American-Hungarian relations

The first sign of opposition in the Fidesz parliamentary caucus: No compulsory urine tests

The furor over John McCain’s harsh words about Hungary’s “neo-fascist dictator” and his “illiberal state” hadn’t subsided when a new Hungarian bombshell exploded: Máté Kocsis, a two-bit district mayor in Budapest, had a great idea which he immediately made public on his Facebook page last Friday. Given the widespread use of drugs, it would be a good idea, he claimed, to introduce compulsory yearly drug tests for teenagers between the ages of 12 and 18 as well as for elected politicians and journalists. Why politicians and journalists? Politicians’ decisions have a lasting impact on the citizens while journalists have the power to influence public opinion. He promised that he would suggest to the Fidesz parliamentary delegation that they discuss the idea and prepare a legislative proposal to this end.

From what we have learned about this latest brainstorm of Kocsis, it looks as if the idea did not originate with the mayor of District VIII (at least not in his role as mayor) but with Viktor Orbán’s communication staff. It was, it seems, part of a desperate effort to devise a strategy that could neutralize the growing public dissatisfaction with Viktor Orbán and his government.

Directly after the election Orbán talked about creating a “new communication team” headed by the chief communication adviser, Árpád Habony. I wrote about Habony earlier. He’s a shadowy figure with enormous influence within the party and the government but without an official title or an official salary. This new group apparently meets every Friday to discuss some of the issues that cropped up during the previous week. Máté Kocsis, who is no longer a member of parliament but besides being mayor of District VIII is communication director of Fidesz, is an ex officio member of the staff. So it’s no wonder, claim investigative journalists, that Kocsis’s bright idea was published on Facebook on Friday night.

Reports of this crazy idea spread like wildfire. The Associated Press immediately picked up the story. Scores of newspapers and television stations carried the news because journalists find such bizarre items outright delicious.

By now the general consensus is that, with this whacky idea, communication strategists were trying to divert the public’s attention from the corruption case of Ildikó Vida and five unnamed others. Apparently, Viktor Orbán himself thought that the idea of yearly drug tests was a capital idea and decided to support it. And of course we know from past experience that if the Hungarian prime minister supports something it will be law in no time. The members of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation will automatically vote for it even if some MPs consider the idea to be of dubious value and/or legally questionable. By Monday, the Fidesz parliamentary caucus decided with some major changes to consider the proposal.

The idea of mandating regular drug tests for politicians and journalists was dropped by the caucus because such a law would clearly be unconstitutional. Even the Fidesz-dominated fake “constitutional court” couldn’t close their eyes to such a law. As for children’s screening, the Fidesz legislators opted to support only voluntary tests initiated by the children themselves or by their parents. This is certainly nothing like what the “communication staff” cooked up last Friday.

I wonder how Viktor Orbán will react to this unheard-of “revolt” of the Fidesz caucus. After all, the Sunday closing of stores will most likely be approved unaltered although the Fidesz delegation was deeply split on the issue. But now it looks as if Fidesz MPs finally balked at orders from above. If I were Viktor Orbán I would ponder the significance of this earlier unimaginable event.

The way Népszava sees Máté Kocsis's proposition

The way Népszava sees Máté Kocsis’s proposition

But let’s go back to the Habony-led communication staff’s activities. It is rumored that leaking the U.S. decision to bar six Hungarian citizens from entering the United States because of charges of corruption was the idea of Árpád Habony. Again, naturally, with Viktor Orbán’s blessing. We who look at events from the outside think that this was a singularly bad idea that created serious tensions between the United States and Hungary. Ever since mid-October major newspapers all over the world have been talking about the Orbán government’s systemic corruption. The leak resulted in massive anti-corruption demonstrations which in turn added to the growing dissatisfaction with the government. A huge drop in popularity followed. In brief, most independent observers would consider this particular idea of Habony outright injurious to Viktor Orbán and his government. Yet not only has Habony not been fired; his position as chief communication adviser has been strengthened. Moreover, his advice about mandatory drug tests was heeded by the prime minister.

How can we explain this seeming contradiction? In my opinion only one way: Viktor Orbán still thinks that leaking the news of the American ban was a good idea. It was a clever communication ploy. Why? Because Hungary’s position in world affairs is a great deal less important to him than his domestic standing with the electorate. And obviously he must think that the contentious American-Hungarian relations actually work in his favor at home. Fidesz supporters who lately have become disenchanted will perhaps return to the flock because of hurt national pride. He thinks that the risk is worth the gamble. After all, it seems to be working in Russia.

So far so good, but there is the growing dissatisfaction of some members of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation as demonstrated during the “stormy debates” that accompanied discussions on the Sunday closing of stores and the compulsory yearly drug test. In yesterday’s debate on drug testing Viktor Orbán came out the loser. What will happen next?

Let me bring up something that might further demonstrate intra-party dissatisfaction with Fidesz directives coming from above. You will recall that the former Fidesz mayor of Ózd, a very poor town in northeastern Hungary, was so unpopular that the citizens went out in hordes to vote for the only electable opponent, a young Jobbik candidate, who was elected with a two-thirds majority. But in the city council Fidesz was in the majority. The members of the caucus were obviously instructed from above to follow the strategy of Fidesz in Esztergom where the Fidesz majority refused to cooperate with the independent mayor and as a result nothing whatsoever could be accomplished for four long years. Within a few days it became obvious that Ózd had become ungovernable due to the refusal of the Fidesz council members to cooperate. But this time some of the Fidesz city fathers revolted. Three of the eight decided to quit the Fidesz caucus and serve as independents. Fidesz’s majority collapsed. I think we can expect more such events to take place on the local level. A certain erosion has begun that will be very difficult to stop.

György Rubovszky, a Christian Democrat member of parliament and a most faithful supporter of the Orbán government, found the drug test proposal “legally indefensible.” But he also had a personal story that he shared with a journalist of Népszabadság. His twelve-year-old granddaughter phoned him crying bitterly. “Grandpa, I must leave this country because I am not willing to pee in front of strangers.” I must say Rubovszky, who is not my favorite, has a smart granddaughter. Válasz, a pro-government site, wrote yesterday that this latest idea of Fidesz is a sure way to lose all the first-time voters in 2018. Even the party faithful recognize that some of these maneuvers may backfire.

Meanwhile those opposing the proposal are busily collecting urine and leaving it in a large bottle outside the city hall of District VIII. One really wonders whether Viktor Orbán has lost his touch–or, as some might claim, whether he is touched.

Advertisements

Szabolcs Kerék-Bárczy’s open letter to American-Hungarian leaders

Today I would like to share a letter written by Szabolcs Kerék-Bárczy and addressed to three American-Hungarians active in Hungarian affairs–Maximilian Teleki, Frank Koszorús, Jr., and Eugene Megyesy.

Szabolcs Kerék-Bárczy began his career as secretary to Prime Minister József Antall’s chief-of-staff. During the socialist-liberal government of Gyula Horn he attended Harvard University and received his master’s degree from the John F. Kennedy School of Government. After Viktor Orbán won the election in 1998 he returned to the prime minister’s office as chief-of-staff of István Stumpf, the minister in charge of the office. Between 1999 and 2001 he was adviser to the foreign ministry. Between 2001 and 2004 he served as Hungarian consul in Los Angeles. Later he served in various capacities in the Ibolya Dávid-led MDF until 2010. He describes himself as a liberal conservative. Currently he is a member of the presidium of the Democratic Coalition (Demokratikus Koalíció).

Szabolcs Kerék-Bárczy

Szabolcs Kerék-Bárczy

Maximilian Teleki is the president of the Hungarian American Coalition, which describes itself as a politically independent group standing up for Hungarian interests in the United States. In fact, the Coalition is closely associated with the Hungarian right and with defenders of Viktor Orbán and his policies. The same can be said about The American Hungarian Federation, whose president is Frank Koszorús, Jr. Koszorús just received high honors from the Orbán government. The third recipient is Eugene Megyesy, an environmental lawyer who used to be associated with the Colorado law firm Dufford and Brown. Formerly he was honorary general consul of Hungary in the region. Currently he is an adviser to Viktor Orbán.

It was only yesterday that Teleki, who by the way does not speak Hungarian, defended Viktor Orbán and questioned the United States’s right to criticize “democratic developments” in other countries. And, he continued: “Can our wisdom override the will of the people?” He is deeply ashamed of the superficiality of American politics and media when it comes to judging Orbán’s Hungary. He is deeply disappointed, and his trust in “our leaders has been shaken.”

Judging from Maximilian Teleki’s reaction, I doubt that he or any of his fellow American-Hungarians will take to heart Szabolcs Kerék-Bárczy’s request “to live up to the democratic heritage you cherish in America.” 

* * *

Mr. Maximilian Teleki
President
Hungarian American Coalition

Mr. Frank Koszorús, Jr.
President
The American Hungarian Federation

Mr. Eugene Megyesy
Senior Advisor to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán
Former Honorary Consul General of Hungary in Colorado

 

Budapest, December 4, 2014

Dear Messrs. Presidents,
Dear Max, Frank and Gene,

As you are aware several senior Hungarian individuals have recently been banned from the USA by the application of Presidential Proclamation 7750. This is an absolutely shocking and unprecedented action within the transatlantic community because it means that a) the US government considers persons close to the Hungarian government a direct threat to US national security and b) the US administration supposes that these individuals would not be persecuted for their alleged unlawful activity in Hungary. By this the US government says nothing less than Hungary is not a democracy because in a democracy illegal activities are investigated and punished.

The application of PP 7750 was preceded by other worrying events. Formerly President Obama stated that “from Hungary to Egypt, endless regulations and overt intimidation increasingly target civil society”. President Bill Clinton was even more straightforward when he said in the US Daily Show that Mr. Orbán was an admirer of “authoritarian capitalism” and never wanted to leave power. “Usually those guys just want to stay forever and make money” he added. This week Senator John McCain called Mr. Orbán “a neo-fascist” leader and he also stated: “Prime Minister Orban has justified his actions by calling for a new state model based on ‘illiberal democracy,’ but his vision defies the core values of the European Union and NATO. Please note that nobody attacks Hungary or the Hungarian people, only certain concrete actions of the Hungarian government! While one may consider the plentiful critical and even harsh journalistic statements that have appeared in the international media partial or exaggerating, similar statements by senior US officials must be taken seriously. Because all of us are sure that US presidents, the secretary of state and congressmen are interested in nothing else but the stability of the transatlantic alliance, the spread of liberal democracy and the prosperity of our community.

If all of this is true we must seriously analyze the facts that led our American friends arrive to the above mentioned conclusions. These facts have been published widely in the past four years. For example, Secretary Hillary Clinton referred to these some time ago and several official documents reflect US concerns. The US administration has always been consistent: they observed problems, consulted with relevant Hungarian authorities and officials, made statements when repeated consultations did not produce results and then acted. The US concerns regarding the measures of the Hungarian government (e.g. the slow abolishment of checks and balances, curtailment of the freedom of press and civil liberties, structural corruption, fight against free market economy etc.) naturally result in actions. Responding to these concerns the Hungarian government has always been cynical and aggressive and no progress has been made in order to improve democratic processes and transparency in the country. In fact, from a democratic point of view, the situation in Hungary has deteriorated dramatically in the past few years.

Dear Friends,

Knowing you for ages and being aware of your commitment to liberal democratic values, I ask you where you stand on these concrete issues? This is time to be explicit and no dubious speech is accepted. You have helped the opposition of the dictatorship before 1990 and contributed significantly to the democratic changes twenty-five years ago. I am sure we share the same values and that is why I am very concerned that you are silent about the Orbán government’s activities. A lot of people call you friends of Hungary and they wait for you to speak up for everything Viktor Orbán and Fidesz is fighting against: freedom of speech, religion, enterprise, and transatlantic principles. We Hungarian democrats and proud patriots want to get ever closer to the West where our sovereignty can be complete: we know that there is no alternative for us to the EU and NATO and anybody who challenges these organizations is against both Hungarian and US interests. We also want to live in a regulated but free market economy that is based upon stability, security and trust, the rule of law, the respect of private property and equal opportunities. We refuse any discrimination among persons because we believe in the unquestionable respect of human dignity.

I respectfully ask you to live up to the democratic heritage you cherish in America, your Hungarian roots as well as your distinguished and well applauded accomplishments in the Hungarian-American community. Please, make clear that your friends are Hungarian democrats no matter what party they represent, if at all, and your foes are those, regardless of their party affiliations, who tear down the firm wall between democracy and dictatorship. Let us join forces and make a common statement in which we 1) confirm our commitment to liberal democracy, free market economy and our transatlantic community, and 2) condemn any attempts that weaken or demolish these ideals: our common ideals we have been fighting for on both sides of the Atlantic.

I look forward to your response.

With kind regards,

Szabolcs Kerék-Bárczy
Member of the Presidium of Democratic Coalition

International pressure on Viktor Orbán: Russia, Putin, and Gazprom

There is real concern among former Hungarian diplomats and foreign policy experts that Hungary’s isolation is practically complete and that she may remain the only “strategic ally,” to use Viktor Orbán’s favorite term even in connection with China, of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. And if the Orbán government does not try to extricate itself from this situation, the consequences can be serious. Although Fidesz supporters are convinced that the United States has embarked on the destabilization of the country with the goal of removing Viktor Orbán from power, this cannot be Washington’s intent. After all, the opposition is in disarray and replacing Orbán with another Fidesz politician would not accomplish anything. A new prime minister would be merely a figurehead; the real power would remain in the hands of Viktor Orbán.

Admittedly, on the surface this conspiracy theory finds some support in the coincidence of the American move to ban six corrupt officials and businessmen from the United States and the massive demonstrations against the internet tax that soon enough became a protest movement against the whole regime. But the latter wasn’t the U.S.’s doing. It was the folly of the Hungarian government that seems to commit more and more mistakes lately. Did Viktor Orbán lose his magic touch, or has he navigated himself into an impossible situation in which the “peacock dance” is no longer possible? He is increasingly being faced with a stark choice: either total commitment to the side of Russia or capitulation and acceptance of the rules of the game within NATO and the European Union.

Orbán might be a good politician–if we define a good politician as someone who can play one person against another, who can fool his allies, who disregards the law, and who within a few years manages to institute a one-party system, because that is what we have in Hungary. But his track record shows that he cannot govern, that he cannot run a country successfully. We who watched his first four years between 1998 and 2002 with growing concern knew that already, but it seems that in the eight years that followed his disastrous rule the Hungarian people forgot why they went out in record numbers to make sure that this man and his regime don’t come back.

The situation today is ten times worse than it was during his first administration. He has transformed the country into an illiberal democracy, and his pro-Russian policies have alienated Hungary’s allies. Viktor Orbán is considered to be a pariah and someone who is toxic because of his potential influence on some of the other countries in the region. Western politicians look upon him as a fellow traveler of Vladimir Putin. And, indeed, they seem to borrow each other’s ideas. Orbán copies Putin’s attacks on NGOs, while, it seems, Putin was inspired by Orbán’s nationalization of the textbook industry, reported just yesterday in the western press.

During his first administration Orbán was fiercely anti-Russian, and it seems that he didn’t change his mind on that score until lately. In December 2009 a Hungarian foreign policy expert and obvious admirer of Orbán described the forthcoming Fidesz victory as “Moscow’s nightmare.” Early in his second administration he worked furiously on a quasi-alliance system from the Baltic to the Adriatic in which Hungary would have a leading position. But his fellow prime ministers in the region wanted nothing to do with Orbán’s grandiose plan. He made every effort to dislodge Surgut, a Russian company that had a 21.2% stake in MOL, the Hungarian oil and gas company. By May 2011, after lengthy negotiations, the Hungarian government bought out Surgut, paying a very high price. At that time Hungary was no friend of Russia. Not yet. However, according to Fidesz sources, Orbán decided to radically change course sometime in early 2013.  He spent about six months pondering the issue and came to the conclusion sometime during the summer of 2013 that he would turn to Russia for an expansion of the Paks nuclear power plant. According to the same sources, his decision was based on his belief that the Czech Republic and Germany would need cheap energy which Hungary would be able to provide.

Since then, with the outbreak of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, the political climate in Europe has changed dramatically. Orbán’s flirtation with Russia is looked upon with more than suspicion. The West considers Viktor Orbán and Hungary a liability. Soon enough, I believe, he will have to show his true colors. No more peacock dance. But it seems that Orbán by now is embroiled in all sorts of machinations with Russia in general and Gazprom in particular. The current setting for Hungarian machinations with Gazprom is Croatia.

Just a few words by way of background. In 2008-2009 MOL acquired a 47.47% stake in INA, the Croatian oil and gas company. In 2011 a Croatian newspaper reported that Zsolt Hernádi, CEO of MOL, had been accused by the Croatian prosecutor’s office of bribery. Naturally, the Hungarian prosecutor’s office found nothing wrong, but the Croats eventually went so far as to hand the case over to Interpol. As a result, Hernádi couldn’t leave the country; otherwise he would have been subject to immediate arrest. More details can be found in a post I wrote on the subject in October 2013. The decision was eventually made to get rid of MOL’s share in INA, but the Croatian government does not have the kind of money needed to buy MOL’s stake. Lately, there has been talk in the Hungarian press that MOL will sell its shares to a Russian buyer, most likely Gazprom itself. So, Gazprom will not only store gas in Hungary but might even control almost half of INA in Croatia.

INA: Managed by MOL

INA: Managed by MOL

And now let’s return to American-Hungarian relations. According to some observers, “the highly unusual step of blacklisting six people with ties to the government in Hungary, a NATO ally and European Union member,” also has something to do with the “growing closeness between Hungary and the Kremlin over energy that could undermine Western attempts to isolate Russian leader Vladimir Putin over his intervention in Ukraine.” So far there is not much new in that assertion, published in an article by Reuters. We have known all along that, in addition to Orbán’s domestic policies, his relations with Russia were a serious concern to the United States and the European Union. What is new in this revelation is that Washington is apparently keeping an eye on the possible MOL-INA deal with Gazprom. According to the article, Chris Murphy, U.S. senator from Connecticut, was dispatched to Zagreb “to lobby the government … on the issue.” Another interesting piece of information gleaned from the article is that State Department official Amos J. Hochstein, Acting Special Envoy and Coordinator for International Energy Affairs, met Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó and had a “productive meeting during Szijjártó’s recent visit to Washington about MOL’s stake, the South Stream, and Hungarian gas deliveries to Ukraine.”

All in all, it seems to me that Viktor Orbán is in over his head, especially with a foreign minister with no diplomatic experience. Szijjártó was an excellent spokesman for Viktor Orbán as the head of the “parrot commando,” but he is not qualified to be foreign minister, especially at such a delicate juncture.

It is hard to tell what Orbán’s next step will be. Fidesz media attacks on the United States are fiercer than ever, and its admiration of Russia is frightening. But more about that tomorrow.

American-Hungarian relations are crumbling

Let me summarize what we know so far about the U.S. action against certain Hungarian businessmen and government employees.

Initially it was reported that ten people were banned from entering the United States, but by now that number has been reduced to six. We definitely know of one businessman who reported on his fate to ATV. It was he who mentioned three employees of the Office of Taxation and Customs (NAV). One of the three was allegedly the president of NAV, Anikó Vida. The spokesman for the tax office did not deny the charge. If the number six is correct, there are still two people about whom we know nothing.

Although the Hungarian government feigns total ignorance of the details and keeps repeating that it is unable to move against the corrupt officials, in fact they have known for two weeks about the American resolve to pursue those Hungarians who have been trying to blackmail American firms and extort kickbacks of billions of forints from them.

M. André Goodfriend, chargé d’affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Budapest, sketched the timeline of events this afternoon. According to him, on October 6 he had a talk with Levente Magyar, one of the undersecretaries in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. During the meeting Goodfriend explained the significance of Proclamation 7750, which is an executive order signed by George W. Bush in 2004. The Proclamation gives the State Department power to ban corrupt individuals and their families from entering the United States. Such a ban can be imposed only by the undersecretary for political affairs–in our case by Wendy Sherman, who is the department’s fourth-ranking official. (Here is a handy chart of the structure of the State Department.)

Levente Magyar must have understood the gravity of the situation because a subsequent meeting was arranged at the request of the Hungarian foreign ministry between Péter Szijjártó and André Goodfriend. This meeting took place on October 13. The American chargé repeated everything he had already told Magyar. Szijjártó then insisted that he reveal the names of those would be affected by the ban. Goodfriend in turn explained that the American government never reveals names in cases connected to Proclamation 7750. What the U.S. expects is swift action against the culprits.

Let’s stop here for a minute. I assume that Viktor Orbán was notified immediately after the encounter between Magyar and Goodfriend on October 6, and I also suspect that the prime minister’s advice was to insist on “proof” from the Americans. When that failed, in typical Orbán fashion the decision was made to launch a counterattack. NAV leaked information to Napi Gazdaság, a financial paper owned by Századvég, a consulting firm and think tank close to Fidesz, that the United States is contemplating evoking Proclamation 7750 against certain Hungarian businessmen in retaliation for NAV’s tax probes against certain American firms. If the Hungarian government hadn’t decided on this counterattack, we perhaps would never have found out about the travel ban on the six, still unnamed individuals. Colossally stupid move, but I think it is typical. Viktor Orbán always has to have the last word.

Since October 16, the day that Napi Gazdaság published its article containing the disinformation concocted by the Hungarian government, the controversy between the United States and Hungary has been escalating rapidly. The Hungarians kept insisting on “creditable proof” while the Americans steadfastly refused to fall into the trap. Moreover, while at the beginning the controversy seemed to be connected only to widespread corruption in Hungary, as time went by it became obvious that the United States might also take action against the Orbán government’s increasingly anti-democratic behavior. A day after the appearance of the accusations against American businesses in Napi Gazdaság, an article was published in Foreign Policy magazine from which we learned that “at a meeting last month, the Community [of Democracies] set in motion a process that could result in Hungary’s removal from the council and withdrawal from the Community. If Hungary leaves, it will be an international acknowledgment  that the nation has ceased to be a democracy.”

What is the Community of Democracies? It is a global intergovernmental coalition of states founded in 2000 at the common initiative of Madeleine Albright and Polish foreign minister Bronislaw Geremek. The organization is headed by a Governing Council consisting of 26 countries, among them Hungary. Apparently it was the United States that suggested that Hungary be removed from the Council and perhaps even from the organization. Or perhaps Hungary might consider a voluntary withdrawal from the Community in order to avoid embarrassment. The likelihood of an American initiative in this case was reinforced by André Goodfriend’s observation that such a move might be warranted under the circumstances.

M. André Goodfriend at one of his press conferences

M. André Goodfriend at one of his press conferences

While the Hungarian government is stonewalling, the U.S. chargé d’affaires in Budapest, most likely following instructions from the State Department, is delivering tougher and tougher messages to the Hungarian government during fairly frequent press conferences at the embassy. Perhaps the strongest language could be heard this afternoon when Goodfriend explained the reason for American action. In Hungary prior to 2010 the level of democracy and transparency, especially in comparison to some other post-socialist countries, was high. But while in other countries the trend is toward greater democracy and transparency, in Hungary the opposite is true. “If that trend continues it may reach a level where the United States can no longer cooperate with Hungary as an ally.” Clearly, the United States is not joking–as Antal Rogán assumed only yesterday during an interview.

Let’s return briefly to the three high officials of the Hungarian tax office who most likely are implicated in the case. In what way can they engage in fraud and corruption? Here is an explanation offered by Dávid Jancsics, who is currently conducting research at the City University of New York. His expertise is corruption. He learned from two independent sources that the NAV employees demanded kickbacks from two American companies in exchange for tax breaks and a lower VAT. Apparently they demanded 2 billion forints in exchange for these favors, money that the American companies were supposed to pay to a foundation associated with Fidesz for purposes of “research and analysis.” In addition, the NAV officials promised heavy fines on the American firms’ competitors. When the Americans didn’t bite, the NAV officials began threatening them with tax probes. It was at this point that the firms turned to the American embassy and reported the bribery attempts. The implication of this analysis, if it is accurate, is frightening because in this case the tax office is part and parcel of a corruption scheme that appears to be centrally organized.

This takes us back to an old story about a whistleblower at NAV who claimed that high NAV officials refused to investigate obvious fraud cases. András Horváth, the whistleblower, said that he was mostly involved in investigating companies that dealt in agricultural products. Index came to the conclusion that one of the two American companies in question was Bunge, a leading agribusiness and food company. It is a global firm with 35,000 employees in forty countries, including Hungary. They produce among many other things cooking oil sold in Hungary under the label Vénusz. It was well known that the management of Bunge was very unhappy about the VAT fraud and that their efforts to enlist the help of NAV were fruitless. It is possible that after a lot of complaints from the Bunge management NAV officials offered to do something about the competition’s fraudulent business practices but only at a price.

Hungarian journalists in the last few days have asked several business groups, like the German-Hungarian Chamber of Commerce, about the extent of corruption in Hungary. The answer is that foreign companies have known for years about corruption involving billions. “Hungary is a part of the Balkans” by now, and the situation is only becoming worse. According to foreign business leaders, Hungarian business life is corrupt through and through. Healthy competition is impossible under such circumstances.

Péter Szijjártó is leaving Budapest for Washington tomorrow to meet Victoria Nuland. I wouldn’t like to be in his shoes.

“We’re not Nazis, but …”: Human Rights First report on Hungary and Greece

As I reported a few days ago, members of the Hungarian right-wing media and pro-government “political scientists” were outraged because editorials in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal called on the European Union to introduce sanctions against the Orbán government. The occasion was Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s July 26th speech in which he expressed his belief in the illiberal state’s superiority over the liberal state. A week or so later Charles Gati, an American political scientist, published an article in which he outlined the very limited options, in his opinion, the U.S. government has in influencing Viktor Orbán’s domestic policies. Again, members of the right-wing press were beside themselves, especially because they suspect Gati, who is of Hungarian origin, of having influence in Washington. They think that he and some other “unpatriotic” Hungarians are the only reason the U.S. government has a less than favorable opinion of the current government in Budapest.

Well, if they were offended by editorials in some of the leading American papers and Charles Gati’s list of modest steps Washington can take, I can’t imagine what kinds of editorials will appear in Magyar Nemzet, Válasz, and Magyar Hírlap after the appearance of a report by Human Rights First (HRF),”an independent advocacy and action organization that challenges America to live up to its ideals.” HRF is one of those non-governmental organizations that Viktor Orbán would like to stamp out in Hungary. And what temerity! HRF calls on the U.S. government, Congress, the European Commission, and the local governments to take steps to restore democracy and combat extremism, racism, and homophobia in the two countries the report deals with: Hungary and Greece.

Human Rights First

In Hungary 444.hu was the first to report on We’re not Nazis, but … The Rise of Hate Parties in Hungary and Greece and Why America Should Care. The reaction of this online paper was well expressed in the article’s headline: “It has been a long time since Hungary has received such a kick in the behind.” Well, that might be an exaggeration, but the report is very hard-hitting. As the Hungarian saying goes, the government “will not put this in the shop window.”

First, let me start by saying that the report is much more than what the title suggests. Sonni Efron, senior fellow, and Tad Stanke, vice president of research and analysis, are the authors of the study, which I consider the best detailed analysis of the current Hungarian (and Greek) political situation. To give you an idea of the thoroughness of the report: It is 122 pages long, out of which close to 40 pages deal exclusively with Hungary. More than half of the 388 footnotes pertain to Hungary. Every important development, every important detail of the Hungarian far right can be found here. But just as important, if not more so, there is a separate chapter entitled: “Orbán: Increasingly Problematic U.S. Ally.” And here are a few of the topics discussed: Retreat from Democracy, Human Rights, and the Rule of Law; Rewrites the Election Law to Favor Itself; April Election: Free but Not Fair; After Re-election, Cracks Down on NGOs; Pursues Revisionist History; Co-opts Jobbik’s Agenda.

So, what are the recommendations that will most likely send the Hungarian government and its media empire into a rage? Here are some of them:

(1) The President should adopt a policy to reverse Hungary’s backsliding on democracy. This policy should be an integral part of the U.S. strategy to reinforce the Transatlantic Alliance  in the face of Russian action in Ukraine. The President in his September speech to the U.N. General Assembly should refute Orbán’s notion that “illiberal” nations are better off economically and articulate the dangers that authoritarian regimes pose to peace, prosperity and fundamental freedoms.

(2) The President should instruct the Director of National Intelligence to investigate allegations of Russian and Iranian financial or other support of European far-right parties.

(3) At the North Atlantic Council meeting at the 2014 NATO summit, he should express concern about the rise of neo-fascist parties in Europe and its impact on security and good government in NATO member countries and the strength of the Alliance.

(4) The President should task relevant U.S. agencies with compiling information on corruption by Hungarian political and business leaders as well as government officials suspected of funding violent extremists.

(5) The President should direct the Departments of Commerce, Treasury, and State as well as USAID to step up efforts to promote broad-based economic recovery and entrepreneurship in Hungary, with emphasis on combating youth unemployment.

(6) The President should install a U.S. ambassador seasoned in managing the complex relationship with an ally that also has major challenges in democratic governance and protecting human rights.

(7) The President should send senior public citizens, including former U.S. officials from both parties, to Budapest to discuss how abandoning liberal democracy would result in increasing political, economic, and strategic isolation for Hungary.

(8) The President should speak out about the intimidation of independent media and NGOs, and the chilling effect it is having on Hungarian society.

(9) The President should prioritize efforts to support embattled independent media, NGOs, and human rights defenders in Hungary. Develop a communications strategy to reach Hungarians who depend mainly on the state-dominated news outlets for information.

And these suggestions are only for the President. The report also has a long list of tasks for the State Department. John Kerry should convey to senior European leaders U.S. support of EU efforts to hold Hungary accountable for violation of EU law. He should support the implementation of the European Commission’s new framework for addressing systemic threats to the rule of law in the European Union. Hungary should be removed from the Governing Council of the Community of Democracies. Kerry should talk about American disapproval of the government’s intimidation of the Hungarian media. The U.S. should fund programs to support independent media outlets which are on the verge of disappearing. Kerry should take a less charitable view of the Hungarian government’s half-hearted efforts to combat anti-Semitism. He should also condemn the raids on Hungarian NGOs receiving funds from foreign donors. The United States should work with European partners to fund embattled NGOs.

HRF also has suggestions for the U.S. Congress, the European Commission, and finally the Hungarian government itself. For instance, the Orbán government should revise the constitution to allow the executive to be effective while reinstating checks and balances on executive power and should combat hate crimes and discrimination.

MTI did not report on the appearance of the HRF Report, only on Jobbik MP Márton Gyöngyösi’s reaction to the report at a press conference held this afternoon in front of the United States Embassy. Gyöngyösi is the party’s foreign relations expert. He made quite a name for himself when in 2012 he gave an interview to the Jewish Chronicle in which he claimed that Jews were colonizing Hungary. In the same interview he questioned whether 400,000 Jews were really killed or deported from Hungary to Nazi death camps during World War II. I wrote at length about Gyöngyösi and his background at the time of this infamous interview.

So what does this Jobbik foreign policy expert think of the HRF’s report? According to him, there is already a program in place in the United States which with the assistance of U.S. national security forces, foreign paid NGOs, and the so-called “independent press” is designed to discipline Hungary and make her return to “the road of neoliberalism.” Given this situation Jobbik calls on Fidesz and the government to stop its double-game and decide whether it stands for Euro-Atlanticism or is on the side of those people committed to the nation. According to Gyöngyösi, ever since 2010 there have been several verbal attacks on Hungarian sovereignty, but to date this is the most savage and aggressive interference in the domestic affairs of the country. He is not surprised that the key target of the report is Jobbik because it is “the most resolute defender of Hungarian sovereignty.” He also wanted to know about the role of the U.S. Embassy in Budapest in organizing a spy network.

There is nothing surprising about Jobbik’s swift reaction to the appearance of the report. MTI’s silence does not come as a surprise either, given MTI’s self-censorship of any news that reflects badly on the government. As of now, every newspaper, including Magyar Nemzet, has simply republished MTI’s release on Gyöngyösi’s press conference. However, HírTV was present at Gyöngyösi’s performance, and therefore Magyar Nemzet, which is affiliated with HírTV, had some additional information. Although MTI did not mention it, Gyöngyösi suggested to the Americans that instead of trying to “overthrow Hungarian national sovereignty” they should bring charges against those politicians who commit crimes against humanity. For example, the leaders of Israel. The usual Jobbik answer to everything.

A footnote to McCain’s visit and Viktor Orbán’s letter to John Lukacs

I’m going to start with a footnote to my post on American-Hungarian relations and the visit of John McCain to Budapest.

I have written about Foreign Minister János Martonyi several times over the years on Hungarian Spectrum. Here I’ll recap briefly.

Martonyi loyally served the Kádár regime as trade secretary in Brussels between 1979 and 1984 when he was promoted to department head at the ministry of foreign trade. He joined the communist party only a few months before its collapse.

In the Antall administration he became undersecretary in the ministry of foreign affairs, but when the socialists and liberals won the election in 1994 Martonyi, for the first time in his life, found himself outside the world of civil service. He became a partner at Baker & McKenzie’s Budapest office. His exile didn’t last long. In 1998 he became foreign minister in Viktor Orbán’s first government where he dutifully played second fiddle to Viktor Orbán, who even then was inclined to conduct his own diplomatic efforts, if you can call them that. While today he has his own undersecretary for foreign affairs and trade located in the prime minister’s office, then he was not so blatant. My impression in those days was that the man Orbán relied on was his old friend, one of the founders of Fidesz, Zsolt Németh, undersecretary under János Martonyi.

Initially I felt sorry for Martonyi for being put in such a demeaning position, but since then I changed my mind. A self-respecting person would have resigned. He didn’t. During Fidesz’s exile, especially during the tenure of April H. Foley, he was the confidant and skillful manipulator of the American ambassador. Perhaps because of his usefulness during this period Viktor Orbán decided that the post of foreign minister would go to Martonyi even though most people thought that the front runner was Németh. But given Zsolt Németh’s decreasing visibility and influence, it looks as if Németh has been dropped while Martonyi is just ignored.

In my post on the McCain visit I called attention to Martonyi’s enthusiastic endorsement of the Orbán government’s anti-American stance, which belies the man’s allegedly pro-western moderate views. Today he gave a telephone interview to MTI in which he explained that he had a private conversation with Senator McCain “who spoke in very positive terms” about his visit to Budapest. Martonyi assured the American politician that the rules of democracy are being followed to the letter in Hungary. He added that “John McCain is still our friend who follows Hungarian affairs with understanding. His visit to Budapest only strengthened his sympathies quite independently of the kind of terminology he used at his press conference.”

So, if I understand it right, according to Martonyi, Senator McCain lied at his press conference and in the press release I shared with you yesterday. Or put another way, those Hungarians who heard McCain and read the newspaper reports on that press conference were misled by the good senator because he, in fact, was mighty impressed with Viktor Orbán and Hungarian democracy and thought that the monument designed to demonstrate that Hungary had no role to play in the Holocaust was a splendid idea. A friend of mine originally from Romania told me that this kind of lying was a favorite trick of the Ceaușescu regime.

And now to something entirely different. I translated Professor John Lukacs’s open letter to Viktor Orbán expressing his misgivings about getting involved with Russia through a long-term commitment on the Paks nuclear power plant. Well, this time Viktor Orbán replied to Professor Lukacs very promptly.

* * *

Mr. John Lukács
Corvin-Chain recipient professor

Dear Mr. Professor:

I am reading your open letter that is also addressed to me and that appeared in the newspaper that once belonged to the communist party. I always looked upon your friendship and attention as one of the gifts of my life. Perhaps because of your books or the liberality of your lectures, or perhaps the genuine Catholic serenity which surrounds you. I don’t really know. Whatever it is, it was easy to be in agreement when we talked about Hungarian history, the state of Christian civilization, and the important questions of the future. This must have been the reason that until now I didn’t notice the differences which divide us and which are most likely due to our different generational responses.

You still see our beloved country’s anchoring in the West as an open question. For our own anti-communist generation hardened during the times of the regime change, it is a closed chapter.  A clearly and splendidly closed chapter. A worthy answer to the Soviet occupation of 1945 and to the decades of communism. It is an answer coming from the Hungarian spirit and Hungarian soul. Two plebiscites connect Hungary to the military and political system of the West. NATO and the European Union. What always belonged together has grown together. We chose our military, political, and economic systems by an overwhelming majority because today’s Hungarians know who we are and where we belong. We here at home already live in that future about which you still worry on the other side of the ocean.

miniszterelnokThe most challenging question of that future is the competitiveness of our West, that is of Europe in the next decades. My own answer can be summarized this way: the future of Europe is western identity and eastern activity. We have to firmly guard our values, including our Christian commitment, and at the same time with full speed we must build our economic ties with the East. This is what Germany, France, and even the United States are doing, and at last we ourselves started on that road.

Please don’t pay too much attention to the left, which is still struggling with its own communist past and Muscovite* role. Its present anti-Russian stance is outright laughable. To hold the view that strong economic ties with Russia are wrong because of its communist past would find its parallel in arguing against the strengthening of our economic ties with the Germans because they were Nazis. All this is only the scummy slough of communism.

As you know, we have an election campaign here and therefore there is more than usual disagreement. But I would bet a lot that on the question of Russian relations the day after the election there will be perfect agreement.

We thank you for your concerns and friendly words. We all of us wish you vigor and good health. We are looking forward to your new books.

January 27, 2014

With friendship,
Viktor Orbán

—–

*Orbán actually uses the word “muszkavezető.” First of all, “muszka” as the equivalent of Russian is dying out in the Hungarian language. Second, “muszkavezető” literally means “someone who leads in the Russians.” One can say all sorts of things about Rákosi and his gang, but not that they themselves were responsible for the presence of the Russians on Hungarian soil.

American-Hungarian relations and John McCain’s visit to Budapest

It was a week ago that Gergely Gulyás, the young rising star of Fidesz, attacked the American ambassador designate, Colleen Bell, accusing her of bias against the current Hungarian government. At that time I pointed out that without Viktor Orbán’s approval or perhaps even instructions the open letter Gulyás published could never have appeared. Now, in light of the recent visit of Senator John McCain to the Hungarian capital, a fuller picture emerges about the circumstances of that letter.

The public learned only on January 30 that Senator McCain will be spending a day in Budapest. He came not alone but as part of a nine-member bipartisan delegation consisting of three senators and six congressmen.

Surely, the Hungarian government must have known for some time about the impending visit of the American delegation. I venture to say that they knew about it before January 22 when Gulyás published his outrageous letter accusing Colleen Bell of partiality toward the opposition. Those Fidesz politicians who watched the video of the Senate hearing realized that the Republican McCain had a rather low opinion of the ambassadors Barack Obama proposed and may therefore have thought that an attack on Bell would yield brownie points with McCain. If that was the case, it was based on a total misunderstanding of American politics. Sure, at home McCain will show his dissatisfaction with Obama’s choices, but in Budapest he will not cozy up to Viktor Orbán just because he thinks that Bell knows nothing about Hungary or diplomacy. He will follow American foreign policy toward Hungary, which is currently very critical.

A day before the visit of the American delegation János Lázár continued the attacks on the United States in connection with the electronic listening devices that were most likely used on Hungarian citizens as well. Here they found themselves in a strong position. All of Europe is up in arms over the facts disclosed by Edward Snowden, and the decision was most likely made at the highest level that this topic could be used effectively against McCain during the talks. Another miscalculation. McCain didn’t apologize but instead emphasized that surveillance is necessary in the face of terrorism. They will be more selective in the application of these devices in the future. Period.

Meanwhile the parliamentary committee investigating American surveillance held its first meeting on January 30.  In addition to the official members, János Lázár, head of the prime minister’s office, Sándor Pintér, minister of the interior, and János Martonyi, foreign minister, were also present. By the way, the so-called “moderate” János Martonyi, the favorite of former American ambassadors, also condemned Colleen Bell’s testimony as if he were not aware that Bell didn’t express her own opinions but simply presented the official position of the United States government. Pintér promptly made the proceedings secret while Martonyi announced that the topic of surveillance will “remain on the agenda,” adding that “it will take a long time to repair the trust that is so important between allies and friends.” János Lázár announced that the surveillance affair “may influence in a significant way the relations between the USA and Hungary.” All in all, the Orbán government was ready to receive John McCain in full armor. Lázár also said at the press conference after the meeting that the new ambassador “will have to appear before the parliamentary committee,” something that will surely not happen. Máté Kocsis, the youthful chairman of the committee, went even further. He wants to see Edward Snowden himself in Budapest to answer the committee’s questions.

It was only on Thursday that McCain’s impending visit leaked out. The Hungarian media was convinced that the chief topic of the conversations would be Ukraine. The newspapers recalled that McCain had visited that country in December, but they really couldn’t give any reasonable explanation why Hungary would be that important in connection with the crisis in Ukraine other than having about 200,000 co-nationals living in its subcarpathian region who at the moment don’t seem to be threatened. What we learned afterwards was that Viktor Orbán “informed the American delegation of the V4 [Poland, Slovakia, Czech Republic, and Hungary] discussion on the situation in Kiev.” So, Ukraine was not at the center of the discussions.

McCain

So, let’s see what McCain himself had to say about his time in Budapest. Besides the usual round of praise for the faithful ally, he stated that “we understand the concerns about the state of democracy in Hungary that have been raised by people both inside and outside of this country. Some of these concerns are very serious…. The United States and the rest of the free world have an abiding interest in Hungary’s continued development as a strong, inclusive, and tolerant democracy, with a free market economy, an independent judiciary, and a free media.” During the conversations “we also expressed our hope that Hungary will address its energy security needs in ways that further diversify Europe’s supply of energy.” To translate all that into plain English, McCain criticized the state of democracy in Orbán’s Hungary and also must have shared his concerns over Hungary’s sole reliance on Russian energy sources, especially now that Orbán seems to have committed Hungary to Russia in building two new reactors on borrowed money.

From other Hungarian sources it became clear that the forthcoming election was also discussed. McCain must have expressed his worries about the fairness of the election because apparently Orbán readily agreed to have international observers. McCain was also worried about the lack of transparency in the negotiations with the Russians concerning Paks. And at this point I’m not at all sure that McCain knew that all the financial details of the Paks negotiations have already been made secret for years to come.

McCain and the others present were familiar with the memorial to be erected on Szabadság tér. They even talked about anti-Semitism in Hungary. The Democratic congressman from Florida, Ted Deutch, told Orbán that he must be sure that the monument will not be used “to whitewash history.” Apparently, Viktor Orbán gave his word, but unfortunately we know how much his word is worth.

The American delegation met Attila Mesterházy, Gordon Bajnai, Benedek Jávor, and Gábor Fodor. I assume that Ferenc Gyurcsány was not present because in 2007-2008 he was accused by the Americans, with help from Viktor Orbán who was then in his anti-Russian mode, of being a great friend of Vladimir Putin.

Magyar Nemzet and Magyar Hírlap, the government’s mouthpieces, have for some time been publishing articles with a sharp anti-American edge, but since the Orbán government decided to take on the American government through an attack on Colleen Bell the articles and opinion pieces written in these two organs have become outright vicious.

Magyar Nemzet after the official meeting  made a flippant remark about “the former presidential candidate who suddenly had an attack of worry for Hungarian democracy.” István Lovas, the paper’s correspondent in Brussels, wrote an opinion piece in today’s Magyar Nemzet entitled “At last,” in which he expressed his delight that at last Hungary is hitting back: “Goodbye servitude, goodbye hopelessness.” Magyar Hírlap just today published four articles on American-Hungarian relations where they talk about John McCain as “a somebody called McCain, … a loud American” who lectures Hungarians about democracy and who “worries himself sick” over undemocratic Hungary. Hungarians are bored with all that talk about checks and balances they keep repeating. A few weeks ago an article in Magyar Hírlap described the oft repeated phrase “checks and balances” as American whining (nyivákolás).

I’m pretty sure that this fierce anti-American rhetoric is popular in certain circles in Hungary, but I have to believe that it will have very adverse effects on both the diplomatic and the economic relations between Hungary and the United States.