László Kovács

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.

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The long shadow of Viktor Orbán: Tibor Navracsics’s nomination as EU commissioner

Tibor Navracsics’s nomination to be one of the commissioners of the European Commission met with negative reviews from the start. Andrew Gardner of European Voice, a regular commentator on European affairs, wrote a scathing article about Navracsics and the man behind him on July 31. Hungary was eyeing the post of Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy, but in Gardner’s opinion that would be precisely the post Navracsics should not get. “Reforms relating to the rule of law–including fundamental values–are now the alpha and omega in the EU’s enlargement talks…. [and] Navracsics would not be a credible spokesman for those principles, both given the record of Orbán’s government and Orbán’s stated intent to experiment with a different approach to democracy.” It is even more worrisome, he argued, that “Navracsics could choose to spin elements of enlargement talks to promote Hungary’s own rancorous policy agenda with its neighbors.” In addition, Gardner continued, “Orbán and Navracsics are using Ukraine’s multi-headed crisis to increase Hungarian influence and push an agenda that, as Orbán’s speech on Saturday suggests, is not an agenda based on liberal democracies’ advocacy of minority rights.” As the headline in Stop said, “Navracsics [is] in the shadow of Orbán.” And it’s a very dark shadow.

In comparison to some other high Fidesz politicians, Navracsics even seems moderate, but one cannot forget what was going on in the Hungarian judiciary under his watch as minister of justice. The chief prosecutor’s office staged dozens of politically motivated trials, and hundreds of laws were introduced without any serious discussion in parliament. The Constitutional Court was stripped of most of its power. It was with Navracsics’s assent that the Azeri murderer was freed from his Hungarian jail cell and returned to Azerbaijan. So, it was no wonder that DK immediately objected and announced that they found the nomination unacceptable. The same argument is now being used by Tibor Szanyi, one of the two MSZP EP members, who claims that the whole socialist EP delegation will refuse to vote for Navracsics. Of course, the opposition’s objections did not deter Viktor Orbán from nominating Navracsics, and it was most unlikely that Juncker would not accept Orbán’s choice. So, the only question was what kind of portfolio he would get.

It was clear from day one that the desired portfolio of enlargement and European neighborhood policy was out. An early, preliminary chart showed Navracsics as the possible commissioner of trade, which is an important position. Commentators treated that piece of information with caution. A few hours later Magyar Nemzet reported that Navracsics will most likely be Commissioner of Taxation, Customs, Statistics & Anti-Fraud, which is considered to be a lowly position in the Commission. You may recall that between 2004 and 2009 that position was occupied by László Kovács (MSZP), who was originally nominated for the post of commissioner in charge of energy, a very important post, which in the end he didn’t get because of his dismal performance at his hearing. Kovács claimed that Fidesz EP members did their best to discredit him. It will be a cruel fate if Viktor Orbán’s nominee receives the same post that Kovács occupied.

Jean-Claude Juncker and Tibor Navracsics discuss his future position in the Commission

Jean-Claude Juncker and Tibor Navracsics discuss his future position in the Commission

Whether the socialist EP delegation will refuse to vote for Navracsics’s nomination is difficult to say at the moment because there is no official word on the subject, but it looks as if the Fidesz EP members are somewhat concerned. They called upon the four Hungarian members of the socialist caucus–two MSZP and two DK members–to support Navracsics’s nomination. They called attention to the fact that if Navracsics’s nomination is vetoed the fate of the whole commission will be in jeopardy. The European Parliament votes for all the members of the commission en bloc.  If Navracsics is rejected, the whole procedure must be repeated. Népszabadság made fun of Fidesz’s argument in a headline: “Europe can be terrified if Navracsics does not become commissioner.”

The opposition papers were also gleeful over the fact that Navracsics may have to be satisfied with a less than weighty post. One online portal noted that the Hungarian nominee was grouped together with the nominees of Greece, Ireland, Lithuania, and Portugal, which are considered to be less important countries. Stop, a newspaper close to the socialists, made fun of his possible position on the commission, saying that “Tibor Navracsics may putter around with taxes,” forgetting that the socialist Kovács filled the same post a few years back when the socialists certainly did not think that he just puttered around.

In any case, the list is complete and on Friday Jean-Claude Juncker sent it to Matteo Renzi, prime minister of Italy, the country that is the current president of the European Union. On Tuesday we should know what post Navracsics is getting.

But he still cannot be entirely confident that the “shadow” of Viktor Orbán will not dampen his chances. The European socialists might play the same game as the Fidesz EP members did in 2004 when they made Kovács appear totally unqualified for the post of commissioner for energy matters. There is nothing in Navracsics’s background that is remotely connected to taxation, customs, or statistics. I’m sure that he can be made to look inept and unfit for this post.

If Navracsics encounters serious opposition in the European Parliament, we can be pretty certain that the real cause is Viktor Orbán’s relations with the “bureaucrats in Brussels.” Just yesterday at the traditional Fidesz picnic in Kötcse that he claimed that “if there is unity, we will conquer the crisis, the flood, the bureaucrats in Brussels, the financial powers and the banks.” He is ready to take on Brussels. Is Brussels ready to take him on?

The exit of Attila Mesterházy, chairman of the Hungarian socialists

The drama was of short duration. On Tuesday Attila Mesterházy, chairman of the Hungarian Socialist Party, seemed to be certain that he would remain the leader of MSZP and the whip of the party’s parliamentary group despite the disastrous showing at the EP election on May 25. He thought he could rely on the people who were considered to be his steadfast supporters and on whom he had depended throughout the last four or five years.

Mesterházy believed, and he was not alone in the party, that the secret to the revival of MSZP lay in the rejuvenation of the party. Here the word “rejuvenation” is used in its literal sense: getting rid of the older, more experienced leaders who were allegedly responsible for past mistakes and bringing in new faces. Preferably young ones. Closer to 30 than to 40. So, as far as the media was concerned, MSZP had a face lift. But cosmetic surgery was not enough. According to people whose opinion I trust, most of these new faces were only faces. Nothing substantive behind their countenances. These newly recruited people who were elevated to important positions gave the impression of mediocrity at best and total incompetence at worst.

Old hands in the party, especially lately, made it clear what they thought of Mesterházy’s new young crew. At first just quietly, but lately ever more loudly. Perhaps the most outspoken on the quality of the Mesterházy leadership was László Kovács, former chairman, foreign minister, and European Commissioner, who when asked in an interview on what basis these people were chosen, answered: “You ask the chairman of the party.” Or just lately another old-timer, Ildikó Lendvai, former chairman and very effective whip, said, alluding to Mesterjázy’s centralization of power, that “what we need is not a small Fidesz in a worse version.” After all, no one can achieve, even if he wanted to, the one-man rule of Viktor Orbán.

According to people familiar with the internal workings of MSZP, Mesterházy was very good at developing a structure within the party that served his personal ambitions. He was also good at playing political chess, which usually ended with his winning the game. He managed to organize a party list of the United Alliance which greatly favored MSZP at the expense of DK and E14-PM. As a result, the other two parties, each with four MPs, couldn’t form official caucuses, which would have greatly enhanced their own voices and would have strengthened the joint forces of the democratic opposition parties.

Mesterházy was accused by some of his colleagues in the party of playing games with the party’s by-laws. By not resigning himself but only offering the resignation of the whole presidium (elnökség), he was able to postpone an election of all the officials, which is a very long process in MSZP. That would have ensured the continuation of his chairmanship and the existence of the current leadership for months. It was at this junction that the important personages in the party decided to act. At least one well-known socialist politician apparently told the others that if they postpone the election process, card-carrying party members will join DK in hordes because they have had enough of the paralysis that the party leadership has exhibited for some time.

Perhaps it was the Budapest MSZP leadership that was most affected by the results of the EP election. Let’s face it, MSZP lost Budapest. Csaba Horváth’s candidacy for the lord mayoralty is dead; Zsolt Molnár, who headed the Budapest MSZP organization, has resigned; and here was Mesterházy who, in their eyes, was making it impossible for them to recoup in Budapest before the municipal elections. The first group in Budapest to revolt against the chairman was the XIIIth district where MSZP was always very strong. Csepel, once an MSZP stronghold, followed suit. Dissatisfaction spread, and very soon all twenty-three district centers expressed their misgivings and demanded Mesterházy’s resignation.

Some of the old-timers offered solutions on how to change the leadership without getting involved in a complicated and lengthy election of new officials. László Kovács suggested an interim governing body that would be made up of politicians who in the past had showed that they had the trust of the electorate. That is, they won elections on their own. He could think of 6-8 people who could take part in that body. In addition, he would ask László Botka, mayor of Szeged, who has been able to be elected and reelected even in the most difficult times. Kovács also suggested three former chairmen of the party: István Haller, Ildikó Lendvai, and he himself. Mesterházy’s defiant answer to Kovács’s suggestion was: “It is not Lendvai and Kovács who are the bearers of the message of the future.”

Yesterday the party leaders of Budapest were ready for compromise. If Mesterházy resigns as chairman he can still be the whip, a position very dear to his heart. At least he made a case for occupying that post regardless of the fate of the chairmanship in a television interview. But after seeing Mesterházy’s stubbornness, the Budapest leaders and others wanted to strip him even of his parliamentary position. Some MSZP politicians were in fact ready to expel him from the party if he doesn’t play ball. Under these circumstances he had no choice but to resign. Today at noon he held a press conference and announced his resignation both as chairman and as whip of MSZP’s parliamentary group. He added that at the next election of officials he will not seek any position in the party leadership.

Photo: MTI

Photo: MTI

There was a sigh of relief, I’m sure, in the inner circles of the party. However, as one party official said, “this is not the end of the road but its beginning.” The party leadership, he added, “has to eliminate the heritage of the Mesterházy era.” And that will not be easy. For example, the MSZP parliamentary delegation is “Mesterházy’s caucus.” Some people within the party leadership think that each MP who gained a mandate from the party list should offer his resignation. This is not a realistic scenario. These people cannot be forced to offer their resignation and they would be unlikely to resign willingly. The pro-Mesterházy MPs, however, might not be a genuine problem because, according to the latest rumors, even his hand-picked MPs have abandoned him.

As for a successor, many names are circulating at the moment: László Botka, József Tóbiás, István Haller, to mention just a few. I have the feeling that what most people have in mind is an interim “collective leadership” until the party can have a full-fledged congress that would officially elect a new chairman and fill the other top positions.

I think that time is of the essence if MSZP hopes to recoup for the municipal election, although I myself doubt that they will be able to substantially increase their support either in Budapest or elsewhere. On the other hand, I see a good possibility that DK and E14-PM will be able to attract new followers. Success breeds success. I heard, for instance, that DK is getting a lot of membership applications. Yet, just as Ferenc Gyurcsány emphasizes, the three parties must cooperate in the municipal elections. Otherwise, they have no chance of capturing Budapest where at the moment Fidesz is leading in spite of the relatively good showing of DK, E14-PM, MSZP, and LMP. Although the media close to Fidesz intimate that DK is out to capture former MSZP voters while E14-PM is trying to lure former LMP voters, both parties claim to stand by MSZP in its present crisis. In fact, DK politicians keep emphasizing that their interest lies in a strong MSZP. I’m sure that at the moment this is the case. Eventually, however, it is inevitable that these parties will be pitted against one another for the future leadership of the left-of-center forces in Hungary.

Rearrangement on the Hungarian left? It looks like it

Although there are many topics we could discuss today, I would like to return to party politics. I’m interested in the analysis of intra-party developments because of my fascination with personalities and their interactions. My other reason for taking up the topic is that in my opinion we will most likely witness major changes within the democratic opposition soon.

I don’t think that I ever hid the fact that I consider the arrangement that was sealed by Attila Mesterházy of MSZP and Gordon Bajnai of Együtt14-PM unsatisfactory. And, it seems, the potential supporters of this “electoral association” feel the same way as I do. Admittedly, how we feel about a certain occurrence is always influenced by our own likes or dislikes, and therefore it is not the best barometer of the effectiveness of a political action. The real problem, however, with the agreement between E14 and MSZP is that it didn’t bring the expected results. That is a fact that is hard to deny. Surely, the signatories hoped that even a loose coalition would rally the anti-Fidesz forces. It didn’t happen. On the contrary, E14 effectively lost about half of its potential voters.

Looking back on the events of the last half year, I’m actually surprised that the politicians of these two parties ever thought that the arrangement that was achieved only with great difficulty would ever work. You may recall that E14 refused to negotiate until they had their nationwide campaign. E14 politicians were obviously hoping to sit down to negotiate with MSZP from a position of strength. You may also recall that this hoped-for outcome didn’t materialize. Between March and October E14 support  hovered between 3 and 5% in the electorate as a whole. No amount of campaigning helped. Mind you, MSZP didn’t fare any better. The party was stuck between 14 and 15% among all eligible voters. Meanwhile valuable months were wasted.

After the debacle of the October 23 opposition rally and the phony Baja video scandal I hate to think what the next opinion polls will tell us about the state of these two parties. One doesn’t have to be a political genius to see that something went terribly wrong. But it seems that neither Bajnai nor Mesterházy has been willing to admit his mistake. They keep sticking to an untenable position: no renegotiation, no compromise. Everything is peachy-pie as is.

At this point, I was just waiting for the palace revolutions. I didn’t have to wait for long. Two days ago Péter Kónya, leader of Solidarity, was the guest of Olga Kálmán where the careful listener could discern deep trouble within E14.

Solidarity is part of E14-PM, but Kónya hasn’t been given much exposure despite Solidarity’s fairly extensive nationwide base. You may recall that it was Kónya who came up with the idea of an Orbán styrofoam statue imitating the Stalin statue that met its maker on the very first day of the October Revolution. Both Bajnai and Mesterházy timidly repudiated the action, which only gave further ammunition to the hypocritical outrage on the right. At this point I tried to imagine myself in Kónya’s shoes, who steadfastly refuses admit his “mistake.” I would have been furious as I believe Kónya was. Right now, he might be facing a charge of disorderly conduct. Yet he refuses to back down and told Kálmán that he was ready to go to jail if necessary.

Changing leaves

Changing leaves

It was at the end of the conversation that the really important piece of information could be heard. Yes, said Kónya, there are internal disputes concerning strategy in E14. Although at the top of the hierarchy the party leaders refuse to negotiate with Ferenc Gyurcsány, on the local level Solidarity activists are working hand in hand with DK members.  Concurrently with this interview Népszabadság ran an article with the title “Solidarity demands greater influence: Sharp criticisms.” From the article it became clear that Kónya wants a closer working relationship with the Demokratikus Koalíció.

And what one cannot read in the newspapers or hear from the politicians themselves: apparently local E14 members have been leaving the party in droves and joining DK. Apparently there are localities where E14 centers no longer exist. Surely, something must be done.

The situation is not much better in MSZP, although we know less about the inner workings of the party. The first inkling that not all’s well at Mesterházy’s headquarters came from Ildikó Lendvai, legendary whip of MSZP and later chair of the party who decided not to run as a candidate. Her decision, as we learned today, was based on her belief that she was considered one of those old timers the new leadership wants to see disappear. Mind you, Lendvai is one of the most sympathetic and smartest politicians in MSZP, and her quick mind and wit made her one of the best leaders of the MSZP parliamentary group. László Kovács, another old timer, was also on his way out. Their places were taken by second-rates.  One such lightweight was interviewed on ATV two days ago. Olga Kálmán managed to make him look like a fool.

In any case, about a week ago Lendvai gave an interview to Heti Válasz from which we could learn that she holds different views on party strategy from those of the chairman. Very diplomatically but clearly, she indicated that given the strengthening of the Demokratikus Koalíció and the weakening of E14 some kind of renegotiation of the terms of the agreement between MSZP and E14 will have to take place. She suggested that one of the problems standing in the way of a mutual understanding between MSZP and DK is that MSZP couldn’t decide on its attitude toward the party’s record during the Gyurcsány era. The way I read the abbreviated version of the interview online, Lendvai indicated that MSZP should have proudly embraced some of the accomplishments of the period between 2004 and 2009.

And then came the bungled video case. I’m sure that there were already rebels within the party who were not too pleased that Mesterházy was unable to handle the situation at the October 23 rally. An experienced politician would have been able to respond to those who demanded “unity.” Instead, Mesterházy stubbornly stuck to his prepared text just as now he stubbornly holds to the view that the agreement works splendidly when it is obvious that it doesn’t. The handling of the video was, I think, the last straw. By now it looks as if Mesterházy isn’t the master of his own house.

Yesterday came the news that some MSZP leaders, for example Gergely Bárándy and Zsolt Molnár, tried to deny that Ildikó Lendvai and László Kovács will be “advisers” to Attila Mesterházy. Today Lendvai was interviewed by György Bolgár* where she candidly shared her own views as to what strategy MSZP should pursue for participation in a unified democratic opposition. She added that this is her own private opinion that many people within the party don’t share. Clearly, she stands on the side of those who think that MSZP cannot stick with a mistaken agreement that has led nowhere. It was a mistake at the moment of its signing and since then it has become what looks like a blunder. Somehow the wrong must be righted. Now the question is: will Attila Mesterházy listen to the “oldies”?  I have the feeling he has no choice.

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*For those of you who understand the language I highly recommend listening to the Lendvai interview with György Bolgár available here: http://www.klubradio.hu/klubmp3/klub20131106-155854.mp3 The interview begins at 27:32 in the first part and continues in the second part: http://www.klubradio.hu/klubmp3/klub20131106-162853.mp3