News of the “Azerbaijan Laundromat” scandal reached Hungary yesterday, thanks to the report of Átlátszó, a group of investigative journalists who participated in an investigation conducted by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). It was a truly international effort that included Danish, British, French, Swiss, Russian, Austrian, Slovene, Romanian, Bulgarian, Estonian, Czech, and American journalists. The first short description of this money laundering scheme appeared in The Guardian on September 2, from which we learned that the ruling elite of Azerbaijan operated a secret $2.8 billion scheme to pay prominent Europeans, buy luxury items, and launder money through a network of opaque British companies.
In The Guardian article there is no reference to Hungary, but Átlátszó reported that from this enormous amount of money $7.6 million landed in Budapest in 2012 and 2013. The first installment was deposited by Metastar Invest LLP, one of the four phony companies set up to expedite Azerbaijan’s money laundering operation, in July 2012. The recipient of this and subsequent deposits was Valesco International, a company that a couple of years later conveniently ceased to exist. Where the money actually ended up no one knows.
Let’s quickly recall Azeri-Hungarian relations in the first few years of the second Orbán government. Viktor Orbán was in Baku in September 2010, participating in an energy summit, but he had a separate meeting with President Ilham Aliyev. A year later President Pál Schmitt paid a visit to Baku, where he also conducted negotiations with the Azeri president. And on June 30, 2012, Viktor Orbán, while attending the Crans Montana Forum in Baku, again met Aliyev. A few days later, sometime in July 2012, the first installment of the Azeri millions arrived in Budapest.
What happened at this meeting? Most likely it was during this encounter that Viktor Orbán was persuaded to extradite Ramil Safarov, an officer of the Azerbaijani Army who had been convicted of the 2004 murder of an Armenian officer during a NATO-sponsored training seminar in Budapest. Safarov was sentenced to life imprisonment. The Azeri government approached successive Hungarian governments several times, trying to persuade them to allow Safarov to return to Azerbaijan so he could serve the rest of his sentence in his own country. The Hungarians refused because they suspected, with good reason as it turned out, that Safarov would be pardoned as soon as his plane hit the ground in Baku.
It is hard not to suspect a connection between Orbán’s visit to Baku in June and the first installment of $7.6 million to a Hungarian bank account in July, especially since by the end of August Safarov was on his way to Azerbaijan, where he was welcomed as a national hero and set free.
Of course, this is just conjecture, but what is clear is that the Azeri government used bribes to achieve its political aims and that those who were ready to serve Azeri interests were generously rewarded. The extradition of Safarov was certainly something that merited recompense as far as Aliyev was concerned. Ever since then, Azeri-Hungarian relations have been close. Aliyev remained a grateful friend and Orbán a loyal ally. One of my posts from 2014 describes in some detail the close relationship that developed between the two countries, which at times became outright embarrassing. For example, when Viktor Orbán during his last visit to Baku in 2016 talked about “the leaders of the country who have made Azerbaijan one of the most respected and often envied countries in the world.”
The Azeri leadership also spent a considerable amount of money on European politicians who were ready to defend Ilham Aliyev’s dictatorship. I will concentrate here on one politician who also had extensive dealings with the Orbán government. He is Luca Volontè, who was one of the largest beneficiaries of Aliyev’s “generosity.” Volontè at the time was the chairman of the European People’s Party group in the Council of Europe. Italian prosecutors allege that Volontè was paid €2.4 million by Azerbaijani officials in exchange for “his support of political positions of the state” at the Council, which is supposed to promote democracy and the rule of law. The accusation is actually not new. Gerald Knaus, chairman of the European Stability Initiative, a think tank, claimed as early as 2012 that “the Council of Europe … in recent years has been captured by autocrats.”
It is about this time that Viktor Orbán put a photo of himself with János Martonyi and Luca Volontè on his Facebook page. By that time, Volontè had proved to be a great friend of Hungary. In January 2011 the Council of Europe held a debate on the functioning of democracy in the country. Hungary was fiercely defended by several members of the Parliamentary Assembly (PACE), among them Volontè, who criticized the proceedings against Hungary on the ground of “a lack of facts.” Any criticism of the government inside of Hungary, he argued, comes from “people who are unhappy that they were not reelected.” Otherwise, Hungary is a model democracy.
Volontè’s close friendship with the Hungarian government continued. By 2013 he was again defending the Orbán government against the monitoring committee of the Council of Europe in connection with the new Hungarian constitution. He called the criticism of the Hungarian government a witch hunt. He claimed that the critics are not even familiar with the text of the constitution. Volontè explained all this in an interview with the then pro-government Magyar Nemzet.
By that time, Volontè was most likely a paid agent of the Azerbaijani government, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he also offered his services to the Orbán government, which was in considerable trouble both in the European Parliament and in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.
A year later I became even more suspicious when an ugly attack was launched in Hungary against Professor Charles Gati after the publication of his article “The Mask is Off,” which originally appeared in The American Interest and a day later in Hungarian Spectrum. It was written after Viktor Orbán’s infamous speech about building an “illiberal state” in Hungary. Orbán wasn’t expecting such a violent reaction to his honest admission of his plans, and the Fidesz media tried to distinguish between the American and the European understanding of the word “liberal.” It was at this point that Luca Volontè was called upon as a true “European voice.” He must have had considerable government help with his long article titled “Hands Off Hungary!” because he seemed to be too familiar with the Hungarian political scene at the time.
Volontè is no longer in politics. He is running the Novae Terrae Foundation, which “commits itself to defend human rights conceived according to natural law.” But he still has time to write long articles in praise of Viktor Orbán. The last such article appeared in Magyar Hírlap on March 18, 2016 with the title “Hungarian Spark: Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has the clear wisdom to outline the conditions of the epoch-making challenges ahead.” It is a propaganda piece which ends with this line: “I’m sure that I’m not the only one who can proudly say how good it is to meet true people and to know them as my friends, whom I hope to meet again in the country of St. Stephen soon.” Volontè’s wish was fulfilled because he visited Hungary in November 2016, giving a lecture on “The relativization of European values” at an international conference in Szeged organized by the Szeged-Csanád Bishopric and the Polish Consulate in Szeged. A few months later he was back in Hungary, this time for the World Family Summit held in May 2017, where he participated in a panel discussion on “Pro-family Activities in the World.”
This afternoon Magyar Idők published a surprisingly straightforward account of the Azeri bribery scheme with the title “Three-billion dollar fund for Baku’s plans: The threads reach the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.” The $7.6 million deposited in a Budapest bank was of course omitted from the summary, but the article to my great surprise included a mention of Volontè as one of the accused. My question is whether these revelations will have any bearing on the currently overfriendly Azeri-Hungarian relations.