László Földi

Hungary as a “field of operation”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Who’s behind the political turbulence in Hungary? Naturally, the United States and the “left-liberals”

When Viktor Orbán, however reluctantly, decided to scrap the internet tax, he undoubtedly thought his troubles were over. He would not have to worry about young people going out on the streets again to demonstrate against his government. But he was wrong. The demonstrators found plenty more to criticize, especially the regime’s systemic corruption. Since Viktor Orbán is not the kind of man who admits missteps, he and his supporters had to find a culprit, someone who was “stirring the pot.” And the most obvious candidates for such a role were the United States, described by right-wing commentators in Magyar Hírlap as “the empire,” and the “left-liberal” intellectuals at home and abroad.

Let’s start with the United States, enemy number one. Those commentators who blame the U.S. for the unfolding drama of anti-government sentiment tend to forget that it was not the United States that revealed its decision to ban six allegedly corrupt Hungarian officials from its territory. It was the Napi Gazdaság, a financial daily owned by Századvég, the think tank that has been described by a former associate as a money laundering operation. If the government hadn’t decided to leak the information about the ban, most likely today we would know absolutely nothing about Ildikó Vida and her co-workers at the Hungarian Tax Authority (NAV).

But, according to the Hungarian right, the United States’ role in this latest crisis goes far beyond its travel ban. Under the present circumstances, the argument goes, there is no possibility of carrying out an armed coup in Hungary like the one the U.S. allegedly staged in Chile in 1973. Therefore, the United States is now supporting, I suppose even financially, the opposition. “Many people believe that it was the United States that was behind the initial successes of Gordon Bajnai.” But Bajnai turned out to be the wrong man for the job.

Then came Plan B. The United States, even before the three landslide Fidesz victories, realized that “there is no chance of replacing Viktor Orbán.” But since there are no potential leaders in the opposition, André Goodfriend “became the star of the anti-government movement.” The United States has been working toward the destabilization of the country in the hope of changing the Orbán government’s foreign policy orientation.

M. André Goodfriend, the star of the "left-liberals at a press conference

M. André Goodfriend, the star of the “left-liberals,” at a press conference

It is this American destabilization effort that explains the outrage of thousands of Hungarians against the Orbán government in front of the parliament building. The various groups that have appeared recently don’t offer an alternative, but this is not their real goal and purpose. They want to “weaken” the regime, make the “consolidation” efforts of the government impossible.

Magyar Hírlap zeroed in on the “domestic enemies.” Left-liberal intellectuals, hand in hand with the Americans, are behind the disturbances. Proof in support of this accusation is rather flimsy, but such weaknesses have never bothered Magyar Hírlap‘s Tamás Pindroch. The link between the “left-liberal intellectuals” and the United States was demonstrated by André Goodfriend’s appearance at one of the Saturday evening open houses of László Bitó, professor emeritus of ocular physiology at Columbia University who developed Xalatan, a medicine for glaucoma. And if anyone needs more proof here it is. Back in April Ágnes Heller, the philosopher, was asked during a political discussion whether something like what happened in Kiev could happen in Hungary. Heller responded that yes it could but not in the same shape and form. For example, a revolt of the hungry masses could break out.

But Pindroch’s accusations are mild in comparison to what László Földi, a former intelligence officer during the Kádár regime and even for a few years after the change of regime, had to say. He is convinced that a large demonstration like the one we saw on Monday cannot be organized on the internet and without any money. According to him, “it was a carefully prepared, well-organized and financed event.” Földi suggested that those behind the action serve foreign interests for financial gain and thus commit treason. In brief, his claim is that the United States is financing those left-liberals who are behind the anti-government protests. Földi is convinced that by now the United States will be satisfied only with the departure of Viktor Orbán. Abandoning participation in the Southern Stream will no longer suffice.

Another intriguing piece by András Dezső appeared in Index, an online site that cannot be called right-wing. Dezső is a talented young journalist who made quite a name for himself with his investigation of Jobbik’s Béla Kovács, who is accused of being a Russian spy. In this piece he proposed that there is a direct connection between a report of Human Rights First, “a little known but influential human rights organization,” and the current U.S. policy toward Hungary. The report, entitled “We’re not Nazis, but…,” made a number of recommendations to the U.S. government in general and the State Department in particular which, according to Dezső, the United States is actually following today. I wrote about this report at length and quoted some of the recommendations Dezső is talking about.

Yes, there are similarities between the recommendations of the authors of the study and the actual steps taken by the U.S. government, but I would find it strange if the staff of the Hungarian desk at State was so oblivious to what is happening in Hungary that only after reading this, by the way, excellent report did they finally decide to act. Moreover, here is something that undermines Dezső’s hypothesis. One of the recommendations of the report is to “seek commitments from Hungary and Greece to set in place policies and practices to impede high-level corruption and improve transparency and equal enforcement of the law.” But we know from the aide-memoire–what Viktor Orbán called a scrap of paper (fecni)–that Goodfriend intervened with the foreign ministry as well as the tax authorities on the subject of corruption as early as October 2013, almost a year before the appearance of Human Rights First’s study.

My hunch is that the officials of the State Department have been following the Hungarian domestic scene and Viktor Orbán’s relations with Vladimir Putin’s Russia for some time. Their concerns most likely intensified in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis. And then came the fateful June 27 “illiberal” speech of Viktor Orbán when, it seems, they decided that it was time to act. The sharp-eyed authors of the study on the Hungarian far right noticed the same problems the U.S. diplomats perceived and recommended similar remedies. But we would underestimate the diplomats in the State Department if we assumed that only an outside study woke them up and made them move.

Trying to crack down on corruption is one thing, funding and organizing demonstrations is something else. There is no evidence that the U.S. helped the demonstrators–or even that the demonstrators needed outside help. They just needed the miracle of modern communications technology.