State Department

The United States as enemy #1

Bálint Ablonczy, a journalist working for Heti Válasz, a pro-Fidesz publication, wrote a few days ago that “the idea of permanent revolution is not working anymore.” And yet the two most important players on the Hungarian political scene, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and János Lázár, his chief of staff, resolutely follow a strategy that is in Ablonczy’s opinion “no longer accepted by the voters.”

Most commentators agree that the prime minister is losing his sense of reality. They point out that the present course of action can result only in defeat and the further isolation of the country. After listening to Viktor Orbán’s latest outburst against the United States last night, I must join this chorus of critics. But before I go into some details of his warped view of the world, let me summarize his accusations against the United States, the country that, despite the fact that it is one of Hungary’s allies, is in his eyes solely responsible for his current political problems.

According to him, the United States’ allegation of corruption against certain Hungarian officials is nothing but “a cover story,” as “every thinking man knows.” The United States wants to gain leverage to increase its influence in the country. Currently a CIA operation is underway in Hungary. The United States is not only meddling in the internal affairs of the country but “is in fact an active political actor.” By this he means that the United States is organizing the demonstrations against his government. It’s trying to topple him.

The American interest in Eastern Europe is twofold. The Americans want to gain access to the energy market, and they want to have a commercial foothold in the region. The U.S. is “sore” because they wanted to build the Paks atomic power plant but Hungary chose Russia instead. And now Washington wants to drag Hungary into the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, but the Hungarian government wants to avoid a conflict that will lead to a new cold war. These charges are nonsense. The U.S. not sore because an American company didn’t get the contract to expand Paks, and it was not the United States that dragged Hungary into the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Just the opposite. It was Viktor Orbán who positioned himself in the middle of the power play between Russia and the Western alliance.

By the way, after the appearance of the Lázár interview, I found only one reaction coming from an “unnamed official” of the State Department that was published by HVGThe State Department urges the Hungarian government to take into consideration “the domestic and foreign misgivings.” Washington would like “to continue a constructive dialogue … about those decisions that are related to the state of democracy and rule of law.” Surely, Orbán has no intention of following the Americans’ advice.

As a Hungarian cartoonist sees it

As a Hungarian cartoonist sees it

Turning back to Orbán’s interview, I want to highlight some points that weren’t picked up by the wire services. One was his emphasis on Hungary’s “innocence” and its “loneliness.” One could feel Orbán’s hurt when he said that “we have never harmed anyone” and yet we are badly treated. The attacks on us are unjustified. As for the “loneliness” theme, Orbán returned to the age-old Hungarian lament that “we are alone” in the world. There are the Slavs to the East and the “honest (derék)” Germans to the West. The only thing Hungarians have is the land “where they have always lived,” their language, and their culture.

Note the adjective “honest/derék” in front of “Germans.” We can see from this interview as well as Lázár’s that the new government strategy is to counterbalance the worsening U.S.-Hungarian relations with an increased reliance on Germany. Both men tried to portray Germany as a great friend of Russia. Orbán, who when talking about the United States declared that Hungary will not be a “colony,” two minutes later announced that Hungary is happily following the lead of Germany when it comes to foreign policy. It seems that Orbán is hoping that Germany will ride to its rescue and mediate between Washington and Budapest. After all, since Germany has had its problems with the U.S. and since it is such a good friend of Russia, Hungary should benefit from German mediation.

As far as the Hungarian political leadership knows, Angela Merkel is still planning to visit the Hungarian capital in February. Dávid Trencséni, a journalist for Stop, put it bluntly: Berlin is “Orbán’s last hope.”

Berlin may be Orbán’s last hope but it may also have been partly responsible for his woes with the U.S. He’s been able to get his way most of the time in the European Union, thanks in large part to the German Christian Democrats. Both Fidesz and the Christian Democrats belong to the European People’s Party, a party that stands by its members even when they behave outrageously. By contrast, Orbán has no political ally in the United States. Both Republicans and Democrats condemn Orbán’s illiberal state and his pro-Russian policies.

And finally a few oddities that run through both interviews. Hungary must be respected because it has a thousand-year-old history. Well, Egypt has a much longer one, so should I respect the current Egyptian government? Hungary in the past was successful only when it was independent. Well, actually the opposite is true. The period between 1867 and 1914 when the country was part of Austria-Hungary is considered to be the golden age of modern Hungarian history. Then there are claims that merit no comment. For instance, even Hungary’s enemies have to admit that Hungary has been a success story in the last five years. All the decisions Orbán’s government made were the right ones. Economically, every year was better than the one before. Hungary is a strong country that has weight and “will take an active part in this new era.” Well, maybe these claims do merit comment after all: Who unlocked the gates of the asylum?

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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.

“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.

New American ambassador in Budapest

I will devote today’s post to U.S.-Hungarian relations. At last the White House appointed a new ambassador to replace Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis, whose tenure as U.S. ambassador to Hungary came to an end in July.

I devoted at least three posts to her less than sterling ambassadorship. In passing I also talked about her predecessor, April H. Foley, who was totally under the spell of Viktor Orbán and János Martonyi and hence had a very bad relationship with the socialist-liberal Hungarian government.  These two as well as their predecessors were so-called political appointees with no prior experience in diplomacy and no prior knowledge of the country in which they served. In September I introduced Colleen Bell, the producer of a very successful daytime soap, as the possible next U.S. ambassador in Budapest. And indeed, it is official: Ms Bell will soon be in Budapest. Right now, I’m certain, she is being prepped by the officials of the State Department. I can well imagine how difficult it must be to cram all the basic information about the past and present of a country one most likely knew nothing about a couple of months ago. I mean that in all sincerity. Of course, she will have a large staff of professionals who will help her along, but it still won’t be easy.

I wonder whether she is fully aware of the depth of the strained relations between Washington and Budapest, which hit a new low two days ago, exactly when Bell was appointed ambassador. The U.S. embassy in Budapest published the following press release:

The United States strongly condemns the shameful event organized by Jobbik, a Hungarian political party identified with ethnic hatred and anti-Semitism, to unveil a bust honoring Nazi ally Miklos Horthy, Hungary’s leader during World War II, at the entrance to the Hungarian Reformed Church at the edge of Szabadsag ter in Budapest on November 3.  Those who organized and participated in the event, including members of Hungary’s Parliament, promoted not only their own intolerance, but also a dramatically negative image of Hungary.  Although the significant number of counter-demonstrators showed there is strong opposition to the organizers’ views, and members of the Hungarian government have expressed disapproval, an event such as this requires swift, decisive, unequivocal condemnation by Hungary’s highest ranking leaders.

Seasoned reporters don’t remember such a strongly worded communiqué from the United States government in the longest time. In this press release the U.S. is calling on Viktor Orbán himself to condemn what happened on Szabadság tér. For the time being we haven’t heard anything from either Viktor Orbán or his deputies Tibor Navracsics and Zsolt Semjén. I am expecting an official silence, which will further strain the relations between the two countries.

U.S. Embassy, Szabadság tér, Budapest Source: commons.wikipedia.org

U.S. Embassy, Szabadság tér, Budapest
Source: commons.wikipedia.org

Of course, we all know that the warning comes straight from the State Department. Perhaps with the change of personnel that occurred after John Kerry took over the post of secretary of state, the State Department decided to be tougher on the Orbán government than it had been in the last three years. Perhaps they began to realize in Washington that the Orbán team doesn’t understand the polite language of diplomacy. One must be plain spoken and hard hitting with the man. As an old acquaintance of Orbán said, the Hungarian prime minister is basically a bellicose coward who when meeting strong resolve and firm resistance on the other side usually retreats. At least temporarily.

Gábor Horváth, one of the editors of Népszabadság, wrote an editorial in today’s paper in which he expressed his sympathy for the incoming ambassador who might not be aware of the difficulties she will face in Budapest. Horváth for a number of years was the paper’s correspondent in Washington, and therefore he is thoroughly familiar with the Washington scene. In his opinion, the millions of dollars the Hungarian government is spending in Washington are a total waste: the Orbán government’s reputation is irreparably ruined due to Viktor Orbán’s policies and behavior. And the government does indeed spend a lot of money lobbying “in Congress, the Executive Branch, think tanks, the investment community, the Jewish community, and the Hungarian-American community.” For details on the lobbying activities of Tamás Fellegi, former minister of national development, see politics.hu’s exclusive by Lili Bayer.

Horváth thinks that the ambassador will have difficulties establishing a cordial relationship with the Hungarian government. I agree with him, with one correction. She will have no difficulty establishing a working relationship with János Martonyi, the minister of foreign affairs, but that will not take her very far. Martonyi will assure her that everything is just fine and dandy and that what she and her staff see is not really so. But all this means nothing because the conduct of foreign policy is not in the hands of Martonyi. The semi-official organ of the government, Magyar Nemzet, only today accused the United States of spying on Viktor Orbán and his government in order to pass on information to the socialist-liberal opposition. So, this is where we stand. I hope the new ambassador will understand the workings of the Hungarian government because otherwise she will be truly lost.