Philip N. Howard

Retreat or another “peacock dance” by Viktor Orbán?

Something must have happened between yesterday afternoon and this morning in the Prime Minister’s Office. János Lázár, the minister in charge of the office, has been waging war for some time on at least two fronts, the Norwegian government and the Hungarian Jewish community. In both cases he now seems to be retreating, although his move may turn out to be, as has happened so often in the past, merely a tactical ruse–one step back and, once the glare of the spotlight dims, two steps forward.

Lázár has been trying to make changes in the original agreement regarding the disbursement of the Norwegian Funds, changes that the Norwegian government refused to accept. Then, in order to pressure the Norwegians to release the funds that they had withheld, the Hungarian government began to harass an independent foundation that was in charge of grants given to NGOs by the Norwegian Civic Funds. The latest attack, about which I wrote yesterday, was the most aggressive to date, but it did not shake the resolve of the Norwegian government. By noon today Vidar Helgesen, Norwegian minister in charge of European Union affairs, made it crystal clear that what happened yesterday in the office of the Ökotárs Foundation was unacceptable as far as his government was concerned.

Moreover, yesterday’s raids produced no damning evidence against the foundation. They will not be able to jail Veronika Móra, the director of the foundation, because she has done nothing wrong. At least, according to legal opinions I heard. It was thus high time for the government to throw in the towel.

As we know, Viktor Orbán, because naturally he is the man behind the attacks on the foundation and the NGOs, is not the kind of guy who likes to admit defeat. And he really wanted to stifle the anti-government voices being funded by the Norwegians. But the 45 billion forints the Norwegians were withholding, the bulk of their grant money that goes directly to the government, was hurting the public purse. This morning János Lázár announced that the Hungarian government will ask the European Commission to be the arbiter between the Hungarian and the Norwegian governments. Since a special EU office in Brussels has been supervising the activities of Ökotárs Foundation and has found nothing illegal about its activities, the outcome of the decision is not really in question. But at least Viktor Orbán can tell his people that, although his government is right, the bureaucrats in Brussels decided otherwise. Hungary had no choice but to oblige.

There might have been two other considerations that tipped the scales in favor of retreat. One is that, according to unnamed sources, Tibor Navracsics’s nomination has been unfavorably influenced by, among other things, the Norwegian-Hungarian controversy. Moreover, the raid on the foundation’s office, which was received with dismay abroad, coincided with the appearance of an op/ed piece in The New York Times by Philips N. Howard, a professor at the Central European University and the University of Washington, which only reinforced the commonly held view that Viktor Orbán is a man who cannot tolerate a free media. And, as the Norwegian controversy made evident, he would like to silence independent NGOs as well. The biting illustration that accompanied the article has since been reprinted in several Hungarian publications. If it had not been clear before, it had to be obvious by now that Viktor Orbán had gone too far. It was time to recall the troops.

The same thing seems to be happening on the Hungarian Jewish front. The government alienated the Hungarian Jewish community by making several controversial, unilateral moves. I wrote earlier about these government actions, starting with the appointment of Sándor Szakály as the director of a new historical institute and the designation of Mária Schmidt, director of the House of Terror, to head a new Holocaust Museum. The final straw was the decision to erect a memorial to commemorate the German occupation of Hungary on March 19, 1944. The result was a complete breakdown in communication–and trust–between János Lázár and the leaders of the Jewish community. Then, after months of silence, at the end August it became known that the government was ready to make concessions. The routinely scheduled  September meeting took place today and, indeed, it seems that the Hungarian government finally decided that it was time to come to some understanding with the Jewish community.

The meeting that lasted for four hours was a large gathering, including 60 people representing several Jewish organizations. Yet, according to András Heisler, president of Mazsihisz, thanks to the disciplined behavior of the representatives real progress was made on all eight points that were on the agenda. Although the Jewish organizations did not change their attitude on such vital issues as the House of Fates, the government offered several peace offerings. The government promised, for example, to spend up to a billion forints to fix up Jewish cemeteries that are in very bad shape in most cities and towns. Lázár promised to invite the head of the Kúria, Hungary’s supreme court, the minister of interior, and the head of the judicial office to talk over practical moves to be taken in cases of anti-Semitic activity. Lázár seemed to be ready to discuss the renovation of the synagogue on Sebestyén Rumbach Street that might serve two functions: it will be a functioning place of worship as well as a museum. Lázár also promised to renovate the synagogue in Miskolc.

The large gathering of the Jewish Round this morning Népszava / Photo József Vajda

The Jewish Round Table this morning
Népszava / Photo József Vajda

Although all these goodies were offered to the Jewish communities, the representatives refused to change their position on the boycott of the government organized events commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust. They remained steadfast even though the government gave in on one serious bone of contention–the exhibit at the House of Fates. Lázár personally guaranteed that no exhibit will be mounted without the active cooperation of the Hungarian and international Jewish community. Interestingly, the controversial designated head of the project, Mária Schmidt, was not present.

All in all, it seems that there is a general retreat. Whether it is real or not we will find out soon enough.

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