Reading the Runes for Some new Tunes

Issues

It has been an odd couple of weeks, in which much seems to have happened, and at the same time nothing.

First there was the surprise news that Magyar Idők had rebranded as Magyar Nemzet. For the romantics with an eye for history, seeing that latter name on a masthead once again will be a welcome sight. This, after all, was a conservative newspaper with venerable 80-year-history.

But it isn’t returning as an independent newspaper representing core right of center values. It is simply giving a relatively new publication, launched in September 2015 as a replacement for Napi Gazdaság and little more than a government mouth piece, a much more storied name. But it will still be heavily pro-Fidesz. When it comes to the plurality of voices in Hungary’s print media, nothing has changed.

Elsewhere, Hungary has been criticized (again) for its actions in the human rights field. But as the source of that criticism was the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović, reflecting on a week-long visit to the country, that probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise to many people. And the criticism seemed pretty mild (“Hungary faces many interconnected human rights challenges,” a press statement sent to the BBJ reads), though it does go on to pinpoint a number of areas of concern.

Then there was the on-off visit of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who eventually came to town on February 11. Ahead of that, there had been suggestions from some quarters that the United States, a major trade partner with Hungary, was less than happy with certain elements of Hungarian policy making, particularly its friendly relationships with Russia and China. 

Those claims were swatted down by the government as “fake news”, and instead the visit was trumpeted by pro-government outlets as an endorsement of the Prime Minister. 

“We’ll certainly make the case about the things that we see that we wish were different here,” Secretary Pompeo told an international press conference. “America is never shy about promoting its value set – our concern about humanitarian situations, about civil liberty, law – rule of law.” The question, as ever, is how selective Hungary will be in what messages it listens to.

After looking long and hard, I did find something that seemed genuinely new: While it has a way to go (and this is an area where countries are fighting a constant battle), Hungary is winning praise for aspects of its tax system. 

As is made clear in our Special Report on the subject this issue experts say there are still too many taxes, and too much administration. Interestingly, speaking at the recent annual conference of National Tax and Customs Administration of Hungary (NAV), Minister of Finance Mihály Varga said cabinet wants to remain “the government of tax cuts” and also plans cuts in administration as well.

As one of our expert witnesses put it, tax avoidance is no longer a national sport in Hungary. Efforts to whiten the economy and improve transparency, at least in the area of taxation, have drawn praise. We’ll add our voice to that. Businesses will always look to optimize their tax base, that’s just good business practice, but the cleaner and clearer the system, the more everyone benefits.

Robin Marshall

Editor-in-chief

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