Russian-Hungarian relations

The Hungarian far right and Russia

There has been a lot of discussion about the Russian sympathies of the extreme right parties in Europe. I have written extensively about Jobbik’s close ties with Russia. I’m sure that many readers remember the strange story of Béla Kovács, Jobbik EP MP, who, by the way, was just barred from the territory of Ukraine by the Ukrainian government. The reason? Most likely Kovács’s participation in the group that found everything in perfect order in the Crimean elections. Gábor Vona also visited Moscow, accompanied by Béla Kovács, and met important Russian political leaders.

The same affinity for Russia holds for France’s National Front, whose leader, Marine Le Pen, visited Moscow last summer and met similarly high-ranking politicians of the Russian Duma. Golden Dawn, the Greek fascist party, also has close connections to Moscow from where it receives financial assistance. When the Greek government imprisoned Nikos Michaloliakos, the party’s leader, Alexander Dugin, the author of Putin’s “Eurasian” ideology, actually sent him a letter in prison. Just to remind people: Gábor Vona also met Dugin in Moscow. And then there is Bulgaria’s far-right party, Ataka, that also has links to the Russian embassy.

All these parties and other right-wing fringe organizations support Russia’s annexation of Crimea and stand by Russia in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. They are all against the European Union and the United States. Most of them are also anti-Semitic, definitely anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian and Iranian.

A previously lesser-known right-wing portal in Hungary, Hídfő (Bridgehead), has recently come into prominence. It was this site that first broke the story that Hungary is secretly supplying tanks to the Ukrainian army. One of their readers saw a tank being transported by train toward Debrecen, which the editors of the portal found suspicious. Soon enough word spread that the tanks were destined for Ukraine. The Hungarian ministry of defense explained that the tanks had been sold to a Czech businessman who deals in used military equipment.

Later the Russian foreign ministry published an official statement stating that “weapons supplied to Ukraine by the EU member-countries … violate legally binding obligations–the Arms Trade Treaty.” The Russian foreign ministry was fairly well-informed on the details: “Hungary’s Defense Ministry is supplying Ukraine with armored vehicles, including T-72 tanks, through a ‘proxy agency.'” The Hungarian Foreign Ministry denied the Russian claim as “groundless.”

As a result of its revelation Hídfő, which apparently has a readership of 3,000/day, became internationally known.  And naturally that aroused the interest of investigative journalists in Atlatszo.hu, one of those NGOs that receive financial support from the Norwegian Civic Fund. They discovered a few interesting items about the organization that is likely behind Hídfő–Magyar Nemzeti Arcvonal, a Hungarist organization that came into being in 1989. Originally it was called Magyar Nemzetiszocialista Akciócsoportok (National Socialist Action Groups) . It considers itself to be the legitimate successor to Ferenc Szálasi’s Arrow Cross Party.

Hídfő, as far as I could ascertain, was established on September 25, 2012, or at least that is the date when the first article appeared. The portal is full of anti-Israeli, anti-American, anti-European Union articles while it is fiercely pro-Russian, pro-Palestinian, and pro-Iranian. Their Russian connections must be substantial. While internet sites normally invite readers to express their satisfaction on Twitter and Facebook, Hídfő has only Vkontakte, a kind of Russian Facebook.

Hídfő is well informed on the exact military situation in Eastern Ukraine

Hídfő is well informed on the precise military situation in “New Russia”

An interesting article, originally published on tarsadalmivirtus.lapunk.hu, appeared in Hídfő in 2013. If one can believe the introduction, a single person writes all the articles; he sees himself as a great observer and analyst of international affairs. He also looks upon the European Union as an enemy that until now has been unable to grab only two countries: Ukraine and Belarus.  But the EU has plans concerning Ukraine. If it manages to get hold of Ukraine, its influence in Europe would be complete while “Russia would be squeezed into the Asian region.” European pressure is great on Ukraine and in case of a civil war “it is possible that Moscow will try to save the Russian population and the country will fall into several pieces.” This, however, will not satisfy the European Union. The final step of the evil European Union will be “the execution of Russia.” Romania will incorporate Moldova while the West will incite the Muslims of Russia to revolt. Eventually Russia will fall apart without any outside military action. Our man seems to know that “the Russian military leadership” has already worked out a strategy to prevent such an outcome. It includes the support of Russia nationalists in Ukraine, to be followed by “tremendous pressure on the Baltic states.” Whoever our man is, he predicted the events on the Russian-Ukrainian border fairly accurately.

Another far-right site is “Jövőnk” (Our Future). This Hungarist site has been in existence since January 2009. It would be fascinating to learn more about this group because the site suggests that they have plenty of money. They publish articles not only in Hungarian but also in English, French, German, Russian, Romanian, Slovak, and Serbian, which is a very expensive undertaking. The people behind Jövőnk are so enthusiastically pro-Russian that their articles could have been written in some Russian government office in Moscow and translated into Hungarian. This particular page will give you an idea about the editors’ infatuation with Vladimir Putin. In one of the articles there are enthusiastic lines about Putin building a Eurasian Empire, and not for a moment does the author worry about the implications of such an empire for his own country, Hungary.

A strange, inscrutable world about which we still know very little. We especially know very little about the nature of these groups’ ties to Russia and Iran. One can only hope that the Hungarian secret service is keeping an eye on these people, although I have my doubts about both the talent and the will of the security agents. When one reads articles in these extremist websites about the decline of the West and glowing descriptions of the East, one has the awful feeling that Viktor Orbán has quite a bit in common with these fellows. A rather frightening thought.

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Mária Schmidt’s revisionist history of World War II and the Holocaust. Part II

In order to demonstrate Mária Schmidt’s revisionism when it comes to Hungary’s role in the war, the re-evaluation of the Horthy regime, and the twentieth-century history of the Hungarian Jewish community, I have chosen two articles, both from a collection of essays entitled Diktatúrák ördögszekerén. The first, covered yesterday, dealt with World War II and, to Schmidt’s mind, the inappropriate punishment of Germany and the Axis Powers. The second article, “Place of the Holocaust in the Modern History of the Hungarian Jewry (1945-1956)” is the subject of today’s post. In it Schmidt is allegedly seeking an answer to the question of whether the Holocaust altered and, if yes, to what extent, the relations between Jews and non-Jews. The answer? Well, that is not clear from the twenty-three pages that follow. There are places where she categorically states that the peaceful coexistence between Jews and non-Jews came to an abrupt end. Although in the 1920s there were signs  of reconciliation, the good old days could never be restored. On the other hand, she sometimes indicates that the ties between the two groups were always strong, even after 1928, especially in comparison to the situation in the neighboring countries.

The article on the Holocaust and its effect on Hungarian-Jewish relations actually covers a great deal more than the title would indicate. Almost half of the article covers the 1919-1944 period. Her thesis is that “the Hungarian liberal nobility and the leaders of Hungarian Jewry signed a pact in the middle of the nineteenth century.” What did this so-called “pact” entail? An understanding that the Hungarian nobility would provide Hungary’s political leadership and that the Jewish leaders would stay away from politics and busy themselves in the economic sphere and the professions. Continuing this line of reasoning, she argues that because Hungarian Jews became leaders of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, after 1919 the Hungarian political elite, the liberal nobility in Schmidt’s words, “considered the agreement null and void.”

I guess I don’t have to dwell much on the improbability of such an arrangement, formal or informal. Schmidt, however, takes this “unwritten rule” for granted and therefore maintains that the non-Jewish political elite after World War I was fully justified in changing their attitude toward the country’s Jewish citizens. The members of the political elite “believed that the representatives of Hungarian Jewry in 1918 and 1919 not only demanded a share of political power but made an attempt at their total annihilation.” Schmidt provides no supporting evidence for this stark claim.

From the above one would think that Jewish/non-Jewish relations had suffered such a blow that reconciliation between the groups was out of the question. A few lines later, however, we read about “the second flowering  of Hungarian Jewry” between 1928 and 1938. On the one hand, she talks about the partnership between the political elite and the Jewish community while, on the other, she mentions “the subordinate position of the Jews.” As if she couldn’t decide, or did not want to decide about the precise nature of that relationship. The Horthy regime “was not friendly to the Jews but until 1938 its representatives were not antagonistic either.” This is how Schmidt skirts the issue throughout the article. As an apologist for the Horthy regime she has every reason not to be forthright. The fact is that both the political leaders and a large segment of Hungarian society were imbued with anti-Semitism during the period under investigation.

After this unsatisfactory “analysis” of the interwar years we get to a very important date: “On March 19, 1944 Hungary’s sovereignty ceased to exist.” Schmidt wrote this article in 1998, but in 2011 it found its way into the preamble of the new constitution. In her description of this period almost every sentence sounds familiar: “The country that was directed by Nazi puppets no longer defended its Jewish citizens.” The Nazi puppets in Viktor Orbán’s latest formulation are “Nazi collaborators.” The portion of the sentence that talks about the country’s inability to defend its Jewish citizens is echoed in one of János Áder’s recent speeches on the Holocaust. Not a word about the personnel of the governments formed after March that was practically identical to the composition of earlier cabinets. On the contrary, she gives the impression that the political elite of the interwar period actively tried to save Hungary’s Jewish citizens. She claims that “in the last minute some members of the traditional elite managed to call up 40,000 Jewish men for labor service and thus saved them from deportation.”

Finally, we arrive at the 1945-1956 period which is in many ways the most fascinating part of this essay. I should mention that Mária Schmidt is also the foremost ideologue of the fierce anti-communism of the Orbán regime. This anti-communism is of relatively new vintage and has managed to give a less than accurate picture of the 1945-1989 period. I also assume that Schmidt’s influence on Viktor Orbán and his colleagues is considerable when it comes to the undifferentiated treatment of the period because she does the same in her own writings.

The article under consideration is especially interesting because in it Schmidt’s two interests intersect: the history of Hungarian Jewry and communist crimes. Early in the article she spends some time on the Hungarian Jews’ heavy involvement with the workers’ movement and with liberal politics. Their interest in left-wing politics only strengthened after the war until practically all the political leaders, legal or illegal, of leftist parties were Jewish. She quotes Robert Michels (1959) as the foremost authority on the history of the European working class movement, who claims that “in Hungary the parties of the working class were entirely in Jewish hands.” At this point Schmidt parenthetically notes: “Let us add to this that in Hungary’s case this statement with more or less modifications was true until 1956.” This sentence encapsulates her assessment of the Jewish presence in politics between 1945 and 1956. They were the ones who were mostly responsible for the Stalinist dictatorship of the Rákosi period.

The judges and the prosecutors of the people’s courts that passed some 400 death sentences were almost exclusively Jewish. The leadership of the Hungarian Communist Party was heavily Jewish (Mátyás Rákosi, Mihály Farkas, Ernő Gerő, and József Révai), and Schmidt is not moved by the argument that they were first and foremost committed to communism and did not consider themselves Jewish. Anti-Semitism arose because the people who were in positions of political power all came from what she calls and puts into quotation marks “the persecuted.” And she continues thus: “After twenty-five years of frightening  of the right-wing press, a Jewish-communist world conspiracy seemed to materialize.”

After the old non-communist elite was removed and accused of war crimes, “the comrades of Jewish origin managed to get themselves into important positions in the new democracy.” Prior to 1945 Hungarian Jews had a double identity: they were Hungarians and they were Jews. But socialism offered something that replaced both. “Instead of Hungarian, internationalism and instead of Jewish, comrade.” Or a little later: “When the old political elite lost its positions in many cases their places were taken by Jewish comrades.” They received important, well paid jobs, uniforms, ranks, fabulous careers.” I don’t know what you call this, but I call it anti-Semitic discourse.

Victims of Communism Memorial, Washington, DC / commons.wikimedia.org

Victims of Communism Memorial, Washington, D.C. commons.wikimedia.org

And let me add a footnote to all this. A few weeks ago Viktor Orbán announced that Hungary is ready to contribute one million dollars for the establishment of a museum in Washington, D.C. dedicated to the victims of communism. In 1994 the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation was established. Originally, the founders planned to raise $100 million for a museum and memorial, but by 1999 only $500,000 had been raised. Viktor Orbán is trying to resuscitate this abortive plan. But $1 million is peanuts for such an undertaking, and therefore he is trying to convince other countries in Eastern Europe to contribute to the fund. In Schmidt’s and Orbán’s worldview, if there is a museum for the victims of Nazi Germany it is only appropriate to have one for the victims of communism.

I don’t know whether the supporters of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation know much about Viktor Orbán’s cozy relationship with former KGB agent Vladimir Putin and his recent friendship with the president of Kazakhstan, who is a leftover from communist times and who today is a bloody dictator. I also wonder how much these people know about the background of a fair number of Fidesz politicians who are such rabid anti-communists today but who in the past were high-ranking party members. Some of them were even agents spying on their fellow citizens during the Kádár regime. Do they know that Viktor Orbán’s father was party secretary of the company he owns today? Or that Orbán himself was secretary of KISZ, the youth organization of the Hungarian communist party? And that László Kövér worked for a while after graduation at the institute attached to the party’s central committee?

Well, in any case, the Hungarian Embassy in Washington and the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation jointly organized an event scheduled for tomorrow afternoon. It will be a panel discussion on the “History and Legacy of Communism in Europe.” Mária Schmidt will be one of the participants. Let’s hope that the audience will appreciate her vast knowledge of the subject.

Viktor Orbán is the real danger, not the Hungarian far right

While commentators in the western media were not at all surprised about Fidesz’s electoral sweep, they were shocked at the substantial growth of the neo-Nazi racist party Jobbik. The original name of the organization was Jobb Magyarországért Mozgalom (Movement for a Better Hungary), which eventually was shortened to Jobbik, meaning “Better.”

Almost all the articles dealing with the election mention that “every fifth Hungarian” voted for an extremist party. Of course, this is not quite accurate because only 62% of the eligible voters actually bothered to vote, and it is a well-known fact that Jobbik followers turn out in high numbers. They even surpass Fidesz sympathizers. Nonetheless, this result must be a disappointment to Viktor Orbán, who has been trying for years to convince the West that his party is the guarantee that Hungary will not fall prey to extremists. After all, he argues, Fidesz is a party of the moderate right-of-center. On the far right are the neo-Nazis and on the left the “communists.” Naturally, with the exception of a very small communist party that hasn’t managed to get into parliament in the last twenty-four years, there are no communists in Hungary, a detail that doesn’t seem to bother the propagandists of Fidesz.

Now Orbán has to face the fact that all his efforts at weakening Jobbik’s base have failed. He thought that if he moved his own party farther and farther to the right he would be able “to steal” the Jobbik sympathizers. He showed Jobbik voters that his own government could satisfy all their demands. In his last termViktor Orbán gave numerous unexpected gifts to Jobbik. This was especially true when it came to media policy and questions of unifying the nation across borders. The rehabilitation of the Horthy regime was also originally a Jobbik demand. Moreover, it is possible that Orbán’s pro-Russian stance was inspired by Jobbik.

Despite Orbán’s best efforts, the 10% growth in Jobbik’s voting base came largely from the ranks of former Fidesz voters. On the last day of the campaign in Debrecen Orbán warned his audience that splitting their votes between Fidesz and some other party would weaken the Fidesz cause. Although he didn’t mention the party by name, it is clear that he was thinking of Jobbik. And indeed, once we have all the numbers I suspect we will find that a fairly large number of Fidesz voters split their votes between Fidesz and Jobbik. They voted for a Fidesz candidate locally but chose to use their second vote for the Jobbik list. In the final tally 100,000 more people voted for Jobbik than four years ago.

Jan-Werner Mueller in his article in The Guardian sees a correlation between the growth of Jobbik and Viktor Orbán’s pro-Russian policy. In order to understand the connection between Jobbik and Orbán’s pro-Russian policy we have to go back a bit. The first time I learned of Jobbik’s infatuation with Putin’s Russia was in 2009 when I read a study on “Russia’s Far-Right Friends.” According to this study, Jobbik’s attachment to Russia became evident for the first time during the Russian-Georgian border dispute. It also turned out that Gábor Vona, Jobbik party chairman, made at least two trips to Moscow even before 2009. Jobbik wanted “to open Hungary to eastern markets and to sell Hungarian products to Russia, China or even Iran instead of the European Union.” Jobbik also wanted to expand Hungary’s nuclear capacity and even then, the authors of the study believe, Jobbik had the Russian Rosatom in mind when it came to the Paks power plant’s expansion. Keep in mind that at this point Viktor Orbán had very different ideas about Russia, which he considered to be a danger to Europe and Hungary. It seems that Jobbik managed to convince him otherwise. He saw the light and more or less copied Jobbik’s ideas on Russo-Hungarian relations.

These moves didn’t slow the growth of Jobbik, just as government policies didn’t help the position of the conservatives vis-à-vis the extreme right in interwar Hungary. Orbán followed a policy of appeasement in dealing with MIÉP, the precursor of Jobbik, during his first government (1998-2002) just as he did in handling Jobbik. Give them what they want and perhaps they will be satisfied with Fidesz rule. That strategy didn’t work in the Horthy era as it doesn’t work now.

Viktor Orbán at the victory celebration, April 7, 2014 /Photo picture alliance/dpa

Viktor Orbán at the victory celebration, April 7, 2014 /Photo dpa

To be fair to Horthy, there’s appeasement (at a distance) and appeasement (embracing). I think we can safely say that Orbán’s ideas are closer to the extreme right today than were those of any of Horthy’s governments. After all, Orbán is a populist while Horthy and his ministers were hard-core conservatives. The leaders of the extreme right in the 1930s held some “revolutionary ideas” when it came to social policy. Many of the party’s ideologues were outright admirers of the Soviet experiment with its planned economy and egalitarian ideology. Szálasi, for example, was well versed in Marxism. For Horthy all that was anathema. It would have been unimaginable for Horthy to allow his government to conduct a pro-Russian/Soviet policy or to get too cozy with Ferenc Szálasi and his friends. On the other hand, Orbán seems quite willing to take over Jobbik’s ideas–their pro-Russian foreign policy as well as their views on modern Hungarian history–and pass them off as his own.

There is a paper thin line between Jobbik and Fidesz. I know that the western media is preoccupied with the growth of Jobbik, but I think everybody would be better off realizing that the real problem is Fidesz and the system Viktor Orbán created. Jobbik will be in opposition, but Viktor Orbán, who often carries the Jobbik banner, has practically unlimited power. He is the much greater danger, not Gábor Vona.

An unusual debate on the new Hungarian nuclear plant: János Lázár and Benedek Jávor

The news from Russsia and Ukraine  is frightening. The major question now is whether Russia will be satisfied with the annexation of the Crimea or whether the Russian army will march in and occupy further territories at the “request” of the Russian-speaking inhabitants of Ukraine’s eastern provinces. I wonder what the Hungarian public will think if Russia manages to cut Ukraine in half and the Russian bear ends up quite a few kilometers closer to the Hungarian border. In addition, there are threatening Russian talks about Ukraine and its supply of natural gas, which naturally would affect the Hungarian energy supply. All this is happening in the wake of Viktor Orbán’s top-secret negotiations with Vladimir Putin about the expansion of Hungary’s only nuclear power plant in Paks, which will increase Hungary’s energy dependence on Russia.

Viktor Orbán was in a great hurry to close this deal, most likely because he wanted ensure that it was voted on while he has a guaranteed two-thirds parliamentary majority. But then came Vladimir Putin’s gambit, which casts the Paks deal in a different light. As it is, the majority of the population doesn’t want to build another power plant and a whopping 75% of them are against the Russians building it. The couple of months spent by the Orbán government trying to influence public opinion in favor of Putin’s Russia didn’t manage to erase the negative feelings Hungarians have when they think of the country’s almost fifty-year occupation by the Russians. With the events in Ukraine these fears have received a new impetus, which makes Viktor Orbán’s situation concerning Paks even more difficult. According to some observers whose opinions I trust, “Paks is dead in the water.” But for the time being the government is sticking to its guns and Viktor Orbán is acting as if nothing has changed. They even agreed to a debate on the expansion of Hungary’s nuclear capacity built by Rosatom on money lent to Hungary from the Russian state. It is about this debate that I would like to say a few words.

As we know, there was no debate whatsoever on Paks prior to the signing of the agreement although there is a great deal of interest in the issue. So a student organization of law students at ELTE called Joghallgatók Önképző Szervezete (JÖSZ) organized a post-signing debate. The law students active in the association invited János Lázár, representing the government, and Benedek Jávor of Együtt2014/PM, who is a staunchly anti-nuclear Green, to have an open debate. How did the students manage to convince such an important man as Lázár to participate? Gáspár Orbán, the prime minister’s son, is one of the leaders of JÖSZ. He was among the students who were busily arranging the podium just before the actual debate.

atomvita

The interest was great. The large lecture hall was completely filled half an hour before the debate began. What was strange, and it says a lot about Hungarians’ attitude toward transparency, is that the debate was closed to the media as the result of a last-minute decision by the dean. Of course, reporters from several Internet news sites in addition to a journalist from Népszabadság managed to sneak in with fake IDs. Moreover, the whole debate, lasting longer than an hour, was recorded and is available online. But for those who don’t speak Hungarian here is a brief description of what transpired.

While Fidesz leaders might look very confident and can overwhelm their audience when delivering speeches, when they are supposed to engage in real debates they run out of steam. This is what happened to János Lázár.

Let’s start with the structure of the debate. There were three distinct parts. In the first part the topic was the circumstances of the agreement; in the second, questions concerning Russian-Hungarian relations were addressed to the participants; finally, in the third, the economic aspects of building a new power plant were discussed.

The debate began with Lázár, whose position was that nuclear capacity must be expanded because the old power plant will not be able to function beyond a certain date. This is true, but that date is far in the future. It would be quite enough to start to build the two new reactors in 2020. While he claimed that there will be no added capacity he did announce that in the government’s estimate in the next few years the need for electricity will grow by 1,000 megawatts. So, is there or isn’t there a need to produce more electricity? To give you an idea of the simplistic view Lázár and his friends entertain concerning this issue, for him the choice is “either a power plant or no Hungarian electricity.” No other options are available.

Jávor insisted that Paks II, the two new reactors, are additions to the present capacity. In addition, he listed the following objections: (1) the majority of Hungarians reject building the new reactors especially if it is done by the Russians; (2) the details of the agreement are not transparent; (3) the new investment will increase the price of electricity and will not add to the growth of the Hungarian GDP; (4) there will be too much energy when all four reactors are operational; (5) the building of Paks is too much of a geopolitical commitment to Russia; (6) the reactors will create fewer than the 10,000 jobs the government is talking about; (7) there are environmental concerns; (8) with interest the debt will be more than the government’s figure of 4.6 billion dollars. Jávor compared the deal to an especially deadly version of Russian roulette in which only one chamber in the revolver’s cylinder is not loaded.

When the moderator asked Lázár whether the government acted in such a way as to ensure the “democratic minimum,” he completely lost his cool. He interrupted the moderator and brought up a procedural question in order to avoid answering the question. He reduced the argument to: “either a power plant or no electricity.” From here on he talked about the fallacy of his opponent’s arguments but couldn’t come up with any arguments of his own. When he exceeded the allotted time he ignored the moderator and kept going. When the moderator inquired from him about the government’s refusal to make the details of the negotiations public, he told him and Jávor that they “should turn to the Russians with their requests.”

When it came to the price of electricity produced by Paks II, Lázár kept saying “atomic energy produces the cheapest electricity prices.” Yes, answered Jávor, the electricity Paks currently produces is inexpensive because the original initial investment has already been paid down. But the energy produced by Paks II will have to reflect the price of the new investment, which will be very costly. Lázár called this argument nonsense.

They moved on to national security issues. Jávor maintained that Hungarian dependence on Russian energy will increase after building Paks II while Lázár argued the opposite. In his opinion there is nothing to worry about because “the Russians have been here for sixty years and they are here today because they were the ones who built Paks.” So, nothing will really change. For Lázár nuclear energy means “independence.” Having only natural gas imposes energy dependence. To the question of why the Hungarian government asked for a Russian loan and why they didn’t turn, for example, to the IMF, Lázár’s answer was simple: “No one else would give a loan to Hungary except Russia.”

The debate naturally led nowhere. But there is also a good possibility that the grandiose Orbán plan for a Russian-built nuclear plant in an EU country will also lead nowhere. The Czech minister of defense already made it clear that Rosatom will never be in the running to build the Czech nuclear reactor. I can’t believe that the European Union could possibly let Putin’s Russia get close to an atomic power plant in Hungary.

Russia, Hungary, and the European Union: Paks documents released

It’s time to make sense of all the contradictory pieces of information that have reached the public in the last couple of days concerning the European Union’s attitude toward the Russian-Hungarian agreement on the Paks II nuclear power plant. The central question was whether the Orbán government notified Brussels, as it was obliged to, about the details of the agreement.

Energiaklub, a non-profit organization that deals with questions of energy and the environment, wrote a letter to the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Energy on February 17 asking for “access to the documentation related to the notification, under the Euratom Treaty, of the PAKS nuclear power in Hungary.” The answer was: “This investment project has not yet been notified to the Commission under Article 41 of the Euratom Treaty, and therefore at the moment no documents can be found in the Commission’s possession.” Critics of Viktor Orbán were only too happy to find that his administration seemed once again to have been caught lying. Soon enough, however, the relevant documentation was made public on the website of the prime minister’s office.

But before I talk about these newly released documents, which give us only a little more knowledge of the whole Paks affair than we had before, I would like to jot down a few dates by way of a road map.

I began collecting material on Paks and nuclear energy on October 18, 2013 when Viktor Orbán, then in India, boasted that Hungary would have extremely low energy prices in the not too distant future. He brought this up as an economic enticement for Indian investors. He also emphasized his commitment to nuclear energy.

Source: nuclear-news.net

Source: nuclear-news.net

Then for almost two months we heard nothing about nuclear energy. Finally János Lázár broached the subject and talked about advanced negotiations with Russia for Rosatom to construct two new reactors in Paks. What we didn’t know was that on December 10, 2013 János Lázár wrote a letter to Günther Oettinger, commissioner for energy. The released document is a cover letter to “the Draft International Agreement with the Russian Federation.” The letter also indicates that the Commission had been notified earlier, at its November 26, 2013 meeting, that “Hungary intends to enter into an international agreement with the government of the Russian Federation on the cooperation in peaceful use of nuclear energy.” Attached was the draft agreement “in accordance with Article 103 of the European Treaty.” The letter also reveals that talks between Brussels and Budapest about Hungary’s intention to sign such a treaty had taken place even before that date because Lázár assured the commissioner that they took “into consideration the comments obtained from the Commission.” The conversation between the commissioner and the Hungarian government is described as “open and constructive.” The confusion described above was most likely due to Energiaklub’s reference to Article 41 as opposed to relevant Article 103 of the Euratom Treaty.

A month later, on January 13, Viktor Orbán traveled to Moscow where Mrs. László Németh, minister of national development, on behalf of the Hungarian government, signed a document about which we still know very little. A couple of days later curious Hungarian journalists inquired from Günther Oettinger’s office what the European Commission thinks of the Russian-Hungarian agreement. They were told on January 15 that the Commission had not passed judgment on whether the lack of competitive bidding was an obstacle to the European Union’s blessing for the deal. However, they were told by the spokesman for Oettinger’s office that such a probe will take place some time in the future.

A good two weeks after his trip to Moscow, Orbán decided to write a letter to José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, in which  he informed Barroso about “the recent developments with regards to nuclear energy cooperation between Hungary and the Russian Federation.” From the letter it becomes clear that there had been a response from Brussels to János Lázár’s December 10 cover letter attached to the copy of the draft treaty. According to Orbán, “the Commission raised no objection to the draft agreement” and therefore “my government signed the intergovernmental agreement on January 14, 2014.”

Orbán in this letter tried to downplay the fact that the job of building the nuclear power plant was given without any competitive bidding process. He added that “Rosatom, the Russian nuclear state authority, will be in charge of the implementation of the design and construction work. However, whenever any such work or services cannot be provided in-house, the Russian party will undertake an open and non-discriminatory tendering process.”

And finally, Orbán tried to reassure Barroso that the Russian-Hungarian deal actually serves European interests. “We believe that the long-term cooperation of Hungary with the Russian Federation in the field of nuclear power will contribute to strengthening the energy security of the EU as a whole.” It was at about this time that John Lukács, the conservative Hungarian-American historian who had fairly close ties with Viktor Orbán earlier, wrote him an open letter in which he warned about the deadly embrace of Putin’s Russia. I translated Lukács’s letter and Orbán’s rather impertinent reply.

By February 7 the Hungarian parliament, after five hours of debate, voted for a treaty about which the members knew practically nothing, even as opposition to the Russian-Hungarian deal was growing in the country. Most Hungarians didn’t want an extension to Paks, and they especially didn’t want to have the Russians building it. Foreign observers also envisaged a “Comecon reborn,” which looked quite possible after “realigning Ukraine as a satellite state under Vladimir Putin.” Nick Butler of the Financial Times emphasized Hungary’s “acceptance of Russian technology in its nuclear sector” and added that this huge investment will be financed by a Russian loan. He noted a reassertion of Russian power across the region and wrote that “the advance is not military but economic with energy issues to the fore.”

Barroso’s answer came on February 7. He referred to the progress made toward a common European energy policy. He attributed this success to the Commission’s “respect for Member States’ basic choices concerning their energy mix.” He added, however: “Member States’ commitment to comply fully with the rules of the Treaties and secondary legislation, in particular those governing the internal energy market, and to act in a spirit of coordination and full transparency, remains vital.” After the Commission examined the draft agreement it “raised no objections of principle to the agreement from the perspective of article 103.” But it seems that Orbán is still not entirely in the clear because “there are … other aspects of EU law to be observed, such as the rules on public procurement and state aid.”

Many people are convinced that the hidden state subsidies and the lack of public procurement are insuperable obstacles. Although who knows. Viktor Orbán always finds ways to come out on top.

Hungarian parliament voted on Paks; the Jewish-government dialogue is stalled

Yesterday we all thought that the parliamentary vote on the Russian-Hungarian agreement about financing and building two new reactors in Paks would take place only next Thursday. But, in typical Fidesz fashion, the Fidesz-KDNP majority made a last-minute change in the agenda and opted to hold the vote today. Perhaps the sudden decision had something to do with the revelations of Mihály Varga, minister of the economy, about the financial details of the agreement. Parliament had only four days to ponder the bill, and five hours were allowed for discussion on the floor.

The decision to move the vote forward naturally upset the opposition, but that was not all that raised eyebrows. The figures Mihály Varga revealed were much higher than earlier expected. First of all, Hungary will have to pay back the loan not in 30 but in 21 years, in 2035. In the early years the interest rate will be 3.9%, later 4.5%, and in the final years 4.9%. The Russians will pay the 10 billion euros it is lending to Hungary over ten years, and Hungary will have to pony up 2 billion euros in the final years of plant construction. (That figure, of course, assumes that there are no cost overruns, a highly unlikely possibility.) According to information received from government circles, one reason Viktor Orbán was so eager to push through the vote at the earliest possible date was that he was concerned that even Fidesz legislators would be unwilling to vote for the plant expansion once they knew its true cost. This information had to be revealed because the court so decided. Moreover, according to estimates, the expansion of nuclear capacity would be so costly that it would raise the price of electricity at least 40% and in the first decade perhaps 80%. Népszabadság gave the following headline to its article on the estimates prepared by MVM, the state-owned utility company: “More expensive electricity, brutal losses.” Nice prospects, if MVM’s calculations are correct.

LMP asked for a roll call vote, after which András Schiffer held up a sign: “Hungary sold out and indebted,” while Szilvia Lengyel, also of LMP, held up another placard proclaiming that “We will not be a Russian atomic colony.” Bernadett Szél (LMP) and Katalin Ertsey (LMP) had megaphones that produced the noise of ambulance sirens at full volume. The scene was quite something. I highly recommend the video of the brawl, available on Index. Parliament had to adjourn for over an hour. László Kövér called the protesters idiots and also indicated that the highest possible fine will have to be paid by the four LMP members.

LMP (Politics Can Be Different) / Source Index

LMP (Politics Can Be Different) / Source Index

A quick look at the record of the votes is most interesting. It is striking how many members chose not to be present. Let’s start with Fidesz which has a large 223-member delegation out of which 21 members were absent. Among the missing were Viktor Orbán, Zoltán Balog, Mihály Varga, Tibor Navracsics, and Zoltán Illés and Zsolt Németh, undersecretary for foreign affairs.. Out of the KDNP caucus of 34 members only two were missing but one of them was no other than Zsolt Semjén, deputy prime minister. Half of the Jobbik members were absent, but those present with the exception of one voted with the government parties. The majority of MSZP members decided to stay at home (32 out of 48). Out of the 27 independents 17 were absent and only one of those present voted for the bill: József Balogh of blind komondor fame.

The other important news of the day was the scheduled meeting between Jewish leaders and János Lázár. If anyone had great hopes for a compromise between the government and the Jewish community, he was mistaken. It turned out that János Lázár was simply a messenger. As he himself admitted, everything depends on Viktor Orbán. His is the final word and at the moment that word is “no go.” The monument will be erected, Sándor Szakály will stay, and the House of Fates “can become a reality only if there is intelligent, correct dialogue that concentrates on the essence of the matter… If there is no cooperation there is no reason to go ahead with the project.” So, if you raise objections and want to oversee Mária Schmidt’s activities, there will be no new Holocaust center in Hungary.

As for the monument depicting Archangel Gabriel and the German imperial eagle, “it would be a falsification of history if we pretended as if Germany didn’t deprive Hungary of its sovereignty on March 19, 1944.” The problem is that most respectable historians dispute the government’s contention of a lack of sovereignty, pointing to the composition of the governments formed between March 19 and October 15, 1944. For example, all ministers and undersecretaries of the Sztójay government also served in earlier Hungarian ministries going back as far as 1933. It is also clear that Miklós Horthy was not entirely powerless, as he demonstrated several times during this period. In my opinion, given the seemingly firm position of the government, there can be no agreement between the two sides.

I very much doubt that Viktor Orbán, who will have the final say on the issue next week, will move an inch. He is not that kind of a guy. As for the Jewish organizations that will sit down to talk on Sunday, they are unlikely to retreat from their position. So, it can easily happen that an international scandal is in the offing: the Hungarian Jewish community will boycott the Holocaust Memorial Year initiated by the Orbán government.

Hungarians are not happy with the Putin-Orbán agreement on the Paks reactors

Well, it seems that for perhaps the first time in almost four years Viktor Orbán may be running into serious political difficulties on at least two counts. One is the government’s handling of the Memorial Holocaust Year, which has caused an international outcry by Jewish organizations as well as historians of the period. The second is his decision to make a deal with Vladimir Putin for the Russian state-company Rosatom to build two new nuclear reactors in Paks.

The Russian government will provide a loan of 10 billion euros which Hungary will have to pay back in thirty years. Although we know nothing of the details, we are supposed to believe János Lázár’s claim that the agreement just signed in total secret “is the business deal of the century.” In fact, the deal was so secretive that even László Kövér learned about it only after the fact. And to make sure that no one will know any of the details for at least a decade, Sándor Pintér, minister of interior,  immediately declared the negotiations and their accompanying documents a state secret.

Not everybody is happy on the right. Kövér, perhaps the best known anti-communist in the bunch, was apparently disgruntled but, being a good soldier, kept his anger to himself. Ágoston Sámuel Mráz, “the independent” political scientist at Nezőpont, initially said that many of Orbán’s supporters were surprised that the two reactors will be built from a massive Russian loan “because Viktor Orbán for a long time used anti-Russian rhetoric.” But since Kövér said nothing publicly, soon enough Mráz was writing articles supporting the brilliant idea of cooperation with Putin’s Russia.

Heti Válasz wasn’t exactly taken with the deal and rightly pointed out that “Paks is not a simple business deal.” Building the two new reactors “is a geopolitical concern.” And András Lányi, a faithful supporter of Fidesz and adviser to Viktor Orbán, thinks that Paks is “bad business and poses an unacceptable risk.”

At last we also know what Hungarian citizens think because Medián’s poll, taken between January 24 and 28–that is, about two weeks after Viktor Orbán’s visit to Moscow, was just released. The first surprise for me at least was that 82% of the population knows about Paks. One might say that, given the importance of this piece of news, the figure is not all that high. However, given the total lack of interest of the Hungarian population about anything political, I think this is not a bad result and shows the concern of Hungarians over a questionable decision that was thrust upon them.

Half of the population (51%) agrees that new reactors are necessary as a supplement to the existing ones. However, the Russian connection is controversial. Those who oppose it are in the majority (56%); only a third of the population supports it. As shown in diagram #1, half of the Fidesz voters support the Russian deal. (In the summer of 2012 only 25% of them supported a reactor built with Russian technology, which demonstrates the power of government propaganda.)

Paks abra1Diagram #2 shows the results of a question about receiving news of the Putin-Orbán agreement. Were people very, somewhat, or not at all surprised hearing the news? Seventy percent of even Fidesz voters were very or somewhat surprised. By contrast, all of LMP’s (I supposed one could call them naive) supporters were surprised; none thought that such Russian-Hungarian cooperation could possibly occur. Another interesting figure concerns those who are undecided voters (elkötelezetlen;  second from the bottom). Their figures are closer to the responses of the opposition parties than those of Fidesz-KDNP voters, which strengthens my conviction that the majority of the undecided voters leans toward the opposition rather than toward the government party.

Paks abra2Diagram #3 is the most important one. Here Medián asked whether people would support holding a plebiscite on the future of Paks and the further use of nuclear energy. The answer is clear: 59% the population as a whole supports holding such a plebiscite. Even Fidesz voters.

Paks abra3In light of these figures I have the feeling that Viktor Orbán miscalculated the effect of his “business deal of the century” and made a big mistake in forcing it through before the election. He rather cockily told Professor John Lukacs that “I would bet a lot that on the question of Russian relations the day after the election there will be perfect agreement.” Of course, that is, if Fidesz wins the election. But given the significant rejection of the Russian connection and the even larger demand for a popular vote on the subject, the quickly signed agreement might have been a serious mistake from Fidesz’s point of view. The election might turn on the question of Paks. Some observers are already comparing the situation to the Horn government’s decision in 1998 to go ahead with the controversial Slovak-Hungarian treaty that obligated Hungary to build waterworks at Nagymaros after Hungary lost the case at the International Court of Justice. Without going into details, suffice it to say that the treaty originally signed by Czechoslovakia and Hungary played a large role in the political unrest in 1988-89. Some people claim that Horn’s decision to go ahead with the project played a  major role in the socialists’ defeat in the 1998 election. Orbán might find himself in a similar situation, which is largely due to his ever-growing self-confidence. In the last four years he managed to get away with everything and therefore abandoned all caution. But he might be running out of luck.