Saturday, April 21, 2012

The New Hungarian Secret Police(s), Or, Why I Continue to Boycott Hungary

Hungary's right-wing prime minister has gotten himself his own little private army.
How nice for him. Source.

For the most part, not much continues to happen in the world (at least, not much that inspires me to blog), but this did catch my attention, as it is a rather startling follow-up to my previous post about how Hungary is turning into a right-wing paradise by destroying the independence of the judicial branch of government, silencing dissenting voices in the media, and enshrining conservative Christian ideology as state policy in the constitution.

Apparently eager to prove that he really can establish a police state in the heart of democratic Europe, Viktor Orban, Hungary's right-wing Prime Minister, has established his own little private army / police force, accountable to no one except Orban. Kim Lane Scheppele (via Paul Krugman) tells the story:
TEK was created in September 2010 by a governmental decree, shortly after the Fidesz government took office. TEK exists outside the normal command structure of both the police and the security agencies. The Prime Minister directly names (and can fire) its head and only the interior minister stands between him and the direct command of the force. It is well known that the head of this force is a very close confidante of the Prime Minister.
TEK was set up as an anti-terror police unit within the interior ministry and given a budget of 10 billion forints (about $44 million) in a time of austerity. Since then, it has grown to nearly 900 employees in a country of 10.5 million people that is only as big as Indiana.
Why was TEK necessary? When it was created, the government said that it needed TEK because Hungary would hold the rotating presidency of the European Union starting in January 2011. During the six months it held this office, Hungary could be expected to host many important meetings for which top anti-terrorism security would be necessary. But even though Hungary’s stint in the EU chair is over, TEK has continued to grow.
Eyebrows were raised when János Hajdu, Orbán’s personal bodyguard, was appointed directly by the prime minister to be the first head of this new agency. Since TEK’s job also included guarding the prime minister, some believed that Orbán had set up the office to get his trusted bodyguard onto the public payroll. Patronage turns out to be the least of the worries about TEK, however.
TEK is now the sort of secret police that any authoritarian ruler would love to have. Its powers have been added slowly but surely through a series of amendments to the police laws, pushed through the Parliament at times when it was passing hundreds of new laws and when most people, myself included, did not notice. The new powers of TEK have received virtually no public discussion in Hungary. But now, its powers are huge.
What can the TEK do?
TEK can engage in secret surveillance without having to give reasons or having to get permission from anyone outside the cabinet. In an amendment to the police law passed in December 2010, TEK was made an official police agency and was given this jurisdiction to spy on anyone. TEK now has the legal power to secretly enter and search homes, engage in secret wiretapping, make audio and video recordings of people without their knowledge, secretly search mail and packages, and surreptitiously confiscate electronic data (for example, the content of computers and email). The searches never have to be disclosed to the person who is the target of the search – or to anyone else for that matter. In fact, as national security information, it may not be disclosed to anyone. There are no legal limits on how long this data can be kept.
Ordinary police in Hungary are allowed to enter homes or wiretap phones only after getting a warrant from a judge. But TEK agents don’t have to go to a judge for permission to spy on someone – they only need the approval of the justice minister to carry out such activities. As a result, requests for secret surveillance are never reviewed by an independent branch of government. The justice minister approves the requests made by a secret police unit operated by the interior minister. Since both are in the same cabinet of the same government, they are both on the same political team.
Fan-f*@king-tastic. Way to go, Hungary.

Just how bad might these guys be? Well, this is a video produced and distributed by the TEK itself:

If this is the video of stuff that the TEK wants you to see, how repressive are the activities that they don't want recorded for posterity?

As if that's not enough, Hungary's parliament is trying to one-up Orban, passing a law just this week to create their own paramilitary, a Parlia-military, if you will:
As if the powers of TEK are not enough, though, Parliament yesterday authorized another security service with the power to use police measures against citizens and residents of Hungary. The cardinal law on the Parliament itself contains a provision that gives the Parliament its own military, a Parlia-military.
The Parlia-military is an armed police unit outside the chain of command of the regular military or police structures. Its commander in chief is the speaker of the house, László Kövér, who served as minister without portfolio for the Civilian Intelligence Services during the first Orbán government from 1998-2002. The Parlia-military has the power to guard the Parliament and the speaker of the house, as might be expected. But if the Parlia-military is only supposed to guard the Parliament and the speaker, why does it need the powers that the cardinal law gives it?
The law gives the Parlia-military power “to enter and to act in private homes.” That’s literally what the law says. It is unlikely that the Parliament will want to conduct a plenary session in someone’s living room, so one must then wonder just what the Parliament will do if its armed military enters someone’s home to “act.” In addition to this power, the Parlia-military may also make public audio and video recordings of people. It can also search cars, luggage and clothing. It can use handcuffs and chemical substances (which I assume means tear gas and nothing more, but the wording make it sound like the Parlia-military may use chemical weapons!). The draft law seems to imply that the Parlia-military would have to operate under the constraints of the police law, which would mean that it would need judicial warrants to conduct these intrusive measures. But that is not completely clear. What is clear is that Hungary now suffers from a proliferation of police that are under direct political control.

So, Hungary continues it's slow slide into right-wing paradise-dom, and things just continue to get worse and worse for anyone living in the country who isn't good personal friends with Viktor Orban.

And that, my friends, is why I refuse to go back to the little country in central Europe with the funny language that holds such a special place in my heart. As I've said before, I am greatly saddened to see Hungarian democracy deteriorating in this way. Until things change, I probably won't even visit Hungary, let alone toy with the idea of moving back there. As a foreigner, I would never subject myself to the whims of the kind of semi-lawless and anti-democratic regime currently in power in Hungary. I wish the Hungarian people the best, and I hope they find the power to undo these changes peacefully, if the majority does not want Hungary to go down this dark path.

(Offhand comment: my previous post on Hungary drew such persistent right-wing trolling [from a Hungarian, I'm pretty sure] that I had to shut off comments for that particular post. We'll hope something similar doesn't happen with this post.)


  1. Let's not forget that the last time Hungarian police forces were under scrutiny for unjustified use of violence was during the 2006 protests, which was organized against the socialist party in power at the time. This protest was larger and more violent than any protest against Orban so far. So while Western powers might frown upon Orban's government and his policies, Hungarians tolerate it and even recognize its benefits. Most of the anti-Orban noise comes from a small fanatic ex-communist minority; they are very active in voicing their opinions in print media and the internet, however their lack of numbers shows every time there is a protest organized by this minority (usually just a few hundred). No doubt not all of Orban's policies are popular, however with the new laws and taxes he implemented, he managed to pay back the IMF loan and stabilize the Hungarian economy. The problem with Hungarian mentality is that people expect change a week after elections; they believe all the promises politicians make verbatim. There has to be sacrifice for positive change, and in this case it was the new tax schemes. Also, many don't pay attention to details; a couple months back there was a massive scandal about the possibility of internet tax being implemented. No one cared to read the fine print, which said that this tax would be levied on the providers, not the customers. TEK proved it's usefulness in hostage crises in Ukraine, and it continues to be active in the fight against drug distribution in Hungary. There is no evidence suggesting TEK is being used to detain political opponents of the Orban government (if there is, I would love to see it). As for surveillance, I don't think anyone has a right to criticize TEK, especially not the US.

    1. Anonymous: Most of what you say has nothing to do with the facts presented in my post above. Nothing about what you say actually refutes anything in my post about how Hungary has and continues to slide into anti-democratic despotism. A few specific points:

      1. I don't really care about the scale or level of violence of any particular protest - popular protest is not a particularly good measure of whether something is good, right, just, etc. If nobody protests the fact that Hungary is slowly turning fascist, then that may be a comment on the character of the Hungarian people, but it doesn't make fascism a just political system.

      2. Regardless of how TEK is being used, the fact is that it very easily could be used for political repression, since the law does not prohibit such use of the TEK. It's also possible that it is ALREADY being used for political repression and no one knows about it, since, you know, it seems like a very capable tool of political repression.

      3. I am not the US government, so I have the right to criticize anyone - including both Hungary and the US government, and I have criticized both multiple times on this blog.

      So, I get that Orban may have the support of some large minority of the Hungarian people (I don't think he enjoys majority support anymore), but that doesn't make what he's doing smart, right, or good. George W. Bush had the support of most of the American people before going to war in Iraq - was that a good idea, just because a majority of people supported it? I think not.

      -The Angry Bureaucrat