German chancellor

Merkel-Orbán conversations: Serious differences of opinion

Yesterday, right after Angela Merkel’s plane left the runway at the Budapest Airport, I jotted down my first impressions. It was a busy day for the German chancellor, so I had to be very selective in my post. I concentrated on Merkel’s comments, largely because they were the most unexpected elements in the exchange. Moreover, I talked mostly about her reactions to Hungarian domestic issues and spent a great deal less time on the disagreements between the two leaders over foreign affairs.

Let’s start with their attitudes toward Putin’s Russia. According to Orbán, Ukraine is important for Hungary because it is a neighbor of Hungary, because there is a Hungarian minority across the border, and because the gas that Hungary needs badly travels through this country. Therefore, he said, Hungary “can stand only on the side of peace. We can imagine only a solution that will take us toward peace.” But let’s see what Merkel had to say. According to her, the Germans would also like to have a ceasefire and political stability in Ukraine that “can guarantee the territorial integrity of the country.” Something Orbán didn’t talk about. Merkel also gently reminded Orbán that Hungary is not the only country that is dependent on Russian gas, indicating that it is unacceptable for Hungary to have a different viewpoint on the question of Russian sanctions.

That last remark from Merkel prompted Orbán to open a discussion with his guest on Hungary’s unique position in this respect. Germany’s situation cannot be compared to that of Hungary; “one must take Hungary’s situation vis-à-vis Russia very seriously.” Hungary has to renew her long-term agreement on the price of gas for the next fifteen years, and therefore “it is difficult to fully support the Russian sanctions.”

Although yesterday I talked about their disagreements over the meaning of democracy, I said nothing about how the topic came up during the press conference. Orbán naturally did not bring it up; it was Merkel who announced that during her conversation with Orbán she “indicated that although the Hungarian government has a large majority, in a democracy the role of the opposition, the civil society, and the media is very important.” She added that later she will find time to have a conversation with the leaders of Hungarian civil society. From Orbán’s reaction it was clear that the Hungarian prime minister did not expect such direct involvement by Merkel in a matter he considers a domestic issue. It was after these points of disagreement that Merkel and Orbán had their rather sharp exchange on the nature of “illiberal democracy.” As the Frankfurter Rundschau pointed out, Merkel can at times be quite “undiplomatic,” as she was this time, and therefore “she annoyed Orbán.” You can see the prime minister’s annoyance and his determination to follow his own path on the picture below, taken during their debate on “illiberalism.”

Source: MTI / Photo Tibor Illyés

Source: MTI / Photo Tibor Illyés

Csaba Molnár,  the number two man in the Demokratikus Koalíció, thought that Orbán was cowed and “behaved like a scared little boy standing by his teacher’s side.” I disagree. I saw exactly the opposite: a combative Viktor Orbán who will not be swayed by any argument and who will continue to build his illiberal state. I’m afraid the same might be true when it comes to negotiations with Vladimir Putin. Even though he might sign on to further sanctions, he will try to make a deal with Putin regardless of EU disapproval. It is another matter whether Putin will swallow a big one and give preferential treatment to Orbán despite the meager returns he can expect from Budapest.

As even the right-wing media had to admit, the visit was not a great success, although it was designed to be a showcase of German-Hungarian friendship and a stamp of approval by the German chancellor of the Orbán regime. What does Fidesz do in such an awkward situation? After all, they cannot admit that Merkel and Orbán disagreed on almost everything, starting with Russia and ending with the nature of democracy. The simplest and the usual Fidesz response in such cases is to resort to outright lying. This is exactly what happened today.

Vs.hu is a relatively new internet news site that came out with the startling news that the real significance of the conversation was in the realm of new German investments in the Hungarian economy. András Kósa, a well-respected journalist who used to be on the staff of HVG, just joined Vs.hu. He was told by unnamed members of the government and local German businessmen that although on the surface there was visible friction between Merkel and Orbán, in fact “concrete important industrial agreements came into being on Monday.” Siemens will be involved in the construction of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant. In addition, Hungary will buy thirty helicopters from Airbus, not from the American Sikorsky or the Italian-British AgustaWestland. Kósa was told that “BMW is contemplating opening a factory in Hungary.” Only the exact location remains to be settled. And, on top of everything else, Mercedes will build a new factory to manufacture a new model.

Well, that was quite a scoop. The Hungarian media went crazy. Dozens and dozens of articles appeared within minutes, and every time the story was retold it became grander and grander. While the original article emphasized that all these favorable developments “might happen,” by the time the story got to Magyar Nemzet it became “Gigantic German investments are forthcoming as a result of the Merkel-Orbán meeting.” Válasz discovered that the real significance of the meeting was that new “gigantic German investments are coming to Hungary,” obviously all that taken care of during a short luncheon. Even such a reputable site as Portfolio.hu fell for the story.

The first word of warning came from a specialized internet site that deals with the car industry, Autopro.hu. It is possible that economic relations were discussed, but it is impossible that there could be negotiations between Merkel and Orbán regarding concrete projects, the author of the article remarked. This is not the first time that the possibility of a BMW factory is being heralded by the Hungarian media, but nothing ever came of it. Moreover, if there are such plans or decisions, they would not be discussed by Merkel and Orbán but by the top management of BMW and Hungarian economic experts. Autopro.hu didn’t manage to get in touch with BMW, but they were told by Mercedes that at the moment they have no intention of building another factory. Later the pro-government Napi Gazdaság  learned from BMW headquarters that “the BMW Group has no plans to build a factory in Hungary.” I don’t know whether the rest of the story, about Siemens and Airbus, is true or is also a figment of the imagination of certain government officials.

I consider Kósa a reliable and serious journalist who would not make up such a story. But why would government sources leak information about nonexistent projects? What do these so-called high government officials think when they concoct stories that are bound to be discovered to be false? Perhaps they think that the false news will spread like wildfire, as it did in this case, and that the correction will be reported by only very few media outlets. Therefore, it can be considered a successful communication stunt. Fidesz is good at that.

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Sándor Kerekes: Letter to Angela Merkel

Dear Chancellor Merkel:

I am impelled to write to you on the occasion of your impending visit to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary in February. I have no doubt that your able staff is more than adequately preparing your visit; however, I wish to add to that a point of view representing the Hungarian perspective.

Surely, you are aware that the government of PM Orbán and his Fidesz Party have relentlessly attacked and emasculated most institutions of the democratic state ever since their election in May 2010. But, just to keep up appearances, they have maintained them as a façade, populating them with their own appointees, often for nine and twelve-year terms, thus rendering them unable and unwilling to carry out their original, constitutional functions, since the appointees only follow Fidesz instructions. From the outside they look like checks and balances to the unsuspecting viewer. However, nothing could be further from the facts. All those institutions are interconnected through the invisible network of personal and party connections, all serving to promote the political and financial interests of a selected few of Viktor Orbán’s friends. In fact, those institutions are only there to serve as a disguise, hiding the actual operations of a government whose single and concentrated aim is to siphon as much of the country’s resources to the hands of this small coterie, as possible.

The street demonstrations of recent days mobilizing tens of thousands of people almost every other day, demanding democracy and fair government, are largely concerned with the ever-increasing corruption of the government. Those thousands are in dire need of help that could surely come from you Madame Chancellor. This monumental, institutional corruption is seemingly unassailable by the people, because Parliament, as the Prime Minister’s voting machine, legislates and legalizes the constant, obvious thievery. And as it so often happens, if a superficially constructed piece of legislation should prove insufficient to cover up the crime, either a subsequent retroactive law will bend the rules after the fact, or all complaints will be rejected or ignored by the Prosecutor’s Office. Since the election in 2010, not one single corruption case was launched against any corrupt government official, despite the numerous cases submitted. It is not surprising; therefore, if many consider the government of Viktor Orbán as a well-functioning Mafia operation.

The presently concluded contract with Vladimir Putin’s Russia for the building and financing of the Paks 2 nuclear power plant is hugely disadvantageous to Hungary and yet a most rational pact in view of the rapacious corruption system. The contract includes a 20% Hungarian share in the financing – 2.5 billion Euros – that is available for stealing. Since the Hungarian state otherwise has run out of sources for available money to steal, this gigantic project will provide a copious source of corruption money for the coterie. At the same time, it may bankrupt the country, but by the time that will become clear, this Mafia will be long gone.

Under these circumstances, even the government of the United States raised a strenuous complaint and took the unprecedented step of banning certain government officials from its territory for reasons of corruption. At the same time, the United States government made it clear that it will not shirk from the confrontation, and insists that the Hungarian government must address the systemic corruption. So far, Viktor Orbán has resorted to lies, denial, and communications trickery, but taken no action.

Apart from some prestige projects, such as football stadiums and municipal beautifications, public investments ground to a halt years ago. Private capital is fleeing the country. If there is any investment at all in Hungary today, it is funded by European Union transfer money. In fact, over 90% of all public investment projects are financed by the European Union. But invariably, those projects are “one-off” short term ones that create neither lasting effect, nor permanent jobs for people. In fact, all that European Union financing is squandered on useless, short-term veneer, merely creating appearances and an opportunity for kickbacks. Presently, any government public bidding process is tailor-made for the single, Orbán-friendly bidder, and the general consensus is that the “usual” kickback is between 20 and 40%. Despite all this, the Orbán government is conducting an unrelenting verbal and political campaign against the European Union, the United States and most of all the ideals of liberal democracy.

The barren Hungarian puszta

The barren Hungarian puszta

When the European Parliament commissioned the Tavares Report, it was assumed in good faith that the problems of the Orbán Government were mere mistakes and with the help of the Report itself, with some good advice, and genteel prodding, the system could be corrected. Today it is clear that the Orbán government is by no means acting in good faith. In fact, the Tavares Report failed to recognize that Hungary is rapidly and intentionally sliding towards a one-party, single-ruler, authoritarian, illiberal regime. The Report was to no avail; the Hungarian government not only ignored it, but also legislated its rejection. All this was done in front of the uncaring eyes of the European Union.

While the officials and friends of the Orbán government are getting obviously and obscenely rich, the population of the country is sliding into deep poverty. Today, four million people are living under the poverty level, hundreds of thousands are starving and tens of thousands of children cannot get enough to eat. Poverty today is endemic in Hungary and it is increasing. Over the last four years, 500,000 of the mobile, enterprising people of Hungary have emigrated to other countries in the European Union, Germany amongst them.

Not wanting to extend needlessly the list of reasons for writing this letter, I wish to come to the obvious implications.

Hungary today is a disturbing foreign object in the very middle of the European Union. But because its transformation, running counter to everything European, is far from complete, it is likely that in the future she will be a cause for much more, and much more painful headaches within the European Union. The process of transformation is accelerating unbridled, and Hungary will be a source of an unhealthy inspiration, inviting any self-appointed tin-pot dictator to repeat the exercise: build an illiberal, single-ruler dictatorship and do it at the expense of the European Union. Why not? Nobody is raising any objections and the money keeps flowing to finance the process.

Madame Chancellor:

The interest of the European Union, the people of Hungary, and basic common sense dictate to submit to you the humble request that you, a dominant person in the European Union and in the World, give an unmistakable expression of disapproval to Mr. Orbán about what is happening in Hungary. It is inconceivable, and yet a strange fact of life, that the European Union and its citizenry should generously finance Hungary’s corruption, its war against Western Values and Mr. Orbán’s campaign against the people of his own country. Why should the European Union pour billions of Euros into a few people’s pockets, just to enable them to steal even more?

The suspension or denial of the transfer payments would bring the insane policies of the Orbán government to a screeching halt since nothing but these payments keeps it going.

The European Union, on the other hand, would greatly benefit from saving those billions by using them for more worthy purposes than stuffing the pockets of a corrupt regime that uses them as an opportunity to conduct a surreptitious anti-European, anti-liberal, people-busting war in peace time.

Dear Madame Chancellor:

I fervently hope that my suggestions coincide with your own intentions, and that your highly anticipated visit to Hungary will bring the beneficial results most of us are hoping for. It would be a bitter disappointment for the entire country if Prime Minister Orbán could in any way interpret your visit as a public relations success and a stamp of approval on his policies.

Very truly yours,

Sándor Kerekes

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Sándor Kerekes is a freelance journalist whose articles regularly appear in Kanadai Magyar Hírlap. He also wrote several articles in the past for Hungarian Spectrum.

Two narratives of the impending Budapest visit of Angela Merkel

As Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to Budapest nears, there is conflicting speculation about the purpose of her visit. Merkel will spend five hours in Budapest, apparently on February 2. This short stint will include a meeting with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and a visit to Mazsihisz, the umbrella organization representing the Jewish religious community. Why is Merkel traveling to Hungary? According to critics, the trip is ill-advised because, with a visit to Budapest, she is implicitly endorsing the illiberal regime of Viktor Orbán. A few days ago one of the leading MSZP politicians announced that the party expects Merkel “to signal to Viktor Orbán in unambiguous terms that he has no place in the community of democratic European politicians.”

Others seem to be convinced that Merkel is going to Budapest to ensure that Viktor Orbán will vote together with the rest of the European prime ministers to extend the sanctions currently in force against Russia. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that the German chancellor made it clear that sanctions can be lifted only after the agreement reached in Minsk is fulfilled. And nothing of the sort has happened. In fact, just this morning Kiev announced that 700 Russian troops had crossed into Ukraine to aid the rebels fighting for control of the eastern provinces.

Attila Ara-Kovács, the foreign policy expert of Demokratikus Koalíció, is one of those who believe that the trip’s main purpose is to convince Viktor Orbán of the necessity of extending the sanctions. But he goes even further when he hypothesizes that Merkel has another message for Orbán in light of the recent demonstrations: he should end the political conflict at home. Somewhat similarly, Stratfor, an American geopolitical intelligence and advisory firm, is convinced that Merkel’s visit is part and parcel of a U.S. “diplomatic offensive” in the region and can be viewed as putting joint U.S.-German pressure on Viktor Orbán. The aim is to stop the spread of Russian influence in the region.

Is this the truth?

Is this the truth?

Or that?

Or this?

The other narrative of the impending Merkel visit comes straight from Fidesz. It is well summarized in the headline of an article by Zsolt Hazafi: “Is Merkel Orbán’s guardian angel?” It is true that the journalist turned the Fidesz message into a question, but the answer is “yes.” The story line goes as follows: Hungary and Germany are very close allies who synchronize all their diplomatic moves. More than that, Orbán’s Hungary is doing Germany’s bidding. Or at least this is what József Szájer, a Fidesz member of the European Parliament, intimated in his interview with Antónia Mészáros of ATV yesterday. As he put it: “Germany sent us ahead” to test the ground vis-à-vis Russia. Berlin, according to him, is just as much against sanctions as Budapest is, but Merkel is constrained, presumably by the United States. Therefore, she secretly welcomes Hungary’s position on the sanctions.

After talking with several high-level government officials, Hazafi gained the impression that in the last few years a Russian-German-Hungarian triangle came into being, a three-way relationship that includes an understanding about building a second reactor at the Paks nuclear power plant. Why would the German chancellor agree to the secret Russian-Hungarian deal on Paks? According to this narrative, Germany, where soon enough there will be no nuclear power plants, will be able to get inexpensive energy from Paks. Fidesz informants pointed out that a German firm was instrumental in making the Russian loan to Hungary possible. They added as proof of the understanding between Germany and Hungary on Paks that Günther Oettinger, former European commissioner for energy matters and a German, raised no objection to the Putin-Orbán deal. Members of the Hungarian government and leading Fidesz leaders consider both visits–Merkel’s and Putin’s–diplomatic triumphs. “Hungary is back on the map,” Orbán allegedly said.

Népszabadság also had its own Fidesz informants. They claim that Germany didn’t object to the Orbán-Putin meeting since Germany and Hungary work hand in hand when it comes to Russia. Some of the more embarrassing statements of Viktor Orbán are no more than trial balloons. One example is the question of sanctions. According to other Fidesz politicians, those who see a connection between the visits of Merkel and Putin “are not far from the truth.” Insiders also claim that the relationship between Merkel and Orbán is close. According to them, the two became closer after their hour-long meeting in Milan last year. Government officials, when claiming close German-Russian-Hungarian cooperation, usually bring up the fact that Klaus Mangold, former CEO of Daimler-Chrysler, was the middleman between Orbán and Putin throughout the negotiations. The informers seem to be pretty certain that “it is no longer in the interest of Germany to talk seriously about the lack of democracy in Hungary.” The author of the article (we don’t know who he/she is because there was no by-line) added that Merkel might have to resort to more serious criticism after “the prime minister’s crude anti-immigration theses” in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris.

So, here we have two irreconcilable narratives. I find the Fidesz version of close German-Hungarian relations hard to believe. There are just too many signs that contradict it. Unless, of course, we assume duplicity on the part of Angela Merkel. After all, time and again she expressed her misgivings about Russian aggression and her support of the sanctions, including additional ones if Russia refused to cooperate. Such a double game would make no sense, especially now that Russia is in serious economic and political trouble. Thus, my hunch is that the sudden talkativeness of Fidesz potentates is a concerted effort on the part of the Orbán regime to burnish the prime minister’s image, to point to his diplomatic importance and genius, and to portray him as one of the most important leaders in Europe.

I am inclined to believe that the main reason for the Merkel visit is indeed the question of the sanctions and Hungary’s overly chummy relations with Putin. I am also convinced that Merkel will talk about what Hungarians call “the democracy deficit,” which is something that is hard to ignore given the wide coverage of Orbán’s illiberal state and the latest demonstrations. In brief, I consider this latest tsunami of leaks by Fidesz politicians to be a part of a disinformation campaign.