Tag Archives: Barack Obama

Two letters of Central European leaders to Washington: 2009 and 2017

Yesterday Josh Rogin of The Washington Post reported that 17 current and former officials of several East and Central European countries had written a letter to President-Elect Donald Trump with the following message: ”As your treaty-bound allies, we appeal to Americans in the new U.S. Administration and Congress to stand firm in the defense of our common goals and interests: peace, Atlantic strength, and freedom.”

This is not the first such letter sent to the White House by well-known politicians from the region, which has had less than pleasant experiences with Russian territorial ambitions. During the Obama administration, after the announcement of a “reset” of U.S. relations with Russia, a group of politicians sent a letter to the president warning him of the dangers of American neglect of the region and the possibility of “wrong concessions to Russia.” Among the signatories to both letters was Mátyás Eörsi, who was kind enough to call my attention to them.

The Washington Post article quotes Peter Doran, executive vice president of the Center for European Policy Analysis, who claims that the politicians in 2009 were right and “now with the prospect of a new grand bargain with Russia, Central Europeans are warning the new American president not to make the same mistakes of his predecessors.”

You will notice that in 2009 it took about four months for the Central European leaders to realize the dangers of a new policy toward Russia. This time around, Trump hasn’t even been sworn in and these politicians, diplomats, and national security experts are already alarmed. I’m afraid their worries are justified.

♦ ♦ ♦


Letter to President-elect Donald J. Trump
from America’s Allies

January 9, 2017

President-elect Donald J. Trump
Trump-Pence Transition Team
1717 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20006

Dear President-elect Trump:

We—decision-makers and public figures from across Europe—welcome your election as America’s 45th president. We are eager to work with your administration to sustain our powerful transatlantic Alliance, jointly defending our way of life at a time of great peril.

Russia’s continuing efforts to destabilize Ukraine, and its illegal annexation of Crimea, threaten the peace, predictability and security that Americans and Europeans created together through our victory in the Cold War. We are concerned that the prospect of a new grand bargain with Russia will endanger this historic achievement.

It would be a grave mistake to end the current sanctions on Russia or accept the division and subjugation of Ukraine. Doing so would demoralize those seeking a Euro-Atlantic orientation for that country. It would also destabilize our Eastern neighborhood economically and give heart to extremist, oligarchic and anti-Western elements there.

The wider damage would be grave too. The aftershocks of such a deal would shake American credibility with allies in Europe and elsewhere. The rules-based international order on which Western security has depended for decades would be weakened. The alliances that are the true source of American greatness would erode: countries that have expended blood, treasure and political capital in support of transatlantic security will wonder if America is now no longer a dependable friend.

Have no doubt: Vladimir Putin is not America’s ally. Neither is he a trustworthy international partner. Both of the presidents who preceded you tried in their own ways to deal with Russia’s leadership in the spirit of trust and friendship. Big mistake: Putin treated their good intentions as opportunities.

Under Putin, Russia’s record of militarism, wars, threats, broken treaties and false promises have made Europe a more dangerous place. Putin does not seek American greatness. As your allies, we  do.  When  America  called  on  us  in the past, we came. We were with you in Iraq. We were with you in Afghanistan. We took risks together; sacrificed sons and daughters together. We defend our shared transatlantic security as a united front. This is what makes our Alliance powerful. When the United States stands strong, we are all stronger—together.

A deal with Putin will not bring peace. On the contrary, it makes war more likely. Putin views concessions as a sign of weakness. He will be inclined to test American credibility in frontline NATO allies, such as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. He may use not only military intimidation, but also cyber-attacks, energy and economic pressure, espionage, psychological warfare, disinformation and the targeted use of bribery. As Russia’s neighbors, we are familiar with these techniques. Countering them requires greater strength, solidarity and resolve from the West—not more accommodation.

As your treaty-bound allies, we appeal to Americans in the new U.S. Administration and Congress to stand firm in the defense of our common goals and interests: peace,  Atlantic strength, and freedom. United, we are more than a match for Russia’s ailing kleptocracy. Divided, as we have seen all too clearly in recent years, we are all at risk. For decades, our unified Alliance has been the bulwark of European security. We appeal to our American friends to strengthen, not weaken our transatlantic ties. Ukraine needs support; the frontline states need your constancy and resolve. And most of all, Russia must see that when we are attacked, we grow stronger, not weaker.

Sincerely,

Traian Băsescu, Carl Bildt, Mikuláš Dzurinda, Mátyás Eörsi, Iulian Fota, István Gyarmati, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, Rasa Juknevičienė, Ojārs Ēriks Kalniņš, Paweł Kowal, Janusz Onyszkiewicz, Rosen Plevneliev, Karel Schwarzenberg, Radosław Sikorski, Petras Vaitiekūnas, Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, Alexandr Vondra


An Open Letter to the Obama Administration

from Central and Eastern Europe

July 16, 2009

The following open letter to the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama appeared in the Polish newspaper “Gazeta Wyborcza” on July 16:

We have written this letter because, as Central and Eastern European (CEE) intellectuals and former policymakers, we care deeply about the future of the transatlantic relationship as well as the future quality of relations between the United States and the countries of our region. We write in our personal capacity as individuals who are friends and allies of the United States as well as committed Europeans.

Our nations are deeply indebted to the United States. Many of us know firsthand how important your support for our freedom and independence was during the dark Cold War years. U.S. engagement and support was essential for the success of our democratic transitions after the Iron Curtain fell twenty years ago. Without Washington’s vision and leadership, it is doubtful that we would be in NATO and even the EU today.

We have worked to reciprocate and make this relationship a two-way street. We are Atlanticist voices within NATO and the EU. Our nations have been engaged alongside the United States in the Balkans, Iraq, and today in Afghanistan. While our contribution may at times seem modest compared to your own, it is significant when measured as a percentage of our population and GDP. Having benefited from your support for liberal democracy and liberal values in the past, we have been among your strongest supporters when it comes to promoting democracy and human rights around the world.

Twenty years after the end of the Cold War, however, we see that Central and Eastern European countries are no longer at the heart of American foreign policy. As the new Obama Administration sets its foreign-policy priorities, our region is one part of the world that Americans have largely stopped worrying about. Indeed, at times we have the impression that U.S. policy was so successful that many American officials have now concluded that our region is fixed once and for all and that they could “check the box” and move on to other more pressing strategic issues. Relations have been so close that many on both sides assume that the region’s transatlantic orientation, as well as its stability and prosperity, would last forever.

That view is premature. All is not well either in our region or in the transatlantic relationship. Central and Eastern Europe is at a political crossroads and today there is a growing sense of nervousness in the region. The global economic crisis is impacting on our region and, as elsewhere, runs the risk that our societies will look inward and be less engaged with the outside world. At the same time, storm clouds are starting to gather on the foreign policy horizon. Like you, we await the results of the EU Commission’s investigation on the origins of the Russo-Georgian war. But the political impact of that war on the region has already been felt. Many countries were deeply disturbed to see the Atlantic alliance stand by as Russia violated the core principles of the Helsinki Final Act, the Charter of Paris, and the territorial integrity of a country that was a member of NATO’s Partnership for Peace and the Euroatlantic Partnership Council -all in the name of defending a sphere of influence on its borders.

Despite the efforts and significant contribution of the new members, NATO today seems weaker than when we joined. In many of our countries it is perceived as less and less relevant – and we feel it. Although we are full members, people question whether NATO would be willing and able to come to our defense in some future crises. Europe’s dependence on Russian energy also creates concern about the cohesion of the Alliance. President Obama’s remark at the recent NATO summit on the need to provide credible defense plans for all Alliance members was welcome, but not sufficient to allay fears about the Alliance´s defense readiness. Our ability to continue to sustain public support at home for our contributions to Alliance missions abroad also depends on us being able to show that our own security concerns are being addressed in NATO and close cooperation with the United States

We must also recognize that America’s popularity and influence have fallen in many of our countries as well. Public opinions polls, including the German Marshall Fund’s own Transatlantic Trends survey, show that our region has not been immune to the wave of criticism and anti-Americanism that has swept Europe in recent years and which led to a collapse in sympathy and support for the United States during the Bush years. Some leaders in the region have paid a political price for their support of the unpopular war in Iraq. In the future they may be more careful in taking political risks to support the United States. We believe that the onset of a new Administration has created a new opening to reverse this trend but it will take time and work on both sides to make up for what we have lost.

In many ways the EU has become the major factor and institution in our lives. To many people it seems more relevant and important today than the link to the United States. To some degree it is a logical outcome of the integration of Central and Eastern Europe into the EU. Our leaders and officials spend much more time in EU meetings than in consultations with Washington, where they often struggle to attract attention or make our voices heard. The region’s deeper integration in the EU is of course welcome and should not necessarily lead to a weakening of the transatlantic relationship. The hope was that integration of Central and Eastern Europe into the EU would actually strengthen the strategic cooperation between Europe and America.

However, there is a danger that instead of being a pro-Atlantic voice in the EU, support for a more global partnership with Washington in the region might wane over time. The region does not have the tradition of assuming a more global role. Some items on the transatlantic agenda, such as climate change, do not resonate in the Central and Eastern European publics to the same extent as they do in Western Europe.

Leadership change is also coming in Central and Eastern Europe. Next to those, there are fewer and fewer leaders who emerged from the revolutions of 1989 who experienced Washington’s key role in securing our democratic transition and anchoring our countries in NATO and EU. A new generation of leaders is emerging who do not have these memories and follow a more “realistic” policy. At the same time, the former Communist elites, whose insistence on political and economic power significantly contributed to the crises in many CEE countries, gradually disappear from the political scene. The current political and economic turmoil and the fallout from the global economic crisis provide additional opportunities for the forces of nationalism, extremism, populism, and anti-Semitism across the continent but also in some our countries.

This means that the United States is likely to lose many of its traditional interlocutors in the region. The new elites replacing them may not share the idealism – or have the same relationship to the United States – as the generation who led the democratic transition. They may be more calculating in their support of the United States as well as more parochial in their world view. And in Washington a similar transition is taking place as many of the leaders and personalities we have worked with and relied on are also leaving politics.

And then there is the issue of how to deal with Russia. Our hopes that relations with Russia would improve and that Moscow would finally fully accept our complete sovereignty and independence after joining NATO and the EU have not been fulfilled. Instead, Russia is back as a revisionist power pursuing a 19th-century agenda with 21st-century tactics and methods. At a global level, Russia has become, on most issues, a status-quo power. But at a regional level and vis-a-vis our nations, it increasingly acts as a revisionist one. It challenges our claims to our own historical experiences. It asserts a privileged position in determining our security choices. It uses overt and covert means of economic warfare, ranging from energy blockades and politically motivated investments to bribery and media manipulation in order to advance its interests and to challenge the transatlantic orientation of Central and Eastern Europe.

We welcome the “reset” of the American-Russian relations. As the countries living closest to Russia, obviously nobody has a greater interest in the development of the democracy in Russia and better relations between Moscow and the West than we do. But there is also nervousness in our capitals. We want to ensure that too narrow an understanding of Western interests does not lead to the wrong concessions to Russia. Today the concern is, for example, that the United States and the major European powers might embrace the Medvedev plan for a “Concert of Powers” to replace the continent’s existing, value-based security structure. The danger is that Russia’s creeping intimidation and influence-peddling in the region could over time lead to a de facto neutralization of the region. There are differing views within the region when it comes to Moscow’s new policies. But there is a shared view that the full engagement of the United States is needed.

Many in the region are looking with hope to the Obama Administration to restore the Atlantic relationship as a moral compass for their domestic as well as foreign policies. A strong commitment to common liberal democratic values is essential to our countries. We know from our own historical experience the difference between when the United States stood up for its liberal democratic values and when it did not. Our region suffered when the United States succumbed to “realism” at Yalta. And it benefited when the United States used its power to fight for principle. That was critical during the Cold War and in opening the doors of NATO. Had a “realist” view prevailed in the early 1990s, we would not be in NATO today and the idea of a Europe whole, free, and at peace would be a distant dream.

We understand the heavy demands on your Administration and on U.S. foreign policy. It is not our intent to add to the list of problems you face. Rather, we want to help by being strong Atlanticist allies in a U.S.-European partnership that is a powerful force for good around the world. But we are not certain where our region will be in five or ten years time given the domestic and foreign policy uncertainties we face. We need to take the right steps now to ensure the strong relationship between the United States and Central and Eastern Europe over the past twenty years will endure.

We believe this is a time both the United States and Europe need to reinvest in the transatlantic relationship. We also believe this is a time when the United States and Central and Eastern Europe must reconnect around a new and forward-looking agenda. While recognizing what has been achieved in the twenty years since the fall of the Iron Curtain, it is time to set a new agenda for close cooperation for the next twenty years across the Atlantic.

Therefore, we propose the following steps:

First, we are convinced that America needs Europe and that Europe needs the United States as much today as in the past. The United States should reaffirm its vocation as a European power and make clear that it plans to stay fully engaged on the continent even while it faces the pressing challenges in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the wider Middle East, and Asia. For our part we must work at home in our own countries and in Europe more generally to convince our leaders and societies to adopt a more global perspective and be prepared to shoulder more responsibility in partnership with the United States.

Second, we need a renaissance of NATO as the most important security link between the United States and Europe. It is the only credible hard power security guarantee we have. NATO must reconfirm its core function of collective defense even while we adapt to the new threats of the 21st century. A key factor in our ability to participate in NATO’s expeditionary missions overseas is the belief that we are secure at home. We must therefore correct some self-inflicted wounds from the past. It was a mistake not to commence with proper Article 5 defense planning for new members after NATO was enlarged. NATO needs to make the Alliance’s commitments credible and provide strategic reassurance to all members. This should include contingency planning, prepositioning of forces, equipment, and supplies for reinforcement in our region in case of crisis as originally envisioned in the NATO-Russia Founding Act.

We should also re-think the working of the NATO-Russia Council and return to the practice where NATO member countries enter into dialogue with Moscow with a coordinated position. When it comes to Russia, our experience has been that a more determined and principled policy toward Moscow will not only strengthen the West’s security but will ultimately lead Moscow to follow a more cooperative policy as well. Furthermore, the more secure we feel inside NATO, the easier it will also be for our countries to reach out to engage Moscow on issues of common interest. That is the dual track approach we need and which should be reflected in the new NATO strategic concept.

Third, the thorniest issue may well be America’s planned missile-defense installations. Here too, there are different views in the region, including among our publics which are divided. Regardless of the military merits of this scheme and what Washington eventually decides to do, the issue has nevertheless also become — at least in some countries — a symbol of America’s credibility and commitment to the region. How it is handled could have a significant impact on their future transatlantic orientation. The small number of missiles involved cannot be a threat to Russia’s strategic capabilities, and the Kremlin knows this. We should decide the future of the program as allies and based on the strategic plusses and minuses of the different technical and political configurations. The Alliance should not allow the issue to be determined by unfounded Russian opposition. Abandoning the program entirely or involving Russia too deeply in it without consulting Poland or the Czech Republic can undermine the credibility of the United States across the whole region.

Fourth, we know that NATO alone is not enough. We also want and need more Europe and a better and more strategic U.S.-EU relationship as well. Increasingly our foreign policies are carried out through the European Union – and we support that. We also want a common European foreign and defense policy that is open to close cooperation with the United States. We are the advocates of such a line in the EU. But we need the United States to rethink its attitude toward the EU and engage it much more seriously as a strategic partner. We need to bring NATO and the EU closer together and make them work in tandem. We need common NATO and EU strategies not only toward Russia but on a range of other new strategic challenges.

Fifth is energy security. The threat to energy supplies can exert an immediate influence on our nations’ political sovereignty also as allies contributing to common decisions in NATO. That is why it must also become a transatlantic priority. Although most of the responsibility for energy security lies within the realm of the EU, the United States also has a role to play. Absent American support, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline would never have been built. Energy security must become an integral part of U.S.-European strategic cooperation. Central and Eastern European countries should lobby harder (and with more unity) inside Europe for diversification of the energy mix, suppliers, and transit routes, as well as for tough legal scrutiny of Russia’s abuse of its monopoly and cartel-like power inside the EU. But American political support on this will play a crucial role. Similarly, the United States can play an important role in solidifying further its support for the Nabucco pipeline, particularly in using its security relationship with the main transit country, Turkey, as well as the North-South interconnector of Central Europe and LNG terminals in our region.

Sixth, we must not neglect the human factor. Our next generations need to get to know each other, too. We have to cherish and protect the multitude of educational, professional, and other networks and friendships that underpin our friendship and alliance. The U.S. visa regime remains an obstacle in this regard. It is absurd that Poland and Romania — arguably the two biggest and most pro-American states in the CEE region, which are making substantial contributions in Iraq and Afghanistan — have not yet been brought into the visa waiver program. It is incomprehensible that a critic like the French anti-globalization activist Jose Bove does not require a visa for the United States but former Solidarity activist and Nobel Peace prizewinner Lech Walesa does. This issue will be resolved only if it is made a political priority by the President of the United States.

The steps we made together since 1989 are not minor in history. The common successes are the proper foundation for the transatlantic renaissance we need today. This is why we believe that we should also consider the creation of a Legacy Fellowship for young leaders. Twenty years have passed since the revolutions of 1989. That is a whole generation. We need a new generation to renew the transatlantic partnership. A new program should be launched to identify those young leaders on both sides of the Atlantic who can carry forward the transatlantic project we have spent the last two decades building in Central and Eastern Europe.

In conclusion, the onset of a new Administration in the United States has raised great hopes in our countries for a transatlantic renewal. It is an opportunity we dare not miss. We, the authors of this letter, know firsthand how important the relationship with the United States has been. In the 1990s, a large part of getting Europe right was about getting Central and Eastern Europe right. The engagement of the United States was critical to locking in peace and stability from the Baltics to the Black Sea. Today the goal must be to keep Central and Eastern Europe right as a stable, activist, and Atlanticist part of our broader community.

That is the key to our success in bringing about the renaissance in the Alliance the Obama Administration has committed itself to work for and which we support. That will require both sides recommitting to and investing in this relationship. But if we do it right, the pay off down the road can be very real. By taking the right steps now, we can put it on new and solid footing for the future.

[Signed] by Valdas Adamkus, Martin Butora, Emil Constantinescu, Pavol Demes, Lubos Dobrovsky, Matyas Eorsi, Istvan Gyarmati, Vaclav Havel, Rastislav Kacer, Sandra Kalniete, Karel Schwarzenberg, Michal Kovac, Ivan Krastev, Alexander Kwasniewski, Mart Laar, Kadri Liik, Janos Martonyi. Janusz Onyszkiewicz, Adam Rotfeld, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, Alexandr Vondra, Lech Walesa.

January 11, 2017

Hungarians on foreign affairs and the U.S. election

I’m very pleased with Vasárnapi Hírek’s decision to commission Publicus Research Institute to conduct public opinion polls. Its latest, which was published today, deals with Hungarians’ views on foreign policy in general and the European Union, the United States, and Russia in particular. In addition, Publicus asked people their perceptions of specific world leaders. And, since the poll was conducted just after the U.S. presidential election, they were asked about their reactions to the outcome.

I guess I don’t have to dwell on the Orbán government’s systematic hate campaign against the present U.S. administration and Viktor Orbán’s clear preference for Donald Trump as the future president of the United States. Moreover, Orbán’s incessant verbal warfare with the European Union is legendary by now. Yet, as we will see, all this propaganda hasn’t really paid off. By and large, the majority of Hungarians are still western-oriented and consider themselves friends of the United States. It seems that the engaging personality and reassuring presence of Barack Obama touched the Hungarian public. He is now the most popular and most trusted foreign politician in the country. And Orbán’s battles with the European Union haven’t made much of an impact on Hungarian public opinion either. Few people think that Hungary should be on its own, with independent foreign policy objectives.

Let’s look first at how much trust Hungarians have in foreign leaders: Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel, Donald Trump, and as the odd “man” out, the European Union. Among foreign leaders, Barack Obama is the clear winner: 55% of adult Hungarians surveyed have trust in him, 24% don’t. Putin runs way behind with 34% fans and 47% skeptics. Angela Merkel is truly unpopular in Hungary (21%), which is undoubtedly due to her policies on migration.

Of course, there is a marked disparity between right-wing and left-wing voters when it comes to their perceptions of foreign leaders. Far more left-wingers place their trust in Obama and Merkel than the average (65% and 47%) while Fidesz-Jobbik voters prefer Putin (50%) over Barack Obama (28%). The same is true when it comes to the assessment of Trump. His overall support is only 21%, but 36% of right-wingers welcomed his election.

Source: NBC news

Source: NBC news

I left the European Union to last. Hungarian public opinion is evenly split (46% for and 44% against) when it comes to passing judgment on its trustworthiness. Yet, when respondents had to pick only one “great power” to which Hungary should adjust its foreign policy, the European Union was the clear winner (53%). There is a small minority that would like to strengthen transatlantic ties and designated the United States as the country with which Hungary should have the closest relations (11%). Russophiles are an equally small minority: 11% would like to have Hungary committed to a pro-Russian foreign policy.

A small minority (14%) still clings to a separate “Hungarian road,” which I interpret as an independent foreign policy, which can be done only if Hungary is ready to abandon the European Union. But if that is the case, I don’t quite know what to make of a graph showing that 54% of the respondents don’t see any danger with a “Hungarian foreign policy (Hungarian road).” Clearly, a “go it alone” policy would be extraordinarily dangerous to the security and independence of Hungary. It is, of course, possible that the respondents misunderstood the question and simply thought that Orbán’s “fighting for national interests in Brussels” is what “Hungarian foreign policy” means.

Otherwise, Hungarians feel extremely secure. They don’t think that the far-away United States has a threatening presence in Hungary (70%), they don’t worry about the European Union’s encroachment (67%), and they don’t think that the Russian expansionist moves and threat to the Baltic states have anything to do with Hungary (58%).

The rest of the poll was devoted to the U.S. presidential election. First of all, almost 30% of the respondents knew so little about American politics that they couldn’t express an opinion on whom they thought would be better for Hungary, Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. Those who had an opinion were evenly split: about 30% for Clinton, 30% for Trump. Of course, given Viktor Orbán’s clear preference for Trump, the majority of Fidesz voters (53%) considered Trump’s election a bonanza for Hungary and only 18% thought that a Clinton presidency would have been better for the country. Interestingly enough, Jobbik voters’ view of the U.S. election was more “liberal,” if I may use this word. A third of the Jobbik voters sampled, that is about twice the percentage of Fidesz voters, considered Clinton a better choice for Hungary; only 24% thought that Trump would be better. From the point of view of Clinton versus Trump as far as U.S.-Hungarian relations are concerned, left-wingers considered Clinton (68%) a far better choice than Trump (7%).

Finally, Publicus wanted to know the mood of Hungarians after the election. Given Hungarians’ insularity, 23% of the sample was simply “not interested” in the election and 17% had no clue what is going on in the United States. Of the remaining 60%, 24% are “rather happy” over Donald Trump’s victory and 36% are “rather unhappy” with the result. It seems that their reactions didn’t depend solely on whom they thought would be better for Hungary.

Finally, a footnote to Orbán’s high hopes for greatly improved relations between the United States and Hungary. The Hungarian media learned from the Polish press that Polish President Andrzej Duda and Donald Trump had a conversation on Wednesday night and “the presidents also reportedly invited each other to visit their countries.” Trump called Poland “an important ally.” The next day, at János Lázár’s “government info,” a question was addressed to the head of the prime minister’s office as to whether Trump had phoned Orbán. After all, Duda and Trump had already spoken. Apparently, Lázár expressed his bafflement over the very question: what would the significance of such a conversation be, he asked. HVG pointed out that considering that Viktor Orbán was the only European prime minister who had expressed support for Trump at the time when Trump’s candidacy was a long shot, one would have expected Trump to get in touch with his fan in Hungary. The journalist added that Orbán was the first European head of state to congratulate Trump and “since then he has been constantly talking about the arrival of democracy in the United States” with Trump’s victory. “Apparently all that effort was not enough for a telephone call,” the reporter announced with a certain glee.

November 19, 2016

Hungarian public opinion on world leaders: Putin favored over Merkel

I ended yesterday’s post saying that Hungarians still favor Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump despite the biased reporting by Judit Járai, Washington correspondent of MTI, the Hungarian Telegraphic Agency. This is especially surprising in view of the constant attacks on Hillary and Bill Clinton in the right-wing, pro-government press. See, for example, the many articles dealing with Clinton, always in a negative light, in Magyar Idők.

Thanks to a recent public opinion poll by the Pew Research Center conducted in ten European and four Asia-Pacific countries as well as Canada and the United States, we have a fairly up-to-date assessment of opinions about the United States, the American people, President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Angela Merkel, and Vladimir Putin. The following European countries were included in the survey: France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.

pew2

President Obama has remained a very popular leader in most of the ten European countries studied. The Swedes (93%), the Dutch (91%), and the Germans (86%) are most enthusiastic about him. In Poland and Hungary enthusiasm for the American president is less than overwhelming (58%). As for the Greeks (41%), even the Chinese (52%) have a higher opinion of Obama. Obama’s median score in Europe is 77%.

Hillary Clinton is less popular than Obama, but she still has a 59% median approval rating in Europe. Her regional pattern of approval is similar to that of Obama. The Swedes, the Germans, and the Dutch have a very high opinion of her while only 44% of Hungarians have confidence in the Democratic candidate as opposed to 33% who do not. The rest (23%) have no opinion, which indicates that far too many Hungarians don’t have enough information to make a choice. Citizens of western European countries are, on balance, much better informed.

Opinions about Donald Trump are strongly negative in Europe. Again, the greatest lack of confidence in the Republican candidate is in western Europe: Sweden (92%), Germany (89%), the Netherlands (88%), France (85%). In Poland and Hungary only 43% and 42% of the population have a negative opinion of Trump. Again, we see that Poles and Hungarians don’t know enough about the American candidates. In the case of Hungary,  37% of those questioned didn’t have an opinion on Trump. In Poland, the situation was even worse: 42% didn’t answer or didn’t have an opinion. The percent of Trump sympathizers is highest in Italy (21%), Hungary (20%), Poland (15%), and the United Kingdom (12%). Greece is an interesting case. Greeks have no confidence in either Clinton (78%) or Trump (76%).

The Pew survey released more detailed data on Italy and the UK. They wanted to know whether the Forza Italia and UKIP voters had more confidence in Trump than voters of other parties. And indeed, 30% of Forza Italia and UKIP voters preferred Trump to Clinton. This breakdown of Trump supporters in Italy and the United Kingdom inspired Magyar Nemzet to approach the Pew Research Center for more detailed data on the Hungarian situation. On the basis of the information provided, they came to the conclusion that 26% of Fidesz and 28% of Jobbik voters have confidence in Trump as a world leader. Higher than the national average of 20%.

Even if the anti-Clinton propaganda didn’t quite succeed, the Orbán government’s anti-Merkel campaign certainly did. While a month and a half ago the Swedes (84%), the Dutch (83%), the Germans (73%), the French (71%), and the Brits (69%) believed that Merkel is a competent world leader, the majority of southern Europeans (Italians, Spaniards, Greeks) had no confidence in her. She is, not surprisingly, most unpopular in Greece (89%). But Hungary’s rejection rate is also very high, 63%, and its approval rate of Merkel, at 29%, is the second lowest in Europe.

When it comes Vladimir Putin as a responsible world leader, Hungary has the dubious distinction of being the most confident (38%) in the Russian president of any country surveyed in Europe. I may add that Poles have the lowest number of Putin fans (7%). Putin’s popularity in Hungary is boosted by Fidesz and Jobbik voters. Forty-nine percent of Fidesz voters and 48% of Jobbik sympathizers trust Putin as a world leader, a good 10% higher than the Hungarian median. As Gábor Horváth, foreign affairs journalist of Népszabadság, wryly remarked, “it is a strange turn of history that the right- or extreme-right respondents trust a former KGB colonel more” than Angela Merkel. And if we add to this result the high number of Trump admirers, an interesting picture emerges. Hungarians don’t seem to realize that Putin is a danger to their own region and that, based on what he has said about alliances, Trump would be as well. This is what happens when nine-tenths of the media is under the thumb of an autocratic ruler served by minions like Judit Járai.

August 15, 2016

 

Neo-Nazis remember the “Day of Honor,” but why in Székesfehérvár?

The city of Székesfehérvár is in the news again. On Saturday, February 6, a few hundred neo-Nazis gathered at the Magyar Király (Hungarian King) Hotel, marched along Fő utca (Main Street), and ended their demonstration at the Church of Saint Stephen, one of the most important landmarks of the city. It is the oldest Christian church in Hungary, established in the 970s by Prince Géza, father of Saint Stephen, who was most likely crowned in this church in the year 1000.

I’m not going to waste much time on the demonstration itself. It was organized by the far-right Nazi groups we encounter most often: the Outlaws, the New Hungarian Guard, and the Youth Movement of Sixty-four Counties. The occasion for this memorial walk was the 71st anniversary of the breakout of German and Hungarian soldiers from Budapest, which had been surrounded by Soviet troops on December 24, 1944. Although Hitler specifically forbade his troops to try to escape from the city, on February 11 they decided to engage the Soviets. Of about 40,000 men only 500 managed to escape. The casualties were enormous. For details, I recommend Krisztián Ungváry’s The Siege of Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006). People who sympathize with the Nazi ideology call this event “Tag der Ehre” or “Day of Honor,” and for a number of years far-right groups, including Jobbik, organized events around this time of the year. Many make a pilgrimage, a walking tour of sixty kilometers, retracing the steps of the soldiers who took part in the escape.

In the past Jobbik took part in these memorial events, and last year at a similar gathering Előd Novák, one of the most radical members of the Jobbik leadership, delivered a speech. This year, however, he changed his mind at the last minute. The reason for his decision may have been that one of the scheduled speakers was a former member of the Waffen SS. Although at the end the German visitor didn’t show, the leaders of the Hungarian neo-Nazi groups made up for his absence, delivering full-fledged Nazi speeches. One claimed that with the destruction of the Third Reich “darkness fell on Europe.” Another ended his speech with “Glory to Waffen SS!” and “Glory to Szálasi!”

These kinds of far-right groups can be found everywhere in the world, and they usually don’t pose a great danger for society as long as they aren’t protected (beyond their basic human rights) by the government. What worries me in this case are the following:

(1) Why did these groups select Székesfehérvár as their gathering place, far away from the event that took place in February 1945? Could it have something to do with the controversy over the erection of a statue of Bálint Hóman, minister of education and culture between 1932 and 1942, also in Székesfehérvár? Did these extremist groups think that the Fidesz leadership of the city that for months had defended its decision to go ahead with the project of memorializing a rabidly anti-Semitic minister who had a hand in the Horthy regime’s anti-Jewish laws would protect them and thus their demonstration would proceed undisturbed?

(2) Why did Imre Horváth, the parish priest of the Church of St. Stephen, agree to offer a mass for these Waffen SS soldiers and their Hungarian companions? I assume that for a certain amount of money anyone can order a mass for a person or a group. One of the Budapest Catholic churches offers a mass for Viktor Orbán every year, for example. But the conversation between Imre Horváth and the journalist of The Budapest Beacon aroused my suspicion. Horváth was outright antagonistic, making it clear that neither the journalist’s nor anyone else’s opinion interested him. He added: “I’m a Hungarian, a veteran, who served his country.” Horváth is 86 years old and so most likely served his country during the Rákosi period, but I guess for a nationalist it doesn’t matter that this military service was to the Stalinist People’s Republic of Hungary. His brusque manner—he eventually hung up the telephone—may well have reflected his sympathetic feelings toward these far-right groups.

But let’s return briefly to the Hóman controversy. Since we last discussed the topic two new items of interest have become public. One was something that certainly didn’t please the Orbán government. On January 27 President Barack Obama delivered a speech at a ceremony in the Israeli Embassy in Washington, marking the International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Obama emphasized that he has made fighting global anti-Semitism a priority, and in this context he brought up Hungary as a case where the United States took a stand. “It’s why, when a statue of an anti-Semitic leader from World War II was planned in Hungary, we led the charge to convince their government to reverse course,” Obama said. “This was not a side note to our relations with Hungary, this was central to maintaining a good relationship with the United States, and we let them know.”

Of course, to those who followed the Hóman affair closely this didn’t come as a surprise. Readers of Hungarian Spectrum knew about the pressure that was put on the Orbán government when three high-ranking U.S. diplomats descended on Budapest and conducted negotiations with members of the Hungarian government. However reluctantly, Viktor Orbán eventually announced that the planned statue would not be erected in Székesfehérvár because in his opinion no public figure who collaborated with the German occupiers after March 19, 1944 can possibly have a statue in a public place or a street named after him. Without U.S. pressure the Hóman statue would undoubtedly be standing in its designated place today. But, of course, the revelation by the U.S. president was embarrassing, and the Orbán government immediately denied it. In fact, the spokesman of Viktor Orbán said, the American pressure was counterproductive. The Americans would have fared better if they had remained quiet. This is just another of the brazen lies the Orbán government specializes in.

The idea for a statue of Bálint Hóman, as I pointed out earlier, did not originate with the local Bálint Hóman Society. I called attention to a speech that Orbán delivered in Székesfehérvár in May, shortly after the legal rehabilitation of  Hóman. Since then, however, we have learned that Viktor Orbán’s involvement in the Hóman case goes back even further. The man who is behind the effort to whitewash Hóman’s career is István Varga, a lawyer. After Fidesz won the election in 2010 and the party had a two-thirds majority in parliament, Varga, who was a Fidesz MP at the time, wanted to call attention to Bálint Hóman’s rehabilitation in an interpellation. Tibor Navracsics, today European commissioner of education and sports, was the leader of the Fidesz delegation at the time. He chose to ignore Varga’s suggestion, most likely because he knew that the issue was a hot potato. Varga, who had been trying to get “justice” for Hóman in the previous twenty years, was devastated. At a subsequent delegation meeting, where Orbán was also present, he brought up the topic again. The idea appealed to Viktor Orbán, who told him: “Go ahead!” So, Orbán was behind both the legal rehabilitation of Bálint Hóman and the erection of the statue honoring him. Since he is the prime minister of the country, one must conclude that the Hungarian government itself supports the veneration of politicians who had a hand in the anti-Jewish laws that eventually led to the Hungarian Holocaust. I know this is a serious charge, but the facts that have emerged of late point to this conclusion.

And now let’s go back for a moment to András Cser-Palkovics, mayor of Székesfehérvár. He started his political career in Fidelitas, Fidesz’s youth movement, where for eight years he was the organization’s chairman. From 2002 on he was a Fidesz member of the Székesfehérvár city council. He was a Fidesz member of parliament between 2002 and 2014 and has been mayor of Székesfehérvár since 2010. At one point he was even the spokesman of the party. So, he is Fidesz through and through.

How did he react to the news that neo-Nazi groups were planning a demonstration in the city? He asked people not to attend the rally, adding that legally he has no right to forbid it from taking place. But then he added: “At the end of last year I asked all people to safeguard the peace in our city. Then people on the left were the ones who imported tension and conflict from Budapest. Now it is the far right that is planning to do the same thing over a historical event that has nothing to do with Székesfehérvár.” This is an incredible statement. Can the people who gathered to protest the erection of the Hóman statue be compared to the neo-Nazis who gathered two days ago to praise Szálasi and the Waffen SS? Yes, according to Cser-Palkovics, one of important members of Fidesz.

There is no question in my mind that the Orbán government’s views on anti-Semitism and the Holocaust are two-faced and insincere. Just as Mark Weitzman of the Wiesenthal Center remarked, the Hungarian authorities’ failure to condemn the event, considering that Hungary is currently chairing the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, was “an exercise in political and historical hypocrisy.” It is hard not to agree with him.

February 8, 2016

Viktor Orbán: “Hungary is a serious country” where gays are patiently tolerated

First, some background to today’s post. May 17 is the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia. Governments in Europe and North America usually release a statement on the occasion, just as President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry did. Obama and the First Lady reaffirmed that “lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights are human rights” and said that they wanted “to underscore that all people deserve to live free from fear, violence, and discrimination, regardless of who they are or whom they love.” According to Kerry, “the human rights of LGBTI persons are fundamental and enshrined in the Universal Declaration,” and he reasserted the United States’s “unwavering commitment to advance the human fights of LGBTI persons here at home and around the world.” In Europe, similar sentiments were expressed by leaders of the European Union. Federica Mogherini, high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs and security policy, promised the European Union’s support for the LGBTI community. Vera Jourová, commissioner for justice, emphasized that “we are all born equal in dignity and rights.”

I assume that nobody will be surprised to hear that no member of the Hungarian government offered such pledges to the LGBTI community in Hungary. So, on May 18, a day after the International Day Against Homophobia, a reporter from Index decided to ask a provocative question of Viktor Orbán. I am using here a somewhat modified translation of that conversation, provided by the blogger of Congress of Baboons, an English-language site.

Index: As today is the International Day Against Homophobia, politicians worldwide, including conservatives, declared their “Respect for the Gays.” Your government did not make a statement on this subject. Therefore, my question is: As prime minister, what message would you send to the homophobes, and what actions will the government take to ensure that in Hungary non-heterosexual couples can hold hands in public without fear?

Viktor Orbán: This is a question that makes one want to joke around, but I should spare us from anything of the sort. So, . . . I would suggest that anyone who makes public statements about this matter . . . do so with reasonable care. Hungary is a serious country. It is fundamentally based on traditional values. Hungary is a tolerant nation. Tolerance, however, does not mean that we would apply the same rules for people whose life style is different from our own. We differentiate between them and us. Tolerance means patience, tolerance means an ability to coexist, this is the basis of the Hungarian Constitution which clearly differentiates between a marital relationship between a man and a woman and other, different forms of cohabitation. We are going to keep this. By the way, I am grateful to the Hungarian homosexual community for not exhibiting the provocative behavior against which numerous European nations are struggling and which results in an outcome that is the exact opposite of what they want to achieve. I believe that in Hungary, even though the constitution clearly differentiates between marriage and other forms of cohabitation, the people with lifestyles different from our own outlook on life are safe, they are given the respect of basic human dignity that they deserve. I believe that . . . foreigners don’t feel that in this respect Budapest is a dangerous city. This is good, this is how we can live together. If we … make more stringent regulations or the community of homosexuals starts being more provocative, I think that the current peaceful, calm equilibrium will be no more. No one would benefit from this. Everyone benefits from being able to coexist. I believe that as we now are, we can live together.

In brief, people whose sexual orientation is different from the “norm” are not equal to the heterosexual members of society. They are only tolerated, and they are tolerated only as long as they don’t rock the boat.

Orban Debrecen

Of course, Orbán didn’t answer the reporter’s question about the Hungarian government’s attitude toward the International Day Against Homophobia. Instead, in his statement, he tried to explain the place of LGBTI people in Hungarian society and their rights as full members of a national community. In this answer, which he delivered with obvious discomfort, he revealed that their status in Hungary is anything but comfortable. An umbrella organization of LGBTI people in Hungary, Budapest Pride, immediately announced that “the LGBTI people living in Hungary are not at all grateful to Viktor Orbán. Instead of joking about it, perhaps the Hungarian government should do something against the discrimination this community suffers.” Magyar Narancs summarized Orbán’s message well: “A Hungarian doesn’t harass anyone, unless he is forced to harass him in a tolerant manner with mercy in his heart.”

The above exchange prompted some interesting responses. Because of Hungarian intolerance, few people ever admit that they are gays or lesbians. One exception is Klára Ungár, former SZDSZ politician and a member of parliament, who, it seems, got mad enough to out two Fidesz politicians who are closet gays. She was heavily criticized for the indiscretion, but she doesn’t regret her decision. The conversation above also prompted András Léderer, another former SZDSZ politician, to “confess” his homosexuality. In the article he wrote for HVG he accuses Orbán of not too well hidden homophobia.

Orbán’s words also elicited explicitly homophobic outbursts. Zsolt Bayer, a great friend of Orbán and one of those handful of students who established Fidesz, wrote a most disgusting article in Magyar Hírlap, which was openly and viciously homophobic. The article begins: “I was a bit disappointed that he didn’t wear a sheer pink tutu, but I still liked it. It was truly European, and unfortunately there is no cynicism in this. Because today this is Europe.” Bayer was talking about the wedding of Luxembourg’s Prime Minister, Xavier Bettel. He is the first European prime minister to marry someone of the same sex.

The beginning of the article is actually mild in comparison to what comes afterward. “Let’s stop and say it proudly: The hell with the International Day Against Homophobia!” (In the original, “leszarjuk a homofóbia elleni világnapot!”) And, “we have as much right to be homophobes as anyone else.” The prime minister made a mistake by even answering this “European provocation.” The proper answer would have been: “I don’t send any message because I have nothing to do with it.” But because he didn’t tell the reporter to get lost, the “provocation was successful.” As a result, “the domestic Europeans are whining, seething, gnawing.”

A less vituperative article appeared in Napi Gazdaság, which is quickly becoming as unreadable as Magyar Nemzet was a couple of months ago. Péter Szikszai, a young actor, lists all those sitcoms and films with gay or lesbian themes. According to him, there is a steady pro-gay propaganda through television and movie theaters. It is spreading rapidly and occupies “the beachheads of the entertainment industry.”

Jobbik a few weeks ago wanted to forbid the Pride’s demonstration, coming up in July, but “forbidding Pride can no longer help.” And “the International Day Against Homophobia is neither here nor there.”

For the prime minister and his defenders, it’s always them (where the “them” are alleged to be somehow inferior) against us. Their problem is that the “them” are growing and the “us” are shrinking. Perhaps one day in the not too distant future individual rights will be respected in Hungary, not merely tolerated.

Kim Lane Scheppele: Hungary and the State of American Democracy

Professor Kim Lane Scheppele of Princeton University doesn’t need an introduction to the readers of  Hungarian Spectrum or to anyone who is interested in Hungarian constitutional law or politics. Here is her take on the hearing held by Dana Rohrabacher, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

* * *

Usually, I write about the dismal state of Hungarian democracy.   But today, I will write about the dismal state of American democracy.

I went to Washington Tuesday to attend the hearing about Hungary before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats. You can see the hearing and read the witness statements for yourselves here.

The hearing had a much higher profile than one might have expected. Fully nine Congressmen showed up and stayed through much of the hearing, which counts as a big turnout on Capitol Hill. In the audience, there was standing room only. Once the hearing began, however, it became obvious that the Democratic and Republican sides of the committee were not evenly matched nor was the committee interested in what the witnesses had to say. The Democratic members of the committee did not really understand why they were there, but the Republican members of the committee had an agenda that they relentlessly pushed for the full three hours.

Republicans hammered home their point that the US is unfairly picking on Hungary because it has a conservative government that adheres to Christian values. Hungary has entrenched in its constitution respect for fetal life, traditional marriage and belief in God, they pointed out, suggesting that the Obama administration was criticizing Hungary because it does not share these commitments. According to committee Republicans, the US ignores worse violations of democratic principles in other countries but, with its criticism of Hungary, has singled out unfairly a country that has been a loyal friend to the US. They argued that the Obama government’s increasingly critical policy toward Hungary is nothing more than a politically motivated campaign. Nothing to worry about in Hungary, they argued — it’s just conservative.

The performance of the American Congress on display at Tuesday’s hearing was not something to be emulated by any other democracy. It started with the disrespectful tone of the hearing toward witnesses – with Republican Subcommittee Chairman Dana Rohrabacher of California leading the way – and continued with the ignorance of the members of Congress who should have known better about the subject of their own hearing. Most shocking of all was the fact that the questions from the House Republicans to critical witnesses were identical to those that have been directed in the past against other critics of the Hungarian government – including me – by representatives of the Hungarian government itself. (For evidence of that these ways of attacking critics are not new and have been the Hungarian government’s line for years, see my earlier responses to those same questions here.

Rohrabacher2

The Republicans followed the Hungarian government’s usual script precisely, which raises questions about how that script was communicated to them. Or maybe members of the subcommittee were really ignorant of the agenda they were pressing, which would be a different sort of scandal. Tuesday’s hearing made it appear that the important House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee had simply offered their space to a foreign government to put on the show it wanted.

In addition, the hearing provided yet another example of Republican congressmen undermining the foreign policy of the Obama administration. In its audacity, the performance of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Tuesday was only a step below the recent incident in which congressional Republicans wrote to the government of Iran to tell them not to negotiate with President Obama because he could not make his word stick. Tuesday’s hearing misrepresented and mocked the concerns of the State Department while Republicans on the subcommittee buried witness Deputy Assistant Secretary Hoyt Yee under a barrage of hostile and irrelevant questions that he could not possibly have anticipated because they required him to discuss other countries that were not on the hearing’s agenda. The committee Republicans seemed to be willing to allow a NATO ally – and a country where the United States has worked hard to promote democracy through multiple presidential administrations of both parties – to slide into autocracy so long as this autocratic government promoted Christian conservative values.

But two important things came out of this hearing – both more consequential over the long-term:

  1. The prepared remarks of DAS Hoyt Yee were more critical than any prior State Department statement has been to date about Hungary. After all, it is the State Department that is charged with articulating US foreign policy, not the House Foreign Affairs Committee, so Yee’s statement represents current policy. It linked Hungarian democratic weaknesses at home to its ability to be a reliable member of NATO: “Since internal weakness invites nefarious influences from the outside, NATO needs all of its members to be internally strong.” That is why the state of Hungary’s democracy will continue to be of concern to the US government.
  2. The Congressional Research Service prepared a report for the hearing, which was extremely critical of Hungary. The CRS has a reputation for being neutral, factual, and non-partisan. The report shows that the “fact assessment” arm of the US Congress has found that Hungary’s critics have truth on their side. This will have a larger influence than anything that the committee members said on Tuesday because it what everyone looking for a neutral source on Hungary’s present condition will cite.

Those are the two important takeaways from the hearing. We should not confuse the embarrassing performances of the members of the committee Tuesday for real US policy, which is moving ever more resolutely toward serious consequences for Hungary.

That said, the hearing was a dismal performance by America’s elected representatives. It appeared to be a victory for the Hungarian government, if only because the belligerent committee chair engaged in frequent monologues so only the Hungarian side of the story – which he presented – actually got out. It was the kind of victory that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán specializes in – bullying, one-sided and mean. It was a demonstration of “gotcha” politics and depressing to see that the Hungarian government’s unfair tactics toward its opponents were transferred in every particular to Republican members of the US Congress who became the ventriloquists’ dummies for the government of Hungary.

For example, one of the witnesses was asked to recite the opening lines of the Hungarian constitution. Not surprisingly, he – being American – did not have the Hungarian constitution committed to memory. So the committee member triumphantly quoted the line: “God Bless the Hungarians.” And then he gave a lecture about how critics objected to the invocation of God, which was for him evidence of that the attacks of Hungary were politically motivated.

Actually, virtually all of the criticism of this opening line of the Hungarian constitution focuses on the fact that the constitution uses the word for “Hungarians” that covers only ethnic Hungarians and not all citizens of the country. So the constituent power invoked in the constitutional preamble fails to include Jews, Roma and members of other ethnic groups who are Hungarian citizens while it also includes ethnic Hungarians outside the territory who are not even citizens. That is why this statement raised red flags to many of us – not because it mentioned God. But the committee did not seem to have a clue about this issue.

Former Hungarian ambassador to the US, András Simonyi did a masterful job Tuesday holding his own as a witness in a show-trial-like situation. He focused on the Hungarian government’s refusal to recognize any limits on its powers and the way its non-transparent deals with Russia threatened to undermine European alliances, including the EU and NATO. Tad Stahnke from Human Rights First eventually got Chairman Rohrabacher to look a bit less sure of himself by mentioning the Hungarian government’s attacks on churches, which the congressman did not seem to know anything about (despite the fact that many of his colleagues signed a letter to the Hungarian government in 2011 protesting the cancellation of the legal status of hundreds of religious organizations and backing up the State Department concerns on this issue).

Chairman Rohrabacher got many of his facts wrong, and many dangerously so, but, since he controlled the chair, no witness could challenge them.For example, he denied all evidence of officially stoked anti-Semitism in Hungary, following the Hungarian government’s line that it is open-minded and tolerant while only the far-right Jobbik party is anti-Semitic. In response to an attempt by witness Tad Stahnke from Human Rights First to explain that the Hungarian government is rewriting Hungarian history through monuments, textbooks and museums to say that the Germans alone were responsible for the Holocaust in Hungary, Rohrabacher mocked the witness and pointed to the existence of open synagogues as the only evidence that was necessary to show that charges of anti-Semitism are baseless.

Chairman Rohrabacher was oblivious of the fact that surveys show levels of anti-Semitism in Hungary and a fear on the part of many Jews in Hungary about their futures there. He also didn’t seem to know that 30 of his Jewish colleagues in the US Congress had written a letter to Prime Minister Orbán protesting the Hungarian government’s rewriting of history again backing up the State Department’s expressed concerns. Chairman Rohrabacher’s denial that Jews in Hungary have reason to be alarmed was not a particularly good demonstration of his solicitude toward religion – or his colleagues.

The hearing made apparent that the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee was living in a parallel universe in which they got to invent their own facts. They paid no attention to the Congressional Research Service report and its careful findings. The three Republican congressmen that stayed throughout the whole hearing (Chairman Rohrabacher and Republican members Randy Weber and Ted Poe from Texas) denied evidence about growing authoritarianism and intolerance in Hungary, which turned the representatives’ description of Hungary into something like the fact-denying opinions of some of their party colleagues on climate change, economic policy and more. Stephen Colbert used to say that “reality has a well-known liberal bias” which is what these committee members seemed to believe. And so they were having none of it.

In fact, Chairman Rohrabacher and his allies on the committee did even worse than engage in denying facts that the Congress’ own research arm established. They followed the script used by the Hungarian government to bash its critics, literally repeating the same questions, the same comparisons and the same defenses of Hungary that I have heard many times from members of the Hungarian government itself.

I was in the audience, but only the official witnesses were allowed to speak. So let me give Chairman Rohrabacher some answers to his questions, given that he did not extend the courtesy to the witnesses to do so. By now I know all about these questions, since Hungarian officials have asked me the very same questions so often.

Chairman Rohrabacher argued that the Obama Administration has singled out Hungary for criticism even though it is no different than many of the US’s allies. He asserted that the UK has no more “checks and balances” than Hungary has – so why pick on Hungary? (The UK is the Hungarian government’s favorite example, too.) But can he really know so little about the government of both places? Yes, the UK has many more checks and balances than Hungary. While the UK, like Hungary, has a parliamentary system in which the parliament elects the prime minister, it also has an upper house – unlike Hungary – as well as a fiercely independent judiciary – unlike Hungary. And it has well-functioning independent accountability offices that can call the government to heel, unlike Hungary. Plus the UK has a robust party system with real choices, a free media and a strong and independent civil society, unlike Hungary. It’s a ridiculous comparison.

Chairman Rohrabacher, backed by Congressman Weber, then argued that Bulgaria and Romania were more or less in the same league, democratically speaking, as Hungary, but they badgered DAS Yee about why the US wasn’t also picking on them. They should have known that both Bulgaria and Romania were let into the EU with asterisks. Neither country fully complied with EU criteria upon entry and both are still under the supervision of the EU Cooperation and Verification Mechanism to ensure their continued progress toward EU standards, which they have not yet met. Hungary, which sailed through without question into the EU more than 10 years ago, should not be in the same league with Bulgaria and Romania because it started off much farther ahead in its democratic performance. The congressmen were right that Hungary is no longer clearly ahead of Bulgaria and Romania, but the comparison is misleading. It’s not, unfortunately, because Bulgaria and Romania have gotten so much better. Instead it is because Hungary has gotten dramatically worse. Since when is an exit by one of its allies from the family of unproblematic democracies of no concern to the US government?

Chairman Rohrabacher also excused the current Hungarian government for gerrymandering the last election because gerrymandering happens in the US too. Yes, both countries gerrymander, but there are big differences between the gerrymanders. In Hungary, a single party gerrymandered the whole country at once, with absolutely no input from any opposition party; in the US, gerrymanders in national elections happen at the state level so there is variation in who captures the process across the country. Plus it is a violation of American election law to exclude all opposition parties from the process of districting, which is precisely what happened in Hungary. In Hungary, there is no judicial review of the district maps to check for unduly self-serving gerrymanders; in the US, court review of districting is routine. Not all gerrymanders are the same. Yes, the US is bad on this – but Hungary is far worse.

Chairman Rohrabacher seems to believe that the US and Hungary both single out politicians for unfair treatment when they are in opposition. If he thinks his party is badly treated under a Democratic administration, I wonder what he would think of being in a parliament where an opposition party would have no chance to introduce bills, make amendments, or even debate most proposals of the government – and where they cannot even see the bills far enough ahead of time to know what they contain before the governing party calls the vote to pass them. Or where any attempt to protest the exclusion of opposition legislators from participation in the legislative process comes with hefty fines against individual members who try to make their views known. I suspect he would think that that was a different world.

I could go on, but you get the picture. The performance of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Tuesday was shameful. The committee allowed itself to be used to parrot the views of the Hungarian government and in so doing, showed what dreadful shape American democratic institutions are in.

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)