Hungary through American eyes

American diplomats have been employing novel ways of communication. For example, yesterday Daniel Fried gave a press conference by telephone from Washington to a small number of Hungarian journalists about the American position on economic sanctions against Russia. Daniel Fried is the State Department’s coordinator for sanctions policy.

Fried is a senior diplomat with vast experience in Eastern Europe. He served as political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in Soviet times; he headed the Polish desk during the regime change in the late 1980s. After Poland emerged as one of the democracies of the region, he was political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw. Later he served as assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs and special assistant to the president and senior director for European and Eurasian affairs at the National Security Council. So, why does Daniel Fried think that he has to give a long-distant press conference for Hungarian journalists? Surely, because Washington wants the Hungarian public to know the American position on Russian aggression against Ukraine. And it also wants to share its opinion of the current state of Russian-Hungarian relations.

Ambassador Daniel Fried

Ambassador Daniel Fried

Up to this point we have two independent versions of the telephone interview: one from Népszabadság and the other from VilággazdaságI can’t imagine that MTI was not invited, but for the time being there is no MTI report on the event.

The main message was that sanctions will be applied as long as Moscow does not fulfill all twelve points of the Minsk Agreement. A good summary of these twelve points can be found on the BBC website. Russian regular troops are still on Ukrainian soil and “the Russian aggression continues.” The United States wants a political solution to the crisis and is ready to cooperate with Russia in many areas, but Russia must respect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine. With its aggression against Ukraine Russia “seriously endangers the European security system that came into being after the 1989-1990 East European events.” If Russian aggression continues, the United States and the European Union are ready to introduce new sanctions.

Fried then turned to specifically Hungarian issues. Hungary and its prime minister should know from Hungarian history what it is like when a country is left alone unprotected in the event of outside aggression. Therefore Hungary ought to realize the importance of the steps that are being taken in this case. Viktor Orbán first claimed that “the European Union shot itself in the foot when it introduced sanctions against Russia” and later at the NATO summit in Wales he declared that “we are hawks when it comes to military security but doves in economic terms.” Fried said that “we all want to be on good terms with Russia, to improve our relations, but this is not the right time for friendship.” Fried cited Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s claim that sanctions only deepen the Ukrainian crisis. “The Russians say all sorts of things, many of them are simply not true. After all, they deny that their soldiers are in the territory of Ukraine.”

During the press conference it became clear that talks took place between the Hungarian and the U.S. governments concerning the sanctions. It seems that the U.S. listened to Hungary’s objections but was not impressed.  The sanctions hurt not only Hungarian businesses but businesses of all nations, including those of the United States. The European Union made a brave decision which Hungary supported.

The message was that one cannot play the kind of game Viktor Orbán is playing at the moment. On the one hand, he is a supporter of the common cause against Russia, but when it comes to sanctions he tries to make special deals with Moscow. For instance, Sándor Fazekas, the Hungarian agriculture minister, visited Moscow on September 8 where he had talks with Nikolay Fyedorov, his Russian counterpart. There Fazekas agreed with Fyedorov that “the sanctions don’t offer a solution to the Ukrainian crisis, which should be settled through negotiations.”

And according to leaked documents, we know that Vladimir Putin told Petro Poroshenko during one of their telephone conversations that he “through bilateral contacts can influence some European countries to form ‘a blocking minority’ in the European Council.” The countries he has in mind are Slovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Cyprus. I guess Daniel Fried wanted to make sure that Hungarians understand that Washington fully supports the application of sanctions and that the large majority of the EU countries are also on board.

While we are talking about U.S.-Hungarian relations, I ought to mention that U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D), who is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, and Senator John McCain (R) introduced a resolution in recognition of the International Day of Democracy on September 15. Accompanying the introduction of the resolution Senator Carden’s press release talked at length about the sad state of democracy in Hungary where “there is an unprecedented global crackdown on civil society organizations seeking to express their voice and exercise their rights. Earlier this week, Hungarian authorities raided the offices of two NGOs in Budapest in what appears to be part of a tightening squeeze on civil society. Such actions not only undermine democracy but chill investigative reporting on corruption and good governance. Now, more than ever, is the time for the international community to push back on threats to civil society and protect efforts by these organizations to build strong democratic institutions.”

In addition, on September 18 Deputy Chief of the United States Mission to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Kate Byrnes delivered the following speech to the Permanent Council in Vienna:

Three months ago, on June 19, the United States addressed the Permanent Council regarding an apparent campaign of intimidation directed toward civil society and independent media in Hungary. I regret that I must speak to the Council again on this topic.

As we said in June, just one day after the April 6 elections, the Hungarian government accused organizations that conduct legitimate work in human rights, transparency, and gender equality of serving “foreign interests.” Shortly afterwards, the Prime Minister’s Office alleged that NGOs that monitor and evaluate grant proposals for the EEA-Norway NGO fund were tied to an opposition party. On September 8, Hungary’s National Bureau of Investigation initiated a series of police raids on two NGOs responsible for the EEA-Norway NGO grant program in Hungary. With no prior warning, and in a show of intimidation, over 30 officers entered the NGOs’ facilities and seized the organizations’ documents and computers.

These police raids appear to be aimed at suppressing critical voices and restricting the space for civil society to operate freely. The United States again reminds Hungary of its OSCE commitments to human rights and fundamental freedoms, democracy, and the rule of law.

Mr. Chair, we raise these issues to express our concern about actions that appear inconsistent with OSCE principles, and also to encourage dialogue. We intend to continue to encourage the government of Hungary to observe its commitments and allow NGOs to operate without further harassment, interference, or intimidation. The United States believes that such respect for its commitments will help Hungary to become a more prosperous, robust and inclusive democracy.

Finally, here is something from former President Bill Clinton, who appeared on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. “There’s the authoritarian capitalism model which is Russia and in a different way China, and it has some appeal. Like the Hungarian Prime Minister – they owe a lot to America; he just said he liked authoritarian capitalism, just saying “I don’t ever want to have to leave power” – usually those guys want to stay forever and make money. And there’s the democracy model …”

Hungary is in the news, no doubt. It would be better if it weren’t.

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63 comments

  1. Petofi,

    Again, you are stuck in the blame-the-Hungarian-voters-for-their-plight mode, which is probably why you claimed that two thirds of them voted for Fidesz. The reality is that of those who actually voted, only slightly more than half voted for Fidesz, and that was before they showed their true faces in government. The most recent national election only saw about 45% vote for Fidesz. True, about 18% more voted for Jobbik, but that still means that those people were not happy with Fidesz, for whatever reason, and bought into Jobbik’s lies this time around.

    As was pointed out above, Hungarians rarely follow foreign news, and most of them rely on the television for their perspective on the political situation in Hungary (among those who even pay attention at all to politics). In the current environment, the ones with the least regard for fairness or honesty are going to be able to have the most influence on voters perceptions and beliefs, and be able to change even what the average voter cares about. That’s how authoritarian governments stay in power, and that’s why I don’t fully blame the voters. They make decisions based on what they see and hear, and that is mostly controlled by Fidesz and Jobbik. I apportion blame to them and the opposition, for the inexplicably poor job they have done and are doing in fighting against the authoritarians among us.

    Not everyone has the time or intelligence to dig for the truth among the avalanche of lies and disinformation, so what you are doing is blaming the victim, to a large degree. While you’re doing that, at least get your numbers right.

  2. Regarding US employment statistics. You can read what you wish and you can pick and choose to believe what you want. I listed that as a typical “alternate” to the BLS reporting except this particular article used BLS data. In my opinion the analysis is correct. What the US is doing is cooking the books to make the recovery look better than it is which shouldn’t be too surprising to anyone. I have 2 children who just graduated from University in May and both are still looking for real jobs but both are making due with part time labor and external support (my ex and I). The government research group I was Director of until I retired 6 years ago recently closed and all my former employees most of who have PhD’s (all except 2 were contractors) are now out looking for work and I am helping them as best as I can which isn’t easy from here in Hungary. Because of this I believe I have a somewhat more astute idea of what is actually happening in the US. I also have several friends in the employment business providing contractor support and I know how things are from their perspective. We follow financial news extremely closely being Day Traders working from our home in Hungary. We have found Zero Hedge to be fairly reputable (nothing is perfect and you have to use your brain to filter it all). It is a nice counter to Marketwatch, Drudge report etc. all of which are necessary to get a feel for the days potential trades. Market forces are based on human emotions to a large degree which is why Twitter posts are another strong market analysis tool.

    You have to be very careful when analysing anything coming out of the US, especially government data and in particular during an election year. The Senate race is extremely close and will define the course of the US for at least the next 2 years. Obama is facing potential impeachment (I do not believe it will happen but he has that risk) should the Senate go to a Republican majority and even more so if it is comprised of Libertarians. The voters are more concerned about internal matters than external despite the US flagging more FUD with Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, Iran and China. Some hard psyops is going on here to get the voters to concentrate on non-essential matters and to cause fear and distrust again and that the current administration isn’t a bunch of incompetent idiots. Looking at the favorability polls on Friday the Republicans are rising quickly and it is now even. If 6 seats go then it changes the whole ball game.

  3. Richard: tappanch, exactly …

    Well, no. You didn’t read the quote in tappanch’s post, who contradicts what you previously wrote.

    1) The U.S. did not promise. While according to Matlock (and others) there was an understanding between leaders, no commitment was made. Compare with Russia’s trampling of the Budapest Memorandum.

    2) Both NATO membership and EU accession did provide effective frameworks for the easing of nationalist tensions in Central Europe. NATO, as a mechanism against the agression of one party by another. The EU, as a common project ensuring fundamental rights for ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities, but also freedom of movement and installation.

    What happened in Yugoslavia and its successor States did not happen elsewhere. The Czechs and Slovaks parted peacefully. Poland and Germany settled their disputes. Magyar and Romanian nationalisms didn’t clash. The exodus of the Bulgarian Turks didn’t escalate, and the situation of the Russian minorities in the Baltic states did clearly improve.

    For Europe, this is an unprecedented situation since the birth of nationalism two centuries ago. The last 25 years are proof that peace between Western European countries wasn’t entirely due to the artificial situation created by the Cold War – that it was based on a constant commitment to peace, freedom and understanding; and that the tools this commitment created could be actively used by Central and Eastern Europe.

    This is what Russia’s agression, and to a lesser extent the current authoritarian, ethno-nationalist Hungarian drift, are threatening today. Do I care about Ukraine? Notwithstanding my having a few Ukrainian friends, you bet I do. Because I care about Europe.

  4. Thanks, marcel – my feelings exactly! If we didn’t have that close cooperation (not as close as I’d like …) within NATO, the EU and the other organisations in Europe, there probably would have been already another war or series of wars …

    If Richard is real then he’s an example of a very disturbed and frustrated person, finding anything positive in Putin!

    In my eyes Putin’s Russia is going back in time – like Orbán who wants to have a feudal system again, it worked so nicely (for the overlords at least …) until the French Revolution.

    It’s interesting and maybe significant that Richard did not say one word about human rights etc which are in peril in Russia, Hungary and of course China …

  5. Richard,

    I imagine nobody will even read this, way down here at the bottom of an old post, but I would like to ignore for now the accusations that you are not who you say you are, and address your earlier post directly.

    You wrote: “You don’t want to be jobless and poor in America but it is a great place if you are rich.”

    I wonder what person who has as much experience as you say you do can possibly seriously write this, unless you don’t personally know any jobless or poor people in the US. I, too, have been to and worked in many countries in the world, and am also familiar with the US. In most countries of the world, Hungary included, being poor and jobless means that you are either begging in the streets or you are relying on family and/or friends to help you meet most of your needs. In the US, there are plenty of charities and government assistance programs, despite the best efforts of the Republican party to end all government assistance to the poor (but continue it to corporations, religious groups, and the middle class). In the US, if you are a legal resident and not a convict, you can almost always find a paying job of some sort, depending on where you live. Plus, there are government programs (though underfunded) that will help you find a job, or at least train for work, and if you can convince a doctor that you are physically unable to work, you can get disability payments which will allow you to live a subsistence lifestyle. That has not always been true, but from what I see and have seen in the past, it was certainly true before the Great Recession and is probably at least somewhat true now. Sure, it’s not Western Europe, but it’s not Calcutta, either.

    You wrote: “Do I think Orban is wonderful? No way. But I think what he has been doing in part, and only just so, has been in the correct direction. Is he corrupt? Absolutely. But this appears to be true nearly everywhere now. At the most fundamental level countries have to make a philosophical decision. Be a full party to the US and everything they want to do to the world or be against them. It really is that simple. I moved to Hungary to enjoy the relatively excellent values and get away from what arguably is a decadent society in the US.

    Wow, this is kind of amazing – you say you came to Hungary to get away from the “decadent society” there? Had you never been here beforehand? Do you not realize that until not too long ago (and currently, as far as I know) Budapest was the world capital of pornography? Also, the rate of religious observance is vastly lower in Hungary than it is in the US, and the number of declared atheists is exponentially higher. If you were really interested in escaping decadence (maybe it’s your definition of the term that is fueling the disconnect), you would be far better off just moving to the parts of the US where society is intolerant of the things that strike you as decadent. I would suggest Utah, Kansas, and perhaps Mississippi (unless your real problem with the US is the high number of non-whites there).

    You wrote: “I do not disagree that life in the more favorable countries in the EU like Germany or Belgium is better for many. But, at this point in time it is built on debt and is a house of cards. Ask those in Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy and now France what the future looks like for them. my argument is basically that what the US does is not particularly good for Europe and this shouldn’t surprise anyone.”

    Other than military strategies during the Cold War 25 years ago, what specifically is bad for Europe about what the US does? You must agree that now such a devastating military strategy is not seriously being planned. As far as debt, wouldn’t you agree that most EU countries have a lower relative debt level than the US? Certainly debt is a problem, but to describe it as a “house of cards” is to go against what virtually all the experts on the topic say. How is debt itself so dangerous to Europe’s economy? Debt can be erased relatively quickly when there is political will, and certainly some benefits will have to be trimmed, but that is not a doomsday scenario. Just raising the retirement age could solve the pensioner problem in most countries. Meanwhile, Germany is showing the world how to reform the political system to create growth through manufacturing. China’s model is proving to be impractical in the longer term, but Germany is powering on.

    You wrote: “It is a complicated situation and I believe the US is adamantly pushing not for a war but for a regime change in Russia.”

    What makes you think that? If the US is that hubristic, then they know more than I do. One thing is for certain: the US gives small amounts of support, covert and otherwise, to pro-democracy advocates the world over, but anyone who honestly believes that the people on the Maidan went there and suffered for months in the cold, risking their lives and actually giving them to the cause just because the US tricked/talked them into doing it is more paranoid than logical, and that includes Putin. Just giving people an idea only goes so far, as does buying them a few computers and cell phones. Those people, by the way, weren’t waving US flags, so why in the world do you feel that the US instigated this? You’re certainly not inspiring anyone with faith in your ability to analyse this situation.

    You wrote: “What I do know is that Europe is going to pay the price if this gambit fails. Hungary, being a very small part of it will likely suffer more than the rest. It is this that Orban is perceiving.”

    What Europe is going to pay the price for is allowing itself to become too dependent on Putin, thinking that he is a reliable business partner despite all the indications to the contrary. Still, Hungary may well suffer more than most, but that is true of any downward fluctuation in the EU economy. Meanwhile, Hungary would probably suffer more than most if Ukraine were to be overrun by Russian forces, too, yet Orbán doesn’t seem to have a problem with that. Logically speaking, you have to ask yourself why not?

    You wrote: “I do not see how anything to do with Ukraine or even Russia should involve Hungary. Hungary should be left to make her own decisions and the electorate obviously feels Orban and Fidez are doing the right things.”

    Except that the majority of the electorate voted against Fidesz in the last parliamentary elections.

    You wrote: “I blame the economic woes of Hungary after the fall of the Soviet Union on Fidez and their poor policies during that time (I know I have over simplified the problems).

    Worse, you have missed a major part of the situation. MSZP is also heavily to blame for Hungary’s economic woes.

    You wrote: “But now Hungarians must look to the future and see what is best for Hungary even if it means not participating in the EU. As I said they have to choose sides. My complaint is that Mr. Orban is trying to play on both sides and we all know how that always ends.”

    I agree, though I would say that the odds of leaving the EU being better for Hungary in any way are vanishingly small – ask all of Hungary’s neighbors. However, I don’t think that Hungary should choose the side of Russia, since that has proven to be the wrong side for Hungary more than once, and continues to be the fool’s gold of Hungarian politics. If you don’t agree, just look at anything Viktor Orbán had to say about Russia before 2010.

  6. Petofi,

    I apologize, I just realize that I wrote to you about the 2/3 of Hungarian voters issue, instead of to Spectator, to whom I intended to write.

  7. Richard,

    You wrote: “You have bought the entire package without questioning what with your own eyes you can easily see.”

    No, I have thought about all of these issues at great length, and have decided on my current opinion only after questioning everything, including the possibility that I am just completely buying the lies of the western media. Of course, the western media is not of one opinion, unlike the Russian media, or other authoritarian places. In fact, quoting western media would allow me to completely agree with everything you say. So when I say that I disagree with you, please rest assured that it is not at all because I have “bought the entire package”.

    You wrote: “Obviously, many of you haven’t lived in America or if you did you didn’t visit inner cities or now many large cities.”

    I have lived and worked there, and not just in “blue” states or suburbs. I can unequivocally say that I have a very good understanding of life there, and not just through personal experience, since I keep in touch with many people there, from all walks of life and in various areas across the country.

    You wrote: “What I saw was at every traffic light were people begging for money to buy food. The same in the parking lots of every store I visited. I had dinner at an sidewalk cafe in Georgetown and there was literally a homeless alcoholic lying in the gutter not 10 cm from my feet. To compare life in Hungary to that in the US is somewhat difficult as I am not sure you will understand it unless you are there to see it. There is rampant homelessness. People everywhere in the country live on the streets.” and “I haven’t seen one homeless person in Hungary and I am not accosted by beggars everywhere here.”

    I’m very sure that you are exaggerating the homeless problem in the US, probably because you extrapolated what you saw to the rest of the country. DC is obviously not a representative sample for the rest of the country. I agree that the situation is unnecessarily dire in the US, especially compared with Western Europe, but in Hungary the problem is actually worse, despite the presence of very cheap housing, much of which is empty. The reason you don’t realize this is that Fidesz has criminalized the homeless, allowing him to push them into forests just outside the cities. There is plenty of begging here, too, but much of it is by people who are actually not homeless, but who honestly can’t find decent work that would allow them to pay their utilities and feed their bellies. Some of that begging, as in the US, is done by criminal elements who realize that sitting in one place and guilting the middle class into passing their spare change over is actually far more lucrative than working hard all day for minimum wage (which in Hungary is around $400 a month).

    You wrote: “Unemployment is somewhere around 24% and 60% of all new jobs created since 2008 are part time.”

    Spoken like someone who is just trying to make the US sound as bad as possible – where do you get these numbers?

    You wrote: “Soldiers coming back from the plethora of wars are suffering horrible PTSD and many end up as alcoholics.”

    Yes, the US is terrible about taking care of war veterans, but that is far from a new problem, and wouldn’t be a problem at all if the US hadn’t decided to start so many wars overseas.

    You wrote: “I don’t worry about locking my car doors at a traffic light for fear of being car jacked. I don’t worry here when I get stopped by the police that they might kill me.”

    If you were Hungarian, you might be. Crime is not unheard of here, and there was a man killed by police recently during one of their typical “interrogations”, which are about the same as those in the southern US were during the 1950’s. As a relatively wealthy foreigner (presumably white), you are unlikely to be treated in this way, but don’t for a second think that the police are better here in Hungary than in the US. Make some Hungarian friends and ask them how they feel about the police, and the random stops they love to make all over town, looking for good reasons to fine you (“your first-aid kit expired a month ago, give me some cash now or you will have to pay more later”).

    You wrote: “I don’t look constantly around when I am at an ATM worried I am going to be murdered for my cash. When walking on the streets here and I pass a few young men walking together I do not think about how to escape if they attack me. These are constant threats in America. Yes, it becomes part of the background of life but it is there. It doesn’t exist here at all so you have no way to get what I am saying. It is just too far opposite of what you see on TV.”

    I’m starting to wonder if you really ever have been in the US. If anything, what is portrayed on TV is far worse than the reality. I was never afraid while walking in the downtown parts of major cities in the US, though I did avoid certain neighborhoods. If you really did experience these things, I wonder where the fear came from. Were you yourself attacked? If not, consider the fact that you suffered from a news media that focused on the crimes that were actually quite rare. Look up the crime statistics in the US, and you will see that, apart from firearm deaths of young men in gangs, crime is almost universally minor and rare. Meanwhile, here in Hungary, I have heard of plenty of break-ins and thefts, though only a few assaults. The assaults were typically perpetrated against drunk men walking alone at night, or non-whites any time of the day.

    You wrote: “As for American foreign policy. Can anyone name all the democratically elected leaders we have arranged or deliberately had thrown out?”

    I can’t think of a single one since the end of the Cold War, 25 years ago.

    You wrote: “Of all of these countries how many suffered horribly afterwards?As for supporting human rights, where was America in 1956 after setting up the revolution here? Where were they for the Kurds in Iraq after Hussein gassed 20,000 of them after we convinced them to rise up in resistance? There are plenty of examples of the betrayals of America. It isn’t a secret and all are easy to find.”

    Ah, so you don’t know your history. That explains a lot! Saddam gassed the Kurds long before the US was involved, and, at the time, he was being assisted by the US in his war against Iran. Of course, you might say that the US shouldn’t have been helping a dictator, but Iran was considered to be a serious threat to the US at the time, so I believe US help was justified. I don’t know of anyone who believes the US was in any way responsible for the gas attack at Halabja. As far as 1956, I believe Radio Free Europe was irresponsible in making Hungarians think that the West was willing to help directly, but I also believe that sending troops into Hungary at that time would have started World War III, which would have been a catastrophe for all involved. Nearly every country has made mistakes when it comes to human rights, and the US has indeed betrayed its allies more than once, but if we are going to start rating the values of a country by the mistakes its governments have made, Hungary will not come out well. Better to try to compare the bad to the good, and weigh them against one another. The US has done much good in the world, and not just during the Cold War. Let’s not take a few examples and use them as an overall indictment, or as the saying goes, an eye for an eye and the whole world will be blind.

  8. Jano

    You wrote: “I’m personally a fan of Bill, and he was spot on with everything, but this arrogant American exceptionalist bs is really tiresome, not to mention that this is probably the only thing everyone in Hungary will hear, not hard to guess, it’s not going to make Orbán weaker.”

    It might very well make Orbán weaker, since the intended audience was people in the US who don’t realize what’s going on here in Hungary. The more people who know, the more pressure will be put on Orbán from outside, which is the only place it’s going to come from for a long time.

    I also do not like the trumpeting of “American Exceptionalism”, and I think it does the US itself more harm than good (metric system, Iraq War, etc), but I don’t think this is an example of that. He’s not saying that the US is better in any way, he’s just bringing up the fact that the US does spend a lot of money and American lives on protecting the free world and squelching large-scale warfare around the world. Small nations benefit disproportionately from this protection, Hungary included, even though the US also benefits greatly.

    You wrote: “But objectively, I was trying to think, what do we owe the US?” and “I am absolutely pro-western, but this half of a sentence made me raise my eyebrows.”

    I could be wrong, but maybe he’s referring to the role the US played in ending the Cold War and allowing Hungary to escape the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Bloc. Some might say the US role was not as great as Americans like to think, but nobody really can argue that it did nothing to help Hungary in this regard. The way Clinton said it, though, could have been more diplomatic. I guess he’s assuming that foreigners don’t watch the Daily Show in significant numbers.

  9. @wolfi: gern geschehen. We’ll see what happens in the next elections, but I hope I’m not wrong in thinking that Poland has eventually decided to fully commit to the EU. That, along with Finland and Sweden bolstering their ties with NATO, will perhaps be mentioned in future history books as evidence of the stupidity of Putin’s strategy. And I’m not sure that Hungary will deserve more than a footnote.

    As for Richard, I don’t know and don’t care that much. To me, anyone able to suggest that the U.S. is keen on collapsing the EU economy shows a serious impairment in judgement.

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