Greece

“We’re not Nazis, but …”: Human Rights First report on Hungary and Greece

As I reported a few days ago, members of the Hungarian right-wing media and pro-government “political scientists” were outraged because editorials in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal called on the European Union to introduce sanctions against the Orbán government. The occasion was Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s July 26th speech in which he expressed his belief in the illiberal state’s superiority over the liberal state. A week or so later Charles Gati, an American political scientist, published an article in which he outlined the very limited options, in his opinion, the U.S. government has in influencing Viktor Orbán’s domestic policies. Again, members of the right-wing press were beside themselves, especially because they suspect Gati, who is of Hungarian origin, of having influence in Washington. They think that he and some other “unpatriotic” Hungarians are the only reason the U.S. government has a less than favorable opinion of the current government in Budapest.

Well, if they were offended by editorials in some of the leading American papers and Charles Gati’s list of modest steps Washington can take, I can’t imagine what kinds of editorials will appear in Magyar Nemzet, Válasz, and Magyar Hírlap after the appearance of a report by Human Rights First (HRF),”an independent advocacy and action organization that challenges America to live up to its ideals.” HRF is one of those non-governmental organizations that Viktor Orbán would like to stamp out in Hungary. And what temerity! HRF calls on the U.S. government, Congress, the European Commission, and the local governments to take steps to restore democracy and combat extremism, racism, and homophobia in the two countries the report deals with: Hungary and Greece.

Human Rights First

In Hungary 444.hu was the first to report on We’re not Nazis, but … The Rise of Hate Parties in Hungary and Greece and Why America Should Care. The reaction of this online paper was well expressed in the article’s headline: “It has been a long time since Hungary has received such a kick in the behind.” Well, that might be an exaggeration, but the report is very hard-hitting. As the Hungarian saying goes, the government “will not put this in the shop window.”

First, let me start by saying that the report is much more than what the title suggests. Sonni Efron, senior fellow, and Tad Stanke, vice president of research and analysis, are the authors of the study, which I consider the best detailed analysis of the current Hungarian (and Greek) political situation. To give you an idea of the thoroughness of the report: It is 122 pages long, out of which close to 40 pages deal exclusively with Hungary. More than half of the 388 footnotes pertain to Hungary. Every important development, every important detail of the Hungarian far right can be found here. But just as important, if not more so, there is a separate chapter entitled: “Orbán: Increasingly Problematic U.S. Ally.” And here are a few of the topics discussed: Retreat from Democracy, Human Rights, and the Rule of Law; Rewrites the Election Law to Favor Itself; April Election: Free but Not Fair; After Re-election, Cracks Down on NGOs; Pursues Revisionist History; Co-opts Jobbik’s Agenda.

So, what are the recommendations that will most likely send the Hungarian government and its media empire into a rage? Here are some of them:

(1) The President should adopt a policy to reverse Hungary’s backsliding on democracy. This policy should be an integral part of the U.S. strategy to reinforce the Transatlantic Alliance  in the face of Russian action in Ukraine. The President in his September speech to the U.N. General Assembly should refute Orbán’s notion that “illiberal” nations are better off economically and articulate the dangers that authoritarian regimes pose to peace, prosperity and fundamental freedoms.

(2) The President should instruct the Director of National Intelligence to investigate allegations of Russian and Iranian financial or other support of European far-right parties.

(3) At the North Atlantic Council meeting at the 2014 NATO summit, he should express concern about the rise of neo-fascist parties in Europe and its impact on security and good government in NATO member countries and the strength of the Alliance.

(4) The President should task relevant U.S. agencies with compiling information on corruption by Hungarian political and business leaders as well as government officials suspected of funding violent extremists.

(5) The President should direct the Departments of Commerce, Treasury, and State as well as USAID to step up efforts to promote broad-based economic recovery and entrepreneurship in Hungary, with emphasis on combating youth unemployment.

(6) The President should install a U.S. ambassador seasoned in managing the complex relationship with an ally that also has major challenges in democratic governance and protecting human rights.

(7) The President should send senior public citizens, including former U.S. officials from both parties, to Budapest to discuss how abandoning liberal democracy would result in increasing political, economic, and strategic isolation for Hungary.

(8) The President should speak out about the intimidation of independent media and NGOs, and the chilling effect it is having on Hungarian society.

(9) The President should prioritize efforts to support embattled independent media, NGOs, and human rights defenders in Hungary. Develop a communications strategy to reach Hungarians who depend mainly on the state-dominated news outlets for information.

And these suggestions are only for the President. The report also has a long list of tasks for the State Department. John Kerry should convey to senior European leaders U.S. support of EU efforts to hold Hungary accountable for violation of EU law. He should support the implementation of the European Commission’s new framework for addressing systemic threats to the rule of law in the European Union. Hungary should be removed from the Governing Council of the Community of Democracies. Kerry should talk about American disapproval of the government’s intimidation of the Hungarian media. The U.S. should fund programs to support independent media outlets which are on the verge of disappearing. Kerry should take a less charitable view of the Hungarian government’s half-hearted efforts to combat anti-Semitism. He should also condemn the raids on Hungarian NGOs receiving funds from foreign donors. The United States should work with European partners to fund embattled NGOs.

HRF also has suggestions for the U.S. Congress, the European Commission, and finally the Hungarian government itself. For instance, the Orbán government should revise the constitution to allow the executive to be effective while reinstating checks and balances on executive power and should combat hate crimes and discrimination.

MTI did not report on the appearance of the HRF Report, only on Jobbik MP Márton Gyöngyösi’s reaction to the report at a press conference held this afternoon in front of the United States Embassy. Gyöngyösi is the party’s foreign relations expert. He made quite a name for himself when in 2012 he gave an interview to the Jewish Chronicle in which he claimed that Jews were colonizing Hungary. In the same interview he questioned whether 400,000 Jews were really killed or deported from Hungary to Nazi death camps during World War II. I wrote at length about Gyöngyösi and his background at the time of this infamous interview.

So what does this Jobbik foreign policy expert think of the HRF’s report? According to him, there is already a program in place in the United States which with the assistance of U.S. national security forces, foreign paid NGOs, and the so-called “independent press” is designed to discipline Hungary and make her return to “the road of neoliberalism.” Given this situation Jobbik calls on Fidesz and the government to stop its double-game and decide whether it stands for Euro-Atlanticism or is on the side of those people committed to the nation. According to Gyöngyösi, ever since 2010 there have been several verbal attacks on Hungarian sovereignty, but to date this is the most savage and aggressive interference in the domestic affairs of the country. He is not surprised that the key target of the report is Jobbik because it is “the most resolute defender of Hungarian sovereignty.” He also wanted to know about the role of the U.S. Embassy in Budapest in organizing a spy network.

There is nothing surprising about Jobbik’s swift reaction to the appearance of the report. MTI’s silence does not come as a surprise either, given MTI’s self-censorship of any news that reflects badly on the government. As of now, every newspaper, including Magyar Nemzet, has simply republished MTI’s release on Gyöngyösi’s press conference. However, HírTV was present at Gyöngyösi’s performance, and therefore Magyar Nemzet, which is affiliated with HírTV, had some additional information. Although MTI did not mention it, Gyöngyösi suggested to the Americans that instead of trying to “overthrow Hungarian national sovereignty” they should bring charges against those politicians who commit crimes against humanity. For example, the leaders of Israel. The usual Jobbik answer to everything.

Russia and the European Union on a collision course over the South Stream pipeline

It was a week ago that the European commission told Russia that the “South Stream” pipeline, already under construction, and the contracts between Gazprom and six members of the European Union, including Hungary, violate European Union law. Klaus-Dieter Borchardt, director for energy markets at the European Commission, told the European Parliament on December 4 that the “intergovernmental agreements are not in compliance with EU laws.” The EU countries that signed agreements with Gazprom were told that “they have to ask for re-negotiations with Russia, to bring the intergovernmental agreements in line with EU laws.” The countries in question are Bulgaria, Hungary, Greece, Slovenia, Croatia, and Austria, as well as Serbia, which is a member of the Energy Community, an EU-backed international agreement covering former communist countries in Eastern Europe.

Deli Aramlat

The European Commission identified three major problems with the South Stream. First, Gazprom is in violation of the so-called ownership “unbundling” rules, according to which a company cannot be both a producer and a supplier of gas. It cannot own production facilities and transmission networks. Clearly, Gazprom does. Second, according to EU law, non-discriminatory access of third parties to the pipeline must be ensured. In other words, Gazprom cannot have the exclusive right to supply gas through the pipeline. Finally, the Commission found problems with the tariff structure.

If these treaties must be renegotiated, there will be a delay of not months but, according to Borchardt, at least two years. Bulgaria has already protested. Bulgarian foreign minister Kristian Vigenin, who used to be a member of the European Parliament, made it clear that his country is not happy with Brussels’ decision. “It is not a nice move to slow the construction, because the parties to the track area are already in readiness to kick off.” He emphasized that “this is a very important project” for Bulgaria and expressed his hope that the European Union will not “stop the South Stream project.” Bulgaria already began construction of the South Stream at the end of October.

Brussels, however, seems to mean business. Borchardt said “in all openness and frankness that the South Stream pipeline will not operate on the territory of the EU if it is not in compliance with our energy law.” The Russians seem to be as resolute as the European officials are. A representative of Gazprom who was present at Borchardt’s announcement stressed that “nothing can prevent the construction of South Stream.” Russia’s position is similar to that of Viktor Orbán: EU law cannot prevail in EU-Russian relations, which are governed only by international law.

The Hungarian media covered the news coming out of Brussels, but the Hungarian government offered no response to the rather harsh verdict of the European Commission on the bilateral treaties that had been negotiated with Russia. Although here and there one could read about visits of Gazprom officials, nothing was known about the actual state of the negotiations and their particulars. Only yesterday Világgazdaság, a normally well informed paper dealing with economics and finance, reported that perhaps in the next week or so Orbán and Vladimir Putin will talk about the EU objections. Apparently Mrs. László Németh, the minister in charge of national development, was charged with preparing the prime minister’s visit to Moscow. I’m not sure, however, whether this meeting will actually take place. Because, as we just found out today, an agreement has already been signed.

As usual, details of Hungary’s negotiations with foreign powers came from the other side. The Hungarian public learned today that Aleksei Miller, president of Gazprom, paid a visit to Budapest yesterday and signed an agreement concerning the construction of the South Stream pipeline. Journalists immediately bombarded the head of Orbán’s press department for details. They were told that the prime minister and the head of Gazprom didn’t sign any agreement. He added that negotiations between Mrs. László Németh and Gazprom will proceed according to plans.

So we had two versions of the story. Someone was not telling the truth. At least this was the conclusion journalists of opposition papers came to. Stop, an online site, asked its readers whom they believed, the Hungarian government or the head of Gazprom. A relatively new online paper whose political views seem to me to be close to the Demokratikus Koalíció talked about the “selective memory” of the officials of the Orbán government.

It turned out that the spokesman for Viktor Orbán didn’t lie outright. It is true that Orbán himself didn’t sign anything. But something was signed all right: an agreement between Gazprom and MVM (Magyar Villamos Művek/Hungarian Electricity Ltd.), a state-owned company. As I understand it, MVM and Gazprom established a joint company called Déli Áramlat Zrt (South Stream Corporation), each with a 50% ownership. It is a large, expensive project that might pose serious financial risks to MVM, especially if the EU stands fast.

Experts figure that the Hungarian part of the project will cost around 300 billion forints, for which MVM will be responsible. Today’s Népszabadság points out, however, that MVM will be able to borrow such a large amount of money only if the project has the European Union’s blessing and financiers feel safe lending so much money to the Hungarian company.

I have the feeling that this is just the beginning of an extended imbroglio. Viktor Orbán is ready for his next battle with the EU, Hungary’s enemy.