Angela Merkel

Vladimir Putin in Budapest

Four times today the Hungarian government had to revise the appointed hour of the Orbán-Putin press conference. At last the great event took place close to 8 p.m. Putin arrived late in the first place. Instead of 2 p.m. he landed at 3:20. Just to give you an idea of the scale of this visit, the Russians came with eight planes and carried along 30 some cars to protect Vladimir Putin’s armored limousine. Putin’s convoy moved to Heroes Square and from there to the Russian military cemetery.

Let’s pause here a bit because this cemetery became the object of great interest. Buried in most of the thousands of graves on this site are soldiers who died during the siege of Budapest during the winter of 1944-45. In addition, there are graves that belong to soldiers who died during the revolution in October 1956. In the cemetery there are monuments to their heroism during “the counterrevolution.” Most likely not too many people noticed these forgotten relics, which survived the regime change. But now, especially since belittling the greatness of the 1956 revolution is a punishable offense, most anti-government commentators are appalled. How is it possible that the Hungarian government didn’t manage to impress on the Russians that calling 1956 a counterrevolution is a sensitive issue in Hungary and that the inscriptions should be changed to something more neutral? After all, Boris Yeltsin apologized for 1956 and one would think that the new “democratic” regime in Russia no longer considers the Soviet intervention in 1956 justifiable. It turned out that Csaba Hende, minister of defense, suggested a change but to no avail. Knowing Vladimir Putin’s attachment to the Soviet past, I’m certain that he in fact considers the uprising in Hungary a counterrevolution. So, it’s no wonder that some of the speakers at yesterday’s demonstration denounced Viktor Orbán’s friendship with Putin as a desecration of Hungary’s proudest moment in the last century. Especially since Viktor Orbán claims pride of place in the events that led to a democratic regime thirty some years later.

As for the topics discussed by the two leaders, the public learned very little. On the Hungarian side almost no information was revealed. The little we learned was from Russian sources. According to one source, sputniknews.com, Yuri Ushakov, presidential aide to Putin, informed the paper that the 1998 gas contract that expires this year will certainly will be discussed. He also indicated that Putin would discuss an alternative to the Southern Stream. Otherwise, fairly mundane topics were on the agenda. Opposition circles guffawed over the news that Hungary will open a third consulate in Kazan, capital of the Republic of Tatarstan.

Putin and Orban Budapest2

Source: Reuters / Photo László Balogh

Five agreements were signed: on regional economic cooperation, on bilateral cooperation on healthcare issues and higher education, on the opening of the consulate in Kazan, and on the exchange of technical know-how on atomic energy issues. This last one is a first step toward building the second reactor in Paks. On the surface these are pretty meager achievements given the fanfare that preceded the visit.

After the press conference Hungarian talking heads announced that Viktor Orbán hadn’t achieved anything. Putin came empty-handed and didn’t seem to appreciate Orbán’s efforts on his behalf in the face of opposition by the European Union and the United States.

As I mentioned earlier, the press conference was held an hour later than originally planned. Between Putin’s arrival and the press conference more than four hours elapsed. That left plenty of time for a lengthy discussion between the two men. In my estimation Orbán had a much longer discussion with Putin than he did with Angela Merkel. If I had to judge, just on the basis of Orbán’s countenance, I would say that the Hungarian prime minister’s conversation with Putin went a great deal better than his conversation with Merkel did. At least from his point of view. Orbán certainly made sure that he would in no way show himself at odds with the Russian position. He talked about Ukraine as little as possible, and then simply repeated his desire for peace. At what price? He did not touch on any of that.

He was unctuous when he thanked Putin for the visit and stressed that his decision to come was “a great honor for us.” Hungary needs Russia because of energy. Cooperation and good relations are important not only for the two countries but also between Russia and the European Union. He emphasized the importance of “Eurasian cooperation” and expressed his delight that French leaders share his thoughts on the subject. He did not refer to Paks but said that a “political agreement was reached” on the use of the gas that Hungary had contracted for but had still not used. Hungary will be able to use this considerable amount of gas over the next few years instead of paying for it before the expiration of the contract. This “guarantees the future of Hungarian industry.” Unfortunately, we know nothing of the details–of the price of gas or the duration of the new contract. According to Magyar Nemzet, it is unlikely that Hungary will be able to purchase natural gas from Russia cheaper than, for example, Germany, a country that is not so heavily dependent on the Russian supply.

From Putin’s short speech we at last learned that it was, after all, Viktor Orbán who invited Putin to Hungary, a point of debate among Hungarian political observers. Putin talked about Paks and the 9 billion dollars Russia will lend to Hungary on very good terms. Paks will create 10,000 new jobs as an added bonus, he said. He found the talks very constructive. Putin made sure to mention that he invited Orbán to the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, which will take place in Moscow on May 9. Of course, Putin invited the leaders of all the countries that were involved in that war, but we don’t know yet whether, for example, Barack Obama will accept the invitation given “the deep chill in relations between Russia and the West, triggered by Russia’s annexation of the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine and its support for a rebellion in the country’s east.” North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was also invited to attend the ceremonies.

Viktor Orbán had the last word. He delivered a ringing speech attacking those people “who want to shut Russia out from the energy market of Europe, a proposition [he considers] utter nonsense (badarság).” Orbán I assume was referring to the United States. It is hard to fathom why it was necessary to attack Washington, especially after Péter Szijjártó expressed his hope for improved U.S.-Hungarian relations. Orbán said he was disappointed about the demise of the Southern Stream project but announced that Hungary has been negotiating with Turkey, Macedonia, Serbia, and Greece about a pipeline through these countries. According to Orbán, Vladimir Putin “has given us encouragement” to continue these negotiations. It was not quite clear what Orbán meant by claiming that between 1998 and 2002 “awful things happened in Russia.” Perhaps this was an attempt to explain why he as prime minister during those years was such a determined foe of Russia, despite the fact that Putin became prime minister of Russia in 1999. Finally he praised Putin’s Russia as a partner one can trust.

On the same day that Orbán met with Vladimir Putin, American Ambassador Colleen Bell gave a lunch in honor of Mykhailo Yunger, chargé d’affaires of the Ukrainian Embassy. Bell minced no words:

I find it significant and inspiring that the unity of effort among us has played such a critical part.  Our unity on sanctions has sent a clear message to Russia, that we cannot be divided.  And our collective message has also made clear that we do not accept the vision of “New Russia,” we do not accept Moscow’s explanation for the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner, we do not accept missile attacks on civilians in Mariupol, and we do not accept continued falsehoods about the recruiting, arming and equipping of separatists who are murdering and maiming innocent people including defenseless children.  We say no to this.  We say yes to Ukraine’s sovereignty.

As you are all well aware, President Putin is in Budapest today.  We could think of no better way to observe the day than to focus on our hopes for Ukraine’s sovereignty and its future, and to share those hopes with you, Mr. Yunger, among our friends and allies.

As a friend of mine, a well-known journalist, wrote to me: “after this speech they will wish Goodfriend back.”

Advertisements

Mária Schmidt is on the warpath again

Last summer I wrote at least five posts about Mária Schmidt, a historian of the Holocaust and director of the controversial House of Terror museum established during the first Orbán administration (1998-2002). Why is Mária Schmidt so important? Why is it necessary to spend time on a historian not held in high esteem by her colleagues? It is true that as a historian she would not deserve much attention, but as the chief adviser to Orbán Viktor on matters of modern Hungarian history her ideas cannot be ignored. I don’t think I exaggerate when I claim that Schmidt’s interpretation of German-Hungarian relations in the 1930s and the first half of the 1940s is crucial to understanding the Hungarian government’s reevaluation of the Hungarian Holocaust. The newly erected memorial to “all the victims” of the German occupation of Hungary on March 19, 1944 was a direct result of Mária Schmidt’s views on the period.

The other reason that I give her so much space is that every time she opens her mouth, or puts pen to paper, she says something outlandish. She begins radio and television interviews with syrupy sweetness and ends with shrill diatribes.

She has been lying low on Holocaust issues since last summer, most likely because it looks as if János Lázár, Viktor Orbán’s deputy, decided to remove her from the job of spearheading the creation of a new Holocaust museum, the House of Fates. The government realized that no compromise could be reached between the administration and the Jewish community as long as Schmidt was in charge of the project.

They are working on the building of the House of Fates but the concept is still missing

The construction of the House of Fates is proceeding apace

She refocused her attention on more recent events. Last month she wrote an essay on “geopolitical games” between Russia and the United States in which she didn’t spare the U.S. This was not a topic that excited too many people in Hungary.

But then came an exchange of letters between Schmidt and the office of the German chancellor that she made public on February 4. Since the publication of this exchange she has given two interviews, one to György Bolgár on Klubrádió and another to András Kovács of Origo.

Let’s start with a summary of Mária Schmidt’s letter, dated January 20, to Chancellor Angela Merkel. In it Schmidt invited Merkel while in Hungary to a reception in the House of Terror honoring “ordinary citizens who [in 1989] risked everything as opposed to the political leaders of the regime who were only following the lead of the heroic civilians.” Of course, she was talking about the East German refugees in Hungary. In addition, she expressed her hope that together they “could light a candle for the victims of communism.” The answer from Councilor Maximilian Spinner, on behalf of the chancellor, was brief and to the point: “Unfortunately, such a visit is impossible due the limited amount of time available.”

I have the feeling that even if Angela Merkel hadn’t had such a tight schedule she wouldn’t have wanted to be associated with the reception Mária Schmidt organized. The Germans ever since 1989 have repeatedly said how grateful they were to the Hungarian government at the time, and here is an event that belittles the role of the Németh government and Foreign Minister Gyula Horn, whom the Germans revere. And that government, whether Schmidt likes it or not, was the last government of the Kádár regime. By that time the dictatorship had mellowed to such an extent that it was not a brave, heroic act to help the East German refugees. Thousands and thousands of ordinary citizens lent a helping hand alongside the Hungarian government. Schmidt’s invitation was something of a trap, which I assume the Germans noticed and wanted to avoid.

Well, Schmidt was furious. She called Angela Merkel “the heartless chancellor.” She accused the Germans of never thanking these “brave civilians,” of thanking only the Hungarian government that existed “during the still functioning communist dictatorship.” Not only did Merkel not go but no “official representative” of Germany made an appearance when Schmidt gave memorial plaques to the few people she found worthy of the honor.

And then came the interview with Origo. She accused Merkel of “insolence,” which ought to “shock all well-meaning Germans.” According to Schmidt, “the chancellor obviously did not know what country she was visiting.” Otherwise, surely she would have wanted to meet ordinary citizens. She also found Merkel’s words about democracy, freedom of the press, and civic groups puzzling. In her opinion, Merkel talked like a “left-liberal” instead of a Christian Democrat.

Schmidt had a few not so kind words for the United States as well. According to her, M. André Goodfriend, the chargé d’affaires until the arrival of the new U.S. Ambassador Colleen Bell, “misunderstood his role and became enamored with his media appearances.” Everything has changed since the arrival of the ambassador, a claim that is most likely based on Colleen Bell’s frequent appearances at markets or social events, which of course may not indicate a policy change.

According to Schmidt, Hungary is a true ally of the United States and “it would be very sad if there were people in Washington who would like to disrupt that bond.” She is certain that Hungary would like to restore good relations between the two countries, but “we must not forget that the Hungarian nation is a proud one that does not like it if an American diplomat comes here and tells us how we should or should not remember our past,” a not too subtle reference to the memorial that on Viktor Orbán’s insistence was erected despite international protest, a memorial that falsifies the history of the Hungarian Holocaust.

Otherwise, at the moment Schmidt is organizing a conference, “Test of Bravery” (Bátorságpróba). The odd title seems to be lifted from a well-known picture book for children suffering from cancer. The conference will focus on the second Orbán government’s accomplishments between 2010 and 2014.

The House of Terror’s director is a tireless supporter of the government despite the recent slight she suffered when the much contested House of Fates projet was removed from her hands and taken over by the prime minister’s office. Her “concept” remained, however. It is, in the words of László Karsai, a Holocaust researcher, “two hundred pages of nothing.”

The Orbán government is at a loss: Which way to turn?

Today even Válasz had to admit that the Hungarian government’s PR stunt that followed the less than successful Merkel-Orbán meeting was a mistake. Referring to the false news about mega-investment,” Valóság, after an earlier glowing report, had to retreat and acknowledge that “there is no BMW, there is no new Mercedes factory and Fidesz doesn’t seem to be successful in the RTL Klub affair either. This wouldn’t be drama if the government had the guts to deny Vs.hu‘s news. But now we do have a small drama.”

I don’t know whether we can call it a drama, but that the Hungarian government’s already tarnished reputation now has an ugly rusty spot as well, that’s for sure. AFP picked up the news about the gigantic German investments that were agreed on during the meeting between the German chancellor and the Hungarian prime minister, but unlike András Kósa, the author of the Vs.hu article, AFP, before publishing the article, did go to the “spokesman for the Hungarian government [who] declined to comment.” Not did the spokesman not deny the story, as Válasz would have suggested, but he purposely spread the disinformation. That leaves me to believe that this PR stunt was concocted by the large communication team around the prime minister’s office.

What can one say about a government that engages in such cheap tricks? Keep in mind that the team around Viktor Orbán was handpicked by the prime minister himself. The members of this team are the ones who manage “communication,” which seems to be the most important aspect of politics for Viktor Orbán. He is like a salesman who has only one goal: to sell his wares regardless of their value or even utility.

What were these communication wizards thinking? Surely they had to realize that sooner or later reporters will ask these companies about their alleged plans and the truth will be revealed. Indeed, Mercedes and BMW have already denied the leaked information about their plans to build factories in Hungary, and this morning we learned from the Siemens spokesman that Siemens is no longer active in industries connected to nuclear energy and therefore the news about their involvement with the Paks Nuclear Power Plant is untrue. As far as the helicopters are concerned, apparently no decision has been made. It is possible that after the meeting Airbus, the French-German company reported to have won the contract, might not be the favorite.

I can only hope that the story of this ruse will reach Angela Merkel’s office, not that I have any doubt about her assessment of the Hungarian prime minister’s character. In any case, the Orbán government’s courting of Germany as a counterbalance to the United States did not work out to Orbán’s satisfaction. Of course, he himself is partly to blame for the fiasco with his public defense of “illiberal democracy.” Even Gábor G. Fodor, a right-wing “strategic director” of Századvég, a Fidesz think tank, said that Viktor Orbán made a mistake when he openly defended his vision of “illiberal democracy.” In fact, he went so far as to say that “this debate cannot be won,” especially not before a western audience. If this absolutely devoted Orbán fan considers the prime minister’s defense of his ideology to have been a mistake, then, believe me, the mistake was a big one.

So, here we are. After all the effort the government put into good relations with Germany, it looks as if Angela Merkel was not convinced. So, where to go from here? There seems to be a serious attempt at improving U.S.-Hungarian relations. This effort was prompted by the long-awaited arrival of the new U.S. ambassador, Colleen Bell, who shortly after her arrival began a round of visits and attended to a number of official duties. Her first trip was to Csaba Hende, minister of defense, which was reported by Hungary Today, a  newly launched, thinly disguised government propaganda internet site. The news of her visit was coupled with the announcement of Hungary’s plans to purchase a new helicopter fleet. The fleet will consist of 30 helicopters that will cost 551 million euros. Discussing the helicopters and Colleen Bell’s visit in the same article was no coincidence. Most likely, the Hungarian government wants to give the impression that there is a possibility that the helicopters will be purchased from the United States.

Even more telling is the paean on the Hungarian government’s website to “successful Hungarian-U.S. economic cooperation.” The occasion was the opening of Alcoa’s “expanded wheels manufacturing plant in Hungary.” It is, if I understand it correctly, an expansion of facilities that have been in place ever since 1996. The construction cost $13 million, and it will create 35 new permanent jobs. The facility was officially opened by Colleen Bell and Péter Szijjártó. Szijjártó was effusive: “with Alcoa’s new investment, a new chapter has opened in the success story of Hungarian-U.S. economic cooperation.” We also learned that the Hungarian government “granted one billon forints for the project.”

Photo by Márton Kovács

Photo by Márton Kovács

Bell, for her part, appealed to Hungarian pride by reminding her hosts that, although Alcoa has existed for 125 years, “this is not very long in terms of Hungary’s 1000-year-old history, but for the United States, a 125-year period covers half of its existence.” Music to Hungarian ears. Of course, she also promised that in the future she will work hard to create new opportunities for both U.S. and Hungarian businesses and to further improve their cooperation. The mayor of Székesfehérvár, the city where the Alcoa factory is located, announced that the wheels of buses in the city will gradually be replaced with Alcoa products.

I somehow doubt that courting the United States in this manner will make Washington forget about the anti-American rhetoric of  pro-government papers or the incredible performance of the Orbán government in connection with the U.S. banning of Hungarian nationals because of corruption charges. Somehow I have the feeling that courting the United States without changing government policies will be just as unsuccessful as Orbán’s earlier efforts in Germany.

And one final note. Today Orbán announced that the fate of cheaper utility costs depends on his successful negotiation with Vladimir Putin on the price of gas and oil to Hungary. If he is unsuccessful, the current low utility rates cannot be maintained. The message? The Hungarian people should support his Russia policy. If not, their utility bills will rise again. Let me add that the team that came up with the idea of reducing utility prices hit a gold mine. The Orbán government’s popularity in 2012 was even lower than it is now. Yet a year and a half later the popularity of the party and the government soared. For Orbán utility rates are terribly important, and therefore I suspect that he will do everything in his power to strike a deal with Putin. The question is at what price.

Merkel-Orbán conversations: Serious differences of opinion

Yesterday, right after Angela Merkel’s plane left the runway at the Budapest Airport, I jotted down my first impressions. It was a busy day for the German chancellor, so I had to be very selective in my post. I concentrated on Merkel’s comments, largely because they were the most unexpected elements in the exchange. Moreover, I talked mostly about her reactions to Hungarian domestic issues and spent a great deal less time on the disagreements between the two leaders over foreign affairs.

Let’s start with their attitudes toward Putin’s Russia. According to Orbán, Ukraine is important for Hungary because it is a neighbor of Hungary, because there is a Hungarian minority across the border, and because the gas that Hungary needs badly travels through this country. Therefore, he said, Hungary “can stand only on the side of peace. We can imagine only a solution that will take us toward peace.” But let’s see what Merkel had to say. According to her, the Germans would also like to have a ceasefire and political stability in Ukraine that “can guarantee the territorial integrity of the country.” Something Orbán didn’t talk about. Merkel also gently reminded Orbán that Hungary is not the only country that is dependent on Russian gas, indicating that it is unacceptable for Hungary to have a different viewpoint on the question of Russian sanctions.

That last remark from Merkel prompted Orbán to open a discussion with his guest on Hungary’s unique position in this respect. Germany’s situation cannot be compared to that of Hungary; “one must take Hungary’s situation vis-à-vis Russia very seriously.” Hungary has to renew her long-term agreement on the price of gas for the next fifteen years, and therefore “it is difficult to fully support the Russian sanctions.”

Although yesterday I talked about their disagreements over the meaning of democracy, I said nothing about how the topic came up during the press conference. Orbán naturally did not bring it up; it was Merkel who announced that during her conversation with Orbán she “indicated that although the Hungarian government has a large majority, in a democracy the role of the opposition, the civil society, and the media is very important.” She added that later she will find time to have a conversation with the leaders of Hungarian civil society. From Orbán’s reaction it was clear that the Hungarian prime minister did not expect such direct involvement by Merkel in a matter he considers a domestic issue. It was after these points of disagreement that Merkel and Orbán had their rather sharp exchange on the nature of “illiberal democracy.” As the Frankfurter Rundschau pointed out, Merkel can at times be quite “undiplomatic,” as she was this time, and therefore “she annoyed Orbán.” You can see the prime minister’s annoyance and his determination to follow his own path on the picture below, taken during their debate on “illiberalism.”

Source: MTI / Photo Tibor Illyés

Source: MTI / Photo Tibor Illyés

Csaba Molnár,  the number two man in the Demokratikus Koalíció, thought that Orbán was cowed and “behaved like a scared little boy standing by his teacher’s side.” I disagree. I saw exactly the opposite: a combative Viktor Orbán who will not be swayed by any argument and who will continue to build his illiberal state. I’m afraid the same might be true when it comes to negotiations with Vladimir Putin. Even though he might sign on to further sanctions, he will try to make a deal with Putin regardless of EU disapproval. It is another matter whether Putin will swallow a big one and give preferential treatment to Orbán despite the meager returns he can expect from Budapest.

As even the right-wing media had to admit, the visit was not a great success, although it was designed to be a showcase of German-Hungarian friendship and a stamp of approval by the German chancellor of the Orbán regime. What does Fidesz do in such an awkward situation? After all, they cannot admit that Merkel and Orbán disagreed on almost everything, starting with Russia and ending with the nature of democracy. The simplest and the usual Fidesz response in such cases is to resort to outright lying. This is exactly what happened today.

Vs.hu is a relatively new internet news site that came out with the startling news that the real significance of the conversation was in the realm of new German investments in the Hungarian economy. András Kósa, a well-respected journalist who used to be on the staff of HVG, just joined Vs.hu. He was told by unnamed members of the government and local German businessmen that although on the surface there was visible friction between Merkel and Orbán, in fact “concrete important industrial agreements came into being on Monday.” Siemens will be involved in the construction of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant. In addition, Hungary will buy thirty helicopters from Airbus, not from the American Sikorsky or the Italian-British AgustaWestland. Kósa was told that “BMW is contemplating opening a factory in Hungary.” Only the exact location remains to be settled. And, on top of everything else, Mercedes will build a new factory to manufacture a new model.

Well, that was quite a scoop. The Hungarian media went crazy. Dozens and dozens of articles appeared within minutes, and every time the story was retold it became grander and grander. While the original article emphasized that all these favorable developments “might happen,” by the time the story got to Magyar Nemzet it became “Gigantic German investments are forthcoming as a result of the Merkel-Orbán meeting.” Válasz discovered that the real significance of the meeting was that new “gigantic German investments are coming to Hungary,” obviously all that taken care of during a short luncheon. Even such a reputable site as Portfolio.hu fell for the story.

The first word of warning came from a specialized internet site that deals with the car industry, Autopro.hu. It is possible that economic relations were discussed, but it is impossible that there could be negotiations between Merkel and Orbán regarding concrete projects, the author of the article remarked. This is not the first time that the possibility of a BMW factory is being heralded by the Hungarian media, but nothing ever came of it. Moreover, if there are such plans or decisions, they would not be discussed by Merkel and Orbán but by the top management of BMW and Hungarian economic experts. Autopro.hu didn’t manage to get in touch with BMW, but they were told by Mercedes that at the moment they have no intention of building another factory. Later the pro-government Napi Gazdaság  learned from BMW headquarters that “the BMW Group has no plans to build a factory in Hungary.” I don’t know whether the rest of the story, about Siemens and Airbus, is true or is also a figment of the imagination of certain government officials.

I consider Kósa a reliable and serious journalist who would not make up such a story. But why would government sources leak information about nonexistent projects? What do these so-called high government officials think when they concoct stories that are bound to be discovered to be false? Perhaps they think that the false news will spread like wildfire, as it did in this case, and that the correction will be reported by only very few media outlets. Therefore, it can be considered a successful communication stunt. Fidesz is good at that.

Angela Merkel in Budapest

Yesterday I sketched out a number of hypotheses about Angela Merkel’s objective in visiting Budapest. Almost all Hungarian foreign policy experts were certain that Merkel would not touch on Hungarian domestic issues. Her only concerns would be Viktor Orbán’s compliance with the common EU policy regarding Russia and his treatment of German businesses in Hungary. Since the Hungarian prime minister accommodated on both fronts just prior to her visit, she would have little to complain about. The consensus was that she would remain silent on the state of democracy in Hungary.

I, on the other hand, couldn’t imagine that Merkel could ignore this issue. The German press has been full of stories about Orbán’s authoritarian regime. It has given extensive coverage to Hungary’s anti-government, pro-democracy demonstrations. So there was some homegrown pressure on the German chancellor to stick her neck out and talk openly about the issue. Many people comment on Merkel’s low-key, sometimes vapid style. Those who know her better, however, assure us that in private she can be a tiger. Well, today, we caught a glimpse of that side of her character.

This morning Gregor Peter Schmitz in Der Spiegel demanded “plain talk” from Merkel in Budapest. “The whole of Europe is terrified of extremists, Angela Merkel is meeting one,” he said. It is time to speak out. If Schmitz watched the press conference after a short luncheon meeting between Angela Merkel and the Hungarian prime minister, he was most likely disappointed, at least initially. She did talk about issues that democrats at home and abroad find important: the role of civil society and the importance of the opposition, but her critique was pretty bland. She said, for instance, that “even if you have a broad majority, as the Hungarian prime minister does, it’s very important in a democracy to appreciate the role of the opposition, civil society, and the media.” Merkel had said the same thing many times before.

The real surprise, “the plain talk” Schmitz demanded, came at the end when Stephan Löweinstein of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung asked Merkel her opinion about Orbán’s “illiberal democracy.” After explaining that liberalism is part and parcel of the ideology of her own party, she added: “I personally don’t know what to do with the term.” In her opinion there is no such animal. Orbán did not back down. He repeated his belief that not all democracies are liberal and that liberalism cannot have a privileged position in the political landscape. I should add that the Hungarian state television station omitted this exchange in its broadcast of the press conference.

Source: HVG / Photo: Gergely Túry

Source: HVG / Photo: Gergely Túry

Viktor Orbán was not a happy man. I’m certain that he expected concessions from Merkel after he was so “generous” on the RTL Klub case. It seems that Merkel did not appreciate his efforts to the extent hoped for in Budapest.

During the press conference Orbán talked mostly about German-Hungarian economic relations and thanked Germany for its investment, which resulted in 300,000 jobs in Hungary. But he became more insistent and strident as time went on, especially when Merkel began talking about a common European energy policy. He indicated that in his opinion the European Union doesn’t appreciate Hungary’s utter dependence on Russian gas. He stressed, in a raised voice, that the Russian-Hungarian long-term gas supply contract will be expiring soon and that Hungary must have a new agreement with the Russians. Hence the forthcoming Putin-Orbán meeting in Budapest.

An opposition politician called my attention to the fact that Merkel referred to Orbán as “ein Kollege” instead of the customary designation “friend.” An American acquaintance noted that the new American ambassador also talks about Hungary as an “ally” and no longer as a friend.

The German papers are already full of articles about the trip, and I’m sure that in the next few days there will be dozens of articles and op/ed pieces analyzing Merkel’s day in Budapest. I’m also certain that I will spend more than one post on this visit. Here are a few initial observations.

Merkel spent very little time with Viktor Orbán. Just a little over an hour, including a meal. With János Áder no more than 15-20 minutes. On the other hand, the event at the German-language Andrássy University was quite long where differences of opinion between the two politicians became evident. The introductory remarks by the president of Andrássy University were lengthy as was the speech by the president of the University of Szeged, which bestowed an honorary degree on Angela Merkel. Her own speech was not short either. What was most surprising was the number of questions allowed. Some of the questions were not political but personal. Perhaps the students didn’t have the guts to ask politically risky questions. Her answers showed her to be quite an open person, very different from what I expected. One brave soul did bring up the topic of terrorism and immigration, indicating that Orbán inflames prejudice against people from different cultural backgrounds. Merkel stood by her guns, stressing the need for tolerance, openness, and diversity. Another question was about Russian aggression. Here she used strong words against aggression and condemned Putin’s use of force.

Finally, a few words about Merkel’s final destination, the synagogue on Dohány utca, where she talked to Hungarian Jewish religious leaders. Apparently, the Hungarians first suggested that Viktor Orbán accompany Merkel. The Germans turned that kind offer down. I find it significant that Merkel’s visit to the synagogue was longer than planned. Her plane left Budapest half an hour later than scheduled.

All in all, those people who were afraid that by going to Budapest Angela Merkel would give her stamp of approval to Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal democracy” can breathe a sigh of relief. Nothing of the sort happened.

Thoughts in advance of the German and Russian visits to Budapest

Yesterday the Neue Zürcher Zeitung published an article about the forthcoming visits of Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin to Budapest titled “Orbans Tanz auf zwei Hochzeiten,” indicating that Viktor Orbán will be able to have his cake and eat it too. He will remain a member in good standing of the European Union and will be a close friend of Russia at the same time. I, on the other hand, maintain that he will not be able to pull off that extraordinary feat. There are many signs that the Hungarian prime minister is already in retreat.

Let’s start with the Merkel visit. Hungarian and foreign observers have come up with all sorts of explanations for her trip, starting with the simplest one–that she could no longer postpone it. After all, she has not visited the Hungarian capital in the last five years, ever since Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz, which professes to be a Christian Democratic party, won a stunning victory in 2010. Her last trip took place in 2009, on the twentieth anniversary of the Hungarian opening of the Austro-Hungarian border for East German refugees, when the socialist-liberal government of Gordon Bajnai was still in power. If the purpose of the trip was to have a serious discussion about the Russian-Ukrainian crisis and Hungary’s role in it, Merkel’s five-hour stay, with very little face time with Viktor Orbán, would not suffice. She is coming because she promised to and because, according to a 1992 agreement between Hungary and Germany, she has to.

There are analysts who are convinced that Angela Merkel will not even mention the erosion of Hungarian democracy under Viktor Orbán’s regime, the systematic transformation of a fledgling democracy into an autocratic regime akin to the political setup that existed in Hungary between the two world wars. She has more pressing issues on her agenda: Greece, the sanctions against Russia, and the growth of the German anti-immigration movement–PEGIDA (Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes / Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West), especially popular in the former East Germany. It is unlikely that Merkel will waste any time on the woes of Hungarian democracy. Her only aim is to make sure that Viktor Orbán stands by the extension of the sanctions. This hypothesis, in part at least, is outdated: Hungary obediently voted for the extension on January 29.

Others are more optimistic. They maintain that the trouble with Angela Merkel’s visit is that it seems to put a stamp of approval on the illiberal regime of Viktor Orbán. This is certainly how the Orbán government is portraying it. If Merkel says nothing about the state of democracy in Hungary, Orbán’s regime scores a victory. There is pressure on Merkel at home, however, to do something about the Hungarian situation. She has to give the appearance that her visit is something of a warning to Viktor Orbán.

There is some truth in this interpretation. In fact, there are signs that behind the scenes some “disciplinary measures” have already taken place. The successful negotiations with the leaders of  the RTL Group indicate that Orbán got the message: there will be consequences if the Hungarian government blatantly and illegally discriminates against a media outlet just because it doesn’t like RTL’s news broadcast. Orbán caved, and I for one am certain that he didn’t get much in return. I find it interesting that the official announcement of Merkel’s visit occurred very late, on January 28, the day when according to Népszava‘s information the Hungarian government agreed to a substantial reduction in the enormous tax it had levied on RTL Klub. Was this agreement the price, or part of the price, of Merkel’s visit?

Because that’s not all. In his regular Friday morning interview Orbán announced that the exorbitant tax levies on the banking sector will most likely be gradually reduced because the Hungarian economy has greatly improved. “If possible, the interests of the country and the businessmen must be reconciled,” said the man who until now had laid all the financial burdens of his erroneous economic policies on businesses, especially foreign ones.

There might be several reasons for Orbán’s cooperation in addition to German negotiations. One is that the Americans undoubtedly know more about the Hungarian mafia state and Viktor Orbán’s role in it than they let on, but the Hungarian prime minister doesn’t know how much they know. That must be a powerful incentive to stick with the countries that provide Hungary with economic aid and military shelter. Another consideration might be the effect of the sanctions and the sinking price of oil on the Russian economy, which makes close ties with Putin’s Russia a less desirable option than, let’s say, a year ago.

And that leads us to the Putin visit on February 17. It was almost a year ago, in March of 2014, that the United States and the European Union began applying sanctions against Russia. Although Hungary agreed to support the move, in August Viktor Orbán declared that “Europe shot itself in the foot,” meaning that the sanctions actually hurt only the West and did nothing to weaken the Russian economy. Just about this time, however, oil prices began falling. The combination of sanctions and falling energy prices has made the Russian economic situation close to desperate by now.

Orbán was initially very proud of what he considered to be the crowning achievements of his Russia policy: the Southern Stream, which would have brought gas to Hungary circumventing Ukraine, and the Russian loan for the extension of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant. Since then, Russia abandoned the Southern Stream project because of lack of funds, and many people think that the much heralded Paks deal is also in trouble. Thus, the rationale for close relations with Russia has more or less evaporated, which leaves Viktor Orbán in the unenviable position of suffering the ill effects of his overly cozy relation with Putin while reaping practically no benefits.

Depiction of the Trojan Horse at the Schlilemann Museum in Akershagen, Germany

Depiction of the Trojan Horse at the Schliemann Museum in Akershagen, Germany

Under these circumstances I doubt that the initiative for the Putin visit came from Budapest. It is no longer to Orbán’s benefit to make a lavish display of friendship with Russia. And indeed, the government is trying to downplay the importance of Putin’s visit, noting that it is only a working trip and not a state visit with the usual fanfare. For Putin, by contrast, it is an important trip at a time when nobody wants to have anything to do with him. Just think of the humiliation he suffered in Brisbane, Australia. He wants to demonstrate that he has at least one good friend  in the European Union.

Putin’s second reason for the trip, I suspect along with others, is to find out how much he can rely on Viktor Orbán. Will he deliver as promised? Or it was just talk? Perhaps Orbán oversold his usefulness to Putin and is turning out to be a useless ally from the Russian point of view. Last August Jan-Werner Müller wrote an article in Foreign Affairs titled “Moscow’s Trojan Horse: In Europe’s Ideological War, Hungary Picks Putinism.” Well, the Trojan Horse may be just an empty shell and the damage it can cause within the European Union little to none.

Sándor Kerekes: Letter to Angela Merkel

Dear Chancellor Merkel:

I am impelled to write to you on the occasion of your impending visit to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary in February. I have no doubt that your able staff is more than adequately preparing your visit; however, I wish to add to that a point of view representing the Hungarian perspective.

Surely, you are aware that the government of PM Orbán and his Fidesz Party have relentlessly attacked and emasculated most institutions of the democratic state ever since their election in May 2010. But, just to keep up appearances, they have maintained them as a façade, populating them with their own appointees, often for nine and twelve-year terms, thus rendering them unable and unwilling to carry out their original, constitutional functions, since the appointees only follow Fidesz instructions. From the outside they look like checks and balances to the unsuspecting viewer. However, nothing could be further from the facts. All those institutions are interconnected through the invisible network of personal and party connections, all serving to promote the political and financial interests of a selected few of Viktor Orbán’s friends. In fact, those institutions are only there to serve as a disguise, hiding the actual operations of a government whose single and concentrated aim is to siphon as much of the country’s resources to the hands of this small coterie, as possible.

The street demonstrations of recent days mobilizing tens of thousands of people almost every other day, demanding democracy and fair government, are largely concerned with the ever-increasing corruption of the government. Those thousands are in dire need of help that could surely come from you Madame Chancellor. This monumental, institutional corruption is seemingly unassailable by the people, because Parliament, as the Prime Minister’s voting machine, legislates and legalizes the constant, obvious thievery. And as it so often happens, if a superficially constructed piece of legislation should prove insufficient to cover up the crime, either a subsequent retroactive law will bend the rules after the fact, or all complaints will be rejected or ignored by the Prosecutor’s Office. Since the election in 2010, not one single corruption case was launched against any corrupt government official, despite the numerous cases submitted. It is not surprising; therefore, if many consider the government of Viktor Orbán as a well-functioning Mafia operation.

The presently concluded contract with Vladimir Putin’s Russia for the building and financing of the Paks 2 nuclear power plant is hugely disadvantageous to Hungary and yet a most rational pact in view of the rapacious corruption system. The contract includes a 20% Hungarian share in the financing – 2.5 billion Euros – that is available for stealing. Since the Hungarian state otherwise has run out of sources for available money to steal, this gigantic project will provide a copious source of corruption money for the coterie. At the same time, it may bankrupt the country, but by the time that will become clear, this Mafia will be long gone.

Under these circumstances, even the government of the United States raised a strenuous complaint and took the unprecedented step of banning certain government officials from its territory for reasons of corruption. At the same time, the United States government made it clear that it will not shirk from the confrontation, and insists that the Hungarian government must address the systemic corruption. So far, Viktor Orbán has resorted to lies, denial, and communications trickery, but taken no action.

Apart from some prestige projects, such as football stadiums and municipal beautifications, public investments ground to a halt years ago. Private capital is fleeing the country. If there is any investment at all in Hungary today, it is funded by European Union transfer money. In fact, over 90% of all public investment projects are financed by the European Union. But invariably, those projects are “one-off” short term ones that create neither lasting effect, nor permanent jobs for people. In fact, all that European Union financing is squandered on useless, short-term veneer, merely creating appearances and an opportunity for kickbacks. Presently, any government public bidding process is tailor-made for the single, Orbán-friendly bidder, and the general consensus is that the “usual” kickback is between 20 and 40%. Despite all this, the Orbán government is conducting an unrelenting verbal and political campaign against the European Union, the United States and most of all the ideals of liberal democracy.

The barren Hungarian puszta

The barren Hungarian puszta

When the European Parliament commissioned the Tavares Report, it was assumed in good faith that the problems of the Orbán Government were mere mistakes and with the help of the Report itself, with some good advice, and genteel prodding, the system could be corrected. Today it is clear that the Orbán government is by no means acting in good faith. In fact, the Tavares Report failed to recognize that Hungary is rapidly and intentionally sliding towards a one-party, single-ruler, authoritarian, illiberal regime. The Report was to no avail; the Hungarian government not only ignored it, but also legislated its rejection. All this was done in front of the uncaring eyes of the European Union.

While the officials and friends of the Orbán government are getting obviously and obscenely rich, the population of the country is sliding into deep poverty. Today, four million people are living under the poverty level, hundreds of thousands are starving and tens of thousands of children cannot get enough to eat. Poverty today is endemic in Hungary and it is increasing. Over the last four years, 500,000 of the mobile, enterprising people of Hungary have emigrated to other countries in the European Union, Germany amongst them.

Not wanting to extend needlessly the list of reasons for writing this letter, I wish to come to the obvious implications.

Hungary today is a disturbing foreign object in the very middle of the European Union. But because its transformation, running counter to everything European, is far from complete, it is likely that in the future she will be a cause for much more, and much more painful headaches within the European Union. The process of transformation is accelerating unbridled, and Hungary will be a source of an unhealthy inspiration, inviting any self-appointed tin-pot dictator to repeat the exercise: build an illiberal, single-ruler dictatorship and do it at the expense of the European Union. Why not? Nobody is raising any objections and the money keeps flowing to finance the process.

Madame Chancellor:

The interest of the European Union, the people of Hungary, and basic common sense dictate to submit to you the humble request that you, a dominant person in the European Union and in the World, give an unmistakable expression of disapproval to Mr. Orbán about what is happening in Hungary. It is inconceivable, and yet a strange fact of life, that the European Union and its citizenry should generously finance Hungary’s corruption, its war against Western Values and Mr. Orbán’s campaign against the people of his own country. Why should the European Union pour billions of Euros into a few people’s pockets, just to enable them to steal even more?

The suspension or denial of the transfer payments would bring the insane policies of the Orbán government to a screeching halt since nothing but these payments keeps it going.

The European Union, on the other hand, would greatly benefit from saving those billions by using them for more worthy purposes than stuffing the pockets of a corrupt regime that uses them as an opportunity to conduct a surreptitious anti-European, anti-liberal, people-busting war in peace time.

Dear Madame Chancellor:

I fervently hope that my suggestions coincide with your own intentions, and that your highly anticipated visit to Hungary will bring the beneficial results most of us are hoping for. It would be a bitter disappointment for the entire country if Prime Minister Orbán could in any way interpret your visit as a public relations success and a stamp of approval on his policies.

Very truly yours,

Sándor Kerekes

—-

Sándor Kerekes is a freelance journalist whose articles regularly appear in Kanadai Magyar Hírlap. He also wrote several articles in the past for Hungarian Spectrum.