Interview about the Hungarian political situation

I was contacted by a journalist from Brazil with a few questions related to the Orbán regime, Hungarian politics, rule of law etc. The interview is available online now in Portuguese, below You may find the full-text version of my answers to the questions asked by the author in English:

1. At this stage, Fidesz has essentially seized control over every major institution in society. The government, the electoral system, the media, the courts, and now are also in control of higher education. Could Viktor Orbán retain a degree of power over universities beyond the 2022 election? Is that the creation of a deep state?

Surely it is. Universities is just one small part of the whole picture. Viktor Orbán has gradually cemented himself and his allies into all segments of the Hungarian society and economy. Even in the case of losing the governmental position after the next year’s general elections, all of the independent constitutional institutions are packed with his allies or servient individuals. This was made possible by the unscrupulous use of the constitutional majority gained in 2010, the first action using that being the “reform” of the electoral laws, practically ensuring new constitutional majorities for him in 2014 and 2018, and the introduction of not only the new “Fundamental Law”, but additionally the very awkward solution which dictates that newly constitutional-majority-appointed individuals shall stay in their office even after their term closes as long as someone else is elected with the same majority: this practically makes it possible for pro-Orbán people to stay in office indefinitely and yes, to create a pro-Orbán deep state.

2. How do you evaluate the changes implemented by the government?

The situation is quite strange, we could even call it a bit perverted. This model for operation of universities is not a novelty, You can find many institutions with tradition and prestige being ran in this model. But there is a vast difference: those operate on this model for decades or even longer, contrary to the reformed Hungarian universities. Those get some amount of initial capital from the government, but also a collective leadership consisted of exclusively pro-Orbán individuals, to add insult to injury, in many cases of simple politicians, often with extremely high salaries, being 3 or 4 times of an ordinary professor’s renumeration.

At the same time, there is no guarantee that any badly needed changes or improvements would follow this in the system of the higher education as a whole or in the given institutions. This is practically nothing more than a privatization of these institutions to the pro-Orbán circles.

3. Criticism from the opposition hasn’t been toned down, and the parties’ alliance has recently asked the Constitutional Court to annul the law because it goes against democratic principles. In a recent interview, Viktor Orban goes back to his ideological considerations stating that ‘the reason is that the left in Hungary is an internationalist creation, while universities are national institutions. We do not want them to become globalists, losing their national character.’ How can this new university legislation affect student’s lives and the country’s development?

Well, at least the veil has fallen, and finally Viktor Orbán has stopped faking about “efficiency” of the higher education and “better possibility to build connections with the economy”, for which – according to him so far – this step was needed. I do believe that even he himself got fed up with these ridiculous fake “arguments” and finally he is happy about talking honestly about what he wishes to achieve – even if it sounds like a weak fairy tale from two hundred years ago. Universities may be “national” in some aspects, and do have an immense role in e.g. preserving national values and traditions, but even the origin of the name “university” does not support this idea.

This claim is just cheap propaganda, which is quite much to the liking of the sympathizers of Viktor Orbán and his party. For him and his government, universities serve many goals: good for creating paid positions to their servients, look for recruitment of potential new ones, spread governmental ideas and to build some pseudo-scientific justification for those. The latter is being supported by the lavish funds and targeted support.

The problem with all that, that the students do not get quality education, but in many cases, plain propaganda. I would say that recognizing that is also a useful skill, and students get quite good at that, but still, their time can be and should be used better. Additionally, they lose job opportunities, at least out of the world of the current Hungarian government-built pseudo reality, no wonder that more and more Hungarian students go to abroad

4. Last September, students at the University of Theatre and Film Arts (SZFE) protested against restricted academic freedom and occupied its campus becoming, since then, the symbol of a resistance movement that has received widespread (inter) national support. They also expressed concerns about the ideological pressure from Attila Vidnyánszky, who wants to boost education towards what he calls ‘national and Christian’ values. What is the importance of the movement, and how important is the autonomy of higher education institutions?

The movement has shown a rare example of resistance to the Government, but I am not sure that it will have a long-lasting effect. Any initiatives like that had a certain life-span but none of those could go on for long or even achieve any substantial changes.

Autonomy is theoretically very important to all higher education institutions, but unfortunately it does not have its practices and routines in Hungary with universities. Symbolic, that we still have those silly legal provisions in force that the president shall appoint the professors of universities, while the prime minister appoints professors to colleges. Why do political actors have the task of appointing scholars whose performance should be and is evaluated by anybody else but them? And what is the base of this differentiation between universities and colleges, the latter not being “good enough” for the attention of the president, “only” the prime minister? And all this, even if we talk about private institutions. I repeat, this is merely a symbolic problem, but still tells stories. Additionally, the vast majority of the income of universities have traditionally been coming from the state budget, which fact has not helped “autonomy” of universities even before the current Orbán-era starting in 2010. The change with Orbán can be described again by the magic word “unscrupulous”, which I have used in my first answer: before him, political actors have not felt the courage to openly conflict with universities, and they have tried to uphold – even if many times falsely – an image of non-intervention and respect of autonomy, especially when many of the university and academic leaders have been open supporters of the then-opposition Viktor Orbán. Now, after falling out of grace, many of them try to pose as oppositional figures against him, but that basically just adds to the tensions within the opposition.

5. Much has been said about the democratic backsliding of Hungary, this illiberal democracy of Viktor Orbán. How does this latest change in university structure fit into all this?

Logically. See the examples in answer to Q1.

6. European leaders have been anxious about how to slow down this decline for years. What could be done?

They should actually start doing something – first understanding the way how Orbán thinks would be a great step. He is not a “traditional European” leader. The magic word is again “unscrupulous”. He does not care about “European political cultural values”, he is more of a hit-and-run politician. He uses opportunities as they show up, sometimes disregarding consequences on the long run. What is very important, he dares to take risks, while he is often obviously well-informed about the games he enters. He does not care about bad reputation, what’s more, he uses that proudly by appealing to many Hungarians’ “the whole world is against us” feeling, turning it into something they feel they shall also be proud to. Traditional “European deals” do not work with him, the only possibility that European leaders can do is to try to narrow the field of maneuvering for him: connecting EU funds to certain values like rule of law is a very important first step.

7. Are you optimistic about the 2022 elections in Hungary? Do you believe in the defeat of Viktor Orbán? Why?

The current situation does not make it possible to form any prophecies, for many reasons. The parties of the political opposition may try to cooperate and form a one-on-one front against all candidates of Fidesz on the elections, they may even conduct the “oppositional primaries” for the first time, scheduled for the fall of this year, but there are still an enormous amount of work to be done, if they want to challenge Orbán and his party successfully next spring. And even if they succeed, the problem of the “deep state” mentioned in the first answer will become a serious reality…

My online presentation on demise of rule of law and problems in Hungary

You can watch my online presentation held together with Emese Pásztor and Botond Bőtös on rule of law problems in Hungary at the invitation of Mikuláš Peksa, a Czech pirate member of the European Parliament.

My presentation has covered a short overview of the process of demise of democracy and rule of law in Hungary, with special attention given to domestic and European political circumstances. I have tried to point out some of the most relevant events, factors, logics the understanding of which makes You closer to understand what happens in this country.

My presentation at the conference of MRU on 70 years of the ECHR

Yesterday I had the opportunity to participate in an international conference organised by the Mykolas Romeris University (MRU) of Lithuania. As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the conference was organised online, and it has covered various aspects related to the 70 years anniversary of the existence of the European Convention on Human Rights, and the jurisprudence of the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights.

My presentation, titled “Is the ECHR a proper tool for historic sins?”, has examined the problem of the court entertaining cases like the Kononov case and current ongoing cases, based on the application of the Benes decrees against individuals of Hungarian and German origin by Slovakia (also referring to the recent new inter-state case against the Czech Republic by Liechtenstein, and tries to give an answer to this question.

The whole video recording of the conference is available on YouTube, my presentation starts at 1:35, but it is well worth to check the other presentations as well:

Post-truth, alternative “facts” by the Hungarian minister of justice

After the judgment finally rendered by the European Court of Justice on the infringement procedure initiated by the European Commission against Hungary for adoption of the so-called “NGO Transparency Law”, finding it actually being in violation of EU law, the minister of justice has immediately reacted with some strange “explanation”, seemingly arguing it is an actual win for the government.

According to Judit Varga, the court has actually confirmed the position of the Hungarian government, as “the goal of ensuring transparency of NGOs, being the goal of the legislation related to organisations supported from abroad is legitimate, which is confirmed by the judgment of the Court”. She later has posted a ridiculous post on her Facebook page accusing an oppositional MEP and a newsportal with “not being able to interpret a press release correctly”.

Maybe because instead of a “press release”, they were using the actual text of the judgment:

Hungary has introduced discriminatory and unjustified restrictions on foreign donations to civil society organisations, in breach of its obligations under Article 63 TFEU and Articles 7, 8 and 12 of the Charter.

Para 143 of the judgment

No wonder that these “arguments” are only available in Hungarian. It is time to understand who and what level of political shamelessness all the European political partners have to face when it comes to the actual Hungarian government – at least if they have any intentions to understand it.

BVerfG v. CJEU?

Az Európai Bizottság elnöke is megszólalt a német Alkotmánybíróság korábban már bemutatott döntésével kapcsolatban. Itt elolvasható, elsőre nem tűnik ki belőle semmi extra (azon túl, hogy elfelejtette Strasbourgot, amelynek gyakorlata a Maastrichti szerződés óta az uniós jog elsődleges forrásai közé tartozik), ám az, hogy megemlíti a kötelezettségszegési eljárás megindításának lehetőségét, az azért felvet némi izgalmakat. Nevezetesen azt, hogy mivel a kötelezettségszegési eljárás lényeges eleme, hogy a Bizottság és az érintett tagállam vitájában végül az Európai Bíróság dönt (erről itt egy nemrégi írásom), egy ilyen eljárás lehetőséget biztosítana arra, hogy Luxembourg “visszaszóljon” Karlsruhénak.

Politikai értelemben kockázatos lenne von der Leyen részéről, mert a bírósági eljárásban lehetőség van arra, hogy a tagállamok is előadják, mit gondolnak a kérdésről (beavatkozóként) – márpedig egyáltalán nem biztos, hogy jó ötlet lenne ebben az alapvetően szakmai kérdésben tág teret engedni a populista hablatyolásnak. Jogi értelemben sem biztos, hogy sok értelme lenne amúgy, hiszen a német Alkotmánybíróság döntését semmilyen fórum nem írhatja felül otthon, de arra azért például biztosíthatna lehetőséget, hogy az Európai Bíróság mondjuk az uniós és a tagállami jog ilyen helyzetekre tekintettel való elhatárolása mellett iránymutatást adjon, hogy hogy kell eljárni, megelőzve ezzel a komolyabb legitimációs vagy egyéb válságot.

Meglátjuk, sor kerül-e erre. Addig is szórakoztasson minket a gondolat…

Video interview about the recent “constitutional coup” in Hungary

I have been asked for interviews by numerous representatives of international press and many colleagues working all over the world recently about the current situation in Hungary. I have decided to make these interviews and information available here as well and also to open an English section to my website. Expect more English content soon!

We start with the video interview recorded yesterday by Medyascope, together with Ms. Dalma Dojcsák from Hungarian Civil Liberties Union.

I will give You a more detailed analysis soon, as I believe that much of the information reported by international media lacks accuracy and do not put proper emphasis on the important points needed to understand the problems in their entirety.

“Constitutional lockdown” – quoted by Radio Free Europe

I was quoted by Radio Free Europe about the recent Hungarian legislation, making the already puzzled legal situation related to the COVID-crisis even worse. The article is about the new emergency legislation planned in Hungary, related to the coronavirus pandemic.

I uphold my earlier opinion about the introduction of the state of emergency being against the Hungarian consitution, and this new piece of legislation is unneccessary and potentially capable of causing a constitutional lockdown. Of course, it can be avoided if we keep on amending constitutional provisions on the fly as we go, but this has nothing to do with legal certainty…

“shameless use of public money to formulate pro-government messages” – quoted by CBN News

My opinion was quoted by CBN News about the policy of the Orbán-government related to “protection of christians”. The story was originally published nearly two years ago, it has gone online recently. Still worth to take a look at it.

My analysis about the EU’s proposed new rule of law procedure

My analysis about the proposed new EU rule of law procedure is available under the title “Better protection of the rule of law – or of European taxpayers’ money” in the Reflection series of the IIR Prague.

You can access the file here.

The writing addresses some of the questions that may be raised related to EU law, member state sovereignty and its possible effects. The regulation still has a long way to go to become a law and in or order for that to happen it needs to be accepted by the Council. According to my opinion, this legislation is necessary, as currently only the possible withdrawal or hold of EU funds can be a proper tool to keep some member state governments from further violations of basic EU legal principles, like of the rule of law.

My interview about Nikola Gruevski to Al Jazeera Balkans

I have given an interview to Al Jazeera Balkans about the situation of the Macedonian ex prime minister Nikola Gruevski and his “strange travel” to Hungary.

According to my opinion, his request for asylum and the whole process of him arriving to Hungary is legally dubious and probably will cause not only diplomatic trouble to Hungary, but also could give an option to Macedonia to turn to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for violation of laws of diplomatic relations. Its jurisdiction is provided by the fact that both states are parties to the relevant Vienna Convention and its protocols without any reservations that could exclude the applicability of the ICJ dispute settlement clause within.