoed the text of the preliminary committee working on the constitution. Viktor Orbán is no fool. He certainly did not want the immediate introduction of a strong presidency over and above himself.

But the future was something else. In 2012 he gave an interview to the German Handelsblatt in which he praised the advantages of the semi-presidential system which “is more suited for the introduction of difficult reforms.” He added that he is a devotee  of democracy, but the question should be asked whether the management structures of democracy are best for periods of crisis.

It looks as if Orbán now finds the time ripe for making a move toward a presidential system. On May 21 Népszabadság reported that Orbán discussed the possibility of occupying the post of presidency after János Áder leaves in 2017. But he emphasized that he would do so only if the president had real power. As we know, under the present circumstances, changing the constitution and declaring the president head of the government as well as head of the state is a question of only a couple of hours of phony debate in parliament and the deed is done. For that matter, if Viktor Orbán decided to transform Hungary into a constitutional monarchy he would have no difficulty with his super majority of mindless followers.

Viktor Orbán's mask in the Institute for the Blind

Viktor Orbán’s mask in the Institute for the Blind

So, what is a semi-presidential system? There are several countries where such a governmental structure exists, but perhaps the best known is post-1958 France. In this system the government is not only responsible to parliament but also to the president. It is the president who appoints the prime minister, so he is the most important political player in the land. The president’s choice of prime minister, however, depends on the composition of the parliament. It can easily happen that the prime minister belongs to one party and the president to another. In this case they split responsibilities. Normally, the president is responsible for foreign policy and the prime minister for domestic policy. This “division of labor” is not spelled out in the constitution; it simply evolved this way. But often the system does not work. There can be bitter and tense stonewalling, depending on the attitudes of the two leaders and the ideologies of their parties. Just think what would happen if Viktor Orbán were president and Ferenc Gyurcsány prime minister.

How do we know that Viktor Orbán is seriously contemplating changing the constitution in order to move over to the Sándor palota, the office of the president? A few weeks ago ATV, the only television station that represents the views of the opposition, learned that Forsense Institute, a polling company that receives many government orders, conducted a survey on the Hungarian people’s attitudes on the subject. It was a telephone survey lasting about 10-15 minutes. On June 26 the station inquired whether such a survey had taken place. At that time Forsense denied the existence of such a poll. Yesterday, however, Forsense fessed up and admitted the existence of the survey to a journalist from Index. They refused to divulge the name of the client who ordered it, but they insisted that it was not the prime minister’s office. I tend to agree. Hungary’s prime minister is far too clever to get involved directly with such an enterprise. Most likely the job was “outsourced” to someone else.

What did the pollsters want to know? Index learned that the subjects were asked very specific questions. For example, what kind of a president they would prefer if they had a choice: Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, or Silvio Berlusconi? Whom would they prefer? Viktor Orbán, János Áder, László Sólyom, or Gordon Bajnai? They wanted their opinion on whether the president’s tenure should be seven or nine years. The pollsters were especially interested in people’s political and religious views: the subjects had to divulge for which party they voted at the national and the EP elections.

It is alarming that decisions might be made on the basis of such a survey. The Hungarian voters’ knowledge of politics is frighteningly limited. How many people know the differences between the German, the Russian, the American, or the Italian system of government? How can they decide?

But the most frightening part of this latest news is that Viktor Orbán seems to be contemplating a radical change in Hungary’s constitutional order and placing himself, most likely for nine years, at the head of the government hierarchy. More than scary.

Hungary’s new friend: Turkmenistan’s dictator

The Hungarian media is full of stories about the visit of the bloody dictator of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov, to Budapest. The trip has been in the making for a long time. It was Hungary that initiated talks between the two countries when in November 2011 President Pál Schmitt was dispatched to Asgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan. In January of this year Péter Szijjártó announced that the two countries had signed an agreement on economic cooperation. It was at that time that it was revealed that the Turkmen dictator himself will visit Hungary sometime in June.

As for the economic ties, Szijjártó claimed that there are hopeful signs that the relatively low level of trade between the two countries will grow substantially in the near future. He revealed that there are already Hungarian “success stories” in the food processing industry and in agriculture. A Hungarian firm is involved with the construction of a large brewery. He also indicated that Turkmenistan intends to modernize its oil and gas sector and would welcome Hungarian participation.

Trade between the two countries is indeed very small: until 2010 it amounted to only 10-15 million dollars a year, but by last year it had reached 110 million dollars. Just to give you an idea of the relative size of this trade relationship, Turkmenistan is not among the top 50 trading partners of Hungary.

Szijjártó also mentioned the possible construction of a gas pipeline, which is currently under discussion between the European Commission and Turkmenistan. Clearly, Hungary’s interest lies primarily in Turkmenistan’s gas reserves, which are the fourth largest in the world.

The opposition loudly protests this cozy relationship between Asgabat and Budapest, pointing out that Turkmenistan is second only to North Korea in having the darkest dictatorship and that the only significant difference is that North Korea is very poor while Turkmenistan is flush with cash from the sale of natural gas to Russia and China. One can read more about the situation in Turkmenistan in the U.S. Human Rights Report of 2013.

Pro-government commentators point out that, after all, Ferenc Gyurcsány also visited Turkmenistan in the summer of 2008. Indeed, he did and apparently had a six-hour talk with Berdimuhamedov. He went there to show the United States that, despite rumors that he was against the Nabucco pipeline, the pet project of the EU and the United States, he was serious about finding a way of getting gas from outside of Russia. Apparently he came back convinced that the Nabucco project would not materialize. He turned out to be right.

The Trans-Caspian project was first conceived in the late 1990s.  Talks between the European Union and two of the five countries surrounding the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, officially began on September 7, 2011, but there was not much follow-through. In the wake of the protests in Kiev and the ensuing Russian-Ukrainian conflict, however, the Trans-Caspian pipeline gained new urgency. In December 2013 it was announced that negotiations between Turkmenistan and the European Union would begin in early 2014. The Russian response was swift. Sergei Lavrov, Russian foreign minister, indicated that “external interference in the Caspian region will strain the situation in the region and can have a negative impact on the five-party negotiations,” that is, among Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Iran, and, naturally, Russia.

In earlier Hungarian reports on Szijjártó’s trade negotiations, no mention was made of Turkmen natural gas, but on June 14 Trend, an Azeri site, said that “Hungary is interested in receiving Turkmen gas under transnational projects.” The next piece of information, from MTI, stated that Baymyrat Hojamuhammedov, deputy prime minister for oil and gas, told the newly appointed minister in charge of national economic development Miklós Seszták that Turkmenistan in the next two decades plans to more than triple its production of natural gas and wants to lay pipelines toward Europe, Pakistan, and India.

While Hojamuhammedov was visiting Miklós Seszták, Turkmen Foreign Minister Raşit Meredow was talking with Péter Szijjártó. Note that, flouting diplomatic protocol, the Turkmen foreign minister met only with Péter Szijjártó and not his Hungarian counterpart, Tibor Navracsics.

As for Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, he first met President János Áder in the Sándor Palace. Áder talked about the modernization of Turkmenistan and possible Hungarian participation in the Turkmen economy. It was no more than generalities. Berdymukhamedov’s announcement was, on the other hand, more interesting. He pointed out that “in a political sense the two countries’ points of view resemble each other in many ways. Both find stability and security important.” Turkmenistan is “grateful to Hungary for representing her in the United Nations.” He added that “the foreign ministers of the two countries continue their consultations concerning foreign policy.” He hopes that “Hungarian experts” will help Turkmenistan in its economic and social programs. Finally, he invited János Áder to Asgabat. It looks as if the two got along splendidly. The Hungarian media watched every move of the two men and even noted that their handshake lasted eight seconds!

Source: AFP. Photo Igor Sasin

Source: AFP/ Photo by Igor Sasin

Berdymukhamedov’s official program included a meeting with House Speaker László Kövér. Nothing has been said so far about a possible meeting between Berdymukhamedov and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, although it is hard to imagine that such a meeting would not take place.

Let me add a funny note. Hungary was just admitted to the Parliamentary Assembly of Turkic Speaking Countries, joining Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kirghistan, and Turkey. The request came from former deputy-speaker of the parliament Sándor Lezsák, who started his career in MDF but who now can be placed somewhere between Fidesz and Jobbik. He is among those who refuse to accept the Finno-Ugric origin of the Hungarian language and overemphasize the importance of  Turkic loan-words in the vocabulary. Anyone who’s interested in Turanism, which is closely linked to the idea of Hungarian being a Turkic language, can read a fairly good summary of the movement here or, in Hungarian, here.

I also thought that you would appreciate a picture of Berdymukhamedov on horseback. He even participates in horse races. In one of them, he was thrown off his horse but, never fear, just as a good dictator should, he won the race anyway.

Sándor Kerekes: Hungarian democracy in a nutshell*

I am speaking about democracy in a nutshell today, because that’s pretty well all that is left of Hungarian democracy by today. In fact, it is even quite loose in that nutshell, after having shrunk so small.

On December 31 2013, in the late night hours, as the country was well on its way to getting drunk and celebrating the new year, the Official Gazette of the Hungarian government published the text of a theretofore unheard-of Order: “About the memorial to be erected in Budapest’s fifth district and qualifying it as an overriding national economic importance and the appointment of the competent authorities.” This is just the title! You can imagine what follows.

But let me translate the details. The fifth district is the historic center of Budapest. The “overriding national economic importance” is the legalese term lifted from a not so long before enacted piece of legislation that enables the government to avoid any public tender process and, regardless of the size of the project, to award it to whomever they please, without any disclosure or explanation. This is corruption writ large, carved in legislative stone. (The price was found out later to be 311 million forints, or $1,399,671). The memorial is intended to stand on Freedom Square, a storied and beautiful public place, rife with social and historical significance, just under the windows of the US Embassy, and to be ready on the 19th of March 2014, on the anniversary day of the German occupation of 1944.

A short break for explanation
You must forgive the interruption, if I stop to explain. The winged figure, according to the artist’s technical description, is the defenseless and innocent Archangel Gabriel, symbolizing the defenseless and innocent Hungary, savagely attacked by the imperial eagle of the Third Reich. Of course, you all know that, far from innocent, Hungary was a staunch ally of Hitler, benefitted from the alliance and received the occupiers with open, welcoming arms at the time. This memorial is nothing but the most blatant, revisionist falsification of history. The intended spot for the memorial is on top of an underground garage, whose roof had to be enforced to bear the weight, so the deadline had to be extended to the end of May.

Naturally, you may ask: who could think it desirable to memorialize and celebrate the day of national humiliation, the source and the beginning of untold suffering and bloodshed?

Well, it is the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

As you see, PM Orban himself is not at all averse to flaunting some eagles of his own.

PM Orbán himself is not at all averse to flaunting some eagles of his own.

The rush to the slope
But how did we come to this point?

Well, in the election, May 2010, Viktor Orbán and the FIDESZ party won an overwhelming majority. The electorate was thoroughly fed up with the previous Socialist-Liberal coalition and wanted change. They elected the only alternative available, with a comfortable majority of 53%, and that was enough for a 2/3 majority in Parliament. On the evening of the election Viktor Orbán declared that “the people of Hungary executed a revolution in the voter’s booth.” He set to work within weeks to transform the entire system of government. It worked democratically before: checks and balances. But now, just as he described it previously, in a secret speech in the fall of 2009 to his confidantes, it would be a central “force field.” Eliminate the useless bickering, the bothersome tug of war between disparate interests and replace it with government by the will of a single force.

Before the opening of Parliament he personally received each member in his country house, where they, one by one, assured him of their personal loyalty and pledged cooperation. With one single exception this pledge has endured, their 2/3 of Parliament has flawlessly functioned as a voting machine.

With such legislative prowess it was a cinch to strangle the checks and balances. Some of them were just shut down. Others he replaced with new ones, or only their personnel were replaced with his own loyal followers. Usually placed there for nine-year terms, to carry out his policies, even if god forbid, he should lose an election in the future. After an unfavourable decision by the Constitutional Court, he diluted it, from nine to fifteen members, appointing his supporters, among them his personal lawyer, to prevent any similarly unpleasant decision in the future. And since he was working on the court already, he cut off most legal access to it and curtailed the court’s field of competence.

After these swift and efficient preparations he was ready to implement his “vision” even further!

The Orbán government, in a legislative fury, first issued the Manifesto of National Cooperation to be displayed in every public building. This document stipulates that the national reconciliation, peace and brotherly understanding will be accomplished if everyone just meekly follows the government. A new constitution was secretly prepared, without any consultation, and pressed through Parliament in three weeks, claiming that it was absolutely urgent and necessary, because the previous constitution (to which they all swore allegiance and promised to uphold) was a communist document.

Codified corruption
Concurrently, Orbán personally appointed as state dignitaries his college friends, reduced the number of ministries to eight, thus concentrating power in the most trusted hands. The speaker of the house and the president are his roommates from his college dorm. But there is a fourth college friend who is perhaps the richest man today in Hungary and who, from the beginning, has directed the financial dealings of the party and possibly Orbán himself, and is so obscure in the background that for more than twenty years has not been seen, or photographed: Lajos Simicska. The oligarch par excellence! This man owns the vast majority of billboards in Hungary, the largest advertizing agency, newspapers, TV and radio stations, the largest and most favoured civil engineering firm, and has the largest long-term lease, over 9000 acres of state-owned agricultural land. (While the legal limit is 300 acre per person and 1200 acres per family.) In 2013, his mind-bogglingly complicated company-network was awarded 14% of the entire public works and procurement budget of Hungary: 875 million forints (€2,916,700, or $3,946,418) every day, 39.6 billion forints (€128,721,432=$178,603,644) in total for the year.

All this, of course, was done secretly, through unknown channels and processes. So, it’s no wonder that some people claim that behind the mask of Orbán, it is actually Simicska who is running the country.

At the head of the eight ministries are Orbán’s most trusted people. That would be fine, if they were qualified. But in many cases they are not. Most ministries are covering unrelated responsibilities. For example, the Human Resources Ministry, which controls the greatest budget, has the responsibility for pensions, healthcare, education, employment, funding for the arts, Roma integration and so on. And who is the minister of this complex? He is Viktor Orbán’s spiritual adviser, the Rev. Zoltán Balogh, an ordained minster of the Reform Church, who has not the slightest previous experience in public administration.

Although the individual fields are supervised by undersecretaries whom, in many cases, are at least professionals. (Some of them are also graduates of the Simicska conglomerate.) While the Minister of Finance, interestingly, is an economist, the Minister of Development, in charge of all public works, is a bookkeeper, Mrs. Németh, who is also an alumna of the oft-mentioned oligarch, Mr. Simicska. Her educational attainment is a high school diploma. She hardly ever speaks publicly, or in Parliament. Her voice, (and her professional adviser as well), is Dr. János Fónagy, and with him we arrive at one of our basic subjects: the Jewish contribution. He is one of the two known, openly Jewish members of Parliament. Fully secular, very smart, a truly dedicated lawyer. Dedicated, that is, to upholding and operating the new, practically single-party system. But this savvy, seasoned lawyer was stunned, well-nigh speechless when, in November 2012, one of the openly anti-Semitic MPs demanded the listing of Jews in Parliament. All he could say was that his parents were Jewish, yes, but he had no choice, and no, he is not practicing.

Of course I became interested. One day two years ago I naively walked up to the entrance of Parliament asking to be admitted. They didn’t laugh, just sent me to this office and that, all for naught. In the US and Britain it is a matter of merely asking a representative for a free ticket and entrance to the legislature is assured. In France free entrance for all is outright spelled out in the Constitution. Now in Hungary one can buy a ticket for a guided tour of Europe’s largest parliament building, but visiting the sitting of the Assembly is tied to a special permit, a press accreditation, that must be renewed from week to week, and for me it took several months to obtain. Finally, months later, miraculously I was admitted at last. (The whole thing took only another twenty minutes of phone calls and checking.)

So, now that we are inside, let me introduce you first to Mr. Speaker, Viktor Orbán’s former college roommate, former communist party apparatchik with latent authoritarian inclinations, the intensely anti-communist Dr. Lászlo Kövér. His job is to restrict the House’s operation so that only Fidesz can have its way and to stifle the opposition. Speaker since August 2010, from his appointment on, he imposed control on proceedings. He cancelled all press credentials, then later, after readmitting them, he relegated all press to the loggia above the Speaker’s perch. This resulted in the prevention of photographing him and the person speaking on the rostrum from any angle, except from above and from behind. All rights to video are restricted exclusively to the official parliamentary broadcasting system; journalists are forbidden to make videos. This is not just idle talk, there are guards immediately interfering with any such attempt, if necessary, by putting their hand in front of any camera. The “official” video broadcast is strictly controlled in the government’s best interest and if the opposition should do anything untoward, or unexpected, the screen shows the speaker only, the sound is cut off and the public will never find out what actually happened. The public cannot come in and information cannot get out of there. Is it any wonder, therefore, that the public at large is completely ignorant of Parliament? One of Speaker Kövér’s golden rules is that immediate questions must be submitted in advance in writing, the MP must read them verbatim from paper and the Government’s answer is also read from paper. The whole charade of “immediacy” is a surrealistic farce.

Having sat in that press gallery for some time, I became increasingly frustrated by my failing hearing. I knew I was losing it, but this fast? After some days I realized though that I can hear Mr. Speaker perfectly well, only the rest is a muffled noise. I decided to “investigate.” Looking around the balcony I discovered that two loudspeakers on each end clearly convey Mr. Speaker’s voice from his microphone, but the connections to all other microphones are cut off and the disconnected loudspeakers and wires, as sad leftovers of corpora delicti, have been strewn under the chairs. I went immediately to the Press Office a few doors away. The head of the Press Office didn’t want to believe me. “Nobody has ever complained about such a thing before,” he said with conviction, (Yeah, I retorted, because nobody was interested in what is said in there,) then he put on his jacket and we dashed off to the press gallery to see it. I showed him around in his own domain, explained how the system worked, that is, how it actually didn’t work, showing the detritus beneath the chairs.

I still don’t know to this day, how sincere his astonishment was. We went back to his office and I asked what he intended to do about it. He promised to reconnect the speakers.

A week later, seeing that nothing happened, I went back to him, but another official told me that it was the end of the session, they are swamped, and this must wait until next session. That, of course, never came; soon an election was called for a new, reconstituted Parliament.

Speaker Kövér also called into being a special military unit, the Parliamentary Guard. These live tin soldiers are meant to impress the tourists, but even more, suggest the sinister muscle power at his exclusive personal disposal to apply force against unruly MPs. (The number of guards: 349, in the 2013 budget 2.3 billion forints €7,476,245=$10,373,444 and in 2014 an additional 30 are being hired.) The costume of the Guard is a combination of a little pre-war Royal Hungarian and a lot of German Wehrmacht elements and bears no resemblance to anything historical. But no matter, if Regent Admiral Horthy had such a guard, then Speaker Kövér, the son of a provincial metal worker, must have his too.

Legislating the coup
The Hungarian Parliament has dispatched a prodigious number of bills, produced at a scorching rate. In 2012 the government submitted and the House voted in 364 pieces of legislation. That’s right, one for every day, except Christmas day! So to speak. Regularly the government introduced legislation, several hundred pages long, on Friday evenings and got it read and voted in the following Monday. Amendments were proposed by obscure Fidesz backbenchers, often just half an hour before the final voting, and they passed, regardless of the opposition’s claims that there wasn’t even time to thumb through the papers. Voting was frequently timed to occur in the middle of the night, or later, to avoid possible public scrutiny. To my knowledge, in these four years not one single bill submitted was supported by any corroborating background papers. If ever made, they have been kept secret from Parliament, as well as from the public. Many of these laws are contrary to European Union rules, sometimes contrary even to their own new Fidesz constitution, but the European Union besides ruminating, producing damning reports and furling its collective brow, does nothing. The Machine works miracles.

One of those “miracles” was the new election law pushed through with the same dizzying speed and a mere few months before the election itself. It came out of the machine providing unprecedented advantages to the governing party, while making a win for the opposition nearly impossible. (As one of the opposition MPs noted, the field was not only tilted, it was actually vertical.) It reduced the members of Parliament almost by half and included rampant gerrymandering. Consequently, last month’s election, although free, was neither fair nor equitable. The rules were so skewed that even cheating was not necessary. Thanks to the carefully “calibrated” rules, with 44.87%, of the 61.24% voting, Fidesz won another electoral triumph. This represents a mere 27% of the eligible voters, yet again it was enough for a super-majority.

What system?
This election was a good example of how the Fidesz system works, its aims and its goals. All election-related spending was done to the benefit of Fidesz oligarchs, just like the public works are. The government boosted its success propaganda, often verbatim identical to that of the Fidesz party, the two inseparable; party money mingled with government money and they are indistinguishable. Billions have been paid to oligarchs. Then through unknown channels those oligarchs recycle the government monies into the party– and private coffers. Thus laundered, it buys more power and is rewarded by government largesse, contracts and fat jobs. There it yields new income for the oligarch and the cycle spins ad infinitum. This is the substance of the Orbán system of National Cooperation.

Sense and sensibility
In closing, let’s come back to the memorial, the start of this lengthy presentation.
When the Alliance of Hungarian Jewish Parishes, known as MAZSIHISZ, heard of this bizarre memorial, the normally cordial air between the government and them froze almost solid. Their newly elected board and new president, Mr. András Heisler, sent a memorandum to the government. They set three conditions to participate in the official year of remembrance, one of them being: this memorial project must be abandoned. Anti-Semites were crying foul immediately, talking about an ultimatum.

No sane person could accept the whitewashing of war crimes attempted by this “statue”: the murder of 600,000 Jews, the 160,000 casualties on the front, or the cruelties perpetrated by the Hungarian forces in Serbia and against the Ukrainians.

Grudgingly, Orbán, citing the impending election campaign, suggested adjournment and reconsideration until, after the election, consultations could be held in a calmer, more conducive climate. MAZSIHISZ quietly agreed but were stunned when two days after the election the construction work started without the promised consultations. So, they decided that the Jewish Community “en bloc” would disassociate itself from the official government memorial events. The Jews will remember in their own way, in their own time, and with their own money.

Thanks to his own obstinacy, Viktor Orbán has painted himself into a corner from which he can only come out with a major loss of face and, by the same token, forged a Jewish Community tightly united as never before, and to a degree never thought possible. This is the first time, in an unprecedented way, that the Jewish Community has taken it upon itself to proudly represent civic courage, the advocacy of reason, and the principles of democracy, in the name of all of Hungary, that hardly anyone else dares to do in the ever-deepening and darkening pit that Hungary is rapidly becoming in the middle of Europe, and do it right into the face of the government machine of Viktor Orbán.

—–

* This paper was presented at a workshop organized jointly by the Ben Gurion University and the Konrad Adenaur Stiftung. The topic of the workshop was “Jewish Contribution to the European Integration Project.”

The opening session of the new Hungarian parliament

Today was the opening session of the new parliament. Before the session began the new MPs were treated in the “Red Room” to music by the so-called folk musician András Jánosi and his orchestra. Actually, András Jánosi’s genre is what used to be called Gypsy music; it seems to be experiencing a revival with the assistance of the Orbán government. In fact, Magyar Rádió established a separate channel devoted to Gypsy music and songs created in the manner of folk music (műdalok). The channel is named after a famous Gypsy band leader, Pista Dankó (1858-1903).

But why Gypsy music at the opening session of Parliament? According to Népszabadság, “they revived the tradition that the Gypsy band of János Bihari (1764-1827) played music for the arriving members of the Diet.” It’s too bad that historians are such sticklers for the truth, but this so-called tradition couldn’t have been exactly long-lived. Between 1811 and 1825 no Diet was convened at all; the “reform era” spanned the period between 1825 and 1848. Bihari, to repeat, died in 1827. So much for a great Hungarian tradition.

Outside the parliament building Tamás Gaudi-Nagy, a Jobbik member of the European parliament, organized a demonstration protesting the new law concerning agricultural lands. When a guest to the opening of parliament, István Pásztor, a Hungarian politician from the Voivodina, appeared, a scuffle ensued. The police stood by passively. Demonstrators, mostly women, surrounded Pásztor, calling him a traitor and a Bolshevik. Several women spat in his face. Why did Gaudi-Nagy’s group decide to attack Pásztor? According to ATV’s website, last year Gaudi-Nagy tried to “defend” the Hungarians in Serbia in the European Council, which Pásztor deemed “harmful” to the Hungarian minority. Whatever the reason, Jobbik distanced itself from Gaudi-Nagy, emphasizing that he is not a member of the party’s parliamentary caucus. Gaudi-Nagy, you may recall, is the man who a few months ago threw the flag of the European Union out of one of the bathroom windows of the parliament building.

Of course, there were also the usual opening speeches. Especially interesting was the speech of President János Áder, who drew on the writings and speeches of Ferenc Deák (1803-1876), known as the wise man of the nation because he was the architect of the Compromise of 1867. As is often the case, Áder used Deák as a springboard to make a political point. He quoted Deák saying that “we should not cast our glances at the past, but instead we must look forward to the future.” I don’t think one needs much imagination to grasp Áder’s intent. In my opinion, at least, he is telling all those people who are upset over the alleged falsification of history to leave the past alone and stop being pests.

Áder also invoked Ferenc Deák’s words about the necessity of differences of opinion in politics. “The truth gets extracted from differences of opinion,” Deák said. “I don’t mind, in fact I desire differences of opinion even in very important matters. I love all those citizens who oppose us. Let God grant us opponents and not enemies.” To hear these lofty words coming from the mouth of  János Áder was jarring. His party and the government he supports never listen to their political opponents, whom they treat as enemies.

Otherwise, according to Áder, no one can question the results of the election and the legitimacy of the electoral system. As for the new constitution, the election results also legitimized its legality.  Moreover, the results of the April 6 election in Áder’s view mean that “the Hungarian nation considers the long process of regime change final.” That is, the second Orbán government has brought to fruition what began in 1989-1990. Hungary has arrived at the pinnacle of democracy thanks to Viktor Orbán.

It seems, however, that some MPs openly and loudly disagreed with János Áder. When it came to the swearing-in ceremony, when the new members have to swear to the new constitution, the four Demokratikus Koalíció MPs, Ferenc Gyurcsány, Csaba Molnár, Lajos Oláh, and Ágnes Vadai, added the following two sentences: “I solemnly swear that I will do everything in my power for the reestablishment of the republic. I will try with all my strength to achieve the adoption of a new constitution confirmed by popular referendum.” Otherwise, Heti Válasz noted with some satisfaction that whoever was responsible for the parliamentary seating arrangement put the independent members of DK and Együtt2014-PM right behind the rather large Jobbik delegation.

Members of the Demokratikus Kolíció add their pledge to the official text of the swearing-in From left to right, Lajos Oláh, Csaba Molnár, Ferenc Gyurcsány, and Ágnes Vadai / Stop.hu

Members of the Demokratikus Kolíció at the swearing-in ceremony
Lajos Oláh, Csaba Molnár, Ferenc Gyurcsány, and Ágnes Vadai / Stop.hu

It was at this point that the new members had to vote for the deputies to the president of the House. The only interesting vote was for former skinhead Tamás Sneider (Jobbik). He received 150 yeas and 35 nays, while 5 MPs abstained. They were members of the LMP delegation. Fidesz, KDNP, and Jobbik have altogether 156 members, and therefore a number of MPs did not vote at all. Among them were Zoltán Balog, Zoltán Kovács, János Lázár, and Tibor Navracsics. On the other hand, Viktor Orbán voted for Sneider. As for the nays, they must have come from the democratic opposition parties: MSZP, DK, Együtt2014-PM, and the sole liberal member, Gábor Fodor. Péter Kiss (MSZP) and Ferenc Gyurcsány did not vote on Sneider.

In the secret ballot vote for president of the House, László Kövér received 171 yeas and 19 nays, with 3 abstentions. This is a first. In the past, votes for the president of the House were always unanimous. Fidesz and KDNP together have 133 members, and therefore 38 yea votes had to come from somewhere else. DK announced ahead of time that they, all four of them, will say no to Kövér’s nomination. If I calculate correctly, six people simply refrained from voting. Népszabadság announced the 19 nays as “Nineteen people dared to say no!”  Unfortunately it does seem to take a certain amount of courage to vote against Kövér and even greater courage to announce it publicly. He’s not the kind of guy who understands fair play and the democratic rules of politics.

Dissonant government voices on the Hungarian Holocaust

The Orbán government’s efforts to falsify history are proceeding full steam ahead. The “madness”–as Imre Mécs, one of the heroes of 1956, called it–continues. It looks as if Viktor Orbán refuses to listen to reason and insists on erecting a monument that depicts suffering Hungary as Archangel Gabriel at the mercy of the German imperial eagle. The originally stated purpose of the statue was to commemorate the German occupation of Hungary on March 19, 1944. After the first outburst of indignation, the monument’s rationale was changed to a commemoration of the victims, both Jewish and non-Jewish, of German aggression. There is only one problem with the whole concept. Hungary was an ally of Germany, and it was a legitimate Hungarian government that handled the deportation of about 600,000 Hungarian citizens of Jewish heritage. Not without reason, critics of the whole idea of the monument suspect that the Orbán government wants to shake off any responsibility for the Holocaust and to shift the blame entirely to Germany.

The protest around the foundation being built for the future monument has been going on for two weeks. Today about twenty people were removed and taken to police headquarters. The two best known demonstrators who were taken away are Imre Mécs, a former member of parliament who was sentenced to death as a result of his participation in the 1956 revolution, and his wife Fruzsina Magyar, a well-known dramaturgist.

It seems unlikely that the “madness” will end any time soon. Not only will the memorial stand but Sándor Szakály, a historian with far-right political views, will remain the director of the newly created historical institute,”Veritas.” As far I as can see, this new institute will be the government’s vehicle for a revisionist interpretation of modern Hungarian history. And we can only expect more historical madness. Just wait until young historians affected by the extremist ideology of Jobbik begin writing their own revisionist interpretations of historical events.

Mazsihisz, the umbrella organization of Jewish groups, objected to Szakály’s appointment, but considering that Sándor Szakály just signed a document ensuring long-term cooperation between the Veritas Institute and the Holocaust Documentation and Memorial Center, we can be sure that Szakály’s appointment is secure. How could it happen, one might ask, that the Holocaust Documentation Center would ever sign such a document? The answer is simple. One of the first acts of the Orbán government was a personnel change at the head of the Holocaust Documentation and Memorial Center. The old appointees were fired and the new guard arrived. At that point it was clear that the Orbán government had plans for the Center. Since the Memorial Center is financially dependent on the government, Viktor Orbán thinks he has every right to run the place the way he likes. In his world there is no such thing as an independent foundation. So, while Mazsihisz stands against Szakály’s appointment, the Orbán-appointed head of the Holocaust Memorial Center, György Haraszti, signs an agreement of long-term cooperation with the head of Veritas. On the face of it, it might seem that Orbán managed to split the Jewish community, but my feeling is that most Hungarian Jews applaud Mazsihisz and have a rather low opinion of the new head of the Holocaust Memorial Center.

Last Sunday’s March for Life, a yearly gathering in remembrance of the Holocaust, was the largest ever, definitely more than 30,000 people. The crowd filled the streets between the Danube and the Eastern Station. Quite a distance. The government was represented by President János Áder, who then joined the International March for Life on a pilgrimage to Auschwitz. This year the Hungarians led the procession from Auschwitz to Birkenau because of the 70th anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust.

The Hungarian group in Auschwitz-Birkenau

The Hungarian group in Auschwitz-Birkenau

Áder made a speech there that was welcomed by all those who are critical of the Hungarian government’s attitude toward the Holocaust. Áder emphasized that the Hungarian state didn’t resist “the diabolical plan of the German occupiers”; in fact, it became its enablers. He called Auschwitz “the largest Hungarian cemetery.” He went as far as to say that “in order to understand the tragedy of 1944 we will have to take a look at ourselves.”  He added that there is no “forgiveness when a state turns against its own citizens.”

János Áder in Auschwitz-Birkenau / MTI

János Áder in Auschwitz-Birkenau / MTI

These are very strong words. The strongest I have ever heard from a member of the Orbán government. I can’t quite decide how to interpret them. I have the feeling that this was Áder’s first visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and I understand that the place makes an incredible impression on visitors. Perhaps the president changed his speech in the last minute to place greater emphasis on Hungary’s guilt than he had originally planned. Perhaps he was simply saying what he thought the pilgrims expected to hear. Perhaps he really does believe that the Hungarian government was complicit. In any case, Áder’s admission of Hungarian guilt stands in stark contrast to what Viktor Orbán, László Kövér, and Zoltán Balog think of Hungary’s anti-Semitic past. Áder didn’t look for excuses, he didn’t try to bury uncomfortable truths. Was this an example of what we call the good cop, bad cop syndrome or was it genuine? I don’t know whether we will ever be able to answer this question properly given the tight-lipped Fidesz leaders.

As for whether the Germans were true occupiers or not, here is an amusing story. A few days ago neo-Nazi groups also decided to demonstrate on Szabadág tér. Great was the panic among the anti-monument demonstrators. They were afraid of physical attacks by these skin heads. To their surprise it turned out that, just like the Budapest liberals, the neo-Nazis came to demonstrate against the monument. Why? Because, as they explained, the Germans did not occupy Hungary. How could they? Hungarians and Germans were comrades-in-arms who fought together against Bolshevism. No comment.

The Fidesz robber barons. Part I

I think that among the comments there was already mention of a new book by József Debreczeni, A fideszes rablógazdaság (The Fidesz robber barons). In a way it is a companion volume to the book edited by Bálint Magyar entitled Magyar polip: A posztkommunista maffia állam (Hungarian octopus: The post-communist mafia state). In fact, Debreczeni borrows Magyar’s description, “the upperworld,” to describe the modus operandi of the Orbán government between 1998 and 2002. Debreczeni’s book is an account of the illegal activities of Viktor Orbán’s closest associates and provides critical background for understanding the current functioning of the mafia state.

Debreczeni combed through the findings of two decades of Hungarian investigative journalism, which unearthed some of the shady dealings of the Fidesz empire. There is no question that in a truly democratic country some of the actors in this story would have long been retired to lengthy stays in prison. The reason this didn’t happen in Hungary was that the cast of characters was extremely cunning. They made sure that there would be no legal consequences of their criminal activities.

How was this achieved? Most likely, at least in part, through blackmail. The highly respected chief prosecutor, Kálmán Györgyi (1990-2000), after having a conversation with János Áder, in those days president of the Hungarian parliament, suddenly resigned in March 2000 although his tenure expired only in 2002. The Fidesz government thus had a free hand to nominate a man, Péter Polt, a Fidesz party member and an older friend from the early 90s, who in the following years became the incarnation of the Chinese wall between justice and the thoroughly corrupt Fidesz leaders, including Viktor Orbán.

From the earliest days of Fidesz, only a handful of people–Viktor Orbán, László Kövér, Lajos Simicska, and Tamás Varga–dealt with financial matters. Of these four only Tamás Varga ended up in jail.

Once Fidesz became a parliamentary party and thus received a certain amount of money from the central budget, it became patently obvious that “the boys” had little notion of or even inclination toward keeping their finances in order. The party’s steering committee eventually became curious about what was going on with the money at the disposal of the parliamentary delegation. The members who were supposed to take a look at the books were faced with assorted slips of paper stuffed into plastic bags. Bookkeeping Fidesz style, I guess. After some scrutiny, it was determined that there were serious questions about how the money had been spent. The committee entrusted with checking the nonexistent books came to the conclusion that “responsibility for the party’s financial disarray should be the subject of a criminal investigation.”

In the end nothing happened because Viktor Orbán convinced the party membership that the report was the work of people who wanted to ruin the party. He asked for, and received, their vote of confidence. At the same time he threatened members of the steering committee with legal action.

Viktor Orbán survived this early investigation as he has survived all subsequent ones as well. The few million forints spent on who knows what at the launch of Fidesz were peanuts in comparison to the close to 700 million forints Fidesz received in September 1992 as a result of the sale of a very valuable building in downtown Budapest. The building was given to MDF and Fidesz by the Hungarian state. The two parties had every right to sell the building and use the proceeds to cover their own expenses. That was not the problem. The problem lay with where the money went.

Out of the 700 million, Simicska, who by then was in charge of the party’s finances, immediately transferred 574 million forints to FICO Kft., which had acted as a Fidesz foundation since 1990. For two years there was little movement of money in or out of FICO, but in 1992-93 everything changed. Simicska began establishing assorted businesses: Quality Invest Rt., Millennium Rt., Quality Party Service Kft., Terra Negra Ingatlanértékesítő és Hasznosító Bt., Quality Profit Kft, Taxorg Kft., Best Lízing Kft., Auto Classic Kft., etc. Moreover, as it turned out, a few million forints also ended up in the hands of Viktor Orbán’s father who didn’t have enough money to buy the state stone quarry he had managed during the Kádár years.

forints

These were not Fidesz owned companies. They were owned by a network of old friends around Viktor Orbán and László Kövér: Lajos Simicska and Tamás Varga were old high school friends; Szilárd Kövér was László’s younger brother; Zsuzsanna Pusztai, Simicska’s wife; Sándor Varga, father of Tamás; István Bakos, Szilárd Kövér’s brother-in-law; Gyula Gansperger, high school friend; Katalin Horváth, Gansperger’s wife, and so on. So, the state property became party property and then the party property became private property. Surely, the argument goes, Simicska must have convinced Orbán and Kövér that these companies would ensure Fidesz’s financial well-being, which at this juncture looked as if it would win the 1994 election.

What happened to the money that ended up in these private companies? Very little is known of its fate. We know that after a while these companies did not pay taxes, VAT, or social security. Eventually they were sold, twenty-two of them on the same day, allegedly to a Turkish guest worker in Germany, Ibrahim Kaya, and a Croatian called Josip Tot. They, of course, were not the real buyers. As it turned out, the passports belonging to these two men had been stolen, and allegedly they knew nothing of the transaction. Of course, the companies that went bankrupt and were sold for pennies to unknown individuals had also taken out substantial bank loans, on which the banks were unable to collect.

All this came to light in 1999 when two investigative journalists unraveled the complicated story in Élet és Irodalom. Unfortunately, it was too late. By that time Viktor Orbán was prime minister of Hungary. Immediately after the formation of his government he made Lajos Simicska head of APEH (Adó- és Pénzügyi Ellenőrzési Hivatal), the Hungarian equivalent of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. All documentation on these companies disappeared from the computers of APEH. After all, Simicska was put there for the sole purpose of covering the tracks of their illegal financial activities. Simicska stayed at the head of APEH only as long as was necessary to accomplish his task. A few months later, in the summer of 1999, claiming that attacks on his person ruined his health and caused his father’s death, Simicska resigned. By that time, the APEH files were most likely clean as a whistle. When later during the socialist-liberal period a government commissioner wanted to reopen the case, Péter Polt, the chief prosecutor, blocked his way.

According to an article that appeared in Magyar Narancs in 1999, at least 60 Fidesz-related companies were established between 1990 and 1998. Simicska’s name appeared on 24, of which 14 were “purchased” by Ibrahim Kaya and Josip Tot.

After reading the details of the relationship between Orbán and Simicska, some people came to the conclusion that Orbán had been dragged into the morass of financial wrongdoing concocted by Simicska. He was in so deep that he was unable to extricate himself without landing in jail. He was the good guy under the thumb of the bad Simicska. But, as Debreczeni sums it up: “At the beginning one could perhaps think that Fidesz was led by a democratic Dr. Jekyll and a mafioso Mr. Hyde, but in the end it turned out that in reality a politician Hyde and a financier Hyde ruled the party, and by now, rule the country.”

To be continued