Jobbik

Recent Hungarian by-elections

I assume most readers want me to say something about the Putin visit, but I think it’s better to postpone writing anything more on that subject until after the meeting itself. Instead, I’ll spend some time on another “hot topic,” the extreme-right Jobbik party and recent election results.

According to Ipsos, Jobbik has gained considerable strength since the beginning of 2014. And since October 2014 its rise has accelerated: it gained another 4%. At the same time Fidesz lost about 12% of its voters. Most of the disenchanted Fidesz voters moved over to the large undecided bloc. With the exception of the Demokratikus Koalíció, parties of the democratic opposition seem to be unable to capture the voters’ imagination.

The fear of a Jobbik resurgence was reinforced by the party’s success at the municipal elections on October 12, 2014 when they captured fourteen mayoralty positions as opposed to the three they won in 2010. Most of the towns Jobbik won were small and insignificant on the electoral map, with two exceptions. One was Ózd, near Miskolc, where the Jobbik candidate won over the incumbent Fidesz mayor by a margin of 66 votes. The Fidesz leadership, with the blessing of the Debrecen Appellate Court, decided to contest the result. It was a big mistake. The citizens of Ózd were outraged and decided to show their dissatisfaction with the “arrogant, condescending and corrupt” local Fidesz leadership. While in October only 10,214 people voted, for the second round 15,982 showed up. Jobbik’s candidate in October received 4,214 votes. In November he got 10,299 votes. The DK-MSZP candidate in October received 2,238 votes, in November only 520. Most local citizens voted for the Jobbik candidate not because they were committed Jobbik supporters but because they were convinced that he was the only person who had a chance of unseating the Fidesz incumbent.

The situation was different in Tapolca, which is located not in the underdeveloped area of Hungary where Jobbik has traditionally been strong but in the relatively affluent Transdanubia. Between 2010 and 2014 the Fidesz government had been generous to the town and funded a lot of improvements. So, even Jobbik supporters were stunned when it turned out that the Jobbik candidate, Zoltán Dobó, had unseated the incumbent Fidesz mayor in the 2014 municipal election. The margin was small, 146 votes, but the win was significant. It indicated, at least at first blush, that Jobbik was extending its influence into the better-off regions of the country. Reporters talking with locals, however, found out that some of the people who voted for Dobó didn’t know he was a member of Jobbik.

So, what happened? It seems that the Fidesz mayor didn’t keep his finger on the pulse of the electorate. He shut himself off from the voters. By contrast, Dobó, a council member since 2010, kept a high profile. And then there was a local affair that stirred up deep sentiments: the fate of Tapolca’s little hospital, which the government wanted to either close or strip of most of its functions. The local Fidesz leadership naturally supported the government’s decision–until it was far too late. By that time Zoltán Dobó and Lajos Rig, another Jobbik city father, had taken over the fight for the local hospital. Apparently, that was the main reason for Dobó’s success at the polls. The town itself, which has been in Fidesz hands since 1998, still has a predominantly Fidesz city council. On the eleven-member city council Jobbik won only four seats.

Mezőkövesd is another interesting case. Two candidates for a seat on the city council received exactly the same number of votes. If I wanted to be charitable I would call János Kötél, the Jobbik candidate, a man of limited abilities who is also a racist. For instance, a day before the repeated election a journalist for Index discovered that on Facebook Kötél had called the Roma “the biological weapon of Jews.” Yet he gained supporters between the two elections and ultimately prevailed. Were the voters endorsing his views? Most likely not. I suspect that the voters decided to gang up against the Fidesz candidate the second time around. The Mezőkövesd case reminds me of Ózd. The slogan seems to be “anyone but the incumbent Fidesz guys.”

All in all, since the local elections held on October 12 not one Fidesz candidate has managed to win a by-election. And now it looks as if Fidesz might even lose the Veszprém and Tapolca parliamentary by-elections, which must be held because of Tibor Navracsics’s departure to Brussels and the death of Jenő Lasztovicza, a member of parliament for the Tapolca district. If either of these two by-elections is lost, Fidesz will no longer have a two-thirds majority. How serious a blow that would be to Fidesz is a matter of debate. Some commentators claim that the lack of a super majority would make no difference because there would always be some people in Jobbik who would be glad to vote with Fidesz-KDNP. Others claim that the lack of a two-thirds majority would prevent Fidesz from transforming the present parliamentary system into a powerful presidential one, with Orbán at the helm. In either case, a Fidesz defeat in one or both of these districts would give an immediate boost to the democratic opposition and further damage the governing party.

Tibor Navracsics’s seat in and around the city of Veszprém will be decided on February 22, while voting in Jenő Lasztovicz’s district in Tapolca and environs will take place on April 19.

Source: Index / Photo Orsi Ajpek

Source: Index / Photo Orsi Ajpek

A few words about the election in Navracsics’s district. Veszprém’s first district traditionally votes Fidesz. At the last national election Navracsics beat the MSZP candidate by 20% (47% to 27%), with the Jobbik candidate receiving 16%. After a lot of hesitation, Fidesz decided to nominate Lajos Némedi, the deputy mayor of Veszprém. About a week ago a secret opinion poll was taken, with surprising results. Zoltán Kész, an independent candidate supported by all the democratic parties except LMP, is doing extremely well. In fact, he is leading in the city of Veszprém, though trailing in the villages. As it now stands, Némedi has 43%, Kész 37%, Jobbik 11%, and LMP 4%. Jobbik seems to have lost voters since last April. The poll showed that the majority of the people think that the country is moving in the wrong direction (61%). Left-leaning voters are solidly behind Kész. Even 6% of Fidesz voters plan to switch their votes, and 31% of LMP voters say they will opt for Kész. Kész has a slight lead even among younger voters. Voters with only an eighth-grade education prefer Némedi (64% to 25%), but among university graduates it is 49% to 28% in Kész’s favor. In this latter group only 2% would vote for Jobbik.

In the last few days Fidesz changed the campaign slogan. Earlier their orange-colored posters read “Trust Fidesz!” but it was decided not to advertise Fidesz too much. Now the poster reads: “Trust Némedi!” Meanwhile, the anti-Kész campaign is in full swing, and  Fidesz is promising that fabulous government projects will be built in Veszprém if the district votes for Fidesz. We’ll see whether the voters of Veszprém take the bait.

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Hungarian Christian Democrats and freedom of the press

The Parisian terrorist attacks will have, I fear, a negative effect not only on Hungary’s immigration policy but also on freedom of speech and freedom of the press in the country. At least this is the way things are looking at the moment.

In an earlier post I recalled Viktor Orbán’s long-standing belief that Europe as a whole and Hungary as part of the European Union should remain “European.” European in this case means ethnically and religiously pure. Until last week, however, we didn’t know that this sentiment was actually reflected in current government practice.

It was on Sunday afternoon, before Viktor Orbán’s by now infamous press conference railing against immigration to Europe, that I realized that strict anti-immigration policies have been in effect ever since 2010. They were introduced quietly, under cover so to speak. Antónia Mészáros, a reporter for ATV, had an interview with Zoltán Balog on Friday afternoon, which didn’t air until Sunday, in which he admitted that the Orbán government has been conducting an anti-immigration policy all along.

Now there is an opportunity to put this unspoken policy into law. On Monday morning Antal Rogán seconded Viktor Orbán’s position on the undesirability of immigration. The next day the “international spokesman” of the Orbán government, Zoltán Kovács, followed suit and explained the Hungarian position on CNN, not with the greatest success. Richard Quest, the reporter, worried that the kind of debate the Hungarians are promoting will become a witch hunt. He ended his program (and this is a rough transcript) by saying that

What’s worrying is when politicians start whipping up the rhetoric. `Hungary for Hungarians,’ – when it starts to become immigration must be stopped. Then you go into you’ve crossed the line. It’s no longer a debate about whether immigration is good or bad, it becomes one to whip up a ferment. History is replete with examples where this has happened, and anybody who tries to deny an innocent-sounding comment for what it could turn into in the future is simply misguided.

As it stands, four out of ten Hungarians share Viktor Orbán’s and his government’s point of view. Tárki, a Hungarian polling firm, has been keeping track of Hungarian xenophobia for some time. In the decade between 2002 and 2011, 24% to 33% of the population were anti-immigrant. After that date the anti-foreign sentiment shot up to 40%, which is not surprising given the rhetoric of Viktor Orbán and his government.

I talked earlier about some right-wing journalists who intimated that the staff at Charlie Hebdo were responsible for their own fate. They provoked the followers of Islam by drawing crude caricatures of their prophet. This argument is now being taken up by the Hungarian Christian Democrats who are, on the whole, even more radical than Fidesz when it comes to religiosity. Their party is often described as the “political arm of the Hungarian Catholic Church.” According to their whip, Péter Harrach, “neither freedom of the press nor freedom of speech can be extended to blasphemy.”

ShawFareed Zakaria, the American reporter who came up with the label “illiberal democracy” for countries like Turkey or Hungary, wrote an article in The Washington Post on the subject of blasphemy. In it he pointed out that the Koran “prescribes no punishment for blasphemy.” However, as we know, today many Muslim countries have harsh laws against blasphemy. It seems that Péter Harrach finds this practice attractive. But Harrach doesn’t have to look to current Muslim practice for a model. As Zakaria points out, only “one holy book is deeply concerned with blasphemy: the Bible.” The Old Testament is full of stories of blasphemers who receive harsh punishment for their sin. It seems that Harrach wants to lead Hungary all the way back to Old Testament times.

This morning representatives of five parties  (Fidesz, KDNP, Jobbik, MSZP, LMP, Együtt) got together to discuss the fight against terrorism. According to Antal Rogán, the parties agreed that “the European Union cannot defend its member states” and that therefore they must formulate and enforce their own strategies. “Political correctness by now is not enough.” Fidesz suggests that “certain public symbols and values should receive special protection.” Rogán made it clear that “religious symbols” would certainly be covered by the new law. I wouldn’t be surprised if among Hungarians’ “common values” we would also find national symbols. Or even political offices. Or high dignitaries of the land, like the president or the president of the house.

There are some analysts, for example, Gábor Török, who are convinced that the terrorist attack in Paris came at the right time for Orbán, whose party lost another 2% in support last month. According to Ipsos, some of the lost voters drifted over to Jobbik, and therefore the Fidesz top leadership decided to turn up the volume on far-right talk. With this strategy they are hoping to regain solid control of the right. Maybe, but I wouldn’t be so sure. According to some fairly reliable sources, Fidesz leaders are not panicking over their loss of popularity at the moment. In their opinion, the current level of support is still high enough for the party to bounce back. Demonstrations will end soon, and people will forget about their grievances over the introduction of toll roads and the Sunday store closings.

As opposed to Török, I don’t believe that Orbán’s outburst in Paris has anything to do with his party’s popularity. I think that he is convinced of the ill effects of immigration and is happy that he found an opportunity to take up arms against it, alone if necessary, quite independently of the European Union. He most likely explored how far he can go and came to the conclusion that he can introduce a law that would effectively stop immigration to Hungary and that he could also restrict freedom of the press as long as the law does not differentiate between religions. Therefore, I fear that Hungarian journalists can look forward to greater restrictions to their freedom.

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.

The Hungarian people are not thrilled with Orbán’s Russia policy

Népszava‘s information about Vladimir Putin’s visit to Budapest, seconded by Attila Ara-Kovács on Klubrádió, turned out to be accurate. Válasz, a pro-government internet site, was skeptical about the accuracy of the news because, after all, there was no mention of such a visit in Russian sources. Moreover, no western media picked up the news from Népszava. A commenter on this blog also expressed his doubts about the authenticity of the news. After all, Népszava is an opposition paper and therefore, I guess, not quite reliable. By this morning, however, the press department of the Prime Minister’s Office confirmed the information: Putin is coming to Hungary, although the date hasn’t been fixed.

Meanwile Népszabadság, another opposition paper, learned “from diplomatic circles” that the trip was planned a year ago on Hungary’s initiative. At that time the sanctions against Russia were not yet in place. Moreover, originally the trip was supposed to take place sometime in 2014, but because of scheduling difficulties it was postponed to this year, a change that might be advantageous to Putin but is mighty uncomfortable for Orbán. But as László Kovács, former foreign minister, said yesterday, Orbán developed a relationship with Putin that precludes any postponement of the meeting.

While waiting for the arrival of Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin, several civic groups are preparing demonstrations. A group headed by Zoltán Vajda and Balázs Gulyás, two people whom I consider to be the most promising among the organizers of the recent demonstrations, plans to take the lead. Balázs Gulyás was the organizer of the mass demonstration against the internet tax, and Zoltán Vajda organized the demonstration on behalf of those 60,000 people whose savings in private pension funds the Orbán government wants to expropriate.

Vajda and Gulyás are planning two demonstrations. One will take place on February 1, the day before Angela Merkel’s arrival. It is called “Spring comes–Orbán goes: Demonstration for a European Hungary.” The second demonstration is planned for February 9 or, if Putin comes later, it will be postponed to the day of his arrival. The theme of the second will be “We will not be a Russian colony.” Other organizations and parties expressed an interest in joining these two Facebook groups, and it seems that they, unlike some others, are ready to cooperate with everybody who is ready to join them. As I wrote yesterday, PM asked all democratic parties to take part in massive demonstrations that include both parties and civilians.

In the lively discussion that followed yesterday’s post, a question was raised about the attitude of Fidesz voters toward Russia. According to one opinion, Fidesz voters are so brainwashed that they are ready to follow Viktor Orbán all the way to Moscow. Others, myself included, doubted the accuracy of this observation. In fact, I ventured to suggest that anti-Russian feelings might be a catalyst that will bring about a united opposition to Orbán’s regime. Well, today we have a more scientific answer to the question of Hungarians’ attitude toward the United States and Russia. The poll was taken by Medián for 444.hu

Here are some figures confirming that the Orbán propaganda did not significantly alter Hungarians’ anti-Russian sentiments. I will start with the most important and most telling figures: “If Hungary had to choose between the United States and Russia as a close associate, which country would you choose?” Fifty-three percent chose the United States and only 25% Russia. Hungarians are aware of the worsening relations between the United States and Hungary, and surprisingly the majority blame the Hungarian government for it. This finding goes against the widespread belief that Hungarians always blame others for their misfortunes. Fifty-seven percent of the respondents blame Hungary and only 14% the United States.

Medián also ran these figures against party affiliation. Those who feel more aligned with the democratic parties overwhelmingly blame their own country for the current situation (80%); only 4% blame the United States. Interestingly, the majority of Jobbik voters (59%) side with the United States. Only 13% put the blame on the U.S. while 27% think that the blame should be shared by the two countries. The situation is about the same among undecided voters. Fidesz voters are not as uniformly pro-Russian as some commenters on Hungarian Spectrum suspected. Only 37% blame the United States, 22% Hungary, and 40% think that both countries are at fault. I wouldn’t call that a resounding endorsement of a pro-Russian, anti-U.S. foreign policy.

Diplomats, present and former, have found it difficult to figure out what the real purpose of this meeting is. I could suggest a few topics that might come up. First, I think, is Paks. Orbán, for whom the building of a second reactor at the Paks Nuclear Power Plant is very important, surely would like to get reassurance from Putin that the project is still on and that Russia will not turn its back on Paks as it did on the Southern Stream. Another topic might be Hungary’s attitude toward the extension of the sanctions against Russia. Would Hungary vote against such a decision? There is also the question of the U.S.-EU free trade agreement, officially called the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which Russia opposes.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Orbán were a ready partner of Russia in opposing the free-trade agreement. On what am I basing this opinion? István Mikola, formerly the “nation’s doctor” and nowadays one of the undersecretaries in the foreign ministry, announced last night on HírTV that Hungary would go so far as to veto the TTIP if Hungary’s interests were not taken into consideration. One such reason would be the acceptance in the European Union of genetically modified food products coming from the United States. Fidesz lawmakers included a GMO ban in the new constitution. András Schiffer, the anti-capitalist, anti-globalist co-chair of LMP, went even further. In his opinion, the whole free-trade agreement is against the interests of Hungary. In fact, not just Hungary but in his words “it means in the long run the ruin of the whole globe.” He added that the agreement would mean the loss of 600,000 jobs in the EU. So, Putin and Orbán are of one mind when it comes to the TTIP. András Schiffer, the so-called opposition leader, joins them because of his far-left notions of modern capitalism and globalism.

Not so long ago, however, James Stavridis, dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, wrote an article in Foreign Policy: “Vladimir Putin hates the TTIP which is exactly why Europe and America need to get it done.” Stavridis explains his support of the treaty this way:

The TTIP is a sensible agreement on economic grounds, broadly speaking. But it also holds enormous real value in the geopolitical sphere. The increased linkages between the United States and our European allies and partners will stand in direct opposition to Putin’s key strategy of driving a wedge between the United States and the EU as the central members of the transatlantic community.

I don’t know how important the GMO issue is in the scheme of things, but one has the feeling that Hungary will be a difficult negotiating partner when it comes to the TTIP.

Another issue that might be discussed is Putin’s pet subject, the Eurasian Economic Union. It was only a few days ago that Russia’s EU ambassador urged Brussels to start talks with the newly born Eurasian Economic Union despite the Ukrainian crisis. As he put it, “common sense advises us to explore the possibility of establishing a common economic space in the Eurasian region.” A Russian-led bloc might be a better partner for the European Union than the United States. The reason: low health standards in the U.S. food industry. Orbán again might be helpful on this issue. However, in Orbán’s place I would tread lightly. It is true that Putin’s idea of a Eurasian Union became reality on January 1, but according to Reid Standish, an expert on Kazakhstan, Putin’s Eurasian dream was over before it began.

Eurasian Union

All in all, I think the two have plenty to talk about. The topics I have outlined are primarily Russian concerns, and getting Hungary on board would be only to Russia’s advantage. For Hungary to become Moscow’s Trojan horse in Europe is not strategically wise.

Vladimir Putin’s impending visit to Budapest

Népszava, a social democratic paper, is generally well-informed about the “secrets” of the government. This time it surprised its readers with a front-page article announcing a planned visit by Vladimir Putin to Budapest sometime in March. Budapest, judiciously spurned by western political leaders of late, is becoming a hub of diplomatic activity. Angela Merkel is scheduled for a five-hour visit on February 2 and now the news about Putin.

The newspaper pointed out that this will not be Putin’s first visit to Budapest. He was the guest of Ferenc Gyurcsány in February 2006 when the Hungarian prime minister supported the idea of the Southern Stream to the great annoyance and disapproval of both the United States and Viktor Orbán. Orbán at that time considered such a policy to be the equivalent of treason. The paper also called attention to Viktor Orbán’s about-face when he paid a visit to Moscow in November 2010 and again in February 2013.

Actually Népszava missed an earlier indication that a change in Russo-Hungarian relations was in the works. In November 2009, prior to his becoming prime minister, during a visit to St. Petersburg as one of the vice presidents of the European People’s Party Orbán attended the eleventh congress of the ruling United Russia Party. During this visit he indicated to Putin that he wanted “to put Russian-Hungarian relations on an entirely new footing.” He had made up his mind to conduct a pro-Russian foreign policy once in power.

Viktor Orbán and Vladimir Putin in Moscow, January 2014 Source: Europess / Getty Images / Sasha Mordovets

Viktor Orbán and Vladimir Putin in Moscow, January 2014
Source: Europess / Getty Images / Sasha Mordovets

Perhaps the first person to comment on the news of the visit was László Kovács, former foreign minister, who happened to be a visitor on the early morning program “ATV Start.” He assumes that the initiative for the visit came from Moscow. Zoltán Sz. Bíró, a Russian expert, shares Kovács’s hypothesis. Putin must have been the one to suggest the visit in the hope of convincing Orbán to veto the extension of EU sanctions against Russia, which expire in March. In Biró’s opinion, a veto by Orbán not supported by any other EU country would poison the relationship between Hungary and the West for a very long time. Therefore he doubts that Orbán would dare to go that far.

Attila Ara-Kovács, head of the “foreign cabinet” of the Demokratikus Koalíció, told Klubrádió that he knew about the impending visit for about a week but, according to his information, Putin’s visit will take place not in March, as Népszava reported, but on February 9. In his reading, it was Orbán who invited Putin and not the other way around, perhaps to show the world that he is not alone in his battle with the United States and the European Union. If Orbán sensed that Angela Merkel intended to deliver “bad news” during her stay in Budapest, perhaps a looming visit from Putin might temper her disapproval. Ara-Kovács considers this latest move of Orbán a provocation that will only add fuel to the fire in the strained relationship between Hungary and the West.

What are the reactions of the opposition parties? As usual, MSZP is hibernating. Not a word from József Tóbiás, the party chairman, or from anyone else. Együtt somewhat naively demands that the government consult with all parliamentary parties “in preparing the meeting between Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and the Russian president.” Együtt can wait for such a consultation. Együtt joined LMP in its opposition to the construction of the Paks2 nuclear power plant. Both parties want the government, during the prime minister’s meeting with Putin, to break its contract for a 10-billion-euro Russian loan to have Rossatom build the plant. Well, that will not happen either but it is possible, as Zoltán Sz. Biró suspects, that Russia for financial reasons will give up the idea of the project. PM’s reaction was the most sensible: the party would like to see a huge demonstration against Putin’s visit organized by all the democratic opposition parties as well as by the civic groups that were responsible for the recent mass demonstrations.

László Szily, the blogger of Cink.hu, correctly pointed out that, if it is true that Putin is coming to Budapest, Viktor Orbán just did those who have been expressing their anger against his regime in the last few months a huge favor. The most recent demonstration showed signs of fatigue, but Putin in Budapest could resurrect the old enthusiasm of the crowds and just might unite the hitherto anti-party civic groups and the democratic parties into one large and potent group. Moreover, too cozy a Russian-Hungarian friendship might cause a rift within Fidesz itself. A lot of Fidesz voters are adamantly anti-Russian.  In Szily’s words, “The vacillating opposition on the streets can be grateful to the prime minister because kowtowing to Russia, parading with the dictator is the kind of event that could successfully bring together the dissatisfied left, right, and liberal public.”

One party was elated by the news: Jobbik. This afternoon Jobbik published an official statement, the theme of which was “Hungary must represent the interests of peace and neutrality.” Márton Gyöngyösi, the party’s foreign policy expert, said that Jobbik is a supporter of Viktor Orbán’s “eastern opening” and “considers Russia an economic, political and cultural partner of Hungary.” Budapest, because of the Hungarian minority in the Subcarpathian region of Ukraine, shouldn’t side with its western allies. Gyöngyösi went even further than the rather subdued official statement when he told Hiradó, the organ of state propaganda, that “it is unacceptable that the Hungarian government, blindly representing western interests, is ready to throw the Subcarpathian Hungarians as bones to the West.”

It is hard to know what the next couple of months will bring on the international scene. We have no idea what kind of message Angela Merkel will deliver to Budapest on February 2. We don’t know what foreign reactions to Putin’s visit will be. But domestically the Russian president’s visit might just be a potent catalyst for political change.

The world according to László Kövér

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Magyar Hírlap / Photo Péter Gyula Horváth

Source: Magyar Hírlap / Photo: Péter Gyula Horváth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.