Ferenc Gyurcsány

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.

 

 

What evil forces lurk behind the Hungarian demonstrations?

On December 29, 2014 Antal Rogán, whip of the Fidesz caucus, announced a new program called the “National Defense Action Plan” which, he claimed, was needed because the country is under siege. Details were not revealed at the time, but I suspected that it was intended to take the wind out of anti-government sails. “Action plan”–it sounds so manly, Ildikó Lendvai sarcastically remarked in an opinion piece that appeared in Népszava on January 3. She found the whole thing ridiculous until she read an interview with Gergely Gulyás, chairman of a newly created parliamentary committee on legislative activities. In this interview Gulyás said that it was time to make the law on free assembly more restrictive. “I immediately stopped laughing,” Lendvai wrote. This new action plan–because this is not the first in the history of the Orbán regime–should really be called the “Government Defense Action Plan.” The goal is to put an end to anti-government demonstrations.

A sharp-eyed reader of Népszava also became suspicious even before the appearance of the Gulyás interview. What does the government have in mind when it talks about a “National Defense Action Plan”? “Is this perhaps the beginning of limiting our basic human and political rights?” He found the whole idea “frightening.”

Within a week after the Gulyás interview, Viktor Orbán must have realized that he went too far. With all the international attention on the demonstrations and anti-government sentiment, tightening the law on free assembly might be seen as overreach. László L. Simon, undersecretary in the prime minister’s office who lately has been close to Orbán, was given the task of discrediting Gulyás. On January 7 he announced that “the government is not contemplating any changes in the law on assembly.” Gulyás simply expressed his own private opinion. Oh, sure!

Although Viktor Orbán abandoned the idea of changing the law, he is still bent on “dealing” with the anti-government forces. The Fidesz brain trust came up with another idea–putting pressure on the organizers of the demonstrations. Last Friday Rogán was the guest of HírTV’s P8 where he wondered “who is financing these more and more expensive demonstrations and for what reason?” And, he continued, “if someone for political reasons or because of economic interest finances such events, he should reveal his identity in order for us to see who is behind these demonstrations.” In his opinion, the organizers are trying to convince the public that the demonstrations are the handiwork of civic groups alone, “but they are not.” Unmasking the forces behind these demonstrations “might be part of the ‘National Defense Action Plan.'”

Since the Orbán government and its supporting media equate the government with the nation and the country, Magyar Nemzet argued that any support of the demonstrations by the democratic opposition parties is more than suspect. If opposition parties stand behind the demonstrations–as they don’t at the moment–it is a mortal sin, bordering on treason, from their point of view.

The truth is that the organizers ask for donations from the participants on the spot, and each time they manage to collect a few million forints. They have also made their financial records public on Facebook.

The anti-Semitic caricature sent by a student which Tényi found so hilarious

The anti-Semitic caricature sent by a student, which István Tényi found so hilarious

Antal Rogán made only veiled references to taking the case of financing the demonstrations to court if necessary, but a young teacher of Hungarian literature, István Tényi, decided to act. He filed a complaint against the organizers of the recent mass demonstrations on suspicion of fraud.

Tényi has a lot of experience in filing charges. He was the one who filed a complaint against Ökotárs, also for fraud, in connection with the group’s handling of the Norwegian Civic Funds. While he was at it, he filed a complaint against HVG because of its cover story showing Fidesz politicians gathering around the NAV chairwoman, Ildikó Vida, as if around Joseph and Mary with the baby Jesus.

What I found out about Tényi isn’t pretty. He was fired from his first job because he sent threatening e-mails to his students indicating that the school will meet the same fate as Baghdad under the massive American bombing. Currently he teaches at the Károly Than Ökoiskola. A writer of a micro-blog found a “disgusting” item–his adjective–on Tényi’s Facebook page. One of his students sent him an anti-Semitic caricature of Gyurcsány. The former prime minister was depicted with the body of a cockroach and a Star of David on his face. The message was “the Israeli Gyurcsány should be crushed” just like a cockroach. Tényi must have enjoyed the caricature because he was one of the five who “liked” it. The other four, I suspect, are his students.

Otherwise, Tényi is 32 years old and graduated from ELTE’s Faculty of Arts in 2006. He is a member of the presidium of Fidelitas in Terézváros (District VI) where he functions as a coordinator. His favorite film is Star Wars IV-VI and his “ideal” is Sándor Petőfi. His favorite drink is mineral water. Most important, he enjoys filing charges against people who don’t agree with his party and the Orbán government. This man, if one can believe the messages on his Facebook page, is quite popular among his students. Imagine the education they are getting from this man. And unfortunately, there are far too many István Tényis among the followers of Viktor Orbán.

What now? Civilians versus party leaders

Tomorrow’s demonstration is being organized by a Facebook group called “MostMi!” (Now us!). The chief organizer of MostMi! is Zsolt Várady, a man who two years before Mark Zuckerberg hit upon the idea of Facebook, started iWiW, a Hungarian site. Later purchased by Magyar Telekom, iWiW no longer exists. Várady tried his luck in Berlin but couldn’t quite make it as a software developer. Now back in Hungary, he has been waging a war for some time against the Hungarian tax system which in his opinion is ruinous for Hungarian entrepreneurs.

Várady’s strategy was bizarre. Sometime at the beginning of October he sued every Hungarian party that has existed since 1990, fifteen all told, for being responsible for the widespread tax evasion effectively foisted upon Hungarian citizens because of the existing system of taxation. Quite clearly, Várady does not like parties. The very name he gave to the organization responsible for tomorrow’s demonstration is telling: “Now us!” It implies that all the parties of the last twenty-five years have failed and that the time has come for him and other unaffiliated citizens to take the reins.

What does MostMi! want to achieve tomorrow? “We would like to experience again the same liberating feeling [of earlier demonstrations] after the holidays. To feel that we are not alone and that we dare to raise our voices against this regime.” I’m afraid this is not quite enough. It looks as if MostMi! will be unable to rouse large numbers of demonstrators. As of now only about 10,000 people have indicated they will attend. Of course, it’s mighty cold out.

But there might be an additional reason for the lack of enthusiasm. Speakers at earlier demonstrations talked about the misery of the last twenty-five years and railed against all politicians, no matter their political stripe, while the crowds demanded: “Orbán takarodj!” (Orbán scram!). The civil organizers and the demonstrators were not in sync. Many of the demonstrators are followers of already existing parties. They would vote for MSZP, DK, Együtt, PM, LMP–that is, mostly for the parties of the old “Összefogás” group. These parties want to remove the present government from power. Várady and his co-organizers, by contrast, are working to eliminate all the existing democratic parties while they wait for a new generation of pristine politicians to emerge from their own ranks to eliminate the present regime.

In the last week or so, several political analysts argued against letting civilians take the lead to the exclusion of parties because they are convinced that if parties don’t join the movement, it will end up just like Milla, another Facebook initiative, did. Milla refused to cooperate with established parties and as a result it disappeared, practically without a trace.

It is usually Ferenc Gyurcsány who makes the first move when he sees an opportunity. The Orbán government has been greatly weakened and, in his opinion, it is time for political action. He was the only politician on the left who announced that the opposition should devise a strategy that would result in an election in 2016 instead of 2018. For that, the parties must come out of hibernation and join the movement that was begun by the civilians. They seem to be the ones who can gather crowds, but the crowds are not as politically unaffiliated as the civic organizers think. The very fact that they go out on the street is a political act. And politics needs parties.

goal
On December 22, Gyurcsány asked his followers to join the demonstration once again, but this time with party flags and emblems. The reaction from the MostMi! group was predictable. They subscribed to the Milla template: no parties, no slogans. “Now us!” But who are the “us”?  Even a conservative blog,”1000 A Mi Hazánk,” insisted that parties must make their appearance because otherwise the whole momentum of the demonstrations will be lost. On the liberal side, István Gusztos in Gépnarancs was of the same mind. As he said, “the organizers sooner or later must understand that political parties are civic formations par excellence.” Keeping civilians away from parties is an impediment to their renewal, which will make a struggle against the present regime impossible.

A telephone conversation between Várady and Gyurcsány did not resolve the impasse. Gyurcsány said that DK members and sympathizers who have faithfully attended earlier demonstrations will be happy to join Várady’s goup on January 2, but only if they can show their party preferences. The debate between DK and the organizers continued for days. The other parties, whom Gyurcsány called on to join DK’s example, remained quiet. The main reason for their reluctance was that they don’t want to appear to be following Gyurcsány’s lead. After all, József Tóbás, chairman of MSZP, made it clear that the socialists will never work together with any other party. They will the ones that will form a socialist government in 2018. Obviously, they also reject Gyurcsány’s strategy of holding early elections.

Naturally, the right-wing press was delighted to hear that the organizers “fell upon each other” while the liberals who sympathize with Gyurcsány felt that the civilians “screwed it up again.” Defenders of the civic leaders considered Ferenc Gyurcsány’s decision to be a way of usurping a demonstration that someone else organized. Indeed, by the rules of MostMi!’s game, Gyurcsány was trying to do exactly that. But as a liberal commentator said, “perhaps the rules of the game are wrong.”

The debate ended on December 30 when Szabolcs Kerék-Bárczy, a leading DK politician, announced that DK activists had received threats by civilians and that, in order to avoid possible violence, Ferenc Gyurcsány had withdrawn his request for DK sympathizers to be able to display their affiliation and affinity with the party. At that time Kerék-Bárczy still called upon the party’s followers to attend the demonstration. A few hours later, however, DK spokesman Zsolt Gréczy said that Gyurcsány had decided that if DK members and sympathizers can’t show their real colors, they will not attend. Of course, he cannot forbid DK sympathizers from attending, but neither he nor Gréczy will be there tomorrow.

Meanwhile criticism of the MostMi! group continues. Another civilian, Gábor Szabó, who has been demonstrating in front of the parliament building for months, wrote an open letter to Zsolt Várady saying that “it would be time to clear up what the real purpose of the demonstration is because the crowd thinks that the demonstration is against the Orbán regime while it seems that the goal of Várady and his collaborators is the creation of a new opposition.”

Fidesz insiders think Orbán’s days are numbered

The week between Christmas and New Year’s Day usually offers little sustenance for news junkies. But today I discovered a front-page article in Népszava with the titillating title “Does Orbán have only months left?” The paper’s “sources close to Fidesz” claimed that “Orbán is already finished” and the only “question is who will take his place.”

The article was met with skepticism, especially in pro-government circles. Válasz described the article as sci-fi and “entertaining.” Gábor Török, the popular political scientist, wanted to know what his Facebook “friends” thought about the appearance of such items in the media. Do government politicians actually say such things to reporters of an opposition paper or are the reporters only giving voice to their wishes? The comments that followed were a mixed bag but a reporter, András Kósa, who also receives information from dissatisfied Fidesz politicians, didn’t think that the article was fantasy, although it might be exaggerated. Here and there commenters thought that Fidesz will collapse as soon as Viktor Orbán is gone, but most “friends” of Török considered the article humbug. I’m less skeptical than most of Török’s friends because I’ve usually found Népszava to be reliable when it reports on information coming from unnamed sources.

So, let’s see what Népszava heard from “sources close to Fidesz.” They claim that Orbán’s “system” has no more than a few months before it collapses. Apparently Fidesz politicians are increasingly avoiding the limelight because “the fall is inevitable. In their opinion Orbán started down a road from which there is no return. Not only will he himself be the victim of his own mistakes but also his party and the country itself.”

The problems that beset the work of the government emanate from the character flaws of the prime minister: inconsistency, impenetrability, and unpredictability. Most government and Fidesz officials have no idea what course they are supposed to pursue. Orbán trusts fewer and fewer people, and the ones he still does give him wrong advice. He apparently is looking for enemies everywhere, and this is one of the reasons that government decisions are not preceded by any discussion. It often happens that Orbán himself changes his mind in the last minute, which makes consistent communication nearly impossible. Underlings parrot a line that has been superseded by a new brainstorm of the prime minister. More and more people would like to save themselves from such embarrassments.

According to these informants, serious problems within Fidesz are not new although they are only now becoming visible. Signs of trouble began to surface when Orbán decided, sometime before the April elections, to change the “structure” under which Fidesz had been functioning very well for over twenty years. Until then, Lajos Simicska was in charge of the party’s finances, but “from the moment that Orbán decided to take over economic decisions” the old dual structure collapsed and with it the well-functioning system. When Orbán again managed to receive a two-thirds majority, he completely lost his sense of judgment. As months went by, anti-Orbán murmurs in the party began to proliferate, and the Christian Democrats, realizing that Orbán was losing his grip on the party, decided to put pressure on the beleaguered prime minister. That’s why Orbán had to give in on the unpopular law that forces stores to be closed on Sundays.

What observers see is no longer a “system” but a political process based on day-by-day ad hoc decisions which, according to the saner Fidesz leaders, cannot be maintained because “it is incapable of self-correction.”

The informers seem to have less information about actual attempts to topple Viktor Orbán. Names were not mentioned, but they indicated that the people they had in mind “would be quite capable of taking over the reins of government without changing political direction.” Népszava‘s sources consider Angela Merkel’s planned visit to Budapest in February a date of great importance. I guess they think that Merkel will tell Orbán that he is persona non grata as far as the European People’s Party and the European Commission are concerned.

CalendarNépszava‘s description of the strife and chaos within Fidesz is most likely accurate. The question is what Orbán is planning to do to forestall the outcome described by Népszava‘s sources. For the time being, as we learned from the interviews of János Lázár, Viktor Orbán, and László Kövér, he will fight to hold onto power by convincing his Peace March troops that the “fatherland is in danger.” I’m almost certain that internal polls are being taken to gauge support. Would it be possible to turn out 100,000 people to defend the prime minister against foreign and domestic intrigues? I assume that the size of the planned anti-government demonstrations on January 2 will also influence Orbán’s decision about the next step to take to combat his opponents inside and outside the party.

In any case, for the time being it was Antal Rogán who was called upon to announce a countermeasure that might take the wind out of anti-government sails.  It is called the “National Defense Action Plan.” The details are secret for the time being, but it most likely includes some kind of answer to the United States’ decision to bar six Hungarian citizens from the United States due to corruption. It is also likely that a huge propaganda effort will be launched to discredit the U.S.-EU free trade agreement that until now the Hungarian government has welcomed. According to government and Fidesz sources, the “National Defense Action Plan” was put together in the prime minister’s office by Viktor Orbán, János Lázár, Antal Rogán, Péter Szijjártó, and Árpád Habony (who neither holds an official government position nor has national security clearance). These are the people who make most of the decisions in the Orbán government.

Meanwhile what are the anti-Orbán political forces doing in this fluid situation? Ferenc Gyurcsány decided to ask those followers who have been at the anti-government demonstrations all along to bring party posters and flags to the January 2 demonstration. József Tóbiás, leader of MSZP, did not respond to Gyurcsány’s request to follow DK’s lead. But István Újhelyi, an MSZP MEP, announced today a socialist “diplomatic offensive” against the Orbán government. Orbán must be stopped because his “Russian roulette” will have tragic consequences.

At the beginning of the new year there will be at least two important events. First, the mass demonstration planned for January 2 in front of the Opera House. Three years ago a gigantic anti-government demonstration also took place there, and for a whole month newspapers kept asking how long Orbán could last. We are again asking the same question. Since Orbán not only survived but thrived in the last three years, some people might come to the conclusion that the Hungarian prime minister will always triumph, even in the most perilous circumstances. But I would caution the pessimists. Three years ago the pressure came only from the inside. This time Orbán has embroiled himself and the country in a high stakes international power play in addition to alienating about 900,000 of his former supporters.

The second event will be Orbán’s new “remedy,” the “National Defense Action Plan.” Will it work? Is Orbán strong enough to rally his troops for another supportive Peace March as he did in 2012? And even if he manages, will anybody care?

The sorry state of Hungarian foreign policy

This morning I listened to lectures delivered at a conference,”Az elszigetelt Magyarország és a globális világ” (Isolated Hungary and the Global World), that took place on Friday. The conference was organized by Attila Ara-Kovács, who is currently heading the foreign policy “cabinet” of the Demokratikus Koalíció (DK) and who earlier worked in the foreign ministry under László Kovács. Ara-Kovács was joined by Charles Gati, professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, for a conversation centering on U.S.-Hungarian relations. Mátyás Eörsi, who was undersecretary of foreign affairs between 1997 and 1999, assessed the Orbán government’s foreign policy and came to the conclusion that as such it doesn’t really exist. Ferenc Gyurcsány delivered a short speech in which he insisted that the whole political system built by Viktor Orbán must be dismantled. There is no possibility of changing the current foreign policy strategy because that would mean a denial of “the essence of the system.” Zoltán Sz. Biró, an expert on Russia, delivered a fascinating lecture on the state of the Russian economy. Finally, Zoltán Balázs, a political scientist whose sympathies lie with the right of center, offered a few critical remarks, saying among other things that the speakers had ignored the resilience of Orbán’s followers. Orbán may go but his devoted admirers remain, and for them Hungary’s martyr complex is very much a reality. I can strongly recommend these lectures to anyone who understands the language.

Zoltán Sz. Biró, while outlining the grave Russian economic situation, expressed his surprise at the ignorance of Hungarian policymakers about the real state of affairs in Russia. Don’t they ever look at the economic and financial data available online? Obviously not, because otherwise Viktor Orbán and Péter Szijjártó should have been more cautious in their approach toward Moscow. But behind their Russia policy is Viktor Orbán’s mistaken notion of “the decline of the West” and thus he put all his eggs in one basket. By now it looks as if even the enlargement of Paks will come to naught.

As for the diplomatic corps, according to Mátyás Eörsi fear is widespread because of the hundreds of “pink slips” handed out to old-timers with diplomatic experience at the foreign ministry in the wake of János Martonyi’s departure. One “bad” sentence and the person’s job is in jeopardy. Thus, nobody offers any opinion that might differ from that of the “diplomatic expert,” Viktor Orbán.

Ferenc Gyurcsány and M. André Goodfriend at the Conference on Hungary in Isolation and the Global World

Ferenc Gyurcsány and M. André Goodfriend at the Conference on Hungary in Isolation and the Global World

The housecleaning was so thorough that Szijjártó proudly announced that “we will lay the foundations of the new Hungarian foreign policy irreversibly, once and for all.” They will not retreat but forge ahead according to what they consider to be Hungary’s economic interest. Two weeks later it was announced that out of the staff of 900 at the ministry more than 200 will be fired, including some who were brought in by Tibor Navracsics a few months earlier. As a result there is total chaos in the ministry, whose new spokesman is a former sports reporter.

Not only is the ministry’s staff decimated but certain background institutions like the Magyar Külügyi Intézet (Hungarian Institute of Foreign Affairs) no longer exist since its entire research staff resigned en bloc. The administration is in the throes of “reorganization” of the institute. It’s no wonder that no one was prepared for the crisis in U.S.-Hungarian relations that came to the fore in mid-October.

By October and November there was such chaos in the ministry that some of the diplomats were certain that Szijjártó couldn’t possibly remain in his new position. Rumors circulated at the time that the ministry of foreign affairs and foreign trade would split into two ministries and that Szijjártó would be in charge of foreign trade only. This was probably a reflection of the long-suffering diplomats’ wishful thinking.

Others were convinced that Orbán will change his foreign policy orientation and will give up his anti-West rhetoric and policies. However, Attila Ara-Kovács in an article that appeared in Magyar Narancs outlined the impossibility of such a scenario. In the same article Ara-Kovács shed light on the atmosphere at the ministry of foreign affairs nowadays. An ambassador with close ties to Fidesz happened to be back in Hungary and wanted to talk to his superiors in the ministry. He was not allowed to enter the building because, as he was told by the security officer at the door, “you are on the list of those who are forbidden to wander around the corridors alone.”

Since then the situation has only gotten worse.  According to insiders, “in the last two months the chief preoccupation in the ministry is saving one’s job.” By October 34 ambassadors were sacked in addition to the hundreds who were fired earlier. János Martonyi, the previous foreign minister, because of his pro-trans-atlantic sentiments is considered to be a traitor and an American agent by those people who were brought in by Navracsics and Szijjártó from the ministry of justice and the prime minister’s office. Indicative of this new anti-American orientation, a recent order from the prime minister’s office required employees to report in writing all contacts with American diplomats over the last few years.

Szijjártó seems to have a free hand when it comes to personnel decisions. He created a job for a friend of his from the futsal team Szijjártó played on until recently. Despite no degree or experience, the futsal player will coordinate the work of the “minister’s cabinet.” For Szijjártó, as for the prime minister, it is “loyalty” that matters. Among the five undersecretaries there is only one with any diplomatic experience and he is, of all things, responsible for cultural and scientific matters. The newcomers don’t understand the world of diplomacy, so they’re creating their own rules. They are introducing a “new language” for diplomatic correspondence. They tell the old-timers that they mustn’t be “too polite” in official letters. Also, apparently they don’t consider it important to put conversations or decisions into writing. They think that a telephone conversation or perhaps an e-mail is enough. Therefore it is impossible to know what transpired between Hungarian and foreign diplomats. All that writing is cumbersome and slow. It seems that they want to follow the well-known practice of the Orbán government. A decision is made without any discussion and the next day the two-thirds majority passes the new law. But diplomacy doesn’t work that way. It is a delicate business.

Currently, I’m reading a biography of Benjamin Franklin in which his efforts at securing an alliance with France are described in some detail. It took him a year and a half to achieve that feat, which was vital for the young United States at war with Great Britain. And he was a seasoned diplomat. The new staff at the foreign ministry is decidedly unseasoned. Some of them haven’t even been schooled in foreign affairs, history, or political science. Believe it or not, two of the five undersecretaries have medical degrees. A rather odd background, I would say, for conducting foreign policy.

Diplomacy is the antithesis of everything that characterizes the Orbán government. For Viktor Orbán the “peacock dance,” which is basically nothing more than deceiving your negotiating partners, passes for diplomacy. And the new, “irreversible” foreign policy has already led Hungary to the brink of diplomatic disaster.

By the way, U.S. Chargé d’Affaires M. André Goodfriend, as you can see from the photo accompanying this post, attended the conference.

Viktor Orbán’s Eastern Opening initiative is foundering

Vladimir Putin’s announcement yesterday about the cancellation of the Southern Stream caught the Hungarian government by surprise. It looks as if Putin neglected to tell his loyal strategic ally that Russia was planning to scrap the project upon which the Orbán government built its foreign and energy policy.

It must have been a bitter pill to swallow, and I am fairly certain that it will not be the last. Because Russia is in trouble. Big trouble. The current economic situation reminds Csaba Káncz of privátbankár.hu of the late Soviet period when in 1985 Saudi Arabia dramatically raised the daily quota from three to eight million barrels and the price of oil dropped from thirty dollars to ten. The same commentator reminded his readers that three-quarters of Russian exports come from oil and that half of the Russian budget depends on oil revenues. The Russian situation today raises the specter of 1998, when the country defaulted on its domestic debt and declared a moratorium on payment to foreign creditors.

pipes

They are empty

Indeed, Russian economic prospects are grim. Since the beginning of the year the ruble has lost 60% of its value. Inflation is at 9%. Official figures for economic growth are revised practically monthly, and it looks as if Russia is heading toward recession. Apparently Rosneft, the giant Russian oil company, had to sell 20% of its shares to keep the 2015 budget in balance, at least for a while. The Russian people are already feeling the pinch. Real wages may drop by 4%.

Even Válasz woke up and in a short article listed five signs that “Russia is in trouble.” The drastic devaluation of the ruble, oil prices, inflation, recession, and the flight of capital are the telling signs. Válasz points out that $120 billion in foreign capital has left Russia recently.  Only Magyar Nemzet tried the old journalistic trick of publishing an article about a Bulgarian politician who thinks that “Russia’s decision … is only a tactical move.”

Otherwise, the Hungarian media uniformly interprets the cancellation of the Southern Stream as an indication that Viktor Orbán’s Eastern Opening has failed. Hungary’s foreign policy, if you can call it that, is in tatters. How could it happen that the Hungarian administration put its blind faith in Putin’s Russia when for months it has been quite obvious that the Russian economy is in trouble? In fact, it was in trouble even before the western sanctions were imposed. Not only foreign analysts found the Russian situation worrisome but Zoltán S. Biró, a Hungarian expert on Russian history and politics, talked about the possibility that the Southern Stream might not materialize. A former Hungarian ambassador to Moscow, who is also knowledgeable about Russian affairs, also warned that the project might be scrapped and even ventured to predict that Paks might turn out to be a pipe dream. But these are not the people Viktor Orbán listens to.

Already under Foreign Minister János Martonyi (2010-2014) a large number of old hands in the foreign ministry were fired because they were deemed to be too closely associated with the socialist-liberal governments. But prior to the move of Tibor Navracsics and Péter Szijjártó to the ministry there were still a few people left who could have given an honest appraisal of the Russian situation. I hear, however, that fear has spread throughout the administration and that the foreign ministry is no exception. People are afraid to give their honest assessment of a situation because they know that “bad news” is not welcome in the prime minister’s office. Moreover, it has been apparent from day one that Viktor Orbán is conducting his foreign policy through Péter Szijjártó, a diplomatic greenhorn. And the “experts” they listen to are the folks at Századvég whose ideas about the world are staggeringly deficient. This is, at least in part, how Viktor Orbán ended up in this mess.

Commentators point out what we always knew: it is not the West that is in decline but Russia that cannot keep up with the rest of developed world. As Index put it, “Suddenly we learned that Russia is not so strong after all.” The drop in the price of oil and the sanctions did the job. It turned out that Russia is just “a huge Venezuela.” Orbán bet on the wrong horse and he lost. This is “a loss of prestige for NER (Nemzeti Együttműködés Rendszere/System of National Cooperation), Orbán’s alleged new political system.”

On Klubrádió Ferenc Gyurcsány also talked about the failure of a foreign policy that relies on an ever-weakening Russia. The Eastern Opening has no future and Orbán should end “the age of adventures,” a reference to the tenth-century Hungarian military incursions into Western Europe that eventually came to a sorry end when Otto I, the Holy Roman Emperor, taught them a lesson near Augsburg in 955. Gyurcsány made another historical allusion when he talked about Hungary ending up being “the last servile retainer” (csatlós) of Russia, comparing today’s situation to 1945 when Hungary stuck with Hitler’s Germany to the bitter end.

What did the administration have to say? Not much. According to Péter Szijjártó, “Russia has the right to make such a decision and Hungary takes note of it.” This terse statement barely hides Hungarian annoyance and disappointment.  He added that “the situation is entirely new. We have to look for new sources of energy.” His statement to MTI indicated that the Orbán government hasn’t done anything to look for alternative sources of energy. Everything was hanging on the completion of the Southern Stream by 2017. Today Szijjártó gave an interview to Magyar Nemzet in which he was asked about “the secure position of the Paks project.” His answer to the question was that, as far as he knows, Rosatom has never gone back on its commitments. A rather tricky answer because the real question is whether the Russian government is willing and able to lend ten billion euros to Hungary. If not, Rosatom is out of a job.

Magyar Nemzet tried to elicit a pro-Russian answer from Szijjártó by calling his attention to “the black and white” description of Russian-Ukrainian relations by the secretary-general of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen. According to the pro-Russian and anti-American paper, he described Ukraine as a country that can expect “a wonderful European future” while Russia must be condemned. Well, Szijjartó did not fall into that trap. He again recalled Hungary’s bad experiences with the Soviet Union and promised that “Hungary will give all the necessary assistance to Ukraine to launch the necessary reforms.”

So, this is where we stand at the moment. This new development is clearly a blow to Viktor Orbán’s grandiose plans. The question is whether he learned his lesson or whether he will actually ratchet up his eastern policy, as many commentators predict.

Ferenc Gyurcsány’s latest political road map

As an illustration of how little Viktor Orbán’s minions understand and respect democracy, it is worth recalling Szilárd Németh’s comment about the “outlandish” announcement of Ferenc Gyurcsány after the municipal elections on October 12 that “he will do everything in his power to defeat the Orbán government.” He added that to this end Gyurcsány has solicited “foreign help” in the person of André Goodfriend, the U.S. chargé d’affaires in Budapest. Németh, by the way, happens to be one of the most unsavory characters in Orbán’s entourage. He is currently the deputy whip of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation.

Well, if Németh thought that for an opposition party to strive to defeat the Orbán government at the next election is tantamount to treason, he and his fellow Fidesz politicians will have a heyday with Gyurcsány’s announcement at the Demokratikus Koalíció’s congress today. There he declared his hope that the Orbán government will fall by 2016, two years ahead of the scheduled national election.

Politicians of the opposition parties have been reticent to express their views on the civic movements that have cropped up lately, with a new cast of characters.Their restraint is understandable given the organizers’ reluctance to be associated with parties. Any party. At the same time we know that there can be no parliamentary democracy without parties and that sooner or later the civic groups and the politicians will have to come to an understanding.

Gyurcsány decided to break the silence. Whether it was wise or not only time will tell, but at least he came out with the outline of a program, which is more than his fellow politicians on the left have done. Here I will summarize the speech he delivered this morning. I am relying on three independent sources–Népszabadság, Népszavaand Hir24because their reporters were on the spot and filed their reports prior to the appearance of MTI‘s summary.

Let me start with some of the new ideas that appeared in this speech. Earlier, Gyurcsány, while admitting the “mistakes” of the past, wanted to return to 1989 and restore the constitution of that year. Now he is thinking in terms of a new constitution and a new republic. That new constitution should decrease the power of the state and widen the rights of the people, who could express their wishes more directly through referendums. To hold referendums was very difficult in Hungary even before 2010, but since then Viktor Orbán has made sure that the governed have practically no opportunity “to interfere” with the work of his government. With this shift Gyurcsány was obviously responding to the majority view that politics even prior to 2010 was misguided and that it does not provide an appropriate model for future governance.

Source: Népszabadság / photo by Zsolt Reviczky

Source: Népszabadság / photo by Zsolt Reviczky

While he was at it, Gyurcsány introduced his own program without calling it that. One may question the feasibility of some of the items on his wish list, but at least he put them out for public response. He emphasized that although it will be the street demonstrations that will put pressure on the government to resign, these demonstrations must be peaceful.  Meanwhile the opposition forces must prepare themselves for the eventuality that in a couple of years they must be ready to govern and not find themselves in “a democratic chaos.” As far as foreign policy is concerned, a clear commitment must be made to the West. The “double dealing,” the shuttling between Moscow and Brussels must come to an end. As far as domestic changes are concerned,  the courts and the prosecutor’s office must become independent again. The media must be freed from its current stranglehold. People should be able to establish churches of their own choosing. NGOs should be allowed to do their jobs. An independent “anti-corruption office” should be set up. And something must be done about the growing poverty of ab0ut half of the population.

He spent some time on corruption and the world of the oligarchs, pointing out that “the number one oligarch is Viktor Orbán himself,” something that, in my opinion, many people don’t seem to realize when they demand the removal of “corrupt officials” only.

He spent a long time analyzing the current political situation and offering possible answers to it. He pointed out that Fidesz’s achievement of gaining a super majority again did not result in “the stabilization of Viktor Orbán’s power.” On the contrary, it roused people’s ire because of the arbitrary decisions of a government whose support has been decreasing over the years. In a democratic country there is “correction” from within, but in a tyranny one can only revolt. “The Hungarian parliamentary system is practically dead,” and therefore national resistance remains the only option.

Gyurcsány, unlike some other former liberal politicians, said that the disappointment, anger, and passion of the organizers of the demonstrations are perfectly understandable. He was happy to see the flags of the European Union at the demonstrations because that means that they opt for the democracy of the West, not the tyranny of the East. One ought not be surprised, he added, that no programs have been formulated by the organizers of these demonstrations because, after all, first one must reject the current political system. The young organizers have to decide whether they are willing to join an already existing party or whether they want to create one of their own. In either case, they must understand that “there is no parliamentary democracy without parties.” Yes, he knows that the civic leaders who organized the demonstrations are suspicious of politics and politicians. But politics is not dirty by itself; only corrupt politicians make it so.

The Fidesz propaganda machine needed less than an hour after the reports on the DK congress became public to react. The short statement has all the hallmarks of classic Fidesz propaganda: Ferenc Gyurcsány only a few days ago pretended that “he was an elegant stranger who kept himself away from the demonstrations, but by Saturday it became clear that he lied. He admitted that in fact it is the Left that is behind the demonstrations.” According to the government party, “the chairman of the opposition party admitted that the only goal of the demonstrations is the overthrow of the government and he is willing to use all means to obtain this end with force.” That short statement says a lot about the propaganda machine of Fidesz. Unfortunately, misinformation, lying if you wish, is the trademark of the present Hungarian government.