Washington

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 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.

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?

Viktor Orbán bet on the wrong horse

It’s time to turn our attention eastward, to Russia. Yesterday’s dramatic events shook the world despite the fact that people keeping an eye on the Russian economy have known for at least a year that Russia is in trouble.

Putin’s Russia, which not so long ago Viktor Orbán viewed as an ascendant power–as opposed to the countries of the declining west, is close to economic collapse. Viktor Orbán bet on the wrong horse both politically and economically. His scheme to offer Gazprom storage facilities in return for cheaper gas fell through when Putin was forced to abandon his ambitious plans for the Southern Stream that would ultimately reach Italy and Austria. As for Orbán’s grandiose project of adding two more reactors to the already functioning Paks nuclear power plant, there is a good chance that Russia will not be able to fulfill its promise of a 10 billion euro loan to Hungary. All in all, Orbán’s Russia policy is crumbling.

I would like to return to the passages from the infamous Bloomberg interview in which Orbán talked about his foreign policy objectives. Although some of Orbán’s English sentences are well nigh incomprehensible, here’s my best guess as to his intent.

I found it somewhat surprising that he admitted that the original underpinning of his foreign policy is no longer applicable. We all know that in his mind foreign policy is driven solely by commercial and financial interests. His whole Eastern Opening was based on this belief. Hungary may be a member of the European Union, but its economic future lies with the East. Well, he discovered that currently foreign policy “is based on geopolitics … which is a new challenge for all of us.” Well, not for all of us. It is a challenge for members of the new Hungarian diplomatic corps who have no diplomatic experience. It is a challenge for Péter Szijjártó whose only job until now was running around in Asian and Middle Eastern countries trying to drum up business.

When it came to Russia, Orbán was rather fuzzy in this interview. Hungary’s “Russian Doctrine”–whatever ‘doctrine’ means in this context–“is respect for international law while keeping open opportunities for economic cooperation.” This is a simplistic way of looking at the art of diplomacy. Russia did not respect international law and therefore Hungary, according to its Russian Doctrine, should stand squarely with the European Union. But that attitude most likely precludes “economic cooperation” with Moscow at the moment. How is he planning to achieve this acrobatic feat? “Hungary’s national interest on [sic] Russia is that we have to stick to principles of international law and shape economic sanctions depending on the situation. We shouldn’t throw sanctions out of the tool box but the EU should also start talks with Eurasian countries at the same time.” First of all, it is not clear what he means by “Eurasian countries.” Does he mean those countries that belong to the Eurasian Union? Belarus and Kazakhstan? Belarus used to send 80% of its exports to Russia, but because of Russia’s economic collapse those exports now make up only 40-45% of the country’s total exports. President Aleksandr Lukashenka urged his government to seek new markets. The Hungarian government, which complained bitterly about the EU sanctions that affected the country’s agricultural sector, would most likely have seen its agricultural exports to Russia slashed as well, even without the sanctions.

There is another Orbán sentence I found intriguing: “it can be expected of Hungary that it be as loyal as it can to Europe’s common foreign policy and for it not damage its efficiency.” My best guess is that this means that Hungary will be loyal as long as such loyalty does not damage its own interests. That’s not much of a commitment.

 

Vincent van Gogh, Old Nag (1883)

Vincent van Gogh, Old Nag (1883) Source: wikiart.org

The first batch of EU sanctions against Russia expires in March, the next in April, and the most painful ones on Russian banks and energy firms at the end of July. Russia already began lobbying in the capitals of countries most likely to take Russia’s side and thus prevent the renewal of the sanctions. The three countries the Russians are concentrating on are Hungary, Cyprus, and Italy. Hungary and Cyprus are considered to be vehicles of Russian designs–not exactly countries loyal to the EU cause. For the Hungarian prime minister, loyalty to the West only goes so far.

As for the future of Paks, more and more people believe, even within Fidesz circles, that nothing will come of it. Yet on December 9 three contracts were signed by MVM Paks II Atomerőmű Fejlesztő Zrt. and the Russian Joint-Stock Company Nizhny Novgorod Engineering Company. The Hungarian government official in charge of the project claimed that five months of intensive negotiations preceded the signing of the contracts. All details concerning the deals are secret. It seems to me that the Hungarian government is trying to sign all contracts pertinent to the building of the reactors as soon as possible. Of course, these contracts have nothing to do with the loan agreement itself. Contracts with engineering firms will be useless if there is no Russian loan. One can only hope that the Hungarian side had the good sense to include a proviso to the effect that the contracts are binding only if Hungary gets the necessary loan from Moscow.

Since December 9 not much has been heard about the contracts except for an exchange between Bertalan Tóth, an MSZP member of parliament, and János Lázár, minister of the prime minister’s office. According to Lázár, it was decided that in building the new reactors the government will invite western managers and partner firms. International headhunters are looking for the appropriate partners, according to Lázár. According to information received by vs.hu, two such energy companies might be in serious contention: the French Areva and the Finnish Fortum. This sounds to me like an attempt to sweeten the bitter pill for Brussels. Of course, it is possible that all this effort will be in vain and that Orbán’s dream of being the supplier of energy for half of western Europe will never materialize.

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.

International pressure on Viktor Orbán: Russia, Putin, and Gazprom

There is real concern among former Hungarian diplomats and foreign policy experts that Hungary’s isolation is practically complete and that she may remain the only “strategic ally,” to use Viktor Orbán’s favorite term even in connection with China, of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. And if the Orbán government does not try to extricate itself from this situation, the consequences can be serious. Although Fidesz supporters are convinced that the United States has embarked on the destabilization of the country with the goal of removing Viktor Orbán from power, this cannot be Washington’s intent. After all, the opposition is in disarray and replacing Orbán with another Fidesz politician would not accomplish anything. A new prime minister would be merely a figurehead; the real power would remain in the hands of Viktor Orbán.

Admittedly, on the surface this conspiracy theory finds some support in the coincidence of the American move to ban six corrupt officials and businessmen from the United States and the massive demonstrations against the internet tax that soon enough became a protest movement against the whole regime. But the latter wasn’t the U.S.’s doing. It was the folly of the Hungarian government that seems to commit more and more mistakes lately. Did Viktor Orbán lose his magic touch, or has he navigated himself into an impossible situation in which the “peacock dance” is no longer possible? He is increasingly being faced with a stark choice: either total commitment to the side of Russia or capitulation and acceptance of the rules of the game within NATO and the European Union.

Orbán might be a good politician–if we define a good politician as someone who can play one person against another, who can fool his allies, who disregards the law, and who within a few years manages to institute a one-party system, because that is what we have in Hungary. But his track record shows that he cannot govern, that he cannot run a country successfully. We who watched his first four years between 1998 and 2002 with growing concern knew that already, but it seems that in the eight years that followed his disastrous rule the Hungarian people forgot why they went out in record numbers to make sure that this man and his regime don’t come back.

The situation today is ten times worse than it was during his first administration. He has transformed the country into an illiberal democracy, and his pro-Russian policies have alienated Hungary’s allies. Viktor Orbán is considered to be a pariah and someone who is toxic because of his potential influence on some of the other countries in the region. Western politicians look upon him as a fellow traveler of Vladimir Putin. And, indeed, they seem to borrow each other’s ideas. Orbán copies Putin’s attacks on NGOs, while, it seems, Putin was inspired by Orbán’s nationalization of the textbook industry, reported just yesterday in the western press.

During his first administration Orbán was fiercely anti-Russian, and it seems that he didn’t change his mind on that score until lately. In December 2009 a Hungarian foreign policy expert and obvious admirer of Orbán described the forthcoming Fidesz victory as “Moscow’s nightmare.” Early in his second administration he worked furiously on a quasi-alliance system from the Baltic to the Adriatic in which Hungary would have a leading position. But his fellow prime ministers in the region wanted nothing to do with Orbán’s grandiose plan. He made every effort to dislodge Surgut, a Russian company that had a 21.2% stake in MOL, the Hungarian oil and gas company. By May 2011, after lengthy negotiations, the Hungarian government bought out Surgut, paying a very high price. At that time Hungary was no friend of Russia. Not yet. However, according to Fidesz sources, Orbán decided to radically change course sometime in early 2013.  He spent about six months pondering the issue and came to the conclusion sometime during the summer of 2013 that he would turn to Russia for an expansion of the Paks nuclear power plant. According to the same sources, his decision was based on his belief that the Czech Republic and Germany would need cheap energy which Hungary would be able to provide.

Since then, with the outbreak of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, the political climate in Europe has changed dramatically. Orbán’s flirtation with Russia is looked upon with more than suspicion. The West considers Viktor Orbán and Hungary a liability. Soon enough, I believe, he will have to show his true colors. No more peacock dance. But it seems that Orbán by now is embroiled in all sorts of machinations with Russia in general and Gazprom in particular. The current setting for Hungarian machinations with Gazprom is Croatia.

Just a few words by way of background. In 2008-2009 MOL acquired a 47.47% stake in INA, the Croatian oil and gas company. In 2011 a Croatian newspaper reported that Zsolt Hernádi, CEO of MOL, had been accused by the Croatian prosecutor’s office of bribery. Naturally, the Hungarian prosecutor’s office found nothing wrong, but the Croats eventually went so far as to hand the case over to Interpol. As a result, Hernádi couldn’t leave the country; otherwise he would have been subject to immediate arrest. More details can be found in a post I wrote on the subject in October 2013. The decision was eventually made to get rid of MOL’s share in INA, but the Croatian government does not have the kind of money needed to buy MOL’s stake. Lately, there has been talk in the Hungarian press that MOL will sell its shares to a Russian buyer, most likely Gazprom itself. So, Gazprom will not only store gas in Hungary but might even control almost half of INA in Croatia.

INA: Managed by MOL

INA: Managed by MOL

And now let’s return to American-Hungarian relations. According to some observers, “the highly unusual step of blacklisting six people with ties to the government in Hungary, a NATO ally and European Union member,” also has something to do with the “growing closeness between Hungary and the Kremlin over energy that could undermine Western attempts to isolate Russian leader Vladimir Putin over his intervention in Ukraine.” So far there is not much new in that assertion, published in an article by Reuters. We have known all along that, in addition to Orbán’s domestic policies, his relations with Russia were a serious concern to the United States and the European Union. What is new in this revelation is that Washington is apparently keeping an eye on the possible MOL-INA deal with Gazprom. According to the article, Chris Murphy, U.S. senator from Connecticut, was dispatched to Zagreb “to lobby the government … on the issue.” Another interesting piece of information gleaned from the article is that State Department official Amos J. Hochstein, Acting Special Envoy and Coordinator for International Energy Affairs, met Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó and had a “productive meeting during Szijjártó’s recent visit to Washington about MOL’s stake, the South Stream, and Hungarian gas deliveries to Ukraine.”

All in all, it seems to me that Viktor Orbán is in over his head, especially with a foreign minister with no diplomatic experience. Szijjártó was an excellent spokesman for Viktor Orbán as the head of the “parrot commando,” but he is not qualified to be foreign minister, especially at such a delicate juncture.

It is hard to tell what Orbán’s next step will be. Fidesz media attacks on the United States are fiercer than ever, and its admiration of Russia is frightening. But more about that tomorrow.

After some hesitation Hungary declares war on the U.S. and the EU

The title of yesterday’s post was “The Hungarian government turns up the heat on the NGOs.” Well, today it took on both the United States and the European Union.

After some initial hesitation when János Lázár profusely praised the United States and extolled the friendship between the two countries, it seems that the decision was reached within the closest circle around Viktor Orbán that Hungary will not be “intimidated” by anyone. Hungary will strike back. Within a day Lázár was instructed to change his tune and attack the evil United States. Although he hid his message to the United States on the website of his hometown, Hódmezővásárhely, by today all the nationwide papers and internet sites reported on Lázár’s new attitude toward the United States and the European Union. He accused the United States of treating Hungary like an unequal partner and alluded to the so-called “gendarme pertue,” a reference to the practice during the Horthy period according to which the gendarmes used the familiar form of address with the peasants while the rural inhabitants had to use the formal with the gendarmes.* Being loyal to the European Union does not mean being a yes-man. Budapest is a faithful ally of Washington–and not because it dares not demand proof of serious allegations.

National holidays always come in handy for politicians, and the anniversary of the 1956 October Revolution couldn’t have come at a better time. In the last couple of days several top politicians linked the events of 1956 with the current crisis. Lázár illustrated the democratic impulses of Hungarians by appealing to the 1956 events. Who would ever question the Hungarians’ total commitment to freedom and democracy? But the Hungarians were let down by the West. “If October 23 is the glory of the Hungarians, then November 4 is the shame of America and Western Europe.” Hungarians were duped and abandoned so often that by now they are extremely cautious. In his opinion, “the bankruptcy of the regime change is demonstrated by the fact that the slavery of the East was replaced by the tutelage of the West.” This happened because in the last twenty years Hungary had political leaders who did not represent the interest of the country but who stood for foreign interests within Hungary. “In 1990 Hungarians regained their freedom but they needed twenty years more to dare to exert their rights. Well, now we dare!… We are responsible for our lives but at the same time we have the right to live our lives on our own terms.” At the end of this declaration of war, Lázár expressed his belief that the world will understand the Hungarian position and will slowly accept this new reality. “We ask only what is our due: neither more nor less.”

Expropriating 1956--a real shame

Expropriating 1956–a real shame

Lázár’s note was followed by László Kövér’s even more specific references to Hungary’s possible new course. In an interview on the far-right Echo TV Kövér ruminated on Hungary’s relation to the European Union. For him it was the Tavares report that was the last straw because the European parliament “thinks they can tell us how to behave. In this respect Brussels reminds me of Moscow. It was customary in Moscow to call together the party secretaries of the socialist camp and publish joint communiqués … in which they told us what the member states can and cannot do. If that is the future of the European Union, then it is worthwhile to contemplate that perhaps we should slowly, carefully back out.” He quickly added, “I’m convinced that this is just a nightmare and that this is not the future of the European Union, although some people seriously think that the EU should move in this direction.”

Even the staff of Mandinera gathering place of the younger conservative generation, thought that drawing a parallel between Moscow and Brussels was “stupid.” And the author of the article listed some of the fallacies in Kövér’s contention. It was our sovereign decision to join the Union; we are members of the EU and not subjects as in the Soviet bloc; we can veto certain decisions unlike in the old days; there are no occupying forces in the country; we receive more money from the EU than we pay in; and finally, one of the official languages of the EU is Hungarian, while during the Kádár regime Russian was compulsory.

The last attack on the United States came from Gergely Gulyás, one of the few smart politicians in an otherwise intellectually undistinguished party. He was in Berlin when he delivered a speech at the Hungarian embassy on the Hungarian revolution of 1956. After a historical overview of what happened to Hungary between 1945 and 1990, he went straight to the question of democracy in Hungary. There can be no question that for the Hungarians “democracy is a sacred value for which they shed their blood.” The memory of the revolution is an eternal reminder that Hungarians live in a country of laws which are written down in the constitution. “Our freedom of today springs from our revolution of 1956.”

Well, it was here that I could hardly retain my composure. These people try to justify their undemocratic, illegitimate regime by appealing to the blood and sacrifice of the revolutionaries of 1956. And that is not all. He had the temerity to claim that those who question the existence of democracy and the rule of law in Hungary insult the memory of the heroes of the revolution.

Meanwhile, on another front, The Hungary Initiatives Foundation, which operates in the United States as a propaganda arm of the Orbán government, has lost almost half of its board members. Those who left are George E. Pataki, former governor of New York; Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett, daughter of U.S. representative Tom Lantos and vice chair of the United States Commission on International and Religious Freedom; Susan Hutchison, executive director of the Charles Simonyi Fund for Arts and Sciences; and Michael J. Horowitz, former director of the Hudson Institute’s Project for Civil Justice Reform and its Project for International Religious Liberty as well as a founding member of 21st Century Initiatives. Those remaining are former American ambassdor April H. Foley; Tamás Fellegi, a former member of the Orbán government; Dr. John P. Lipsky, former first deputy managing director of the IMF; Ambassador Kurt Volker, executive director of the McCain Institute for International Leadership; and Edith K. Lauer, chair emerita of the Hungarian American Coalition. Even among the remaining five we see some dissent. Kurt Volker, who used to be a steadfast supporter of Viktor Orbán, had some very harsh words about the latest Hungarian development in an interview with Péter Morvay in Washington.

Ágnes Vadai of the Demokratikus Koalíció reacted to the László Kövér interview by saying that anyone who wants to lead Hungary out of the European Union is “an enemy of the country.” As are those who blaspheme the memory of 1956.

*Apparently, gendarme pertu also means a slap in the face by the officer instead of greetings.