Péter Niedermüller

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

The government media on OSCE’s final report on the Hungarian elections

Judit Csernyánszky, a member of MSZP’s press corps, wrote an opinion piece in today’s Népszava with the title “The Hidden Report.” It is about the silence that surrounded the final report of OSCE on the Hungarian election of April 6, 2014.

The final report was released on July 11, 2014, but MTI was silent. On that day only an obscure organization called Alapjogokért Centrum (Center for Basic Rights) reacted to the report. This “organization” seems to be a phantom that the government calls up whenever an alleged attack on it requires an “independent” assessment. For example, it was this organization that severely criticized Kim Scheppele’s work on the Hungarian electoral system.

OSCEreportIt was only on the next day, by which time Magyar Hírlap had already published an article about the Alapjogokért Centrum’s criticism of the OSCE report, that MTI decided that it was time to deal with this unwelcome piece of news. The MTI release is an odd piece of journalistic writing because it starts not with the important news item, the appearance of the report, but with the reactions of the opposition parties to it. It is only at the end of MTI’s press release that one can read that, according to the OSCE report, “the elections were efficiently organized and offered voters a diverse choice following an inclusive candidate registration. The main governing party enjoyed an undue advantage because of restrictive campaign regulations, biased media coverage and campaigning activities that blurred the separation between politics and State.”

Here I would like to concentrate on the right-wing media’s handling of this unwelcome report. First, let’s look at Magyar Hírlap, which began its article on the topic thus: “According to 444.hu, [OSCE] found serious problems connected to the elections that gave undue advantage to the government parties. On the other hand, the Alapjogokért Központ welcomes the report that states that the Hungarian national election was well organized. However, the document contains several mistaken assertions on the details.” Clearly, the journalist responsible for this article did not read the document itself.

Another right-wing blog, Pesti Srácok.hu, copied the same 444.hu/MTI article that served as the source for Magyar Hírlap. I checked provincial sites and found only one paper that carried the same story. Mandiner, whose younger conservative journalists are occasionally critical of the government, decided this time to rely on MTI. Safer, I guess. Gondola‘s headline for the same MTI article read: “According to OSCE the elections were conducted successfully.” Magyar Nemzet decided to remain silent about the publication of the document.

What could people hear on the state radio and television stations? According to Csernyánszky, practically nothing. MTV’s evening news didn’t even mention it. On MR it was mentioned in the next day’s news program at noon, but they spent only half a minute on the topic without saying a word about the opinion of the opposition, which was brief and to the point. OSCE clearly states in the report that Fidesz’s two-thirds majority is illegitimate.

Of course, the opposition organs gave all the details and all the critical remarks of the report, but considering the relatively small audience these media outlets reach one can conclude that Judit Csernyánszky is right. The government and its servile media managed to hide the report from the Hungarian public. I suggest that you read the document. It is thirty pages long and not only includes criticisms but also gives suggestions, 36 all told. I very much doubt that these suggestions will be adopted by the government. After all, the electoral law was devised in such a way that it would produce exactly the kinds of results the April 6 election returned: the continuation of the unlimited power the government had enjoyed in the previous four years.

What do the other parties plan to do? Együtt-PM apparently is planning to compile the suggestions of OSCE and produce a list of amendments to the current electoral law. Well, this is better than nothing, but we can be pretty sure that none of the amendments will even reach the floor of the parliament.

The Demokratikus Koalíció has another plan. The party announced today that its two members in the European Parliament, Csaba Molnár and Péter Niedermüller, had inquired from the European Commission whether in light of the OSCE report the commission is contemplating turning to international courts because the Hungarian electoral law “violates the principles of democratic elections and the existing international conventions.” I am not surprised by this strategy. When I heard that Molnár and Niedermüller were heading the DK list for the EP elections, I suspected that the party’s leadership thinks that the European Parliament should be used more extensively for calling attention to the state of democracy in Hungary. Both men hold important positions in DK. Csaba Molnár was a spokesman of the party and the right-hand man of Ferenc Gyurcsány. I don’t know whether the DK MEPs will be successful, but one thing is sure: they have more of a chance in Brussels than in Budapest.