Diplomatic tensions rise after Ukraine bans Hungarian officials over alleged election interference

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Ukraine banned two unnamed senior Hungarian officials from entering the country over what the Ukrainian Foreign Minister called "agitation" by the Hungarian government during local elections in the western Ukrainian oblast of Transcarpathia.

Ukraine's foreign ministry in Kyiv summoned Hungary's ambassador on Monday and delivered a letter of protest over the alleged interference, which the ministry characterized as Hungarian government officials campaigning in Transcarpathia for candidates of a Hungarian minority party.

The Foreign Minister, Dmitro Kuleba, identified one banned official as a state secretary of the Prime Minister's office, but did not give details on the other official. The Ukrainian government has initiated travel bans on other Hungarian citizens over their "active interference" in Ukraine's internal affairs, Kuleba said.

In a Facebook video, Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó called the accusations "pathetic and nonsense", and delivered a veiled threat to block Ukraine's integration efforts with the European Union and NATO over the disagreement. 

"This decision shows that Ukraine has given up on Hungary's support for its efforts toward European and Euro-Atlantic integration," Szijjártó said, adding that EU and NATO decisions on integrating new countries requires unanimous consensus by member states.

Foreign Minister Péter SzijjártóFotó: Szijjártó Péter/Facebook

The Hungarian Foreign Ministry maintains that it has a constitutional obligation to protect the interests of Hungarian minorities abroad, and that the trips by Hungarian officials to Transcarpathia can therefore not be considered interference in Ukraine's internal affairs.

The diplomatic conflict comes amid other tensions between the two countries over a law Ukraine enacted last year which declares Ukrainian the only state language which must be used in schools after grade 5. Intended to target the Russian language, the law also affected other national minorities including Hungarians in Transcarpathia. The Hungarian government has since unilaterally blocked Ukraine-NATO meetings over the law. 

Orbán met with Attila Vidnyánszky, who later tested positive for coronavirus 

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán took part in a meeting of the National Cultural Council on Monday where another attendee later tested positive for the coronavirus.

Head of the National Theatre and newly-appointed chairman of the board of the University of Film and Theatre Arts (SzFE) Attila Vidnyánszky, who was present at the meeting with Orbán, announced on Tuesday that he had tested positive for the coronavirus. Cultural Council member and director of the National Opera House Szilveszter Ókovács would have been present at the meeting, but himself tested positive for the coronavirus last week.

Several other public figures announced positive coronavirus tests in recent days, including state secretary Bence Rétvári, mayor of Budapest's 8th district András Pikó, Momentum board member Miklós Hajnal, mayor of Balatonfüred István Bókamayor of Berettyóújfalu István Muraközi, and chairman of radical right-wing party Mi Hazánk László Toroczkai.

Masks to be required in restaurants, bars and clubs as coronavirus deaths climb

Mask wearing will be required in all restaurants, clubs and bars beginning November 2, the Emergency Task Force announced during a press briefing on Thursday. Patrons may only remove their masks when eating or drinking. 

The announcement came after several days of record-breaking increases in coronavirus-related hospitalizations and deaths: on Thursday, 56 Hungarians lost their lives to the virus, the second highest daily total following the record of 63 deaths set on Tuesday. Deaths per million inhabitants has increased rapidly in Hungary in the past weeks.

The number of coronavirus patients being treated in hospital surpassed 3,000 for the first time on Wednesday with a record daily increase of 275. Currently, 3,197 coronavirus patients are in hospital and 255 are on ventilators. 

The rate of positive tests dropped to 14 percent on Thursday, down from a record high of 23 percent on Monday. The World Health Organization recommends a positive test rate of no more than 5 percent, but this rate has not been achieved since September 9 due to relatively low levels of testing in Hungary. 

A spokesman for the Hungarian paramedic service announced on Wednesday that 200 new testing units would be erected in Hungary in the coming days. Semmelweis University has enlisted 120 medical students and 40 dentistry students to assist in administering tests, the university's rector announced Wednesday.

The Hungarian Chamber of Doctors (MOK) on Tuesday wrote that the capacity for testing and contact tracing is "no longer sufficient for tracking the spread of the epidemic", and called for the government to take immediate containment measures to slow its spread. MOK wrote that Hungary was "on the threshold of a healthcare crisis", and called for the government to

  • tighten restrictions on events and mass gatherings
  • limiting the opening hours and maximum guest capacity of bars, restaurants and clubs
  • take a more active role in communicating the importance of mask wearing, social distancing and limiting social contacts
  • reinstating dedicated opening hours for the elderly at shops and pharmacies
  • reducing the burden of non-Covid related tasks on hospitals treating Covid patients

MOK warned that if the government doesn't act immediately, it expects daily deaths in the hundreds and daily new cases in the thousands in the near future. 

"The Chamber...calls on the Hungarian government to take restrictive measures in compliance with international recommendations and practices to avoid a humanitarian and health catastrophe caused by the pandemic!", the Chamber wrote.

Jobbik chairman fined 4.4 million forints for attempting to give sack of potatoes to Orbán

The speaker of the Hungarian Parliament issued a record-breaking fine to the chairman of Jobbik after he attempted last week to give Prime Minister Viktor Orbán a sack of potatoes during a Parliamentary session.

The fine, issued on Monday by Speaker László Kövér to Jobbik chairman Péter Jakab, amounted to 4.4 million forints (€~12,000), and came after Jakab attempted to place the sack of potatoes on Orbán's desk on October 19 - a reference to a Fidesz campaign tactic of distributing sacks of potatoes to rural voters before elections. 

Three Fidesz officials, including House Speaker Kövér, physically blocked Jakab from approaching Orbán. Jakab earlier called Orbán "the potato king" during Parliamentary statements.

Jobbik chairman Péter Jakab addresses Parliament with a sack of potatoes.Fotó: parlament.hu

Reacting to the fine, Jakab said, "In a state governed by the rule of law, this would obviously lead to legal redress, but we do not live in a rule of law state...Viktor Orbán is on the path of Belarus." 

According to Népszava, Speaker Kövér has doled out 79 million forints (€215,000) in fines since 2010, the overwhelming majority of which have gone to opposition politicians: Fidesz MPs have been fined only 0.56% of the total. 

With the new fine, Jakab became the most fined member of Parliament, paying 5.7 million forints (€15,500) in this Parliamentary cycle alone, surpassing the previous record-holder, Bence Tordai of the Dialogue party, who has paid 2.5 million forints (€6,800). 

Speaking in an online forum later on Monday, Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén called Jakab and Tordai "psychopaths".

"There are currently three psychopaths in Parliament: Péter Jakab, Ákos Hadházy and Bence Tordai," Semjén said. "The three of them are psychopaths in the medical sense, therefore they must be treated as such."

Parliament to vote on repeal of NGO law following EU court ruling

A draft proposal on the repeal of a 2017 law requiring NGOs that receive foreign funding to register themselves with the government was approved for Parliamentary negotiations Monday by the Parliamentary justice committee.

The proposal, submitted by socialist MPs Bertalan Tóth and Tamás Harangozó and Dialogue MP Timea Szabó, came after the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruled in June that the so-called NGO law was incompatible with EU law. Bills submitted by opposition MPs rarely reach the floor of Parliament.

Passed in April 2017, the NGO law requires that civil society organizations that receive more than 7.2 million forints (€19,500) per year from foreign sources register themselves with the government as a "foreign-funded organization", and to display this classification on their websites and on all printed materials. 

A 2017 protest against the NGO law on Hősök Tere in Budapest.Fotó: Botos Tamás / 444

The decision sparked a wave of protests as tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Budapest in opposition. The European Commission later launched an infringement procedure against Hungary, asserting the legislation was in breach of Hungary's obligations under EU law. The Commission requested the repeal or amendment of the law, but Hungary refused and the case was referred to the CJEU in early 2018.

If Hungary refuses to comply with the court's decision, the European Commission can launch another infringement procedure and level fines against the country.

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