Tag Archives: Afghanistan

One of the many impostors in the service of the Orbán government

A couple of days ago The Budapest Beacon published an incredible story about a woman in her sixties who accused NGOs who are defending the rights of refugees of “subversive activities.” She charged that they have compelled interpreters to lie on behalf of the asylum-seekers. As a result, several interpreters have been dismissed. The story took a really bizarre turn when a few days ago we learned that it was the accuser herself who had falsified a Syrian refugee’s plea, from innocent to guilty.

This is not the first time that Magda Nasrin Katona has run into trouble with the law. In 2012 she received an eight-month suspended sentence for perjury. She attacked a woman walking her dog with a cane, after which she accused the victim of attacking her. Two years earlier, when she represented her foundation as an observer of the November 2010 presidential election in Afghanistan, she got into quite a bit of trouble. She was caught on camera demanding money in return for votes. A journalist from The Washington Post ran the story, including the video, which naturally got to Hungary in no time.

Magda Nasrin Katona in Afghanistan in 2010

I decided to look into Magda Nasrin Katona’s career in Hungary. My aim was to learn how questionable characters like Katona manage to make careers for themselves in Hungary.

First of all, I would like to emphasize that it wasn’t only the Orbán government and Fidesz that considered Katona an asset. Over the years she managed to get grants here and there from the foreign ministry and to pass herself off to serious scholars as someone whose experience made her a true expert. The truth is that most of the Hungarians Katona came into contact with were too provincial to realize that she was for all intents and purposes a fraud. And those who did discover that Katona was not what she claimed to be remained quiet instead of unmasking her. I’m afraid it sounds like a typical Hungarian story to me.

We don’t know much about her life and activities before the early 1990s. I assume that she has a degree in Arabic studies, most likely from ELTE. She signed one of her articles Dr. Magda Nasrin Katona, but since later she had problems writing a real Ph.D. dissertation, her doctorate was the kind that is called the “kisdoktori” in Hungary, a title that no longer exists. We know that she was married to Mohammad Yar, most likely an Afghan. Given her age (she was born in 1953), they might have met in Hungary, where Yar might have been a student. People who know her told inquiring reporters that she had lived for many years in Afghanistan and that she actually owns property there. According to at least one source, the marriage ended some time ago and Yar moved to the United States.

Katona’s published works that are available online appeared in three or four publications. One was a quarterly published by the Pro Minoritate Foundation, which was close to Fidesz. The periodical is still in existence, although the foundation doesn’t seem to be active anymore. From the table of contents it seems to be a publication that may receive subsidies from Fidesz. Another periodical that carried several of her articles was Hadtudomány (Military Science), which is the publication of the Magyar Hadtudományi Társaság (Hungarian Association of Military Science).

By 2002 some people started noticing that Katona’s knowledge of Afghanistan left something to be desired. In Külügyi Szemle, the publication of the Külügyi Intézet under the aegis of the foreign ministry, a fairly lengthy article tore her article on Afghanistan apart.

In 2003 she became a frequent contributor to Magyar Nemzet, which was then a publication that toed the Fidesz line, but at the same time she also kept in touch with the socialist-liberal governments. Her foundation, which may not actually have existed, received small grants from the foreign ministry in three consecutive years between 2004 and 2006, during the tenure of Ferenc Somogyi and Kinga Göncz.

What was the opinion of her expertise at the time? In 2010, after The Washington Post scandal broke, Index asked around to ascertain what “national security experts” thought of Magda Nasrin Katona. Somewhat surprisingly, university professors, authors of books, and experts on national security praised her to the sky. Péter Tálasi, whom I consider one of the smarter people in the field, thought that “Magda Katona is the best informed analyst of the domestic affairs of Afghanistan. Few people know the country as well as she does. Her knowledge of the language plays an important role here.” Ferenc Gazdag, a historian and national security expert, also spoke highly of her. “She has a wide knowledge of the country,” he said. Peter Wagner, a member of the Magyar Külügyi Intézet in whose publication her article was panned, made it clear that she doesn’t work for the ministry but still she is a real expert on Afghanistan. But Index talked to some other people, who didn’t want to disclose their names, who told the paper that Katona’s Ph.D. dissertation had been rejected several times because “very serious mistakes, contradictory statements, and unverifiable sources” were found throughout. Moreover, a good portion of the dissertation was merely a Hungarian translation of English-language sources. Soon after Index dropped the word about the alleged plagiarism, she gave up the idea of obtaining a Ph.D.

All through these years Katona worked for the Bevándorlási Hivatal (Immigration Office) as a translator and interpreter. Ferenc Kőszeg, founder of the Hungarian Helsinki Commission, wrote an article in Népszabadság in which he complained that “in the Nyírbátor refugee camp where the Afghan communist national security officers and the mujahedeen fighters were placed together, Magda Nasrin Katona showed partiality toward the former and did a lot to see that these Afghan supporters of Soviet aggression—political officers, party secretaries, government officials—would receive asylum in Hungary.”

Of course, people like Katona can be found everywhere, but it would help if more businesses and institutions required confidential recommendations when hiring. In my experience, recommendations for Hungarians go straight to the applicant instead of to the person who is supposed to decide on the applicant’s fate. Then there is the very bad habit of not releasing information that would raise doubts about the person’s abilities. Why were professors quiet when it was discovered that Katona’s Ph.D. dissertation was largely plagiarized? One could ask dozens of questions, but the final result is that there are just too many cases in which totally unqualified people parade as experts to the detriment of scholarship.

November 18, 2017

“El Camino de Balkan”: In the footsteps of the refugees from Greece to Hungary

Twelve days ago atlatszo.hu announced that a Hungarian journalist, who initially didn’t reveal his name, decided to go to Greece and from there join refugees traveling north to the Serb-Hungarian border. He published his experiences in daily installments in atlatszo.hu. They were titled El Camino de Balkan, a take-off on El Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage route to the shrine of the apostle St. James the Great in the Cathedral of Santiago.

He went to Idomeni, the last Greek village, only about two kilometers from the Macedonian town of Gevgalija on the bank of the Vardar River. This is the favorite spot for refugees to begin their journey from Greece northward.

Of course, by that time the refugees had traveled thousands of miles from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Their last stop in Turkey was Izmir, a large city in the westernmost point of Anatolia. From there they sailed to Mitilini (Lesbos) or Kos and then edged their way to Athens, Thessaloniki, and Idomeni, where our man joined a group of refugees.

Greece to Hungary

He didn’t have to wait long. After walking about six kilometers he encountered the first group, about twenty Afghans whose final destination is Germany. They had left Kabul, Herat, Mazar i Sharif a month ago and traveled through Iran, Turkey, and Lesbos. They had just arrived from Saloniki by bus. According to the owner of a local pub, twenty busloads of refugees arrive daily in Idomeni. That is at least 1,000 people. Small shopkeepers sell their wares: hamburgers, soft drinks, ice cream. On a small field there are at least 300 refugees and a policeman, who tries to keep order by dividing them into smaller groups that then cross to Macedonia.

After sitting in the dust for about an hour our journalist encountered two Syrian brothers from Homs, who seemed to be terribly worried about the Hungarian part of the trip. “Everything will be decided there,” they said. They are heading to Norway, where allegedly the rest of the family is already. Eventually, they began their short walk to Gevgelija, the first Macedonian town from which one can reach Belgrade by train.

By the time our journalist, surrounded by Syrians, arrived at the Gevgelija railroad station, the whole place was full of refugees. Every shady spot was already occupied, but some volunteers of the Red Cross tried to help the ailing members of the group. They also distribute food and water twice a day. Apparently, the situation is much better organized now than it was a month and a half ago, when “chases took place among the bushes and the corn fields” and many of the refugees got hurt. Now the authorities organize the crossing themselves.

It was a long wait for the refugees to receive a piece of paper that allows them to stay in Macedonia for 72 hours. Eventually the train to Skopje, which carried only refugees, arrived, and all hell broke loose. There were more people than places and the adults, leaving their children behind, stormed the train. But don’t fret. They knew what they were doing. Once inside the train they lifted their children into the carriage through the windows.

Given how limited space was on the train, our journalist thought he shouldn’t take the place of a real refugee and decided to go by bus to Skopje. As it turned out, the bus was also full of refugees except that these were the better-off ones who could afford to pay their way. Here his companion was Aden from Iraq, with a master’s degree in robotics. Aden didn’t even know where he should go and asked the journalist’s advice, who suggested Norway because “surely there they need engineers.”

At each border crossing the police organized the smooth movement of masses of refugees. Some of them received the Macedonian handwritten piece of paper which makes them legal for 72 hours, some didn’t. It didn’t matter. They all got on trains or buses and moved closer and closer to the border they feared most: the Hungarian.

Our journalist, after reaching Skopje by bus, hired a taxi. Its driver took him to Tabanovce and pointed toward a forest, the customary path into Serbia. Soon enough another taxi arrived which brought seven Syrians. They were well-dressed men and women who received the same directions from their driver as he had. So, they began walking together, but a Macedonian policeman discovered that our journalist wasn’t a refugee and refused to allow him to cross illegally. As a result he had to walk 14 kilometers to the Serbian town of Preshevo. It was 35 degrees, with no shade. After about 8 km a group of Afghans, who until then had been hiding in the ditch next to the road, joined him. They spoke no English; they just kept repeating “asyl… asyl.”

Preshevo is an important station in this Balkan journey. The Serbian authorities are waiting for the crowd. Behind the railroad station is an area whose official name is “place for a single stop,” but everybody just calls it the “kamp.” Here the Serbian police hand out 72-hour passes, this time for Serbia. Again, the wait is extremely long because these passes are handwritten, just as in Macedonia. The crowd is so large that “the whole thing looks absolutely hopeless,” but unfortunately if a poor refugee wants to travel free on a “refugee train” from Preshevo through Belgrade to Subotica/Szabadka, he must have one of these pieces of paper.

Of course, the well-off refugees can save themselves days of waiting for this piece of paper. Our journalist, who worked for years in the Balkans, knows Serbian, and he learned from one of the policemen that “many avoid Preshevo altogether and take a taxi all the way to the Hungarian border. It is only a question of money.” Surely, the well-dressed Syrians our journalist encountered close to Preshevo were not standing in line for that piece of paper.

The situation in Belgrade is somewhat similar to that in Budapest. Two parks near the railroad station are full of refugees. Buses going to cities close to the Hungarian border are booked for days. In the Serbian capital our journalist sensed growing apprehension about the refugee issue. The reason: the fence the Hungarian government is erecting along the border.

The next stop was Kanjiža/Kanizsa, a small town in the Vojvodia, where 85% of the people are Hungarian-speaking. Three buses arrived at the same time from Subotica/Szabadka, all full of refugees. The main square was full of them, but by the next morning the square was empty because the refugees start their final journey at night. According to a town council member who is in charge of the refugees in Kanizsa, only the better-off Iraqis and Syrians end up there. The poorer Afghans wait in Subotica in a large camp set up for them. But still at least 1,000 people go through this town of 9,000 inhabitants daily.

You may have noted that up to this point there was not a word about the smugglers who are allegedly responsible for the onslaught of economic migrants, who lure innocent and ignorant people to begin their perilous journey only to strip them of their last pennies. Instead, we heard about willing Greek, Macedonian, and Serbian policemen who facilitate the refugees’ movement from country to country. This is not the case, however, on the Hungarian-Serbian border, and our journalist had the misfortune of encountering one of these smugglers during the last leg of his journey.

This last stretch meant a journey on foot from Kanizsa to Martonos, where he made half the trip by car thanks to a Hungarian Gypsy. Originally the driver offered him a ride believing that he was picking up a refugee, but when our journalist answered him in Hungarian he got excited: “Oh, my brother, you are Hungarian? Then I’ll take you free of charge.”

From Martonos the refugee route follows an embankment, which eventually goes to Szeged and beyond. Here our journalist encountered a group along the Tisza River of about eighty, led by a bearded Arab who was very suspicious of him, especially when he heard that he is a Hungarian journalist. “Not a good pedigree around here.” Half of the people were Kurds from Iraq and other half, Syrians.  The terrain was rough. It was a heavily wooded area, plus they had to cross a canal which was luckily dry, but the embankment was very steep and there were a lot of children in the group. There was a second canal, which is apparently the actual border between the two countries with an even steeper embankment. The leader of the group made them run as fast as they could through heavy brush only to stop and wait. The journalist found this all rather mysterious.

Eventually he figured out what was going on. The bearded Arab, who was about 35 years old, was the chief here, assisted by four younger guys. They were the ones who walked ahead of the crowd, and all four of them carried knives. At sundown these five washed their hands, face, and feet, and rinsed their mouths. The others watched in silence. Eventually two or three groups joined them, and it became clear that all these people were “paying customers.” A final mad rush and one of the young smugglers came to him, saying “Hungary, go!” They all ended up in Gyálarét, in the outskirts of Szeged.

* * *

Since then our journalist has revealed his real identity. He is György Kakuk, author of a book on Kosovo, where he spent a year during the NATO attacks on Yugoslavia. He worked as a foreign news editor at Magyar Televízió and Magyar Rádió. After retiring from journalism, he was a diplomat with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, mostly in Balkan countries. A few years ago he decided to enter politics and joined the Demokratikus Koalíció, where he is one of the foreign policy advisers to Ferenc Gyurcsány. He is also on DK’s ten-member executive board.

Yesterday Gellért Rajcsányi, one of the young editors of the conservative Mandiner, wrote a glowing report about the series of articles, which he read with amazement. He considered El Camino de Balkan “the report of the year.” At that time he didn’t know who the author of the report was. Since Rajcsányi is not exactly an admirer of Ferenc Gyurcsány, to put it mildly, I wonder what he would have thought of this fascinating story if knew the real identity of the author. I can only hope that he wouldn’t have changed his opinion.

The better side of Hungary: Volunteers take charge

Although there are many truly depressing news items coming from Hungary today, I decided already yesterday that in order to balance the picture I would write about those Hungarians who have rallied to make the lives of the asylum seekers a bit easier. There are thousands of volunteers who under very difficult circumstances are helping the new arrivals. They are filling a void because most charity organizations, such as the Hungarian branch of Caritas International, have been conspicuously absent. The explanation is that the government didn’t ask for their help because everything is going splendidly.

According to the director of the Catholic charity Caritas, in the two camps he visited the people are fed every five hours, toilet facilities are more than adequate, there is 24/7 medical care, and the camps are well equipped to handle even small babies. All this sounds idyllic until you read some of the reports in the media about the misery of the asylum seekers and the general confusion that exists in the government-organized refugee service.

Today’s Népszabadság had an article about the strange fact that until now charitable organizations acted as if they hadn’t realized that there was a refugee crisis in Hungary. My suspicion is that they were reluctant to get involved on their own, all too aware of the Hungarian government’s anti-refugee policies. But now that they’ve been given the go-ahead signal, they suddenly discovered that they should be working alongside the self-organizing volunteers.

At the moment there may be as many as ten thousand volunteers hard at work day and night around railroad stations in Szeged, Debrecen, Cegléd, and even Pécs because the government agency handling the flow of refugees has of late been sending some of them from Szeged to Debrecen via Pécs and Budapest! Mighty strange logistics. While the socialist mayor of Szeged is helping the volunteers, in Pécs the Fidesz-led municipality is doing nothing. In Pécs, as elsewhere, refugees can stay in a small, cordoned-off area next to the railroad station. There are only a few benches where they can sit down. The volunteers are totally in the dark as to how many people will arrive on any given day, which makes their work very difficult. From Pécs, the refugees’ next stop is Budapest, where a well-organized group of volunteers is waiting for them.

A description of the work of the Budapest MigSzol (Migrant Solidarity Group of Hungary) was published by Júlia Mira Lévai, an old friend from Galamus days when we were founding members of this excellent but by now unfortunately defunct internet site. She is convinced that the visible disorganization is intentionally orchestrated by the government. The hundreds of refugees sitting and sleeping on the ground around railroad stations serves the government’s purpose. It shows the population what is awaiting them if these people remain in the country. If they were expeditiously moved into camps for registration and from there left the country in a great hurry, as they did in the past, it would be much more difficult to create a panic.

Lévai tells the story of an Afghan boy who seems emotionless. When he shows his papers it turns out that he is only fourteen years old and therefore should be going to Fót, where unaccompanied children are sent. Eventually the volunteers manage to find someone who speaks Pashto, and they learn that only one of his relatives is still alive back in Afghanistan but that he has an uncle in Budapest who has been granted refugee status. After some difficulty they locate the uncle. One success story. But Lévai learned that there are several Afghan children in Fót who are in total shock after seeing their parents being beheaded. Someone who knows the situation in Fót claims that there is no psychologist on the staff. But one can’t verify this claim because the director of the facility refuses to grant the media access to the place.

While these volunteers work day and night, a group of “Nazis,” as Lévai calls them, yells on the square in front of the Eastern Station:”We want a white Hungary!” And naturally they call the volunteers “the enemies of the nation.”

Baby boy is having a bath at the Szeged railroad station

A baby boy is having a bath at the Szeged railroad station

I read a very moving story about a teenage Afghan boy who arrived without his parents a year ago. By now he speaks Hungarian. He has been looked after by the Saint Agatha Child Welfare Service in Hódmezővásárhely. The child welfare service can look after 30 children at a time, but most of these children are in transit. They come and a few days later they leave to find their fortunes elsewhere in Europe. Some of them wait to be united with their relatives who have already made it to Western Europe. Our Afghan boy is different. He would like to stay in Hungary. He was about fifteen years old when his parents sent him off, saying, “You have to leave us so you can live!” He spent eight months in Turkey and a month and a half in a camp in Bulgaria, after which he ended up on the streets of Sofia. His parents have since disappeared. He tried to get in touch with them via the internet but had no luck. He even phoned the neighbors, but they don’t know where his parents are. “Maybe they went back to Persia,” the boy says. Now he is in a school for slower children in Szeged, not because he is slow–in fact, according to the head of the child welfare service, he is very bright–but because “they refused to admit him elsewhere.”

The thousands of Hungarians who are trying to help the refugees are joined by Pashto- and Arabic-speaking volunteers who have been living in Hungary for years. Many of them came to Hungary to study and, after marrying a Hungarian, settled in the country. By now many of them are Hungarian citizens with Hungarian-born children. They are indispensable as interpreters.

Not long ago I heard a radio interview with one of the directors of Wikipedia on NPR (National Public Radio) about the millions of anonymous volunteers who contribute to the project without any pay. Why do they do it? What is their motivation? They think their work is important. They take pride in their accomplishment. They know that they are doing something worthwhile.

It was this conversation that came to mind when I read about a young, unmarried thirty-year-old man who signed up on MigSzol’s Szeged Facebook page. An hour later he got a call: they need him. There were some rough guys who were showing too much interest in a Syrian refugee family. From his picture he looked like the kind of person who could handle them. He arrived a few minutes later and managed to get rid of the screaming men. The sobbing four-year-old girl was so grateful that she embraced his leg. As he said, “I got hooked.”

Ambassador Eleni Kounalakis on her years in Hungary, Part II

As I indicated yesterday, Eleni Kounalakis’s book on her stay in Budapest as ambassador of the United States is rich enough to spend more than one or even two short posts.

Before her departure to Hungary, the State Department explained to her that the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan was one of President Obama’s top foreign policy priorities. At the time of our story, Hungary had 400 men and women serving in Afghanistan. Kounalakis’s task was to make sure that those troops, unlike some other international forces, don’t leave Afghanistan. That meant courting Csaba Hende.

Of the twenty-one chapters, four deal in one way or another with the Hungarian military. Her first chapter describes a boar hunt near the Ukrainian border to which she was invited by the Hungarian military brass after she told them that she knows how to handle a gun. It turned out that the military attaché of the embassy was very keen on her joining the guys because such an outing would strengthen the good relationship between the military establishments of the two countries. It was the same military attaché who urged her to take part in swimming across Lake Balaton, an affair also organized by the military. It seems that she was ready to do almost anything to ensure that the Hungarian troops would stay in Afghanistan.

Kounalakis describes Csaba Hende, the new minister of defense, as “a smart, affable man” who was rumored “to be out of his depth in the military realm.” (p. 119) Most people would be less charitable and would describe Hende as a bungling country bumpkin. In fact, in the chapters in which Hende figures there are many examples of his utter unsuitability to be a cabinet minister. In December 2010 the American ambassador was still outraged at one of Hende’s inappropriate remarks, yet in a relatively short period of time she described him as a close friend. That friendship is especially curious since it is clear from the text that Hende doesn’t speak a word of English and that their conversations were conducted through an interpreter.

Kounalakis misunderstood Hende’s role in the government. She assumed that he had some say about whether the Hungarian troops stay or leave Afghanistan. She believed that it was her excellent diplomatic skills and her friendship with Hende that resulted in the Hungarian government’s decision to remain part of the international force. We know, and I think Kounalakis should also have known, that no decision is made in Orbán’s Hungary, even about the smallest matter, without the prime minister’s personal approval. What Hende thought was, in the final analysis, irrelevant, so courting him was probably a waste of time.

At their very first meeting Hende indicated to Kounalakis that Camp Pannonia, where some of the Hungarians served, near the town of Pol-e Khumri, had become a very dangerous place. He was worried about his soldiers’ safety. “Something must be done.” (p. 121) The ambassador almost dropped her coffee cup because she was not expecting a change of policy on Afghanistan after the election. Kounalakis took Hende’s words at face value, but if you read her description of comments made later, the Orbán team most likely even before the election decided to threaten troop withdrawal in order to receive more financial help and military equipment.

A few days later the military attaché came with the surprising news that “Minister Hende had invited me to join him on a three-day trip to visit Hungarian troops in Sarajevo and Kosovo.” She decided to accept the invitation because such a trip “would give [her] the opportunity to advance another U.S. foreign policy objective,” this time in the Balkans. (pp. 122-123) During the flight back from Kosovo Hende brought up the topic of the Hungarian troops in Afghanistan again. This time, according to Kounalakis, he was more forceful. He told her that if someone is killed, “the blood will be on [his] hands,” a concern that Kounalakis understood since she felt “the gravity of the dilemma.” The U.S. military attaché in Budapest was less sympathetic. Yes, he told the ambassador, it is a dangerous place. It is a war zone, and it is important that the Hungarians remain there.

Eleni Kounalakis at a joint training seesion of Hungarian troops and the Ohio National Guard, April 2011

Eleni Kounalakis at a  joint training session of Hungarian troops and the Ohio National Guard

A few months later Hende invited her to go with him to Afghanistan. Another opportunity for Hende to extract more money and equipment from the Americans. Kounalakis describes a rather uncomfortable encounter between General David Petraeus and Hende in which the Hungarian minister again explained his worries about his soldiers at Camp Pannonia. It is unsafe, and it prevents them from doing their assigned task, reconstruction work. During the discussion he repeated that “at a minimum, the Hungarians soldiers needed more equipment, especially more secure transport vehicles.” Hende was asked to make a list of equipment his troops needed, and he received a promise that the requests would be “seriously considered.” (pp. 134-135)

It was during this trip that Kounalakis herself was finally convinced that the Hungarian troops needed more equipment. Although earlier there were serious disagreements between Hende and the American ambassador, one morning after a nearby bombing by coalition forces,

It was clear that something had changed. The tension between Csaba and me had diffused, and everyone felt it. I think he finally understood that it would be hard for him to walk away from his country’s commitments, and I think he saw that I finally understood that his troops were exposed at Camp Pannonia and needed more equipment to protect themselves.

The corner that we turned was significant, not just for our countries’ cooperation in Afghanistan but for everything we would accomplish together for the next three years. Despite–or perhaps because of–our confrontation, mutual respect and understanding had been forged between us. Not more than a few weeks later, a large shipment of new transport vehicles was delivered to Camp Pannonia. Within a short period of time, the reconstruction team received all of the equipment they needed. (p. 141-142)

Considering that only a few days before the following conversation took place between Kounalakis and Hende, this change of heart was truly remarkable. Kounalakis kept talking about the importance of reconstruction work in a developing country when

[Hende] responded, very smugly, “You know, Madam Ambassador, we Hungarians have a saying for what your country is trying to do here: it’s like taking a fish stew and trying to turn it into an aquarium.”

It was the final straw. It was an outrageous, disrespectful thing to say about the United States and all of our troops and officers who were serving in this dangerous place. I looked him in the eye, and I raised my voice.

“The cost to my country, in lives and treasure, is enormous. Success or failure will impact the future of my country, our security and yours, and determine the future for our nations’ children, yours and mine included. You can be as critical as you want, but you cannot discount our effort out of hand that way, as if nothing is at stake!”

The minister’s young interpreter looked mortified, but Csaba himself had staked his ground and refused to back down. Not wanting to give further vent to my anger, I stood up and left the room. (p. 138)

Kounalakis visited Afghanistan once more, this time at the invitation of Admiral James Stavridis, the supreme allied commander of NATO. Once there she proposed to the admiral that “maybe we could persuade [the Hungarians] to take another rotation.” Stavridis was doubtful, but Kounalakis was pretty certain that they would agree, adding that “the only thing is, they probably won’t have the money to fund such an effort.” Once back in Budapest she approached Hende, and “the Hungarians responded with incredible speed and surprising flexibility.” (pp. 269-270) Indeed, why not? Kounalakis is certain that it was her excellent personal relationship with the Hungarian minister of defense that was responsible for this happy turn of events from the American point of view.

On May 10, 2013, John Kerry, secretary of state, wrote a letter to Kounalakis praising her for her exceptional service as ambassador of the United States to Hungary. The very first item on the list of her accomplishments was her “efforts [that] convinced the Hungarian government to maintain its Provincial Reconstruction Team in Afghanistan until its mission was completed.” (p. 185)

Spread of indifference and hate in Hungary

The events of the last few days have been shocking reminders that something has gone very wrong in Hungary in the last few years. Hungarian society has been poisoned by monstrous ideas. And it seems that the more the present government feels threatened, the more vicious it becomes in the hope of appealing to the beast in all of us.

Sometime ago I read about a study of the Orbán government’s social policy which appeared in the prestigious Journal of European Social Policy. It was written by a member of ELTE’s Faculty of Social Studies, a faculty whose existence has been threatened by the latest “university reforms.” She maintained that the present Hungarian government has no coherent social policy. One finds elements of neo-liberalism, neo-conservatism, and etatism, all at the same time. She came to the conclusion that “the only aim of the government is the punishment of the poor.” What an indictment.

In a recent editorial in HVG, “Hate the weaker!,” the author recalls those instances when the Orbán government incited hatred against the homeless, the unemployed, and now the refugees. This government went so far as to change the constitution to legalize punishment of homeless people. The government pared back unemployment insurance benefits to only three months. Welfare payments have been cut to practically nothing, while public works programs are used to influence electoral outcomes. And now here are refugees arriving with only the clothes on their backs.

The government is inciting the population against foreigners in general even though in January 2014 only 1.4% of the population consisted of foreign nationals. Although the government talks about the huge numbers of applicants for refugee status, in 2014 only 360 political refugees received permission to stay in Hungary. These incitements are intended to divert attention from the incompetence (and worse) of the government, but their negative effect on the psyche of the population is immeasurable.

A lack of compassion is discernible among Fidesz politicians, even when working-class Hungarians are the victims. The other day a 21-year-old girl was murdered while working in one of the stores allowed to sell tobacco products. Her murderer, a young boy as it turned out, killed her for 22,000 ft. ($80.00). The interiors of these stores cannot be seen from the street. Their windows are covered; the doors are solid and cannot be left open. All that in the mistaken notion that young people, just by glancing at packs of cigarettes through the shop window, will take up smoking. As a result, the number of robberies at these stores has been far above the average. But at least until now no shopkeeper was killed. But here we have the first victim of this ludicrous new law. The owner of the store where the tragedy happened had enough. He decided that he is taking off the protective material from the shop windows of all his stores. He cares not whether it is against the law. He will not endanger the lives of his employees. One death was more than enough.

Will the government change the law which clearly serves no purpose and endangers lives? A reporter for Hír24 was all set this morning to ask the opinion of Fidesz politicians as they arrived in parliament. One after the other, starting with the prime minister, they went by without a word and without the slightest sign of sympathy for the victim. A few muttered that they had no time to say anything. Up to now over 200 comments have appeared commenting on this video, and practically all of them are highly critical of the whole Fidesz lot. One recurring accusation is that they were elected by the people and have an obligation to answer reporters’ questions. Another charge is that these Fidesz politicians refuse to answer because they haven’t yet received their orders from above. They simply don’t know what the “right answer” is. And finally, there are many who believe that Viktor Orbán and his minions are incapable of admitting that their decisions could be wrong. These people also predict that the law will not be changed.

How much does Fidesz’s anti-immigration policy stem from racist prejudices? The first reaction is that it has nothing to do with prejudice. Fidesz is not a racist party. Viktor Orbán is just using the anti-foreign card for political purposes. It is only Jobbik, the far-right neo-Nazi party, that owes its popularity to openly racist, anti-Roma and anti-Semitic ideology. But then what can we make of what happened today at a press conference given by László Pósán, a member of Fidesz since 1992 and a member of parliament from 1998?

Pósán is a historian who became an associate professor of history at the University of Debrecen after receiving his Ph.D. in 2000. He is a medievalist who specializes in the German principalities and has written a book on medieval Germany. This illustrious professor of history told journalists that to allow people of different cultural backgrounds to settle in Hungary would have very serious consequences. After all, what would parents think if their child, returning home from school, “was surrounded by six African blacks making threatening gestures?” Naturally, he fully supports Viktor Orbán’s ideas on immigration. If this isn’t racism, I don’t know what is.

For good measure he told a few horror stories about the Debrecen internment camp for political refugees. According to him, at one point there was a fight inside of the camp that was so serious that “600 policemen had to be called to the scene.” Well, being a historian myself, I  looked into the 2013 incident in the Debrecen camp. Apparently the camp was terribly overcrowded. Some of the inmates didn’t even have a bed to sleep on. They had to be satisfied with a mattress on the floor of the cafeteria. The fight broke out as a result of a football game between two different groups. As for the number of policeman, Index heard about 100-150, but they could not confirm the number. So much for Pósán’s 600 policemen.

The Debrecen refugee camp in June 2013

The Debrecen refugee camp in June 2013

On the other hand, while I was searching for details about the fight in the Debrecen camp, I found a 2009 article, also by Index, which perhaps tells us more about the real state of affairs than Pósán’s exaggerated story. It was about an Afghan refugee who jumped from a second-floor window, trying to commit suicide. He didn’t die but broke an arm and a leg and damaged his spine. He was to be sent back to Greece and, when the police arrived for him, he jumped. He was first caught in Greece, from where he escaped to Serbia. He was arrested in Serbia and spent 70 days in jail. It was at that point that he headed to Hungary, where he asked for refugee status. He was promised that after ten days he would be sent to Debrecen as a refugee waiting for approval or rejection of his case. Instead, on the thirteenth day after his arrival he was told that he would be sent back to Greece. Apparently, the treatment of refugees in Greece is much worse than in Hungary, and he certainly didn’t want to go back to Afghanistan where he feared for his life. He claimed that his father had already been murdered by the Taliban, and he was afraid that he would be next. His long journey from Afghanistan to Greece, Serbia, and Hungary indicates to me that he was most likely telling the truth. He was not a “megélhetési bevándorló” or, to use Miklós Haraszti’s English rendition, an “occupational immigrant.” A few hours after the suicide attempt 27 Afghan refugees began a hunger strike to protest against and try to escape the fate of deportation.

Anti-American voices after the reactions to Viktor Orbán’s speech

As promised, today I will write a few words about the worsening U.S.-Hungarian relations, not that they have been all that good over the last few years. Magyar Nemzet, the flagship of the Fidesz media empire, has been publishing one vitriolic editorial after the other. The same is true of Magyar Hírlap and the television stations HírTV and EchoTV. The attack is two-pronged. On the one hand, they accuse the United States of interference in the affairs of other countries and, on the other, they charge the U.S. with uncritical support of Israel all the while unjustly accusing Hungary of anti-Semitism.

Here I have selected three articles to give a sense of recent anti-American sentiment among the Hungarian right. Two of the authors work for Magyar Nemzet. They are Tamás Fricz, who is a regular contributor, and István Lovas, the paper’s correspondent in Brussels. The latter’s “Open Letter to the Chargé of the U.S. Embassy in Budapest” actually appeared on a far-right internet portal Flag Magazin. Both pieces were republished on nemzeti.netwhich aggregates articles from hundreds of far-right online publications. It is a treasure trove for those interested in the activities of the Hungarian far right. The third article appeared in Magyar Hírlap and is from Zsolt Bayer, about whom I wrote several times. His targets are liberals, the foreign press, Jews, and anyone who criticizes the Hungarian government–for example, Ulrike Lunacek, an MEP from Austria. In comparison to some of his other writings this particular piece is tame.

I haven’t said much about István Lovas in the past and I will not have time to do so today. I will say only that he is one of the most unsavory characters in the Hungarian right-wing media, and that is something. Although he has some Jewish ancestors, he is a vicious anti-Semite. His open letter to André Goodfriend was occasioned by the visit of  Ira Forman, who was  appointed by John Kerry to be U.S. Special Envoy of the Office to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism.

Forman gave an interview to MTI, the Hungarian news agency, on July 21 in which among other things he talked about the unfortunate situation that developed over the 70th anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust and the memorial the Orbán government insisted on erecting despite strong opposition from Jewish and non-Jewish groups. He stressed that this is not only his personal opinion but also that of the U.S. government. Forman talked about the growing anti-Semitism in Europe ever since the beginning of the 21st century, especially in countries with large Muslim populations. But, he added, in Hungary “there is another kind, the classical 19th and 20th century Nazi type of anti-Semitism.”  And since there is a fairly large Jewish presence in Hungary, his office follows the situation closely.

One can quibble about the accuracy of this statement. After all, we cannot talk about a Nazi type of anti-Semitism in the nineteenth century. Perhaps “political anti-Semitism” might have been a better choice of words. And one might argue that Forman’s description of the Hungarian situation is far too general. But we can definitely say that the Hungarian far right’s political views bear a suspicious resemblance to those of German national socialism. And that the far right is represented in the Hungarian parliament.

It was a few days after this interview that Lovas decided to attack André Goodfriend, who is currently heading the U.S. Embassy in Budapest.  He charged that the embassy is the only one “in the whole world” whose chief activity is “the struggle against anti-Semitism.” Instead of concentrating on Hungary, the U.S. government should worry about the “death of Palestinian infants, children, women, nurses, and doctors.” He described the situation in Gaza as a “massacre.” Then follows a very long list of anti-Semitic incidents in various European countries. At the end he returns to the person of the American diplomat. Without telling the reader what terrible sin André Goodfriend personally committed, he asks him what he is afraid of. “To tell the truth?” And obviously this truth is the reason “why all U.S. embassies must be barricaded and surrounded by guards.” As time goes by they will need more and more barricades and guards.

Tamás Fricz, to the shame of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, is a senior researcher at its Institute of Political Science. He also teaches political science at the University of Miskolc. Interestingly enough, he didn’t major in political science but received a degree in finance and accounting not at a university but at a three-year college. After graduation he enrolled at ELTE but, again, not as a student of political science but of philosophy (1985-1989). In the 1990s he received a doctorate, a title that no longer exists, from the University of Economics, today called Corvinus, but in what field it is hard to tell. That doctorate was then automatically morphed into a Ph.D.

He wrote his anti-American article after the condemnation of Viktor Orbán’s speech by The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Fricz opines that The New York Times‘s editorial pretty well reflects the views of the American government. How do they dare call on the European Union to reduce EU subsidies to Hungary or take away her voting rights? “We are amazed.” What would happen if the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung or Le Figaro demanded sanctions from the president against one of the states, he asks? Perhaps the United States should ask for membership in the European Union and pay the contributions member states of the EU have to pay.

Fricz continues his harangue against the United States by pointing to its military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. The United States’s fight against Taliban “terrorism” led nowhere. The same thing happened in Iraq where “they introduced democracy” and the only result is that there is now total chaos in the country. He explains that “free elections, human rights, rights of citizens in themselves are not enough for the establishment of real democracy. Cultural, historical, societal, religious preconditions must be present for the establishment of democracy and we must declare that these preconditions are stronger than the institutional prerequisites.” How true! What Fricz does not seem to recognize is that he just condemned his own country as one of those lands where these preconditions of democracy don’t exist. I doubt that he thought this through.

Fricz and Bayer

Zsolt Bayer’s piece is just as primitive as the others. Bayer is one of the 37 founders of Fidesz. At the time he was a student of Hungarian literature and history at ELTE. He likes to show off his vast knowledge of history, literature, and philosophy. He is a name dropper. In his “Open letter to the New York Times” he starts off with Nietzsche and finishes with Ortega y Gasset, to which he adds: “It was Ortega who wrote these lines. I don’t suppose you [the editors of The New York Times] understand them.”

The gist of the piece is how much better Hungarians are than Americans. Because they did not start wars “under false pretexts”; they did not ignore the verdicts of international organizations; they did not legalize torture; they did not hold prisoners in Guantanamo; they don’t spy on other people, including their allies; and finally the Hungarian head of state does not have the right “to liquidate people” without consulting with the judiciary as the American president has. I assume Bayer is referring here to a speech by Attorney General Eric Holder at Northwest University in 2012, I believe in connection with American militants like Anwar al-Awlaki.

The Ortega quotation is amusing because it has nothing to do with Orbán’s lecture on “illiberalism.” Ortega is considered to be a “liberal philosopher” and therefore it is hard to believe that he thought that “liberals … were old-fashioned people who marched under faded flags.” The quotation is most likely taken out of context because the portion Bayer quotes begins: “Why are they satisfied with the repetition of ready-made ideas?” Moreover, these old-fashioned people can be either liberals or reactionaries. So, clearly, Ortega is talking about non-thinking people in general.

This is how the open letter ends: “Your obese society is marching under the faded flag of liberalism. Without a thought, pitifully. But you must understand one thing: you have no right to interject yourselves into the affairs of other societies and their future. Is that clear?”

In case you think that one ought not to pay much attention to these lunatics, consider the opinion of a man who in his former life was a respected British scholar and who subsequently became the refined voice of Viktor Orbán in the European Parliament–George Schöpflin. This is what he had to say about the possible effects of the Orbán speech: “it might even be that a decade from now the Bǎile Tuşnad speech will be referred to as the audacious and courageous forerunner of necessary change. Of course, it could be that it will not be. But in that case, democracy will be in trouble.”

With friends like these, democracy needs no enemies.