Ökotárs Alapítvány

Zoltán Kovács, Viktor Orbán’s international spokesman in Brussels

Today I will try to squeeze three topics into one post. Two will be short, more like addenda to earlier pieces. The third subject of today’s post is new: the stormy meeting of the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) on Hungary.

The Albert Wass Library in Tapolca

As one of our readers pointed out, György Konrád incorrectly said that the János Batsányi Library was renamed after Elemér Vass, a lesser known Hungarian painter, that it was instead named after Albert Wass. The reader was correct. Moreover, what Konrád left out of his brief story at the very end of his interview with Olga Kálmán on “Egyenes beszéd” was that the name change actually took place in 2006. Tapolca’s town council has had a solid Fidesz majority for years. Why the city fathers decided in 2006 that Albert Wass was a more important representative of Hungarian literature than János Batsányi is a mystery to me. Anyone who’s unfamiliar with the works and politics of Albert Wass should read my summary of his activities.

The Gala Event at the Ferenc Liszt Academy

A friend who lives in the United States happens to be in Budapest at the moment. Her family’s apartment is very close to the Ferenc Liszt Academy, so she witnessed the preparations for the arrival of Viktor Orbán at the Academy, where he delivered a speech at the unveiling of the Hungarian “miracle piano.” According to her, there was no parking either on Nagymező utca or on Király utca. The police or, more likely TEK, Orbán’s private bodyguards despite being called the Anti-Terror Center, set up three white tents equipped with magnetic gates, the kind that are used at airports. The distinguished guests had to go through these gates before they could share the same air as Hungary’s great leader. By six o’clock the TEK people, in full gear, had cordoned off a huge area. Hungary’s prime minister is deadly afraid. Earlier prime ministers never had a security contingent like Viktor Orbán has now. I remember that Ferenc Gyurcsány used to jog with scores of other ordinary citizens on Margitsziget (Margaret Island) with two guys running behind him at a distance. Well, today the situation seems to be different.

Hearings of  the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs*

The announced agenda was “The Situation of Human Rights in Hungary,” specifically the pressure the Hungarian government has been putting on nongovernmental organizations and civic groups, especially “Okotárs Alaítvány,” about which we have talked at length. That’s why three civic group leaders were invited from Hungary: Tamás Fricz, founder of the Civil Union Forum; Veronika Móra, director of Ökotárs Alapítvány; and Attila Mong, editor of Atlatszo.hu. In addition, two experts were present: Barbora Cernusakova from Amnesty International and Anne Weber, advisor to Nils Muižnieks, commissioner for human rights of the Council of Europe. The Hungarian government was represented by Zoltán Kovács, international spokesman from the prime minister’s office.

Although the main topic was the Hungarian government’s attack on civic organizations that are critical of the Orbán government, during the two and a half hours speakers addressed other human rights issues as well: media freedom, censorship, homelessness, and even Viktor Orbán’s anti-immigration statements.

The first half hour was spent on procedural wrangling between the European People’s Party members of parliament, including naturally the Fidesz representatives, and the rest of those present. Kinga Gál (Fidesz) presented their grievances. The EPP representatives wanted to invite at least three civic groups close to the Hungarian government, arguing that after all in addition to the two NGO’s critical of the government, Ökotárs and Átlátszó.hu, there were two international organizations (Council of Europe and Amnesty International) represented. They failed to convince the majority, however, and therefore only Tamás Fricz was left to represent the NGO that organized two large pro-government demonstrations in the last few years. Tamás Fricz opted not to attend. I suspect that his declining the invitation in the last minute was part of an overarching strategy to make the hearings totally lopsided. Everybody on one side and only a government spokesman, Zoltán Kovács, on the other. Such a situation could easily discredit the proceedings. However, as it turned out, it was Zoltán Kovács himself who was discredited, though not before the EPP MEPs had walked out of the hearings.

Zoltán Kovács

Zoltán Kovács

I will not go into the content of the speeches since the readers of Hungarian Spectrum are only too familiar with the problems that exist in Hungary today as far as human rights issues are concerned. Instead, I would like to concentrate on Zoltán Kovács’s representation of the Hungarian position.

All the participants delivered their speeches in English with the exception of Zoltán Kovács, whose English is actually excellent, but, as he admitted later to György Bolgár, he decided to speak in Hungarian so his words wouldn’t have to be translated. In brief, Kovács’s message was addressed not so much to those present at the meeting but rather to Hungarians at home who could admire his effective defense of their government. The trouble was that what he considered to be simply a vigorous defense turned out to be aggressive and disrespectful. Calling the hearings of an EP committee “the fifth season of a soap opera” did not go over well, to put it mildly, especially since he added that “by now neither the actors nor the script writer knows what means what and what they want to say.” He called the charges against the Hungarian government “half truths or outright lies” and said that the members present were prejudiced against his country.

The reaction was predictable. Many of those who spoke up reacted sharply to Kovács’s speech. They were outraged that Kovács talked about the European Parliament, which “represents 500 million inhabitants of the European Union, in such a manner.” It was at this point that Péter Niedermüller (DK) told Kovács that as a result of his behavior “you yourself became the protagonist of these hearings.” Kovács later complained bitterly that Niedermüller spoke out of order, which in his opinion besmirched the dignity of the European Parliament.

A Dutch MEP inquired whether the Norwegian or the Dutch government, the German chancellor, everybody who ever criticizes the Hungarian government is part of this soap opera. Finally, she announced that she is sick and tired of the so-called “Hungarian debates” which are no more than “dialogues of the deaf.” What is needed is a new, effective mechanism that monitors the affairs of the member states yearly. A Swedish MEP “was beside herself”and warned Kovács to watch his words. “The European Commission, the European Parliament, the Council of Europe, the Venice Commission all say that there are problems with human rights in Hungary. So, then we all lie?” Another MEP called Kovács’s attitude “contemptuous cynicism” and offensive because after all he said that 500 million EU citizens don’t live in a democracy and that the EP commission doesn’t function according to democratic rules. He told Kovács that what’s going on in Hungary at the moment is “the tyranny of the majority.” Kovács was not moved. In his answer he repeated his charges and indicated that as far as the Hungarian government is concerned “the case is closed.”

A few years back Kovács served as government spokesman, but after a while he was replaced by András Giró-Szász. Viktor Orbán remarked on that occasion that “it is time to see some smiles” when the spokesman makes his announcements. The remark was on target. Kovács would resemble Rasputin if he let his very dark beard grow. One has learned not to expect smiles from the man, although on official photos he tries hard. After his removal from his high-profile position he spent some time in the ministry of human resources responsible for, of all things, Roma integration. But last year he was reinstated as “international spokesman.” I don’t know why Zoltán Kovács was considered to be more fit to be a spokesman of the Hungarian government on the international scene than he was at home. His reception in Brussels was not exactly promising.

*Video streaming is now available here:

http://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/news-room/content/20150116IPR09871/html/Committee-on-Civil-Liberties-Justice-Home-Affairs-meeting-22-01-2015-0900

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The latest scandal: The Orbán government and the Norway Fund

On May 9 we learned that Norway had suspended €140 million of aid funds to Hungary. Most Hungarians, I’d wager to say, have no idea that, in addition to funds coming from the European Union, Hungary receives aid from Norway, Iceland, and Lichtenstein. In fact, Hungary is the second largest beneficiary, after Poland, of the so-called EEA and Norwegian Grants. The money that Hungary receives is the result of an agreement that Norway, Iceland, and Lichtenstein signed in 1994, the “Agreement on the European Economic Area,” which allowed these three non-EU states to join the common market of the European Union. Joining the large EU market was financially advantageous to these countries because within the EU their products were no longer subject to tariffs. In return, the three countries agreed to extend aid to less developed countries of the Union. After 2004, a large portion of the funds went to former Soviet-bloc countries. EEAUnder the arrangement Hungary will receive €153.3 million over the next few years. A large portion of the money that has already been received was under the supervision of the Hungarian government, while a smaller amount, the Norwegian Civic Fund, was handled by an NGO called Ökotárs Alapítvány (Hungarian Environmental Partnership Foundation). This organization was chosen by a Brussels-based office to be the lead NGO in disbursing funds within Hungary.

For reasons unknown, the Orbán government unilaterally decided to change the way it handled the aid received from the EEA and Norwegian Funds. As of January 1, the office that had been in charge of the distribution of the grants closed its doors and a private non-profit organization took over its duties.  This new organization has strong ties to Századvég, a Fidesz-related think tank.

The Norwegian government considered the move a breach of  the agreement the Hungarians signed with the Norwegian government, which supplies 97% of the funds. The Norwegians did not mince words. Vidar Helgesen, minister of EEA and EU Affairs who is also the chief-of-staff of the prime minister’s office, said that “Hungary’s actions in this matter are unacceptable” and added that “the Hungarian government has shown little willingness to find solutions that comply with the agreements entered into. We have therefore decided to suspend payments until this matter has been resolved.” He insisted that “the monitoring and implementation tasks in connection with the programs and funds under the EEA and Norway Grants scheme must be transferred back to the central government administration in Hungary, in line with the practice used in all the other beneficiary countries.” Up to now there is no sign that the Hungarian government is ready to oblige.

And that is not the only issue in dispute between Norway and Hungary. The Hungarians are also unhappy about Ökotárs Alapítvány’s administration of the Norwegian Civic Fund. According to Origofriction between the Orbán government and Norway over the Civic Fund goes back to 2012 when Tibor Navracsics complained to the Norwegian foreign minister about Ökotárs Alapítvány. He alleged that  this so-called independent organization has strong ties to LMP, the Hungarian green party, and therefore its distribution of funds favors the opposition forces.

The Hungarian government also complained about the process that selected Ökotárs as the lead NGO. Indeed, Ökotárs was the only organization that was found to be acceptable by the members of the jury, although originally there were seven applicants. Some of the groups had close ties to the government, while others were brand new creations with neither history nor reputation. Two were actually owned by the Hungarian state. The owners of two others were involved with CÖF, the government-created Civic Forum, the organization of the peace marches and sponsors of the pro-government election campaign. In any case, Navracsics’s complaint fell on deaf ears. The Norwegians were satisfied with Ökotárs.

Then, sometime after January 1, János Lázár again tried to convince the Norwegians to “renegotiate” the agreement on the basis of the new status quo. In addition, he wanted to take the Norwegian Civic Fund out of the hands of Ökotárs. The Norwegian government wasn’t impressed. So, Lázár began harassing Ökotárs Alapítvány. First, the government released nine names from the 50-60-member staff who, according to them, had had some kind of relationship with LMP, MSZP, or an anti-government university organization that was active for a short while in 2012. What they neglected to mention was that several employees had had close relations with Fidesz. Second, the government compiled a list of recipients who, in their opinion, should not have received any financial support from the Norwegian Fund, including the Roma Press Center, the Association of Liberal Youth, Women for Women against Violence, Transparency International, TASZ, the investigative journalism portal atlatszo.hu, Foundation for Democratic Youth, and two gay organizations that received small sums of money, Labris Lesbian Association and  the Rainbow Mission. Obviously, for the Orbán government, grants should go only to pro-government organizations. Critics should not get a penny as far as they are concerned.

Since neither Ökotárs Alapítvány nor the Norwegian government was intimidated, this morning the Hungarian government ratcheted up its campaign against the four NGOs that have helped Norway disburse the grants. It said that it would audit Ökotárs, the lead NGO. And today employees of the state audit department appeared at two partner organizations. At Autonómia Alapítvány, employees cooperated with the auditors but announced that they found the procedure illegal. The Hungarian State Audit Department does not have the right to investigate non-state funds, and clearly whatever small amounts of money these organizations received came from Norway. At the second organization, Demnet, the two men who showed up claimed that the investigation might take weeks. Demnet also put its objections in writing, claiming that the State Audit Department lacks jurisdiction.

Already on Friday Bernadett Szél, co-chair of LMP, wrote: “To János Lázár, the non-government sector is just another area to occupy. LMP rejects the charges.” And atlatszo.hu board member Attila Mong told Reuters that the government had set out to “cut that lifeline from the organizations it considers unfriendly, adding there were almost no other financial sources to replace these grants. Orbán’s message is clear: he wants his hands to be the only ones to feed NGOs. If you don’t want it, you will starve.”

This is where we stand now. Another unfinished chapter in the endless war of independence. Shameful, utterly shameful. Viktor Orbán and his henchmen have been systematically ruining what little remains of the reputation of Hungary.