Vidar Helgesen

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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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.