Czech Republic

Hungary as a “field of operation”

Paranoia seems to have swept through the Hungarian government. Fidesz politicians are convinced that the United States wants to remove Viktor Orbán and cause his government’s fall. All this is to be achieved by means of the “phony” charge of corruption.

Recently a journalist working for Hetek, a publication of Hitgyülekezet (Assembly of Faith), managed to induce some high-ranking members of the government to speak about the general mood in Fidesz circles. The very fact that these people spoke, even about sensitive topics, to a reporter of a liberal paper points to tactical shifts that must have occurred within the party.

Their argument runs along the following lines. Until now the Obama administration paid little attention to the region, but this past summer the decision was made to “create a defensive curtain” in Central Europe between Russia and the West. The pretext is the alleged fight against corruption. The Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania are the targets. Fidesz politicians point to recent Slovak demonstrations against corruption which were “publicly supported” by the U.S. ambassador in Bratislava. Or, they claim, the Americans practically forced the Romanian government to take seriously the widespread corruption in the country. They are certain that the resignation of Petr Nečas, the former Czech prime minister, “under very strange circumstances” was also the work of the CIA.

In its fight against the targeted Central European governments Washington relies heavily on NGOs and investigative journalists specializing in unveiling corruption cases. George Soros’s name must always be invoked in such conspiracy theories. And indeed, Átlátszó.hu, sponsored in part by the Soros Foundation, was specifically mentioned as a tool of American political designs.

To these Fidesz politicians’ way of thinking, all of troubles recently encountered by the government are due solely to American interference. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that the government itself has given plenty of reason for public disenchantment. In fact, the first demonstrations were organized only against the internet tax. Admittedly, over the course of weeks new demands were added, and by now the demonstrators want to get rid of Viktor Orbán’s whole regime.

The Fidesz politicians who expressed an opinion think, I am sure incorrectly, that the Americans have no real evidence against Ildikó Vida and, if they do, they received it illegally. Vida got into the picture only because of the new “cold war” that broke out between the United States and Russia. Hungarian corruption is only an excuse for putting pressure on the Hungarian government because of its Russian policy and Paks.  As for Hungary’s “democracy deficit” and American misgivings about Orbán’s “illiberal state,” Fidesz politicians said that if the United States does not accept Orbán’s system of government as “democratic” and if they want Fidesz to return to the status quo ante, this is a hopeless demand. “Not one Hungarian right-wing politician would lend his name to such ‘retrogression.'”

The latest American “enemy” of the Orbán government is the State Department’s Sarah Sewall, Undersecretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, who a week ago gave a speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in which she said that “we [recently] denied visas to six Hungarian officials and their cronies due to their corruption. This action also bolstered public concern, and on November 9th, the streets of Budapest filled with 10,000 protesters who called for the resignation of corrupt public officials.” As soon as Hungarian officials discovered the text of that speech, André Goodfriend, the U.S. chargé in Budapest, was once again called into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

I think it would be a mistake to characterize the American fight against corruption simply as a smokescreen for exerting political pressure on foreign governments. Sewall in that speech explains the potentially dangerous political ramifications of corruption.

Corruption alienates and angers citizens, which can cause them to lose faith in the state, or, worse, fuel insurgencies and violent extremism…. Ukraine …provides [an] illustration of how corruption can both increase instability risks and cripple the state’s ability to respond to those risks. The Maidan Movement was driven in part by resentment of a kleptocratic regime parading around in democratic trappings.

All this makes sense to me, and what Sewall says about Ukraine is to some extent also true about Hungary. But the Fidesz leadership sees no merit in the American argument. In fact, today both Viktor Orbán and Péter Szijjártó used very strong words to accuse the United States of interfering in Hungary’s internal affairs.

"We can't pay as much in taxes as you steal"

“We can’t pay as much in taxes as you steal”

Viktor Orbán sent a message from Belgrade. The prime minister does not know why the United States put aside 100 million dollars for “the preparation of an action plan against two dozen Central- and East-European countries in order to put pressure on their governments.” The United States declared Hungary to be a “field of operation,” along with others. Referring to Sewall’s speech, he expressed his dissatisfaction that he has to learn about such plans from a public lecture. “If someone wants to work together with Hungary or with any Central-European government for a good cause, we are open. We don’t have to be pressured, there is no need to spend money behind our backs, there is no necessity of organizing anything against us because we are rational human beings and we are always ready to work for a good cause.” It is better, he continued, to be on the up and up because Hungarians are irritated by slyness, trickery, and diplomatic cunning. They are accustomed to straightforward talk. (He presumably said this with a straight face.)

Viktor Orbán’s reference to the military term “field of operation” captured the imagination of László Földi, a former intelligence officer during the Kádár regime as well as for a while after 1990, who announced that in secret service parlance “field of operation” means that every instrument in the intelligence service can be used to undermine the stability of a country. The Americans’ goal, as Orbán sees it, is the removal of his government.

Meanwhile the staff of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade who were brought in by Péter Szijjártó are solidly anti-American. They consider the diplomats who served under János Martonyi to be “American agents” because of their alleged trans-atlantic sentiments. So I don’t foresee any improvement in American-Hungarian relations in the near future, unless the economic and political troubles of Putin’s Russia become so crippling that Orbán will have to change his foreign policy orientation. But given the ever shriller condemnations and accusations, it will be difficult to change course.


Hungary is in a difficult diplomatic bind: The “Orbán doctrine” is dead

This morning 168 Óra ran the headline “The Orbán doctrine has collapsed after three days.” The reason is the Russian “incursion” into Ukrainian territory. After that, said Árpád Székely, former Hungarian ambassador to Moscow, there will be neither Paks nor the Southern Stream. Székely actually welcomes the first consequence, a dubious deal between the Hungarian and the Russian government to build a new nuclear reactor in Hungary, but he is sorry about the likelihood of scrapping the Southern Stream project that would have supplied gas to the Balkans, Hungary, and Austria.

While high-level negotiations in the UN, NATO, and EU are going on over the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, I had to think about one of the many fallacies Viktor Orbán presented us with during his pep talk to the Hungarian ambassadors only four days ago. In his speech he indicated that as far as he is concerned old-fashioned diplomacy is passé. “Not that classical diplomacy has lost its magic and beauty” but “we must acknowledge the realities of the economic age in which we live.” Well, the Russo-Ukrainian conflict must be solved by old fashioned diplomacy, and Hungary’s newly reorganized foreign ministry is ill prepared for the task. Moreover, its leaders are constrained by the prime minister’s unorthodox ideas on diplomacy. Orbán’s Hungary is in a bind.

I should note in passing that German-Hungarian relations have cooled considerably. Earlier, I wrote about a warning from Michael Roth, undersecretary of the German foreign ministry, that in his government’s point of view “Hungary is going in the wrong direction.” Since then an even more detailed and stronger statement was signed by Michael Roth, undersecretary in charge of European Affairs at the German Foreign Ministry, and his colleague Tomáš Prouza in the Czech Foreign Ministry. They warned that “Europe is more than a market.” It is a community of shared values.

According to Hungarian sources, Hungarian diplomats have been trying for some time to entice Chancellor Angela Merkel to visit Hungary for the annual German-Hungarian Forum. After all, this is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the German refugees’ safe passage to Austria thanks to the action of the Hungarian government in 1989. If she could not come, they at least hoped for a visit by the new foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Well, it seems that Budapest will have to be satisfied with an assistant undersecretary as the representative of the German government. The highest ranking German participant will be Reinhold Gall, social democratic minister of the interior of Baden-Württemberg.

Now, to return to the current diplomatic challenge. After the failure of the meeting between Vladimir Putin and Petro Poroshenko in Belarus, several thousand Russian troops crossed the Russian-Ukrainian border. Subsequently Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk announced that his government will introduce a proposal in parliament to change the non-aligned status of the country and to request membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Some observers immediately announced that Ukrainian admission to NATO was very unlikely. However, NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen made a statement today in Brussels, saying: “I’m not going to interfere in political discussions in Ukraine. But let me remind you of NATO’s decision at the Bucharest summit in 2008, according to which Ukraine ‘will become a member of NATO’ provided of course, Ukraine so wishes and fulfills the necessary criteria.” A strong warning for Russia. Putin often stressed that Russia will not tolerate a NATO presence on Ukrainian soil.

Meanwhile, EU foreign ministers are recommending tougher sanctions against Russia. They gathered in Milan today for an informal meeting to discuss the Ukrainian crisis. Tibor Navracsics represented Hungary in Milan, but I could find no report on his position in the Council of Foreign Ministers. We know that Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Latvia, and Denmark were strongly in support of tougher action.


German Foreign Minister Walter Steinmeier is arriving at the informal meeting of EU foreign ministers in Milan

Tomorrow the European Council will meet again to decide on the President of the European Union and the EU Foreign Affairs Chief. According to the latest intelligence, the next President of the European Union will be most likely Donald Tusk, prime minister of Poland.

Tusk’s government has been among the most hawkish in Europe over the issue of Ukraine. Just today the Polish government announced that it will allow the plane of Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu to fly over its territory only if the plane changes its status from military to civilian. Earlier his plane was barred altogether from Polish air space. Russia was not very happy. Its foreign ministry declared that Poland’s closing its air space to Shoygu’s plane is “a major violation of norms and ethics of the communication between states.”

Today three of the four members of the Visegrád4 (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary) issued statements about the Russian incursion. Poland’s foreign ministry said that it regards the incursion of Russian troops into the southern regions of the Donetsk province “as actions that fulfill the attributes of aggression, as defined in UN documents–Resolution 3314 of the United Nations General Assembly.”

The Czech statement was equally strongly worded. “The Czech Republic considers the incursion of the armed forces of the Russian Federation into the territory of eastern and southeastern Ukraine a fundamental threat to peace and stability of all of Europe.” It called on Russia “to immediately withdraw its troops from the Ukrainian territory.”

The silence from Slovakia was deafening.

Hungary chose an intermediate position and released the following statement: “We are closely monitoring and evaluating the situation on the ground, and we are in contact with our EU and NATO allies. A confirmed incursion of  Russian regular military units on Ukrainian territory would gravely escalate the crisis. In line with our consistently expressed earlier position, we emphasise that only a political process can lend a sustainable solution to the present crisis and therefore we support all diplomatic efforts to this end. The upcoming extraordinary European Council meeting and the informal meeting of the EU foreign ministers offer good opportunities for harmonizing the European position on this matter.”

Two of the opposition parties, Együtt-PM and DK, called on the government to stand by Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity. The former also wants the Hungarian government to suspend preparations for the expansion of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant while Russian troops remain on Ukrainian soil. The party also asked Orbán to use his good offices with Putin to convince the Russian leader to withdraw his troops from Ukraine.

DK wants to call together the parliamentary committees on foreign affairs, national security, and defense and to have the government prepare a statement that condemns Russian military action against Ukraine. In addition, Tibor Navracsics should call in the Russian ambassador to Hungary to convey to him Hungary’s condemnation of Russian aggression. Naturally, none of these suggestions or demands will be considered by the Orbán government.

On the other hand, I believe that Viktor Orbán will quietly vote with the majority on all the issues that will be discussed at tomorrow’s European Council meeting only to go home and report on the excellent ideas he gave to his colleagues about how to solve the Ukrainian crisis.

Recent Hungarian diplomatic blunders: Romania and the Czech Republic

Let’s move from domestic to foreign affairs, not because there are no interesting topics at home in spite of the silly season (cucumber season in Hungarian or Saurgurkenzeit in German) but because Romanian President Traian Băsescu made headlines today with his caustic and, according to some, threatening remarks about the Orbán government’s behavior toward his country.

Traian Băsescu was Fidesz’s favorite Romanian politician a couple of years ago, and it seemed that Viktor Orbán and the Romanian president were kindred souls who understood each other and were ready to support each other. I vividly recall when back in 2009 Zsolt Németh, Fidesz’s foreign policy expert, gave a television interview in which he emphasized the importance of Băsescu’s re-election. He considered it to be critical from Hungary’s point of view, especially after Fidesz’s electoral victory in 2010.  In 2011 Băsescu attended Fidesz’s summer camp in Tusnádfűrdő and in 2012 Orbán campaigned on Băsescu’s behalf among Transylvanian Hungarians. Well, the honeymoon is over.

When Viktor Orbán and Trajan Basescu were still friends. On the right László Tőkés at Tasnádfűrdő

When Viktor Orbán and Trajan Băsescu were still friends. On the right László Tőkés at Tasnádfűrdő

I have two versions of what Băsescu had to say this morning in Marosfő/Izvoru Mureșului in Hargita/Harghita county at another summer free university gathering. Marosfő is a village with a population of 800 which is completely balanced ethnically. The Hungarian version appeared in the Romanian Új Magyar Szó, according to which Băsescu said that “politicians of Hungary became so impertinent that it is likely that we will not approve their holding their Free University and student camp in Bálványos.” He added that “Romania is ready to accept a leading role in reprimanding Hungary because  it has recently become the center of tension in the region.” He announced that 2013 was the last year that “the whole political elite could loiter undisturbed in Harghita and Covasna.” This was the version that Hungarian papers republished without any changes.

The other version appeared in The Independent Balkan News Agency, which covers all the Balkan countries in addition to Slovenia and Cyprus. This version is more complete and explicit than the one that appeared in the Hungarian paper. Here Băsescu talks about Hungary as “a regional hotbed of instability” and warns that Bucharest could seek “to teach Hungary to know its place” and made it clear that in the future Hungarian politicians “will not be able to roam around Romania freely.” As it turns out, the Romanian original from Băsescu’s blog is “poate să se perinde” which is very close to the Hungarian “loitering” (lófrálni). * The news agency also notes that Băsescu’s outburst came only two days after Gábor Vona, the leader of Jobbik, said (also in Romania) that “Hungary should engage in a conflict with Romania in order to protect the rights of the Hungarian minority. ” Moreover, László Tőkés’s suggestion that Hungary extend “protection” to the Hungarian minority in Romania is also mentioned.

Official Hungarian reaction was slow in coming. First it was Hunor Kelemen, chairman of RMDSZ/UDMR, the major Hungarian right-of-center party in Romania, who described Băsescu’s “recent reaction to Hungary [as] over the top.” The language Băsescu used was too strong even in connection with Gábor Vona’s remarks, but “Hungary’s leaders did not warrant such a reaction from President Traian Băsescu.” Kelemen found it “unacceptable for a head of state to threaten a neighboring country with isolation.”

It was only around 7:00 p.m. that Balázs Hidvéghi, a novice Fidesz member of parliament who since 2010 hasn’t done anything notable judging from his parliamentary record, was picked to answer the Romanian president. This choice I think reflects Viktor Orbán’s  attempt to make the event seem insignificant, undeserving of a high level answer. Hidvéghi was both understanding and friendly; he emphasized that the summer camps at Tusnádfűrdő were always held with a view to furthering Romanian-Hungarian dialogue and friendship.

Magyar Nemzet looked for a Romanian politician who had condemned Băsescu and found him in Mircea Geoană, the former Romanian foreign minister. He considered Băsescu’s attack on Hungary and the Hungarian politicians part of the Romanian president’s “desperate pursuit of popularity.” Geoană expressed his fear that after such an extremist statement “there will be the danger that the world will consider Romania to be the center of instability in Europe” instead of Hungary. What Magyar Nemzet neglected to mention was that the socialist Mircea Geoană was the candidate for the post of presidency in 2009 against Trajan Băsescu. But even Magyar Nemzet had to admit that another socialist politician, Mircea Dusa, a member of parliament from Hargita/Harghita, welcomed Băsescu’s condemnation of the Orbán government’s political activities in Romania.

If that weren’t enough, Viktor Orbán made another diplomatic faux pas, this time involving the Czech Republic and the Visegrád Four. The Visegrád Four (V4), an alliance of four Central European states–the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, and Hungary, was established both to further cooperation and to promote the European integration of these countries. The name of the alliance is derived from the place where Bohemian, Polish, and Hungarians rulers met in 1335. The three kings agreed in Visegrád to create new commercial routes to bypass the port of Vienna and obtain easier access to other European markets.

The Visegrád Four still exists and this year the prime minister of Hungary serves as chairman. The next summit of the four countries was scheduled to be held on August 24 in the fabulous Esterházy Palace located in Fertőd, close to the Austrian border. On August 8 the Office of the Prime Minister announced that Viktor Orbán had decided to postpone the summit due to the Czech government crisis. It was clear from the text of the announcement that the idea had originated with Viktor Orbán and that the postponement was not requested by the Czechs.

The Czech reaction was swift. Jan Hrubes, the Czech government spokesman, announced that there was no need to postpone the summit. Moreover, the Czech government learned about the change of plans only from the media. Jirí Rusnok, the current prime minister, was ready to participate in the summit. The spokesman of the Hungarian Office of the Prime Minister expressed his surprise since, according to him, the Poles and Slovaks received Orbán’s announcement. Whether the Czechs did or not is a moot point. The fact is that it is not customary in diplomacy to postpone a meeting on account of instability in one of the countries without the request of the country in question. A typical Viktor Orbán move; he behaves in international circles like a bull in a china shop.

According to observers, the real reason behind Orbán’s move can be traced to his political sympathies. The former prime minister of the Czech Republic, Petr Nečas, was a member of the right-of-center Civic Democratic Party and was an admirer of Orbán. In fact, he stood by the Orbán government at the time the European Parliament accepted the Tavares Report. He expressed his “deep disappointment” and forewarned of the grave consequences of the report for the future of the European Union. By contrast, President Miloš Zeman is a socialist and so is Jirí Rusnok, who will most likely remain at the head of the government at least until October when elections will probably be held. Tamás Rónay of Népszava suspects that Orbán’s decision to postpone the summit is a gesture to and an expression of solidarity with Nečas, who had to resign in the wake of a huge sex and corruption scandal. Just another case of diplomacy Orbán style.

*Thanks to my friends originally from Transylvania who provided me with the Romanian original.