Barack Obama

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

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

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

Human Rights First

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Viktor Orbán’s Hungary: “An illiberal democracy”

Now at last we have the road map for Hungary under the leadership of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. As László Szily of Cink wrote, the Transylvanian air has a strange effect on him because it is usually there at this time of the year that he delivers a visionary sermon about his plans for the future. The mostly middle-aged audience listens to him in awe, not realizing the true meaning of his words.

This time he was brutally honest. He is in the middle of introducing a different kind of political system: illiberal democracy. This simple message was couched in pseudo-scientific language, giving the false impression that he has both a wide and a deep knowledge of the world. This knowledge leads him to great discoveries, which sooner or later will bring spectacular results to the Hungarian nation. “Our time will come,” he added at the conclusion of his speech.

So, what is illiberal democracy? The concept became popular in political science circles in the late 1990s after Fareed Zakaria, an Indian-born American journalist and author, published an article in the November-December 1997 issue of Foreign Affairs. In it he argued that in the West “democracy meant liberal democracy–a political system marked not only by free and fair elections, but also by the rule of law, a separation of powers, and property. This bundle of freedoms which might be termed constitutional liberalism is theoretically different and historically distinct from democracy.” In his scheme “democracy” is very narrowly defined. For him democracy simply means “free and fair elections.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton obviously agreed with Zakaria when she told the leaders of the Hungarian opposition in Budapest in June 2011 that as long as there are free and fair elections Hungary is a democratic country.

But in Zakaria’s view “constitutional liberalism” is what gives real meaning to Western democracy. He calls this liberalism constitutional because it rests on the rule of law that is a defense of the individual’s right to life, property, freedom of religion and speech. This is what Viktor Orbán wants to abolish in Hungary. There will be elections (more or less free though not fair), but the real backbone of our modern western political system, checks and balances, limits on the actions of the government, will be abolished if it depends on Viktor Orbán. And, unfortunately, at the moment it does depend on him.

Orbán was very careful to avoid defining liberalism as a political philosophy because if his audience had any knowledge of what liberals believe in, it should have been patently obvious to them that his plans involve depriving his fellow citizens of their individual rights. Instead, he invoked a popular saying about the extent of an individual’s liberty that in no way touches on the essence of liberalism: “one person’s freedom ends where another person’s freedom begins.” The cliché apparently has its origin in Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s claim that “Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins.”

Explaining the inexpicable Viktor Orbán in Tusnád/Băile Tușnad

Explaining the inexplicable
Viktor Orbán in Tusnád/Băile Tușnad

From this saying Orbán derives far-reaching conclusions about the meaning of liberalism. In his view, in such a system the stronger always wins. In his world, the idea that “everything is allowed” cannot be an organizing principle of the state. Instead, he suggests another concept: “One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself.” In brief, the state should adopt as its organizing principle the Golden Rule or the ethic of reciprocity. (That would be a tall order for the current Hungarian government.)

According to Orbán, the time of liberal democracies has come to an end. Something else, something better will come that will ensure “competitiveness” in this global economy. Orbán mentioned a few countries worth imitating: Singapore, China, India, Turkey, and Russia. What a happy prospect in the center of Europe!

Surely, he himself must have wondered whether he will be able to dismantle the rule of law in Hungary given the country’s membership in the European Union, but he convinced himself that he will be able to do it since the EU grants broad powers to the governments of the member states. And, after all, so far his building of an illiberal democracy, which has been going on for the past four years, hasn’t had any serious consequences.

Index‘s report on the speech bears the title: “Orbán is building an illiberal state and he is proud of it.” Cink is convinced that “not even Putin is as much of a Putinist as Orbán.” Indeed, it is unlikely that Putin would openly admit that he is building, or has built, an illiberal state.

Close to the end of his speech Orbán listed a number of unexpected global occurrences. For example, no one would have ever imagined that Barack Obama could be sued by Congress for repeatedly encroaching on Congress’s power. He expressed his utter astonishment and continued: “What do you think, how long could I stay in office if parliament could sue me for overstepping our authority?” Viktor Orbán does not even pretend. He tells the whole world that he has unlimited power. He has no shame. In fact, he is proud of it.

Foreign journalists should no longer have to pretend either. They don’t have to use milquetoast adjectives like “conservative,” “right-of-center,” and “conservative-nationalist” anymore. Call it what it is. A one-man dictatorship with more or less free but unfair elections.

Hungarian thread in the Polish scandal

This time we will make a trip to Poland, a country that in the last two weeks has been in political turmoil. It all began with some tapes released by Wprost, a news magazine, on which Marek Belka, governor of the Polish national bank, and Bartłomiej Sienkiewicz, minister of the interior, have a conversation in June 2013. During the conversation, one can hear Sienkiewicz asking Belka whether the central bank would help the government by cutting interest rates if Poland faced an economic meltdown before the elections this year. It appears that Belka says that “his condition would be the removal of the finance minister, Jacek Rostowki.” Rostowski was indeed removed in November 2013, but the national bank did not lower interest rates. Jaroslaw Kaczyński, the leader of the opposition Law and Justice party, said he would call for a no-confidence vote.

But what does all this have to do with Hungary? Well, as it turned out, Wprost had other tapes in its possession in which Polish politicians can be heard talking about international affairs. They certainly don’t mince words when talking about the United States, David Cameron, or, as it turned out, Viktor Orbán. The discussion is studded with such expletives and sexually explicit language that when I wanted to read the details of these conversations in IndexI was confronted with a page on which I had to attest that I was over eighteen. That will give you an idea.

But let’s first introduce you to the cast of characters. First and foremost, there is Radosław Sikorski, Poland’s foreign minister, who just threw his hat in the ring to replace Lady Catherine Ashton as high representative of the Union for foreign affairs and security policy and vice-president of the European Commission. On the released tape Sikorski has a conversation with Jacek Rostowski, the man who lost his job as finance minister last November. I have the feeling that after these revelations, Sikorski can forget about any position in Brussels. I even doubt that he will remain foreign minister of Poland for long.

Perhaps the  most damaging part of Sikorski’s remarks is what he had to say about U.S.-Polish relations, especially after Barack Obama’s visit to Poland and his promise of a billion dollars to beef up defenses in central and eastern Europe. Sikorski asserted that “the Polish-American alliance is worthless, even harmful, as it gives Poland a false sense of security. It’s bullsh..t.” Sikorski on the same tape allegedly said that the Polish people have the mentality of “murzyńkosć,” a derogatory and racially-loaded term meaning roughly “like a Negro.” “The problem in Poland is that we have very shallow pride and low self-esteem,” he added.

It turned out today when the whole tape was released by Wprost that Sikorski also has a very low opinion of David Cameron. The embarrassing details were  immediately reported by the British media. To get the full flavor of the conversation one should read an article published a few hours ago by The Guardian.

These are  juicy stories that are spreading rapidly in the international press. But other tapes were also released, one of which is about Hungary. Russian-Hungarian relations and the legal difficulties of Zsolt Hernádi, CEO of MOL, the Hungarian oil and gas company, were discussed by Dariusz Jacek Krawieć, CEO of PKN Orlen S.A., the Polish refinery, and Włodzimierz Karpiński, current minister of finance. It is that conversation that Index refuses to allow people under the age of eighteen to read. The upshot of it is that Orbán made a very bad deal and that Hungary by this loan agreement became a “vassal” of Russia.

And now on to Zsolt Hernádi, who is being accused in Croatia of paying €5 million to Ivo Sanader in exchange for a 48% stake in INA, the Croatian refinery company owned by the Croatian state. Soon enough formal charges were leveled against Hernádi and an international warrant was issued for his arrest. Hernádi was stuck in Hungary. Otherwise Interpol would have arrested him. It also seems that a former employee and a small investor in MOL sued Hernádi for damages she allegedly suffered as a result of the bribery charges leveled against Hernádi. In the first round, not terribly surprisingly, the court decided in his favor.

Zsolt Hernádi, a close ally and friend of Viktor Orbán / Source; maszol.ro

Zsolt Hernádi, a close ally and friend of Viktor Orbán / Source; maszol.ro

Jacek Krawiec adds spice to this story. Let me quote:

Listen, I’ll tell you a case which shows how different our situation is from that of the Hungarians. I visited Hernádi because he cannot leave Budapest. I asked him: “How many years will you get?” He was cool as a cucumber and smiled broadly. “Listen”–he said–“my lawyers found something. If in any one of the EU countries I am acquitted of these charges then all EU states must accept the verdict and so I can travel again in Europe.” I asked him: “Will this trial take place in Hungary?” He said, “Yes.” So, I told him that this might mean two or three years. His answer was: “There will be a verdict by April.”  Next to him sat a character, a legal director, a puffed-up character, Ábel somebody or other [actually Ábel Galácz, director in charge of sales]. Hernádi turned to him and said, “Ábel, tell Jacek who will bring the suit.” Ábel told me that it is his own wife! Do you understand? Imagine such a situation. The wife is the plaintiff, comes the acquittal, and all is taken care of. Can you imagine something like that happening in Poland?” To which Karpinski added: “This is what Kaczyński is dreaming of in Poland.”

The dates seem to support his story. In the middle of December Krawieć with a large delegation did come to Budapest to conduct business negotiations with MOL. It was on December 6 that MOL announced that a former MOL employee and small investor had sued Hernádi for bribery, corruption and damages resulting therefrom. By January 11, Népszabadság reported that something was fishy about this suit and learned from international legal experts that if Hernádi wins, Croatia must drop the charges and withdraw the warrant issued by Interpol against Hernádi.

So, the suit was a clever charade as even the right-wing press suspected. A reporter for Heti Válasz told Hernádi point blank that “allegedly you move Ilona Bánhegyi [the plaintiff] in order to get an acquittal and the appeal is just part of the ‘game.'” To which Hernádi answered, “I don’t wish on anyone that half an hour I spent waiting for the verdict. Who would place one’s fate in the hands of a judge in such an uncertain and politically charged case? I am only the incidental victim of this story.” Ilona Bánhegyi is appealing the case. I wonder what the judge of the appellate court will say once he reads this story in the newspapers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

McCain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Attack on the United States and friendship with “tolerant” Russia

Don’t think that the Hungarian government’s attack on the incoming American ambassador is independent of the Hungarian-Russian deal on the Paks power plant. Oh no, both have a great deal to do with the Hungarian government’s continuing war of independence. The newest ally in this fight is the “tolerant” and democratic Russia under Vladimir Putin. At least this is what András Bencsik, one of the organizers of the Peace Marches that demonstrated against the European Union, thinks.

If you think that I’m joking, you are wrong. Serious efforts are being made by Fidesz-Jobbik supporters  to recreate the old Soviet/Russian friendship from which twenty-three years ago Hungarians were happy to escape. The Fidesz-Jobbik label is not a mistake on my part. I consider Zsolt Bayer, András Bencsik, Gábor Széles and others involved in the Peace March movement outright anti-Semite neo-Nazis. And yes, they are supporters of the present government. The two are not mutually exclusive alternatives.

It all started with the letter addressed to Colleen Bell, the U.S. ambassador designate, who was accused by Gergely Gulyás, an influential member of Fidesz and an MP, of representing the interests of the Hungarian opposition. She was told in no uncertain terms that the Hungarian people will not stand for the tutelage of a foreign power. There is even talk of dragging the new ambassador before a parliamentary committee investigating American illegal spying on Hungarian politicians, including perhaps Viktor Orbán.

Of course, we all know that Gergely Gulyás would never dare to make such a frontal attack on the United States on his own. There is no question in my mind that a vicious anti-American propaganda is under way which might be connected to the forthcoming election as well as the possible domestic opposition to the Russian-Hungarian deal on Paks. In any case, the innocent victim of the political and diplomatic game will be Colleen Bell, who has not the foggiest idea what is waiting for her. I suspect she will soon be sorry that she ever had ambassadorial ambitions.

As soon as Gulyás set the tone, everybody on the right felt free to join the offensive. Even our “moderate” János Martonyi decided to line up and move Hungary’s attack against the United States abroad. He gave an interview to the Budapest correspondent of The Wall Street Journal in which he “urged the incoming U.S. ambassador to Budapest to stay independent in her judgment after Colleen Bradley Bell voiced concerns about the state of checks and balances in Hungary and independence of some of the country’s institutions.”

Naturally, Martonyi is more diplomatic than the far-right-wing Fidesz supporters like András Bencsik who feel just as comfortable in Jobbik’s Hungarian Guard as in Fidesz (and earlier, in the case of Bencsik, in communist circles). Bencsik is a man of action. This morning he wrote a short piece on Facebook in which he announced his plans to organize another Peace March, not surprisingly a week before the election, on March 29. Of course, one goal is to fire up the core Fidesz electorate. But it will be a demonstration against the United States “which takes up the role of the Soviet Union. It doesn’t send ambassadors but arrogant regional governors, instructors, commissars to the subjugated country whose job is to relay tidbits of the ideas of the enslaved people to the heart of the empire. Their job is to force these primitive people to lead a prescribed life: ‘checks and balances and marijuana.'” The last refers to President Obama’s views on the legalization of marijuana. “In comparison Russia is the home of tolerance.”

Bencsik in this Facebook note interprets “checks and balances” as some kind of geopolitical balance that was, for example, practiced by the princes of Transylvania who maneuvered  between the Ottoman and the Habsburg Empires. With closer relations with Russia, Bencsik argues, Hungary can have a larger role to play in foreign affairs and will thus receive greater independence. Of course, not everybody will be happy with this new Russian-Hungarian friendship, just as Izsák Schulhof mourned the departure of the Turks from Buda. What? Who is this Schulhof? Bencsik, an anti-Semite, naturally found his anti-Hungarian Jew who allegedly mourned the departure of the escaping Turks from Buda in 1686. As usual, the story is not accurate. A friend of mine sent me a link to a letter of a historian of the Budapest Historical Museum which sets the story straight. It seems that these anti-Semites manage to find some usually untrue story to depict Jews as historically against the Hungarian nation. The implication of Bencsik’s reference to Schulhof is that only Jews complain about the foreign policy of Viktor Orbán which otherwise gives greater leeway for diplomatic maneuvering and therefore is beneficial to Hungary.

paks1

paks2

Some Hungarian weeklies had fantastic covers depicting this new love affair between Viktor Orbán and Vladimir Putin. András Bencsik’s Magyar Demokrata, on the other hand, decided to feature the new “museum quarter” in the heart of Budapest.

Heti Válasz opted for word play on “pax vobiscum” from the Catholic mass,  meaning “peace be with you,” while Figyelő talked about “atomic power.” HVG reminded its readers of the “Eastern bloc.” I especially like Magyar Narancs’s “The country is on Putin’s hook.” The pictures appeared on 444.hu.

Another political appointee as U.S. ambassador to Hungary?

Way back in May, Al Kamen of The Washington Post wrote on his popular blog “In the Loop” that about fifty new ambassadors will be named  by Barack Obama. As he said, “many high-rolling Obama contributors have been jockeying for these plum jobs since the day after the election.” Kamen mentioned a few of the possible appointees and among them was Colleen Bell, the producer of the TV soap “The Bold and the Beautiful,” who “is in line for a posting, perhaps Belgium or Hungary.” Well, it looks as if it is Hungary. It is not yet official, but people in the know think that her appointment is likely.

Those who are not familiar with American soap operas–I’m one of them–can learn from soaps.com that the daytime show, which started in 1987, focuses on the trials and tribulations of the beautiful people of the fashion world in Beverly Hills.

Colleen Bell might be the next ambassador to Hungary / Source: www.welovesoaps.com

Colleen Bell might be the next ambassador to Hungary. Source: http://www.welovesoaps.com

According to Wikipedia, Colleen Bell is also a philanthropist and an advocate for the environment, arts, and social causes. And what is most important when it comes to an ambassadorship is that she and her husband are generous contributors to Democratic causes and specifically to the Obama campaign. Just as Eleni Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis, the last U.S. ambassador to Hungary (2010-2013) was. April H. Foley (2006-2009) was a contributor to Republican causes (and was George W. Bush’s girlfriend at the Harvard Business School). For three years, between October 2003 and August 2006, a cousin of the elder Bush got the job after Nancy Goodman Brinker (2001-2003), another generous contributor to the Republican party, was called back to occupy an important position in the Bush campaign.

In the last twenty years all U.S. ambassadors to Hungary were political appointees. In fact, with the exception of the ambassadors appointed immediately after World War I and World War II, career diplomats rarely served as ambassadors in Budapest. The list of U.S. ambassadors to Hungary is available online.

When Barack Obama ran for office he promised to change the system of rewarding top donors with ambassadorships. As you can see, the practice is continuing unabated. I suppose one could argue that these appointees have the advantage of easier access to the president. But they operate within the framework of the State Department, not the White House, so this so-called advantage rarely makes a real difference.

How have the last two ambassadors worked out? Foley did more harm than good. She was an ardent neo-conservative who suspected communists around every corner. She received plenty of ammunition to feed her distorted view of Hungarian politics from Viktor Orbán, who charmed her. She consulted more with the opposition than with government officials. One of her favorites was János Martonyi, who is capable of looking like a perfect democrat and a moderate but who continues in his post as foreign minister despite being entirely ignored by the prime minister, who conducts his own foreign policy with his minions. Foley fed all of her suspicions to the State Department, whose staff seemed to have been taken in by her misinformation and became convinced that the Hungarian government was courting Putin’s Russia. At one point the relationship between Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány and April Foley was so strained that they refused to speak to each other.

As for Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis, I devoted at least three posts to her. To give you an idea of her skill in reading people, she said in an interview with HVG that Orbán reminded her of the Bill Clinton of twenty years earlier. The two men resemble each other mostly because of “their commitment and passion for people.” In the interview Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis mentioned that she had also met with Gordon Bajnai, then prime minister, but it seems that Bajnai didn’t make much of an impression on her. I can only assume that this Obama appointee didn’t know that Orbán had until the very last moment been keeping fingers crossed for a Republican victory and considered Sarah Palin “an extraordinarily talented politician, an excellent debater, and a very successful governor.”

At the Central European University in Budapest she gave a lecture where someone asked her opinion on the new constitution. She could have said that she hopes that the new constitution will be democratic, but no, she felt compelled to add that “the new constitution is being written by people who are well qualified. The new constitution will be a good one. The rule of law, the freedom of the press and expression will be ensured.” This was the U.S. ambassador who is supposed to remind Viktor Orbán and his government about Hungary’s commitment to democratic values and the rule of law.

And I understand that this woman, who surely had not the foggiest idea of what was going on around her, was hoping to be reappointed. Luckily that didn’t happen, but a political appointee from the world of soaps doesn’t strike me as an obvious improvement. Perhaps we will all be pleasantly surprised and Colleen Bell will be a terrific, hard-hitting U.S. ambassador who has a thorough understanding of the political situation in which she has to operate. But given the track record of political appointees going to Budapest with little knowledge and zero experience I don’t expect miracles.

I must say that I simply don’t understand what the United States government is doing. Don’t they realize how significant Hungary has become in the last three or four years? The Orbán regime’s undemocratic practices are starting to look attractive to some of the countries in East-Central Europe. There are indications of a possible return of the Kaczyński regime in Poland and danger signs in Romania and Bulgaria as well. An experienced, tough-minded U.S. ambassador is needed in Budapest. I have serious doubts about the wisdom of appointing Colleen Bell.