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Interview. ‘There are only formal remnants of it left; it’s enough to look at the numerous EU infringement procedures.’

Hungarian journalist Júlia Vásárhelyi: Orbán has demolished the rule of law

We spoke with Júlia Vásárhelyi, freelance journalist and editor, former head of office at the weekly politics and economics magazine Hvg, about the Ilaria Salis case and the geoolitics at play.

What do you think about the Salis case?

I don’t know what Salis did last year on the so-called Day of Honor: the allegations are vague, still unproven, there are no witnesses, and the alleged victims did not press charges. But then, how is it possible that the Italian embassy in Budapest was present several times at the previous hearings and did not inform the Italian government that the woman was being brought to the hearings in such a humiliating manner? That she was being detained in inhumane conditions, that for six months she had not been able to speak with her lawyers or meet her parents, and that she had not been informed of the indictments in Italian or English? Did the Italian government know everything and fail to react for a year? Why did the trial begin and the case blow up just one day before the convening of an extraordinary summit on EU financial support for Ukraine that Orbán had blocked for months? Furthermore, it appears that it was Meloni and Macron who convinced Orbán to lift his veto. I see that there are various political games being played in the background, in which the case of Ilaria Salis is just a pawn.

How does it play into everything?

Perhaps Meloni and Orbán are blackmailing each other because, while they were great friends and allies once, they no longer agree on everything: Meloni’s position is clearly pro-Ukraine, Orbán’s is pro-Putin; then there are big differences between the two regarding relations with the EU, NATO and the United States. But they need each other, especially in view of the European elections. Orbán’s party was practically expelled from the People’s Group and is looking for a new far-right group, while Meloni, especially because of internal conflicts with Salvini, needs to strengthen her alliances and have as many MEPs as possible in her Conservatives and Reformists group. The figure of Putin hovers in the background, who, with Orbán’s help, is working ever more aggressively to tear apart the West and the EU. And indeed, Orbán is considered by many in the EU to be Putin’s Trojan horse. Who knows how all of this will influence Salis’s fate.

How much is the Salis case being talked about in Hungary?

90 percent of the Hungarian media is in the hands of the government or under government control. Public radio and television, which are mere propaganda tools of the government, are giving no information about the case; there are only comments by journalists and political scientists who are 100 percent pro-Orbán, that is, propagandists for his illiberal and autocratic regime. They’ve called Salis a terrorist, a neo-communist violent thug, a liar, a piece of garbage who deserves severe punishment. Out of the very few independent or opposition media, practically only the online newspapers covered the case for a day or two. So, people hardly heard about the news, but even if they did, I don’t think it would have resonated that much.

Why?

Hungarians are apathetic, indifferent, accepting Orbán’s authoritarian regime with resignation, as if the fact that we live in an autocracy doesn’t concern them. Unfortunately, very few are interested in human rights issues. It rarely happens that something manages to shake up public opinion. It happened these days, surprisingly: a week ago it emerged that the President, Katalin Novák, had approved a pardon almost a year ago for the deputy director of a children’s home who had been convicted of covering up the sexual abuse perpetrated by the director for years. There was such outrage and such a scandal that the president was forced to resign on Saturday, surely following Orbán’s instructions. Unfortunately, however, I don’t think this will shake the regime; at most it will create some cracks. Novak was a puppet controlled by Orbán. She was called his “ballpoint pen,” meaning that she signed everything that was put on her desk without reading. So was the former Justice Minister, who has also resigned. Orbán will soon find a new obedient puppet; he still has many in reserve.

How much talk is there in Hungary about prisoners’ rights?

The majority of Hungarians don’t care; they don’t even know what these rights are. They know very well that prisons are terribly overcrowded, that treatment is poor. The official line is that law enforcement in Hungary is supposedly so effective that they catch all criminals for our safety and that those who have committed crimes are punished – in practice, especially when it comes to Roma and foreigners. Of course, there are exceptions: the people close to those in power. In Hungary, the rule of law has been systematically and almost fully demolished by Orbán and his gang. There are only formal remnants of it left; it’s enough to look at the numerous EU infringement procedures.

What about last weekend’s neo-Nazi demonstrations?

Ever since the Salis case began to raise political and diplomatic tensions abroad—a plenary session on the subject was even held in the European Parliament—neo-Nazi demonstrations, which had been tolerated for years, became embarrassing for the Hungarian powers-that-be and authorities this year, so they were formally banned. In Budapest, the police were on high alert for two days in order to prevent clashes between neo-Nazis and anti-fascists. However, there were no incidents this time.

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