Germany

Viktor Orbán goes to Kiev, M. André Goodfriend returns to Washington

Viktor Orbán has been a very busy man lately, especially when it comes to playing on the international stage. Angela Merkel visited Budapest last week; this week Orbán had talks with the prime minister of Georgia, and today he traveled to Kiev for a brief visit with Petro Poroshenko. Orbán’s Ukrainian visit is widely seen as an attempt to counterbalance the much criticized Putin visit next Tuesday. Today much of his regularly scheduled morning interview was devoted to Russian and Ukrainian affairs.

There is still no verbatim transcript of the interview, but I took notes when I listened to it and read several summaries that appeared in Hungarian newspapers and on the government’s website. Some of his comments on the Russian-Ukrainian conflict were platitudes about the dangers of war so close to home. Surely, Hungary is much more exposed than France or Germany, whose heads of state tried to broker an agreement with Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Orbán, who remains opposed to further sanctions, tried to put the best spin on the “fragile peace” that is still better than war.

When it came to Russian-Hungarian relations, Orbán treaded lightly and felt compelled to refer to Hungarian leeriness when it comes to relations with Russia. Mind you, the reference was fleeting. He said that “for many Hungarians this is an emotional issue.” One would have thought that either he would have stopped there or would have explained Hungarian reservations by talking about the role of the Russians in the 1848-1849 war of independence and, naturally, about the Russian suppression of the 1956 Hungarian revolution. But no, he said instead that “we lost a war against them,” referring to World War II. A most unfortunate remark since winning the war against the Soviet Union in this case would have meant victory for Nazi Germany. Magyar Nemzet might be moving in the right direction as far as honest journalism is concerned, but it decided to omit this sentence.

In his opinion, emotions cannot play a role in Hungary’s relations with Russia. He himself never had any doubts about Vladimir Putin’s  visit. It was he who invited Putin, and he is glad that Putin accepted his invitation. The Russian president is always welcome in the Hungarian capital.

It is becoming apparent to me that Viktor Orbán imagines today’s Europe as similar to the way it was between the two world wars. The simultaneous collapse of the large, powerful empires of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia allowed the formation of small nation states in the region of East-Central Europe. With the revival of Germany and Russia, these states found themselves squeezed between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Orbán keeps talking about the “two large powers,” Russia and Germany, on whom Hungary depends for its well being. But this is an outdated view. Today there is a European Union to which Hungary belongs. Hungary also joined NATO. Hungary is definitely committed to the West and her security lies on this side. Balancing between two world powers is no longer possible, and therefore I’m convinced that Orbán’s “brilliant” strategy will be a failure.

Orbán’s diplomatic balancing act leads me to another topic, the departure of M. André Goodfriend from Budapest. The announcement was a surprise because the United States government had explicitly stated that Goodfriend would remain in Budapest even after the arrival of Colleen Bell, the new U.S. ambassador. The chargé represented U.S. policies and worked closely with the State Department. It was a message to Budapest that no great changes in U.S.-Hungarian relations should be expected with the arrival of the new ambassador. But then came the bombshell that after all Goodfriend is leaving “for strictly family reasons.” Hungarians suspect that this explanation was fabricated, that some kind of a deal was reached between Washington and Budapest for which the U.S. government sacrificed Goodfriend.

Well, I’m one of those people who don’t believe this conspiracy theory. First of all, the one longer speech that Colleen Bell delivered to date in no way indicated a softening of the American attitude toward the Hungarian government. The speech was delivered before businessmen, and therefore she concentrated on economic issues. She brought up a point about which foreign businessmen complain: the unpredictability of Hungarian economic policy. Second, I see no sign of any softening of Orbán’s attitude either on the Russian issue or on the question of corruption. As for the attacks on nongovernmental organizations, the verbal abuse continues. If there was a deal, it was one that the Hungarian side is not honoring. And I refuse to believe that American diplomats are so naive as to strike a deal before the other side takes concrete steps to mend its ways. So, I’m inclined to accept the Embassy’s version that Mr. Goodfriend has some very urgent family business that can be taken care of only in the United States.

Goodfriend3

André Goodfriend’s departure is greeted with great sadness in liberal circles in Hungary. Many looked upon him as a valued friend of Hungary and were extremely grateful to him. On Facebook there are thousands of posts in which Hungarian citizens thank him for being the defender of Hungarian democracy. I heard a story about one gesture that exemplifies the kind of gratitude Hungarians felt. It was Christmas Eve and André Goodfriend went to a flower shop to buy a bouquet. When he wanted to pay, the owner of the flower shop wouldn’t accept his money, saying that it is she who owes him instead of the other way around.

Perhaps the most moving manifestation of the affection felt for André Goodfriend in Hungary is a video sent by Kreatív Ellenállás (Creative Opposition), a Facebook group, to which the creators added a popular song entitled “André j’aime” composed by János Bródy, played by the Illés Ensemble and sung by Zsuzsa Koncz. These people are legends in Hungarian popular music, mainly because their songs were highly critical of the Kádár regime.

Finally, Mr. Goodfriend was a regular reader of Hungarian Spectrum and a few times even engaged in our discussions. We will miss him, and I’m sure I can speak on behalf of our readership in wishing him the very best in his future endeavors.

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.

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.

“In defense of gymnasiums”: A cry for sanity

Absolute power not only corrupts absolutely, as Lord Acton told us, it also damages everything it touches. It assumes not only omnipotence but omniscience. Unfortunately Viktor Orbán seems not to have realized that he is a mere mortal and has lots of gaps in his knowledge. In crafting national policy he doesn’t consult with experts because he is the expert on all things Hungarian. He tries to remake Hungarian society to reflect his own flawed image of the ideal nation.

One of his most dangerous experiments is in public education. Early in his administration we could already see how preoccupied he was with training the future Hungarian workforce, how he put more stock in things than in ideas. His latest plan to restrict entry to gymnasiums and to force most children to learn a trade after eighth grade is especially harmful. Although experts pointed out that eight grades of study before beginning a dual education is inadequate schooling in today’s world, they were not heeded, and probably not even read. A huge reorganization of education was ordered from above without any consultation.

A few days ago a thorough study was published by one of the research institutes of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the Department of Human Resources at the Budapest Corvinus University. The title of the study is “In the defense of gymnasiums.”

The amazing thing about most of Viktor Orbán’s reforms is that even the premises on which they are based are faulty. For example, the government’s claim that the number of trained skilled workers has decreased since the change of regime is just wrong. As the authors show in one of the many diagrams accompanying the study, although the number of graduates of trade schools (szakiskola) has decreased, the number of graduates from schools where students can also obtain a matriculation certificate enabling them to enter college has increased. This trend started already before 1990.

The other often repeated misconception is that attending a gymnasium or a trade school that offers matriculation certificates (szakközépiskola) is a waste of time and energy because these people cannot find employment. The fact is that with a matriculation certificate it is easier to obtain a job. Unemployment among those who did not finish high school is 8%, while among high school graduates it is 4.8%. Among college graduates it is 2.9%. There is also a wage difference between those who went only to trade school and those who while learning a trade also earned a high school diploma. The wage difference is 25% in favor of the latter.

Ordinary trade schools offer inferior educational opportunities. If we compare two children with similar potential, the one who goes to a trade school will perform worse than his counterpart in a high school offering dual education.

Orbán’s favorite hobby-horse is the “dual education” that is well-known in Germany, Denmark, and Sweden. However, according to the authors, Viktor Orbán misunderstands the concept. In Germany a student receiving a dual education will first spend between 7,155 and 7,950 hours on academic subjects. In Hungary it is only 5,742 hours. This is an appreciable difference. As if a Hungarian student were to spend ten or eleven years instead of the eight he does now on academic subjects. Or if a Hungarian high school student would spend not twelve but about fourteen years in high school. In Denmark two-thirds of skilled workers speak English right out of school. In Hungary less than one percent do. In Denmark only 40% of the dual-education school graduates actually end up on the shop floor. The others become technicians or lower- or middle management. One reason they can rise through the ranks is that, among other things, only 7% of Danish students have problems understanding documents. In Hungary that number is 37.3%.

Orbán and his “education team”are convinced that Hungary has too many university graduates. That is not the case. Hungary is actually in the lowest one-third among EU member countries, as can be seen in the graph below.

Percentages of university graduates broken down by age

Percentage of university graduates by age

Moreover, by restricting entry to gymnasiums the number of people who can enter university will also shrink. So, instead of boosting the number of college graduates as most countries are doing, Hungary will soon have the distinction of being among the least highly educated people in Europe.

I would like to call attention to the incredible leap Poland has made. Among the 45-54 age group Poland clearly trails behind many countries. This is the heritage of the socialist system. But now more than 40% of the 25- to 34-year-olds are university graduates.

Perhaps the greatest sin of the new system is that the restrictions to entering gymnasiums will most severely affect children from the lowest social strata. As it is, children coming from families belonging to the top fifth income bracket have a 2.3 times greater chance of entering gymnasium than children from the lowest fifth. With Orbán’s new system, children of rich families would have a 3.4 times greater chance of earning a high school diploma than their poor schoolmates. This inequality also holds true for higher education. Someone coming from a poor family would have his chance of entering college slashed by 30%.

The authors suggest that Hungary follow the Polish example. In Poland the number of years of study has been increased to thirteen. The Polish government has raised teachers’ salaries and introduced all sorts of modern methods of teaching. As a result, Polish achievement on the PISA tests has made a spectacular leap.

Of course, this study will remain a cry in the wilderness. In the last four years extensive changes have already been introduced in the structure of Hungarian education, accompanied by a decreasing amount of money being spent on education. Hungarian education was nothing to boast about even before, but what is happening now ensures total failure.

The world according to László Kövér

Just when I think that Viktor Orbán and his fellow politicians must have exhausted their inventory of outrageous pronouncements comes another shocker. This time László Kövér, president of the Hungarian parliament and the third most important dignitary of the country after the president and the prime minister, decided to share his grievances and accusations. His message was intended for the Fidesz faithful, but soon it will reach Hungary’s allies from Washington to Brussels. I don’t think they will be pleased.

I guess the Fidesz leadership wants to make sure that everybody understands the Hungarian position, and therefore they must repeat their shrill message at least three times: first János Lázár, then Viktor Orbán, and now László Kövér. Although the underlying message remains the same, each repetition reflects the personality of the speaker. Kövér is perhaps our best source on the thinking of Viktor Orbán and the members of his closest circle. And what we find there is frightening–a completely distorted view of the world and Hungary’s place in it.

The basic outline is old hat by now: the United States wants to rule the European Union and is currently trying to teach Putin’s Russia a thing or two. Hungary is only a pawn in this game, but the United States is still trying to influence political developments in the country. Therefore, the most urgent task of the Orbán government is to retain the sovereignty of the Hungarian state. Also they “must assure the nation’s survival.” Their paranoia, they would argue, is grounded in reality.

The charge of American interference is based on a speech by Sarah Sewell, U.S. undersecretary for civilian security, democracy, and human rights, in which she stated that “addressing corruption is tough, but we are using a range of tools – and often working with other states and international institutions – to encourage and assist anti-corruption activity. At the State Department, our Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement works on corruption along with our bureaus that handle economics, energy, and human rights, and together State collaborates with USAID, Treasury, the Department of Justice, Interior, and Commerce – each of which brings specialized tools to the table.” For the Fidesz leaders this means direct interference in the internal affairs of East European countries. Kövér even suspects that the Americans had a hand in the recent election of Klaus Johannis as Romania’s president.

As far as U.S.-Hungarian relations are concerned, Hungary shouldn’t even try “to make the Americans love [them].” They must find other allies in the countries of Central Europe. The Slovaks and the Romanians shouldn’t put “the Hungarian question,” which for Kövér means “their phobia,” at the top of their agenda. They should think about their common fate. “Our goal should be emancipation within the framework of the European Union.”

Source: Magyar Hírlap / Photo Péter Gyula Horváth

Source: Magyar Hírlap / Photo: Péter Gyula Horváth

According to Kövér, the United States was always partial to the left. In 1990 U.S. Ambassador Mark Palmer ( 1986-1990) “favored the SZDSZ politicians” while Donald Blinken (1994-1997) during the Horn-Kuncze administration “sent exclusively negative information home about the activities of all the opposition parties.” He didn’t even want to meet the opposition leaders because he didn’t consider them to be human beings. To be fair, Kövér mentioned a few “good ambassadors.” For example, Charles Thomas (1990-1994), Peter Tufo (1997-2001), George H. Walker (2003-2006), April Foley (2006 and 2009), and Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis (2010-2013) “at least as long as the State Department didn’t discipline her.” Every time there was a right-wing government the United States found “problems that should be solved.”

Until recently the Americans only wanted a simple change of government if they were dissatisfied with the one in power. But lately they have been thinking of “a complete elite change.” Their favorite was always the liberal SZDSZ and when it ceased to exist they supported LMP (Lehet Más a Politika/Politics Can Be Different). Then the U.S. supported Gordon Bajnai, who “became the Americans’ new favorite.” Now that Bajnai is gone “the new season of the soap opera will open.”

According to Kövér, the U.S. at the moment is looking for new faces in the crowd of “hired demonstrators” or perhaps they just want to maintain the constant tension so that “at the appropriate moment they can come up with a new Bajnai.” But surely, he continued, sane advisers to the U.S. government cannot possibly think that a new political elite can be created by 2018 that will be capable of governance. Perhaps their goal is to fill the place of the defunct SZDSZ with a new party that would be able to tip the balance of power in favor of the minority. This worked very well in the past when a small party, SZDSZ, managed to pursue a policy that was to the liking of the United States by blackmailing MSZP.

At this point the reporter interjected an observation: “But Jobbik did not exist then.” Yes, that’s true, Kövér answered, but the alleged American scheme would still work. Jobbik has gained some ground lately, but when Jobbik is stronger, more and more unacceptable, more and more considered to be anti-Semitic and racist and therefore cannot be considered to be a coalition partner, “it will be easy to patch together a coalition government on the other side in which perhaps Fidesz could also participate with its own weight. The important thing is that no government could be formed without the post-SZDSZ against Jobbik.”

I think this paragraph deserves closer scrutiny. As I read it, the most important consideration of the United States, according to Kövér, is to smuggle back a post-SZDSZ that would be, as SZDSZ was, a liberal party. To this end, the U.S. would make sure that Jobbik will grow and will be such an extremist party that Fidesz couldn’t possibly pick it as a coalition partner. Therefore, Fidesz would be forced to join MSZP and a second SZDSZ in an unnatural cooperation with the left. This post-SZDSZ would shape government policy to the great satisfaction of the United States of America. Although I don’t think it was Kövér’s intention, he unwittingly revealed in this statement that Fidesz might be so weakened in the coming years that it would have to resort to a coalition government with Jobbik.

Finally, a side issue that has only domestic significance. Here I would like to return to Kövér’s accusation of American manipulation in the formation of LMP. The party, currently led by András Schiffer and Bernadett Szél, has steadfastly refused any cooperation with the other democratic opposition parties. Therefore, the party’s leadership has been accused of working on some level with Fidesz because their “independence” was beneficial only to Viktor Orbán. András Schiffer’s refusal to have anything to do with the other opposition parties led to a split in the party in November 2012. Out of the sixteen LMP parliamentary members only seven remained faithful to Schiffer; the others joined Gordon Bajnai’s “Together” party. According to house rules at the time, a party needed twelve seats to form a caucus. The Fidesz majority was most obliging and changed the rules. LMP could have its own caucus with only seven members. The nine who left, on the other hand, had to be satisfied with the status of independents.

From the very beginning, the suspicion has lingered that Fidesz might have been involved in some way in the formation of LMP as a separate party. Now we learn from Kövér’s indiscretion that “the current politicians of LMP, until the split in the party, wouldn’t believe us when we explained to them why the Americans were supporting them. Then they suddenly realized how those who left the party in 2012–who were sent there in the first place–interpreted the phrase ‘politics can be different.’ They stood by Gordon Bajnai, who was the favorite of the Americans.” Thus Fidesz was in close contact with András Schiffer and warned him that his party was being infiltrated by “American agents.”

Kövér admits in this interview that “we, Hungarians, have never been any good when it came to diplomacy,” but now the Hungarian leadership thinks that their foreign policy strategy will be successful. They should make no overtures to the United States, in fact, they should turn sharply against Washington and instead rely on Germany. After all, Kövér is convinced that U.S.-German relations are very bad as a result of American spying on German politicians, including Angela Merkel. If Hungary keeps courting the Germans, perhaps Berlin will take Hungary’s side on the Russian question. Some friends think that Viktor Orbán may just be successful in pitting Germany against the United States. I, on the other hand, doubt such an outcome despite the fact that at the moment the European Union is very restrained in its criticism of Hungary.

German-Hungarian dialogues: Munich and Berlin

A few months ago, on August 7, 2014, Professor Charles Gati wrote an important article about Viktor Orbán’s Hungary,”The Mask Is Off.” The article was inspired by the Hungarian prime minister’s infamous speech on his plans to finish the job of building an “illiberal state” in Hungary. “Orbán has now dropped his democratic mask,” Gati announced. What followed was a thorough analysis of Orbán’s political system. At the end of the article Gati listed options the United States had for influencing Hungarian domestic politics. Among them, he mentioned the possibility of the United States “actively encouraging the European Union . . . to put the question of Hungarian membership in the EU firmly on the agenda.” That is, the European Union should no longer stand by helplessly watching Hungarian domestic developments and the increasingly anti-EU rhetoric of Orbán and his pro-Russian orientation.

If you watched the Budapest Beacon‘s interview with Kim Lane Scheppele, you undoubtedly noticed her rather optimistic assertion that now that Jean-Claude Juncker has finished creating his “cabinet,” Hungary’s case will finally be put on the agenda. If that happens, the question will be how the sides line up. Just today an article appeared entitled “EU allies alarmed at Hungary’s Kremlin drift,” which indicated that opposition to Orbán is growing even in the German Christian Democratic Party, which is in many ways the most important ingredient in an anti-Orbán coalition within the EU.

One of the few places west of Hungary where Viktor Orbán is still welcome in an official capacity is Bavaria, where on November 6 he was greeted by Horst Seehofer, minister president of Bavaria, as the democratically elected head of a coalition government. Hungarian reports indicated that Orbán’s visit was not without its critics but that Seehofer, the leader of the very conservative Christian Social Union, stood by Orbán. However, in an interview that appeared in the conservative Die Welt on November 8 one can see several not so subtle differences between the two men.

Horst Seehofer and Viktor Orbán in Munich Source: Die Welt / Photo Jörg Fokuh

Horst Seehofer and Viktor Orbán in Munich
Source: Die Welt / Photo Jörg Fokuh

Seehofer wholeheartedly supports the European Union and does not see the kind of crisis Orbán invokes every time he has the opportunity. Seehofer talked about big union projects while Orbán thinks that each country is responsible for its own economy and that joint projects must wait. Seehofer wants to widen the eurozone and urges countries outside of that zone to introduce the structural reforms necessary to be eligible for membership. Orbán spoke sharply against the euro and made it clear that he wants none of it. At this point Seehofer became just a tad sharper in his response. He defended the euro as “the basis of our high standard of living.” Orbán did not give up. For him “the future of the euro is unclear.” Well, that was too much for Seehofer, who said that “the euro stays!”

Seehofer might be a good friend of Orbán, but he firmly believes in the founding principles of the European Union: “a value system based on democracy, justice, tolerance, and Christianity.” These values are much more important than a community based only on economic interests.

Finally there were questions concerning the Ukrainian crisis and, although Orbán tried to be diplomatic and not show his true colors on the subject, he indicated that helping Ukraine financially would be difficult. It would cost too much and “I have no idea where we are going to get that much money.” As for Putin, naturally Orbán said nothing about his relationship with Russia, but Seehofer made it clear that he no longer trusts the Russian president.

German-Hungarian relations, even in the most favorable case of Bavaria, are not without their problems. Other German politicians have been more outspoken about Hungary’s place in the European Union. Let’s start with Michael Roth, undersecretary of the German foreign ministry, who was also interviewed by Die Welt (November 12). The whole interview is about Hungary. According to Roth, “we are currently conducting an intensive debate on democracy and the rule of law in the European Union.” He expressed his satisfaction that the new Commission attaches such great importance to this issue. He is especially glad that Frans Timmermans, deputy president, “wants to increase the EU’s credibility in constitutional questions.” Roth was obviously talking about Hungary when he said that western countries press for democratic rights in China and Russia, but how can they be credible if they tolerate the lack of such values within the Union.

Roth brought up Article 7 of the European Constitution, which would take away rogue nations’ voting rights in the case of a gross violation of European values, and indicated that as far as he was concerned this measure “was an appropriate means in many cases,” certainly in cases like Hungary because he sees no improvement in Hungary as far as individual liberties, the rule of law, and the fight against corruption are concerned. All in all, Roth is watching the developments in Hungary with “great concern” because the existence of “liberal democracy is seriously in doubt in Hungary.”

And if that weren’t enough, there was the warning from Frank-Walter Steinmeier, German foreign minister, a couple of days ago when Péter Szijjártó visited Berlin. Steinmeier called on the Hungarian government to comply with fundamental democratic values.”There can be no doubt that all members of the European Union must be committed to the rule of law and the canon of civil rights,” Steinmeier said. How much Szijjártó understood is unclear, especially since in his answer he talked about Hungary’s “balanced, healthy, and pragmatic relations with Russia.” He also tried to assure his German counterpart that any “violation of international law,” presumably by Russia, is “unacceptable to Hungary.”

Péter Szijjártó and Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Berlin Source: Die Welt / Photo Bernd von Jutrczenka

Péter Szijjártó and Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Berlin
Source: Die Welt / Photo Bernd von Jutrczenka

Not only does Szijjártó seem to be impervious to words of warning in Germany and elsewhere, his prime minister is practically taunting western politicians to go to battle with him. I’m almost certain that there will come a time when his wishes will be fulfilled.

Miklós Horthy and Viktor Orbán are kindred souls, at least according to George Friedman

I hope I made it eminently clear what I think of George Friedman’s brief description of the role of Miklós Horthy who, he claims, heroically tried to balance between two great powers. Friedman’s knowledge of the period is woefully inadequate. He couldn’t even keep his facts straight, never mind the validity of his conclusions.

On the basis of this inadequate description of what transpired in Hungary between, let’s say, 1933 and 1944, he portrays Horthy as a politician of vision who brilliantly managed to keep Germans and the far right at bay as long as possible. Thereby, he managed to save thousands of lives.

In Friedman’s eyes Prime Minister Viktor Orbán resembles Horthy: he is also trying to steer the ship of a weak and poor country though dangerous waters. Admittedly, he says, times are different, but “circumstances still bear similarities to Horthy’s time.” What, however, we never get any answer to is why Germany is a dangerous enemy of Hungary today. Because Viktor Orbán’s foreign policy is described as a balancing act between a  hostile Germany and a hostile Russia.

Friedman, it seems, envisages a Russia that sooner or later will run down all of Ukraine and thus will become a direct neighbor of Hungary. In the case of Germany, Friedman focuses on the nature of the EU and economics. First, “Hungary is already facing Germany’s policy toward liberal integration within the European Union, which fundamentally contradicts Hungary’s concept of an independent state economy. Hungary is already facing Germany’s policies that undermine Hungary’s economic and social well-being. Orban’s strategy is to create an economy with maximum distance from Europe without breaking with it, and one in which the state exerts its power. This is not what the Germans want to see.” And second, “There is little support from Hungary’s west, other than mostly hollow warnings. He knows that the Germans will not risk their prosperity to help stabilize the Hungarian economy or its strategic position.” Of course, the European Union does try to stabilize the Hungarian economy by pouring billions of euros into it, without which it would have gone under a long time ago.

Be afraid of the future because the past will return / Source: nikotex.blogspot.com

Be afraid of the future because the past will return / Source: nikotex.blogspot.com

And, according to Friedman, there is another similarity between the situations of Horthy and Orbán. Both leaders were faced with a far-right threat. Just to set the historical record straight, Horthy’s success with the extreme right was less than successful, not that he tried very hard. Horthy’s National Army from its birth was a gathering place of extremists. Although he boasted that he could get rid of them at any time, in fact both his administration and the army were full of anti-Semitic extremists who were great admirers of Hitler’s Germany. His friendships with far-right military and political actors in the 1930s dated to 1919-1920 when he was the hope of the extreme right. In the 1920s, Prime Minister István Bethlen managed to keep Horthy away from both his old extremist friends and politics. Once Bethlen was gone, there was no one to keep Horthy in line. He was on his own, with the well documented results.

Friedman sees Orbán just as he imagined Horthy to be: the guarantor of right-of-center politics. The real enemy is Jobbik and, if we didn’t have Orbán, Jobbik today would be the leading political force in Hungary. At least this is what the following muddled sentence indicates: Orbán “constructed a regime that appalled the left, which thought that without Orbán, it would all return to the way it was before, rather than realizing that it might open the door to the further right.” Friedman either doesn’t know or doesn’t want to know the real facts: Orbán has fulfilled several demands of Jobbik in the hope of siphoning off some of its support.

Orbán’s strategy as far as the extreme right is concerned has so far been quite similar to that of the governments between the two world wars. The problem is that the strategy didn’t work then and it doesn’t work now. Jobbik has not lost its appeal. On the contrary, the extreme right has gained ground during the last four years. In 2010 855,436 people voted for Jobbik (16.67%) while this year the number was 1,020.476 (20.22%). It seems to me that Orbán is no guarantee of anything. In fact, with his constant courting of the far right, he only added legitimacy and political heft to Jobbik.

As for the sorry state of Hungarian democracy, Friedman whitewashes Orbán’s domestic policies. “Internally he is increasing his power constantly, and that gives him freedom to act internationally.” Or, “Orbán is trying to do what Horthy did: strengthen his power over the state and the state’s power over society. He is attacked from the left for violating the principles of liberal democracy and Europe.” But, as Friedman explains, all this is necessary because of the external and internal threats Hungary faces.

In many ways George Friedman and Viktor Orbán see the world similarly. Both consider the European Union a massive failure. Moreover, in Friedman’s view, Orbán doesn’t want “to continue playing the German game in the European Union because he can’t. As in many European countries, the social fabric of Hungary is under great tension.”  So, the general portrait of Orbán that circulates at home and abroad as a man who wants to reap the benefits of the European Union but refuses to abide by its rules is all wrong. If we were to believe Friedman, Orbán is doing all this for the higher purpose of saving his country from the Russian bear and the German imperial eagle. He is the hero of the nation, and we are all too short-sighted to realize his true aim.

This particular construct, I’m afraid, is the work of Friedman’s imagination. Orbán’s policies are largely guided by his insatiable desire for power. He whips up nationalist and anti-European sentiments in order to bolster his popularity with Fidesz and Jobbik voters. At the last election, although more than half of the population wanted to see Orbán go, with help from clever mathematicians who managed to construct an electoral system that could produce a two-thirds majority from 44.87% of the votes cast for Fidesz, he managed to stay in power for another four years. After that, apparently he has another plan. Just like his friend Vladimir Putin, he is planning to move on to the presidency. Admittedly, right now the Hungarian president doesn’t have much power, but Orbán with his two-thirds parliamentary majority can easily change the Hungarian constitution to transform Hungary’s parliamentary system into a presidential one. If this happens, Orbán will be a major political figure in Hungary until at least 2022!

The real moving force of Orbán is his personal power and his inability to cope with any authority above himself. The rest is just talk.

I could wrap up my critique here, but I feel I should give a few more examples of the author’s wanton disregard for facts and the unsupported “grand theses” in this article. Here are a few examples. “The great depression in Mediterranean Europe, contrasted with German prosperity, is simply the repeat of an old game.” What old game? Or, Hungary allegedly lies between Russia and “the European Peninsula.” European Peninsula? Or, “the Ukrainian crisis can only be understood in terms of the failure of the European Union.”‘ In what way?

If this article had been published by a run-of-the-mill journalist I would be less appalled. But it was written by a former academic who is supposed to be an expert on international affairs and geopolitical strategy. Based on this piece, I think we can safely exclude from his areas of expertise Hungarian history and politics.