Barack Obama

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.”

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Ferenc Gyurcsány on the Merkel and Putin visits to Budapest

Reckless Despair

The first days and weeks of the new year are ideal for making promises, trying to find explanations, and perhaps also posing questions of great importance, i.e. strategic questions. This is all the more so in the discourse of leading Western European politicians. On the one hand, the beginning of the new year and, on the other hand, the tragedies and challenges that happened in the first days of this year have drawn their attention – just as their voters’ – to a number of questions. For this very reason, they have been mainly occupied with European issues, while putting their own domestic policy issues onto the back burner.

Obligation, contract, agreement Yes, lately the wind has gotten stronger but  I'm master of the situation

Obligation, contract, agreement
Yes, lately the wind has gotten stronger but I’m the master of the situation

For example, in his speech to the European Parliament on January 12, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi – besides evaluating the Italian presidency of the EU in the second half of 2014 – called for the strengthening of European solidarity. He also criticised populists and the pessimistic views concerning the future of the Union. In addition, he called attention to the benefits stemming from the economic stimulus of the European investment plan unveiled by Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Union.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls gave a rousing speech to the French National Assembly – interrupted multiple times by the warm applause of the parliamentary caucuses. Even right-wing parties
described the speech as ‘historic’. The session was opened with a minute of silence in remembrance of the victims of the Paris terrorist attacks. After that, members of parliament – in a move unprecedented since 1918 – spontaneously sung the Marseillaise.

In a speech delivered onboard the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle (which was just leaving a French port), the President of the French Republic, François Hollande, promised to review the decision on the reduction of the national armed forces. He called attention to the fact that terrorism must be fought wherever it rears its head: if needed, beyond the borders of France, but if necessary, within France as well. Hollande’s decisive action following the Paris terrorist attacks was praised by French newspapers, which argue that now Hollande truly has become the President of France in spite of the fact that he is still unpopular in certain segments of French society.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel – in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin – talked to the leading figures of the German political landscape about the importance of Europe’s and Germany’s unity. British Prime Minister David Cameron conducted negotiations in Washington with President Barack Obama concerning the new situation. Before, he had mentioned that he would be happy about an early referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union. Meanwhile, British newspapers published articles saying that Europe’s very essence has been attacked.

Thus Europe’s political leaders will not focus on Hungary in the coming months but on preserving the continent’s security, freedom and its democratic system. It is hard to believe that the present situation in Hungary would be seriously raised and dealt with during more important EU discussions. Therefore, the German Chancellor’s visit to Budapest on February 2 will most likely not focus on the domestic political situation in Hungary. Should the well-known differences of opinion on this issue be raised, Angela Merkel will present them in private in accordance with diplomatic rules and in an extremely polite manner. Thus, expectations in Hungarian opposition circles should be lowered. It will not be Merkel who will accomplish the most important task of Hungary’s democrats, which is overturning the Orbán regime.

Will everything stay the same? I would not say that with certainty. Although there is still no alternative political force that could lead Hungary out of the crisis – which was precipitated by the Fidesz regime and the System of National Cooperation, leaders in the West – in Washington, Brussels and, of course, in Berlin – have also realized that the regime itself is the major cause of the crisis; so if someone wants to put an end to the chaos in Hungary, which is looming more and more as a result of the government’s measures, the Orbán regime must be changed. Replacing certain people in the government and reshuffling some institutions will no longer suffice. When the time comes, the whole direction must be changed, and it must be changed drastically.

What will show the way for the future is not what follows the visit of Angela Merkel, but what follows the visit of Vladimir Putin. The first visit might be viewed as a test probe by the West, but the Russian President’s visit is no less important. Let us see what we can expect.

The West wants to know whether Viktor Orbán understands the American and European message, which are becoming increasingly the same. Their message is not that they refuse Orbán’s domestic and foreign policy line, which has been well known to the Hungarian prime minister for some time, but that playing both sides is now over.

Putin wants to know the real content of Orbán’s proffer of friendship, which may have contained promises he cannot or no longer wants to fulfill. He wants to know whether he can expect Orbán to serve – in the long term as well – the interests that guide the Kremlin’s anti-European and anti-American policies, or will his promises, which hitherto have remained unfulfilled, continue to ring hollow? After all, when the chips were down Hungary always voted with the rest of the EU countries.

Merkel and Putin will face a Budapest that expects too much from the former and wants less and less from the latter. Both leaders might appreciate the emotions shown them, which will be slightly intrusive in the case of Merkel, and, by contrast, very dismissive in the case of Putin. They might also perceive the vacuum the prime minister got himself into as a result of selling his country’s interests for pennies on the dollar (instead of protecting them) and the audacious hopelessness with which the Hungarian people nowadays look toward their future. It will be an illuminating visit for both leaders.

—–

Ferenc Gyurcsány is the chairman of the Democratic Coalition and former prime minister of Hungary. The original Hungarian appeared in Népszabadság on January 28, 2015.

 

 

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

The G20 summit: Hungarian right-wing newspapers on Vladimir Putin in Brisbane

If I did not have such a low opinion of the hacks at Magyar Nemzet,  Magyar Hírlap, and Válasz, I would feel sorry for them today when they had to cover the G20 summit in Brisbane, Australia. By all reports, Putin was completely isolated and, in fact, at times was even humiliated. While Barack Obama and the Chinese premier Xi Jinping were met by the governor general and attorney general on their arrival, Putin was greeted by the assistant defense minister.

Pro-government papers had to tiptoe around the delicate topic of Vladimir Putin’s less than friendly reception by practically all the other participants. After all, the Hungarian government has been on an anti-American, anti-EU course for some time while relations with Russia have been rosy. In fact, an opinion piece that appeared in the Russian newspaper Vedimosti called Viktor Orbán our man in the European Union.

News portals critical of the government reported the events pretty much the way other western papers did. Almost all of them mentioned Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s less than diplomatic words to Putin: “I guess I’ll shake your hand but I have only one thing to say to you: you need to get out of Ukraine.” They said there were rumors of Putin’s early departure from Brisbane. They included Obama’s statement that Putin’s policies are “a threat to the world” and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s warning about further financial sanctions against Russia if Putin does not recall Russian troops from Eastern Ukraine. They also called attention to Putin’s lowly place at the far left of the formal G20 leaders’ photograph and reported on anti-Putin demonstrations.

G20 Brisbane afp

So, let’s see how the right-wing Hungarian press reported the events in Brisbane. It was Válasz that first tackled the topic with the headline “Obama harshly attacked Putin,” although the bulk of the article was about other things: climate change, strategic cooperation in the Far East, and environmental issues. Válasz specializes in misleading headlines. The MTI report they used also quoted Yuri Ushakov, foreign adviser to Putin, who insisted that Russia has nothing to do with the fighting in Eastern Ukraine. As far as the sanctions are concerned, the Russian position is that “they are illegal and contrary to the United Nation’s Charter.” Not a word about Putin’s problems and the unity of the G20 on the Ukrainian issue.

Magyar Hírlap‘s early report did not rely on MTI. Its headline set the tone: “The West threatens again with sanctions.” According to Putin, the sanctions are harmful for all concerned, including Ukraine. Russia has enough reserves to weather the sanctions. The article also quotes Yuri Ushakov, who informed the public about the forthcoming bilateral talks between Putin and British Prime Minister David Cameron as well as Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott. The article adds that the Russian daily paper Kommersant reported that refugees from southeastern territories of Ukraine turned to the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg against the Kiev government. They demand financial compensation. All in all, the article relies almost exclusively on Russian sources and reflects the Russian point of view. This should not be a surprise because Magyar Hírlap‘s political ideology lies roughly at the intersection of Jobbik and Fidesz.

Magyar Nemzet was rather slow at reporting on the event. The headline quotes Obama as saying that “Russia is a threat to the world.” At the beginning of the article the journalists DA and KaG summarize the main events of the day: David Cameron said that Russia may face new sanctions if Putin continues with its current policies, Obama considers the Russian policies dangerous, and officially the agenda is about global economic stimuli.

After describing the lovely reception of the delegations of the G20 and Angela Merkel’s wonderful time mingling with Australians on the street, the article continues: “The reception of Vladimir Putin was cooler. Allegedly the Canadian prime minister told him to get out of Ukraine.” They also mention Herman van Rompuy’s and David Cameron’s harsh words about the Russian aggression. It looks as if this particular article was based on information picked up from western sources.

One could say that, however briefly, Magyar Nemzet covered the most important points. Four hours later, however, a new article appeared about the Brisbane summit that “corrected” the earlier picture. Here we learn that Putin will indeed leave early “because the western countries put pressure on him in connection with the Ukrainian crisis.” In this article the emphasis is on the Russian point of view. It recalls an interview with Vladimir Putin with the German ARD television station in which he talked about the adverse effects of the sanctions, not just for Russia but for all countries, including Ukraine. Russian banks have 25 billion dollars in Ukraine which they could certainly recall. The article quotes Dmitri Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, who described the meeting of Putin with Merkel in which “President Putin explained the Russian point of view on Ukraine in great detail.” In addition, it again mentions Putin’s interview on ARD TV in which Putin said that “Russia will not allow the Ukrainian army to destroy all its political adversaries.” Apparently he was talking about the pro-Russian separatists of Eastern Ukraine. Furthermore, according to Putin, Russia’s “European and American partners are not doing any favor to Ukraine when they ruin its financial basis or limit our financial institutions’ possibilities of reaching the international markets. Do they want to ruin their banks? With that move they ruin Ukraine.”

I wonder how long this particular point of view will prevail in Hungary. On Monday there will be a meeting of EU foreign ministers which Hungary’s “super diplomat” will attend. The topic will be new sanctions against Russia. I might mention here that Angela Merkel spent altogether four hours with Vladimir Putin. The first two hours the two spoke alone. In the second half Jean-Claude Junker joined them. If Dmitri Peskov gave an accurate account of the meeting, I have the feeling that new sanctions are forthcoming. After all, according Putin’s spokesman, the Russian president simply described the Russian position. And we all know what that is.

No Internet tax but attacks on the United States continue

On Friday Viktor Orbán was still determined that after a national consultation the internet tax would be introduced sometime next year. Today he retreated from this position. He suggested that the internet providers’ unanimous opposition to the tax was the reason for removing the item from the government’s 2015 budget proposal. I very much doubt that the joint letter of the providers addressed to Mihály Varga had anything to do with the decision. Rather, Orbán recognized that his attempt to simply postpone the decision would not appease the multitudes of internet users. There was a very good possibility that the demonstrations would be repeated from time to time, further damaging the reputation of the government and Viktor Orbán personally. Despite this retreat, however, I have the feeling that in one way or the other curtailing internet access will be back on Viktor Orbán’s agenda. He is only too aware that almost all of the large demonstrations against his government were organized on Facebook. Social media is a danger to autocrats.

Now that this issue is behind us, I would like to return to the Orbán government’s relations with two of its adversaries at the moment: the United States and Norway. You may recall that János Lázár invited the “appropriate Norwegian minister” to meet with him either in Budapest or in Brussels. I predicted that Vidar Helgesen, the minister in question, would not oblige. And indeed, Tove Skarstein, Norwegian ambassador in Budapest, held a press conference today where she announced that Norway does not recognize the right of the Hungarian government to investigate the Ökotárs Foundation. Norway is in the middle of conducting its own probe, which will be ready by the end of November. Until then, the monies of the Norway Civic Fund will continue to be distributed through Ökotárs. It is unlikely that the Hungarian government will be the winner of this dispute. So far the Orbán government has been left holding the short end of the stick: the Norwegian Funds suspended payment of some 40 billion forints that the Hungarian government was supposed to distribute for various projects.

After the meeting of the Fidesz parliamentary caucus a journalist asked Viktor Orbán about the U.S. travel ban on the six Hungarian officials and businessmen. As we know, the reason for the ban is not just simple corruption but also American fear that the reported cases would not be investigated by the police and the prosecutor’s office. In plain English, there is a well-founded suspicion that the government is complicit in the crime itself.

Viktor Orbán does not like to talk about this sensitive topic, and apparently the subject did not come up at today’s meeting of the parliamentarians. Of course it didn’t because it was not on the agenda. When asked whether he knows the names of the six people in question, Orbán’s answer was: “if the Americans tell me, then I will be glad to tell.” The game Orbán is playing is rather simple-minded. He would gladly investigate and if necessary bring the culprits to justice, but the Americans with their stupid laws prevent him from doing so. One has to be very naive to think that Orbán does not know the names or that the prosecutor’s office could not investigate their cases.

It seems to me that there is still a huge confusion about how to deal with the frayed American-Hungarian relations. On the one hand, Viktor Orbán at least twice tried to discourage the far-right leaders of the Peace Marches from organizing an anti-American rally. On the other hand, members of his government are accusing Bunge, the American agribusiness corporation, of corruption. Bunge is most likely the company that reported the corrupt tax authority officials to the American embassy. A few days ago Magyar Nemzet accused Bunge of corruption in Argentina, and today András Tállai, undersecretary in the Ministry of National Economy, went further. According to him, “it is a very interesting situation that in the final analysis it is possible, nay it is certain, that the informer itself is involved with the fraud.” That is, Bunge is being accused of tax fraud. And that’s not all. Magyar Hírlap learned that Carol Browner, Barack Obama’s adviser on environmental matters, recently became a member of Bunge’s board of directors. And, the paper added, Browner was also a member of the Clinton administration. The headline reads: “The threads may lead all the way to Barack Obama.” Wow!  Magyar Hírlap is a big game hunter.

Bunge says it is not under VAT fraud investigation Source: www.bbj.hu

Bunge says it is not under VAT fraud investigation
Source: http://www.bbj.hu

János Lázár also made it clear how he feels about the United States’ role in shining a light on corruption in the Hungarian tax authority. When an MSZP member of parliament inquired about Ildikó Vida, the head of the office, Lázár retorted: “How do you know that she is involved? For an answer it would be enough to bring the flag of the United States and put it between the European and the Hungarian flags because then we would understand that behind the MSZP caucus there is the Budapest chargé of the United States.” He also suggested to Bernadett Szél (LMP) that she go to the United States embassy and ask them why they intimate that part of Hungarian officialdom is corrupt.

Meanwhile the right and far-right media are full of attacks on the stupid, ignorant and boorish Americans and their representative, M. André Goodfriend, as opposed to the Russians of Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Dostoevsky. Since we all know that a single word from Viktor Orbán would be enough to silence these hacks, we can safely assume that the rants from the staff of Magyar Nemzet and Magyar Hírlap are not against the wishes of the Orbán government.

The Hungarian government turns up the heat on the NGOs

Yesterday I wrote about Viktor Orbán’s pro-Russian policy, which does not endear him to Washington. Another sore point is the Hungarian treatment of certain NGOs and the attacks of late on independent organizations that receive money from the Norwegian Civic Fund. Barack Obama specifically mentioned the importance of NGOs as watchdogs over rogue states like Hungary. One would think that Viktor Orbán might try to mend fences with the U.S. by retreating a bit on this issue and not pursuing the controversial attacks on the Ökotárs Foundation, the distributor of the Norwegian Civic Funds. But no, these attacks have shifted into even higher gear.

In May the government ordered KEHI (Kormányzati Ellenőrző Hivatal = State Audit) to investigate the case. The Norwegians consider the investigation illegal because in their opinion the money Ökotárs distributed among several NGOs was not part of the Hungarian budget. The money never entered the Hungarian treasury in any way. The funds came straight from an office entrusted with the task located in Brussels.

If the Hungarian government had wanted to remove at least this particular sore point from the agenda, they could have quietly dropped the case and simply forgotten about the report KEHI prepared. Or they could have come out with a very mild reprimand for some lax practices. But Viktor Orbán wouldn’t be Viktor Orbán if he had chosen that path. Instead, yesterday KEHI released its 40-page report in which it accused Ökotárs of mismanagement, fraud, forgery of private documents, and unauthorized financial activities.

As usual, Magyar Nemzet was the first publication to write about the report. Their initial article indicated that the KEHI document is already in the hands of János Lázár. From that point on Magyar Nemzet kept publishing shocking reports about the frivolous items these NGOs spent their money on. The one that caused the greatest uproar was the purchase of tampons. It turned out that the Kékpont Foundation was guilty of this particular crime. The foundation, which deals with drug addicts, gave “motivational” hygienic packages to the addicts, and the tampons were in packages distributed to the women. All these stories came out in Magyar Nemzet before the report was made available to the Ökotárs Foundation.

Yesterday at last the document itself appeared on KEHI’s website. Okotárs over the years distributed 500 million forints and KEHI found something wrong with 200 million worth of the grants. Actually, the questionable items amounted to only 10 million (about $41,000). Yet Lázár is outraged and wants to renegotiate the contract with the Norwegian government. He promptly invited the “appropriate Norwegian minister” to Hungary for a friendly chat. Then, perhaps realizing the absurdity of his suggestion, he added that after all he would be ready to meet the Norwegian politician in Brussels.

Norwegian flag

What will Lázár tell the “appropriate Norwegian minister”? Norway should break the contract with the Ökotárs Foundation since it is not worthy of Norway’s trust. The funds should be distributed by “state or private organizations.” The English translation of the report will be sent to the Norwegian ambassador in Budapest as well as to the European Commission.

But not all accusations are in the KEHI report. Népszabadság reported that investigators at KEHI complained about Veronika Móra’s frequent meetings with American diplomats as well as her visits to the Norwegian embassy. These kinds of contacts are suspect in the eyes of the regime, as we know from Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal” speech in Romania.

Meanwhile Magyar Nemzet kept attacking both the Norwegian government and Ökotárs. Yesterday morning an article appeared in the paper which claimed, on the basis of information coming from KEHI, that Ökotárs passed on important documents for safekeeping to the Norwegian embassy. And that is not all. Officials at the embassy postdated certain documents. While KEHI investigators were at it, they decided to accuse the Financial Mechanism Office (FMO) that handles the Norwegian funds in Brussels of complicity because its official suggested to Ökotárs that it move all its documents out of Hungary.

Late last night journalists from more independent media outlets began looking at the findings of KEHI. András Földes of Index observed that only in history books could one find examples of such accusations that used to lay the groundwork for show trials in the Rákosi period. And, he added, “the officials are actually proud of it.” The proof presented to the journalists did not convince them, but they surmised that the officials of KEHI simply did what was expected of them by the Hungarian government. The results were preordained. Without going into the details, the KEHI officials, by pasting together parts of different sentences, actually falsified the intended meaning of Ökotárs’s CEO. The reporter for Index cites several dubious practices of KEHI that call into question the validity of the charges.

In light of the above it is no surprise that Veronika Móra, CEO of Ökotárs, said to MTI today that it is impossible to respond to “accusations that are not supported by facts.” If the KEHI officials found irregularities, they should have described them precisely, but in the document one finds only generalizations. It is full of phrases like: “it also happened,” “there was also such a case.” Ökotárs is ready to go to court and hopes for a favorable verdict.

As for the Norwegian response to the publication of the KEHI report, according to a brief English-language article on the Norwegian internet site, The Local, the Norwegian government already considered the KEHI probe illegal and it is unlikely that after this most likely fraudulent report they will change their minds. It is worth quoting some passages from this article:

Hungary’s squeeze on foreign-funded NGOs has been criticized by Norway and the United States…. US President Barack Obama last month included Hungary in a list of countries where “endless regulations and overt intimidation increasingly target civil society.”…  Relations between the US and Hungary sank further last week when Washington issued entry bans to six unnamed Hungarian government officials it suspected of corruption. The US charge d’affaires in Budapest, Andre Goodfriend, told AFP on Tuesday that “intimidation of civil society” as well as “centralisation of authority, lack of transparency, and corruption” could prevent the US continuing as an ally of Hungary.

Norway was tough all along but now it must feel even more hardened since the United States is supporting its stance on this matter.

Viktor Orbán picks another fight with the West, this time over the Southern Stream

I know that everybody is intensely interested in the Hungarian government’s latest brainstorm, the introduction of an internet tax, but I would rather wait with an analysis of this latest scandal until it becomes clear what the fate of the proposal will be. So far the reaction to this new tax has been so vehement that the government most likely will have to retreat. When an article in the right-wing Válasz predicts that “if we had an election today Fidesz would lose big,” I think it’s time to order a quick turnabout. I would like to add just one observation on a related topic: the Hungarian budget must be in a sorry state if an additional tax must be levied on soap and detergent, allegedly because they are harmful to the environment. Let’s not contemplate the detrimental effect of curtailing the use of soap because this would take us too far afield.

So, instead of dealing with the effects of an internet tax, I will look at other recent governmental decisions that have been detrimental to Hungary’s relations with the United States and the European Union. What I have in mind is Viktor Orbán’s flirtation with Putin’s Russia, which is being watched with growing concern in Washington and Brussels. Already there have been a couple of moves indicating close cooperation with Russia that raised eyebrows in the democratic world: the building of a nuclear power plant by a Russian firm on Russian money, Hungary’s refusal to support the common European position on the Russian sanctions, a tête-à-tête between Gazprom and the Hungarian prime minister followed by the Hungarian decision to stop supplying gas to Ukraine, and the government’s decision to let Gazprom use Hungarian facilities to store gas in case Russia cuts off the flow of gas through Ukraine.

These moves worried and irritated the United States and the European Union, only compounding their concerns about all the transgressions of the rules of democracy committed by the Fidesz government against the Hungarian people. Years have gone by; at last western politicians are slowly, ever so slowly deciding that they have had enough. After Norway it was the United States that openly showed its dissatisfaction with the domestic and foreign policies of the Orbán government. Yet, as the last few days have demonstrated, Viktor Orbán is not changing tactics. On the contrary, as I wrote yesterday, he is strengthening ties with countries whose relations with the United States and the European Union are strained. Almost as if Viktor Orbán purposefully wanted to have an open break with Hungary’s western allies.

Yesterday one could still hope that Viktor Orbán would  come to his senses and would at least make some gestures, but as yesterday’s meeting between Péter Szijjártó and Victoria Nuland indicated, the new Hungarian foreign minister was sent to Washington without a Plan B. By today, however, most likely in his absence, the government came out with a new idea. What if the Hungarian office of taxation and customs (NAV) announces that in the last several years they have been diligently pursuing their investigation of those criminal elements who through tax fraud unfairly competed against the American company Bunge? Maybe it will work. Mihály Varga, minister of national economy, announced this morning that four of the culprits are already in jail. Very nice, but there is a fly in the ointment. Most likely the U.S. State Department remembers, as I do, that András Horváth, the whistleblower at NAV, months ago gave a detailed description of the ways in which these criminals operated. He asked NAV to investigate and disclose their findings, but the managers of the tax office first fired Horváth and a couple of days later announced that after an internal investigation found everything in perfect order. So I doubt that the Americans will fall for that bogus story.

Yesterday Portfólió asked “how to make the USA more angry with Hungary,” but they “did not have the faintest idea that the government has been holding the best answer to that and it beats every idea [the Portfólió] have ever had.” So, what is it? In order to understand the situation we have to go back to the controversy over Russia’s new pipeline already under construction–the Southern Stream–that would supply Russian gas to Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, Slovenia, Greece, and Italy. The United States and the European Union were never too happy about the project and now, in the middle of the Russian-Ukrainian crisis, they are especially leery of Putin’s plans. In fact, the European Commission asked the Bulgarians to stop the construction of the pipeline in their country. They obliged. The European Union also warned Serbia that they can forget about future membership in the European Union if they agree to support the project right now.

southern stream

In Hungary construction has not yet begun, but the Orbán government seemed to be afraid that something similar would happen to them what happened to the Bulgarians. They decided to act. Changing the law by now has become a Fidesz pastime. Today Antal Rogán proposed an amendment to a 2008 law on natural gas that will allow any gas company to construct a pipeline. The original law, in harmony with laws of a similar nature in other countries, specified that the company in charge of the construction has to be a certified transmission system operator who must conform to international rules. Since pipelines are transnational projects, the countries involved must coordinate their individual projects. What the Hungarians hope is that as a result of this amendment Hungary will not be bound by any international constraint. Starting the project will depend only on the Hungarian Energy Office, which could give permission to any company it chooses to construct the pipeline. Portfólió suspects that both the European Union and the United States will be “furious” upon hearing this latest Hungarian ruse.

Clever Hungarian lawyers, who seem to specialize in circumventing the letter of the law, might think that this scheme is foolproof, but I suspect that EU lawyers will find the legislation full of holes. Hungarian papers suggest that the Orbán government is playing for time. But the case is settled, they argue; the pipeline will be built. Surely no one will force Hungary to destroy it.

Let’s contemplate another scenario. What if the European Union and the United States in joint action put such pressure on the Hungarian government that the plan must be abandoned? As it is, according to analysts, Budapest is already between a rock and a hard place. When political scientist Gábor Török, who has the annoying habit of sitting on the fence, says that “the Orbán government is in big trouble. It was before but now it is different. It will not fall, surely not now…. But if it does not recognize the fork in the road or if it chooses the wrong road, we will mark the events of today as a definite turning point.” And in an interview this afternoon Ferenc Gyurcsány twice repeated his belief that Hungary is at the verge of leaving the Union and, when it happens, it will not be Viktor Orbán’s choice.

I wouldn’t go that far, but I do predict that the screws will be tightened. Among those who will apply pressure will be Norway since the Hungarian government audit office just came out with its report claiming that Ökotárs, the organization in charge of distributing the Norwegian Civil Funds, has used the money inappropriately. A criminal investigation will be launched.

We know that Barack Obama said that the American government supports NGOs in countries where they are under fire. Today we learned that Veronika Móra, chairman of Ökotárs, was a member of a delegation that visited Washington in late September. During that trip the NGO leaders were received by President Obama in the White House. By contrast, Péter Szijjártó did not get any higher than one of the assistant undersecretaries of the State Department. If I were Viktor Orbán, I would take that as a warning.