Month: September 2012

Fighting the Devil: Viktor Orbán’s speech on St. Michael’s Day

Yesterday Viktor Orbán had a busy day. In the morning he unveiled an enormous statue erected in Ópusztaszer to celebrate his own regime. In the afternoon he attended a gathering at Lakitelek where 25 years ago some 200 public figures, writers, and thinkers met to discuss the state of Hungary in 1987. Lakitelek is considered to be the beginning of the end of the Kádár regime.

Let’s start with Ópusztaszer; tomorrow I will write a few words about Lakitelek. The state-funded statue was erected to celebrate Orbán’s Regime of National Unity. In keeping with the self-aggrandizing spirit of the prime minister, it is a whopping 17 meters tall. The Hungarian government hired a sculptor from Subcarpathian Ukraine to create this monument to itself because, after all, Hungary is a world-nation (világnemzet). For the unveiling ceremony they chose the Day of St. Michael. Keep in mind that Orbán’s full name is Viktor Mihály Orbán.

It is also significant that the statue was erected in Ópusztaszer where, according to Gesta Hungarorum by Anonymus or “the anonymous notary of King Béla,”  Árpád, the founder of the Hungarian royal house, summoned all the notables to a meeting where they established a unitary Hungarian state. According to C. A. Macartney, who wrote a whole book on old Hungarian codices, Anonymus’s work is “the most famous, the most obscure, the most exasperating and most misleading of all the early Hungarian texts.” Since the description of this meeting in the Gesta Hungarorum depicts royal authority as it existed in Anonymus’s lifetime at the turn of the thirteenth century, the story of the meeting at Ópusztaszer is most likely the invention of the author’s fertile imagination. It is especially doubtful that anything monumental would have happened in Ópusztaszer since until recently the village was called Sövényháza.

However, at the time of Hungary’s millennial celebrations at the end of the nineteenth century Árpád Feszty, a man of not outstanding artistic talent, decided to paint a so-called cyclorama called The Arrival of the Hungarians. It was an enormous painting with a circumference of almost 120 meters and a height of 15 meters. It was clearly designed to be a money-making enterprise since people had to pay–as people still do today–for the privilege of viewing it.

During the siege of Budapest in 1944-45 the painting was damaged, but in 1970 the decision was made to restore it and set it up again at its original site in Sövényháza, which was named or renamed, take your pick, Ópusztaszer. Restoration was a slow and painstaking job and thus the Ópusztaszer Memorial Park was officially opened only in 1995.

So, setting up a statue celebrating the Orbán “revolution” in Ópusztaszer is a highly symbolic gesture for Orbán and his regime. It is supposed to signify the second establishment of the Hungarian state. The whole thing is bizarre even without Viktor Orbán’s speech on the occasion. Celebrating at a place that most likely had no real historical significance and commemorating a “revolution in the voting booths” that didn’t happen is bad enough, but when the prime minister compares himself to the Archangel Michael and Jesus Christ one really doesn’t know what to say.

But that’s not all. The Hungarian prime minister talked about the Hungarian nation as an ethnically pure group that is held together by kinship and blood rather than by association through language and culture. He kept talking about “őskép,” which in English is “archetype.” It seems that the Hungarian archetype is the large falcon or “turul” that according to legend is associated with the birth of the Hungarian ruling family, the House of Árpád.  Here is a choice sentence from Orbán’s speech relating to the turul and today’s Hungarians: “We are born into the turul just as we are born into our language and our history.” I didn’t realize that babies are born with language skills or with Hungarian history in their blood. And I really don’t know what it could possibly mean to be born into a bird of prey.

From the turul he moved over to politics and politicians. According to Orbán, “anyone who decides to enter politics must learn to read signs. The reading of signs is indispensable for governing. Someone who governs knows that everything has its ordered time. From signs he knows when to speak and when to be silent.” So, we have a prime minister who reads signs (and who presumably knows how to reference Ecclesiastes: To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven). One of the signs Orbán sees is that “the world of new laws is approaching the European continent.” I must say that this world of new laws is not going to be a pleasant place if Orbán is correct because the first commandment in this new world will be that “the members of strong nations unite while those of the weak ones perish.” All Hungarians “should be able to read these signs” and learn from them. They should all join the Regime of National Unity.

Who is guiding Viktor Orbán and Fidesz on this journey into the new world? Orbán turns to the New Testament for answers. First, there is Archangel Michael himself on whose name day on September 29 according to Hungarian folklore shepherds must give account of the sheep they took care of between St. George’s Day (April 24) and the Day of St. Michael. Moving from the benign to the violent, Orbán cited The Book of Revelation 10:7-10: “Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon; and the dragon and his angels fought, but they were defeated and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world–he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.”

What did Orbán learn from this passage? Michael was full of love and serenity and thus there was no place for Satan. “We, the Hungarians of National Unity, should oust all discord from Hungarian life with our own love, service and serenity.” This is a truly odd interpretation of the passage. Who are the Devil and Satan in Hungarian society who must be cast aside? Where is love and serenity in this biblical passage?

And what other models should the prime minister follow? He should be a good shepherd à la the parable of the lost sheep (Lk 15:4-6): “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost.'” So, Orbán continues, he as prime minister has come to report to the Hungarian people about all his accomplishments. “We can rejoice because we have found our lost sheep.” I assume he’s claiming that he found the right answers to the country’s ills.

According to him, “there are two traditions, two outlooks, two sets of ideas, two kinds of hearts in Hungarian politics. One rejects national unity, the other finds it to be its starting point. One gives up on the lost sheep, the other constantly looks for them. One turns people against people, the other builds on national unity.”

Finally, he recalled the glories of 2010 when “the overwhelming majority of Hungarians said yes to national unity.” What he didn’t add was that at the moment only 15% of the Hungarians are standing behind him, whether he’s looking for lost sheep or ready to fight the Devil and Satan.

Charles Gati’s keynote address at the U.S.-Central European Strategy Forum, September 20, 2012

The U.S. and Central and Eastern Europe in the 21st century:
Promoting democracy, security, or both?

Thank you very much for this most generous introduction. Maybe I shouldn’t start talking at all because it’s going to go downhill from here, for sure.

In response, I would like to relate an old story. Several decades ago, in 1975, I wrote my first policy oriented piece in a magazine that very few of you would recognize. I’ll show it to you: This was the way Foreign Policy magazine looked then. It was printed this way so that people traveling on the Washington Metro or in New York City on the train or subway would be able to read it, but it didn’t work out. Yet the magazine is still around. In any case, my policy advocacy piece for this magazine was called “The Forgotten Region” and it dealt obviously with what we then called Eastern Europe. The State Department did not like it at all, but I got a phone call from Zbig Brzezinski, who really liked the piece. He said you are doing something important; you are keeping Eastern Europe on the agenda. This is what I want to say now to Wess and to CEPA and of course to Larry and Susan Hirsch: You are keeping Central and Eastern Europe on the agenda, and you are doing a fantastic job. I would not have imagined this much progress a few years ago when Larry was my student at SAIS (he did get an A by the way). So I should thank you now for putting Central and Eastern Europe on the political map. I’ll only add that Wess did make one mistake earlier today. I asked him how long I should speak and he said as long as you want to, as long as you are provocative. Well, Wess, you do not say this to a professor.

My talk is meant to be a provocation. And let me say in advance, if you think that everything that Hungary is doing today is just fine, that everything Romania is doing is great, if you think Albanian democracy is flourishing, or if you think that Russia poses a great military threat to Central Europe beyond the Baltics, then you will not agree with me. I hope you will listen to me, perhaps take what I have to say into account, but please keep in mind that my views are quite radical on some of these issues.

I will proceed this way: I will spend two or three minutes, not more, on the evolution of U.S. foreign policy toward Central Europe in the Cold War. I will speak for three or four minutes about the 1990s, during which I think the U.S. did a terrific job, especially with the policy of NATO enlargement. I will then turn to my main message: Should the U.S. continue to stress security issues in Central and Eastern Europe, or modify our approach? My main message, condensed in a sentence, is that of the two U.S. goals of promoting security and promoting democracy, I believe that we should give somewhat greater emphasis now to promoting democracy, because security no longer has such great importance as it did even 10 years ago and certainly 20 years ago. That’s the first provocation, and we’ll go from here.

Back in the Cold War, the first aim of the United States was to protect the security of Western Europe and in order to do that we had a policy of driving a wedge between the Soviet Union and the satellites. This policy was rather successful. We tried to encourage the spread of Titoism. In the process, we did things that were not exactly very decent, such as making friends with Ceausescu’s Romania. The second goal was the promotion of limited domestic evolution, a policy fathered by Zbigniew Brzezinski and William E. Griffith. Wisely, given the limits of American power, they advocated democratization rather than democracy, liberalization rather than liberty. As Jesse Jackson might have said, the U.S. wanted to keep hope alive under circumstances where maximalist goals such as liberation and rollback had to be uttered for the sake of satisfying domestic audiences. In any case, while the U.S. cannot be credited for what happened in 1989, we made a contribution. (Those who undermined the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe included Gorbachev, 10 million Poles in Solidarity, Pope John Paul II and others.)

In the 1990s, the circumstances were different, but the goals were similar: security and democratization. By then security meant the region’s independence from the Soviet Union, and pretty soon from Russia. The second goal was pluralism. These goals were self-evident. As always, the question was how to accomplish them. I’m reminded of a wonderful analogy that comes, as I recall, from Charles Burton Marshall, who was a professor at Johns Hopkins/SAIS as well as a member, maybe the Chairman, of the Policy Planning Staff of the Department of State at one point. Foreign policy is a lot like football, he wrote. (For the sake of our European friends here, we’re talking about American football.) Marshall said that the question in a huddle for any team is not what to do, that’s obvious: score a touchdown is the name of the game, right? The question is, how do you get there?

The main instrument available to the U.S. in the 1990s was NATO enlargement. It may seem to you an obvious thing, but in 1992 only one or two people in the U.S. government dared to mention this. One unfortunately is not here, Steve Flanagan at CSIS, who really started it all and has not gotten credit for it as he should. Outside the government there were a few important supporters, such as Margaret Thatcher, Henry Kissinger, Senator Richard Lugar, German Defense Minister Rṻhe, and of course Zbig Brzezinski. Václav Havel had a conversation with President Clinton in 1993. After that Clinton asked Tony Lake, his NSC advisor, and this is not a direct quote, “Why don’t we do what Havel would like us  to do?” and Tony Lake said, “I also think it’s a good idea, but there’s nobody at the Pentagon who will support this,” which was true, “and at the State Department there are only two or three people who might.” So Clinton told Lake something to the effect of  look into this, maybe we can do this. Then came a very important speech in September 1993 at Johns Hopkins/SAIS by Tony Lake who said, “The successor to a doctrine of containment must be a strategy of enlargement, enlargement of the world’s free community of market democracies.” This is exactly what the U.S. did. We mobilized the Western community. This was a historic move, not only because we provided security to the countries admitted to NATO but because the U.S. paved the way for the EU to expand. The Europeans didn’t want to do it initially, they had many objections, just like the Pentagon had to military enlargement, but in the end we shamed them into doing it. Together, those two initiatives must be regarded among the great successes of Western foreign policy in the 1990s.

Turning to this century and indeed to the present, how are we doing now and what should we be doing? I think the last 12 years have shown at least four new, even dramatic developments, and yet I dare say our policies have not fully adjusted to them. The first one, and probably the most important, has to do with Russia. It has, under Putin, revived the ambitions that under Boris Yeltsin and Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev were not really there that much at all. Kozyrev, in particular, was very pro-Western and pro-American. You can say that in the years that followed, Russia has become resurgent. Yet, and this is truly important, its ability to militarily subdue its Western neighbors must be regarded as all but non-existent. Aside from Chechnya, the example often cited to argue that Russia is once again aggressive as it used to be is the war against Georgia. True, Putin’s move was aggressive, and it was also upsetting and repulsive. But please remember that the “mighty” Russian Army could not subdue Georgia militarily. They didn’t, they couldn’t. So what kind of a military threat does Russia present now to the former Soviet bloc in Central and Eastern Europe? I’ll come back to that in just a moment.

The second new development has to do with the United States. Here in this century, despite all the good things I believe we did in the 1990s, we have now put a check mark after our accomplishments in Central and Eastern Europe. We have told ourselves that the work is done. Finished. We allowed ourselves to forget that democracy is a process, it’s never done, it’s never finished, and the soil of democracy must be cultivated. We have not paid enough attention to making sure that what we accomplished in the 1990s is never reversed. I do want to note, however, Secretary Clinton’s clear but polite messages to Hungary about its backsliding were exemplary, both in the clarity of the message and the polite diplomatic language that she used. I believe that this summer, U.S. diplomacy played a constructive role in helping Romania overcome or at least postpone its constitutional crisis. Still, on the whole, America’s “check mark syndrome” is very much in evidence.

The third new development has to do with democratization in Central and Eastern Europe. Freedom House and others have reported that the processes of democratization there have been arrested. We should take that very seriously. I hope you read the 2012 issue of Freedom House’s Nations in Transit, which is very critical of the poor state of democracy in Ukraine, in Hungary, and four or five others that have lost ground in recent years. In other words, the democratic achievements of the 1990s have not advanced; on the contrary, in several countries they have been reversed. There are major scholars like Jacques Rupnik who even talk now about the “transition away from democracy” in Central and Eastern Europe. I think that’s an exaggeration. I believe it does apply to a couple of countries, but certainly not to the whole region. Yet when Rupnik talks, we should listen.

The fourth feature of this century has to do with the change in Central and Eastern Europe’s attitude toward integration. Recall the poetry toward the end of the Communist era, in Poland and Hungary in particular, about Europe, about rejoining Europe. How touching it was! And it wasn’t only the sentiment of a few poets: millions of people felt that way, especially in Poland. They wanted to belong to the Western world. Now, while Poland remains on that course, there are several other countries where Euroskepiticism is widely shared. This is hard to fathom.  I can’t understand how the great beneficiaries of cohesion funds can be seriously questioning the EU’s commitment and strength. Sure, the bureaucracy in Brussels is inefficient, but tell me about one country or an institution where the bureaucracy isn’t at least cumbersome. This should not be a major consideration. An integrated Europe is highly desirable for Central and Eastern Europe, but what we see instead is disproportionate confidence in nationalist solutions.

I will not discuss tonight all four of these developments, but I’d like to go into detail about the region’s security condition and then talk about the region’s democratic deficit.

My views on the region’s security condition constitute the most controversial parts of this lecture. As I see it, only the three Baltic States need to fear a resurgent Russia today and in the foreseeable future. Russian tanks and missiles present no threat to Slovenia, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia or the Czech Republic. One can say at least six of the countries in this region can breathe easily; there is no security threat at this unique moment in the history of Central and Eastern Europe. Poland, the largest and geopolitically most important country in the region, is a separate case. This is a country that must remain vigilant because the undercurrents of hostility are still turbulent. Where Poland is located, and given its history, the Poles cannot take anything for granted. That said, we should recall that even when the Soviet Union was a superpower, Moscow did not militarily intervene there in 1956, in 1970, in 1976, and even in 1981 or 1989. In fact, Gorbachev called Polish leaders on the phone in 1989 to say that they should make the best deal they can with the opposition. The Brezhnev Doctrine was over. But earlier, given Moscow’s belief system at that time, the Soviet leaders had reason to intervene but they didn’t do it. They were not trigger-happy when it came to Poland. They got their way by other means, and that is a point I would like to make. While Russia has not given up the power game and while it would like the countries of Central and Eastern Europe to respect the “Big Bear” in the East, it is not going to try to realize this wish by military means.

Keep in mind, too, that since 1989/1991 Moscow first lost its outer empire in what was then Eastern Europe; Moscow withdrew its military from the area. Then the Russians lost the inner empire that was the Soviet Union; the so-called “nationalities” sought, and achieved, independence. Today, in my judgment, Russia has every reason to worry about losing parts of the third empire, which is Russia itself. Ask yourself this: How long is Siberia going to be part of Russia? Is it possible that it will belong formally or informally to China? If you were sitting in Moscow making policy, what would you be more worried about: regaining control over Slovakia or safeguarding Russia’s present borders? My answer is that you would be deeply concerned about what China is up to in Siberia and for that matter in Central Asia. Put another way, Russia has revisionist ambitions, but ambition is one thing and ability to implement that ambition militarily in a European country is something else. So let me repeat this as it is seldom understood properly: Putin’s shameful Georgian adventure was scary and certainly repulsive, but it failed. At times I have the feeling that the still responding to yesterday’s fears.

Central and Eastern Europe 1990-2001
Times Books / Harper Collins Publishers

While I am not the cold warrior I used to be, and while I am not an expert on military logistics, I believe that the U.S. cannot – or should not — come home from Europe. If I had any say on the subject, I would say that those two brigades in Europe are not enough; there should be more,  just in case. But the important thing is to keep in mind that – the three Baltic States possibly exempted — the Russian challenge to Central and Eastern Europe is not a military one. It is a political, economic and intelligence challenge. It is the penetration of some of these countries by Russian economic interests. Local newspapers keep publishing articles about bribes given to politicians and political parties in Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and elsewhere. This should be our main concern. Tanks and missiles are no longer as relevant to the security situation as they used to be. That said, I am certainly pleased that NATO, under pressure from the Obama Administration, has clarified its plans for the defense of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

One more point. I know it is a serious charge, but it is true: anti-EU nationalists like Václav Klaus in the Czech Republic, or Viktor Orbán in Hungary, who has spoken out lately against the EU, are doing Russia’s work by weakening the trend toward integration. It is cheap and misleading rhetoric to compare Moscow with Brussels and to claim – as Orbán has done – that Hungary will not be a colony again. Did he forget that Hungary and its neighbors had no choice but to be Moscow’s colony while they have had a choice of whether or not to join the European Union or for that matter NATO (something that Orbán, when he was a liberal politician, enthusiastically supported).

This is why I believe that the United States should put democracy promotion and integration promotion first on its agenda, not to replace our security-military concerns but to complement them. This is because the region’s political cultures have not advanced enough, and that is where the United States could do a lot more than we have in the past. We would do better if we did not believe in the check mark syndrome. The check mark syndrome is that these countries are already ours, in effect democratic, Western, liberal democracies — therefore we need not exert ourselves. We are needed elsewhere. I believe that we should work where democracy does have a chance to fall on fertile soil and that means Central and Eastern Europe — even if in some places the democratic experiment is experiencing very serious setbacks.

For what we see now in some of Central and Eastern Europe is troublesome. Take the curious phenomenon of nostalgia for the past. Frankly speaking, I don’t understand it at all. How is it possible that after decades of experiencing tyranny, 55 percent of Romanians say — as they did in a survey last week — that they lived better under Ceausescu and they would prefer to live under his Romania rather than in a democratic or semi-democratic Romania? It boggles the mind. I can’t give you an explanation for this except that the dissonance of democracy is so offensive and corruption is so extensive and the promise of prosperity is so empty of content that people completely lose perspective of what was and what is. And of course, what could still be. What they say, and what they presumably think, is absurd to most outsiders.

Moreover, with the important exception of Poland as well as Estonia and a couple of others, the desire for integration is being replaced by what may be called nationalist egocentricity. You all know what I mean. There is a lot of skepticism now about reliance on market forces, especially on foreign investors. The free market is losing its appeal in many of these countries, not everywhere, not in Estonia for sure. Poland is doing well, but given the far right’s strength in that country the struggle for democracy is not over. There as elsewhere in the region, scapegoatism and conspiracy theories fill the air, and one reads about the glorification of a past in the interwar years that never was. After centuries of foreign domination, Eastern Europe was indeed independent in the interwar period, but in 2012 it’s not exactly the pattern that one could uphold as a political or economic or social model. There is, in addition, a growing undercurrent of popular hatred toward the region’s most unfortunate minority, which is the Roma. This is something of a scandal and surely the United States and American NGOs could and should do much more on their behalf.

Allow me tell you a story that has to do with discrimination. Soon after I came to this country, my new friends at Indiana University — this was 1958 — said that in the spring recess we should go to Fort Lauderdale, that’s where the girls are. I was very interested in this, so we drove through Georgia to Fort Lauderdale from Bloomington, Indiana. We stopped in Georgia at a motel where a neon light carried this message: “No n-word], no Jews, no dogs.” This was in 1958. Fifty years later the United States has a black president. One day, though not in my lifetime, Romania will have a Roma as Prime Minister, and Lithuania will have a Jewish prime minister. It can happen if the Western world — the European Union and especially the United States — exert themselves and help a very important cause indeed.

I have to end this part of my presentation by saying that conditions vary from country to country. You will probably tell me that it’s unfair to generalize, and I will agree with you. Some of what I said tonight does not apply to country X, does not apply to country Y. That’s true, but there is a trend and it is that trend that I tried to identify. The dominant trend in Central and Eastern Europe is partial retrenchment from the market and from liberal Western-style democracy. It is also true that when Westerners question or complain, they have limited leverage because NATO or EU members cannot be disciplined. That said,  the latest news about the EU is that the Big Five there, including Germany and Poland, want to introduce big changes. They even flirt with the idea that voting by a majority – not by consensus! – could guide some of the EU’s decisions in the future. Occasionally, these Big Ideas that seem so unrealistic do get adopted. Just as Bill Clinton, Tony Lake, Steve Flanagan and others beat the odds and pursued, against real opposition, NATO enlargement. At first, it seemed impossible to get it done. The EU can be reformed, too, and eventually NATO’s decision-making process might be changed as well.

The first thing that is needed is clarity in our own minds. I think we have been wrong to believe that all post-Communist states, having experienced tyranny, have no choice but to adopt our ways. I don‘t think this is true. We need to realize that there are other forms of governments aside from liberal Western-style democracy, which appeal to large segments of the region’s population. I’m not talking about totalitarianism, but I am afraid it is possible that semi-authoritarian and therefore only semi-democratic, managed, illiberal democracies could develop there. They are developing there as we speak. To the extent that the West can exert its influence without undue interference in the region’s internal affairs, I believe more can be achieved to assure the survival of Western-style democracies.

Second, I think we’ve been wrong to have gone easy on allies who have proved to be corrupt. A new member of NATO, Albania, is very supportive of some of our NATO missions in Afghanistan and in Kosovo, but according to apparently reliable Albanian reports it is selling positions in the Ministry of Defense for money. Yet Washington  will not press the Albanians that this is not the way to do things, because in Washington’s view that country’s soldiers fight with us and therefore should not be criticized. There are many other similar examples to cite. In some cases, State Department criticism is neutralized by Pentagon indifference to undemocratic behavior or to corruption. In my view, just because a country is a member of NATO should not mean that we close our eyes to what we see as negative developments.

Third, it makes a difference who makes and who executes our policies in Central Europe. In the 1990s, a very important change was made with respect to ambassadors being assigned there. It became desirable for non-career types to seek ambassadorships in the region. A few of them have turned out to be effective. Most of them have not. They do not know exactly where they are, they don’t have the qualifications of career diplomats. The only reason why they were appointed is because they contributed to campaigns. To make my point, let me ask you a question: When you choose a dentist, do you take into account how much money he or she contributed to your favorite political party, or do you rather rely on his or her professional qualifications? Why are we setting different standards for ambassadors? The Obama Administration said during the campaign of 2008 that it would not do what its predecessor did. Famous last words. Guess what? In the Bush Administration the proportion of non-career ambassadors was about 33 percent. It is now about 33 percent under the Obama Administration. Campaign contributors seem to like the Residence in Prague. The Residence in Bucharest has a beautiful indoor swimming pool, making both desirable postings for political appointees. This is not only embarrassing; it is harmful to U.S. interests. We send people there to represent the United States who usually don’t know the country’s language, its culture, and who are not professional diplomats.

Fourth, I believe that the United States should enthusiastically welcome the overhaul of the EU’s foreign and defense policies. European Commission President Barroso deserves at least an encouraging phone call from President Obama or his successor. German-Polish cooperation on this issue is exemplary, and the U.S. should acknowledge and welcome this.

The fifth point that I’d like to make is that the best way for the U.S. directly to make a difference is through NATO. We could build on the idea that NATO is a military alliance, but it has always been a political alliance as well. Keep in mind that Franco’s Spain wanted to join NATO for years and years and years, but even during the Cold War, and despite the existential threat to the West, Spain was kept out. The same process should be in play right now – as recommended so persuasively by Professor Celeste Wallander in Foreign Affairs magazine in 2002. Today, even more so than in 2002, the very qualities that kept NATO together for more than six decades are at risk because of the pattern of behavior of some of the new members who are allowed to deflect possible criticism by sending 50 soldiers to Afghanistan  or 25 to Kosovo in order to neutralize foreign criticism. This is unbecoming of NATO; its charter’s political values and expectations should be implemented.

Will any of this happen? Probably not. I say this possibly because I was born in Hungary, a country famous – or notorious – for its pessimism. But some days, when I think about all that could be done, my acquired taste – American optimism –seems to guide me. After all, I have five American-born children, nine American-born grandchildren, and even two American-born wives (not, I stress, at the same time). This is why I l have come to believe that some of my ideas outlined tonight just might be taken seriously someday. The U.S. is capable of doing big things. The declinists – here and in Europe – are wrong. A few decades ago they said Japan was the wave of the future. Now it’s China. As I see it, what we have experienced in this century and what we are experiencing now with a rather weak but sophisticated and good-willed president at the helm is but a temporary setback. This country will bounce back. The resilience that Charlie Kupchan mentioned at this conference earlier today is very much in evidence. I make this point to our guests from Europe, in particular: the biggest mistakes foreign countries make is to underestimate the United States. This is still the only military and economic superpower in the world. 39 of the top 50 universities are located in this country. Six of the top 10 classical symphony orchestras are American. By the way, one of the 10, conducted by the great Ivan Fisher, is Hungarian. As you see, I’m not talking about Hollywood, I’m not talking about pop music, I’m talking about universities and serious classical music. So don’t write off the West, don’t write off the U.S. The ability of this country, in particular, to change peacefully is exceptional. We have a lot to offer to Central and Eastern Europe, and I would like to believe that  we will.

Thank you very much.

MSZP’s vision of the future: “The Left, Hope, and Strength”

Now that MSZP’s leaked “working paper” has become available we have a better idea of what the party leaders have in mind as far as strategy is concerned. Although the MSZP politicians I heard speak about the document emphasized that naturally this is not the final word on the strategy the party will follow in the next year and a half, after reading the text I think it is fairly clear where the party is heading.

The authors of “The Left, Hope, and Strength” are convinced that MSZP shouldn’t try to cooperate with any of the other smaller democratic parties. It is in the party’s interest to divide the political spectrum sharply between MSZP and Fidesz, so MSZP shouldn’t be concerned with the other parties. While Fidesz’s interest is to be in the center of the political stage, flanked by the extremist Jobbik on the right and smaller opposition parties on the left, MSZP’s strategy should be to weaken Jobbik, LMP, and DK. According to these unnamed political advisers there is a good possibility of  gathering a sizable number of voters from Jobbik because many of them actually sympathize with leftist values. Moreover, when asked, Jobbik sympathizers doubt that the current Jobbik leadership could actually govern the country. On the other hand, some of these Jobbik followers consider MSZP much more capable. The document doesn’t mention any vote gathering from LMP or DK.

Those intellectuals and professionals who seem to be worried about the rule of law, democracy, and human rights are on the wrong track because most of the electorate are worried about their own material well-being. The document pretty well writes off these people. Almost as if MSZP gave up on them and let them gather in LMP and DK. It also looks as if the party has given up on people in their twenties. MSZP politicians naturally would like to see a few more votes coming from this group, but at the same time they know that young people are not the most conscientious voters.

What are the main problems facing MSZP? The document admits that people don’t think that the party can change for the better.  They are also not at all convinced that MSZP can actually win the next elections. So, the primary goal should be to change of the image of the party. A few simple messages should be devised, and the whole overall strategy should be based on these messages.

The messages should emphasize the values of the traditional left. They also have to convince the voters that there is hope and that their lives will improve if MSZP wins the elections.  And they have to change the current weak image of MSZP.

What are these traditional leftist values? Primarily, a welfare state, assistance to the poor, and a fight against inequality. A survey the party conducted at the beginning 2012 showed that people are angry about the huge income disparities that exist in Hungary today.

And yet it seems that the party leaders realize that returning to the traditional Hungarian leftist tradition is pretty hopeless in today’s world. They talk about something called “the modern left” without defining what they mean by it. But they say that the best example to follow is the French Social Democratic Party.

MSZP strategy should emphasize the material well-being of the individual rather than talk about the country itself because for most people such things as inflation, the deficit, and economic growth don’t mean much. They should concentrate on the “ordinary people.” They should return to the ideas of Gyula Horn. The party’s chief audience should be working men and women rather than intellectuals.

As for the economic plans of the party, fiscal discipline is definitely a dirty word in their vocabulary. The emphasis should be on economic growth and job creation. MSZP mustn’t even think of an austerity program. They shouldn’t offer immediate and dramatic improvements but  should send messages about catching up with the West that would entail an increase in family incomes. MSZP must redefine its attitude toward austerity and populism. Just because a promise is popular MSZP must not automatically reject it.

MSZP must radiate hope. All politicians who appear in the media must be shown as optimistic as far as the party’s chances at the polls are concerned. Attila Mesterházy must look youthful and energetic as a contrast to the less than exciting Viktor Orbán of today.

After winning the elections alone MSZP will get together with the other democratic parties and arrive at a consensus, will make public all the documents Fidesz kept secret, will control energy prices, will raise the minimum wage, and will create a 60% tax rate for the rich.

Anyone interested in voting for MSZP in 2014?

Gordon Bajnai versus Attila Mesterházy: Two views, two strategies

Although the democratic opposition is in disarray, the Fidesz government is already preparing the ground for a possible return of Gordon Bajnai as leader of the opposition that hopes to regain power after the 2014 elections.

A sure sign that Viktor Orbán is somewhat worried about Bajnai’s candidacy is that Kehi (Kormányzati Ellenőrzési Hivatal/Government Control Office) just made the decision to initiate a formal investigation in connection with the sale of Dataplex Kft back in 2005. The accused are not mentioned by name, but the suspicion is that the real targets are Gordon Bajnai and János Kóka (SZDSZ), minister of economics and transportation between 2004 and 2008. Indeed, today’s Heti Válasz claims that the paper has absolute proof of the guilt of these two men. Anyone who’s interested in the complicated story of  Dataplex Kft. can find plenty of material in Magyar Nemzet and Heti Válasz in 2009 and 2010. In brief, the charge is that in three months Kóka and Bajnai made 3 billion forints on the sale of Dataplex Kft., originally a state-owned firm. They bought it on the cheap and sold it for a handsome profit to Magyar Telekom.

Heti Válasz, which began investigating the case in 2007, is overjoyed. At last, after all the cases that Budai investigated came to naught, here is one that is rock solid. Or at least this is what the   pro-Fidesz organ claims. Well, we will see. After all, it is also in today’s news that Gyula Budai, who was sued by Ferenc Gyurcsány and Gordon Bajnai because he had accused them of perjury, was found guilty today. He is obliged to pay 300,000 forints to each man and must publicly apologize for falsely accusing them of a very serious crime.

So, why this sudden interest in Bajnai’s candidacy and how serious is it? First, yesterday Ferenc Gyurcsány wrote a short note on Facebook in which he summarized the current political situation as he sees it. According to him, many people think that the chaos among the different groups that oppose the current government makes the situation hopeless. But he is more upbeat. From the study by the Homeland and Progress Foundation, established by Gordon Bajnai, everyone knows that without cooperation there is no way of removing Viktor Orbán from power. LMP refuses to cooperate with any other political party. MSZP doesn’t exclude the possibility of cooperation, but Mesterházy and his circle believe in the possibility of winning the elections on their own. After praising Mesterházy as the chairman of the party, Gyurcsány pretty well declares that Mesterházy is not a good candidate for the job of prime minister. He likens the situation to the 1998-2002 period when, although László Kovács managed to build up MSZP, he was wise enough to allow Péter Medgyessy to be the official candidate for prime minister. “He stepped back and his party won.”

From here it’s but a short step to naming Bajnai as an acceptable candidate of the joint effort to dislodge Viktor Orbán. “The key is in Gordon Bajnai’s hand.” DK is not putting up anyone for the post, so it is up to LMP and MSZP to shape what happens. If they refuse to cooperate with all other forces Viktor Orbán will remain and “the voters will punish them. Rightly….”

An article that appeared yesterday in HVG deals with the same topic. Gábor Gavra and Ferenc M. László claim that “Bajnai already decided but MSZP is unwilling.” The authors seem to know that negotiations are going on between the staff of Bajnai and the MSZP leadership, but it seems that Mesterházy and his friends within the party believe that they don’t need anyone from the outside to win the elections. Within the party only Péter Kiss and Ildikó Lendvai are pushing for cooperation, not only with other parties but also with civic groups like Milla, 4K, and Szolidaritás.

According to the information these two reporters received, Mesterházy is against any kind of coalition/cooperation with the other parties. Working out a common platform with LMP is almost impossible because MSZP would have to make too many compromises. As for DK, he is certain that the current supporters of Gyurcsány’s party will eventually return to the fold.

There seems to be another consideration within the leadership of MSZP. According to the current MSZP strategy that surfaced a few days ago, MSZP wants to return to the traditional left-wing policies that made the socialists popular in the past. The proponents of this return to old-fashioned socialism accuse Gyurcsány and others of infecting MSZP with the virus of liberalism. Liberalism might appeal to intellectuals, but MSZP doesn’t even want to be popular with that segment of MSZP supporters. The eggheads should follow the party’s leadership, not the other way around.

Mesterházy apparently also believes that if Gordon Bajnai headed the ticket it would serve Fidesz well. Fidesz would come up with Bajnai’s austerity package and a “bad deal with the IMF.”

So, apparently this is where we stand. I don’t know why Ferenc Gyurcsány is optimistic.

The Gripen affair redux

I don’t think we will ever find out who bribed whom in 2001 when the Orbán government suddenly decided to purchase the Swedish-British Gripen fighter jets instead of the American F-16s.

In the last ten years there was off and on coverage of this strange case. I myself dealt with it at least three times. My first piece on the subject was written on August 13, 2007. Shortly afterward, on November 26 of the same year, I had to return to the topic because of a parliamentary committee that was investigating the questionable purchase of the Swedish planes. And finally on March 4, 2009 I wrote at some length about the arrest of Count Alfons Mensdorff-Pouilly, the “lobbyist” for BAE Systems, partner of the Swedish firm Saab, in the sale of Gripen fighter planes. According to Swedish and Austrian newspapers, the Count, who speaks Hungarian fluently since his mother is Hungarian, worked as a lobbyist for BAE Systems and spent millions on kickbacks to Czechs and Hungarians who “convinced” their governments that the best buy would be the Saab-built Gripen planes.

SAAB JAS 39 Gripen

In my first piece on the Gripen affair I mentioned that Ágnes Vadai, then undersecretary of the ministry of defense, was named to head an investigation of the matter. They investigated and investigated but found nothing specific that would point the finger.

Two years later Ágnes Vadai told the public a little more. The first problem the committee faced was the lack of documentation. Every important piece of paper concerning the purchase of these fighter planes was gone. The letter in which the minister of defense asked for bids was gone, the bids themselves couldn’t be found, and naturally there was no mention of Mensdorff-Pouilly in any government document. The only thing she could come up with as indirect evidence was the suddenness of the decision and the fact that the prime minister went against the advice of the military experts and alone decided in favor of the Gripen planes.

Meanwhile the Hungarian prosecutors were seemingly uninterested in the British, Swedish, Czech, and Austrian court proceedings concerning this bribery case although, according to the latest information, the Hungarian prosecutor’s office did get in touch with its counterparts in those countries where Mensdorff-Pouilly’s illegal activities were discovered. Allegedly they were assured that there was no Hungarian connection to the Mensdorff-Pouilly case.

I must say that I am skeptical of the veracity of this new information that was shared during György Bolgár’s telephone interview with Pál Sinku, a counselor from the chief prosecutor’s office. Although Sinku was very different from the usual spokespersons of the prosecutor’s office–he was friendly and tried to be helpful, I still doubt that the Hungarian inquiries were specific enough.  Why would Péter Polt’s prosecutors be eager to shed light on a bribery case that might involve Viktor Orbán and Fidesz? After all, the purchase of the Gripen planes took place during the fall of 2001.

Profil, a well respected Austrian weekly, has been after Mensdorff-Pouilly for a long time. Unfortunately, the latest article entitled “Count Ali and the weapon billions” is not available online. However, a Hungarian translation of the article was published this morning on Galamus. Although it is rather difficult to decipher the exact meaning of the references, a few telling details might advance our understanding of the Hungarian bribery case a bit. The minutes of the meetings of the “lobbyists” talked about “payments to the socialists” and about “the swine” who must receive 5% of something that I find difficult to interpret: “ipari elem.” Industrial element? As a result of this extra 5% to “swine” the deal was going to be more expensive. That is, the bribe would cost more. The original price was $8 million but because of this extra 5% they will need another $4.7 million, so the phony off-shore company the lobbyists set up for money laundering purposes must receive extra cash. In addition, Mensdorff-Pouilly had to pay off five other people who allegedly received 1% of the purchase price. That amounted to 180 million Austrian schillings or 13 million euros.

And now let’s go back to Ágnes Vadai, who today is a member of DK and thus an independent member of parliament. Not surprisingly, she was interviewed by Olga Kálmán last night. She couldn’t say much about her investigation because it was declared to be a state secret at the time, but when she was asked whether she has any suspicions about who the five people were who received this incredible amount of money Vadai answered in the affirmative.

Let me add something here. My suspicion is that among these five there were not only Fidesz people but socialists as well. First of all, there are the minutes that specifically talk about “payments to the socialists.” Second, looking through the Hungarian newspapers of the time it seemed to me that the socialists didn’t complain as loudly about this very suspicious Swedish deal as they should have. Ferenc Juhász, who later became minister of defense (2002-2006), was outright enthusiastic. At least Hungary wasn’t buying the “obsolete” American F-16s.

Mind you, today Ágnes Vadai claims that Hungary didn’t need any new fighter jets, period. The MiG-29s needed only the once-every-nine-year general service, but the Ministry of Defense in the hope of purchasing new jets simply neglected their upkeep. Moreover, Viktor Orbán at that point hated everything Russian. Thus they spent an inordinate amount of money on fourteen used Swedish planes.

At the time government members declared repeatedly that the planes were practically free because of promised Swedish investments in Hungary. I must say that I am not aware of any really large Swedish investments after 2001. Moreover,  just about a year ago Hungary had to renegotiate the deal because the Hungarian government was unable to meet the payments. The price is getting steeper and steeper.

A botched-up show trial in Hungary

I’m going to write today about the infamous Hagyó affair. Miklós Hagyó, who joined MSZP in 1998, was a wealthy businessman who soon enough became an important political figure in Budapest. He was one of the deputy mayors in the administration of Gábor Demszky, who led the city between 1990 and 2010. Among other things, Hagyó oversaw the business practices of the Budapest Transit Authority (BKV). The losses at BKV were staggering; year after year the central government had to come to its rescue. The business practices of BKV had been under fairly close scrutiny, and it was discovered that management didn’t always run the company in a judicious manner.

But in March 2010 came a bombshell. Zsolt Balogh, one of the many CEOs of BKV, said on HírTV that he, as the newly appointed head of BKV, paid a courtesy visit to Hagyó, who right on the spot instructed him to hand over 40 million forints. Balogh obliged, and the next day he brought the money to the deputy mayor in a box originally designed as packaging for a Nokia telephone.

Injustice by Swamibu / flkr

At this point I said to myself: something is wrong here. There is no way that someone, especially an experienced crook, would demand money from a man he doesn’t know from Adam. During their very first encounter. Hagyó tried to clear his name but couldn’t. In late May, right after Hagyó lost his parliamentary seat due to the change of government, he was arrested. Obviously, the Hungarian prosecutors didn’t share my doubts.

Miklós Hagyó spent nine months in jail and several months in a prison hospital. Eventually his health deteriorated to such an extent that the authorities decided that perhaps he should be released and spend the rest of the time before his court appearance under house arrest.

The investigators spent two and a half years gathering evidence. Originally the prosecutors hoped for some spectacular revelations. They would have liked to have proof, for instance, that the money Hagyó allegedly extorted from the CEOs of BKV actually ended up in the coffers of MSZP. But the evidence was lacking.

In the end, although a total of sixteen people were accused of various crimes in connection with the business practices of BKV, only two important people were accused of anything: Miklós Hagyó and Ernő Mesterházy (SZDSZ), adviser to Mayor Gábor Demszky. The prosecutors tried to build a case of bribery but they couldn’t. Basically they had to fall back on the good old charge of breach of fiduciary responsibility. The only exception was the charge of extortion in the case of Hagyó, based on the fabulous Nokia story. The prosecution demanded jail time for fifteen of the sixteen accused.

In February Hagyó and his fellow accused were told that the court would like to have a speedy trial and that if the Budapest Court were to handle the case it couldn’t be on the docket before the summer of 2013. Therefore Tünde Handó, wife of Fidesz EP member József Szájer and head of the National Judicial Office, assigned the case to the court in Kecskemét, 85 kilometers from Budapest. The suspicion was and still is that the prosecution was hoping for a more sympathetic judge. Hagyó and the others appealed to the Constitutional Court but without success. On September 11 the case began in Kecskemét.

After the prosecutor read the fifty-page indictment it was Hagyó’s turn. He read a lengthy document in which he declared himself innocent. He naturally denied the Nokia story and said that he had sued all those people who, according to him, falsely accused him of wrongdoing. He also maintained that he and the other deputy mayor, Imre Ikvai-Szabó (SZDSZ), actually did a good job because when they took over the supervision of BKV it was stranded with a 70 billion forint debt which the two of them managed to decrease by 11.5 billion.

On September 20 it was Ernő Mesterházy’s turn, who also professed his innocence. In addition, he accused the investigators of illegal activities. He made no secret of his belief that their case was a show trial or, as the Hungarians describe such cases, “koncepciós perek,” i.e. cases based on trumped-up charges with a concept in mind as to its final outcome. He also testified that the investigators had put pressure on him, saying that if he were ready to give evidence against Miklós Hagyó and Gábor Demszky he could leave jail and his own case might be judged more lightly.

Today we heard that another CEO of BKV, Attila Antal, who had given evidence against Mesterházy and Hagyó, withdrew his original testimony. He told the court that while he was in jail he was very ill and the police told him that he would be let go only if “he talks.” His testimony was faxed over to the prosecutor’s office page by page for them to inspect its contents and decide whether or not his testimony was satisfactory from the prosecution’s point of view. Antal asked for Hagyó’s and Mesterházy’s forgiveness.

So, this is where we stand. In the past every time I expressed my doubts about the Hagyó case I received loads of criticism. Even ridicule. And here are the results of the first few days of the trial. Maybe I wasn’t that wrong after all.

Milla and LMP: Double curse of current Hungarian politics

A few days ago I made optimistic noises about a possible collaboration among democratic parties and anti-Fidesz civic organizations without which there can be no change of government in 2014. My optimism resulted from the joint demonstration by DK, MSZP, and Solidarity at the conclusion of the hunger strike of four DK members of parliament. Since then I have been awakened from my dream.

Only a few days after the hopeful signs of cooperation Milla, a civic organization that began on Facebook on December 22, 2010, announced that it is refusing to cooperate with another civic group, Solidarity, because the leaders of that movement want to cooperate with already existing parties. And Milla refuses to get involved in any political action that is supported by political parties. For all practical purposes, a contradiction in terms.

One of the leaders of Milla is Péter Juhász; he is the one who most often represents this civic movement in the media. He showed up on ATV back in August; he gave a couple of interviews on Klubrádió; and only a few days ago Vera Lánczos, one of the members of the Galamus Group, conducted a long interview with him.

Almost two months ago Vera Lánczos expressed her misgivings about the direction in which Milla was going under the guidance of Péter Juhász and his friends in an article entitled “The Milla: ‘Dilettantes, spare me!'”  I wrote about Milla and this article earlier. My opinion hasn’t changed since. I consider Juhász a very confused man who may end up inflicting irreparable damage on Hungarian democracy.


The real problem is that Juhász seems to view the last twenty-two years of Hungarian politics as a steady march away from democracy. According to him, SZDSZ was and MSZP and DK still are just as undemocratic as Fidesz is. Thus he rejects any cooperation with them. In this respect he shares the opinion of the LMP politicians who are convinced that an overwhelming majority of the undecided voters reject both sides and want nothing to do with them.

But Juhász is wrong on several points. He is wrong about the composition of the currently undecided camp. There have been several studies lately that show that the majority of the undecided voters lean toward the left. These are the people who were dissatisfied with the way things were going between 2006 and 2010 and voted for Fidesz in the hope of a radical change for the better. Yes, there was radical change but not for the better. These people are still waiting, but when the chips are down they will most likely vote for one of the parties on the left. And some of them have already returned to the fold. After all, public opinion polls show a steady if slow growth in the number of MSZP voters.

Juhász is wrong on another point. In one of his interviews he emphasized that the Orbán government can be defeated only if the disappointed voters on the right can be persuaded to join forces with the civic groups. If they see that these civic groups are joined by political leaders, they will shrink from cooperating with them. I personally very much doubt that truly committed conservatives would in large numbers join Milla or some other civic group regardless of whether they refuse to cooperate with parties or not. Moreover, there are mighty few moderate conservatives on the Hungarian right.

As for the general anti-political rhetoric of Juhász, he is not very original. After all, this is exactly the position of LMP. The last twenty-two years were a total waste of time, money, and energy. All parties are rotten with the exception of LMP. It is pure and honest because its politicians were in no way responsible for the alleged sins of the past. After all, they are a new party. It seems to me that the only party Juhász would cooperate with is LMP. But there is a problem, and that is a big one. LMP was never a big party (it attracted mostly young Budapest intellectuals), and it is rapidly losing ground. According to the latest Ipsos poll LMP lost 4% of its voters in August and September. I believe the loss is due to the party’s refusal to cooperate with the other democratic parties. LMP managed to sink down to the level of the much maligned party of Ferenc Gyurcsány. Both DK and LMP have a 2% share of the electorate.

LMP needs a base, and I guess András Schiffer et al. believe that Milla will be an ideal vehicle for gathering voters around LMP.  Both organizations believe that all of the undecided voters share Milla’s skepticism about the older parties and they will vote en bloc for LMP. With a current popularity of two percent? Madness.

It doesn’t seem to matter what points Juhász’s interviewers bring up as valid arguments against his beliefs, he remains steadfast. He refuses to cooperate with Solidarity, a civic organization that is ready to join the democratic parties in their planned demonstration on October 23. He also seems to refuse to consider any demonstration against Fidesz’s attempts to limit the number of voters by introducing an absolutely unnecessary registration procedure. According to Juhász, demonstrations were useless in the past and they will be so in the future. So, let’s forget about them.

According to Juhász, Milla was silent during the summer but now its members are moving full force into organizational activities. They put, he said, a lot of energy into a website called MillaMédia. Well, I took a look at it and I agree with György Kakuk that the website is as confusing as their political views. Kakuk specifically brought up the stop sign with runic script. What do the leaders of Milla want to tell us with that? Colossal confusion everywhere.

I suspect that LMP is using Milla to its own political purposes, but the cooperation is unlikely to bear fruit. A tiny party aided by the confused leadership of a civic organization is unlikely to be able to defeat the well organized party of Viktor Orbán. There might be 99,810 “likes” on Milla’s Facebook page, but that means nothing in the harsh light of political reality.