Tag Archives: Bill Clinton

The anti-George Soros campaign intensifies in Hungary

A full-fledged witch hunt is taking place in Hungary against a not-at-all favorite son, George Soros. Two weeks ago I already wrote a post on the Orbán government’s reaction to the less than flattering remarks of Bill Clinton about Poland and Hungary, two countries that decided that “democracy is too much trouble [and] they want Putin-like leadership.” It was in this context that George Soros’s name was associated in Hungarian propaganda with Bill Clinton’s statement as well as with Barack Obama’s earlier critical words about Hungary. In the last two weeks, however, the anti-Soros campaign has sunk to new depths of depravity.

For anyone who has followed the escalation of the anti-Soros rhetoric in the last week, it is obvious that the effort is well-coordinated, enlisting the full force of the government propaganda machine. Magyar Idők leads the way in the smear campaign. The government paper published two opinion pieces a day apart which tried to counter the opposition’s description of Soros as a man whose Open Society Foundation works “to build vibrant and tolerant societies whose governments are accountable and open to the participation of all people.” The stated goals of Soros’s philanthropy may be “to strengthen the rule of law, respect for human rights, minorities, and a diversity of opinions, democratically elected governments; and a civil society that helps keep government power in check,” but all this is humbug, according to one of the authors. Soros is a CIA agent whose real objective is the destabilization of East-Central Europe and the Middle East. Operating under the cover of humanitarianism, he faithfully serves the global interests of the United States.

CIA

The second article in Magyar Idők concentrated on the “unfounded and unsubstantiated” accusations against György Matolcsy and the Hungarian National Bank, accusations that are really targeting the Orbán government. According to the author, it is Soros who stands behind the U.S. plans to topple the current Hungarian government, this time through Matolcsy’s alleged corruption. Hungary is not the first country where the United States has used the charge of corruption to try to get rid of governments that are “not friendly enough toward the American government.” A prime example of such U.S. interference in the domestic affairs of a foreign country is Brazil, where President Dilma Rousseff has been suspended. “One of her sins could have been that she rejected U.S. interference” in Brazilian politics. She was removed because the U.S. found “Brazil’s change of foreign policy direction intolerable: good relations with Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, and China.” Of course, this charge exists solely in the imagination of the journalist of this pro-government and fiercely anti-American newspaper. Continuing his tirade, he claimed that American capitalists, in cahoots with the U.S. government, have tried several times to topple the Orbán government but have never succeeded. The only hope of these foreign agents is that they will be able to remove György Matolcsy, which would serve the interests of the unscrupulous speculators but would ruin the thriving Hungarian economy, which is the result of the remarkable performance of Matolcsy.

A few days later János Lázár at one of his Thursday press conferences went so far as to claim that the Hungarian government has proof from secret service sources that George Soros is ready “to actively participate against his most dangerous opposition, the Orbán government.” However, when a journalist asked him whether the civic groups financed by Soros had done anything unlawful, Lázár had to admit that they hadn’t. Soros’s sin is that by financing some of the watchdog organizations he has become part of the opposition.

The government-financed internet site 888.hu came out with a “list of pimps of the Soros network.” Members of this network, according to the site, belong to a loud, aggressive minority that has a much greater influence on the media than their numbers would warrant. The list includes 13 civic groups and think tanks and five or six media outlets. Despite 888.hu’s claim, the fact is that most of these organizations receive only a very small portion of their budget from the Open Society Foundation.

Andy Vajna’s newly purchased TV2 joined the anti-Soros campaign. Its reconstructed formerly popular “Tények” (Facts) now has a five-minute segment called “Tények Extra” that tells the stories of “Billionaires in Hiding.” Needless to say, the first of these segments was devoted to George Soros. Viewers learned how Soros beat his wives and liked to suffocate his lovers.

All this still wasn’t enough for the Orbán government. Now MTI and other pro-government media outlets are gathering information about possible Soros involvement in opposition movements in other countries. Magyar Idők found an interview with Robert Fico, prime minister of Slovakia, who complained that in the March presidential campaign, which he lost, he had to battle not so much his political opponents but “those civic organizations that are often financed from abroad.” 888.hu joined in with a Macedonian case. The internet site discovered that former Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski recently charged that it was George Soros who financed the Macedonian civil groups’ anti-government activities. Just like Fico, Gruevski claimed that he has two oppositions: the Macedonian Social Democratic Association and “the paid opposition.” These groups, when “they are not fighting the government, organize all sorts of training sessions and political debates or show up in the media.” According to the former prime minister, Soros and others are especially active in Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

The younger generation of journalists who were probably unfamiliar with George Soros’s activities in Hungary in the 1980s and early 1990s are especially fascinated by the sizable amount of money Fidesz and Fidesz politicians received from the American financier. They are the ones who keep asking uncomfortable questions about who, when, and for what purpose Soros gave money to those who now find him to be the devil incarnate. As a result of all those uncomfortable questions, Viktor Orbán apparently told János Lázár that he is ready to pay the billionaire back “if Soros needs the money.” That “generous offer” includes the three million forints Fidesz as an organization received from the Soros Foundation. I don’t know whether this amount includes the 400,000 forints received in 1987 to launch the periodical Századvég. Yes, the establishment of this by now notorious Fidesz think tank was made possible through George Soros’s generosity.

I wonder what the next step will be. Will Orbán’s propaganda machine continue its threatening propaganda against civic groups, especially against legal think tanks? Or, after a few weeks of contemptible attacks on Soros, will the government decide to stop this harassment? I think it all depends on whether the government is able to contain the scandal surrounding György Matolcsy’s corruption case. As long as the case remains a hot issue both at home and abroad, the anti-American, anti-Soros campaign will continue. This way the government can argue that antagonistic foreign sources, i.e. the United States, with the assistance of domestic paid agents, are responsible for blackening the good name of a financial genius. All because their real goal is the removal of Viktor Orbán from power.

May 27, 2016

The anti-Hungarian conspiracy: Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and George Soros

I’m sure that Viktor Orbán harbors ill feelings toward Bill and Hillary Clinton–and that’s probably putting it mildly. Hillary Clinton, when Secretary of State, wrote a letter to him a few days before the parliamentary vote on the new constitution. In it Clinton expressed her regret that her talk with Orbán in June of 2011 and “the constructive comments offered by the U.S. government … have not led to a serious reconsideration of [the] laws” included in the new constitution. The Obama administration was obviously not happy with Viktor Orbán’s illiberal state. It is worth recalling that, although Barack Obama wrote the usual congratulatory letter to Viktor Orbán on his “strong showing in the April parliamentary elections” in 2014, he added: “It is important that the United States and Europe stand together for democratic principles, particularly in a time in which the peace and security of Europe is being tested. As we work with Ukraine to instill rule of law, transparency, respect for individual liberty, and a system of checks and balances, we must remain dedicated to the same ideals at home. I hope you will use your new term to recommit yourself to building Hungary’s democratic heritage.” As I pointed out at the time, the Hungarian prime minister’s office, instead of translating the letter, merely summarized it. Naturally, these crucial sentences were left out of the summary.

A few months later, in September 2014, former President Bill Clinton, on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, said that “there’s the authoritarian capitalism model which is Russia and in a different way China, and it has some appeal. Like the Hungarian Prime Minister – they owe a lot to America; he just said he liked authoritarian capitalism, just saying ‘I don’t ever want to have to leave power’ – usually those guys want to stay forever and make money. And there’s the democracy model …” This was not an off-the-cuff remark. A few days earlier he said essentially the same thing in an interview with James Bennet in the Atlantic MagazineHe talked about different political models, among which “there is a contest here in the world today…. There’s autocratic governments trying to take advantage of market opportunities—what [Hungarian Prime Minister] Viktor Orbán embraced the other day.” Clinton was obviously familiar with the Hungarian prime minister’s by now infamous speech, described in a footnote as “a headline-grabbing speech,” calling for Hungary to abandon its “liberal methods and principles of organizing a society, as well as the liberal way to look at the world.” At about the same time President Obama, talking about countries from Russia to China to Venezuela which vilify legitimate dissent, included Hungary among them.

At the time Péter Szijjártó, who was not yet foreign minister, said only that the former president “was conned.” It’s been a long time since Bill Clinton visited Hungary and therefore he is ignorant of the real situation. Otherwise, government officials simply ignored the comments of the two U.S. presidents. At that time it was only the right-wing media that put forth all sorts of conspiracy theories to explain what they saw as a concerted attack on Hungary. It was at this time that George Soros’s name came up as a man behind Bill Clinton.

So, less than two years ago the Hungarian government refrained from inventing fanciful stories about the evil George Soros, whose “main hobby” is his repeated attempts to overthrow the Orbán government. This is no longer the case. Today the government leads the way and the right-wing media only follows.

Bill Clinton is once again the bête noire of the Orbán government. A week ago, during a campaign stop in New Jersey, he said that “Poland and Hungary, two countries that would not be free but for the United States and the long Cold War, have now decided this democracy is too much trouble. They want Putin-like leadership: Just give me an authoritarian dictatorship and keep the foreigners out.” In a response that seemed to come from the Hungarian playbook, Jarosław Kaczyński told reporters that “if someone feels that there is no democracy in Poland, they should be medically examined.” Hungarian foreign minister Péter Szijjártó, who happened to be in Sofia at the meeting of EU foreign ministers, announced that “no one, not even Bill Clinton, can allow himself to offend the Hungarian people in this way.” Of course, Bill Clinton was not talking about the Polish and Hungarian people but about the governments of Poland and Hungary.

But Szijjártó didn’t stop there. He claimed that “it is a well-known fact that George Soros is dissatisfied with the present Hungarian government and he would like it if someone other than Viktor Orbán would be the prime minister of Hungary. In our view, it is this dissatisfaction which is behind the American criticisms.” He reminded people that Soros is a friend of both Bill Clinton and his wife, who is currently running for the U.S. presidency. Soros always supported the “politics of the Clinton family.”

Fidesz immediately released its own communiqué, pretty much repeating Szijjártó’s claims. As Fidesz put it: “the face of the American criticisms is Bill Clinton’s but its voice is George Soros. In the past the American speculator tried to put pressure on the Hungarian government on several occasions, especially in issues of immigration and financial matters.”

President Bill Clinton and George Soros

President Bill Clinton and George Soros

The attacks of the Orbán administration on Soros and, by extension, on the U.S. government continue unabated. Today it was János Lázár who talked at length about Bill Clinton’s remarks at his usual Thursday marathon press conference. He went even further than Szijjártó because he managed to drag President Obama into the story. According to Lázár, “not so long ago while visiting Europe, President Obama clearly spoke in favor of the importance of migration, settlement and even the forced settlement [of migrants].” He added that Obama and the U.S. “are following a very strong pro-migration, pro-illegal migration policy in the interests of having as many Muslims as possible in Europe.” To Lázár’s way of thinking, immigration “dilutes” Europe. But, he continued, such a development will allow the European Union and the U.S. “to cooperate without constraints.” At today’s White House briefing Josh Earnest, who was unaware of Lázár’s comments, said he wasn’t “sure they’re worthy of a response.” Indeed Earnest is right. This is utter rubbish. The whole thing makes no sense, but this fact doesn’t seem to bother the head of the prime minister’s office.

The foreign press hasn’t yet picked up on the Hungarian government’s constant harping on George Soros’s allegedly vital role in U.S. foreign policy, but today Lázár also spent quite a bit of time on Soros. As he said, the “Hungarian government is convinced that Soros is one of the most influential supporters of the Democratic party and of the Clinton couple.” The Hungarian government is sure that “Soros will play an active role against one of his most dangerous adversaries in Europe, the Orbán government.” Moreover, as Lázár sees it, the current migration is “an organized movement,” behind which he suspects George Soros. “The Hungarian government is prepared for attacks from George Soros because of Hungary’s migration policies.” Magyar Idők went so far as to claim that “Soros, by exploiting the European Union’s good faith, naiveté, and legal and military weaknesses managed to bring about one million illegal migrants just to Germany and hundreds of thousands more to other parts of the European Union.”

One really wonders about the sanity of the man in whose head these bizarre thoughts were born. That man, I’m afraid, is Viktor Orbán himself. He made many references to George Soros as the instigator of the refugee crisis. Foreign newspapers were full of stories last October that Orbán lashed out at Soros: “His name is perhaps the strongest example of those who support anything that weakens nation states, they support everything that changes the traditional lifestyle.” Orbán’s minions simply repeat and elaborate on the great man’s thoughts.

May 19, 2016

Ambassador Eleni Kounalakis on her years in Hungary, Part I

I just received Eleni Kounalakis’s Madam Ambassador: Three Years of Diplomacy, Dinner Parties, and Democracy in Budapest (New York: The New Press), recounting her years in Budapest as U.S. Ambassador. I must say that I was pleasantly surprised by the book, which luckily, despite its subtitle, has little to do with dinner parties. Instead, we have an account of the turbulent first three years of the Orbán administration (January 2010-July 2013), told from the perspective of someone who desperately tried to develop a friendly relationship with the Hungarian officials with whom she had to deal.

As far as I know, no former U.S. ambassador to Hungary has written a book about his or her stay in Budapest since John F. Montgomery’s Hungary: The Unwilling Satellite (1947), which is by and large an apologia for the pro-German policies of Admiral Horthy and his governments. So, it is not an everyday affair that a book is published about U.S. -Hungarian relations that allows us to glimpse behind the scenes.

madam ambassadorKounalakis was a political appointee, as most U.S. ambassadors to Budapest are, and therefore upon her arrival she was pretty green, especially since originally she was supposed to be sent to Singapore and the State Department initially prepared her for that post. From sentences dropped here and there, I came to the conclusion that she had very little knowledge of the recent history of the country. What I mean by “recent” is the last 10-12 years of Hungarian politics, because otherwise she should have known that her stay in Budapest was going to be anything but dull, as she anticipated. From her book we also learn that the officials of the U.S. Embassy seemed to have forgotten the years of the first Orbán government (1998-2000) and occasionally showed signs of political naivete when it came to assessing the policies of the prime minister.

I will write more about this book later because the author discusses many aspects of U.S.-Hungarian relations during her tenure. Here I would like to concentrate on Eleni Kounalakis’s attitude toward the Orbán government and her personal relations with Viktor Orbán.

My impression is that while she had uneasy feelings about the direction in which Hungary was headed under the premiership of Viktor Orbán, she desperately tried to convince herself that she would be able to have good relations with the members of the Hungarian government. Orbán himself might be a difficult man, but he “had managed to attract some of conservative Hungary’s best and brightest to work in his government.” She “reasoned that if he was ever tempted to throw a grenade into the U.S.-Hungarian relationship … his own ministers might be motivated enough to hold him back.” (p. 105) Anyone who’s familiar with the servile ministers around Orbán knows that Kounalakis was sadly mistaken in her assessment.

She was especially impressed with Foreign Minister János Martonyi and Justice Minister Tibor Navracsics and describes both of them in glowing terms. Navracsics was “a star of Hungarian politics,” “a brilliant transatlanticist.” For some strange reason she believes that Navracsics was “a politician in his own right, with his own following” and that it was Orbán’s good fortune that he joined his cabinet. In fact, as we know, Navracsics served Orbán well. He could explain in a most reasonable manner how Orbán’s undemocratic policies were not undemocratic at all. A case in point  is a conversation between Attorney General Eric Holder and Navracsics that resulted in Holder’s not bringing up the question of the Hungarian media law because Navracsics “eloquently explained the government’s position.” (p. 163) János Martonyi was equally useful in persuading the Americans that all would be well with the new constitution. In fact, when some small changes were made to the constitution in the summer of 2012 the U.S. officials in Budapest “were very proud that our intervention had resulted in many tangible improvements.” (p. 197)

Other ministers with whom Kounalakis had close relations were Interior Minister Sándor Pintér and Defense Minister Csaba Hende. There are two chapters in which Csaba Hende is the main character, one titled “Travels with Csaba” and the other “Afghanistan Revisited.” But more about them later.

Kounalakis arrived in Budapest in January 2010, practically in the middle of the election campaign. She wanted to meet Orbán, especially since the Americans on the spot heard rumors that Orbán “regretted not working with the United States in a more collaborative way during his first stint as prime minister.” (p. 41) But the meeting was a disaster, due both to Kounalakis’s inexperience and to Orbán’s way of dealing with people with whom he disagreed. The second meeting, however, a few months later, went well, and one senses that the American ambassador was impressed with the “clean-cut, sharply dressed, confident young staffers, busily moving around with efficiency and purpose.” (p. 82)

This kind of ambivalence is evident throughout her book. But she was not alone in failing to grasp the true nature of Viktor Orbán and the people working for him. For example, although the staff of the embassy realized that “the new prime minister and his supermajority in Parliament added a certain level of unpredictability,” they believed that “Orbán would be careful because of the historic importance of Hungary’s first EU presidency.” The Americans were wrong. Hungary took over the presidency on January 1, 2011, and “on January 2, all hell broke loose.” (pp. 156-157) The media law was passed.

Perhaps the best example of  how Eleni Kounalakis, despite her protestation to the contrary, misjudged Viktor Orbán is her description of Viktor Orbán’s performance in Strasbourg before the European Parliament. It is worth quoting the whole passage:

Orbán went to Strasbourg on January 19 [2011] to speak to the European Parliament on general EU matters, but he ended up confronting a hostile gathering. Socialist parliamentarians appeared with duct tape over their mouths to protest the new media restrictions, and “Danny the Red”–Daniel Marc Cohn-Bendit, a German Green Party member–lashed out at Orbán from the floor, comparing him to Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez. Orbán calmly rebutted the criticism and promised to abide by the European Commission’s forthcoming legal opinion on the new media law–as long as the same standards applied to all EU members. With his cool responses to the circus that the Socialists created, Orbán was able to frame the debate of the Hungarian media law along partisan political lines. When I went to see Péter Szijjártó, the prime minister’s senior adviser, a few days after Orbán’s EU speech, he gleefully reported that “we are getting calls from conservative politicians from all over Europe, congratulating us for standing up to these liberals. The response from our friends is overwhelming.” (p. 159)

Just to balance this description of Orbán’s appearance in Strasbourg, I will quote from my post titled “The Hungarian Prime Minister in Strasbourg: A Day Later”:

It is one thing to read written reports of an event and something else to see it on video. It also helps to read other people’s reactions a day after. I did both this morning and I must say that today I consider Viktor Orbán’s performance in the European Parliament a disaster.
….
At the beginning of this post I talked about the two Viktor Orbáns. The one that tries to impress the world outside of Hungary and the other not-so-nice domestic Viktor Orbán. A Jekyll and Hyde story that could be played by Orbán while in opposition. The question was how long he could play the same game when in power. The answer is: the game is over. He showed his true self when he answered his critics in Strasbourg. He talked very loudly and his voice by that time had become hoarse. He tried occasionally to be light-hearted but his levities fell flat. For example, when he claimed that he feels quite at home because he receives criticism in similar tones in Hungary. He paused for a second, hoping for an applause that didn’t come.

What did she intend to convey about Viktor Orbán in an exchange with Condoleezza Rice? “So,”[Rice] asked, “you are saying he’s a bully but not a brute?” A bully is certainly better than a brute. What does that mean from the point of view of the U.S. government? Not so dangerous?

There is a fairly long description of a conversation between President Bill Clinton and Kounalakis in his office in New York. Clinton wanted to know what she thought of Viktor Orbán. Here is the whole conversation:

Mr. President, some people say he’s crazy. I don’t think that’s right. I see him as a very smart, very rational man. But he doesn’t seem to me to have the same concept, the same definitions as we do of democracy, freedom, and even free markets. I think he sees himself as the only one who can protect the Hungarian people from what he believes are corrupting outside influences…. But when it comes to the larger issues we’ve been talking about, like energy security for Europe and the Eastern Partnership–and Afghanistan–we are still very much on the same page as the Hungarians. They are as much a reliable partner on international issues now as they have ever been. (p. 259)

Eleni Kounalakis’s confidence was tested when, not long after this conversation, “Hungary faced a decision that pitted its economic interests against its diplomatic ones. The choice would, for the first time, shake our faith in the country’s reliability as a partner and cast a pall over our relations.” (p. 259) She was talking about the release of Ramil Safarov, an Azeri who was serving a life sentence in Budapest for the ax murder of an Armenian.

Kounalakis’s final meeting with Viktor Orbán, when she was about to leave her post, was freewheeling. Out of the blue Orbán began talking about Milan Kundera’s book The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Kounalakis took the opportunity to say that for Kundera “freedom meant the ability to live free from oppression–especially free from oppression by your own government. That’s what democracy is all about.” Orbán’s “eyes narrowed and he waved his hand abruptly as if to beat away the comment. ‘All this talk about democracy is bullshit!'” The departing U.S. ambassador couldn’t quite believe what she heard. “He probably didn’t mean to say that democracy was bullshit, but that he rejected, and resented, my raising the subject with him again.” (pp. 281-82) I wonder what Kounalakis thinks now after hearing the Hungarian prime minister talk about “illiberal democracy” and even the superiority of autocracy over democracy.

The Hungarian right’s latest: The Soros-Clinton-Obama axis

In liberal circles almost everybody is certain that the warnings of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama will not inspire Viktor Orbán to abandon his relentless pursuit to make the very existence of independent civil groups impossible. In fact, the smear campaign has only intensified in the last couple of days.

Official Hungary is quiet on the subject unless one can take seriously the comments of a newcomer to the ministry of foreign affairs and trade, Undersecretary Mónika Balatoni, who just can’t get over the fact that “western Europeans don’t understand us,” the freedom-loving people of Hungary. After all, already in St. Stephen’s time Hungarians “chose Christianity.” And there is Tibor Navracsics, whose “European commitment cannot be questioned.” This is, of course, merely a repetition of Szijjártó’s reference to freedom-loving Hungarians.

It is true that the Christian Democrats chimed in by repeating the government’s claim that Obama’s criticisms are groundless. In their opinion, the attack on Hungary is taking place because the Hungarian government opted for Christian democracy instead of liberal democracy. Jobbik naturally is on the side of the government with the difference that they say what the Orbán government does not want to: The president of the United States “openly admitted that his country constantly interferes in other countries’ internal affairs.” Since Obama talked about the United States’ national security, which is served by the existence of strong civil groups, Hungary in turn should restrict the foreign-financed groups which pose national security risks to Hungary.

But the real dirty work is being left to the government media and so-called  pro-Fidesz “political scientists.” In the political scientist category there is Gábor G. Fodor, “strategic director” of the Fidesz think tank Századvég. According to him, Obama’s speech was not about Hungary and other authoritarian regimes but about the United States. The speech shows the weakness, not the strength of America. After all, the president spoke of “national security interests.” And because of Obama’s confession about American national security interests, “it’s possible the Norwegian monies don’t come from Norway.” In plain English, the United States is funneling money into Hungary and other countries through Norway.

Spiler, a blogger, goes farther than Fodor. He notes that George Soros and Norway are the most generous supporters of the Clinton Foundation, and the same George Soros and Norway support Hungarian liberal groups. With a leap of logic our blogger lays the groundwork for a charge of conspiracy. Perhaps Clinton’s critical comments are payment for the generosity of George Soros and the government of Norway. On the basis of Spiler’s blog, Szilárd Szőnyi of Válasz is already talking about George Soros’s “civilian armies.” He describes Spiler’s post as a reliable source on the Soros-Clinton-Obama-Reykjavík axis. (I trust he doesn’t think that Reykjavík is the capital of Norway.)

George Soros, the bogiey man

George Soros, the bogeyman

The attack on the Hungarian civil groups was intensified by an article that appeared in the print edition of Heti Válasz today. The author is Bálint Ablonczay, a journalist with the reputation of being a moderate Fidesz supporter. But it appears that when the chips are down and the regime he supports receives harsh criticism from important sources, Ablonczay becomes a fierce defender of the regime. In this article, which is not available online, he justifies the Orbán government’s harassment of the civil groups by trying to prove that these NGOs are not really independent but are “liberal activist groups.” After all, they approach the question of abortion only as a women’s rights issue. They are interested in families only as places of domestic violence. Or they concentrate on alternative lifestyles. Finally, he cites an article published by an Israeli organization, NGO Monitor. It was written last year by Alexander H. Joffe, who claimed that the Soros-supported NGOs were adding to Israeli-Palestinian tensions. His conclusion is that Soros’s network is a powerful international tool that works against individual governments through these civil groups.

Ablonczay did a lousy job at fact checking. Csaba Tibor Tóth, a blogger, immediately wrote a post with the title “Heti Válasz and the Israeli Right against Soros.” NGO Monitor’s founder and president worked for a number of years in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office. The organization is really an arm of the present Israeli government, which hates the Israeli NGOs about as much as Orbán hates the Hungarian ones. NGO Monitor finds all independent groups “extremists.” Even groups attached to the UN are extremists. According to Tóth, NGO Monitor is something like the Hungarian CÖF, except much more sophisticated.

Magyar Nemzet published an article today about an alleged Soros conspiracy. The paper learned that George Soros cast his net over the civil groups. It was George Soros who financed the organizations in charge of the disbursement of the Norwegian funds throughout Eastern Europe. The article lists Romanian, Polish, Estonian, Lithuanian, Slovenian, and Bulgarian NGOs somehow connected to George Soros’s Open Society Foundation. The implication is that there is a supranational network organized by George Soros to do what? To topple these governments? How is it that no other governments in the region sent a squad of policemen to the office of one of these disbursement centers or suspended the tax numbers of all of them? Are they not worried about this conspiracy?

The problem is not with Clinton, Obama, the Norwegian government, George Soros or the NGOs but with Viktor Orbán’s government. They can concoct conspiracy theories to their hearts’ content about a supranational global attack on Christian Hungary, but I doubt that anyone will fall for that nonsense with the exception of Hungary’s right-wing voters.

Barack Obama on the threat to civil society in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Hungary

American presidents are lining up against the Hungarian prime minister and his illiberal state. On The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Bill Clinton said that “there’s the authoritarian capitalism model which is Russia and in a different way China, and it has some appeal. Like the Hungarian Prime Minister – they owe a lot to America; he just said he liked authoritarian capitalism, just saying ‘I don’t ever want to have to leave power’ – usually those guys want to stay forever and make money. And there’s the democracy model …” This was not an off-the-cuff remark. A few days earlier he said essentially the same thing in an interview with James Bennet in the Atlantic Magazine. He talked about different political models, among which “there is a contest here in the world today…. There’s autocratic governments trying to take advantage of market opportunities—what [Hungarian Prime Minister] Viktor Orbán embraced the other day.” Clinton was obviously familiar with the Hungarian prime minister’s by now infamous speech, which was described in a footnote as “a headline-grabbing speech” calling for Hungary to abandon its “liberal methods and principles of organizing a society, as well as the liberal way to look at the world.”

The official Hungarian reaction to Clinton’s remarks was predictable. Péter Szijjártó, who at the time was not yet minister of foreign affairs and trade (which he now is), said that the former president “was conned.” It’s been a long time since Bill Clinton visited Hungary and therefore, I assume it follows, he is ignorant. Period.

Viktor Orbán’s “headline-grabbing speech” reached a lot of people, including the current president of the United States, who addressed the 2014 annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative in New York City. His speech concentrated on the importance of civil society. He pointed out that “it was citizens here in America who worked to abolish slavery, who marched for women’s rights and workers’ rights and civil rights. They are the reason I can stand here today as President of the United Sates.” Moreover, support of civic groups is in the interest of the United States. “Countries that respect human rights–including freedom of association–happen to be our closest partners. That is not an accident. Conversely, when these rights are suppressed, it fuels grievances and a sense of injustice that over time can fuel instability or extremism.  So I believe America’s support for civil society is a matter of national security.”

Which countries suppress human rights?

From Russia to China to Venezuela, you are seeing relentless crackdowns, vilifying legitimate dissent as subversive.  In places like Azerbaijan, laws make it incredibly difficult for NGOs even to operate.  From Hungary to Egypt, endless regulations and overt intimidation increasingly target civil society.  And around the world, brave men and women who dare raise their voices are harassed and attacked and even killed.

Obama Clinton Global Initiative

A Hungarian blogger who happens to be a conservative took the president’s words seriously. He entitled his post “Hungary at a crossroads” and added, “Obama said that Hungary had decided already: it fixed its place next to Russia, China, Kenya, Egypt, Burma, Azerbaijan, etc.”  Moreover, he wrote, Obama made it clear in his speech that “there is no gray zone, there is no Hungarian trickery, there is no double talk. We either stand next to Burma or next to the United States.”

In his address Obama announced a series of new steps that the United States will take to strengthen civil society where there is need. Yesterday he issued a presidential memorandum in which he instructed federal departments and agencies to pay close attention to civil society groups. Specifically, the United States “will oppose efforts by foreign governments to restrict freedoms of peaceful assembly and association and expression.” The United States will create “new innovation centers to empower civil society groups around the world.” NGOs will be able to use these centers “to network and access knowledge and technology and funding that they need to put their ideas into action.” Finally, the United States will increase “support to society groups across the board [and] will increase emergency assistance to embattled NGOs.” The Treasury Department will be instructed to “finalize regulations so it’s even easier and less costly for your foundations to make grants overseas.”

All that is good news for the embattled Hungarian NGOs and the four distribution centers currently under attack. Norway will no longer have to stand alone in its defense of Hungarian civil society. It also may mean that more funding will be forthcoming from American sources to Hungary. After all, Hungary is a unique case. The other countries Obama referred to are in Latin America, in sub-Saharan Africa, in the Middle East, and in Asia. Hungary is the odd man out in this company, and that might attract the attention of donors in the United States. The importation of Putin’s methods into the European Union would be a dangerous precedent which, especially given the current international situation, should not be tolerated.

Obama spoke and Hungary’s shaky reputation abroad received yet another blow. How did Hungarian politicians react to the news that Hungary was compared to some of the worst dictatorships in the world? The usual way. Szijjártó basically called the American president a liar because the president’s remark about “the Hungarian government’s placing any restriction on Hungarian civil society lacks all foundation … because the Hungarians are freedom-loving people.” When Lajos Kósa, one of the deputy chairmen of Fidesz, was asked to comment on Obama’s inclusion of Hungary on a list of countries that harass NGOs, his answer was that “Obama is most likely not entirely familiar with current Hungarian affairs.” For example, it is unlikely that he knows what the third largest city of Hungary is. Then he turned to the reporter from Klubrádió and asked him whether he knows which city it is. The reporter gave the wrong answer when he said it was Miskolc. (Actually it is Szeged.)  Kósa triumphantly exclaimed, “You see!” I assume that means that he did not know the correct answer either. The botched moral of the story: if you don’t know which city is third largest in Hungary you are most likely totally ignorant of everything that goes on under Viktor Orbán’s rule.

Magyar Nemzet is silent. So is Magyar Hírlap. But the Orbán government’s new so-called English-language online paper added these sentences to the news about the speech itself. “Obama has criticized Hungary because of the recent scandal of the Foundation ‘Ökotárs’…. Barack Obama could have the opportunity to share his concerns with János Áder, since the Hungarian president is on official visit in New York this week.” The fault lies with Obama; he should have consulted with Hungary’s president to learn the truth about the Hungarian government’s treatment of the civil groups before he spoke. One could laugh at all these pitiful reactions if the situation weren’t so terribly serious.

Hungary through American eyes

American diplomats have been employing novel ways of communication. For example, yesterday Daniel Fried gave a press conference by telephone from Washington to a small number of Hungarian journalists about the American position on economic sanctions against Russia. Daniel Fried is the State Department’s coordinator for sanctions policy.

Fried is a senior diplomat with vast experience in Eastern Europe. He served as political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in Soviet times; he headed the Polish desk during the regime change in the late 1980s. After Poland emerged as one of the democracies of the region, he was political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw. Later he served as assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs and special assistant to the president and senior director for European and Eurasian affairs at the National Security Council. So, why does Daniel Fried think that he has to give a long-distant press conference for Hungarian journalists? Surely, because Washington wants the Hungarian public to know the American position on Russian aggression against Ukraine. And it also wants to share its opinion of the current state of Russian-Hungarian relations.

Ambassador Daniel Fried

Ambassador Daniel Fried

Up to this point we have two independent versions of the telephone interview: one from Népszabadság and the other from VilággazdaságI can’t imagine that MTI was not invited, but for the time being there is no MTI report on the event.

The main message was that sanctions will be applied as long as Moscow does not fulfill all twelve points of the Minsk Agreement. A good summary of these twelve points can be found on the BBC website. Russian regular troops are still on Ukrainian soil and “the Russian aggression continues.” The United States wants a political solution to the crisis and is ready to cooperate with Russia in many areas, but Russia must respect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine. With its aggression against Ukraine Russia “seriously endangers the European security system that came into being after the 1989-1990 East European events.” If Russian aggression continues, the United States and the European Union are ready to introduce new sanctions.

Fried then turned to specifically Hungarian issues. Hungary and its prime minister should know from Hungarian history what it is like when a country is left alone unprotected in the event of outside aggression. Therefore Hungary ought to realize the importance of the steps that are being taken in this case. Viktor Orbán first claimed that “the European Union shot itself in the foot when it introduced sanctions against Russia” and later at the NATO summit in Wales he declared that “we are hawks when it comes to military security but doves in economic terms.” Fried said that “we all want to be on good terms with Russia, to improve our relations, but this is not the right time for friendship.” Fried cited Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s claim that sanctions only deepen the Ukrainian crisis. “The Russians say all sorts of things, many of them are simply not true. After all, they deny that their soldiers are in the territory of Ukraine.”

During the press conference it became clear that talks took place between the Hungarian and the U.S. governments concerning the sanctions. It seems that the U.S. listened to Hungary’s objections but was not impressed.  The sanctions hurt not only Hungarian businesses but businesses of all nations, including those of the United States. The European Union made a brave decision which Hungary supported.

The message was that one cannot play the kind of game Viktor Orbán is playing at the moment. On the one hand, he is a supporter of the common cause against Russia, but when it comes to sanctions he tries to make special deals with Moscow. For instance, Sándor Fazekas, the Hungarian agriculture minister, visited Moscow on September 8 where he had talks with Nikolay Fyedorov, his Russian counterpart. There Fazekas agreed with Fyedorov that “the sanctions don’t offer a solution to the Ukrainian crisis, which should be settled through negotiations.”

And according to leaked documents, we know that Vladimir Putin told Petro Poroshenko during one of their telephone conversations that he “through bilateral contacts can influence some European countries to form ‘a blocking minority’ in the European Council.” The countries he has in mind are Slovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Cyprus. I guess Daniel Fried wanted to make sure that Hungarians understand that Washington fully supports the application of sanctions and that the large majority of the EU countries are also on board.

While we are talking about U.S.-Hungarian relations, I ought to mention that U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D), who is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, and Senator John McCain (R) introduced a resolution in recognition of the International Day of Democracy on September 15. Accompanying the introduction of the resolution Senator Carden’s press release talked at length about the sad state of democracy in Hungary where “there is an unprecedented global crackdown on civil society organizations seeking to express their voice and exercise their rights. Earlier this week, Hungarian authorities raided the offices of two NGOs in Budapest in what appears to be part of a tightening squeeze on civil society. Such actions not only undermine democracy but chill investigative reporting on corruption and good governance. Now, more than ever, is the time for the international community to push back on threats to civil society and protect efforts by these organizations to build strong democratic institutions.”

In addition, on September 18 Deputy Chief of the United States Mission to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Kate Byrnes delivered the following speech to the Permanent Council in Vienna:

Three months ago, on June 19, the United States addressed the Permanent Council regarding an apparent campaign of intimidation directed toward civil society and independent media in Hungary. I regret that I must speak to the Council again on this topic.

As we said in June, just one day after the April 6 elections, the Hungarian government accused organizations that conduct legitimate work in human rights, transparency, and gender equality of serving “foreign interests.” Shortly afterwards, the Prime Minister’s Office alleged that NGOs that monitor and evaluate grant proposals for the EEA-Norway NGO fund were tied to an opposition party. On September 8, Hungary’s National Bureau of Investigation initiated a series of police raids on two NGOs responsible for the EEA-Norway NGO grant program in Hungary. With no prior warning, and in a show of intimidation, over 30 officers entered the NGOs’ facilities and seized the organizations’ documents and computers.

These police raids appear to be aimed at suppressing critical voices and restricting the space for civil society to operate freely. The United States again reminds Hungary of its OSCE commitments to human rights and fundamental freedoms, democracy, and the rule of law.

Mr. Chair, we raise these issues to express our concern about actions that appear inconsistent with OSCE principles, and also to encourage dialogue. We intend to continue to encourage the government of Hungary to observe its commitments and allow NGOs to operate without further harassment, interference, or intimidation. The United States believes that such respect for its commitments will help Hungary to become a more prosperous, robust and inclusive democracy.

Finally, here is something from former President Bill Clinton, who appeared on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. “There’s the authoritarian capitalism model which is Russia and in a different way China, and it has some appeal. Like the Hungarian Prime Minister – they owe a lot to America; he just said he liked authoritarian capitalism, just saying “I don’t ever want to have to leave power” – usually those guys want to stay forever and make money. And there’s the democracy model …”

Hungary is in the news, no doubt. It would be better if it weren’t.