American-Hungarian relations hit rock bottom

I’m continuing the American theme but this time from the point of view of the Fidesz-controlled Magyar Nemzet. It has been evident for some time that the right-wing media’s attitude toward the United States was moving beyond the critical. It was becoming outright shrill.

Of course, Magyar Nemzet has plenty of ammunition as a result of the Snowden revelations of widespread American spying even in allied countries. In the last few days it came to light that Hungary, like almost all European countries, was a target of American surveillance. Magyar Nemzet is certain that it was the American Embassy’s roof that served as the center of U.S. surveillance activities. After all, one of the articles pointed out, the embassy is only 400 meters from the Hungarian Parliament where Viktor Orbán’s office is located.

Almost every day since the second half of October there has been at least one article dwelling on the moral turpitude of the United States of America, which at one time was “moralistic and childlike.” The change came with the presidency of George W. Bush, who so completely lost touch with reality, the paper opined, that “not even Hollywood could help.” According to Gábor Stier, the author of an op/ed piece, the United States is no better than the Soviet Union. Both only defend their own national interests. The lesson to be learned: Hungarians cannot trust their allies and, instead of dreaming, “we must concentrate on enhancing our own strength.”

Uncle sam

The surveillance scandal in Hungary, about which we know practically nothing, immediately prompted wild speculations in the press room of Magyar Nemzet. Was the information gathered by the Americans used “to influence social processes”? Or perhaps the United States was trying to influence the country’s domestic policies.

The answer came on the same day, November 7, in an unsigned article. The well-informed Magyar Nemzet learned earlier that Máté Kocsis, a member of the parliamentary committee looking into the matter, intimated that American surveillance activities might have been more than information gathering. “They may have aimed at gaining political influence.” Hungarian politicians and the right-wing media specialize in “may have” statements because this way they don’t have to take responsibility for their assertions, but at the same time they can plant the desired thought into readers’ minds.

On the basis of that non-information Magyar Nemzet came out with the following rather wild hypothesis, naturally sticking a question mark to the end of the sentence, “Was the United States working for the left-liberals?” The article claimed that the U.S. Embassy was far too interested in Hungarian domestic policies and “showed an interest in the criminal proceedings launched against former politicians and high civil servants.” For example, the U.S. Embassy asked for statistics on these proceedings from the prosecutor’s office. Well, it would be strange indeed if the staff members of an embassy were not interested in the affairs of the country to which they are accredited. To this end, they monitor the media and ask official channels for information. The American Embassy did nothing wrong when they asked for information on the politically motivated court proceedings.

The American Embassy’s communiqué I quoted yesterday upset the Hungarian right wing and most likely Viktor Orbán himself.  The reporters of Magyar Nemzet simply don’t understand why the U.S. is demanding an explanation from either Viktor Orbán or János Áder when in their opinion the Fidesz government had nothing to do with the unveiling of Miklós Horthy’s statue. It was done by a Hungarian Reformed minister with Jobbik sympathies and was attended by a few Jobbik members of parliament. Their claim is that the Americans addressed the request to the wrong persons.

Moreover, the argument continues, the Hungarian government already answered the charges. Antal Rogán, the leader of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation, explained that it was “a provocation” aimed at arousing the international left-wing press to launch yet another attack against Hungary. In addition, János Lázár, undersecretary in charge of the prime minister’s office, said that the Horthy period must be judged by historians and not by politicians. He himself is not sufficiently knowledgeable to decide on the nature of the Hungarian regime between the two world wars. What else do the Americans want?

Levente Sitkei, another editor of Magyar Nemzet, was most upset that the American communiqué called Horthy “a Nazi ally plain and simple.” I don’t know whether he disputes the fact that Horty was an ally of Nazi Germany or whether he challenges the phrase “plain and simple.”  Our man has a devastating opinion of all American ambassadors who have served in Hungary since the change of regime. They were ignorant and among themselves they managed to pile up and pass on such political ballast that it’s no wonder American-Hungarian relations have hit rock bottom. The new “rich and beautiful” Colleen Bell will only add her own to that ballast. I myself used harsh words against the former American ambassadors, but while I criticized them for being ineffective, Sitkei condemns them because they were not more supportive, I guess, of Fidesz.

What advice does Sitkei have for the new American ambassador? She should “look behind the surface.” I guess that means that she should not accept the condemnations of the western media and the prejudices of the State Department but look for the real Hungary. She shouldn’t believe all that talk about extremism and anti-Semitism. Sitkei also hopes that she will be open and will listen to all sides as a good democrat should. In plain language, she should believe the Orbán government’s propaganda. “Or, will she be such an American and such a democrat that an hour before this article is published it will appear in English on Colleen Bell’s smart phone?”

And finally, a few choice sentences from an absolutely devoted Fidesz supporter. I assume he is retired by now, but earlier he was a professor at one of the top universities in the country. He is outraged about the American demand for an explanation of the unveiling of the Horthy statue. He is certain that the communiqué was not composed in Washington but that “one of those no good career diplomats who have been loitering around here for years wrote it who have nothing to do and who get their information exclusively from the communists and liberals.” These no-goods send letters in the name of their government against Hungary! In his opinion an American ambassador should know something about Hungary’s history and it would also be desirable to name someone who “has Hungarian roots.” He is certain that the new ambassador has already been approached by the communists and their friends. Just as the State Department is influenced by “inordinately prejudiced old geezers, like Charlie Gati.” Our professor would be very pleased if his words got to Washington because he is a true friend of the United States. So, I obliged.

A new political bomb: Did the Gyurcsány government spy on Fidesz politicians?

I’m in a real quandary.  Someone complained that I didn’t mention the very successful Walk for Life on Sunday while somebody else suggested that I should say something about the case of Miklós Hagyó, former deputy mayor of Budapest who went all the way to the European Court of Justice about what he considered to be his illegal detention for nine months without being charged.

But in addition to these two topics there are others that should have been talked about. For example, the anti-Semitic Patriotic Bikers whose ride across Budapest took place even though they had been forbidden to do so by the police at the instruction of Viktor Orbán. Or, that an amendment to the law was passed that forbids the use of symbols associated with right or left dictatorships. And there are the latest Eurostat figures that show that Hungary’s deficit is lower than anyone expected. It is 1.9%!

However important and interesting these topics are, I think I ought to write about the so-called Portik-Laborc affair although I’m somewhat handicapped here because I didn’t follow the police investigation of the case of Tamás Portik, a well-known figure in the Budapest underworld. However, I knew that something was afoot in government circles to connect György Szilvásy, former minister without portfolio in charge of national security in the Gyurcsány government, and Sándor Laborc, head of the National Security Office, to Tamás Portik. It was more than a year ago that stories began to float about these two government officials having questionable dealings with a known criminal. I wrote about the story at the time in a post entitled “Another ‘surveillance’ case is being hatched by Fidesz.” It took more than a year, but now the bomb has been dropped.

Magyar Nemzet, which by now can safely be called the official paper of the Orbán government, managed to get hold of an edited transcript of a tape recording of two meetings between Laborc and Portik. According to the article that appeared in yesterday’s edition of the paper, Tamás Portik in 2008 was so terribly concerned about Fidesz winning  the election in 2010 that he offered information on Fidesz politicians designed to help MSZP ruin Viktor Orbán’s party. According to Magyar Nemzet,  Portik was allegedly worried that a future Fidesz government would pursue some of his earlier crimes. The article claims that the transcript in the paper’s possession clearly proves that there was “an intimate connection between the Gyurcsány government and the underworld.”  A rather sweeping statement.

Today Magyar Nemzet published excerpts from the two meetings between Portik and Laborc. I should mention here that Szilvásy was told back in 2008 by a third person that Portik would like to get in touch with someone from the National Security Office because he had information about people who might be cause for concern. Szilvásy in turn got in touch with Laborc who pursued the lead. The excerpts Magyar Nemzet decided to publish are hard to follow. Most likely this was the paper’s intent. One doesn’t always know what the subject of the conversations between the two men really is. According to one reading of the text, Portik is offering dirt on certain Fidesz politicians that Laborc gratefully accepts; others view the conversation as an attempt on Laborc’s part to find out about the reliability of the informer.

Since then the text of the excerpts from the transcript has become available. This gives a somewhat clearer picture of what transpired at these two meetings between Laborc and Portik during the summer of 2008. The conversation begins with a discussion of the right-wing influence in the police force which “XXX directs.” Portik claims that the police are badgering him to give them incriminating information about leading member of MSZP. But at the same time he tells Laborc that he delivered cash to MSZP politicians, which might be true but might be merely a stratagem to establish his credibility. Let’s not forget that he is a criminal.

By the second conversation it looks as if cooperation between Portik and Laborc had been sealed. “It’s good that we found each other. Something serious may come of this,” says Laborc. This is followed up by an outline of the points of cooperation. “What interests us most is which politicians, judges, and prosecutors are under whose influence.” And, adds Portik, “perhaps the police.” Laborc agrees. On the surface this sounds fine. Laborc wants to find out about corruption and political influence in government offices. But when in the next sentence there is talk about catching people in a brothel it doesn’t sound so innocent. Laborc here gives the impression that he is trying to find dirt on men in the service of Fidesz.

Eventually Laborc even gave Portik his own secure cell phone number. Portik seemed to be very eager to cooperate because he was certain that he would end up in jail in case Fidesz wins the next election. Laborc interrupted him, saying that it is possible that “they will take me as well.” I assume he was thinking of the UD Zrt. case in which he ordered the monitoring of telephone conversations that included calls between Fidesz politicians and the men running UD Zrt. that was spying on the National Security Office’s activities. He was not far off in his prediction.

All in all, it looks pretty bad. The MSZP leadership seems to be split on the issue. According to Attila Mesterházy, “both the style and the content of the conversations are unacceptable.” On the other hand, Zsolt Molnár, MSZP chairman of the parliamentary committee on national security, who seems to have more information on the case because of his position, claims that Laborc’s conversation with Portik contains nothing that could be considered illegal. He was just doing his job.

Szilvásy pointed out in an interview on Klubrádió that the transcript about whose authenticity we know nothing is being used for political purposes. After all, said Szilvásy, if Laborc considered his conduct illegal he wouldn’t have ordered the conversations to be taped and transcribed. Laborc’s lawyer seems to know that the transcriptions are edited. The transcript of the first conversation, which lasted an hour and a half, took up 41 pages while only 24 pages of the second one, which was two and a half hours long, were published. On his client’s behalf he will demand to see the complete transcript. DK considers the released text “a complete jumble-mumble without names.” I tend to agree. Without the complete text we don’t really know what happened.

The Párbeszéd Magyarországért (PM) and LMP both demand setting up a parliamentary committee to investigate the case, but apparently Fidesz is not too eager to oblige. Only they know why.