M. André Goodfriend

No end to the saga of the Hungarian corruption scandal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source Origo / Nézőpont Intézet

Source Origo / Nézőpont Intézet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The tax chief Ildikó Vida versus the Hungarian government: Who is lying? Most likely both

Practically daily I hear callers to György Bolgár’s program on Klubrádió, Let’s Talk It Over, ask: “Do these  people think we are that stupid?” ‘These people,’ of course, are the current leaders of Hungary, Viktor Orbán and his coterie.

Well, the answer to this question is a resounding “yes.” Moreover, until recently their assumption was correct. A large percentage of Hungarian society swallowed everything that was shoved down their throats. In fact, not much shoving was necessary. The gullible and often fanatic followers of Viktor Orbán refused to face the ever more obvious fact that members of this government brazenly lie. Day in and day out. The lies are necessary, at least in part, to cover up the illegal acts that are being committed daily.

As we all know, lies by their very nature multiply. A vain woman decides to lie about her age and from that moment on her whole life story must be adjusted, a difficult task. As Abraham Lincoln said, “No man has a good enough memory to be a successful liar.” Well, Hungarian officials are now trying to reconcile contradictory stories. Earlier lies about the alleged corruption case at the Hungarian tax authority (NAV) must be adjusted to square with the new revelations coming from Ildikó Vida, the chairman of NAV and one of the people put on the U.S. travel ban list. I must say that government officials are turning out to be less accomplished liars than one would expect from this experienced crew. The only man who cannot be caught uttering truly contradictory statements is Viktor Orbán. He is a master.

So, what happened today? Ildikó Vida gave a long interview to Magyar Nemzet in which she admitted that she and several other employees of NAV are on the list of six individuals who have been barred by the American government from entering the United States. The reason? Their involvement in corruption cases that hurt the interests of American firms operating in Hungary. This decision couldn’t have come as a shock to the Hungarian government because in the past two or three years the Americans have expressed their displeasure numerous times over the growing corruption in Hungary. Yet the government did nothing, which is not at all surprising because it is my firm belief that corruption is an integral part of the mafia state of Viktor Orbán that has been so aptly described in the two-volume The Hungarian Octopus. 

All right. So we know for sure that Vida is on the list, but as I said earlier, most of us were pretty sure that this was the case. Her sudden disappearance for a two-week vacation only reinforced that suspicion. What was new in this long interview is that Vida told Magyar Nemzet that she informed an unnamed member of the government right after she received the letter about the American decision. That was shortly before she embarked on her vacation on October 22. The problem is that in the last three weeks numerous government members, including the prime minister, have denied knowing any details of the case. They repeated time and again that they would be most willing to cooperate with the American authorities but unfortunately they can’t because they don’t know who is alleged to be involved. In brief, they were caught lying. Besides Viktor Orbán, the list of those who claimed they knew nothing includes János Lázár, Mihály Varga, and Péter Szijjártó.

But, of course, Vida herself is not exactly truthful when she claims that the accusations against her are baseless. The United States government would not embark on such a sensitive bilateral move against an ally without hard evidence. Vida’s threats to seek “legal satisfaction” in court are ridiculous. In the first place, M. André Goodfriend, the U.S. chargé d’affaires and the messenger of the bad news from Washington, did not reveal her name or that of any other person barred from entering the U.S. Moreover, he, as all other members of the diplomatic corps, has immunity against prosecution. Another strange aspect of the case is that Vida’s loud complaints about her ignorance of the American accusations are also bogus. She had and still has an opportunity to find out more about the case at the U.S. Embassy. Up to now she has shown no interest in doing so.

vida ildiko2

Those nasty Internet addicts have a wonderful time with Ildikó Vida

We found out from Ildikó Vida’s interview that there will be an investigation into NAV’s activities. She said that she will investigate the whole organization with “microscopic precision.” The head of the tax office who is accused of corruption will be in charge of the investigation into corruption in the organization. A perfect solution, don’t you think?

This interview is also interesting from the perspective of Ildikó Vida’s relationship to the Orbán government. Surely, Vida did not have to tell the whole world that she informed the appropriate official sometime between October 17 and 22 that she had been barred from entering the U.S. as a result of alleged corruption. After all, by this revelation she pushed Viktor Orbán and his government into a corner. On the surface her move seems both calculated and antagonistic. Observers of the Hungarian political scene immediately connected the dots: Vida has been a close associate of Lajos Simicska, whose current relationship with his old buddy Viktor Orbán is less than rosy. Orbán would like to curb Simicska’s power over politics while Simicska is fighting back with critical articles on some of the Orbán government’s latest attacks on businessmen.

Ildikó Vida is not too eager to cooperate with Fidesz politicians. Last week the parliamentary committee on national security asked her to appear today at its meeting. She did not show up. Instead she sent one of her deputies, Árpád Varga, who most likely could not provide any information to the committee members. Szilárd Németh, chairman of the committee, perhaps in frustration, announced that they will ask Goodfriend to appear before the committee sometime next week. My hunch is that Németh and his friends will not have the pleasure of the American chargé’s company.

In the meantime the official lying continues. Mihály Varga told an inquiring journalist that Ildikó Vida informed him only yesterday about her misfortunes. When a journalist called Szilárd Németh’s attention to the fact that there are only two possibilities in this case–either Vida is lying or the government is–he announced that he sees no contradiction between the two statements. László L. Simon (Fidesz), a member of the committee, is now asking Vida to please tell the government who the “appropriate person” was to whom she told her story. Perhaps that man “forgot to pass on” the information. There is a saying in Hungarian when somebody tells an especially big lie: “And the ceiling did not fall on him!”

Political observers often express their admiration of the Orbán government’s “communication skills.” This time something went very wrong, which is actually not all that surprising. Viktor Orbán and his crew think that good communication means constant lying to foreign politicians and the Hungarian public. Yet we know the other famous quip attributed to Lincoln: “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” Or a proverb, which also exists in Hungarian, “the pitcher goes to the well once too often.”

No Internet tax but attacks on the United States continue

On Friday Viktor Orbán was still determined that after a national consultation the internet tax would be introduced sometime next year. Today he retreated from this position. He suggested that the internet providers’ unanimous opposition to the tax was the reason for removing the item from the government’s 2015 budget proposal. I very much doubt that the joint letter of the providers addressed to Mihály Varga had anything to do with the decision. Rather, Orbán recognized that his attempt to simply postpone the decision would not appease the multitudes of internet users. There was a very good possibility that the demonstrations would be repeated from time to time, further damaging the reputation of the government and Viktor Orbán personally. Despite this retreat, however, I have the feeling that in one way or the other curtailing internet access will be back on Viktor Orbán’s agenda. He is only too aware that almost all of the large demonstrations against his government were organized on Facebook. Social media is a danger to autocrats.

Now that this issue is behind us, I would like to return to the Orbán government’s relations with two of its adversaries at the moment: the United States and Norway. You may recall that János Lázár invited the “appropriate Norwegian minister” to meet with him either in Budapest or in Brussels. I predicted that Vidar Helgesen, the minister in question, would not oblige. And indeed, Tove Skarstein, Norwegian ambassador in Budapest, held a press conference today where she announced that Norway does not recognize the right of the Hungarian government to investigate the Ökotárs Foundation. Norway is in the middle of conducting its own probe, which will be ready by the end of November. Until then, the monies of the Norway Civic Fund will continue to be distributed through Ökotárs. It is unlikely that the Hungarian government will be the winner of this dispute. So far the Orbán government has been left holding the short end of the stick: the Norwegian Funds suspended payment of some 40 billion forints that the Hungarian government was supposed to distribute for various projects.

After the meeting of the Fidesz parliamentary caucus a journalist asked Viktor Orbán about the U.S. travel ban on the six Hungarian officials and businessmen. As we know, the reason for the ban is not just simple corruption but also American fear that the reported cases would not be investigated by the police and the prosecutor’s office. In plain English, there is a well-founded suspicion that the government is complicit in the crime itself.

Viktor Orbán does not like to talk about this sensitive topic, and apparently the subject did not come up at today’s meeting of the parliamentarians. Of course it didn’t because it was not on the agenda. When asked whether he knows the names of the six people in question, Orbán’s answer was: “if the Americans tell me, then I will be glad to tell.” The game Orbán is playing is rather simple-minded. He would gladly investigate and if necessary bring the culprits to justice, but the Americans with their stupid laws prevent him from doing so. One has to be very naive to think that Orbán does not know the names or that the prosecutor’s office could not investigate their cases.

It seems to me that there is still a huge confusion about how to deal with the frayed American-Hungarian relations. On the one hand, Viktor Orbán at least twice tried to discourage the far-right leaders of the Peace Marches from organizing an anti-American rally. On the other hand, members of his government are accusing Bunge, the American agribusiness corporation, of corruption. Bunge is most likely the company that reported the corrupt tax authority officials to the American embassy. A few days ago Magyar Nemzet accused Bunge of corruption in Argentina, and today András Tállai, undersecretary in the Ministry of National Economy, went further. According to him, “it is a very interesting situation that in the final analysis it is possible, nay it is certain, that the informer itself is involved with the fraud.” That is, Bunge is being accused of tax fraud. And that’s not all. Magyar Hírlap learned that Carol Browner, Barack Obama’s adviser on environmental matters, recently became a member of Bunge’s board of directors. And, the paper added, Browner was also a member of the Clinton administration. The headline reads: “The threads may lead all the way to Barack Obama.” Wow!  Magyar Hírlap is a big game hunter.

Bunge says it is not under VAT fraud investigation Source: www.bbj.hu

Bunge says it is not under VAT fraud investigation
Source: http://www.bbj.hu

János Lázár also made it clear how he feels about the United States’ role in shining a light on corruption in the Hungarian tax authority. When an MSZP member of parliament inquired about Ildikó Vida, the head of the office, Lázár retorted: “How do you know that she is involved? For an answer it would be enough to bring the flag of the United States and put it between the European and the Hungarian flags because then we would understand that behind the MSZP caucus there is the Budapest chargé of the United States.” He also suggested to Bernadett Szél (LMP) that she go to the United States embassy and ask them why they intimate that part of Hungarian officialdom is corrupt.

Meanwhile the right and far-right media are full of attacks on the stupid, ignorant and boorish Americans and their representative, M. André Goodfriend, as opposed to the Russians of Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Dostoevsky. Since we all know that a single word from Viktor Orbán would be enough to silence these hacks, we can safely assume that the rants from the staff of Magyar Nemzet and Magyar Hírlap are not against the wishes of the Orbán government.

Viktor Orbán is not only illiterate when it comes to computers. What about diplomacy?

As you know, I was contemplating writing something about the internet tax, but I felt I had to deal with the further reverberations of Hungary’s shaky relations with the U.S. Now, it seems, the two topics have converged with M. André Goodfriend’s appearance at the demonstration last night.

So, let’s start with the demonstration itself. I considered the crowd very large, especially in comparison to similar gatherings when the issues were purely political. Abstract concepts don’t move crowds in Hungary. The reason might be the low level of political culture and sophistication, the lack of a sustained democratic past, and perhaps even the sinking living standards that force people to concentrate on sheer survival.

I watched the entire demonstration and was impressed with Balázs Gulyás, the organizer and speaker. Although he tried to keep the focus on a single issue, the internet tax, it was clear from the first moment that the demonstration was much more than that. It was a rejection of the kind of life Viktor Orbán and his minions are offering Hungarians, especially young people. I especially liked a phrase in Gulyás’s speech–“we only turned the clock back, not the century”–referring to going off Daylight Savings Time the night before. The demonstrators obviously knew full well that the internet tax is just a symptom of the many anti-modern moves that make the Orbán regime a retrograde construct that can only lead the country to disaster. We are already pretty close.

Another welcome feature of the demonstration was a healthy mix of the young, middle-aged, and old. Yes, I know that young people are not interested in politics, and I wish this weren’t the case, but one must face facts. Unfortunately, by and large this is the situation all over the world. But those young people who went out yesterday realize that this government does not serve their needs. They consider Viktor Orbán a man of the past, an old fuddy-dud who is computer illiterate. Someone who is never seen with a smart phone. Someone who “cannot send an e-mail.” The boys–as longstanding acquaintances call the Fidesz founders–are looking old and tired. Although Orbán is only 50, he is “not with it.” Something happened to these young revolutionaries of the 1980s over the last twenty years. Time has left them behind, and they want to foist their outdated ideas and outlook on life on the new generation.

Balázs Gulyás is telling the truth: not a computer in sight

Balázs Gulyás is telling the truth: not a computer in sight

On the other hand, the American chargé d’affaires, André Goodfriend, seemed to be very much with it as he stood in the crowd with a backpack. As he said in one of his many recent interviews, he spends a great deal of time on the streets of Budapest. A planned demonstration on the internet tax was certainly something he thought he ought to see in person. I’m also sure that he has the State Department’s backing for both his appearances at demonstrations and his presence on Twitter. There a so-called conversation developed between the American chargé and Zoltán Kovács, undersecretary for international communication. I find Kovács unsuited for the job he holds, but perhaps it is fitting that such a man represents the Orbán government abroad. He is a perfect embodiment of this aggressive, crude regime.

Here are a couple of tweets, starting with

Goodfriend:

            “Interesting to see the nature of crowds in Budapest. Internet tax march seemed large & orderly w/good police support.” Then later: “Seeing the news reports of vandalism during the march as well, which I condemn. Not as orderly as it seemed where I stood.”

Kovács:

            “Checkin’ the mood, André?! @a demonstration organized by MSZP and liberals’?! As Chargé d’Affaires? Interesting, Eh?”

Goodfriend:

            “Absolutely. I’ve also checked the mood at the Peace Marches, and at numerous other events organized in Hungary.”

Kovács:

            “Are you sure that’s the wisest thing in this histerically stirred-up atmosphere while you vindicate to be a key actor? Eh?!”

Goodfriend:

            “There’s always a choice between hiding away, & getting out to see what’s happening. I try to hear the full range of perspectives.”

Kovács:

            “Sure ‘hearing’ and influencing does make a large difference.”

Goodfriend:

            “When I want to influence, I speak. Otherwise, I’m listening. Sometimes there’s not enough listening.”

Kovács:

            “That we’ve learned through the past couple of days. Sometimes there’s too much ‘demonstration.'”

Goodfriend:

            “So, now is the time to draw lessons from the discussion, and follow words with constructive, meaningful deeds.”

Kovács:

            “Surely, giving an ultimatum by demonstrators to a govt is no ground for constructivity. Good luck with friends like that…”

Goodfriend:

            “Some people see ‘ultimatum’ others see a proposition awaiting response as part of dialog. Constructive part may be the response.”

An extraordinary exchange in which Zoltán Kovács showed his true colors and the baseness of his discourse.

Meanwhile the likes of Kovács, András Bencsik, and other organizers of the Peace Marches were ready to call their 100,000 followers to defend their leader because the United States may prepare a coup against Orbán just as it did in Ukraine, they claimed. Apparently they were told to cool it because it might be taken as a sign of weakness of the all-powerful prime minister. Just as they were told to scrap a planned demonstration on behalf of the poor Russians suffering under the yoke of sanctions.

But the volume was turned up by members of the government. László Kövér last night on HírTV talked about a verbal cold war and warned the West that further criticism of Hungary might change the positive picture Hungarians have of the United States and Western Europe. He also tried to explain away Hungary’s isolation by saying that Hungary has so few friends because this is the “nature of politics.” And naturally he did not forget about the NGOs that serve foreign interests.

At the same time there are a few voices warning the government that its relations with the United States have reached a dangerous juncture. Péter Boross, prime minister for a few months in 1993-1994, came out with this observation: “The European Union and the European Parliament are terrains where the government and the prime minister can defend their actions. But the United States is different. The United States is a great power and I would not suggest getting into an argument with her. That can be dangerous for Hungary.”

Others share Boross’s view. An opinion piece in HVG was entitled “The country that came into the cold.” In another, which appeared in privatbanker.hu, a journalist is convinced that “the ice is cracking under our feet” and that Hungary’s relations with the West are shattered at their very foundations. Even in the pro-Fidesz Válasz an editorial warned that it is not a smart thing to irritate the lion. The writer found it outlandish that Tamás Deutsch, one of the veteran politicians of Fidesz and a member of the European Parliament, called André Goodfriend a fifth-rate CIA agent. The author also found Kovács’s tweets to the chargé unfortunate. Such a communication style might be acceptable in Syria and Iran, he said, but these countries do not claim to be allies and friends of the United States.

More about this topic tomorrow.

Possible trajectories for Hungary with or without Viktor Orbán

Today I’ll backtrack a bit and revisit the serious diplomatic crisis that developed between Hungary and the United States. When the news hit about the American decision to ban six Hungarians from entering the United States, some commentators were convinced that the alleged corruption was only a pretext, that the real cause was Russia.

These people were wrong. The Americans stressed that the widespread and systemic corruption that permeates every facet of Hungarian society is a serious problem in and of itself. But they added that there are many other policies Washington finds unacceptable from an allied country, several of them having to do with Russia. At his last press conference M. André Goodfriend, the U.S. chargé d’affaires, underscored America’s disappointment in Hungary, once the the flag bearer of freedom. In the last few years the country has changed, and not for the better. Goodfriend was quite specific in enumerating some of the sore points in American-Hungarian relations. He mentioned the lack of transparency in connection with the negotiations with Russia about building the nuclear reactor in Paks. The United States is unhappy about Hungary’s far too accommodating behavior when it comes to the Southern Stream. Relying exclusively on natural gas is the wrong way to approach Europe’s energy needs. He mentioned the situation of the media in Hungary. Then there is Hungary’s self-serving behavior during the Russian-Ukrainian crisis. The United States realizes that autonomy for the Hungarian minority in Ukraine is an important consideration for Budapest, but this subject shouldn’t be brought up when Ukraine is fighting for its territorial integrity. The Orbán government’s behavior toward the European Union and the United States has been objectionable ever since June 2010, but Orbán’s pro-Russian policy at this particular juncture was the straw that broke the camel’s back. And finally, he brought up the Hungarian government’s attitude toward the NGOs.

On the same day a reporter from Index managed to get hold of Viktor Orbán in Brussels. Earlier, when asked about U.S.-Hungarian relations, he practically ran away. This time, from what he had to say on the topic, it was evident that he knows who the people are who have been barred from the United States. Yet he indicated that no investigation will take place because he cannot take responsibility for some other country’s assumptions. It is impossible to accuse someone without any proof. Clearly Orbán is stonewalling. No one demands that charges be brought against those who are implicated in the instances of corruption the U.S. reacted to. It is enough to investigate their cases. The Hungarian authorities had no difficulty ransacking the offices of the Ökotárs Foundation. Where was the proof then?

Orban in Brussels2

Meanwhile there are growing signs that the American move prompted quite a controversy in Fidesz circles. I already mentioned Válasz, a pro-Fidesz site, and Mandiner, an online news portal staffed by a group of young conservatives. Both publications were highly critical of Viktor Orbán. Péter Szijjártó let the cat out of the bag during his interview with a reporter from USA Today. He admitted that the dispute with the United States created “a large discussion” within Fidesz. Nick Thorpe, the British journalist who apparently has friends high up in the government party, also reported to the BBC that “there are growing divisions in the right-wing party over Mr. Orban’s steps to turn Hungary into an ‘illiberal democracy.'” According to Thorpe, “the mood in the corridors of power is wretched.” Moreover, the new pro-Russian foreign policy does not sit well with some of the fiercely anti-communist and anti-Russian politicians in Fidesz.

Ildikó Csuhaj of Népszabadság was even more specific. She spoke with several “conservative” critics of Viktor Orbán’s policies who are worried about the prime minister’s double dealings: for example, one day he stands by NATO and the next he wants to build the Southern Stream. These conservative informers believe that if Viktor Orbán does not change his course “Hungary might find herself staring into an abyss.” I know that some people would like to draw the conclusion that after a couple of more missteps there might be a palace revolution by the more moderate and cautious members of the governing party. I, however, can imagine such an event occurring only if the European Union stops the flow of free money to Hungary. As long as Orbán delivers the goodies, his friends have no reason to abandon him.

Nonetheless, Orbán’s position is precarious. Let’s assume that the Americans have in their files several more corruption cases that will reveal that the government and power structure Orbán has constructed in the last few years is in fact a regime in which the essence of politics is blatant, all persuasive corruption–a true mafia state as Bálint Magyar describes Orbán’s system. If these cases reveal that the entire political leadership is deeply implicated, Orbán’s political edifice might crumble. It could also happen that the European Commission, now headed by Jean-Claude Juncker, will be a great deal less charitable toward the Orbán government than it was in the last four and a half years under the leadership of José Manuel Barroso. Let’s assume that the Commission becomes tired of the corruption that surrounds the European grants. I just read that 10% of all corruption cases that are being investigated by OLAF, the office dealing with corruption in the countries of EU, come from Hungary. We can further assume that the EU will be more willing to move against Hungary after the American initiative. I wouldn’t be surprised if Washington and Brussels would even coordinate their policies toward Hungary. More and more people talk  in Brussels about the possibility of invoking Article 7 of the EU Treaty against Orbán’s Hungary. These are real possibilities.

KAL cartoon from The Economist

KAL cartoon from The Economist

But let’s take seriously for a minute László Kövér’s vision of a gradual retreat from the European Union. Where would Hungary find the funds to keep itself afloat? Russia? China? I don’t think that Russia is in any position to become the rescuer of Hungary. Moreover, Botond Feledy, a political scientist, points out in today’s Index that for Putin Hungary is useful only as long as the country is part of the European Union. As far as China is concerned, its leaders are shrewd businessmen.

Charles Gati of Johns Hopkins University has an interview in today’s Népszava entitled “Orbán faces the hardest decision of his life.” In his opinion, it would take an enormous amount of time and effort to convince the United States that the Hungarian government has abandoned those policies that almost led to a break in American-Hungarian relations.”This will not be easy and it will not be accomplished without great personal sacrifice.” If Orbán continues with his old policies, he will surely fail but if he changes and “leads the country along western values, he may also lose. The first alternative is certain, the other only a possibility. That’s why it is still too early to bury Hungarian democracy.”

Hungarian foreign minister in Washington: A stalemate

Let’s cut to the chase: neither the Hungarian nor the American position has changed despite Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó’s meeting with Assistant Undersecretary Victoria Nuland in Washington today. So far we have two brief reports on the meeting. The first was published in Magyar Nemzet; its source is HírTV, which sent its own crew to Washington for the occasion. The second is from the Washington correspondent of MTI, which I found in HVG. The former is a more expansive summary of what transpired between Nuland and Szijjártó, complete with direct quotations from Szijjártó himself.

What did we learn from this report? Despite repeated American explanations of why the U.S. government is unable to reveal the names of the individuals who have been banned from entering the U.S., Szijjártó was still hoping for such information. Here is Szijjártó in his own words: “I asked the government of the United States to share with us creditable information on the basis of which they accuse certain Hungarian citizens of corruption.” As long as there is no such information “we cannot move forward…. It is only the United States that can make the first move.” A stalemate. The United States expects the Hungarian government to clean up the country’s thoroughly corrupt behavior toward international businesses while the Hungarian government’s interpretation of the situation is much more narrowly defined. As far as the Hungarians are concerned, there may be some corrupt officials but unless the United States names these people the Hungarian government can do nothing. The only positive development, according to Szijjártó, was that Nuland did not repeat the threat uttered by Goodfriend that “if that trend continues it may reach a level where the United States can no longer cooperate with Hungary as an ally.” I do hope that Szijjártó doesn’t interpret this omission to mean that Goodfriend made an empty threat  because I’m almost certain that if Hungary stonewalls, other harsh steps will be taken against the Orbán government. And for the time being stonewalling seems to be the Hungarian diplomatic strategy.

The MTI report was more upbeat. Who knows why Szijjártó changed his story, but he did. No more talk about who will have to take the next step. Instead, he emphasized his government’s willingness to fight corruption and said that in this fight the two governments can count on each other. Economic and military relations between the two countries are excellent. According to Szijjártó, Nuland was full of praise for Hungary’s decision to supply gas to Ukraine. There was an interesting remark made in passing. It turned out that Nuland brought up some specific criticisms of certain pieces of Hungarian legislation, but Szijjártó brushed these objections aside as being irrelevant because they have been accepted and approved by the European Commission.

György Szapáry, Hungarian ambassador to Washington, and Péter Szijjártó MTI / Ministry of Forreign Affairs and Trade / Tamás Szémann

György Szapáry, Hungarian ambassador to Washington, and Péter Szijjártó
MTI / Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade / Photo: Tamás Szémann

What did the Hungarian government know about the coming storm? It seems a lot, and not only about the corruption cases. One had to be blind and deaf not to notice the growing dissatisfaction of foreign governments with the Orbán regime. One also assumes that Hungarian diplomats do their job and write reports on the current attitude toward Hungary in their host countries. Of course, given the atmosphere in government offices in the Orbán regime, it is possible that the ambassadors don’t dare tell the truth. Still, although there was a stream of denials of any wrongdoing and everything was chalked up to Hungarian liberals’ squealing and turning against their own country, I believe they knew full well that trouble was brewing all around. And yet Népszabadság‘s Ildikó Csuhaj, who seems to have good Fidesz sources, claimed today that Viktor Orbán himself knew nothing about the NAV affair. One wonders how much disinformation from “reliable” Fidesz sources lands on Csuhaj’s desk. This seems to be one of them.

Although there was plenty of evidence of growing U.S. dissatisfaction with Viktor Orbán’s policies, he did not change his ways on issues that seemed important to Washington. He even ignored Zsolt Németh’s warning. I wrote about a conference held in Washington on October 2 where one of the speakers was Németh, an old friend of Orbán–at least until recently, who received a very chilly reception. It was here that Victoria Nuland delivered the speech I republished in Hungarian Spectrum. Today Németh decided to speak and tell the world that he had forewarned Orbán about the impending bomb that might be coming from Washington. The interview with Németh appeared in Válasz. In it Németh expressed his hope that “several of the questions surrounding the [NAV] affair will be cleared up.” (As we know by now they were not.) Hungarian right-wing journalists dismiss corruption as the real cause of the present situation. In their interpretation the reference to corruption is only a pretext. Válasz‘s reporter also wanted to know whether the real reason for the ban on corrupt officials is Viktor Orbán’s relations with Russia. Németh wouldn’t dismiss corruption entirely, but he thinks that in addition to the Russian connection there are other very irritating issues: the NGOs, Hungary’s attitude toward Ukraine, the Russian sanctions, and the speech on “illiberalism.” Németh sensed all that, and on his return to Budapest he informed the foreign minister–still Tibor Navracsics then–and the prime minister of his experience. At the end of the interview Németh indicated that a new chapter should open in U.S.-Hungarian relations: “we are right after the election, both countries will send new ambassadors. Let’s see the good side of this affair: we are at a point from which we can take off.” Although not in so many words, what Németh suggests is an entirely new Hungarian foreign and domestic orientation.

Németh is most likely right. I can see no room for improvement in U.S.-Hungarian relations if the Orbán foreign policy proceeds apace. I even have my doubts about improvement if Orbán makes some adjustments in his domestic and foreign policies. By now Orbán strongly believes in his vision of a new Hungary in which liberalism has no place. This new Hungary is an authoritarian country with pseudo-democratic trappings. He is also convinced in the declining West and the rising East. He will not change course. He really can’t. He is what he is. He can never satisfy the demands of western democracies.

Just to reinforce my point about Orbán’s mindset, here are two pieces of news about the latest Hungarian diplomatic moves. Hungary may be experiencing a serious diplomatic crisis with the United States but the foreign ministry just announced that Hungary will open a cultural and commercial agency in Northern Cyprus, a “country” recognized by only one country, Turkey. This move might make Hungary’s relations with two EU countries, Greece and Cyprus, less than friendly. This is a gesture toward Turkey, whose “illiberal democracy” is a thorn in the side of western democracies.

The second diplomatic move also sends a not too cordial message to the United States. Two days ago the Iranian Tasmin News Agency announced that a Hungarian parliamentary delegation is scheduled to pay an official visit to Iran. The visit will be fairly long. The delegation is headed by deputy speaker János Latorcai (KDNP). The invitation to the Hungarians was extended by the deputy speaker of the Iranian parliament Seyed Mohammad Hassan Abu Torbifard. It is interesting that reports of controversial Hungarian diplomatic moves usually don’t appear in the Hungarian press. Hungarians hear about the events from the other countries’ news agencies. From a later Tasmin News Agency report we learned that Latorcai had a meeting with the chairman of the Iranian parliament’s national security and foreign policy commission, Alaeddin Boroujerdi. According to the report, Boroujerdi made the following comment during their conversation: “the illogical and wrong policies adopted by the US and its regional allies have caused the spread of terrorism and instability across the region and their continuation has turned terrorism into a global concern.” As for Iranian-Hungarian relations, the Iranian politician said that “the two nations have great potential for the enhancement of relations in the political, economic, and cultural fields.” Latorcai, for his part, emphasized that “Budapest is determined to strengthen its ties with the Eastern nations, with Iran in particular.” One must wonder whether these diplomatic moves are the result of inexperience or, as I suspect, are designed to irritate Hungary’s allies and flaunt the country’s total independence. Whatever it is, this attitude will eventually lead to diplomatic disaster. It’s just a question of time.

American-Hungarian relations are crumbling

Let me summarize what we know so far about the U.S. action against certain Hungarian businessmen and government employees.

Initially it was reported that ten people were banned from entering the United States, but by now that number has been reduced to six. We definitely know of one businessman who reported on his fate to ATV. It was he who mentioned three employees of the Office of Taxation and Customs (NAV). One of the three was allegedly the president of NAV, Anikó Vida. The spokesman for the tax office did not deny the charge. If the number six is correct, there are still two people about whom we know nothing.

Although the Hungarian government feigns total ignorance of the details and keeps repeating that it is unable to move against the corrupt officials, in fact they have known for two weeks about the American resolve to pursue those Hungarians who have been trying to blackmail American firms and extort kickbacks of billions of forints from them.

M. André Goodfriend, chargé d’affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Budapest, sketched the timeline of events this afternoon. According to him, on October 6 he had a talk with Levente Magyar, one of the undersecretaries in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. During the meeting Goodfriend explained the significance of Proclamation 7750, which is an executive order signed by George W. Bush in 2004. The Proclamation gives the State Department power to ban corrupt individuals and their families from entering the United States. Such a ban can be imposed only by the undersecretary for political affairs–in our case by Wendy Sherman, who is the department’s fourth-ranking official. (Here is a handy chart of the structure of the State Department.)

Levente Magyar must have understood the gravity of the situation because a subsequent meeting was arranged at the request of the Hungarian foreign ministry between Péter Szijjártó and André Goodfriend. This meeting took place on October 13. The American chargé repeated everything he had already told Magyar. Szijjártó then insisted that he reveal the names of those would be affected by the ban. Goodfriend in turn explained that the American government never reveals names in cases connected to Proclamation 7750. What the U.S. expects is swift action against the culprits.

Let’s stop here for a minute. I assume that Viktor Orbán was notified immediately after the encounter between Magyar and Goodfriend on October 6, and I also suspect that the prime minister’s advice was to insist on “proof” from the Americans. When that failed, in typical Orbán fashion the decision was made to launch a counterattack. NAV leaked information to Napi Gazdaság, a financial paper owned by Századvég, a consulting firm and think tank close to Fidesz, that the United States is contemplating evoking Proclamation 7750 against certain Hungarian businessmen in retaliation for NAV’s tax probes against certain American firms. If the Hungarian government hadn’t decided on this counterattack, we perhaps would never have found out about the travel ban on the six, still unnamed individuals. Colossally stupid move, but I think it is typical. Viktor Orbán always has to have the last word.

Since October 16, the day that Napi Gazdaság published its article containing the disinformation concocted by the Hungarian government, the controversy between the United States and Hungary has been escalating rapidly. The Hungarians kept insisting on “creditable proof” while the Americans steadfastly refused to fall into the trap. Moreover, while at the beginning the controversy seemed to be connected only to widespread corruption in Hungary, as time went by it became obvious that the United States might also take action against the Orbán government’s increasingly anti-democratic behavior. A day after the appearance of the accusations against American businesses in Napi Gazdaság, an article was published in Foreign Policy magazine from which we learned that “at a meeting last month, the Community [of Democracies] set in motion a process that could result in Hungary’s removal from the council and withdrawal from the Community. If Hungary leaves, it will be an international acknowledgment  that the nation has ceased to be a democracy.”

What is the Community of Democracies? It is a global intergovernmental coalition of states founded in 2000 at the common initiative of Madeleine Albright and Polish foreign minister Bronislaw Geremek. The organization is headed by a Governing Council consisting of 26 countries, among them Hungary. Apparently it was the United States that suggested that Hungary be removed from the Council and perhaps even from the organization. Or perhaps Hungary might consider a voluntary withdrawal from the Community in order to avoid embarrassment. The likelihood of an American initiative in this case was reinforced by André Goodfriend’s observation that such a move might be warranted under the circumstances.

M. André Goodfriend at one of his press conferences

M. André Goodfriend at one of his press conferences

While the Hungarian government is stonewalling, the U.S. chargé d’affaires in Budapest, most likely following instructions from the State Department, is delivering tougher and tougher messages to the Hungarian government during fairly frequent press conferences at the embassy. Perhaps the strongest language could be heard this afternoon when Goodfriend explained the reason for American action. In Hungary prior to 2010 the level of democracy and transparency, especially in comparison to some other post-socialist countries, was high. But while in other countries the trend is toward greater democracy and transparency, in Hungary the opposite is true. “If that trend continues it may reach a level where the United States can no longer cooperate with Hungary as an ally.” Clearly, the United States is not joking–as Antal Rogán assumed only yesterday during an interview.

Let’s return briefly to the three high officials of the Hungarian tax office who most likely are implicated in the case. In what way can they engage in fraud and corruption? Here is an explanation offered by Dávid Jancsics, who is currently conducting research at the City University of New York. His expertise is corruption. He learned from two independent sources that the NAV employees demanded kickbacks from two American companies in exchange for tax breaks and a lower VAT. Apparently they demanded 2 billion forints in exchange for these favors, money that the American companies were supposed to pay to a foundation associated with Fidesz for purposes of “research and analysis.” In addition, the NAV officials promised heavy fines on the American firms’ competitors. When the Americans didn’t bite, the NAV officials began threatening them with tax probes. It was at this point that the firms turned to the American embassy and reported the bribery attempts. The implication of this analysis, if it is accurate, is frightening because in this case the tax office is part and parcel of a corruption scheme that appears to be centrally organized.

This takes us back to an old story about a whistleblower at NAV who claimed that high NAV officials refused to investigate obvious fraud cases. András Horváth, the whistleblower, said that he was mostly involved in investigating companies that dealt in agricultural products. Index came to the conclusion that one of the two American companies in question was Bunge, a leading agribusiness and food company. It is a global firm with 35,000 employees in forty countries, including Hungary. They produce among many other things cooking oil sold in Hungary under the label Vénusz. It was well known that the management of Bunge was very unhappy about the VAT fraud and that their efforts to enlist the help of NAV were fruitless. It is possible that after a lot of complaints from the Bunge management NAV officials offered to do something about the competition’s fraudulent business practices but only at a price.

Hungarian journalists in the last few days have asked several business groups, like the German-Hungarian Chamber of Commerce, about the extent of corruption in Hungary. The answer is that foreign companies have known for years about corruption involving billions. “Hungary is a part of the Balkans” by now, and the situation is only becoming worse. According to foreign business leaders, Hungarian business life is corrupt through and through. Healthy competition is impossible under such circumstances.

Péter Szijjártó is leaving Budapest for Washington tomorrow to meet Victoria Nuland. I wouldn’t like to be in his shoes.

Mária Schmidt’s latest opus: The love story

Mária Schmidt is familiar to the readers of Hungarian Spectrum. This latest article of hers also appeared in Heti Válasz, her favorite publication. Her vision of  Jewish-non-Jewish relations as a love affair goes against everything we know about the period between the two world wars. If Sorsok Háza (House of Fates) becomes an embodiment of that love affair, we will have a totally false depiction of Hungarian reality. No wonder that the Hungarian Jewish community has great reservations about the project.

I have no doubt that the Sorsok Háza will open its doors and that what we find inside will mirror Mária Schmidt’s strange vision of modern Hungarian history. She makes it clear here that the project is a government-funded undertaking and thus no one has the right to have any say in its execution.

Mária Schmidt started off as a promising historian in the late 1980s, but soon enough she changed her chosen profession to become a party propagandist. She became chief adviser to Viktor Orbán in the second half of the 1990s and provided the underpinning of  Fidesz’s historical ideology.

The question is how long she will be useful to Viktor Orbán. Her latest excursion into the field of historical propaganda was not exactly a success story. The controversial memorial to “all the victims of  the German occupation” of March 1944 did serious damage to the already badly tarnished reputation of Viktor Orbán and his regime. 

* * *

“The Holocaust represents a value, because it has led to immeasurable knowledge at the cost of immeasurable sufferings;
thus, there is an immeasurable moral margin in it.”

Imre Kertész

I have not seen S. Z. for decades. The last time I met him was in New York in the early nineties at the place of the outstanding historian T. J., a common friend of ours, who has sadly deceased since. We got to know each other in Oxford where both of them were teaching then. S. taught Jewish history, of which subject he is one of the most widely acknowledged American academic experts, and I spent some time there on a research grant. Then S. came to Budapest for a conference, and after he gave his presentation, we went out for dinner. We talked for hours, and a lot of topics came up including the “House of Fates,” about which he had already heard a lot back in Washington and of course also during his stay here. Those who volunteered to bring him up to date concerning the state of affairs in Hungary, about me and the would-be Holocaust museum, had spared no effort to dissuade him from meeting me, both via e-mail and then personally. They were probably unaware of our long time acquaintence  which gave me the advantage that he wanted to ask me his questions and hear my answers, which is what he did. So we talked at length about the new memorial site which is in the making. I told him about the concept of the exhibitions and of the education and training center. I showed him the exterior and interior visual designs, the interior fit-out and furnishing concept. We discussed the prospective permanent exhibition in most detail. Finally he said: “If I get it right, this is a love story. A story of love between Hungarian Jews and non-Jews. A love that has survived everything. As a result of which there is still a large Hungarian Jewish community living in this country.”

Yes. This is exactly what the “House of Fates – European Education Center” is all about. This is about decision makers’ intent to take an oath on a common fate shared by all Hungarians: Jews and non-Jews alike. About the commitment to make sure that just like our predecessors we can also plan a shared future despite the cataclysms of the 20th century. This is why it is crucial for young generations to get to know and understand what the tragedy of the holocaust meant for our national community as well as what the causes, circumstances, intents and forces that had underlain and fuelled anti-Semitism in Hungary and in Europewere. Who and why had poisoned the lives of our fellow countrymen categorized as Jews even before the fateful Nazi occupation of Hungary. How and why part of the last, nearly intact European Jewish community could be so swiftly annihilated in Nazi death camps. Who are responsible for all that? Who were the ones who remained humans amidst inhumanity because they opted for what is good, at the risk of even their lives and freedom in some cases. How could the survivors start anew and process what can hardly be processed. Why the majority of those people decided to stay here, to start their lives at home again and share what their fellow countrymen had to share. For this is something unparalleled, something that is not self-evident at all, particularly if we consider the fact that in this Central and Eastern European region, and nearly in the whole of Europe, survivors decided to leave and part with their past.

The House of Fates is made up of three parts, namely an exhibition, an education and a training section. Moreover, it has an up-to-date, well-equipped conference room, a room for hosting and staging temporary exhibitions and the required infrastructural background.

The exhibition section is divided into three units: A permanent exhibition that takes 50-60 minutes to tour. The area of this exhibition is shielded so that visitors cannot use any electronic device there. The story that is related here focuses on the period between 1938 and 1948, based nearly exclusively on recollections of survivors, and is supposed to touch the feelings of the visitor, make him interested and, ideally, to prompt him to ask questions. The installation and the narrative are both targeted at the 14 to 24 year-old generation.  Having toured this exhibition unit the visitor can proceed to see the “exploration” section or go on to look at the remaining “chamber” exhibitions.  Upon entering the exploration section the visitor is (or may be) given a tablet, with the most important information concerning the items on display, including names, dates, and a lexicon, along with questions and assignments. Those interested in the chamber exhibitions may decide to see them or to come back and visit them at a later date. As our plans stand at present, the chamber exhibitions will show Hanna Szenes, the Zionist resistance, Raoul Wallenberg, Margit Slachta, Sára Salkaházi and the 1944 story of the Józsefváros Railroad Station as well as the story of the Jewish community of Budapest’s 8th  district called Józsefváros. This is where the walls of perpetrators, those responsible and the humanitarian rescuers will be installed. A videostream will be played in the exploration room, showing visitors the most important events and personalities of those years. A number of computer workstations will also be installed where additional information and data can be collected and studied. Interactive workplaces will be created for browsing and searching for information.

At the training center there will be programs bringing as close as possible to members of the “Y generation” the very feeling and experience of being excluded, outcast and persecuted, while drawing their attention to the importance and inevitability of making a choice between good and evil and individual responsibility.

Importance is also attached to offering a training program to enable teachers to teach their students about the collective persecution to which entire social groups had been exposed under the dictatorships of the 20th century, with particular focus on the tragedy of the Holocaust.

It was seventy years ago, in 1944, that Hungary suffered one of the most horrendous tragedies in its modern-age history. The second Orbán cabinet took its decision on the creation of what is known as the “House of Fates” in the context of the memorial year relating to the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust. In remembering the national tragedy seven decades after, this memorial year is intended to be a site of “creating order in our common matters” and have “peace flow through our rembrance and regard”1. In the context of the memorial year, the government has allocated a HUF 1.5 billion budget to social programs and it adopted a decision building up the Memorial to the Child Victims of the Holocaust – European Education Center at the site of the former Józsefváros Railroad Station.  I was entrusted with the role of leading the professional project team, while the implementation of the investment project was assigned to Government Commissioner Dr. Balázs Fürjes.

This assignment is a real honor for me but it is an immense responsibility and workload at the same time. It took me quite a while, wavering whether to undertake it at all. My children tried to dissuade me. As did some of my friends. One argument against taking up this job was that I would be exposed to relentless and fierce attacks. And even if all goes well, which I have staunchly believed up to this very day, I may expect nothing but denigration. Finally, I answered yes, out of love for my country. I hoped that through such an immense and successful undertaking I could perhaps make a contribution to reconciliation, to a discussion of the tragedies of the past to settle issues and to at least alleviating, if not bringing to an end, all of the evil and purposeless accusations constantly experienced even today. Thereby neutralizing or at least weakening the forces continuously calling Hungary an anti-Semitic and fascist country, using these unfounded stigmata as a political weapon to discredit the Hungarian nation as a whole. Indeed, I expected all of those who already started a media campaign against the  House of Terror Museum and spared no effort to discredit it both in Hungary and abroad, to activate themselves again, and, alas, so they did, wasting no time. The same individuals and circles, with the same vehemence, started the same ruthless attack driven by the same motives both in Hungary and abroad, against me and the prospective memorial site, unleashing that orgy of hate which is so characteristic of them. This is why the “House of Fates” project became, right from the beginning, a target of a series of attacks lead, most unfortunately, by the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Faith Communities (MAZSIHISZ). For as we were approaching the 2014 election campaign the neolog Jewish religious organization undertook to launch a frontal attack against the government – yielding to circles of intellectuals dissatisfied by the weakness and wavering of the anti-government forces – threatening to boycott the memorial year. They put together a package of three demands, calling for the discontinuation of the sculpture composition designed for Szabadság Square in remembrance of Hungary’s Nazi occupation, the removal of director-general Sándor Szakály from the helm of Veritas, a new historical research institute and a right to control and supervise the creation of the House of Fates.

sorsok haza projekt

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán tried to remove the politically motivated onslaught from among the campaign themes by inviting Jewish organizations to consultations after the elections.  Nonetheless, MAZSIHISZ and  its supporters continued their relentless campaign and their  attacks on the House of Fates. They threatened and tried to blackmail everybody cooperating with us or even considering accepting our invitation. They bombarded the members of the International Advisory Board with e-mail messages, as well as anybody else whom they could contact. They spread their accusations all over the place both in Hungary and abroad. In collaboration with certain leaders of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington – who have, to be honest, been rather negatively biased against us in the first place –, they turned Yad Vashem against us.

They are continuously inciting the Israeli Hungarian community as well. Among other charges, they argue that the name “House of Fates” is wrong or misleading, the location is not authentic, or if it is, then it is too particular; the deadline set by the government is too short for such complex work to be carried out properly, and then within one month of my appointment I was attacked for not having worked out a finished scenario. A public auto-da-fé was staged in the “Bálint House” where Professor András Gerő, arguing in favor of and working in the project team, was subjected to a ritual execution (also instead of me) by MAZSIHISZ employee László Karsai posing in the role of the grand inquisitor, in unison with the rather hot-tempered audience.

INTERNATIONAL PRESSURE

This had seemed likely to come; indeed it was to be expected. I went and kept going through this before, during, and for years after, the opening of the House of Terror Museum. However, the like of the direct and intensive international pressure I have experienced in relation to this assignment I did not even have to face at the time of the creation of the House of Terror Museum.  At that time it was only Mr. Mussatov, the then Ambassador of Russia, who protested against the new museum but his objections were settled through a joint tour of the exhibition and a discussion. The former diplomat has delivered presentations at several of our conferences since then. In regard to the “House of Fates”, however, ambassadors of a number of western countries feel compelled to lecture me on how to interpret, indeed, how we all Hungarians should interpret our 20th century history, with a special focus on the role of Miklós Horthy. I have had to sit through countless lectures delivered by western diplomats about Horthy, Hungary’s “revisionism”, the collaboration of Hungarians etc., and all of them represented countries whose history offers at least as many, if not even more, very good opportunities to raise uncomfortable questions. I was asked as early as just before Christmas 2013 by US Deputy Chief of Mission Mr. André Goodfriend – of course on a strictly “friendly” basis – for a list of the names of those working on the House of Fates project. Then a fortnight later he told me – again, on a friendly basis – that he did not agree with the participation of some of those included in the list. “I wasn’t aware that you needed to agree” was my response, also on a friendly basis. The Ambassador of the UK to Hungary assured me that Her Majesty’s government was avidly interested in the Hungarian Holocaust. This is very nice of them, particularly in view of the fact that their predecessors weren’t so very deeply concerned while the annihilation of European and particularly of Hungarian Jewry was underway. Both these gentlemen and a dozen or so of their fellow diplomats expressed their expectations and wishes in regard to the prospective exhibition. Hungary’s ambassadors in both Tel Aviv and Washington were summoned by the Departments of Foreign Affairs because of me, complaining about a remark I had made at a book presentation event, along the lines that the post-World War I system of dishonest peace treaties had been the most devastating tragedy of the 20th century and that a fair and unbiased approach should be taken when forming an opinion about Horthy’s role in history just like in the case of Kádár’s role, rather than viewing these political leaders strictly in black and white. Foreign diplomats, particularly some of the responsible officers of the US voiced their definite expectation that it should only be appropriate and necessary for the Hungarian Government to invite an international committee of historians to commit Hungary’s 20th century history to paper for us, Hungarians. They keep applying pressure to achieve such a governmental assignment. Even the US Foreign Secretary had been mobilized to achieve this end. I am particularly proud of the fact that during the latest Arab-Israeli armed conflict, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanjahu managed to find the time to send a letter to Viktor Orbán, voicing his concerns about my humble self and the House of Fates project.

As a consequence of internal political skirmishes and the unprecedented international pressure applied, both MAZSIHISZ and Yad Vashem withdrew from the International Advisory Board of the House of Fates project.  The rest of the members were also brought under pressure, to make it impossible for that board to continue its work. Therefore, instead of the next scheduled meeting of the international advisory board, we could only hold a consultation where the members present (Michael Wolffsohn and Joshua Muravchik) liked and were satisfied with our concept.

The situation changed somewhat by the middle of this summer. Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues Douglas Davidson and Sir Andrew Burns of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) ascertained, each of his own, that the misgivings concerning and attacks against the project are utterly groundless, and therefore it would be rather difficult to explain why they withdraw their support from a memorial site that will be Europe’s largest and very likely most grandiose and sophisticated such project.

Based on an initiative put forth by Director of International Jewish Affairs for the American Jewish Committee Rabbi Andrew Baker, a consultation took place in Budapest on July 28 among the House of Fates, the Páva Street Holocaust Memorial Center, MAZSIHISZ and IHRA, to remove obstacles from continued cooperation. The experts participating in the meeting raised no objection whatsoever against the contents of the exhibition and had no proposal or idea of relevance to be put on the table.  After half a day of discussions the parties agreed that a working group to be formed of the representatives of international Holocaust experts would help us with our work in regard to both the exhibition and education. The agreement so reached was broken up by MAZSIHISZ within 24 hours, again without any sound reason at all, asserting that the text that was published in the form of a press release was not the same as the one that had been agreed on, despite the fact that the president of MAZSIHISZ had approved this text beforehand in an e-mail message. Within another 24 hours IHRA  gave its support to this attitude.

The attitude of the foreign experts and officials is characterized by nothing better than what IHRA’s English Chairman Sir Burns told me at the end of the meeting in July – suggesting, again, of course, on a strictly friendly basis that I should no longer write articles, thereby referring to my text entitled Captive of the Past concerning the Szabadság Square memorial which had appeared a few weeks earlier in the weekly Heti Válasz. He and Mr. David Cesarini justified this piece of advice by referring to my responsibility for the House of Fates project which I must not jeopardize by publishing essays of sorts. All of these developments only deepened my awe and admiration of the developed western world, on account of its deep and staunch commitment to the freedom of speech and thought, even if I am beginning to vaguely recognize how much there still is for us to learn here, on the outskirts of the developed world, before we can also fully enjoy this privilege. Until then, we should best refrain from writing articles or doing things such as thinking about our own history – rather, we should be grateful and accept that all of these missions will be undertaken by them instead of ourselves, for our benefit.

MAZSIHISZ

The party-state dictatorship set up a single tightly controlled organization to lead Hungarian Jews actively practicing their religion through which it could simultaneously control both the internal affairs and the international relations of the Hungarian Jewry. Only the most determined individuals remained members of Jewish organizations during the decades of the party-state rule, partly owing to the above mentioned strict supervision and partly because open expression and practicing of one’s Jewish identity definitely did not meet the approval of the Communist authorities, in some cases entailing the devastating accusation of being a “Zionist”, in most cases with gruesome consequences. Members failed to flock to religious communities in large numbers despite the “Jewish Renaissance” that followed the political regime change. Those communities are still made up primarily of a few hundred – mostly elderly pensioner – devotees. Consequently, the leaders of those religious communities – just like the organizations they are heading – enjoy no general acceptance in Hungarian society, as has been increasingly revealed by a long series of scandals that have broken up in recent times.

No matter how a variety of influential international Jewish organizations as well as Israel’s representatives and diplomats have hastened to back them up, Hungarian society cannot be persuaded or forced to accept an official who first turned from transvestite performing artist into Lutheran theologian and Catholic parish choir master, and then on to the executive director of the Budapest Jewish Community, who is, according to the chairman of the Community, is not even of Jewish origin; or a former executive director banker who had been convicted for bribery. It is also clear for all interested outsiders that the current Chairman of MAZSIHISZ is not seeking an agreement in relation to the House of Fates but he is trying to improve his position to get re-elected by fully exploiting the media interest concerning the prospective memorial center. The Chairman of MAZSIHISZ is posing in the role of a relentless representative and promoter of the organization’s interests to prove his indispensability towards a handful of voters as well as international Jewish organizations and Israel. This is why he keeps upsetting all agreements and imposing new and then further demands and conditions. This is why he has formulated such demands in relation to the House of Fates that had never been and are still not considered to be of importance in relation to the Páva Street Holocaust Memorial Center, which is alleged to be very important to both him and the international Jewish organizations. During the past more than a decade the leaders of the Jewish religious community have never been able to contribute to creating the necessary environment and conditions for undisturbed and efficient work at the Páva Street institution, as is eloquently proven by the miserably low numbers of visitors and the unceasing internal skirmishes. And these unblessed circumstances were not in the least different during the eight-year period when they were cooperating with a Socialist-Free Democrat coalition government.  As a matter of fact, MAZSIHISZ leaders are driven by their own self-interests when they keep provoking fruitless conflicts with the government, whatever action the government happens to take. In attacking the House of Fates, they will even find it worthwhile to obstruct worthy remembrance of the victims of the Holocaust and our murdered compatriots.

In the autumn of 2014, Mr János Lázár the minister in charge of the Prime Minister’s Office who played a leading role in devising and organizing the memorial year for the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust; in putting in place the Szabadság Square memorial and the launching of the creation of the House of Fates, offered an adviser’s contract, much to the consternation of all, to Mr Gusztáv Zoltai, who had  played a leading role in blocking all of the above programs, until his dismissal in early April 2014. According to the arguments then put forth by MAZSIHISZ Chairman András Heisler, Holocaust surviving Zoltai had been so severely affected by the government’s intent to erect a memorial for the victims of Hungary’s German occupation, that he resigned from all of his positions. Heisler himself opted for a different strategy, by turning for help as usual to international public opinion. Zoltai, who used to be a 1956 Communist militiaman, a member of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party (MSZMP), a former member of the communist workers’ militia, headed MAZSIHISZ as an executive director from 1991.

His demonstrative inclusion on the government side was explained by the minister by pointing out that he “did not regard advisory services as some monkey business” and that they had known each other for quite some time. Public consternation was only further aggravated by János Lázár’s promise that the House of Fates would be opened “only in the framework of a consensual solution “, i.e. only if the domestic and international Jewish organizations, most recently, Hungarian Holocaust survivors and “those who suffered the tragedy”, find it to be acceptable and agree with its “professionalism”. Nothing could be more natural than Mr. Heisler’s interpretation: the minister gave them the right of veto concerning the House of Fates project.

Accordingly, the Faith Community, a religious organization representing about two thousand individuals will exercise censorship over the contents of one of the government’s important large scale projects, and will determine its view of history and its message. No such thing has happened in Hungary ever since the separation of state and church towards the end of the 19th century.

To let international Jewish organizations have a say without having contributed a single penny to the costs of setting up the institution is contrary to the responsibility of the sovereign Hungarian state for its own past, present and future.
In an interview with the daily Népszabadság (September 26, 2014) János Lázár repeatedly expressed that the moral values, the kind of community of shared values determining the political right, mean nothing to him. He finds criticism concerning his employment of Zoltay to be immaterial; indeed, he considers “any form of ex-post evaluation from the outside” of his newly hired adviser, to be a mistake. Let us not be surprised when using the same argument he invites one of these days the very Ferenc Gyurcsány to work for him as a government advisor, to whose Őszöd address Mr. Lázár referred the other day as a positive example.

Mr. Lázár apparently fails to understand that this time we are dealing with our very identity. This is not about practices in wielding power or safe bargains concluded in the background, but about principles, belief, all of the things on which our whole life, including our political community rests and is built. We have seen lots of examples during the past 25 years how disregarding principles and moral convictions lead to the loss of all values and then the collapse of entire political communities. When politics appear to be reduced to all-pervasive cynicism and bare immorality, the countdown will immediately start.

When I undertook to create what will be called the House of Fates, I knew what attacks I would be in for.  I undertook the job nonetheless, because I am convinced that my country needs to make sure that young generations also learn that preserving solidarity towards each other is one of our most important common values, and giving it up leads to immense losses and tragedies in the past, and the same would be bound to happen in the future as well. I am convinced that processing the past of our nation as well as presenting and teaching the lessons drawn from it are our tasks and responsibilities which we do not want to and will not evade. This is a cause for our national community that cannot be influenced by any particular or external interests. Not even if Mr. Lázár holds other views on this. The happy ending of the Love Story is at stake.
We must not let it get botched up. I for one will definitely do my share to prevent that.