Most Hungarians want to stay in the EU, but they like Orban's fighting stance, says the head of the local Transparency Martin

József Péter Martin has been directing the Budapest branch of Transparency International for the last eight years. In this difficult position he has become one of the symbols of the opposition of the civil society to the regime built gradually by the prime minister Viktor Orban, but also a staunch defender of the rule of law, which is the “raison d´etre” of Transparency International. Martin is a former journalist, also director of the economic weekly ’Figyelő’ from 2003 until 2009, author of a dozen of academic publications and regular contributor of domestic and international media.

Transparency International is in a very special position in Budapest, given the permanent quarrel between Hungary and the EU institutions, also about corruption. How would you describe your role and position?

The Budapest office of Transparency International has been existing for 15 years now. Our main task is to uncover corruption, in the public sphere as well as in the private sector. This means a wide range of activities including awareness raising, research and analysis, monitoring, litigation and people engagement. We are very active for public data requests, should we not get the requested data, we litigate public institutions.

And we monitor closely public procurement, mostly those which are covered from EU funds. We do this mostly on behalf of the EU. We are also involved in a couple of projects run by Europe for Citizens program. But, coming back, the main activity is exposing and uncovering the state-run corruption, which in Hungary is quite huge.

How much influence do you have on the authorities and on public opinion? Do you quarrel with the government?

I would not say we are constantly quarreling. Rather, the state authorities simply do not consider what we reveal. The answer of the government to our revelations and analysis is usually very simple. They say that Transparency International is supported by George Soros and is therefore unreliable and biased. Which is by the way not true... Our main source of income is the EU.

It is grotesque if you watch the government criticizing our income sources, of which the biggest part comes from the EU, of which Hungary is a member state. The Open Society Foundation established by George Soros accounts for something like 15-20 percent; historically it was never more than 20 percent. Whereas the share of the EU is well over 50 percent. Besides that, we have some other private foundations and many private donors. The small donations have recently increased considerably, reaching over 15 percent.

How do you reach the public?

There is simply no interest from the state media. When I started in this job in 2013, I got sometimes invited by these media, two or three times. But since 2014-15 it has never happened again. They only mention us when they try to discredit and blame us that we are traitors of the Hungarian nation, Soros agents and mercenaries. This is the language used also by the nominally private media, which belong to government stakeholders. A large proportion of privately owned media in Hungary are captured by government-close groups.

Most of the independent and liberal media exist on the internet. We work closely with several portals. But concerning the TV and radio the situation is miserable, most of them are at the service of the government, transmitting pure propaganda. And the printed press has been very much marginalized, I would say more than elsewhere, including Czechia.

So, you work mostly with the portals. What audience do you reach?

There is also an independent TV station, RTL Klub owned by Bertelsmann. And another one, AT which, at least content-wise is also mostly independent. The well-known Klubradio transmits now only on the web, as it was deprived of a frequency.

The internet portals have much more influence in Hungary than the written press. The portal Telex has now an audience of appr. 7-800.000 listeners per day; the other one,, almost one million. I cannot therefore complain that we cannot transmit our messages, although the space for that has been shrinking constantly.

Are you somehow involved in following up the Pegasus affair? Hungarian government was the only one in the EU accused of using this technology for spying on its own citizens.

So far there was no information revealed showing that we might have been directly touched. We do not know yet. There was the initial article and some names appeared after that, around 10 people, mostly businessmen and journalists.

There were no names of people from NGOs on this list. The government is not following this up – they say that it is normal that the secret services follow suspicious people, it is their duty, at least what they say refusing the accusation of undue and perhaps illegal wiretapping. The discussion then continues only within the opposition and independent media.

Those who are close to the government, oligarchs, cronies, get enormous benefits.

What is the state of play of corruption in Hungary? And what are the local specificities?

The main specificity of corruption in Hungary is that it is highly centralized. Hungary is the most centralized country in the EU and corruption is no exception. Basically, it means a top-down corruption, coupled with serious breaches of the rule of law and with considerable and important transfer of public and private resources. This means that those who are close to the government, oligarchs, cronies, get enormous benefits and assets both through economic policy and distortion of institutions.

There are some deliberately constructed systems the main aim of which is to transfer public money to private hands in an undue way, undermining Rule of Law. It is very different from the original concept of corruption which is normally a dysfunction of the system. Here it has become a part of the system.

In Czechia we could also talk about inappropriate transfer of resources at the top level…

Yes, but there is a big difference between the Czech and the Hungarian cases. In both countries we are witnessing state capture, but of different types. Mr Babis was already a very wealthy businessman before coming to power, so what happened afterward, that was a kind of oligarchical state capture. Whereas in Hungary we are peaking about a political state capture. The politicians at the top and first and foremost Mr. Orban decide, who is the good and the bad oligarch. They do not only capture the state but also a part of the market.

Mr. Babis does the misuse of EU funds very bluntly; he simply directs the money towards his properties. Meanwhile in Hungary the practice, for instance of the Orban family, is much more indirect. For example, the Elios lighting company owned several years ago by the son in law of Orban allegedly misappropriated some sums of EU money. OLAF investigated and according to the leaks accused this company and the Hungarian state of mafia type fraud. The EU requested the national authorities to investigate and proceed. But the prosecution did nothing which was a manifestation form of state capture.

The Constitutional court is fully captured by the goverment.

When you uncover corruption cases, do you transmit the information to the judiciary?

The prosecution is fully captured by the government. It has been the Achilles heel of the judicial system for many years. Between 2010 and 2017 the prosecution did not launch a single indictment against players close to the government. Since 2017, there have been a few cases, including former members of the parliament. But there is a suspicion that this is just some form of window dressing. The Hungarian system requires the prosecution to launch any criminal matter. And the prosecution is usually silent.

The situation of the courts is different. The pressure on them has been growing, trends are worrisome, but when it comes to local courts, the first instance courts, they are still independent. At the level of the second instance, the situation is somewhat worse. The Constitutional court is fully captured and the supreme court, the Curia, has now had a new deputy chief, who has also too close to the government.

We also have since 2010 an administrative judiciary body which allocates the cases to judges and decides about promotions. This office and its head are also strongly biased. If there is a change of government next year, the pressure on the judiciary will probably grow.

When people see these cases and all the criticism from Brussels, they should be angry, mad at the government. But this does not seem to be happening.

Relations between Hungary and the EU have been tensing for many years now. But the general impression among independent opinion makers and experts is that nothing happens despite this tension. A lot of debates, rhetorical conflict, but no action. There were many attempts on behalf of the EU with the aim of changing things. But no result. Many people think in Hungary that until there are financial sanctions, nothing will happen. In this respect, the article 7 procedure seems to be a dead end as at the end of the day you need unanimity among member states which is unlikely to happen.

On the other hand, it is not easy for the EU to impose sanctions, which would hit the ordinary people as well. But that might be the only way how the EU institution can stop democratic backsliding and erosion of rule of law. Once the EU funding is stopped, the regime built by Mr. Orban will be very much in trouble.

The rule of law mechanism has been still on stand-by mode.

The EU is growing increasingly nervous about Hungary. What do you expect to happen?

It’s hard to predict what will happen. The tension has been growing but mostly on a rhetorical level as no definitive loss of money reported yet. The rule of law mechanism has been still on stand-by mode despite being in force since January this year, and probably will not be operational until the next year’s national election due to reluctance of the European Commission and the political deal made in Council with the Hungarian and Polish governments in December 2020.

On another track of conflicts, the EU has been withholding appr. EUR 7 billion from the Recovery and Resilience Facility due to inadequate reform plans of the Hungarian government in the fields of anti-corruption and judiciary. Should the government really lose this fund, the economy might be in trouble.

And the public perception of corruption?

Hungarians are very much aware of the situation. The 2020 Eurobarometer survey says that 87 percent of Hungarians think that corruption is a huge problem. We have had another survey recently which showed that 69 percent of the people consider state corruption as a major problem. But, on the other hand, we have the biggest tolerance index of corruption in the EU. Only 36 percent of people say that corruption cannot be tolerated, which is the lowest figure in the EU, according to the mentioned Eurobarometer. So, people are aware of huge corruption but many of them still intend to vote Fidesz which is an interesting contradiction. If we search for the causes of this ambiguity, we can mention for example that people do not see a clear and clean alternative to Fidesz, although the opposition is now getting more united.

Also, most of the Hungarian people think that corruption is encoded in the reality in this country, that it is a given. They generalize by saying that previous governments were also corrupt, and the next ones will also be corrupt which also fuels apathy.

Then you have the extreme polarisation of the Hungarian society. There is hardly any common points between the opposition, which is now trying to get united, and the ruling majority. We have had research last year which shows that the perception of the state corruption largely depends on party preferences. This polarisation also adds to the apathy as well as the distrust of the institutions, which has been there for a long time. The Hungarian society has emerged into a vicious circle of distrust and corruption.

Mr Orban is doing a “peacock dance”.

Despite all these worries and the anti-EU campaign of the government the Hungarians still support the EU membership…

Yes. Vast majority, 84 percent, support the EU membership despite the EU bashing propaganda of the government. Even among the Fidesz voters more than 70 percent are in favour of EU membership. Some opposition thinkers say that possibly Orban´s eventual goal is to pull the country out of the EU. However, currently I do not see “huxit” as a real danger. For the simple reasons of significant EU funds accounting 4-5% of the Hungarian GDP per year but also due to several other factors. The majority of Fidesz voters would oppose this move of the government which could not be of the interest of the incumbent. Also geopolitically, a Hungary outside the EU would not be interesting to anyone.

This ambiguity, by the way, illustrates well the ambivalent attitude of many Hungarians vis-à-vis the EU. They would like to stay in the EU, but they also like the bargaining, combatant attitude which is represented by Mr. Orban. Orban is doing a “peacock dance” as he put it once and it is up to the EU to what extent he can do that while playing this nationalistic card.

Even if the money flow is significantly reduced or, taking an extreme case, is stopped, I do not think that most Hungarians would want to leave the EU. Many would turn against membership, yes, but the majority would follow their instinct, which is the feeling of belonging to the West.