NGOs

The Hungarian government turns up the heat on the NGOs

Yesterday I wrote about Viktor Orbán’s pro-Russian policy, which does not endear him to Washington. Another sore point is the Hungarian treatment of certain NGOs and the attacks of late on independent organizations that receive money from the Norwegian Civic Fund. Barack Obama specifically mentioned the importance of NGOs as watchdogs over rogue states like Hungary. One would think that Viktor Orbán might try to mend fences with the U.S. by retreating a bit on this issue and not pursuing the controversial attacks on the Ökotárs Foundation, the distributor of the Norwegian Civic Funds. But no, these attacks have shifted into even higher gear.

In May the government ordered KEHI (Kormányzati Ellenőrző Hivatal = State Audit) to investigate the case. The Norwegians consider the investigation illegal because in their opinion the money Ökotárs distributed among several NGOs was not part of the Hungarian budget. The money never entered the Hungarian treasury in any way. The funds came straight from an office entrusted with the task located in Brussels.

If the Hungarian government had wanted to remove at least this particular sore point from the agenda, they could have quietly dropped the case and simply forgotten about the report KEHI prepared. Or they could have come out with a very mild reprimand for some lax practices. But Viktor Orbán wouldn’t be Viktor Orbán if he had chosen that path. Instead, yesterday KEHI released its 40-page report in which it accused Ökotárs of mismanagement, fraud, forgery of private documents, and unauthorized financial activities.

As usual, Magyar Nemzet was the first publication to write about the report. Their initial article indicated that the KEHI document is already in the hands of János Lázár. From that point on Magyar Nemzet kept publishing shocking reports about the frivolous items these NGOs spent their money on. The one that caused the greatest uproar was the purchase of tampons. It turned out that the Kékpont Foundation was guilty of this particular crime. The foundation, which deals with drug addicts, gave “motivational” hygienic packages to the addicts, and the tampons were in packages distributed to the women. All these stories came out in Magyar Nemzet before the report was made available to the Ökotárs Foundation.

Yesterday at last the document itself appeared on KEHI’s website. Okotárs over the years distributed 500 million forints and KEHI found something wrong with 200 million worth of the grants. Actually, the questionable items amounted to only 10 million (about $41,000). Yet Lázár is outraged and wants to renegotiate the contract with the Norwegian government. He promptly invited the “appropriate Norwegian minister” to Hungary for a friendly chat. Then, perhaps realizing the absurdity of his suggestion, he added that after all he would be ready to meet the Norwegian politician in Brussels.

Norwegian flag

What will Lázár tell the “appropriate Norwegian minister”? Norway should break the contract with the Ökotárs Foundation since it is not worthy of Norway’s trust. The funds should be distributed by “state or private organizations.” The English translation of the report will be sent to the Norwegian ambassador in Budapest as well as to the European Commission.

But not all accusations are in the KEHI report. Népszabadság reported that investigators at KEHI complained about Veronika Móra’s frequent meetings with American diplomats as well as her visits to the Norwegian embassy. These kinds of contacts are suspect in the eyes of the regime, as we know from Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal” speech in Romania.

Meanwhile Magyar Nemzet kept attacking both the Norwegian government and Ökotárs. Yesterday morning an article appeared in the paper which claimed, on the basis of information coming from KEHI, that Ökotárs passed on important documents for safekeeping to the Norwegian embassy. And that is not all. Officials at the embassy postdated certain documents. While KEHI investigators were at it, they decided to accuse the Financial Mechanism Office (FMO) that handles the Norwegian funds in Brussels of complicity because its official suggested to Ökotárs that it move all its documents out of Hungary.

Late last night journalists from more independent media outlets began looking at the findings of KEHI. András Földes of Index observed that only in history books could one find examples of such accusations that used to lay the groundwork for show trials in the Rákosi period. And, he added, “the officials are actually proud of it.” The proof presented to the journalists did not convince them, but they surmised that the officials of KEHI simply did what was expected of them by the Hungarian government. The results were preordained. Without going into the details, the KEHI officials, by pasting together parts of different sentences, actually falsified the intended meaning of Ökotárs’s CEO. The reporter for Index cites several dubious practices of KEHI that call into question the validity of the charges.

In light of the above it is no surprise that Veronika Móra, CEO of Ökotárs, said to MTI today that it is impossible to respond to “accusations that are not supported by facts.” If the KEHI officials found irregularities, they should have described them precisely, but in the document one finds only generalizations. It is full of phrases like: “it also happened,” “there was also such a case.” Ökotárs is ready to go to court and hopes for a favorable verdict.

As for the Norwegian response to the publication of the KEHI report, according to a brief English-language article on the Norwegian internet site, The Local, the Norwegian government already considered the KEHI probe illegal and it is unlikely that after this most likely fraudulent report they will change their minds. It is worth quoting some passages from this article:

Hungary’s squeeze on foreign-funded NGOs has been criticized by Norway and the United States…. US President Barack Obama last month included Hungary in a list of countries where “endless regulations and overt intimidation increasingly target civil society.”…  Relations between the US and Hungary sank further last week when Washington issued entry bans to six unnamed Hungarian government officials it suspected of corruption. The US charge d’affaires in Budapest, Andre Goodfriend, told AFP on Tuesday that “intimidation of civil society” as well as “centralisation of authority, lack of transparency, and corruption” could prevent the US continuing as an ally of Hungary.

Norway was tough all along but now it must feel even more hardened since the United States is supporting its stance on this matter.

Viktor Orbán picks another fight with the West, this time over the Southern Stream

I know that everybody is intensely interested in the Hungarian government’s latest brainstorm, the introduction of an internet tax, but I would rather wait with an analysis of this latest scandal until it becomes clear what the fate of the proposal will be. So far the reaction to this new tax has been so vehement that the government most likely will have to retreat. When an article in the right-wing Válasz predicts that “if we had an election today Fidesz would lose big,” I think it’s time to order a quick turnabout. I would like to add just one observation on a related topic: the Hungarian budget must be in a sorry state if an additional tax must be levied on soap and detergent, allegedly because they are harmful to the environment. Let’s not contemplate the detrimental effect of curtailing the use of soap because this would take us too far afield.

So, instead of dealing with the effects of an internet tax, I will look at other recent governmental decisions that have been detrimental to Hungary’s relations with the United States and the European Union. What I have in mind is Viktor Orbán’s flirtation with Putin’s Russia, which is being watched with growing concern in Washington and Brussels. Already there have been a couple of moves indicating close cooperation with Russia that raised eyebrows in the democratic world: the building of a nuclear power plant by a Russian firm on Russian money, Hungary’s refusal to support the common European position on the Russian sanctions, a tête-à-tête between Gazprom and the Hungarian prime minister followed by the Hungarian decision to stop supplying gas to Ukraine, and the government’s decision to let Gazprom use Hungarian facilities to store gas in case Russia cuts off the flow of gas through Ukraine.

These moves worried and irritated the United States and the European Union, only compounding their concerns about all the transgressions of the rules of democracy committed by the Fidesz government against the Hungarian people. Years have gone by; at last western politicians are slowly, ever so slowly deciding that they have had enough. After Norway it was the United States that openly showed its dissatisfaction with the domestic and foreign policies of the Orbán government. Yet, as the last few days have demonstrated, Viktor Orbán is not changing tactics. On the contrary, as I wrote yesterday, he is strengthening ties with countries whose relations with the United States and the European Union are strained. Almost as if Viktor Orbán purposefully wanted to have an open break with Hungary’s western allies.

Yesterday one could still hope that Viktor Orbán would  come to his senses and would at least make some gestures, but as yesterday’s meeting between Péter Szijjártó and Victoria Nuland indicated, the new Hungarian foreign minister was sent to Washington without a Plan B. By today, however, most likely in his absence, the government came out with a new idea. What if the Hungarian office of taxation and customs (NAV) announces that in the last several years they have been diligently pursuing their investigation of those criminal elements who through tax fraud unfairly competed against the American company Bunge? Maybe it will work. Mihály Varga, minister of national economy, announced this morning that four of the culprits are already in jail. Very nice, but there is a fly in the ointment. Most likely the U.S. State Department remembers, as I do, that András Horváth, the whistleblower at NAV, months ago gave a detailed description of the ways in which these criminals operated. He asked NAV to investigate and disclose their findings, but the managers of the tax office first fired Horváth and a couple of days later announced that after an internal investigation found everything in perfect order. So I doubt that the Americans will fall for that bogus story.

Yesterday Portfólió asked “how to make the USA more angry with Hungary,” but they “did not have the faintest idea that the government has been holding the best answer to that and it beats every idea [the Portfólió] have ever had.” So, what is it? In order to understand the situation we have to go back to the controversy over Russia’s new pipeline already under construction–the Southern Stream–that would supply Russian gas to Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, Slovenia, Greece, and Italy. The United States and the European Union were never too happy about the project and now, in the middle of the Russian-Ukrainian crisis, they are especially leery of Putin’s plans. In fact, the European Commission asked the Bulgarians to stop the construction of the pipeline in their country. They obliged. The European Union also warned Serbia that they can forget about future membership in the European Union if they agree to support the project right now.

southern stream

In Hungary construction has not yet begun, but the Orbán government seemed to be afraid that something similar would happen to them what happened to the Bulgarians. They decided to act. Changing the law by now has become a Fidesz pastime. Today Antal Rogán proposed an amendment to a 2008 law on natural gas that will allow any gas company to construct a pipeline. The original law, in harmony with laws of a similar nature in other countries, specified that the company in charge of the construction has to be a certified transmission system operator who must conform to international rules. Since pipelines are transnational projects, the countries involved must coordinate their individual projects. What the Hungarians hope is that as a result of this amendment Hungary will not be bound by any international constraint. Starting the project will depend only on the Hungarian Energy Office, which could give permission to any company it chooses to construct the pipeline. Portfólió suspects that both the European Union and the United States will be “furious” upon hearing this latest Hungarian ruse.

Clever Hungarian lawyers, who seem to specialize in circumventing the letter of the law, might think that this scheme is foolproof, but I suspect that EU lawyers will find the legislation full of holes. Hungarian papers suggest that the Orbán government is playing for time. But the case is settled, they argue; the pipeline will be built. Surely no one will force Hungary to destroy it.

Let’s contemplate another scenario. What if the European Union and the United States in joint action put such pressure on the Hungarian government that the plan must be abandoned? As it is, according to analysts, Budapest is already between a rock and a hard place. When political scientist Gábor Török, who has the annoying habit of sitting on the fence, says that “the Orbán government is in big trouble. It was before but now it is different. It will not fall, surely not now…. But if it does not recognize the fork in the road or if it chooses the wrong road, we will mark the events of today as a definite turning point.” And in an interview this afternoon Ferenc Gyurcsány twice repeated his belief that Hungary is at the verge of leaving the Union and, when it happens, it will not be Viktor Orbán’s choice.

I wouldn’t go that far, but I do predict that the screws will be tightened. Among those who will apply pressure will be Norway since the Hungarian government audit office just came out with its report claiming that Ökotárs, the organization in charge of distributing the Norwegian Civil Funds, has used the money inappropriately. A criminal investigation will be launched.

We know that Barack Obama said that the American government supports NGOs in countries where they are under fire. Today we learned that Veronika Móra, chairman of Ökotárs, was a member of a delegation that visited Washington in late September. During that trip the NGO leaders were received by President Obama in the White House. By contrast, Péter Szijjártó did not get any higher than one of the assistant undersecretaries of the State Department. If I were Viktor Orbán, I would take that as a warning.

The Hungarian right’s latest: The Soros-Clinton-Obama axis

In liberal circles almost everybody is certain that the warnings of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama will not inspire Viktor Orbán to abandon his relentless pursuit to make the very existence of independent civil groups impossible. In fact, the smear campaign has only intensified in the last couple of days.

Official Hungary is quiet on the subject unless one can take seriously the comments of a newcomer to the ministry of foreign affairs and trade, Undersecretary Mónika Balatoni, who just can’t get over the fact that “western Europeans don’t understand us,” the freedom-loving people of Hungary. After all, already in St. Stephen’s time Hungarians “chose Christianity.” And there is Tibor Navracsics, whose “European commitment cannot be questioned.” This is, of course, merely a repetition of Szijjártó’s reference to freedom-loving Hungarians.

It is true that the Christian Democrats chimed in by repeating the government’s claim that Obama’s criticisms are groundless. In their opinion, the attack on Hungary is taking place because the Hungarian government opted for Christian democracy instead of liberal democracy. Jobbik naturally is on the side of the government with the difference that they say what the Orbán government does not want to: The president of the United States “openly admitted that his country constantly interferes in other countries’ internal affairs.” Since Obama talked about the United States’ national security, which is served by the existence of strong civil groups, Hungary in turn should restrict the foreign-financed groups which pose national security risks to Hungary.

But the real dirty work is being left to the government media and so-called  pro-Fidesz “political scientists.” In the political scientist category there is Gábor G. Fodor, “strategic director” of the Fidesz think tank Századvég. According to him, Obama’s speech was not about Hungary and other authoritarian regimes but about the United States. The speech shows the weakness, not the strength of America. After all, the president spoke of “national security interests.” And because of Obama’s confession about American national security interests, “it’s possible the Norwegian monies don’t come from Norway.” In plain English, the United States is funneling money into Hungary and other countries through Norway.

Spiler, a blogger, goes farther than Fodor. He notes that George Soros and Norway are the most generous supporters of the Clinton Foundation, and the same George Soros and Norway support Hungarian liberal groups. With a leap of logic our blogger lays the groundwork for a charge of conspiracy. Perhaps Clinton’s critical comments are payment for the generosity of George Soros and the government of Norway. On the basis of Spiler’s blog, Szilárd Szőnyi of Válasz is already talking about George Soros’s “civilian armies.” He describes Spiler’s post as a reliable source on the Soros-Clinton-Obama-Reykjavík axis. (I trust he doesn’t think that Reykjavík is the capital of Norway.)

George Soros, the bogiey man

George Soros, the bogeyman

The attack on the Hungarian civil groups was intensified by an article that appeared in the print edition of Heti Válasz today. The author is Bálint Ablonczay, a journalist with the reputation of being a moderate Fidesz supporter. But it appears that when the chips are down and the regime he supports receives harsh criticism from important sources, Ablonczay becomes a fierce defender of the regime. In this article, which is not available online, he justifies the Orbán government’s harassment of the civil groups by trying to prove that these NGOs are not really independent but are “liberal activist groups.” After all, they approach the question of abortion only as a women’s rights issue. They are interested in families only as places of domestic violence. Or they concentrate on alternative lifestyles. Finally, he cites an article published by an Israeli organization, NGO Monitor. It was written last year by Alexander H. Joffe, who claimed that the Soros-supported NGOs were adding to Israeli-Palestinian tensions. His conclusion is that Soros’s network is a powerful international tool that works against individual governments through these civil groups.

Ablonczay did a lousy job at fact checking. Csaba Tibor Tóth, a blogger, immediately wrote a post with the title “Heti Válasz and the Israeli Right against Soros.” NGO Monitor’s founder and president worked for a number of years in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office. The organization is really an arm of the present Israeli government, which hates the Israeli NGOs about as much as Orbán hates the Hungarian ones. NGO Monitor finds all independent groups “extremists.” Even groups attached to the UN are extremists. According to Tóth, NGO Monitor is something like the Hungarian CÖF, except much more sophisticated.

Magyar Nemzet published an article today about an alleged Soros conspiracy. The paper learned that George Soros cast his net over the civil groups. It was George Soros who financed the organizations in charge of the disbursement of the Norwegian funds throughout Eastern Europe. The article lists Romanian, Polish, Estonian, Lithuanian, Slovenian, and Bulgarian NGOs somehow connected to George Soros’s Open Society Foundation. The implication is that there is a supranational network organized by George Soros to do what? To topple these governments? How is it that no other governments in the region sent a squad of policemen to the office of one of these disbursement centers or suspended the tax numbers of all of them? Are they not worried about this conspiracy?

The problem is not with Clinton, Obama, the Norwegian government, George Soros or the NGOs but with Viktor Orbán’s government. They can concoct conspiracy theories to their hearts’ content about a supranational global attack on Christian Hungary, but I doubt that anyone will fall for that nonsense with the exception of Hungary’s right-wing voters.

Barack Obama on the threat to civil society in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Hungary

American presidents are lining up against the Hungarian prime minister and his illiberal state. On The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Bill Clinton said that “there’s the authoritarian capitalism model which is Russia and in a different way China, and it has some appeal. Like the Hungarian Prime Minister – they owe a lot to America; he just said he liked authoritarian capitalism, just saying ‘I don’t ever want to have to leave power’ – usually those guys want to stay forever and make money. And there’s the democracy model …” This was not an off-the-cuff remark. A few days earlier he said essentially the same thing in an interview with James Bennet in the Atlantic Magazine. He talked about different political models, among which “there is a contest here in the world today…. There’s autocratic governments trying to take advantage of market opportunities—what [Hungarian Prime Minister] Viktor Orbán embraced the other day.” Clinton was obviously familiar with the Hungarian prime minister’s by now infamous speech, which was described in a footnote as “a headline-grabbing speech” calling for Hungary to abandon its “liberal methods and principles of organizing a society, as well as the liberal way to look at the world.”

The official Hungarian reaction to Clinton’s remarks was predictable. Péter Szijjártó, who at the time was not yet minister of foreign affairs and trade (which he now is), said that the former president “was conned.” It’s been a long time since Bill Clinton visited Hungary and therefore, I assume it follows, he is ignorant. Period.

Viktor Orbán’s “headline-grabbing speech” reached a lot of people, including the current president of the United States, who addressed the 2014 annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative in New York City. His speech concentrated on the importance of civil society. He pointed out that “it was citizens here in America who worked to abolish slavery, who marched for women’s rights and workers’ rights and civil rights. They are the reason I can stand here today as President of the United Sates.” Moreover, support of civic groups is in the interest of the United States. “Countries that respect human rights–including freedom of association–happen to be our closest partners. That is not an accident. Conversely, when these rights are suppressed, it fuels grievances and a sense of injustice that over time can fuel instability or extremism.  So I believe America’s support for civil society is a matter of national security.”

Which countries suppress human rights?

From Russia to China to Venezuela, you are seeing relentless crackdowns, vilifying legitimate dissent as subversive.  In places like Azerbaijan, laws make it incredibly difficult for NGOs even to operate.  From Hungary to Egypt, endless regulations and overt intimidation increasingly target civil society.  And around the world, brave men and women who dare raise their voices are harassed and attacked and even killed.

Obama Clinton Global Initiative

A Hungarian blogger who happens to be a conservative took the president’s words seriously. He entitled his post “Hungary at a crossroads” and added, “Obama said that Hungary had decided already: it fixed its place next to Russia, China, Kenya, Egypt, Burma, Azerbaijan, etc.”  Moreover, he wrote, Obama made it clear in his speech that “there is no gray zone, there is no Hungarian trickery, there is no double talk. We either stand next to Burma or next to the United States.”

In his address Obama announced a series of new steps that the United States will take to strengthen civil society where there is need. Yesterday he issued a presidential memorandum in which he instructed federal departments and agencies to pay close attention to civil society groups. Specifically, the United States “will oppose efforts by foreign governments to restrict freedoms of peaceful assembly and association and expression.” The United States will create “new innovation centers to empower civil society groups around the world.” NGOs will be able to use these centers “to network and access knowledge and technology and funding that they need to put their ideas into action.” Finally, the United States will increase “support to society groups across the board [and] will increase emergency assistance to embattled NGOs.” The Treasury Department will be instructed to “finalize regulations so it’s even easier and less costly for your foundations to make grants overseas.”

All that is good news for the embattled Hungarian NGOs and the four distribution centers currently under attack. Norway will no longer have to stand alone in its defense of Hungarian civil society. It also may mean that more funding will be forthcoming from American sources to Hungary. After all, Hungary is a unique case. The other countries Obama referred to are in Latin America, in sub-Saharan Africa, in the Middle East, and in Asia. Hungary is the odd man out in this company, and that might attract the attention of donors in the United States. The importation of Putin’s methods into the European Union would be a dangerous precedent which, especially given the current international situation, should not be tolerated.

Obama spoke and Hungary’s shaky reputation abroad received yet another blow. How did Hungarian politicians react to the news that Hungary was compared to some of the worst dictatorships in the world? The usual way. Szijjártó basically called the American president a liar because the president’s remark about “the Hungarian government’s placing any restriction on Hungarian civil society lacks all foundation … because the Hungarians are freedom-loving people.” When Lajos Kósa, one of the deputy chairmen of Fidesz, was asked to comment on Obama’s inclusion of Hungary on a list of countries that harass NGOs, his answer was that “Obama is most likely not entirely familiar with current Hungarian affairs.” For example, it is unlikely that he knows what the third largest city of Hungary is. Then he turned to the reporter from Klubrádió and asked him whether he knows which city it is. The reporter gave the wrong answer when he said it was Miskolc. (Actually it is Szeged.)  Kósa triumphantly exclaimed, “You see!” I assume that means that he did not know the correct answer either. The botched moral of the story: if you don’t know which city is third largest in Hungary you are most likely totally ignorant of everything that goes on under Viktor Orbán’s rule.

Magyar Nemzet is silent. So is Magyar Hírlap. But the Orbán government’s new so-called English-language online paper added these sentences to the news about the speech itself. “Obama has criticized Hungary because of the recent scandal of the Foundation ‘Ökotárs’…. Barack Obama could have the opportunity to share his concerns with János Áder, since the Hungarian president is on official visit in New York this week.” The fault lies with Obama; he should have consulted with Hungary’s president to learn the truth about the Hungarian government’s treatment of the civil groups before he spoke. One could laugh at all these pitiful reactions if the situation weren’t so terribly serious.

Barroso in Budapest

José Manuel Barroso, the outgoing president of the European Commission, spent a day and a night in Budapest on the way to Ukraine. During his stay he and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán signed a “partnership agreement” that seals the European Union’s 35 billion euro financial support for Hungary for the period between 2014 and 2020. In addition, he received an honorary doctorate from Corvinus University.

In the last few weeks a debate has been going on between the government and the opposition: is the amount Budapest will receive in the next six years more or less than it got in the previous six years, support that was procured by the Gyurcsány government? Of course, the current government claims that it is more while almost everybody else, including financial experts, claims that it is less. Whatever the case, it is an enormous amount of money which, according to the critics of both the Orbán government and the European Union, enables Viktor Orbán to build his “illiberal state.” In brief, the European Union is the one that is supporting the destruction of democracy in Hungary.

People who oppose the current regime were dismayed when they heard that the official signing of the document will take place in Budapest. They argued that Barroso should not sanction Orbán’s autocratic regime with his presence in the Hungarian capital. Deep dissatisfaction set in, not just in political circles but also among ordinary people who watched what they considered to be overly friendly gestures by Barroso toward Orbán. It is true that the president of the commission did make a quip indicating his awareness of the Orbán government’s untrustworthiness when he remarked that he hoped the content of the Hungarian version of the document is what he expects. In the past it happened several times that the Hungarian government falsified translations of official texts.

José Manuel Barroso and Viktor Orbán Source: Népszabadság / Photo Zsolt Reviczky

José Manuel Barroso and Viktor Orbán: We can feel equal financially
Source: Népszabadság / Photo Zsolt Reviczky

I don’t know whether Barroso was aware of what Orbán told journalists after the ceremony, but I hope that by now he is. Orbán explained to journalists why this enormous amount of money is not really extra help for Hungary. He claimed that foreign investors move approximately the same amount of money out of the country that Hungary receives from the European Union. If Hungary did not get these subsidies, the country’s financial equilibrium would be out of kilter. This reasoning is of course economically unsound, but his reference to equilibrium brought to mind a funny line from Nick Gogerty’s The Nature of Value: “The only economic systems found today that are truly at or close to equilibrium are nearly dead economies. A cow that achieves equilibrium is called a steak, and the economy closest to achieving equilibrium today is probably North Korea.”

Orbán proposed another equally unconvincing reason that Hungary needs these subsidies. They raise the self-esteem of Hungarians who can in this way feel like full-fledged members of the European community. It’s nice to know that Hungarians’ psychological well being depends on 34 billion euros. Considering that the mood of the Hungarian population is abysmal, perhaps the money is not so well spent.

Now that the Orbán government’s attacks on NGOs have been widely reported and almost all the articles compare the events of the last few months to what Vladimir Putin did in the last year and a half to Russia’s civic groups, a lot of people hoped that Barroso would have a few words to say about them. The COO of TASZ (Civil Liberties Union) told Der Spiegel that “Brussels no longer can be silent on the putinization of Hungary.” However, Barroso was silent on the issue until a question was addressed to him about whether the EU will get involved in the dispute between Norway and Hungary over the Norwegian Funds. Barroso expressed the opinion that this is “the business of Norway and Hungary, but they follow the developments.” The author of HVG‘s opinion piece seemed to be very unhappy with this answer, and I know many people who share his opinion. I, on the other hand, think this hands-off decision of the EU actually works in favor of those who would like to stop the Orbán government’s assault on democracy. From experience we know that the EU has not been a steadfast defender of Hungarian democracy, and in the past it overlooked Viktor Orbán’s transgressions more often than not. The Norwegians are less accommodating; ever since May they haven’t moved an inch in their insistence that the Hungarian government has no right to investigate the allocation of their civic funds. 140 million euros are at stake. If the EU agreed to arbitrate, most likely a compromise solution would be found that would again allow the Orbán government to play one of its tricks.

There was a small demonstration in front of Corvinus University. Népszabadság noted that Barroso as a seasoned politician knows how to handle situations like that. He acted as if he did not see them at all and marched straight into the building. Whether he read a letter addressed to him by the Oktatási Hálózat (Net of University Lecturers) or not I have no idea. It is an excellent description of what has been going on in Hungary in the field of education. To sum up: In the last five years government spending on higher education decreased by half. Hungary currently spends only 0.43% of GDP on it as opposed to the 1% that is recommended by the European Union. The autonomy of the universities will be curtailed when state appointed supervisors are placed above the presidents. It is now the fifth year that the government has no clearly stated higher-education strategy. Financial resources are distributed in an ad hoc manner, mostly to institutions preferred by the government. For example, 90% of the money received as part of the Horizon 2020 program subsidized by the European Union went to the newly established National Civil Service University. Just lately it became known that the Hungarian National Bank is spending 200 billion forints, which is one and a half times more than the government spends a year in higher education, to train people in “unorthodox economics.” Because of the high tuition fees the number of students entering college or university has decreased by 30%.  Moving away from higher education, the letter mentions the lowering of the compulsory school age to 16 from 18 and the government’s endorsement of segregated Roma schools.

It is too bad that this was the only letter addressed to Barroso. Where were the other groups? Where were the members of the opposition? Not that these letters achieve that much, but when only one group protests in front of Corvinus University and only one letter is written by a small group of university lecturers, it is difficult to stir the European Union.

After ten years Barroso is leaving his post and Jean-Claude Juncker is taking over. Hopes are high that a new era will begin, but for that to happen the Hungarian opposition must lend him a helping hand.

“We’re not Nazis, but …”: Human Rights First report on Hungary and Greece

As I reported a few days ago, members of the Hungarian right-wing media and pro-government “political scientists” were outraged because editorials in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal called on the European Union to introduce sanctions against the Orbán government. The occasion was Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s July 26th speech in which he expressed his belief in the illiberal state’s superiority over the liberal state. A week or so later Charles Gati, an American political scientist, published an article in which he outlined the very limited options, in his opinion, the U.S. government has in influencing Viktor Orbán’s domestic policies. Again, members of the right-wing press were beside themselves, especially because they suspect Gati, who is of Hungarian origin, of having influence in Washington. They think that he and some other “unpatriotic” Hungarians are the only reason the U.S. government has a less than favorable opinion of the current government in Budapest.

Well, if they were offended by editorials in some of the leading American papers and Charles Gati’s list of modest steps Washington can take, I can’t imagine what kinds of editorials will appear in Magyar Nemzet, Válasz, and Magyar Hírlap after the appearance of a report by Human Rights First (HRF),”an independent advocacy and action organization that challenges America to live up to its ideals.” HRF is one of those non-governmental organizations that Viktor Orbán would like to stamp out in Hungary. And what temerity! HRF calls on the U.S. government, Congress, the European Commission, and the local governments to take steps to restore democracy and combat extremism, racism, and homophobia in the two countries the report deals with: Hungary and Greece.

Human Rights First

In Hungary 444.hu was the first to report on We’re not Nazis, but … The Rise of Hate Parties in Hungary and Greece and Why America Should Care. The reaction of this online paper was well expressed in the article’s headline: “It has been a long time since Hungary has received such a kick in the behind.” Well, that might be an exaggeration, but the report is very hard-hitting. As the Hungarian saying goes, the government “will not put this in the shop window.”

First, let me start by saying that the report is much more than what the title suggests. Sonni Efron, senior fellow, and Tad Stanke, vice president of research and analysis, are the authors of the study, which I consider the best detailed analysis of the current Hungarian (and Greek) political situation. To give you an idea of the thoroughness of the report: It is 122 pages long, out of which close to 40 pages deal exclusively with Hungary. More than half of the 388 footnotes pertain to Hungary. Every important development, every important detail of the Hungarian far right can be found here. But just as important, if not more so, there is a separate chapter entitled: “Orbán: Increasingly Problematic U.S. Ally.” And here are a few of the topics discussed: Retreat from Democracy, Human Rights, and the Rule of Law; Rewrites the Election Law to Favor Itself; April Election: Free but Not Fair; After Re-election, Cracks Down on NGOs; Pursues Revisionist History; Co-opts Jobbik’s Agenda.

So, what are the recommendations that will most likely send the Hungarian government and its media empire into a rage? Here are some of them:

(1) The President should adopt a policy to reverse Hungary’s backsliding on democracy. This policy should be an integral part of the U.S. strategy to reinforce the Transatlantic Alliance  in the face of Russian action in Ukraine. The President in his September speech to the U.N. General Assembly should refute Orbán’s notion that “illiberal” nations are better off economically and articulate the dangers that authoritarian regimes pose to peace, prosperity and fundamental freedoms.

(2) The President should instruct the Director of National Intelligence to investigate allegations of Russian and Iranian financial or other support of European far-right parties.

(3) At the North Atlantic Council meeting at the 2014 NATO summit, he should express concern about the rise of neo-fascist parties in Europe and its impact on security and good government in NATO member countries and the strength of the Alliance.

(4) The President should task relevant U.S. agencies with compiling information on corruption by Hungarian political and business leaders as well as government officials suspected of funding violent extremists.

(5) The President should direct the Departments of Commerce, Treasury, and State as well as USAID to step up efforts to promote broad-based economic recovery and entrepreneurship in Hungary, with emphasis on combating youth unemployment.

(6) The President should install a U.S. ambassador seasoned in managing the complex relationship with an ally that also has major challenges in democratic governance and protecting human rights.

(7) The President should send senior public citizens, including former U.S. officials from both parties, to Budapest to discuss how abandoning liberal democracy would result in increasing political, economic, and strategic isolation for Hungary.

(8) The President should speak out about the intimidation of independent media and NGOs, and the chilling effect it is having on Hungarian society.

(9) The President should prioritize efforts to support embattled independent media, NGOs, and human rights defenders in Hungary. Develop a communications strategy to reach Hungarians who depend mainly on the state-dominated news outlets for information.

And these suggestions are only for the President. The report also has a long list of tasks for the State Department. John Kerry should convey to senior European leaders U.S. support of EU efforts to hold Hungary accountable for violation of EU law. He should support the implementation of the European Commission’s new framework for addressing systemic threats to the rule of law in the European Union. Hungary should be removed from the Governing Council of the Community of Democracies. Kerry should talk about American disapproval of the government’s intimidation of the Hungarian media. The U.S. should fund programs to support independent media outlets which are on the verge of disappearing. Kerry should take a less charitable view of the Hungarian government’s half-hearted efforts to combat anti-Semitism. He should also condemn the raids on Hungarian NGOs receiving funds from foreign donors. The United States should work with European partners to fund embattled NGOs.

HRF also has suggestions for the U.S. Congress, the European Commission, and finally the Hungarian government itself. For instance, the Orbán government should revise the constitution to allow the executive to be effective while reinstating checks and balances on executive power and should combat hate crimes and discrimination.

MTI did not report on the appearance of the HRF Report, only on Jobbik MP Márton Gyöngyösi’s reaction to the report at a press conference held this afternoon in front of the United States Embassy. Gyöngyösi is the party’s foreign relations expert. He made quite a name for himself when in 2012 he gave an interview to the Jewish Chronicle in which he claimed that Jews were colonizing Hungary. In the same interview he questioned whether 400,000 Jews were really killed or deported from Hungary to Nazi death camps during World War II. I wrote at length about Gyöngyösi and his background at the time of this infamous interview.

So what does this Jobbik foreign policy expert think of the HRF’s report? According to him, there is already a program in place in the United States which with the assistance of U.S. national security forces, foreign paid NGOs, and the so-called “independent press” is designed to discipline Hungary and make her return to “the road of neoliberalism.” Given this situation Jobbik calls on Fidesz and the government to stop its double-game and decide whether it stands for Euro-Atlanticism or is on the side of those people committed to the nation. According to Gyöngyösi, ever since 2010 there have been several verbal attacks on Hungarian sovereignty, but to date this is the most savage and aggressive interference in the domestic affairs of the country. He is not surprised that the key target of the report is Jobbik because it is “the most resolute defender of Hungarian sovereignty.” He also wanted to know about the role of the U.S. Embassy in Budapest in organizing a spy network.

There is nothing surprising about Jobbik’s swift reaction to the appearance of the report. MTI’s silence does not come as a surprise either, given MTI’s self-censorship of any news that reflects badly on the government. As of now, every newspaper, including Magyar Nemzet, has simply republished MTI’s release on Gyöngyösi’s press conference. However, HírTV was present at Gyöngyösi’s performance, and therefore Magyar Nemzet, which is affiliated with HírTV, had some additional information. Although MTI did not mention it, Gyöngyösi suggested to the Americans that instead of trying to “overthrow Hungarian national sovereignty” they should bring charges against those politicians who commit crimes against humanity. For example, the leaders of Israel. The usual Jobbik answer to everything.

American-Hungarian relations: Chargé d’affaires Andre Goodfriend

Although it was almost a year ago that Colleen Bell was nominated to be ambassador to Hungary, her confirmation is still in limbo, along with that of thirty others. The American chargé d’affaires in Budapest, Andre M. Goodfriend, is therefore serving as the head of the mission.

Mr. Goodfriend joined the State Department in 1987; he served in Tel Aviv, New Delhi, and Moscow before being posted to Budapest in August 2013. As an overachieving undergraduate he got degrees in philosophy, classical Greek, French, and radio-television at the University of Arizona and subsequently received an M.A. in communication from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He has studied Hungarian, Hebrew, French, Russian, Greek (both classical and modern), Spanish, Hindi, Arabic, and Yiddish. Quite an accomplishment. In any case, he has ample experience to handle the affairs of the Budapest embassy at this very difficult juncture of U.S.-Hungarian relations.

Shortly after his arrival in Budapest he decided to start a bilingual blog, Civil Voices. Every article appears in both English and Hungarian. The number of comments is modest but growing. Some are in English, others in Hungarian. Almost all of his posts are relevant to Hungary, even those that deal with specifically American topics. For instance, Mr. Goodfriend’s very first post, about the history of racial discrimination, was written on Martin Luther King Day. Yet the post begins with a commemoration of the 69th anniversary of the Soviet Army’s liberation of the Budapest ghetto and the 68th anniversary of Hungary’s expulsion of its German-speaking citizens. The message was that we must face our past and learn from it.

The most recent blog, written on August 5, is entitled “Love Me, I’m a Liberal/Szeress engem, liberális vagyok.” In it, the American chargé talks about the need to define terms as well as the need for ongoing discussion and engagement to clarify terms. He is asking for some clarification of what Prime Minister Viktor Orbán means by “liberal” and conversely “illiberal.”

Andre M. Goodfriend / Magyar Nemzet

Andre M. Goodfriend / Magyar Nemzet

The United States government is obviously trying to engage the Hungarian citizenry even if they can’t engage the Hungarian government. Of course, I have no idea how close and/or frequent contacts are between the U.S. Embassy and the Hungarian foreign ministry but I doubt that they are at all frequent. Don’t forget that the ministry is in total turmoil. Old hands have been removed; new, inexperienced people are taking over. The present minister is half way out the door on his way to Brussels while Péter Szijjártó, Orbán’s man who was chosen for the task of catching “the Eastern wind,”  is not at all interested in either the European Union or the United States. Instead, he has been madly looking for opportunities in the Middle East and Central Asia.

In addition to the blog that reaches few people, Mr. Goodfriend, seemingly at the behest of the State Department, approached Magyar Nemzet asking for an interview. At least this is what one gathers from the first couple of interview questions that appeared in the August 5 issue of the paper. The English original can be found here. The journalist’s last name is Zord, which in Hungarian means grim, morose, sullen, and I must say that he didn’t belie his name. It would be wonderful if the journalists of Magyar Nemzet were as zealous as Zord was when they question Viktor Orbán or any other members of the government.

The interview ran under the headline “The American dream still exists.” The bold-faced introduction, however, was an indictment: “America is putting its allies under surveillance, torturing POWs, and using police state methods” and yet it is worried “about Hungarian democracy of all things.” Magyar Nemzet was less interested in what the American chargé had to say than what its journalist accused the United States of.

Without going into the details of this fairly long interview, let me make a few observations. The journalist conducting the interview was surprisingly inarticulate. Moreover, at times he showed that he is not familiar with basic facts. For example, he talked about the “American ambassador to Jerusalem” when we know that the U.S. Embassy, along with 81 others, is located in Tel Aviv because of the controversy over the status of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. When it came to concepts like liberalism, liberal democracy, and globalism, he showed that he knew little more about these subjects than what he read in Orbán’s speech. Therefore, Andre Goodfriend had a relatively easy time with him, and I must say he handled the interview very well.

In fact, the journalist, who is after all a Hungarian–born and educated–could learn Hungarian history and even some Hungarian etymology from Mr. Goodfriend. After Zord extolled the virtues of nation states, Goodfriend rightly pointed out that the golden age of modern Hungary was between 1867 and 1910 when the country was part of a large and ethnically diverse empire. Hungary not only prospered economically but excelled “in the sciences, the arts, music, literature, architecture, etc.” He then drew a parallel between the empire of this golden age and the European Union. Moreover, he suggested that perhaps 2004, the year Hungary joined the Union, is a much more important date for the future of the country than Orbán’s choice for the dawn of a new era, the 2008 financial crisis.

While discussing the NGOs, whom the interviewer described as paid political activists and enforcers of foreign interests, Goodfriend reminded him that Viktor Orbán and his organization, Fidesz, received plenty of financial support for the very purpose of loosening the grip of the communist regime on the country in 1988 and 1989. George Soros naturally could not be left out of any discussion on NGOs, although lately Soros’s contributions are not substantial. The interviewer accused Soros’s “network” of conspiracy against the right-wing government. This accusation was artfully countered by Goodfriend who gave a lecture on the etymology of the Hungarian word “összeesküvés,” which implies a secret plan to which the members of the conspiracy swear. By contrast, financial assistance from either the Soros Foundation or the Norway Grants is given in a transparent fashion.

All in all, I think, Andre Goodfriend did very well, and I’m sure that the State Department is satisfied with this interview.

As a footnote I might add that I have been noticing in the last few days certain signs of backpedaling by the right-wing media. Even Zsolt Bayer emphasized in his column today that the world should not take Orbán’s speech so seriously because after all it was only delivered AT A SUMMER CAMP, in all caps! Moreover, what is important is not so much liberalism, which he equates with neoliberalism, but “the rule of law.” It is the rule of law that we must defend and that will be defended in Hungary under the governance of Viktor Orbán.

It seems to me that the vehement reaction, especially in the United States, to Orbán’s ideas on the illiberal state took him and the people around him by surprise. Viktor Orbán and his closest associates have been silent on the subject, but apparently some of his advisers and Fidesz members of the European Parliament admitted to Ildikó Csuhaj, the usually very well-informed journalist of Népszabadság, that they consider Orbán’s fiercely anti-American attitudes counterproductive and apparently recommended that he reconsider his policies toward the United States. I understand that the new Hungarian ambassador will be Réka Szemerkényi, who apparently has good connections in Washington, although I doubt that she will be able to warm up her old friendships with American diplomats and politicians under the present circumstances.