I wanted to write today about the growing number of Fidesz politicians who are becoming far too rich within suspiciously short periods of time, but Viktor Orbán interfered. Today was one of those Fridays when the prime minister gives a radio interview, and he used the opportunity to further roil the already stormy U.S.-Hungarian relations. The topic? What else but Senator John McCain’s characterization of him as a “neo-fascist dictator” and U.S. charges of corruption against some of the high officials of the National Tax Authority.
The official transcript of the interview is already available on the prime minister’s website, so I can quote Orbán accurately and not have to rely on my notes. The first topic was Senator McCain’s description of him as a “neo-fascist dictator.” Initially Orbán acted as if this was not really an important issue as far as he was concerned; it “should not sap our energy and strength.” What McCain said was “extreme provocation, and such words tell a lot about the people who utter them.”
The reporter didn’t want Orbán to get off the topic that easily, and he went on to express his opinion that the U.S. Congress hasn’t shown such interest in Hungary for decades. Orbán was quick to correct him, pointing out that the United States already in the early 1990s was antagonistic toward “the first democratically elected [Hungarian] government.” I was madly looking for such a low point in U.S.-Hungarian relations during the Antall government when a friend reminded me of István Csurka’s anti-Semitic outbursts, which indeed elicited a negative reaction in Washington. Csurka at this point was an important politician in MDF while Viktor Orbán was in opposition.
As for John McCain’s other charges that were spelled out in his statement which I republished in yesterday’s post, Orbán brushed them aside. All those issues were discussed with the European Parliament and the European Commission. “They are closed. They belong to the past.” The issue is that “the national independence of Hungary has been attacked here. That is the essence of the thing. … I am not willing to be the viceroy of Hungary on behalf of some foreign power. I’m the chosen leader of Hungary and my most important task … is the defense of Hungary’s independence. At present Hungary’s independence is under attack.”
What does independence “in the modern world” mean for Orbán? It means energy, financial, and commercial independence. In his opinion, Hungary before 2010 was not an independent country. “Then it was possible to profiteer at the expense of Hungarians; they could be stolen from; they could be robbed; they could be fleeced. As a result, these people made incredible profits…. The people who profited from all that may now hide behind all sorts of high-falutin’ sentences, but they are in fact the enemies of Hungary’s national independence. They are the ones who find what is happening today in Hungary deleterious.” In brief, the Americans exploited the poor Hungarians between 1990 and 2010 and that’s why they complain now about the lack of democracy, freedom of the media, checks and balances, and the rule of law.
It was at this point that the conversation moved on to the U.S. ban on six Hungarian citizens. The reporter asked Orbán whether this U.S. move is part of the attack on Hungary’s national independence. Orbán did not answer the question. Instead, he expressed his opinion that at least by now “matters have simplified” since M. André Goodfriend, U.S. chargé d’affaires, “said that the president of the National Taxation Authority is guilty of corruption.” The reporter at that point added that “they also say that proof of the crime was provided to the government.” Orbán remained silent on the subject. He refused to either confirm or deny the American charge. So, I have to conclude that indeed Hungarian government officials have been lying all along: they knew the details of the case and had access to the evidence against the banned Hungarians.
During the conversation it became apparent that Viktor Orbán practically ordered Ildikó Vida, president of the Taxation Authority, to seek legal remedies against the U.S. charge of corruption. Finally, the reporter asked the prime minister whether the Hungarian government is contemplating a retaliatory move by working out some kind of arrangement that would allow Budapest to ban foreigners from Hungary. The answer was somewhat puzzling: “The situation is that we are allies of the western countries, including the United States, but we are nobody’s colony and we will never be. Therefore we will proceed the way a country which is proud of its national independence should.”
The question is how seriously we should treat this rhetoric. Is it for domestic consumption only or does he perhaps mean it? Surely, Orbán must know that Goodfriend cannot be sued. I also assume he knows that banning citizens from outside of the European Union is a tricky business. If Hungary bans an individual from, let’s say, the United States, that individual would automatically be banned in all twenty-eight EU countries. Looked at from the other side, if an American citizen lands in any of the EU countries outside of Hungary, he cannot be prevented from entering Hungary. So, are we talking about idle threats? Does Orbán merely behave like a peeved teenager, as the spokesman of Együtt said? Is he under such stress that he is unable to think straight? Or, is he really planning to pick a fight with the United States?
Stop.hu learned from an unnamed Fidesz source that Orbán is so outraged that he is thinking of declaring M. André Goodfriend persona non grata. Apparently the newly appointed “diplomats” in the ministry of foreign affairs and trade “think that such an expulsion would not cause a serious rift in U.S.-Hungarian relations because Colleen Bell will be the new U.S. ambassador as early as January 1.” I hate to disappoint the wise men of the Hungarian foreign ministry, but I would bet that if the Hungarian government declares Goodfriend to be persona non grata, Colleen Bell will not occupy her post in the foreseeable future. On the other hand, I’m sure that some Hungarian diplomats in Washington could start packing their suitcases. Moreover, I talked to some foreign policy experts who think that such a move might result in Hungary’s expulsion from NATO. So, if I were Viktor Orbán, I would calm down and not march straight into the abyss.
Of course, it is possible that Stop.hu‘s information is unfounded rumor. But, as Albert Gazda in Cink said, “we got to the point that we are capable of seriously contemplating such a possibility.” Yes, we half seriously think that Viktor Orbán is angry enough to do something that foolish. That he would drag the country into the mud to save his own skin and his vision of an illiberal Hungary where he is not a viceroy. Only a simple dictator.
On the Antall administration, I’m looking at a US Department of State publication from 2007, ‘Paths of Diplomacy: The United States and Hungary.’ Following the Hungarian elections in April, Göncz made a private visit to Washington in May. In the course of his conversation with President Bush, the latter noted the work of the Hungarian-American Enterprise Fund in promoting private-sector development. In addition, the US Embassy in Budapest was instrumental in promoting pluralism among political parties and independent newspapers, also facilitating direct people-to-people contacts through NGOs, and especially through sending hundreds of Peace Corps volunteers with whom, as a Brit teacher/ co-ordinator, I worked very closely. When I recently (2011) remarked to a headteacher how well-respected Antall had been by both British and US reps working in Hungary, he reacted by pointing out that Hungary’s current PM was also worthy of much respect. He recently stood for Fidesz in the local elections. We all helped Hungary restructure its economy and education system in those years, and were careful to encourage and not criticise the huge strides the Hungarians themselves were making, with or without our help. Antall visited Washington in October 1990, when Bush noted the resumption of US business investment in Hungary. Huge sums were being voted by Congress as aid. Travel restrictions on Hungarian diplomats were ended and a Hungarian Consulate in LA was planned, opening in 1992. Péter Zwack became Hungary’s Ambassador to the US in this period, renouncing his US citizenship to take the post and serving until April 1991. Later that year, the first Fullbright scholars arrived in Hungary and, again, in 1992 in Pécs, I found myself working closely with them, with the support of the Fidesz Mayor of the City (who is still there, I believe). With both British and American support, an English Centre was established in the city. Antall made a second visit in 1991 (October), and Bush again reiterated his support for Hungary’s transformation. Given all this, I would like to know when, how and by whom Viktor Orbán thinks his predecessor was insulted, or even criticised. By suggesting this, he is insulting the numerous Americans (and Brits) who worked at the grass roots in these years. We would have been horrified by negative remarks directed at any of the politicians, all of whom were committed to a pluralistic, open and democratic future for Hungary.
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