United States

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?

János Lázár: “We want to remain Hungarians!”

With the permission of  The Budapest Beacon I’m republishing their English translation of an important interview with János Lázár, the “COO (chief operating officer)” of Hungary, that originally appeared in yesterday’s Magyar Hírlap, a far-right, pro-Fidesz daily. The interview contains  perhaps the most vituperative anti-American statements from a Fidesz politician to date. The language of this interview can be compared only to articles that appeared in party organs during the Rákosi and early Kádár periods.

Among other things, the United States is accused of raising a new Iron Curtain between Russia and Europe and of meddling in Hungarian domestic affairs. Fidesz politicians seem to be convinced that it is the United States that is behind the demonstrations. In fact, the country is accused of taking over the role of the opposition.

Yesterday the Hungarian government decided to begin diplomatic efforts to get the U.S. government to lift the American chargé d’affaire’s diplomatic immunity. The belief is spreading in Budapest that the Orbán government is planning to declare Goodfriend persona non grata. I do hope that someone can explain to Viktor Orbán the grave consequences of such a decision. The Orbán government is playing with fire.

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JÁNOS LÁZÁR: WE WANT TO REMAIN HUNGARIANS!

Translation of interview with Hungarian Chancellor János Lázár appearing in the 22 December 2014 issue of pro-government Magyar Hírlap under the title “Lázár János: Dolgozni kell, nem szabad elbizonytalanodni”.  (“János Lázár: One must work, not entertain doubts”).

How do you assess the work of the Information Authority (IH), more commonly known as the Hungarian foreign intelligence?

The Prime Minister stated in 2010 that Hungarian intelligence is the most important task in protecting our national independence.  A condition of the country’s sovereignty is decreasing our financial and energy independence as soon as possible.  The task of every Hungarian secret service is strengthening the country, and towards this goal increasing our self-determination.  The Prime Minister brought the collection of intelligence under the Office of the Prime Minister two years ago.  IH operations can work even more efficiently now that European matters have been transferred to us from the foreign ministry.

There are economic interest groups— the bank, tobacco, energy and multinational company lobbies—which, for example, are trying to use the European Commission to advance their economic interests.  Naturally, Hungary does not spy on its allies but it is better to be afraid than to be frightened.  The task of intelligence was changed at the time of the financial crisis so that it helps the government’s work, not only with collecting information but with financial and money market analysis as well.  We expect precise information rather than conspiracy theories from our intelligence agents.

In a country with a high ratio of state and household foreign exchange debt, we are more vulnerable to, and dependent on, foreign interests.  It is no surprise that in the past few years we have faced these kinds of attacks intended to undermine the government.  My job is to direct the attention of the intelligence service colleagues to the performance of these tasks.   For this the government provides the necessary material and human resources.  I hope the world view of those in service has also changed, thereby significantly decreasing Russian or western innervation (sic), and finally increases the commitment to our country’s independence.

Unfortunately, the American wire tapping and spying scandals of the past few years have made it clear that our allies do not respect our partners, and that there are no inhibitions or limits.  The WikiLeaks documents indicate that America also collects information about the personal lives of leading politicians in our country as well.

What stands behind the attempt to exert influence over Hungary?

America’s interests are not the same as Hungary’s.  The United States does not take into consideration the traditions of the region, the country’s traditions.  Unfortunately, they don’t want to understand Central European history and national characteristics.  Naturally, there exist influential United States interest groups as well with which we do not agree on matters of fundamental questions of values.  This world violently, and with money, spreads its convictions such as disregard for the fact that, irrespective of their political proclivities, two-thirds of Hungarians understand a family to refer to the relationship between a man and a woman, and give them the right to raise children.

What is the stronger viewpoint for the Americans, exercising pressure for political or economic interests?

Both.  In the future America will change from being an importer to being an exporter of gas thanks to the mining of shale gas, for which it must create a market.  We can discuss this, but I am certain that the use of power politics is not a suitable method for securing markets.  Our point of view is unequivocal: Hungary is not for sale.  Neither for the Russians nor for the Americans.  We will purchase energy from whoever sells it cheaply and guarantees that it arrives to use as well.

However, we are a small market.  It is not sure that this is the only reason we became an important terrain to the United States.

Unfortunately, there is no economic growth in the European Union, and for this reason the region of Central Europe has become more valuable.  Our area has economic potential, from here it is possible to strengthen the western part of the continent as well.  A warlike situation has developed between the United States and Russia, and the Americans want to create a new iron curtain on Russia’s border.  We are starting from the basic thesis formulated by German chancellor Helmut Kohl and French president Francois Mitterrand:  Europe needs the Russians.   The war and Russia’s economic collapse has unforeseeable consequences for Europe and Hungary.  We are going to pay a high price for it.  In the midst of the Russian-Ukrainian crisis we should not forget either that more than 100,000 Hungarians are living in Karpátalja (Carpatho-Ukraine), a substantial number of which are Hungarian citizens as well.  The most important thing for the government is to protect them as well.

Do you also believe that the Americans are behind the Autumn demonstrations?

The demonstrations are proof that the right to the freedom of expression exists in Hungary.  The demonstrations are as though the American embassy had assumed the role of the Hungarian political opposition.  It might appear to some as though they gave up on the opposition parties ever winning the confidence of the Hungarians, and for this reason they have risen to the task of leading the dissatisfied.  They express opinions on matters not customary for diplomats.  They want to tell us how to behave, what to think about the world.  And they tell us how we should live.  The credibility of the United States has been called into question by the fact that the American spokesman André Goodfriend is either unable or unwilling to tell public opinion why six Hungarian citizens were banned from entering the United States.  Americans should respect Hungary’s thousand-year history, traditions, which cannot be changed through the use of outside force, pressure.  Hungarians do not want to be Americans, Germans or Russians.  We want to remain Hungarians!

But now once again we are forced into a swing policy.  How can this be continued successfully?

The struggle to preserve our identity and independence has characterized our history.  Once again we find ourselves facing such a situation.  I am convinced that the Hungarian opposition parties will not betray our country and assist the Americans in their efforts.  It is not by chance that the American embassy has taken politics to the street, and embolden the organizers and participants.

Goodfriend aside, didn’t the government err in a number of issues giving birth to social discontent?

After the local elections in October the period of governance started.  We never claimed to be infallible, or that we never make mistakes.  We received a two-thirds mandate from the voters to build an independent, strong Hungary, and not break ranks under the pressure of domestic or international interests.

Fidesz is living high off the hog (urizál), and some of the main criticism has concerned you.

It is obvious that young members of Fidesz living high off the hog is a well-constructed political campaign on the part of the opposition and the press.  They want to create an image of us as the party of the rich and which only supports the rich.  That’s a lie!  We introduced the free meals at kindergarten. We were the ones who offered government subsidies to those buying used flats, who continuously raise the minimum wage, who drastically decreased household utility costs, who increased the wages of teachers, and executed an increase in salaries of health and law enforcement workers.

As a result of our economic policies, inflation has disappeared, which the left-wing politicians and intellectuals always said was a tax on the poor.  In addition to all this, we are helping the most vulnerable social strata, those with FX loans:  They will see the first half of 2015 that their monthly payments decrease 25 percent or 30 percent.  And we’re the party of the rich?  Our steps have created opportunities for social inclusion for the poorest.

But in spite of everything it seems that within your own party people are upset that you bought a flat for your young son, or that you have a watch costing many hundreds of thousands of forints.

I hope they don’t want to say that who saves for his children’s future is acting like a lord.  I know there are many who are not able to do this, and that is why I am working, so that they get an opportunity for this.  At the same time in my city the normal order of life is that people support their children to the best of their ability, and try to provide for their future.   In a civil society this cannot be cause for shame but rather virtue.  Let’s see things clearly.  Today there is a political campaign afoot built on jealousy organized by the opposition that involves accusing everyone of corruption and living high off the hog, especially the younger politicians who are in power.  They are doing that with me, those who for the past 25 years look down on Hungarian reality from the homes in the hills of Buda, while I had to struggle on two occasions to win the confidence of a poor provincial part of the country.  How can anyone imagine that I could have won the confidence of those living in poverty and those in need of help if I considered myself exception or looked down on them?  In politics there can only be one answer to this accusation, this campaign to discredit us, this character assassination: total unity within Fidesz.

What can you do against the fall in your popularity?

Decisions come with disputes and consequences.  The current government won’t let up even though it has harmed the interest of a good many groups.  The interest groups behind the press use journalists to mess with the people.  That is what is happening at RTL Klub, whose owner, the German Bertelsmann group, suffered a serious financial loss as a result of the advertising tax.  This group includes a number of oligarchs as well who are not able to access the state’s resources, and that is why they dictate magical questions to journalists who are dependent on them for their existence.  Let’s not forget either that from American money Romanian investigative journalists are training the colleagues of certain internet newspapers, while I know, and this is just part of the legend, it is as though this, too, is happening within the framework of the American operation.

The only question is whether the loss in popularity becomes a tendency, a continuous fall, or whether we’re talking about a wave which happens to be standing at the bottom right now.

We musn’t become uncertain.  We need to work!  If Viktor Orbán had become uncertain in 2011-12-13, then we would not have won the election in 2014.   Then there were moments when Fidesz was even less popular than it currently is.  We didn’t wet ourselves and we didn’t hide. We waded into the fight, picked up the glove, and in the end we won.  Winning back trust after losing popularity means even more work now than before.  We had to struggle for three years for the country, which was threatened by financial collapse.  Now, economically speaking we have risen ourselves up to be among the three best-performing countries in the EU.  There is no western analysis that does not acknowledge our economic results, we, however, fall into the mistake of entertaining doubts.  There is no reason for this.  We are on a good path.   We don’t have to be afraid.  We have to work!

The decrease in household utility costs was the Fidesz panacea during the first cycle.  What is it you want to win over voters with now?

We continue to step in the direction of decreasing the cost of utility to the economy and the state.  We are decreasing court fees and we want to provide more services, all of this in a transparent manner.  We will do everything so that economic actors, especially industry, can obtain cheap electricity.  The government’s goal is for us to be the strongest country in the region.  In the interest of improving economic competitiveness we are going to reform technical training, improve the educational system and modernize the country.   European Union taxpayers are providing enormous material support for this. A strong state is needed.  A decrease in bureaucracy on the other hand increases competitiveness.  There will be more debates on this, but an efficient, cheap and well-functioning state is worth a political fight.

How many positions will be eliminated over the course of decreasing bureaucracy?

There are 198 prefectures (járás) in the country.  By the end of 2015 we will create 260 government windows.  The prefecture structure works well, it is close to the people.  By contrast 925,000 people work in state administration, while at the same time four million pay taxes.  Three million taxpayers maintain the current bureaucracy.  Furthermore, this is a reverse pyramid:  the higher we go, the more workers there are.   There are two bosses for every worker who meets with citizens and customers.  This is unacceptable.  Today for example there are 3,500 directors for 26,000 government office employees.   This cannot be called reasonable.  For this reason there is no point in talking about how many should be dismissed, because there are areas that need to be downsized and there are ones where it is necessary to hire people.   It is the job of the state to serve the people, which is why we need to deal with matters that interest the voters, and which improves the quality of their lives, like strengthening the system of local practitioners, or preventative medicine.  Or whether for social security somebody who regularly goes for a screening test represents the same risk as someone who does not.  How can the state motivate someone to deal with sickness through prevention and preliminary control?   I could cite examples of public transportation as well for which we need to use our time, energy and trust.

When will the restructuring of public transportation start?  What changes should travelers expect?

We want to organize state services on the level of prefectures, and in this way we are modifying the health education centers.   Many governments have undertaken the reform of health, education and social systems, but no one has ever reconciled this with a transportation map of Hungary.  We would like to achieve when talking about health reform that we also discuss how patients get to a given hospital.  There are places where it is necessary to reorganize the trains and the bus services, but there are also parts of the country where it is not possible to use public transportation, where it is only possible to get to a treatment center by car.   We have to change the practice by which Volán (the national bus company) has ignored the needs of the traveling public for years when preparing schedules.  We need to organize a unified, country-public transportation system in which train and bus schedules are harmonized.  It is outrageous that twenty-five years after the system change there are still unresolved issues.

It is as though you are not speaking as a minister but still as a mayor.

If you you see it like that, then that is a compliment.  The Prime Minister expects me to deal with these matters.  I do this with the enthusiasm and vehemence characteristic of me as a mayor.  I look for solutions because I learned over the past 15 years that you can neither govern a society without people nor against people.   My style is too fast or too determined for some people.  I am convinced that it is only possible to serve the country’s interest with this kind of purposeful politics and a lot of work.

Reference:

http://magyarhirlap.hu/cikk/12905/Lazar_Janos_Dolgozni_kell_nem_szabad__elbizonytalanodni#sthash.6kFhYKaZ.dpuf

The sorry state of Hungarian foreign policy

This morning I listened to lectures delivered at a conference,”Az elszigetelt Magyarország és a globális világ” (Isolated Hungary and the Global World), that took place on Friday. The conference was organized by Attila Ara-Kovács, who is currently heading the foreign policy “cabinet” of the Demokratikus Koalíció (DK) and who earlier worked in the foreign ministry under László Kovács. Ara-Kovács was joined by Charles Gati, professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, for a conversation centering on U.S.-Hungarian relations. Mátyás Eörsi, who was undersecretary of foreign affairs between 1997 and 1999, assessed the Orbán government’s foreign policy and came to the conclusion that as such it doesn’t really exist. Ferenc Gyurcsány delivered a short speech in which he insisted that the whole political system built by Viktor Orbán must be dismantled. There is no possibility of changing the current foreign policy strategy because that would mean a denial of “the essence of the system.” Zoltán Sz. Biró, an expert on Russia, delivered a fascinating lecture on the state of the Russian economy. Finally, Zoltán Balázs, a political scientist whose sympathies lie with the right of center, offered a few critical remarks, saying among other things that the speakers had ignored the resilience of Orbán’s followers. Orbán may go but his devoted admirers remain, and for them Hungary’s martyr complex is very much a reality. I can strongly recommend these lectures to anyone who understands the language.

Zoltán Sz. Biró, while outlining the grave Russian economic situation, expressed his surprise at the ignorance of Hungarian policymakers about the real state of affairs in Russia. Don’t they ever look at the economic and financial data available online? Obviously not, because otherwise Viktor Orbán and Péter Szijjártó should have been more cautious in their approach toward Moscow. But behind their Russia policy is Viktor Orbán’s mistaken notion of “the decline of the West” and thus he put all his eggs in one basket. By now it looks as if even the enlargement of Paks will come to naught.

As for the diplomatic corps, according to Mátyás Eörsi fear is widespread because of the hundreds of “pink slips” handed out to old-timers with diplomatic experience at the foreign ministry in the wake of János Martonyi’s departure. One “bad” sentence and the person’s job is in jeopardy. Thus, nobody offers any opinion that might differ from that of the “diplomatic expert,” Viktor Orbán.

Ferenc Gyurcsány and M. André Goodfriend at the Conference on Hungary in Isolation and the Global World

Ferenc Gyurcsány and M. André Goodfriend at the Conference on Hungary in Isolation and the Global World

The housecleaning was so thorough that Szijjártó proudly announced that “we will lay the foundations of the new Hungarian foreign policy irreversibly, once and for all.” They will not retreat but forge ahead according to what they consider to be Hungary’s economic interest. Two weeks later it was announced that out of the staff of 900 at the ministry more than 200 will be fired, including some who were brought in by Tibor Navracsics a few months earlier. As a result there is total chaos in the ministry, whose new spokesman is a former sports reporter.

Not only is the ministry’s staff decimated but certain background institutions like the Magyar Külügyi Intézet (Hungarian Institute of Foreign Affairs) no longer exist since its entire research staff resigned en bloc. The administration is in the throes of “reorganization” of the institute. It’s no wonder that no one was prepared for the crisis in U.S.-Hungarian relations that came to the fore in mid-October.

By October and November there was such chaos in the ministry that some of the diplomats were certain that Szijjártó couldn’t possibly remain in his new position. Rumors circulated at the time that the ministry of foreign affairs and foreign trade would split into two ministries and that Szijjártó would be in charge of foreign trade only. This was probably a reflection of the long-suffering diplomats’ wishful thinking.

Others were convinced that Orbán will change his foreign policy orientation and will give up his anti-West rhetoric and policies. However, Attila Ara-Kovács in an article that appeared in Magyar Narancs outlined the impossibility of such a scenario. In the same article Ara-Kovács shed light on the atmosphere at the ministry of foreign affairs nowadays. An ambassador with close ties to Fidesz happened to be back in Hungary and wanted to talk to his superiors in the ministry. He was not allowed to enter the building because, as he was told by the security officer at the door, “you are on the list of those who are forbidden to wander around the corridors alone.”

Since then the situation has only gotten worse.  According to insiders, “in the last two months the chief preoccupation in the ministry is saving one’s job.” By October 34 ambassadors were sacked in addition to the hundreds who were fired earlier. János Martonyi, the previous foreign minister, because of his pro-trans-atlantic sentiments is considered to be a traitor and an American agent by those people who were brought in by Navracsics and Szijjártó from the ministry of justice and the prime minister’s office. Indicative of this new anti-American orientation, a recent order from the prime minister’s office required employees to report in writing all contacts with American diplomats over the last few years.

Szijjártó seems to have a free hand when it comes to personnel decisions. He created a job for a friend of his from the futsal team Szijjártó played on until recently. Despite no degree or experience, the futsal player will coordinate the work of the “minister’s cabinet.” For Szijjártó, as for the prime minister, it is “loyalty” that matters. Among the five undersecretaries there is only one with any diplomatic experience and he is, of all things, responsible for cultural and scientific matters. The newcomers don’t understand the world of diplomacy, so they’re creating their own rules. They are introducing a “new language” for diplomatic correspondence. They tell the old-timers that they mustn’t be “too polite” in official letters. Also, apparently they don’t consider it important to put conversations or decisions into writing. They think that a telephone conversation or perhaps an e-mail is enough. Therefore it is impossible to know what transpired between Hungarian and foreign diplomats. All that writing is cumbersome and slow. It seems that they want to follow the well-known practice of the Orbán government. A decision is made without any discussion and the next day the two-thirds majority passes the new law. But diplomacy doesn’t work that way. It is a delicate business.

Currently, I’m reading a biography of Benjamin Franklin in which his efforts at securing an alliance with France are described in some detail. It took him a year and a half to achieve that feat, which was vital for the young United States at war with Great Britain. And he was a seasoned diplomat. The new staff at the foreign ministry is decidedly unseasoned. Some of them haven’t even been schooled in foreign affairs, history, or political science. Believe it or not, two of the five undersecretaries have medical degrees. A rather odd background, I would say, for conducting foreign policy.

Diplomacy is the antithesis of everything that characterizes the Orbán government. For Viktor Orbán the “peacock dance,” which is basically nothing more than deceiving your negotiating partners, passes for diplomacy. And the new, “irreversible” foreign policy has already led Hungary to the brink of diplomatic disaster.

By the way, U.S. Chargé d’Affaires M. André Goodfriend, as you can see from the photo accompanying this post, attended the conference.

Hungary as a “field of operation”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Viktor Orbán and László Kövér on the warpath against Washington

While we were snooping around in Felcsút and downtown Budapest over the weekend, Viktor Orbán and his old pal from college days, László Kövér, were working hard to make American-Hungarian relations even worse than they already are.

The offensive started with a letter that László Kövér addressed to American Vice President Joe Biden. In it he complained about Senator John McCain’s speech in the Senate, in which McCain called Viktor Orbán “a neo-fascist dictator.” McCain with this unfounded statement “violated the sovereignty of Hungary.” The lack of respect McCain showed toward one of the leaders of the trans-atlantic alliance is unacceptable, said Kövér. But, he continued, McCain’s outburst is not just the single misstep of an ill-informed senator but “a brutal manifestation of a process which is becoming evident by the statements, gestures, behavior of government officials and persons who are in contact with the Hungarian government.” Kövér in the letter asked Biden to use his influence to temper the statements of government officials. In plain English, Kövér demanded a change in U.S. policy toward Hungary.

Kövér’s letter to Biden was followed by a Sunday interview with an MTI reporter in which Kövér expressed the same opinion, but even more forcefully than in his letter. From the Hungarian government’s perspective, American-Hungarian relations can be improved only by a change in U.S. policy. Hungary is an innocent victim, and therefore its government has no intention of changing its current posture in either foreign or domestic affairs. In this interview he actually accused the United States of playing a concerted “geopolitical game”  in which the U.S. “is using us, the Czechs, the Romanians, and the Slovaks for their plans ‘to make order’ in the immediate hinterland of the front line.” In his opinion, the situation is worse than it seems on the surface because “on the intermediate level of the State Department there are people who have been the opponents and enemies not only of Hungary but also of Fidesz-KDNP.” Fidesz politicians are absolutely convinced that Hungary’s bad reputation at the moment is due solely to antagonistic liberal critics of the Orbán regime who influence the middle stratum of government officials in the State Department. His final word on the subject was: “The key to the normalization of the bilateral relations is not in our hands.”

Today, echoing Kövér’s tirade, Viktor Orbán delivered a speech in the Hungarian Academy of Sciences at a conference commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Timișoara/Temesvár events in December 1989 which eventually led to the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu. I must say one needs quite a fertile imagination to smuggle an attack on the United States into a speech on such an occasion, but Orbán managed. He quoted László Tőkés, the Calvinist minister who was the hero of the Romanian revolution, who apparently said on some occasion that “words uttered at the right time and place equal in value the Word of the Creator.” From here, with a sharp turn, he got to those “words uttered not at the right place” which produce destruction. Because calling another country a dictatorship, especially when uttered by those who have never in their lives lived in anything resembling a dictatorship, is wanton destruction. “Yet they think they are in possession of a description of a phantom picture of dictatorship, when they don’t see, they don’t know its essence.”

warfare

From here he moved easily to Yalta and Potsdam where “the representatives of the western world were not too worried about checks and balances” and “offered the people of Eastern Europe tyranny on a platter.” In 1989 each of those countries alone had to get rid of the shackles that were put on them in 1944-1945.

Checks and balances had to be on the Hungarian prime minister’s mind throughout the weekend because earlier he gave a very lengthy interview to Zoltán Simon of Bloomberg. Here I will summarize only those parts that have a direct bearing on U.S.-Hungarian relations. According to Orbán,”the U.S. in response to the geopolitical situation, has come up with an action plan, which they recently announced publicly, and it involves two dozen countries. This is fundamentally trying to influence alleged corruption in these two dozen countries.”

I suspect that the interview was conducted in English, a language in which the prime minister is no wordsmith, because these two sentences make no sense to me.  Perhaps what he wanted to say was that the United States is using the “fight against corruption” as an excuse to influence other countries’ foreign policies. But “this is the land of freedom fighters. And there’s public feeling in Hungary that sees a sovereignty problem in all of this. It feels that this is an attempt to influence from the outside the sovereign decisions of a freely elected parliament.”

Moving on to the U.S. criticism of Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal democracy,” he delivered the following history lesson to ignorant Americans:

Checks and balances only have meaning in the United States, or in presidential systems, where there are two identical sovereigns, that is a directly elected president and legislature. In Europe, this isn’t the case, there’s only one sovereign, there’s nowhere to “checks it or balance it,” because all of the power is delegated by parliament. In these instances it’s much more appropriate to talk about cooperation rather than checks and balances. Checks and balances is a U.S. invention that for some reason of intellectual mediocrity Europe decided to adopt and use in European politics.

Poor Montesquieu, who coined the term “checks and balances.” Or the ancient Greeks, who are generally credited with having introduced the first system of checks and balances in political life.

As for the American and European criticism of the illiberal state, Orbán’s answer is: “Hungarians welcomed illiberal democracy, the fact that in English it means something else is not my problem.”

Finally, an update on Ildikó Vida, who filed a complaint against an unnamed person who just happens to be M. André Goodfriend, the U.S. chargé d’affaires in Budapest. Everything is proceeding apace. She filed the complaint on Friday, December 12 and by today the prosecutors are already investigating. Magyar Nemzet speculates that the investigators will call in “witnesses,” but the paper admits that it is possible that “Goodfriend will easily get off.” The Hungarian judicial system, which is normally slow as molasses, can be very speedy when Viktor Orbán wants to expedite matters.

Is Viktor Orbán playing chicken?

It was only yesterday that a lengthy psychological portrait entitled “The Patient’s Name is Viktor Orbán” appeared in Népszabadság under the pseudonym Iván Mester. The author is an associate professor, I assume of psychology or psychiatry, at an unnamed university. In this article “Mester” states that because of his character traits Orbán “is unable to stop … he is insatiable.” What is going on in front of our eyes is a manifestation of his inability to let go. He has to win against all odds.

This afternoon the latest episode of this “drama” (because I’m convinced that for the prime minister this is a real drama) took place in parliament. According to house rules, Orbán had to appear in parliament to answer questions personally. Gergely Bárándy (MSZP) wanted to know “who is lying” about the corruption case involving six Hungarian citizens, of whom at least three are high officials in the Hungarian equivalent of the Internal Revenue Service. Bárándy wanted to know whether it is true that the Hungarian government knows what these people are accused of by the U.S. government. The exchange can be read in an abbreviated form on the web site of the Prime Minister’s Office.

As Orbán explained, the U.S. chargé d’affaires claims that the president of the Nemzeti Adó- és Vámhivatal (NAV) can be personally tied to corruption involving an American firm doing business in Hungary. “According to Hungarian law, in a case like that one ought to start legal proceedings. This is what I expect from the president of NAV. If she does not do so without delay, I will replace her.” In Hungary a person found guilty of corruption does not get replaced but is locked up, said Orbán. “So, the stakes are high.” If the American diplomat can prove the charge and the court finds her guilty, then the head of NAV will be incarcerated. “But if, on the other hand, the American diplomat’s charges are untrue there will be consequences.”

Viktor Orbán is forging ahead

Viktor Orbán is forging ahead

Bárándy pointed out in his rebuttal that the lawsuit Orbán is recommending cannot take place in Hungary. The only solution is what André Goodfriend, the U.S. chargé, has repeatedly recommended to Ildikó Vida, the head of NAV. She should apply for a visa at the U.S. Embassy in Budapest, whereupon she would be told the reasons for her ban.

Orbán countered that if an American chargé accuses a Hungarian official of a crime, he cannot “hide behind his diplomatic immunity. He should be a man and accept responsibility for his claims.”

What the official government version of the exchange did not mention but Népszabadság included in its coverage was the following dialogue between Orbán and Bárándy. The MSZP member of parliament asked whether Orbán “can venture to state that the Hungarian government and authorities have no knowledge of the nature of the cases that resulted in barring the president of NAV from the territory of the United States.” Orbán did not answer this question. Instead, he stressed that the solution lies “in the world of the law,” which in my opinion is a confirmation of the government’s knowledge of the American allegations.

André Goodfriend, as usual, responded promptly by posting a short note on Twitter: “US & Hungary have excellent legal cooperation, including a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty.” And indeed, back in 2009 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Balázs signed the Protocols of Exchange of Instruments of Ratification for the 2005 U.S.-Hungary Mutual Legal Assistance Protocols and the U.S.-Hungary Extradition Treaty. Clinton said at the time that “these twin agreements will give our police and prosecutors in both countries state-of-the-art tools to cooperate more effectively in bringing criminals to justice on both sides of the Atlantic. They form part of a network of similar agreements that the United States has reached with all the countries of the European Union.” Balázs, for his part, stressed the close cooperation between the two countries.

In addition to the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty, Goodfriend called attention to a legal guide for judges written by a lawyer specializing in international litigation. The message is that Hungary should turn to the United States asking for official legal assistance. Apparently, the Hungarian prosecutor’s office did ask for assistance but the request was not official. Details of the differences between the two can be found in an earlier article in 444.hu.

The question is what Viktor Orbán is trying to achieve by this latest move. Among my knowledgeable friends one thinks that the foxy prime minister is trying to find an excuse to fire Ildikó Vida because “he knows that she is guilty.” My answer to this supposition is that of course Viktor Orbán knows full well that she is corrupt because she was put there for the very purpose of running a corrupt organization. That is part of her job description. She is there as the emissary of a corrupt government headed by the prime minister himself. Another friend, following the same line of reasoning, thinks that Vida’s refusal to sue Goodfriend will give Orbán an opportunity to fire Vida in such a way that he will not be seen as bending under U.S. pressure. This way he will save face. I don’t see much merit in that hypothesis either. What prevents Ildikó Vida from bringing charges against Goodfriend? Nothing. She can certainly try. It could happen that the court refuses to hear the case, but this would not be Vida’s fault. She sued, just as Orbán demanded. Another possibility would be if the Hungarian courts decided to hear the case but the United States government forbade Goodfriend from appearing in court. Thus he would be a man who does not accept responsibility for his claims, to use Orbán’s words. In my opinion that would be the best scenario as far as Viktor Orbán is concerned. And, as opposed to my friends, I believe this is exactly what he is planning to do. What do you think?

The latest rants of Viktor Orbán: Where will all this lead?

I wanted to write today about the growing number of Fidesz politicians who are becoming far too rich within suspiciously short periods of time, but Viktor Orbán interfered. Today was one of those Fridays when the prime minister gives a radio interview, and he used the opportunity to further roil the already stormy U.S.-Hungarian relations. The topic? What else but Senator John McCain’s characterization of him as a “neo-fascist dictator” and U.S. charges of corruption against some of the high officials of the National Tax Authority.

The official transcript of the interview is already available on the prime minister’s website, so I can quote Orbán accurately and not have to rely on my notes. The first topic was Senator McCain’s description of him as a “neo-fascist dictator.” Initially Orbán acted as if this was not really an important issue as far as he was concerned; it “should not sap our energy and strength.” What McCain said was “extreme provocation, and such words tell a lot about the people who utter them.”

The reporter didn’t want Orbán to get off the topic that easily, and he went on to express his opinion that the U.S. Congress hasn’t shown such interest in Hungary for decades. Orbán was quick to correct him, pointing out that the United States already in the early 1990s was antagonistic toward “the first democratically elected [Hungarian] government.” I was madly looking for such a low point in U.S.-Hungarian relations during the Antall government when a friend reminded me of István Csurka’s anti-Semitic outbursts, which indeed elicited a negative reaction in Washington. Csurka at this point was an important politician in MDF while Viktor Orbán was in opposition.

As for John McCain’s other charges that were spelled out in his statement which I republished in yesterday’s post, Orbán brushed them aside. All those issues were discussed with the European Parliament and the European Commission. “They are closed. They belong to the past.” The issue is that “the national independence of Hungary has been attacked here. That is the essence of the thing. … I am not willing to be the viceroy of Hungary on behalf of some foreign power. I’m the chosen leader of Hungary and my most important task … is the defense of Hungary’s independence. At present Hungary’s independence is under attack.”

What does independence “in the modern world” mean for Orbán? It means energy, financial, and commercial independence. In his opinion, Hungary before 2010 was not an independent country. “Then it was possible to profiteer at the expense of Hungarians; they could be stolen from; they could be robbed; they could be fleeced. As a result, these people made incredible profits…. The people who profited from all that may now hide behind all sorts of high-falutin’ sentences, but they are in fact the enemies of Hungary’s national independence. They are the ones who find what is happening today in Hungary deleterious.” In brief, the Americans exploited the poor Hungarians between 1990 and 2010 and that’s why they complain now about the lack of democracy, freedom of the media, checks and balances, and the rule of law.

It was at this point that the conversation moved on to the U.S. ban on six Hungarian citizens.  The reporter asked Orbán whether this U.S. move is part of the attack on Hungary’s national independence. Orbán did not answer the question. Instead, he expressed his opinion that at least by now “matters have simplified” since M. André Goodfriend, U.S. chargé d’affaires, “said that the president of the National Taxation Authority is guilty of corruption.” The reporter at that point added that “they also say that proof of the crime was provided to the government.” Orbán remained silent on the subject. He refused to either confirm or deny the American charge. So, I have to conclude that indeed Hungarian government officials have been lying all along: they knew the details of the case and had access to the evidence against the banned Hungarians.

During the conversation it became apparent that Viktor Orbán practically ordered Ildikó Vida, president of the Taxation Authority, to seek legal remedies against the U.S. charge of corruption. Finally, the reporter asked the prime minister whether the Hungarian government is contemplating a retaliatory move by working out some kind of arrangement that would allow Budapest to ban foreigners from Hungary. The answer was somewhat puzzling: “The situation is that we are allies of the western countries, including the United States, but we are nobody’s colony and we will never be. Therefore we will proceed the way a country which is proud of its national independence should.”

The question is how seriously we should treat this rhetoric. Is it for domestic consumption only or does he perhaps mean it? Surely, Orbán must know that Goodfriend cannot be sued. I also assume he knows that banning citizens from outside of the European Union is a tricky business. If Hungary bans an individual from, let’s say, the United States, that individual would automatically be banned in all twenty-eight EU countries. Looked at from the other side, if an American citizen lands in any of the EU countries outside of Hungary, he cannot be prevented from entering Hungary. So, are we talking about idle threats? Does Orbán merely behave like a peeved teenager, as the spokesman of Együtt said? Is he under such stress that he is unable to think straight? Or, is he really planning to pick a fight with the United States?

Stop.hu learned from an unnamed Fidesz source that Orbán is so outraged that he is thinking of declaring M. André Goodfriend persona non grata. Apparently the newly appointed “diplomats” in the ministry of foreign affairs and trade “think that such an expulsion would not cause a serious rift in U.S.-Hungarian relations because Colleen Bell will be the new U.S. ambassador as early as January 1.” I hate to disappoint the wise men of the Hungarian foreign ministry, but I would bet that if the Hungarian government declares Goodfriend to be persona non grata, Colleen Bell will not occupy her post in the foreseeable future. On the other hand, I’m sure that some Hungarian diplomats in Washington could start packing their suitcases. Moreover, I talked to some foreign policy experts who think that such a move might result in Hungary’s expulsion from NATO. So, if I were Viktor Orbán, I would calm down and not march straight into the abyss.

Of course, it is possible that Stop.hu‘s information is unfounded rumor. But, as Albert Gazda in Cink said, “we got to the point that we are capable of seriously contemplating such a possibility.” Yes, we half seriously think that Viktor Orbán is angry enough to do something that foolish. That he would drag the country into the mud to save his own skin and his vision of an illiberal Hungary where he is not a viceroy. Only a simple dictator.