United States

Vladimir Putin in Budapest

Four times today the Hungarian government had to revise the appointed hour of the Orbán-Putin press conference. At last the great event took place close to 8 p.m. Putin arrived late in the first place. Instead of 2 p.m. he landed at 3:20. Just to give you an idea of the scale of this visit, the Russians came with eight planes and carried along 30 some cars to protect Vladimir Putin’s armored limousine. Putin’s convoy moved to Heroes Square and from there to the Russian military cemetery.

Let’s pause here a bit because this cemetery became the object of great interest. Buried in most of the thousands of graves on this site are soldiers who died during the siege of Budapest during the winter of 1944-45. In addition, there are graves that belong to soldiers who died during the revolution in October 1956. In the cemetery there are monuments to their heroism during “the counterrevolution.” Most likely not too many people noticed these forgotten relics, which survived the regime change. But now, especially since belittling the greatness of the 1956 revolution is a punishable offense, most anti-government commentators are appalled. How is it possible that the Hungarian government didn’t manage to impress on the Russians that calling 1956 a counterrevolution is a sensitive issue in Hungary and that the inscriptions should be changed to something more neutral? After all, Boris Yeltsin apologized for 1956 and one would think that the new “democratic” regime in Russia no longer considers the Soviet intervention in 1956 justifiable. It turned out that Csaba Hende, minister of defense, suggested a change but to no avail. Knowing Vladimir Putin’s attachment to the Soviet past, I’m certain that he in fact considers the uprising in Hungary a counterrevolution. So, it’s no wonder that some of the speakers at yesterday’s demonstration denounced Viktor Orbán’s friendship with Putin as a desecration of Hungary’s proudest moment in the last century. Especially since Viktor Orbán claims pride of place in the events that led to a democratic regime thirty some years later.

As for the topics discussed by the two leaders, the public learned very little. On the Hungarian side almost no information was revealed. The little we learned was from Russian sources. According to one source, sputniknews.com, Yuri Ushakov, presidential aide to Putin, informed the paper that the 1998 gas contract that expires this year will certainly will be discussed. He also indicated that Putin would discuss an alternative to the Southern Stream. Otherwise, fairly mundane topics were on the agenda. Opposition circles guffawed over the news that Hungary will open a third consulate in Kazan, capital of the Republic of Tatarstan.

Putin and Orban Budapest2

Source: Reuters / Photo László Balogh

Five agreements were signed: on regional economic cooperation, on bilateral cooperation on healthcare issues and higher education, on the opening of the consulate in Kazan, and on the exchange of technical know-how on atomic energy issues. This last one is a first step toward building the second reactor in Paks. On the surface these are pretty meager achievements given the fanfare that preceded the visit.

After the press conference Hungarian talking heads announced that Viktor Orbán hadn’t achieved anything. Putin came empty-handed and didn’t seem to appreciate Orbán’s efforts on his behalf in the face of opposition by the European Union and the United States.

As I mentioned earlier, the press conference was held an hour later than originally planned. Between Putin’s arrival and the press conference more than four hours elapsed. That left plenty of time for a lengthy discussion between the two men. In my estimation Orbán had a much longer discussion with Putin than he did with Angela Merkel. If I had to judge, just on the basis of Orbán’s countenance, I would say that the Hungarian prime minister’s conversation with Putin went a great deal better than his conversation with Merkel did. At least from his point of view. Orbán certainly made sure that he would in no way show himself at odds with the Russian position. He talked about Ukraine as little as possible, and then simply repeated his desire for peace. At what price? He did not touch on any of that.

He was unctuous when he thanked Putin for the visit and stressed that his decision to come was “a great honor for us.” Hungary needs Russia because of energy. Cooperation and good relations are important not only for the two countries but also between Russia and the European Union. He emphasized the importance of “Eurasian cooperation” and expressed his delight that French leaders share his thoughts on the subject. He did not refer to Paks but said that a “political agreement was reached” on the use of the gas that Hungary had contracted for but had still not used. Hungary will be able to use this considerable amount of gas over the next few years instead of paying for it before the expiration of the contract. This “guarantees the future of Hungarian industry.” Unfortunately, we know nothing of the details–of the price of gas or the duration of the new contract. According to Magyar Nemzet, it is unlikely that Hungary will be able to purchase natural gas from Russia cheaper than, for example, Germany, a country that is not so heavily dependent on the Russian supply.

From Putin’s short speech we at last learned that it was, after all, Viktor Orbán who invited Putin to Hungary, a point of debate among Hungarian political observers. Putin talked about Paks and the 9 billion dollars Russia will lend to Hungary on very good terms. Paks will create 10,000 new jobs as an added bonus, he said. He found the talks very constructive. Putin made sure to mention that he invited Orbán to the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, which will take place in Moscow on May 9. Of course, Putin invited the leaders of all the countries that were involved in that war, but we don’t know yet whether, for example, Barack Obama will accept the invitation given “the deep chill in relations between Russia and the West, triggered by Russia’s annexation of the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine and its support for a rebellion in the country’s east.” North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was also invited to attend the ceremonies.

Viktor Orbán had the last word. He delivered a ringing speech attacking those people “who want to shut Russia out from the energy market of Europe, a proposition [he considers] utter nonsense (badarság).” Orbán I assume was referring to the United States. It is hard to fathom why it was necessary to attack Washington, especially after Péter Szijjártó expressed his hope for improved U.S.-Hungarian relations. Orbán said he was disappointed about the demise of the Southern Stream project but announced that Hungary has been negotiating with Turkey, Macedonia, Serbia, and Greece about a pipeline through these countries. According to Orbán, Vladimir Putin “has given us encouragement” to continue these negotiations. It was not quite clear what Orbán meant by claiming that between 1998 and 2002 “awful things happened in Russia.” Perhaps this was an attempt to explain why he as prime minister during those years was such a determined foe of Russia, despite the fact that Putin became prime minister of Russia in 1999. Finally he praised Putin’s Russia as a partner one can trust.

On the same day that Orbán met with Vladimir Putin, American Ambassador Colleen Bell gave a lunch in honor of Mykhailo Yunger, chargé d’affaires of the Ukrainian Embassy. Bell minced no words:

I find it significant and inspiring that the unity of effort among us has played such a critical part.  Our unity on sanctions has sent a clear message to Russia, that we cannot be divided.  And our collective message has also made clear that we do not accept the vision of “New Russia,” we do not accept Moscow’s explanation for the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner, we do not accept missile attacks on civilians in Mariupol, and we do not accept continued falsehoods about the recruiting, arming and equipping of separatists who are murdering and maiming innocent people including defenseless children.  We say no to this.  We say yes to Ukraine’s sovereignty.

As you are all well aware, President Putin is in Budapest today.  We could think of no better way to observe the day than to focus on our hopes for Ukraine’s sovereignty and its future, and to share those hopes with you, Mr. Yunger, among our friends and allies.

As a friend of mine, a well-known journalist, wrote to me: “after this speech they will wish Goodfriend back.”

American rapprochement with Viktor Orbán’s Hungary?

While readers of Hungarian Spectrum continue to discuss the possible reasons for André Goodfriend’s departure, let me share one right-wing Hungarian reaction to the exit of the former chargé, István Lovas’s opinion piece in yesterday’s Magyar Hírlap titled “The Bell Change.”

One could devote a whole series of posts to István Lovas himself, from his brush with the law as a teenager to the open letter he wrote recently to Vladimir Putin in which he asked him to start a Hungarian-language “Russia Today” because the Russian propaganda television station is actually much better than BBC. Lovas lived in Canada, the United States, and Germany, where he worked for Radio Free Europe. He was considered to be a difficult man who caused a lot of turmoil in the Hungarian section of the organization.

For many years Lovas was a devoted Fidesz man. He already held important positions in the first Orbán government (1998-2002). For years he worked for Magyar Nemzet, most recently as its Brussels correspondent, but a few months ago Lovas, along with a number of other Orbán stalwarts, lost his job. Mind you, the European Parliament had had enough of Lovas even before he was sacked by Magyar Nemzet, especially after he presented a bucket of artificial blood to Sophie in ‘t Veld, the Dutch liberal MEP. The bucket of blood was supposed to symbolize the Palestinian children who were victims of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Lovas, himself of Jewish descent, is a well-known anti-Semite.

After having lost his job at Magyar Nemzet and after Putin failed to respond to his plea for a Hungarian “Russia Today,” Lovas moved on. Gábor Széles, who owns Magyar Hírlap and EchoTV, offered him a job. Now he has a weekly political program called “Fault Lines” (Törésvonalak) on EchoTV, and he also writes opinion pieces for Széles’s newspaper.

So how does István Lovas see American-Hungarian relations in the wake of the arrival of Colleen Bell and the departure of André Goodfriend? To summarize his opinion in one sentence: from here on the United States and the Orbán government will be the best of friends.

According to Lovas, André Goodfriend was the darling of those lost liberals who have been wandering in the wilderness “ever since SZDSZ was thrown into the garbage heap of history.” They are still hoping that nothing will change. Originally they were certain that Goodfriend would run the embassy while the newly arrived ambassador would be its public face. Meanwhile, Goodfriend would continue visiting “left/neoliberal SZDSZ or MSZP politicians and intellectuals.”

These liberal hopes were dashed soon after Colleen Bell’s arrival. The new orientation was clear from day one. Bell went and laid a wreath at the statue of the unknown soldier on Heroes’ Square. She visited the Csángó Ball organized every year to celebrate a fairly mysterious group of Hungarians living in the Romanian region of Moldavia, speaking an old Hungarian dialect. These are important signs of the new American attitude toward things dear to the current government: fallen heroes and national minorities. Certainly, says Lovas, Goodfriend would never have been found in such places. Yet liberals don’t seem to have grasped the significance of all this. They think that more Hungarians will be banished from the United States and that Hungary will have to pay a high price for peace with the United States. Most likely, Orbán will have to compromise on Paks, on Russian-Hungarian relations in general, and/or will have to buy American helicopters.

But Lovas has bad news for them. There will be no more talk about corruption cases, and Hungary will pay no price whatsoever. Colleen Bell realized that Goodfriend’s methods had failed. Of course, Lovas is talking nonsense here. Even if Lovas is right about a change in U.S. policy, it was not Bell who decided on this new strategy but the United States government.

Lovas is certain that the change has already occurred. It is enough to look at the new website of the U.S. Embassy in Budapest. There are no more programs on tolerance, on Holocaust events, “all those things that are kicks in the groin of the Hungarian people and their elected government.” A drastic change occurred in U.S.-Hungarian relations which even such liberal-socialist diplomats as Péter Balázs, foreign minister in the Bajnai government, László Kovács, foreign minister under Gyula Horn, or András Simonyi, ambassador to Washington (2002-2010), couldn’t explain away.

This change couldn’t have taken place if Goodfriend had stayed or if the Orbán government had conducted “the kind of servile atlantist policy recommended by Géza Jeszenszky,” foreign minister under József Antall and ambassador to Washington during the first Orbán government. Jeszenszky, who just resigned as ambassador to Norway, had a long interview in which he expressed his deep disappointment with Viktor Orbán and his foreign policy, especially with his attitude toward the United States.

According to Lovas, what happened recently is a victory for Orbán’s foreign policy, a feat that “could be achieved only by the courage and tenacity” of the Hungarian prime minister. The United States government tried to mend its ways by sending someone to Budapest who is not worried about such things as tolerance or the Holocaust. From here on the Budapest embassy will function just as American embassies do in other capitals. The U.S. Embassy in Vienna, for example, does not report “breaking news” about the Anschluss.

Lovas might exaggerate, but something is going on. When was the last time that Viktor Orbán called together the whips of all political parties for a discussion on Hungarian foreign policy? As far as I know, never. As Magyar Nemzet put it, “Viktor Orbán asked for the support of the political parties in reaching the nation’s foreign policy goals.” Among the topics was the objective of “strengthening the American-Hungarian alliance.” Péter Szijjártó, who was of course present, claimed that “political relations with the United States are improving” and that the Orbán government “will take further steps toward the restoration of earlier economic, political, and military cooperation.”

The meeting of the leaders of the parliamentary delegations  Source: MTI / Photo Gergely Botár

The meeting of the leaders of the parliamentary delegations convened by Viktor Orbán
Source: MTI / Photo Gergely Botár

I’m sure that we all want better relations between Hungary and the United States, but the question is at what price. The United States can’t close its eyes to Viktor Orbán’s blatant attacks on democracy, the media, human rights, and civil society. And then there is the timing of this alleged renewed love affair between Budapest and Washington. If true, and that’s a big if, it couldn’t have come at a worse time for Hungarian democracy–yes, liberal democracy. Just when Viktor Orbán’s support is dropping precipitously and when it looks as if he may lose his precious two-thirds majority in spite of all the billions of forints he promised from taxpayer money to the city of Veszprém to buy votes. When a large part of the hitherto slavish right-wing media at last decided to return to more critical and balanced journalism.

No, this is not the time to court Viktor Orbán. It would be a grave mistake. It is, in fact, time to be tough because the great leader is in trouble. Trouble abroad, trouble at home. Frans Timmermans, the first vice-president of the European Commission, in a speech to the European Parliament said the following without mentioning Viktor Orbán’s name: “We cannot let our societies imperceptibly slip back; we cannot allow illiberal logics to take hold. There is no such thing as an illiberal democracy…. We are keeping a close eye on all issues arising in Member States relating to the rule of law, and I will not hesitate to use the [EU Rule of Framework established last March] if required by the situation in a particular Member State.”

Mária Schmidt is on the warpath again

Last summer I wrote at least five posts about Mária Schmidt, a historian of the Holocaust and director of the controversial House of Terror museum established during the first Orbán administration (1998-2002). Why is Mária Schmidt so important? Why is it necessary to spend time on a historian not held in high esteem by her colleagues? It is true that as a historian she would not deserve much attention, but as the chief adviser to Orbán Viktor on matters of modern Hungarian history her ideas cannot be ignored. I don’t think I exaggerate when I claim that Schmidt’s interpretation of German-Hungarian relations in the 1930s and the first half of the 1940s is crucial to understanding the Hungarian government’s reevaluation of the Hungarian Holocaust. The newly erected memorial to “all the victims” of the German occupation of Hungary on March 19, 1944 was a direct result of Mária Schmidt’s views on the period.

The other reason that I give her so much space is that every time she opens her mouth, or puts pen to paper, she says something outlandish. She begins radio and television interviews with syrupy sweetness and ends with shrill diatribes.

She has been lying low on Holocaust issues since last summer, most likely because it looks as if János Lázár, Viktor Orbán’s deputy, decided to remove her from the job of spearheading the creation of a new Holocaust museum, the House of Fates. The government realized that no compromise could be reached between the administration and the Jewish community as long as Schmidt was in charge of the project.

They are working on the building of the House of Fates but the concept is still missing

The construction of the House of Fates is proceeding apace

She refocused her attention on more recent events. Last month she wrote an essay on “geopolitical games” between Russia and the United States in which she didn’t spare the U.S. This was not a topic that excited too many people in Hungary.

But then came an exchange of letters between Schmidt and the office of the German chancellor that she made public on February 4. Since the publication of this exchange she has given two interviews, one to György Bolgár on Klubrádió and another to András Kovács of Origo.

Let’s start with a summary of Mária Schmidt’s letter, dated January 20, to Chancellor Angela Merkel. In it Schmidt invited Merkel while in Hungary to a reception in the House of Terror honoring “ordinary citizens who [in 1989] risked everything as opposed to the political leaders of the regime who were only following the lead of the heroic civilians.” Of course, she was talking about the East German refugees in Hungary. In addition, she expressed her hope that together they “could light a candle for the victims of communism.” The answer from Councilor Maximilian Spinner, on behalf of the chancellor, was brief and to the point: “Unfortunately, such a visit is impossible due the limited amount of time available.”

I have the feeling that even if Angela Merkel hadn’t had such a tight schedule she wouldn’t have wanted to be associated with the reception Mária Schmidt organized. The Germans ever since 1989 have repeatedly said how grateful they were to the Hungarian government at the time, and here is an event that belittles the role of the Németh government and Foreign Minister Gyula Horn, whom the Germans revere. And that government, whether Schmidt likes it or not, was the last government of the Kádár regime. By that time the dictatorship had mellowed to such an extent that it was not a brave, heroic act to help the East German refugees. Thousands and thousands of ordinary citizens lent a helping hand alongside the Hungarian government. Schmidt’s invitation was something of a trap, which I assume the Germans noticed and wanted to avoid.

Well, Schmidt was furious. She called Angela Merkel “the heartless chancellor.” She accused the Germans of never thanking these “brave civilians,” of thanking only the Hungarian government that existed “during the still functioning communist dictatorship.” Not only did Merkel not go but no “official representative” of Germany made an appearance when Schmidt gave memorial plaques to the few people she found worthy of the honor.

And then came the interview with Origo. She accused Merkel of “insolence,” which ought to “shock all well-meaning Germans.” According to Schmidt, “the chancellor obviously did not know what country she was visiting.” Otherwise, surely she would have wanted to meet ordinary citizens. She also found Merkel’s words about democracy, freedom of the press, and civic groups puzzling. In her opinion, Merkel talked like a “left-liberal” instead of a Christian Democrat.

Schmidt had a few not so kind words for the United States as well. According to her, M. André Goodfriend, the chargé d’affaires until the arrival of the new U.S. Ambassador Colleen Bell, “misunderstood his role and became enamored with his media appearances.” Everything has changed since the arrival of the ambassador, a claim that is most likely based on Colleen Bell’s frequent appearances at markets or social events, which of course may not indicate a policy change.

According to Schmidt, Hungary is a true ally of the United States and “it would be very sad if there were people in Washington who would like to disrupt that bond.” She is certain that Hungary would like to restore good relations between the two countries, but “we must not forget that the Hungarian nation is a proud one that does not like it if an American diplomat comes here and tells us how we should or should not remember our past,” a not too subtle reference to the memorial that on Viktor Orbán’s insistence was erected despite international protest, a memorial that falsifies the history of the Hungarian Holocaust.

Otherwise, at the moment Schmidt is organizing a conference, “Test of Bravery” (Bátorságpróba). The odd title seems to be lifted from a well-known picture book for children suffering from cancer. The conference will focus on the second Orbán government’s accomplishments between 2010 and 2014.

The House of Terror’s director is a tireless supporter of the government despite the recent slight she suffered when the much contested House of Fates projet was removed from her hands and taken over by the prime minister’s office. Her “concept” remained, however. It is, in the words of László Karsai, a Holocaust researcher, “two hundred pages of nothing.”

The newly appointed Hungarian ambassador to the U.S. hangs in limbo

Yesterday afternoon Colleen Bell, the new U.S. ambassador to Hungary, arrived in Budapest. Earlier I devoted several posts to her appointment and to difficulties she experienced before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. After her nomination I expressed my dismay, not because I had anything against Ms Bell but because I considered the political situation in Hungary so serious that I thought it would behoove U.S. interests to have a career diplomat representing the American government. I am, however, prepared to wait to see what happens. Is the new ambassador a quick study? Will she be able to assess the Hungarian situation in all its complexity in a relatively short time and not succumb to Fidesz wiles? We don’t know. As a former diplomat friend told me, he served under some very bad ambassadors with diplomatic experience and some excellent ones who were political appointees.

By all signs the Hungarian government is greatly relieved that M. André Goodfriend will no longer be running the show. I suspect that they think that with Bell’s arrival American-Hungarian relations will assume an entirely different complexion in Hungary’s favor. From what I gather from comments written about her on Hungarian Spectrum, quite a few readers fear that she will be a pushover. I suspect that a good number of government officials think the same; she’s a woman, after all, and Hungarian society is male-dominated. Gergely Prőhle, former assistant undersecretary in the foreign ministry, specifically referred in an interview to the new ambassador’s sex and her role as a mother of four, qualities which in his opinion might help to improve the atmosphere between the two countries. Prőhle added that by coincidence the newly appointed Hungarian ambassador to Washington, Réka Szemerkényi, is also a woman with four children. So, while one woman will be working in Budapest for good relations between the U.S. and Hungary, the other will be winning hearts and minds in Washington. The charm offensive is on. It seemed to have worked with Bell’s predecessor, Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis. Perhaps it will work again.

Oh, yes, Réka Szemerkényi. She still has not occupied her post in Washington because apparently she has not received the so-called “agrément,” her formal acceptance by the United States as the next Hungarian ambassador. More than two months have gone by since her appointment. It seems that Washington is in no hurry to recognize her as the head of the Hungarian embassy. The official who leaked this information to Népszabadság complained bitterly about the American response, especially since they “waited for Colleen Bell with a bouquet of roses without thorns” at the airport and since President János Áder announced that he would receive her two days after her arrival so she could present her credentials and begin her work as early as possible.

What is wrong with Réka Szemerkényi? Why is the U.S. dragging its heels, other than to express its general disapproval of the Hungarian government? From Szemerkényi’s curriculum vitae she seems to be highly qualified. Upon receiving an M.A. from ELTE (Budapest) in 1991, she spent a year at the Institut Européen des Hautes Études Internationales in Nice (1990-1991). Two years later she received an M.A. in International Relations and Strategic Studies from The John Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.  (1993-1995). From Washington she went to London where she spent a year as a research associate at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (1995-1996). From here her career took her straight to Fidesz, where she began as senior foreign policy secretary for the Fidesz parliamentary caucus (1997-1998). Her political career really took off after Fidesz won the election in 1998. She first became undersecretary in the prime minister’s office and later foreign policy and national security adviser to Viktor Orbán (2000-2002).

While Fidesz was out of office she worked at research institutes related to Fidesz and earned a Ph.D.in economics at the Péter Pázmány Catholic University in 2007. After such a distinguished academic career, her decision to attend a university with a less than sterling reputation is somewhat baffling. But she also stooped low enough to become a senior associate in the Institute of Kremlinology at the Gáspár Károli Reformed University which is led by the Miklós Kun, grandson of Béla Kun of Hungarian Soviet Republic fame, who turned from rabid Marxist to rabid right-winger. Szemerkényi’s entire professional career has been tied to right-wing politics, not just as a high government official but also as a party member. In 2009, for example, she was #17 on Fidesz’s EP list but only the first 14 made it.

Réka Szemerkényi / Photo Attila Kovács, MTI

Réka Szemerkényi / Photo Attila Kovács, MTI

In the last four or five years in her capacity as chief adviser to Viktor Orbán, she was heavily involved in the negotiations over the Southern Stream. In September 2013 when the leaders of the Southern Stream and Gazprom made their case in Milan for the pipeline’s value, it was Réka Szemerkényi and Dragutin Matanovic of Serbia who presented the points of view of the partner countries. When it became known that the United States government listened to telephone conversations of European politicians, it was Szemerkényi’s job to present the Hungarian position on the matter to the American government. According to an MTI report, she demanded answers from the United States, but of course we have no idea what actual steps she took and how the issue was settled between the two countries. At that time she still considered the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership a right step in the right direction “which benefits both sides.” As we know, that is no longer the Hungarian government’s position. As Attila Ara-Kovács pointed out, “the former deeply committed atlantist has become a vehement defender of the new policy that no longer concentrates on Washington.”

Ara-Kovács made his observation at the time it was leaked that Viktor Orbán had no need for Zsolt Németh, undersecretary of János Martonyi, at the foreign ministry. Obviously, he was far too committed to the transatlantic ideas he and Martonyi represented during their times in office (1998-2002 and 2010-2014). Apparently Orbán offered Németh the ambassadorship to Washington but Németh, I think wisely, did not accept. No ambassador can improve relations between the U.S. and Hungary as long as Viktor Orbán is the prime minister. Not even a mother of four. I don’t know of course whether Zsolt Németh would have been more welcome in Washington, but Szemerkényi, although she might be well qualified for the job, is known to blindly follow the party line. In Hungarian these people are called “party soldiers.” One of Index‘s sources said that Orbán and Szemerkényi are so close that her appointment practically means the presence of Viktor Orbán in Washington. I’m sure that the idea of having the clone of Viktor Orbán in the Hungarian Embassy in Washington doesn’t warm the cockles of anyone’s heart in the U.S. capital.

The Hungarian people are not thrilled with Orbán’s Russia policy

Népszava‘s information about Vladimir Putin’s visit to Budapest, seconded by Attila Ara-Kovács on Klubrádió, turned out to be accurate. Válasz, a pro-government internet site, was skeptical about the accuracy of the news because, after all, there was no mention of such a visit in Russian sources. Moreover, no western media picked up the news from Népszava. A commenter on this blog also expressed his doubts about the authenticity of the news. After all, Népszava is an opposition paper and therefore, I guess, not quite reliable. By this morning, however, the press department of the Prime Minister’s Office confirmed the information: Putin is coming to Hungary, although the date hasn’t been fixed.

Meanwile Népszabadság, another opposition paper, learned “from diplomatic circles” that the trip was planned a year ago on Hungary’s initiative. At that time the sanctions against Russia were not yet in place. Moreover, originally the trip was supposed to take place sometime in 2014, but because of scheduling difficulties it was postponed to this year, a change that might be advantageous to Putin but is mighty uncomfortable for Orbán. But as László Kovács, former foreign minister, said yesterday, Orbán developed a relationship with Putin that precludes any postponement of the meeting.

While waiting for the arrival of Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin, several civic groups are preparing demonstrations. A group headed by Zoltán Vajda and Balázs Gulyás, two people whom I consider to be the most promising among the organizers of the recent demonstrations, plans to take the lead. Balázs Gulyás was the organizer of the mass demonstration against the internet tax, and Zoltán Vajda organized the demonstration on behalf of those 60,000 people whose savings in private pension funds the Orbán government wants to expropriate.

Vajda and Gulyás are planning two demonstrations. One will take place on February 1, the day before Angela Merkel’s arrival. It is called “Spring comes–Orbán goes: Demonstration for a European Hungary.” The second demonstration is planned for February 9 or, if Putin comes later, it will be postponed to the day of his arrival. The theme of the second will be “We will not be a Russian colony.” Other organizations and parties expressed an interest in joining these two Facebook groups, and it seems that they, unlike some others, are ready to cooperate with everybody who is ready to join them. As I wrote yesterday, PM asked all democratic parties to take part in massive demonstrations that include both parties and civilians.

In the lively discussion that followed yesterday’s post, a question was raised about the attitude of Fidesz voters toward Russia. According to one opinion, Fidesz voters are so brainwashed that they are ready to follow Viktor Orbán all the way to Moscow. Others, myself included, doubted the accuracy of this observation. In fact, I ventured to suggest that anti-Russian feelings might be a catalyst that will bring about a united opposition to Orbán’s regime. Well, today we have a more scientific answer to the question of Hungarians’ attitude toward the United States and Russia. The poll was taken by Medián for 444.hu

Here are some figures confirming that the Orbán propaganda did not significantly alter Hungarians’ anti-Russian sentiments. I will start with the most important and most telling figures: “If Hungary had to choose between the United States and Russia as a close associate, which country would you choose?” Fifty-three percent chose the United States and only 25% Russia. Hungarians are aware of the worsening relations between the United States and Hungary, and surprisingly the majority blame the Hungarian government for it. This finding goes against the widespread belief that Hungarians always blame others for their misfortunes. Fifty-seven percent of the respondents blame Hungary and only 14% the United States.

Medián also ran these figures against party affiliation. Those who feel more aligned with the democratic parties overwhelmingly blame their own country for the current situation (80%); only 4% blame the United States. Interestingly, the majority of Jobbik voters (59%) side with the United States. Only 13% put the blame on the U.S. while 27% think that the blame should be shared by the two countries. The situation is about the same among undecided voters. Fidesz voters are not as uniformly pro-Russian as some commenters on Hungarian Spectrum suspected. Only 37% blame the United States, 22% Hungary, and 40% think that both countries are at fault. I wouldn’t call that a resounding endorsement of a pro-Russian, anti-U.S. foreign policy.

Diplomats, present and former, have found it difficult to figure out what the real purpose of this meeting is. I could suggest a few topics that might come up. First, I think, is Paks. Orbán, for whom the building of a second reactor at the Paks Nuclear Power Plant is very important, surely would like to get reassurance from Putin that the project is still on and that Russia will not turn its back on Paks as it did on the Southern Stream. Another topic might be Hungary’s attitude toward the extension of the sanctions against Russia. Would Hungary vote against such a decision? There is also the question of the U.S.-EU free trade agreement, officially called the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which Russia opposes.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Orbán were a ready partner of Russia in opposing the free-trade agreement. On what am I basing this opinion? István Mikola, formerly the “nation’s doctor” and nowadays one of the undersecretaries in the foreign ministry, announced last night on HírTV that Hungary would go so far as to veto the TTIP if Hungary’s interests were not taken into consideration. One such reason would be the acceptance in the European Union of genetically modified food products coming from the United States. Fidesz lawmakers included a GMO ban in the new constitution. András Schiffer, the anti-capitalist, anti-globalist co-chair of LMP, went even further. In his opinion, the whole free-trade agreement is against the interests of Hungary. In fact, not just Hungary but in his words “it means in the long run the ruin of the whole globe.” He added that the agreement would mean the loss of 600,000 jobs in the EU. So, Putin and Orbán are of one mind when it comes to the TTIP. András Schiffer, the so-called opposition leader, joins them because of his far-left notions of modern capitalism and globalism.

Not so long ago, however, James Stavridis, dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, wrote an article in Foreign Policy: “Vladimir Putin hates the TTIP which is exactly why Europe and America need to get it done.” Stavridis explains his support of the treaty this way:

The TTIP is a sensible agreement on economic grounds, broadly speaking. But it also holds enormous real value in the geopolitical sphere. The increased linkages between the United States and our European allies and partners will stand in direct opposition to Putin’s key strategy of driving a wedge between the United States and the EU as the central members of the transatlantic community.

I don’t know how important the GMO issue is in the scheme of things, but one has the feeling that Hungary will be a difficult negotiating partner when it comes to the TTIP.

Another issue that might be discussed is Putin’s pet subject, the Eurasian Economic Union. It was only a few days ago that Russia’s EU ambassador urged Brussels to start talks with the newly born Eurasian Economic Union despite the Ukrainian crisis. As he put it, “common sense advises us to explore the possibility of establishing a common economic space in the Eurasian region.” A Russian-led bloc might be a better partner for the European Union than the United States. The reason: low health standards in the U.S. food industry. Orbán again might be helpful on this issue. However, in Orbán’s place I would tread lightly. It is true that Putin’s idea of a Eurasian Union became reality on January 1, but according to Reid Standish, an expert on Kazakhstan, Putin’s Eurasian dream was over before it began.

Eurasian Union

All in all, I think the two have plenty to talk about. The topics I have outlined are primarily Russian concerns, and getting Hungary on board would be only to Russia’s advantage. For Hungary to become Moscow’s Trojan horse in Europe is not strategically wise.

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.

Hungary and Europe through Russian eyes

Today let’s look at some Russian responses to Viktor Orbán’s policies as well as Russian analyses of U.S.-Hungarian and U.S.-EU relations. It was about a month ago that Vladimir Putin profusely praised Orbán’s Hungary as Russia’s best friend and ally in Europe. A few days ago Hungary again came up on a Russian State Television program called “Bремя покажет” (Time will tell) when a political scientist, Yuri Solozobov, an associate of the National Strategy Institute of the Russian Federation, explained to his audience that, instead of employing sanctions against the European Union, Russia should use some of its member countries to loosen the unity of the Union. After all, Russia already has allies in Eastern Europe: Hungary and Serbia. If there is no consensus regarding sanctions against Russia, the entire anti-Russian policy of the West will collapse. The video below is a three-minute segment on Hungary with English subtitles.

Solozobov is not the only Russian political scientist who contemplates using Hungary as a tool in Russian diplomacy. Pravda interviewed two other political analysts in the aftermath of Viktor Orbán’s announcement that “a new era has started when the United States not only interferes but takes an active part in internal politics in central European countries,” adding that this was “due to the Russia-Ukraine conflict, and the free trade talks under way between the European Union and the U.S.” Finalizing the free trade agreement, officially called the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), has been dragging on for a very long time and the issues are too complex to discuss here, but promoters claim that it would promote economic growth. Opponents in Europe insist that it would benefit only American corporations and would cause harm to the environment by adopting less stringent measures than those currently in force in Europe. Just the other day farmers and trade unions demonstrated in Brussels against the treaty.

The first political scientist to comment on Hungary’s economic and political dependence on the United States and the European Union was Vladimir Bruter, an expert from the International Institute of Humanitarian and Political Studies. He has written several studies for an English-language publication available online called Russia in Global Affairs, a quarterly produced with the participation of the American journal Foreign Affairs. In Bruter’s estimation Hungary depends on the U.S. both economically and politically, and the U.S. “has effective tools to create a conflict within a country that may result in [the] overthrow of power at the U.S.’s bidding.” Bruter is against the adoption of the free trade agreement because in his opinion it will merely serve U.S. interests. If adopted, “the actual independence of the European economy will simply cease to exist.” And this is especially dangerous for small countries like Hungary. American policy is “unacceptable for Central Europe.”

The other analyst who was questioned on Hungary was Aleksey Drynochkin, lead research scientist at the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He stressed that American political pressure on Hungary has been relentless. First, there were the accusations of a lack of democracy, now it is “corruption.” Surely, this is a cover story just as Viktor Orbán said. Drynochkin agrees with Orbán: the demonstrations are also the work of the United States. And he foresees the possibility that “some technical regulations on [the] operation of nuclear stations within the European Union may be toughened,” presumably undermining the enlargement of the Paks nuclear power plant by the Russian firm Rossatom.

As for the free trade agreement, according to Drynochkin “in terms of a bare economic theory, this project is likely to have no problems.” But there is a political aspect to it, and  it “is possible that [the] Americans are pursuing their own goal–to completely finish off Europe,” I guess economically. But what the U.S. would achieve by “finishing off Europe” remains a mystery. In his opinion, in political terms the European Union will be less and less independent and “will be more and more the conductor of some foreign actions and intentions.” What Drynochkin and other Russian analysts fail to see is that it was Russian aggression against Ukraine that brought the European Union and the United States closer together. Moreover, it is possible that Vladimir Putin’s belligerence will be the catalyst for a speedier adoption of the EU-U.S. free trade agreement.

But Russian strategists are correct: trying to undermine the cohesion of the European Union is a great deal less costly and risky than settling for a long trade war and a series of sanctions. Trying to torpedo the free-trade agreement is also in Russia’s interest. But why does Hungary support the Russian position in these matters? What does Hungary gain from standing by Russia? I find the Hungarian government’s position hard to explain.

And why does the editorial board of Magyar Nemzet believe it necessary to turn up the volume, accusing the United States of creating a Hungarian Maidan in Budapest? The title itself is outrageous: “Kievan scenario with Western producer?” Or why does Zsolt Bayer, a friend of Viktor Orbán and the owner of the #5 Fidesz membership card, write about “the many American scoundrels (gazember)” who are responsible for the Maidan uprising?  He says that the Americans achieved what they wanted. They will privatize the gas pipelines and will take over the rich land of the country. In brief, they will exploit Ukraine.

Hungary has a bad track record when it comes to picking sides in conflicts. And such governmental decisions have always come at a high cost to the country. “This time is different,” governments say, but it’s almost never different.