Tag Archives: Attila Ara-Kovács

The Hungarian media and the Greek crisis

On January 27, a day after the victory of Alexis Tsipras’s Syriza party, Hungarian foreign minister Péter Szijjártó, who happened to be in Ankara, expressed his hope that “within the shortest possible time there will be effective and pragmatic cooperation” between Hungary and Greece because “there are many important international challenges which must be handled together.” Magyar Nemzet, then still the faithful mouthpiece of the Orbán government, immediately responded with a pro-Syriza editorial: “It was enough. This was the message the Greeks sent to their corrupt government.” The fact that Syriza was a “Trotskyist, Maoist, socialist and communist” party didn’t bother Magyar Nemzet because, according to Gábor Stier, the paper’s pro-Russian foreign policy editor, Syriza was no longer as radical as it used to be.

A few days later Anna Szabó, another editor, although she expressed her fear that the new government would not be able to solve Greece’s problems, kept fingers crossed for them. After all, Alix Tsipras is doing now what Viktor Orbán did in 2010. Both said “no” to austerity. As for the state of the two economies, Szabó discovered great similarities: the previous Greek governments were as corrupt as the Gyurcsány and Bajnai governments: both cheated and falsified data. Austerity, forced on Hungary after 2008 by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, if continued after 2014 would have led Hungary to bankruptcy just as the same policy led Greece to its current troubles.

The Hungarian government signaled a willingness to have close relations with Greece. At the end of March Szijjártó talked with one of the undersecretaries of the Greek foreign ministry about increased trade relations and discussed the possibility of getting EU financial assistance for a highway and railroad connecting Athens and Budapest.

The Hungarian liberal and socialist media was anything but enthusiastic about the Greek developments. Only a few “true believers,” like Gáspár Miklós Tamás (TGM), broke ranks. “We resolutely and enthusiastically support Syriza without paying attention to the transparent lies of the ridiculous Hungarian press,” he announced. TGM didn’t reveal who these “we” were. Given the strength of the Hungarian far left, he was maybe talking on behalf of a handful of people. And indeed. According to their website, on March 13, 2015 eleven people established the Balpárt (Left Party), which “considers the examples of the Greek Syriza, the German Die Linke, and the Portuguese Blocco its guiding principles.” The last article about Greece to appear on its website, on July 6, was titled: “Today Athens, Tomorrow Budapest!” The author of the article was the chairman of the party, Szilárd Kalmár, a social worker. The article was subsequently translated into English and published in the Hungarian Free Press (Ottawa).

In addition to this far-left group, there are a couple of economists who have been supportive of the Greek position. Foremost among them is Zoltán Pogátsa, a professor of economics at the University of Western Hungary. Pogátsa has his own website on which he has published several articles about the Greek situation. In his estimate the blame for the crisis clearly falls on the European Union and the other creditors, and he accuses the European Union of abandoning everyman in favor of bankers and capitalists. Interestingly enough, an editorial in the right-wing Válasz also shows great sympathy for the Greek position and practically takes over the arguments of one of Pogátsa’s articles on an English-language Greek site called SigmaLive. In this article Pogátsa explains why the “dear Slovaks, Lithuanians, Latvians, and Slovenes” must show solidarity with the Greek people although they might be a great deal poorer than the Greeks.

The other economist who takes a more sympathetic view of the Greek position is Péter Róna, an American-Hungarian economist and investment banker, who is politically close to the anti-capitalist, anti-globalist LMP. In his opinion, all the troubles Greece is experiencing today stem from the introduction of the euro. His argument is that the introduction of a common currency in countries or states with less developed economies necessarily lead to their further economic deterioration. Therefore, Róna, in an article published in Népszabadság today, thinks that Greece should leave the eurozone, the creditors should write off at least half of Greece’s debt, and for the rest there should be at least a ten-year moratorium. In addition, over the next three to five years Greece should receive about 60 billion euros. Róna seems to forget about Greek corruption, graft, and a general reluctance to pay taxes.

So, this is the sum total of pro-Syriza voices in Hungary. The rest, including socialist and liberal commentators, are less than sympathetic. In an editorial in yesterday’s Népszabadság the author compares the Greek situation today to the earlier troubles of Portugal, Spain, and Cyprus–countries which followed the advice of the international financial institutions and in short order saved their economies. But in Greece people refuse to face facts and admit their mistakes. The Greek government doesn’t dare tell the people that “for the current crisis not only the foreigners are responsible.” The Greek people must change their ways.

Péter Techet in HVG is even less polite. The title of his opinion piece is “Solidarity but not with the Greeks.” Techet complains about the European left, which wants to help Greece where the salaries are three times higher than in the former Soviet satellite countries, but which ignores the millions who live in poverty in the eastern periphery of the Union. Syriza’s far-left politics repel him, and he finds the government’s cooperation with the far-right as well as Syriza’s nationalism and “aggression against Macedonia” unacceptable. He, like Róna except for different reasons, thinks that Greece should leave the eurozone before it drags the whole Union into economic chaos.

The red flags at the Acropolis made a negative impression in Hungary

The red flags at the Acropolis made a negative impression in Hungary

Magyar Nemzet reported that Syriza’s followers attacked journalists who were, in their opinion, not supportive enough of the “No” answer. Some of these journalists talk about “a march toward Stalinism” in Greece under Syriza rule. In the same paper a long interview appeared with László Csaba, a professor of economics, who was also very critical of Greek politicians’ handling of the economy in the last decade or so. He pointed out that the black market economy in Greece amounts to a staggering 40% of the GDP. He places the blame largely on the Greek political leadership.

Attila Ara-Kovács in his recent editorial in Magyar Narancs called Syriza “unacceptable,” a sentiment most Hungarian commentators share. In Hungary, only a handful of far-left people representing practically nobody are taking the side of Alexis Tsipras and Syriza.

U.S.-Hungarian rapprochement? I doubt it

Ever since the arrival of Colleen Bell, the new U.S. ambassador to Hungary, and the departure of M. André Goodfriend from Budapest, hopes have been high in government circles that U.S.-Hungarian relations will be on the mend. The general impression is that the United States has realized that Viktor Orbán is here to stay and the Americans better make peace with him. Orbán himself is convinced of this, and therefore it is unlikely that he is planning to change his policy toward the United States. The new ambassador’s considerable charm only supports this interpretation. Lots of smiles, lots of appearances, lots of flattering remarks about the greatness of Hungarian culture and the beauty of the country.

Viktor Orbán figures that the United States, for lack of a better alternative, is forced to cooperate with him. Of course, he tries to sweeten the bitter pill by leaking information about alleged business offers for American companies, from Sikorsky helicopters to Westinghouse’s participation in the Paks project. The government even suggested that they would be willing to join anti-ISIS forces in Iraq and Syria. How serious that offer was is questionable. The government pulled back on it because of “the opposition parties’ objections.” But since when has Fidesz ever cared about the opinion of the opposition parties? Meanwhile, the courting of the new ambassador began, which Népszabadság described as a “charm offensive.”

Colleen Bell in Budapest

Colleen Bell in Budapest

In any case, the government is optimistic while domestic critics of the government are deeply worried. They believe the government’s propaganda about the greatly improved relations between the United States and Hungary, which they interpret as the American abandonment of Hungarian democracy. They are certain that Goodfriend’s departure was the first step toward U.S.-Hungarian rapprochement, which will be followed by, if not a a full-blown friendship, American tolerance of Orbán’s anti-democratic policies.

Hungarian comments on articles about U.S.-Hungarian relations accuse Washington of trading Hungarian democracy for business interests. They compare Colleen Bell to her predecessor, whom they considered a clueless woman who was charmed off her feet by the cunning Viktor Orbán. Orbán, who already met Bell at a private party, will meet her officially on the 17th. I’m sure that the U.S. ambassador will be gracious, and I predict the anti-Orbán forces will interpret her words as a sign that the United States is caving in to Viktor Orbán. As they usually say: “You see, he always wins. Western politicians are easily fooled. They are naive.”

Most likely I’m among the few who are much more cautious when passing judgment on the current state of affairs between Washington and Budapest. Clearly, it is to the advantage of the Hungarian government to give the impression that the only reason for the strained relations between the two countries was the way Goodfriend handled his job. But as Thomas Melia, deputy assistant secretary of state, reiterated when he visited Budapest a few days ago, Goodfriend was simply following the policies of the State Department, to everybody’s satisfaction. And although Bell may smile a lot more often than Goodfriend did, Bell herself, between friendly gestures, also delivers Washington’s message. She announced that she will follow Goodfriend’s practice of meeting a wide variety of people, including the opposition leaders. She made it clear that in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, Hungary’s place should be with the West and not Russia. She talked about the rule of law, independent democratic institutions, checks and balances, free elections, and an active civil society.

There are signs, as we learned from Gábor Horváth’s editorial in Népszabadág, that the Orbán government is retreating on several fronts. László Szabó, undersecretary of the ministry of foreign relations and trade, told Melia that Hungary wants to diversify its energy supply and stressed Hungary’s commitment to the territorial integrity of Ukraine. A few weeks ago another undersecretary of the ministry, István Mikola, categorically announced that Hungary will veto the transatlantic free trade agreement. But the Orbán government changed its mind and most likely will sign the agreement, in whatever form it is eventually passed.

The question is whether American officials can be convinced that the Hungarian promises are credible or whether they will be remain suspicious that the present moves are just part of the same old peacock dance. I think that by now very few American or European politicians believe that Viktor Orbán will change, and therefore I doubt that throwing a few bones to state department officials will convince the Obama administration to radically alter its attitude toward Viktor Orbán’s illiberal state.

Attila Ara-Kovács, DK’s foreign policy expert, wrote a few days ago that the Orbán regime is “a closed system” in which foreign policy is an integral part of the whole. In his opinion, no fundamental change in foreign policy orientation is possible because otherwise the whole system would collapse. I’m inclined to agree with Ara-Kovács and therefore find Zsolt Németh’s hopes for a drastic reorientation of foreign policy illusory. Zsolt Németh, one of the founders of Fidesz who served Viktor Orbán as undersecretary of foreign affairs between 1998 and 2002 and again between 2010 and 2014, as an insider is unable to see that the disagreement between Washington and Budapest is not the result of “a misunderstanding” that can be ironed out. No, the differences are fundamental, and Viktor Orbán will never follow Németh’s suggestions for the very reasons Ara-Kovács outlined in his opinion piece.

Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs, will visit Budapest at the end of March. She was described by one of the Hungarian internet sites as “Orbán’s American bogey.” We’ll see how successful one of the undersecretaries of the Hungarian ministry of foreign affairs and trade will be in convincing Nuland, who is known as a tough cookie.

As for the Hungarian government’s overwhelmingly positive assessment of Colleen Bell, just today I saw the first signs of disapproval from Zsolt Bayer, the notorious journalist working for Magyar Hírlap. Colleen Bell asked for suggestions from Hungarians about the best way to learn about Hungary and Hungarians. According to Bayer, there was an excellent opportunity to learn something about the country but Bell missed it. On February 25 Hungary remembers the “victims of communism,” and for that day the House of Terror invited her to take a look at the exhibit. She would have had the opportunity to receive a guided tour of “one of the best museums in Europe.” But the ambassador didn’t even respond to the invitation.

That was bad enough, but she committed an unforgivable sin. On the very day of the victims of communism, she paid a visit to the Holocaust Museum where, with the top leaders of the museum, “she discussed the timely questions and fields of possible cooperation” between the United States and the Holocaust Museum. “On that day the ambassador shouldn’t have gone there. There are thousands and thousands of reasons for that, but let’s not talk about them now.” Bayer expressed his hope that Bell will visit the House of Terror next year on that day “in order to learn something about an era about which she knows nothing.”

There’s plenty of time for history lessons. For now, Bell has enough on her plate representing American interests and not becoming a victim herself, of the charm offensive.

Two narratives of the impending Budapest visit of Angela Merkel

As Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to Budapest nears, there is conflicting speculation about the purpose of her visit. Merkel will spend five hours in Budapest, apparently on February 2. This short stint will include a meeting with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and a visit to Mazsihisz, the umbrella organization representing the Jewish religious community. Why is Merkel traveling to Hungary? According to critics, the trip is ill-advised because, with a visit to Budapest, she is implicitly endorsing the illiberal regime of Viktor Orbán. A few days ago one of the leading MSZP politicians announced that the party expects Merkel “to signal to Viktor Orbán in unambiguous terms that he has no place in the community of democratic European politicians.”

Others seem to be convinced that Merkel is going to Budapest to ensure that Viktor Orbán will vote together with the rest of the European prime ministers to extend the sanctions currently in force against Russia. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that the German chancellor made it clear that sanctions can be lifted only after the agreement reached in Minsk is fulfilled. And nothing of the sort has happened. In fact, just this morning Kiev announced that 700 Russian troops had crossed into Ukraine to aid the rebels fighting for control of the eastern provinces.

Attila Ara-Kovács, the foreign policy expert of Demokratikus Koalíció, is one of those who believe that the trip’s main purpose is to convince Viktor Orbán of the necessity of extending the sanctions. But he goes even further when he hypothesizes that Merkel has another message for Orbán in light of the recent demonstrations: he should end the political conflict at home. Somewhat similarly, Stratfor, an American geopolitical intelligence and advisory firm, is convinced that Merkel’s visit is part and parcel of a U.S. “diplomatic offensive” in the region and can be viewed as putting joint U.S.-German pressure on Viktor Orbán. The aim is to stop the spread of Russian influence in the region.

Is this the truth?

Is this the truth?

Or that?

Or this?

The other narrative of the impending Merkel visit comes straight from Fidesz. It is well summarized in the headline of an article by Zsolt Hazafi: “Is Merkel Orbán’s guardian angel?” It is true that the journalist turned the Fidesz message into a question, but the answer is “yes.” The story line goes as follows: Hungary and Germany are very close allies who synchronize all their diplomatic moves. More than that, Orbán’s Hungary is doing Germany’s bidding. Or at least this is what József Szájer, a Fidesz member of the European Parliament, intimated in his interview with Antónia Mészáros of ATV yesterday. As he put it: “Germany sent us ahead” to test the ground vis-à-vis Russia. Berlin, according to him, is just as much against sanctions as Budapest is, but Merkel is constrained, presumably by the United States. Therefore, she secretly welcomes Hungary’s position on the sanctions.

After talking with several high-level government officials, Hazafi gained the impression that in the last few years a Russian-German-Hungarian triangle came into being, a three-way relationship that includes an understanding about building a second reactor at the Paks nuclear power plant. Why would the German chancellor agree to the secret Russian-Hungarian deal on Paks? According to this narrative, Germany, where soon enough there will be no nuclear power plants, will be able to get inexpensive energy from Paks. Fidesz informants pointed out that a German firm was instrumental in making the Russian loan to Hungary possible. They added as proof of the understanding between Germany and Hungary on Paks that Günther Oettinger, former European commissioner for energy matters and a German, raised no objection to the Putin-Orbán deal. Members of the Hungarian government and leading Fidesz leaders consider both visits–Merkel’s and Putin’s–diplomatic triumphs. “Hungary is back on the map,” Orbán allegedly said.

Népszabadság also had its own Fidesz informants. They claim that Germany didn’t object to the Orbán-Putin meeting since Germany and Hungary work hand in hand when it comes to Russia. Some of the more embarrassing statements of Viktor Orbán are no more than trial balloons. One example is the question of sanctions. According to other Fidesz politicians, those who see a connection between the visits of Merkel and Putin “are not far from the truth.” Insiders also claim that the relationship between Merkel and Orbán is close. According to them, the two became closer after their hour-long meeting in Milan last year. Government officials, when claiming close German-Russian-Hungarian cooperation, usually bring up the fact that Klaus Mangold, former CEO of Daimler-Chrysler, was the middleman between Orbán and Putin throughout the negotiations. The informers seem to be pretty certain that “it is no longer in the interest of Germany to talk seriously about the lack of democracy in Hungary.” The author of the article (we don’t know who he/she is because there was no by-line) added that Merkel might have to resort to more serious criticism after “the prime minister’s crude anti-immigration theses” in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris.

So, here we have two irreconcilable narratives. I find the Fidesz version of close German-Hungarian relations hard to believe. There are just too many signs that contradict it. Unless, of course, we assume duplicity on the part of Angela Merkel. After all, time and again she expressed her misgivings about Russian aggression and her support of the sanctions, including additional ones if Russia refused to cooperate. Such a double game would make no sense, especially now that Russia is in serious economic and political trouble. Thus, my hunch is that the sudden talkativeness of Fidesz potentates is a concerted effort on the part of the Orbán regime to burnish the prime minister’s image, to point to his diplomatic importance and genius, and to portray him as one of the most important leaders in Europe.

I am inclined to believe that the main reason for the Merkel visit is indeed the question of the sanctions and Hungary’s overly chummy relations with Putin. I am also convinced that Merkel will talk about what Hungarians call “the democracy deficit,” which is something that is hard to ignore given the wide coverage of Orbán’s illiberal state and the latest demonstrations. In brief, I consider this latest tsunami of leaks by Fidesz politicians to be a part of a disinformation campaign.

Vladimir Putin’s impending visit to Budapest

Népszava, a social democratic paper, is generally well-informed about the “secrets” of the government. This time it surprised its readers with a front-page article announcing a planned visit by Vladimir Putin to Budapest sometime in March. Budapest, judiciously spurned by western political leaders of late, is becoming a hub of diplomatic activity. Angela Merkel is scheduled for a five-hour visit on February 2 and now the news about Putin.

The newspaper pointed out that this will not be Putin’s first visit to Budapest. He was the guest of Ferenc Gyurcsány in February 2006 when the Hungarian prime minister supported the idea of the Southern Stream to the great annoyance and disapproval of both the United States and Viktor Orbán. Orbán at that time considered such a policy to be the equivalent of treason. The paper also called attention to Viktor Orbán’s about-face when he paid a visit to Moscow in November 2010 and again in February 2013.

Actually Népszava missed an earlier indication that a change in Russo-Hungarian relations was in the works. In November 2009, prior to his becoming prime minister, during a visit to St. Petersburg as one of the vice presidents of the European People’s Party Orbán attended the eleventh congress of the ruling United Russia Party. During this visit he indicated to Putin that he wanted “to put Russian-Hungarian relations on an entirely new footing.” He had made up his mind to conduct a pro-Russian foreign policy once in power.

Viktor Orbán and Vladimir Putin in Moscow, January 2014 Source: Europess / Getty Images / Sasha Mordovets

Viktor Orbán and Vladimir Putin in Moscow, January 2014
Source: Europess / Getty Images / Sasha Mordovets

Perhaps the first person to comment on the news of the visit was László Kovács, former foreign minister, who happened to be a visitor on the early morning program “ATV Start.” He assumes that the initiative for the visit came from Moscow. Zoltán Sz. Bíró, a Russian expert, shares Kovács’s hypothesis. Putin must have been the one to suggest the visit in the hope of convincing Orbán to veto the extension of EU sanctions against Russia, which expire in March. In Biró’s opinion, a veto by Orbán not supported by any other EU country would poison the relationship between Hungary and the West for a very long time. Therefore he doubts that Orbán would dare to go that far.

Attila Ara-Kovács, head of the “foreign cabinet” of the Demokratikus Koalíció, told Klubrádió that he knew about the impending visit for about a week but, according to his information, Putin’s visit will take place not in March, as Népszava reported, but on February 9. In his reading, it was Orbán who invited Putin and not the other way around, perhaps to show the world that he is not alone in his battle with the United States and the European Union. If Orbán sensed that Angela Merkel intended to deliver “bad news” during her stay in Budapest, perhaps a looming visit from Putin might temper her disapproval. Ara-Kovács considers this latest move of Orbán a provocation that will only add fuel to the fire in the strained relationship between Hungary and the West.

What are the reactions of the opposition parties? As usual, MSZP is hibernating. Not a word from József Tóbiás, the party chairman, or from anyone else. Együtt somewhat naively demands that the government consult with all parliamentary parties “in preparing the meeting between Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and the Russian president.” Együtt can wait for such a consultation. Együtt joined LMP in its opposition to the construction of the Paks2 nuclear power plant. Both parties want the government, during the prime minister’s meeting with Putin, to break its contract for a 10-billion-euro Russian loan to have Rossatom build the plant. Well, that will not happen either but it is possible, as Zoltán Sz. Biró suspects, that Russia for financial reasons will give up the idea of the project. PM’s reaction was the most sensible: the party would like to see a huge demonstration against Putin’s visit organized by all the democratic opposition parties as well as by the civic groups that were responsible for the recent mass demonstrations.

László Szily, the blogger of Cink.hu, correctly pointed out that, if it is true that Putin is coming to Budapest, Viktor Orbán just did those who have been expressing their anger against his regime in the last few months a huge favor. The most recent demonstration showed signs of fatigue, but Putin in Budapest could resurrect the old enthusiasm of the crowds and just might unite the hitherto anti-party civic groups and the democratic parties into one large and potent group. Moreover, too cozy a Russian-Hungarian friendship might cause a rift within Fidesz itself. A lot of Fidesz voters are adamantly anti-Russian.  In Szily’s words, “The vacillating opposition on the streets can be grateful to the prime minister because kowtowing to Russia, parading with the dictator is the kind of event that could successfully bring together the dissatisfied left, right, and liberal public.”

One party was elated by the news: Jobbik. This afternoon Jobbik published an official statement, the theme of which was “Hungary must represent the interests of peace and neutrality.” Márton Gyöngyösi, the party’s foreign policy expert, said that Jobbik is a supporter of Viktor Orbán’s “eastern opening” and “considers Russia an economic, political and cultural partner of Hungary.” Budapest, because of the Hungarian minority in the Subcarpathian region of Ukraine, shouldn’t side with its western allies. Gyöngyösi went even further than the rather subdued official statement when he told Hiradó, the organ of state propaganda, that “it is unacceptable that the Hungarian government, blindly representing western interests, is ready to throw the Subcarpathian Hungarians as bones to the West.”

It is hard to know what the next couple of months will bring on the international scene. We have no idea what kind of message Angela Merkel will deliver to Budapest on February 2. We don’t know what foreign reactions to Putin’s visit will be. But domestically the Russian president’s visit might just be a potent catalyst for political change.

The sorry state of Hungarian foreign policy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The aftershocks of the Szentmihályi Szabó affair

The translation of  Péter Szentmihályi Szabó’s article on the “agents of Satan” three days ago on Hungarian Spectrum has reawakened international scrutiny into the real nature of Viktor Orbán’s regime. Immediately after the document’s publication letters started pouring into the Italian Foreign Ministry and the Italian embassy in Hungary asking the Italians not to accept Szentmihályi Szabó as Hungary’s envoy.

Yesterday morning the Jewish Telegraphic Agency published a short article in which they said:

Eva Balogh described Szentmihályi Szabó as a “raging” and “inveterate” anti-Semite. She quoted an article written by him in 2000 in the far-right Magyar Forum, called “The Agents of Satan,” which, though it doesn’t specifically use the term “Jew,” clearly describes Jews in classic anti-Semitic terms similar to those used in Nazi propaganda.

The Hungarian Jewish leadership did not immediately respond to the nomination. But a source close to the leadership of the main Jewish umbrella group Mazsihisz told JTA that the nomination was a “very unfriendly gesture from the government” during the year designated by the government as an official Holocaust Memorial Year.

Vox.com also noticed my post and quoted at some length from Szentmihályi Szabó’s infamous article, describing it as “pretty appalling stuff.” According to the journalist responsible for the article, this latest development is “especially troubling given that it happened in Hungary, where there has been a trend of anti-Semitism… [T]hough right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orbán condemns anti-Semitism, his government doesn’t have the best track record on it.”

And finally today the World Jewish Congress raised its voice in protest. Let me quote the text of the press release in full:

The head of the World Jewish Congress (WJC) on Thursday said that appointment of Hungarian far-right publicist Péter Szentmihályi Szabó as Hungary’s ambassador to Italy was “clearly an affront to Jews”. WJC President Ronald Lauder urged Italy to refuse the accreditation of Szentmihályi Szabó, who has penned anti-Semitic texts in the past.

“A man who suggests that Hungary’s Jews are ‘agents of Satan’, ‘greedy, envious, evil and ugly’ is not fit to represent his country abroad, and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán would be well-advised to withdraw this man as soon as possible and look for a person who is suitable for this job,” said Lauder.

“It is particularly sad and irritating that Hungary, which declared 2014 as Holocaust memorial year, is once again in the news with this sort of thing. How can an anti-Semite represent a government whose leader pledged a policy of zero tolerance toward anti-Semitism?” Lauder asked, referring to Orbán’s speech before the World Jewish Congress Plenary Assembly in Budapest in May 2013. He said decisions such as this would do further damage to Hungary’s reputation abroad and “not inspire confidence that the Orbán government means business when it says it will fight anti-Semitism.”

The WJC leader expressed hope that, given Italy’s history and strong commitment to fight racial hatred and anti-Semitism, the Italian government would not accept an outspoken extremist and Jew-hater as a member of the diplomatic corps in Rome.

The appointment by Budapest of the 69-year-old Szentmihályi Szabó comes after a recent decision by the Hungarian government to build a controversial World War II monument that obfuscates Hungary’s role in the deportation of Jews to the Nazi death camps in 1944.

Meanwhile Péter Szentmihályi Szabó acts as if nothing has happened. Or at least he pretends that all this “noise” doesn’t bother him a bit. Rather, he seems to be proud of his name being bandied about in the Hungarian and the foreign press. He shared his reactions in his regular column in the far-right Magyar Hírlap called “Sarkosan fogalmazva,” which is perhaps best rendered as “Not beating around the bush.”

Actually, Szentmihályi Szabó exaggerates somewhat. Only about three dozen articles appeared about him, mostly in the liberal press. None in Magyar Nemzet or Válasz. Naturally, Magyar Hírlap, his own paper, reported disapprovingly that “Gyurcsány and Co. are asking Europe’s help in the matter of Péter Szentmihályi Szabó” and republished DK’s protest released by the party’s press department. In addition, László Domonkos, a journalist who since 1990 has written a number of books for far-right publishing houses, expressed his absolute delight that “István Csurka’s comrade-in-arms” received the honor of being able to represent Hungary in Rome. The late István Csurka was a self-professed anti-Semite who established MIÉP (Magyar Igazság és Élet Pártja/Party of Hungarian Truth and Justice) in 1993. Domonkos, I might add, wrote a biography of Csurka (Kárpátia Studió, 2012). He is on the editorial board of Trianoni Szemle (Trianon Review) and a frequent contributor to Nagy Magyarország (Greater Hungary).

Publication of the Committee on European Affairs responsible for the nomination of  Péter Szentmihályi Szabó

Publication of the Committee on European Affairs which was responsible for the nomination of Péter Szentmihályi Szabó

And finally, let me talk about an article written by Attila Ara-Kovács, a journalist and former diplomat, in Magyar Narancs where he has a regular column, “Diplomáciai jegyzet” (Diplomatic Notes). His latest piece is on Szentmihályi Szabó’s appointment. Its title is “To Rome with Love,” a reference to the Woody Allen movie of the same name.

Ara-Kovács, who is very well informed, suspects that there are serious differences of opinion over the direction of Hungarian foreign policy within Fidesz circles. The more conservative members have been worried about the worsening relationship between the Orbán government and the West. The first sign of discontent appeared in 2012 when it became clear that Orbán was taking Hungary in a direction that these conservative supporters or diplomats found injurious to the interests of the country. Turning to the East was bad enough, but when this new orientation culminated in the Putin-Orbán summit and the subsequent loan agreement, this was too much for these people who not surprisingly harbor anti-Russian sentiments from the days of the Kádár regime and are suspicious of Putin’s intentions. Then came what Ara-Kovács calls “the massacre” in the Foreign Ministry when about 200 people arrived from Tibor Navracsics’s Ministry of Administration and Justice and Péter Szijjártó’s Office of the Prime Minister. Naturally, a lot of old hands were fired to make place for the newcomers.

And now we come to the question of the source of the leak about the nomination of Péter Szentmihályi Szabó. Parliament is not in session, but the chairman of the Committee on European Affairs called the members together for an extraordinary session to discuss this particular nomination. The chairman of the committee is Richárd Hörcsik, who has been a member of parliament ever since 1990 when he belonged to the right-of-center Magyar Demokrata Fórum (MDF). Neither the Demokratikus Koalíció nor Együtt-PM is represented on this committee. There is one Jobbik member and two MSZP members. It turned out that both MSZP members, István Józsa ad Bertalan Tóth, were absent. Thus, the news that spread like wildfire about the committee giving its blessing to Péter Szentmihályi Szabó’s nomination must have come either from Jobbik or more likely from one of the Fidesz members of the committee. It looks as if this nomination was too much for somebody who seems to be worried about the foreign policy direction of the third Orbán government.

The Great March of the Szeklers

In today’s post I’m relying heavily on an excellent article by Attila Ara-Kovács on the background of the Szeklers’ demand for territorial autonomy in Romania. The Szeklers (in Hungarian székelyek) live primarily in the hills and valleys of the Eastern Carpathian mountains in three neighboring counties: Harghita (Hargita), Covasna (Kovászna), and in parts of Mureş (Maros). Although the exact circumstances of their settling and their precise ethnic origin are controversial, we know that today’s inhabitants of these three counties have been living there from time immemorial. According to the Hungarian Etymological Dictionary, the written word “székely” dates to at least 1092.

But back to the present. According to the latest census 612.043 Hungarians who call themselves Szeklers live in these three counties, which are perhaps the least developed and poorest regions in Transylvania. Their growing demand for autonomy was prompted by Romanian efforts to rethink the country’s administrative borders. The European Union urged member countries to create regions that would take into consideration a healthy economic mix. Such plans were also underway at one point in Hungary, but they died a slow death, mostly at the hands of the officials of the traditional county administration. Fidesz was also not about to give up the one-thousand-year-old tradition of the county system. After all, it was Saint Stephen who set it up.

In Romania the debate began already in the early 1990s, but it was only in 1998 that a final decision was reached. Romanian officials introduced an administrative set-up consisting of 6 regions whose borders were drawn in such a way that the counties where the Szeklers are in the majority were attached to a larger unit made up of Alba (Fehér), Sibiu (Szeben), and Braşov counties. In this mix, the Szeklers were in the minority, just over 20% of the population. This arrangement was not only unfavorable to the Hungarian minority but also made no sense economically.

Eventually the Romanian government came up with a new arrangement which they are planning to introduce soon. The three Szekler counties will be attached to Braşov county, the second most developed and industrialized part of Romania after the Bucharest region. In this new region the Hungarians will make up 43.85% of the population, a considerable improvement over their present situation. As Ara-Kovács points out, one could carve out a unit consisting only of the three Szekler counties so that the Hungarians would have an absolute majority, but such an arrangement would leave these three counties without any outside, sorely needed financial resources.

The recent demonstrations are in part directed against this plan of forming a larger economic and administrative unit from Braşov, Covasna, Harghita, and Mureş counties. In addition, the Szekler National Council, the chief organization behind the demonstrations, has been demanding territorial autonomy quite independently of the controversial administrative remapping of the region. Let me stress that the present Romanian government is dead set against giving territorial autonomy to the Hungarians. The Romanian constitution specifically states that Romania is a unitary state, one and indivisible. No Romanian government in the foreseeable future will sit down with any group to discuss plans for territorial autonomy. The Romanian government claims with some justification that in the last fourteen years the Hungarians in Romania have had wide cultural autonomy, not only in the territory inhabited by the Szeklers but everywhere a certain percentage of the population consists of Hungarians. Hungarians in Romania have their own schools, they can use their own language, and on the whole their situation is better than at any other time in the last eighty years. Therefore, launching a worldwide propaganda campaign for territorial autonomy is ill-timed and most likely counterproductive.

Then there is the problem with the so-called Szekler National Council itself. It is enough to look at the organization’s website to see that the leadership has very strong ties with Jobbik. For example, on October 25, it was triumphantly announced that “Jobbik joins the Great March of the Szeklers.”

The Great March of the Szeklers

Yesterday I talked about the sympathy march that was organized by CÖF, the so-called civic organization that is in fact financed by the Hungarian government. But the really big event was a 55 km march between Ozun (Uzon) and Chichiș (Kökös) in Covasna county. It was called the Great March of the Szeklers. The organizers were expecting at least 100,000 marchers, some of them wearing the customary local folk costumes. Although we don’t have reliable numbers, by all accounts the crowd was enormous. Naturally there was also a Calvinist church service which was recorded by Duna TV, a state television station providing news for Hungarians in the neighboring countries. The Great March was broadcast by MTV, the public television station.

So the march drew thousands of Szeklers and got extensive media coverage. The problem is, however, as Ara-Kovács points out, that the organizers don’t have clear ideas about what kind of autonomy they really want. “The only thing that is clear is that they want to live their lives without the Romanians.” And surely this is neither desirable nor possible.

The Szekler National Council is actually the creation of Fidesz. It is being financed by the Hungarian government. Even the Great March was financed by Budapest. The Szekler National Council, in addition to its goal of territorial autonomy, has its own political agenda. It wants to dominate Hungarian politics in Romania, taking the reins away from RMDSZ (Romániai Magyar Szövetség or in Romanian Uniunea Democrată Maghiară din România), the leading Hungarian party in Romania that has often participated in Romanian government coalitions. As opposed to RMDSZ, which promotes peaceful and cooperative coexistence between Romanians and Hungarians, the Szekler National Council is a radical nationalist party.

Meanwhile in Budapest a sizable crowd, organized by so-called civic organizations and Fidesz, had their not so great march from Heroes’ Square to the Romanian Embassy on Thököly út where the right-radical and anti-semitic Zsolt Bayer, one of the founders of Fidesz, was among the speakers. Some of the demonstrators sent a message to the Romanians inside of the embassy: “The land of the Szeklers doesn’t belong to Romania!” Well, it does and it will.