Bill Clinton

The Hungarian right’s latest: The Soros-Clinton-Obama axis

In liberal circles almost everybody is certain that the warnings of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama will not inspire Viktor Orbán to abandon his relentless pursuit to make the very existence of independent civil groups impossible. In fact, the smear campaign has only intensified in the last couple of days.

Official Hungary is quiet on the subject unless one can take seriously the comments of a newcomer to the ministry of foreign affairs and trade, Undersecretary Mónika Balatoni, who just can’t get over the fact that “western Europeans don’t understand us,” the freedom-loving people of Hungary. After all, already in St. Stephen’s time Hungarians “chose Christianity.” And there is Tibor Navracsics, whose “European commitment cannot be questioned.” This is, of course, merely a repetition of Szijjártó’s reference to freedom-loving Hungarians.

It is true that the Christian Democrats chimed in by repeating the government’s claim that Obama’s criticisms are groundless. In their opinion, the attack on Hungary is taking place because the Hungarian government opted for Christian democracy instead of liberal democracy. Jobbik naturally is on the side of the government with the difference that they say what the Orbán government does not want to: The president of the United States “openly admitted that his country constantly interferes in other countries’ internal affairs.” Since Obama talked about the United States’ national security, which is served by the existence of strong civil groups, Hungary in turn should restrict the foreign-financed groups which pose national security risks to Hungary.

But the real dirty work is being left to the government media and so-called  pro-Fidesz “political scientists.” In the political scientist category there is Gábor G. Fodor, “strategic director” of the Fidesz think tank Századvég. According to him, Obama’s speech was not about Hungary and other authoritarian regimes but about the United States. The speech shows the weakness, not the strength of America. After all, the president spoke of “national security interests.” And because of Obama’s confession about American national security interests, “it’s possible the Norwegian monies don’t come from Norway.” In plain English, the United States is funneling money into Hungary and other countries through Norway.

Spiler, a blogger, goes farther than Fodor. He notes that George Soros and Norway are the most generous supporters of the Clinton Foundation, and the same George Soros and Norway support Hungarian liberal groups. With a leap of logic our blogger lays the groundwork for a charge of conspiracy. Perhaps Clinton’s critical comments are payment for the generosity of George Soros and the government of Norway. On the basis of Spiler’s blog, Szilárd Szőnyi of Válasz is already talking about George Soros’s “civilian armies.” He describes Spiler’s post as a reliable source on the Soros-Clinton-Obama-Reykjavík axis. (I trust he doesn’t think that Reykjavík is the capital of Norway.)

George Soros, the bogiey man

George Soros, the bogeyman

The attack on the Hungarian civil groups was intensified by an article that appeared in the print edition of Heti Válasz today. The author is Bálint Ablonczay, a journalist with the reputation of being a moderate Fidesz supporter. But it appears that when the chips are down and the regime he supports receives harsh criticism from important sources, Ablonczay becomes a fierce defender of the regime. In this article, which is not available online, he justifies the Orbán government’s harassment of the civil groups by trying to prove that these NGOs are not really independent but are “liberal activist groups.” After all, they approach the question of abortion only as a women’s rights issue. They are interested in families only as places of domestic violence. Or they concentrate on alternative lifestyles. Finally, he cites an article published by an Israeli organization, NGO Monitor. It was written last year by Alexander H. Joffe, who claimed that the Soros-supported NGOs were adding to Israeli-Palestinian tensions. His conclusion is that Soros’s network is a powerful international tool that works against individual governments through these civil groups.

Ablonczay did a lousy job at fact checking. Csaba Tibor Tóth, a blogger, immediately wrote a post with the title “Heti Válasz and the Israeli Right against Soros.” NGO Monitor’s founder and president worked for a number of years in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office. The organization is really an arm of the present Israeli government, which hates the Israeli NGOs about as much as Orbán hates the Hungarian ones. NGO Monitor finds all independent groups “extremists.” Even groups attached to the UN are extremists. According to Tóth, NGO Monitor is something like the Hungarian CÖF, except much more sophisticated.

Magyar Nemzet published an article today about an alleged Soros conspiracy. The paper learned that George Soros cast his net over the civil groups. It was George Soros who financed the organizations in charge of the disbursement of the Norwegian funds throughout Eastern Europe. The article lists Romanian, Polish, Estonian, Lithuanian, Slovenian, and Bulgarian NGOs somehow connected to George Soros’s Open Society Foundation. The implication is that there is a supranational network organized by George Soros to do what? To topple these governments? How is it that no other governments in the region sent a squad of policemen to the office of one of these disbursement centers or suspended the tax numbers of all of them? Are they not worried about this conspiracy?

The problem is not with Clinton, Obama, the Norwegian government, George Soros or the NGOs but with Viktor Orbán’s government. They can concoct conspiracy theories to their hearts’ content about a supranational global attack on Christian Hungary, but I doubt that anyone will fall for that nonsense with the exception of Hungary’s right-wing voters.

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Barack Obama on the threat to civil society in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Hungary

American presidents are lining up against the Hungarian prime minister and his illiberal state. On The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Bill Clinton said that “there’s the authoritarian capitalism model which is Russia and in a different way China, and it has some appeal. Like the Hungarian Prime Minister – they owe a lot to America; he just said he liked authoritarian capitalism, just saying ‘I don’t ever want to have to leave power’ – usually those guys want to stay forever and make money. And there’s the democracy model …” This was not an off-the-cuff remark. A few days earlier he said essentially the same thing in an interview with James Bennet in the Atlantic Magazine. He talked about different political models, among which “there is a contest here in the world today…. There’s autocratic governments trying to take advantage of market opportunities—what [Hungarian Prime Minister] Viktor Orbán embraced the other day.” Clinton was obviously familiar with the Hungarian prime minister’s by now infamous speech, which was described in a footnote as “a headline-grabbing speech” calling for Hungary to abandon its “liberal methods and principles of organizing a society, as well as the liberal way to look at the world.”

The official Hungarian reaction to Clinton’s remarks was predictable. Péter Szijjártó, who at the time was not yet minister of foreign affairs and trade (which he now is), said that the former president “was conned.” It’s been a long time since Bill Clinton visited Hungary and therefore, I assume it follows, he is ignorant. Period.

Viktor Orbán’s “headline-grabbing speech” reached a lot of people, including the current president of the United States, who addressed the 2014 annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative in New York City. His speech concentrated on the importance of civil society. He pointed out that “it was citizens here in America who worked to abolish slavery, who marched for women’s rights and workers’ rights and civil rights. They are the reason I can stand here today as President of the United Sates.” Moreover, support of civic groups is in the interest of the United States. “Countries that respect human rights–including freedom of association–happen to be our closest partners. That is not an accident. Conversely, when these rights are suppressed, it fuels grievances and a sense of injustice that over time can fuel instability or extremism.  So I believe America’s support for civil society is a matter of national security.”

Which countries suppress human rights?

From Russia to China to Venezuela, you are seeing relentless crackdowns, vilifying legitimate dissent as subversive.  In places like Azerbaijan, laws make it incredibly difficult for NGOs even to operate.  From Hungary to Egypt, endless regulations and overt intimidation increasingly target civil society.  And around the world, brave men and women who dare raise their voices are harassed and attacked and even killed.

Obama Clinton Global Initiative

A Hungarian blogger who happens to be a conservative took the president’s words seriously. He entitled his post “Hungary at a crossroads” and added, “Obama said that Hungary had decided already: it fixed its place next to Russia, China, Kenya, Egypt, Burma, Azerbaijan, etc.”  Moreover, he wrote, Obama made it clear in his speech that “there is no gray zone, there is no Hungarian trickery, there is no double talk. We either stand next to Burma or next to the United States.”

In his address Obama announced a series of new steps that the United States will take to strengthen civil society where there is need. Yesterday he issued a presidential memorandum in which he instructed federal departments and agencies to pay close attention to civil society groups. Specifically, the United States “will oppose efforts by foreign governments to restrict freedoms of peaceful assembly and association and expression.” The United States will create “new innovation centers to empower civil society groups around the world.” NGOs will be able to use these centers “to network and access knowledge and technology and funding that they need to put their ideas into action.” Finally, the United States will increase “support to society groups across the board [and] will increase emergency assistance to embattled NGOs.” The Treasury Department will be instructed to “finalize regulations so it’s even easier and less costly for your foundations to make grants overseas.”

All that is good news for the embattled Hungarian NGOs and the four distribution centers currently under attack. Norway will no longer have to stand alone in its defense of Hungarian civil society. It also may mean that more funding will be forthcoming from American sources to Hungary. After all, Hungary is a unique case. The other countries Obama referred to are in Latin America, in sub-Saharan Africa, in the Middle East, and in Asia. Hungary is the odd man out in this company, and that might attract the attention of donors in the United States. The importation of Putin’s methods into the European Union would be a dangerous precedent which, especially given the current international situation, should not be tolerated.

Obama spoke and Hungary’s shaky reputation abroad received yet another blow. How did Hungarian politicians react to the news that Hungary was compared to some of the worst dictatorships in the world? The usual way. Szijjártó basically called the American president a liar because the president’s remark about “the Hungarian government’s placing any restriction on Hungarian civil society lacks all foundation … because the Hungarians are freedom-loving people.” When Lajos Kósa, one of the deputy chairmen of Fidesz, was asked to comment on Obama’s inclusion of Hungary on a list of countries that harass NGOs, his answer was that “Obama is most likely not entirely familiar with current Hungarian affairs.” For example, it is unlikely that he knows what the third largest city of Hungary is. Then he turned to the reporter from Klubrádió and asked him whether he knows which city it is. The reporter gave the wrong answer when he said it was Miskolc. (Actually it is Szeged.)  Kósa triumphantly exclaimed, “You see!” I assume that means that he did not know the correct answer either. The botched moral of the story: if you don’t know which city is third largest in Hungary you are most likely totally ignorant of everything that goes on under Viktor Orbán’s rule.

Magyar Nemzet is silent. So is Magyar Hírlap. But the Orbán government’s new so-called English-language online paper added these sentences to the news about the speech itself. “Obama has criticized Hungary because of the recent scandal of the Foundation ‘Ökotárs’…. Barack Obama could have the opportunity to share his concerns with János Áder, since the Hungarian president is on official visit in New York this week.” The fault lies with Obama; he should have consulted with Hungary’s president to learn the truth about the Hungarian government’s treatment of the civil groups before he spoke. One could laugh at all these pitiful reactions if the situation weren’t so terribly serious.

Hungary through American eyes

American diplomats have been employing novel ways of communication. For example, yesterday Daniel Fried gave a press conference by telephone from Washington to a small number of Hungarian journalists about the American position on economic sanctions against Russia. Daniel Fried is the State Department’s coordinator for sanctions policy.

Fried is a senior diplomat with vast experience in Eastern Europe. He served as political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in Soviet times; he headed the Polish desk during the regime change in the late 1980s. After Poland emerged as one of the democracies of the region, he was political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw. Later he served as assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs and special assistant to the president and senior director for European and Eurasian affairs at the National Security Council. So, why does Daniel Fried think that he has to give a long-distant press conference for Hungarian journalists? Surely, because Washington wants the Hungarian public to know the American position on Russian aggression against Ukraine. And it also wants to share its opinion of the current state of Russian-Hungarian relations.

Ambassador Daniel Fried

Ambassador Daniel Fried

Up to this point we have two independent versions of the telephone interview: one from Népszabadság and the other from VilággazdaságI can’t imagine that MTI was not invited, but for the time being there is no MTI report on the event.

The main message was that sanctions will be applied as long as Moscow does not fulfill all twelve points of the Minsk Agreement. A good summary of these twelve points can be found on the BBC website. Russian regular troops are still on Ukrainian soil and “the Russian aggression continues.” The United States wants a political solution to the crisis and is ready to cooperate with Russia in many areas, but Russia must respect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine. With its aggression against Ukraine Russia “seriously endangers the European security system that came into being after the 1989-1990 East European events.” If Russian aggression continues, the United States and the European Union are ready to introduce new sanctions.

Fried then turned to specifically Hungarian issues. Hungary and its prime minister should know from Hungarian history what it is like when a country is left alone unprotected in the event of outside aggression. Therefore Hungary ought to realize the importance of the steps that are being taken in this case. Viktor Orbán first claimed that “the European Union shot itself in the foot when it introduced sanctions against Russia” and later at the NATO summit in Wales he declared that “we are hawks when it comes to military security but doves in economic terms.” Fried said that “we all want to be on good terms with Russia, to improve our relations, but this is not the right time for friendship.” Fried cited Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s claim that sanctions only deepen the Ukrainian crisis. “The Russians say all sorts of things, many of them are simply not true. After all, they deny that their soldiers are in the territory of Ukraine.”

During the press conference it became clear that talks took place between the Hungarian and the U.S. governments concerning the sanctions. It seems that the U.S. listened to Hungary’s objections but was not impressed.  The sanctions hurt not only Hungarian businesses but businesses of all nations, including those of the United States. The European Union made a brave decision which Hungary supported.

The message was that one cannot play the kind of game Viktor Orbán is playing at the moment. On the one hand, he is a supporter of the common cause against Russia, but when it comes to sanctions he tries to make special deals with Moscow. For instance, Sándor Fazekas, the Hungarian agriculture minister, visited Moscow on September 8 where he had talks with Nikolay Fyedorov, his Russian counterpart. There Fazekas agreed with Fyedorov that “the sanctions don’t offer a solution to the Ukrainian crisis, which should be settled through negotiations.”

And according to leaked documents, we know that Vladimir Putin told Petro Poroshenko during one of their telephone conversations that he “through bilateral contacts can influence some European countries to form ‘a blocking minority’ in the European Council.” The countries he has in mind are Slovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Cyprus. I guess Daniel Fried wanted to make sure that Hungarians understand that Washington fully supports the application of sanctions and that the large majority of the EU countries are also on board.

While we are talking about U.S.-Hungarian relations, I ought to mention that U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D), who is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, and Senator John McCain (R) introduced a resolution in recognition of the International Day of Democracy on September 15. Accompanying the introduction of the resolution Senator Carden’s press release talked at length about the sad state of democracy in Hungary where “there is an unprecedented global crackdown on civil society organizations seeking to express their voice and exercise their rights. Earlier this week, Hungarian authorities raided the offices of two NGOs in Budapest in what appears to be part of a tightening squeeze on civil society. Such actions not only undermine democracy but chill investigative reporting on corruption and good governance. Now, more than ever, is the time for the international community to push back on threats to civil society and protect efforts by these organizations to build strong democratic institutions.”

In addition, on September 18 Deputy Chief of the United States Mission to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Kate Byrnes delivered the following speech to the Permanent Council in Vienna:

Three months ago, on June 19, the United States addressed the Permanent Council regarding an apparent campaign of intimidation directed toward civil society and independent media in Hungary. I regret that I must speak to the Council again on this topic.

As we said in June, just one day after the April 6 elections, the Hungarian government accused organizations that conduct legitimate work in human rights, transparency, and gender equality of serving “foreign interests.” Shortly afterwards, the Prime Minister’s Office alleged that NGOs that monitor and evaluate grant proposals for the EEA-Norway NGO fund were tied to an opposition party. On September 8, Hungary’s National Bureau of Investigation initiated a series of police raids on two NGOs responsible for the EEA-Norway NGO grant program in Hungary. With no prior warning, and in a show of intimidation, over 30 officers entered the NGOs’ facilities and seized the organizations’ documents and computers.

These police raids appear to be aimed at suppressing critical voices and restricting the space for civil society to operate freely. The United States again reminds Hungary of its OSCE commitments to human rights and fundamental freedoms, democracy, and the rule of law.

Mr. Chair, we raise these issues to express our concern about actions that appear inconsistent with OSCE principles, and also to encourage dialogue. We intend to continue to encourage the government of Hungary to observe its commitments and allow NGOs to operate without further harassment, interference, or intimidation. The United States believes that such respect for its commitments will help Hungary to become a more prosperous, robust and inclusive democracy.

Finally, here is something from former President Bill Clinton, who appeared on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. “There’s the authoritarian capitalism model which is Russia and in a different way China, and it has some appeal. Like the Hungarian Prime Minister – they owe a lot to America; he just said he liked authoritarian capitalism, just saying “I don’t ever want to have to leave power” – usually those guys want to stay forever and make money. And there’s the democracy model …”

Hungary is in the news, no doubt. It would be better if it weren’t.