Tag Archives: Charles Gati

U.S. State Department comes to the aid of the beleaguered regional press in Hungary

On November 9 a highly unusual announcement appeared on the website of the U.S. State Department. The Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) announced a “funding opportunity” for the support of “objective media in Hungary.” DRL supports “those persons who long to live in freedom and under democratic governments that protect universally accepted human rights.” DRL is normally not involved with European countries, especially those that are members of the European Union and are supposedly developed countries with the necessary set of democratic institutions.

DRL’s goal in this case is to support media outlets operating outside the capital of Hungary “to produce fact-based reporting and increase their audience and economic sustainability…. The program should improve the quality of local traditional and online media and increase the public’s access to reliable and unbiased information. Projects should aim to have impact that leads to democratic reforms.”

This was such stunning news that even the Hungarian ministry of foreign affairs and trade was unable to respond. The grant of 200 million forints or $700,000 means that the United States no longer considers Hungary a democratic country where the free flow of information can be taken for granted. Earlier, when U.S. Chargé d’Affaires David J. Kostelancik delivered a tough speech at the headquarters of the National Association of Hungarian Journalists, both Tamás Menczer, foreign ministry spokesman, and Levente Magyar, its undersecretary, were outraged and complained about interference in Hungary’s domestic affairs. But when 444.hu, the internet news site that discovered the item on the website of the State Department, asked the foreign ministry for its reaction, it got the following brief answer: “Unusual step; we are studying its aim and goal; for the time being we have no comment.”

The fact that the grant specifically targets the countryside means that the Americans are well informed on the state of the Hungarian media. While the print editions of the two independent countrywide daily newspapers, Népszava and Magyar Nemzet, reach very few people, the regional local papers are quite popular. People want to know what’s happening in their towns. But all 19 regional papers were gobbled up recently by Lőrinc Mészáros and Andy Vajna, the alter-egos of Viktor Orbán. The sections of these local papers that deal with national and foreign news are written centrally and distributed to all 19 local papers. State television, which can be seen without a cable hookup, broadcasts unadulterated propaganda. TV2, the other television station that can be seen everywhere in the country, was acquired lately by Andy Vajna. Thus, people living in the countryside have access only to a one-sided and highly distorted view of reality. The 200 million forints, of course, will not alter that situation substantially, but it is a warning to the Orbán government that it went far too far in creating practically a one-party state with an omnipresent propaganda machine.

A good example of the marketplace of free ideas. The front page of a few of the 19 regional papers

Népszava called attention in its front-page article to the fact that “it is unparalleled in diplomatic practice for the United States to support independent media in a European country which is considered to be developed.” It also reminded the readers that as early as 2012 Mark Palmer, former ambassador to Hungary, Charles Gati, professor of political science, and Miklós Haraszti, former OSCE representative on freedom of the media, wrote an article in The Washington Post in which they called attention to the problem and suggested the revival of Radio Free Europe’s Hungarian language radio station.

The so-called diplomats of Viktor Orbán’s ministry of foreign affairs might be too stunned to say anything, but at least two pro-government papers have an opinion on the matter. According to Magyar Idők, by giving this fairly modest grant “the United States is building a client media in the countryside.” The paper is certain that not just one group of journalists will be the beneficiaries. The United States will give grants to “minimally four or five organizations,” which might cost the U.S. about 2 million dollars. The paper sarcastically adds that for the United States this amount of money is insignificant, just as it wouldn’t be big money for China or Russia if they wanted to give money to the United States or Germany “for the support of ‘more’ objective information, leading to democratic reforms. But what would Donald Trump or Angela Merkel say to that?”

Mária Schmidt’s Figyelő, in an article titled “The temporary American chargé is planning to create an anti-media,” goes into a complicated explanation for the reasons for this grant. The real aim is “not raising the quality of Hungarian journalism;  the real goal is a change of government.” The article admits that the money will be distributed only after the national election, but what the Americans want to achieve with this move is to influence the results of the 2019 municipal elections. They gave up on the “democrats of the capital,” whom they are leaving to George Soros’s generosity, and are concentrating instead on the countryside, which is bright orange (i.e., solidly Fidesz) now. The article is full of complaints about “these temporary chargés” who are still hanging around. “Who is this Kostelancik?” He was foreign policy adviser to the Helsinki Commission, and “we are only too familiar with the Helsinki Commission.” He worked in Moscow as an adviser to the ambassador, and “we know from spy movies that these are always disagreeable fellows.” But when the ambassador appointed by Donald Trump comes, “he will get rid of Mr. Kostelancik.”

As is evident from the Figyelő article, Hungarian right-wing journalists, and to some extent even the politicians, hope that the lack of improvement in U.S.-Hungarian relations is due to the fact that the old-timers are still hanging around. Donald Trump didn’t have time yet to get rid of them. But, as Népszava rightly points out, giving this grant to the independent media of a so-called democratic country is no trifling matter. It may even have been cleared by the White House.

The Hungarian right-wing media has a friend in the United States, Daniel McAdams, executive director of the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity, who wrote an article after the announcement of the grant titled “Manipulation: The US State Department’s New Program to Take on Hungarian Media.” Only recently the U.S. Justice Department demanded that the Russian-backed RT America network register as a foreign propaganda entity or face arrest. And now DRL is launching a program to “massively interfere in NATO-partner Hungary’s internal media.” Hungary is “a full democracy where the will of the people is regularly expressed at the ballot box and there the media competes freely in the marketplace of ideas.” This intervention must feel “like a stab in the back to Orbán and his government” because while “Brussels saw Trump as a gauche loudmouth, Orbán openly admired the soon-to-be-president’s position on immigration.” In this article McAdams comes to the same conclusion as the journalist of Figyelő when he asks: “What would you do if China sent in a few million dollars to prop up US publications who agreed to push the Beijing line?” He warns: “Hands off Hungary!”

I think one should explain to Daniel McAdams that he is comparing apples to oranges. Russia Today is a Russian state-financed television network broadcasting Russian propaganda all over the world. DRL’s modest grant is designed to open a small door to those who are exposed exclusively to government propaganda. The amount of money the Orbán government spends on “communication” is staggering, and talking about competition “in the marketplace of free ideas” is a brazen lie when 19 regional papers are effectively in the hands of one man, the prime minister of the country.

November 11, 2017

The “Azerbaijan Laundromat” and Orbán’s Hungary

News of the “Azerbaijan Laundromat” scandal reached Hungary yesterday, thanks to the report of Átlátszó, a group of investigative journalists who participated in an investigation conducted by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). It was a truly international effort that included Danish, British, French, Swiss, Russian, Austrian, Slovene, Romanian, Bulgarian, Estonian, Czech, and American journalists. The first short description of this money laundering scheme appeared in The Guardian on September 2, from which we learned that the ruling elite of Azerbaijan operated a secret $2.8 billion scheme to pay prominent Europeans, buy luxury items, and launder money through a network of opaque British companies.

In The Guardian article there is no reference to Hungary, but Átlátszó reported that from this enormous amount of money $7.6 million landed in Budapest in 2012 and 2013. The first installment was deposited by Metastar Invest LLP, one of the four phony companies set up to expedite Azerbaijan’s money laundering operation, in July 2012. The recipient of this and subsequent deposits was Valesco International, a company that a couple of years later conveniently ceased to exist. Where the money actually ended up no one knows.

Let’s quickly recall Azeri-Hungarian relations in the first few years of the second Orbán government. Viktor Orbán was in Baku in September 2010, participating in an energy summit, but he had a separate meeting with President Ilham Aliyev. A year later President Pál Schmitt paid a visit to Baku, where he also conducted negotiations with the Azeri president. And on June 30, 2012, Viktor Orbán, while attending the Crans Montana Forum in Baku, again met Aliyev. A few days later, sometime in July 2012, the first installment of the Azeri millions arrived in Budapest.

What happened at this meeting? Most likely it was during this encounter that Viktor Orbán was persuaded to extradite Ramil Safarov, an officer of the Azerbaijani Army who had been convicted of the 2004 murder of an Armenian officer during a NATO-sponsored training seminar in Budapest. Safarov was sentenced to life imprisonment. The Azeri government approached successive Hungarian governments several times, trying to persuade them to allow Safarov to return to Azerbaijan so he could serve the rest of his sentence in his own country. The Hungarians refused because they suspected, with good reason as it turned out, that Safarov would be pardoned as soon as his plane hit the ground in Baku.

It is hard not to suspect a connection between Orbán’s visit to Baku in June and the first installment of $7.6 million to a Hungarian bank account in July, especially since by the end of August Safarov was on his way to Azerbaijan, where he was welcomed as a national hero and set free.

Of course, this is just conjecture, but what is clear is that the Azeri government used bribes to achieve its political aims and that those who were ready to serve Azeri interests were generously rewarded. The extradition of Safarov was certainly something that merited recompense as far as Aliyev was concerned. Ever since then, Azeri-Hungarian relations have been close. Aliyev remained a grateful friend and Orbán a loyal ally. One of my posts from 2014 describes in some detail the close relationship that developed between the two countries, which at times became outright embarrassing. For example, when Viktor Orbán during his last visit to Baku in 2016 talked about “the leaders of the country who have made Azerbaijan one of the most respected and often envied countries in the world.”

The Azeri leadership also spent a considerable amount of money on European politicians who were ready to defend Ilham Aliyev’s dictatorship. I will concentrate here on one politician who also had extensive dealings with the Orbán government. He is Luca Volontè, who was one of the largest beneficiaries of Aliyev’s “generosity.” Volontè at the time was the chairman of the European People’s Party group in the Council of Europe. Italian prosecutors allege that Volontè was paid €2.4 million by Azerbaijani officials in exchange for “his support of political positions of the state” at the Council, which is supposed to promote democracy and the rule of law. The accusation is actually not new. Gerald Knaus, chairman of the European Stability Initiative, a think tank, claimed as early as 2012 that “the Council of Europe … in recent years has been captured by autocrats.”

János Martonyi, Luca Volontè, and Viktor Orbán, March 28, 2012 / Orbán’s Facebook page

It is about this time that Viktor Orbán put a photo of himself with János Martonyi and Luca Volontè on his Facebook page. By that time, Volontè had proved to be a great friend of Hungary. In January 2011 the Council of Europe held a debate on the functioning of democracy in the country. Hungary was fiercely defended by several members of the Parliamentary Assembly (PACE), among them Volontè, who criticized the proceedings against Hungary on the ground of “a lack of facts.” Any criticism of the government inside of Hungary, he argued, comes from “people who are unhappy that they were not reelected.” Otherwise, Hungary is a model democracy.

Volontè’s close friendship with the Hungarian government continued. By 2013 he was again defending the Orbán government against the monitoring committee of the Council of Europe in connection with the new Hungarian constitution. He called the criticism of the Hungarian government a witch hunt. He claimed that the critics are not even familiar with the text of the constitution. Volontè explained all this in an interview with the then pro-government Magyar Nemzet.

By that time, Volontè was most likely a paid agent of the Azerbaijani government, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he also offered his services to the Orbán government, which was in considerable trouble both in the European Parliament and in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

A year later I became even more suspicious when an ugly attack was launched in Hungary against Professor Charles Gati after the publication of his article “The Mask is Off,” which originally appeared in The American Interest and a day later in Hungarian Spectrum. It was written after Viktor Orbán’s infamous speech about building an “illiberal state” in Hungary. Orbán wasn’t expecting such a violent reaction to his honest admission of his plans, and the Fidesz media tried to distinguish between the American and the European understanding of the word “liberal.” It was at this point that Luca Volontè was called upon as a true “European voice.” He must have had considerable government help with his long article titled “Hands Off Hungary!” because he seemed to be too familiar with the Hungarian political scene at the time.

Volontè is no longer in politics. He is running the Novae Terrae Foundation, which “commits itself to defend human rights conceived according to natural law.” But he still has time to write long articles in praise of Viktor Orbán. The last such article appeared in Magyar Hírlap on March 18, 2016 with the title “Hungarian Spark: Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has the clear wisdom to outline the conditions of the epoch-making challenges ahead.” It is a propaganda piece which ends with this line: “I’m sure that I’m not the only one who can proudly say how good it is to meet true people and to know them as my friends, whom I hope to meet again in the country of St. Stephen soon.” Volontè’s wish was fulfilled because he visited Hungary in November 2016, giving a lecture on “The relativization of European values” at an international conference in Szeged organized by the Szeged-Csanád Bishopric and the Polish Consulate in Szeged. A few months later he was back in Hungary, this time for the World Family Summit held in May 2017, where he participated in a panel discussion on “Pro-family Activities in the World.”

This afternoon Magyar Idők published a surprisingly straightforward account of the Azeri bribery scheme with the title “Three-billion dollar fund for Baku’s plans: The threads reach the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.” The $7.6 million deposited in a Budapest bank was of course omitted from the summary, but the article to my great surprise included a mention of Volontè as one of the accused. My question is whether these revelations will have any bearing on the currently overfriendly Azeri-Hungarian relations.

September 6, 2017

Charles Gati: “Even the most talented diplomat cannot sell junk”

This is a translation of an interview with Charles Gati, senior research professor of European and Eurasian Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, which originally appeared in Magyar Narancs on April 20, 2017 under the title “You cannot circumvent the elite.” The English translation was published by The Budapest Sentinel on April 24.

Hoyt Brian Yee, Deputy State Secretary at the United States Department of State, was recently in Budapest to meet with the Hungarian government. While here he also raised the issue of Central European University (CEU), and confirmed to the press that Fiona Hill, Donald Trump’s advisor responsible for Russian and European affairs, also supports the CEU matter. Is the university remaining also important to Trump?

What I know is that the State Department agreed with the White House, and that in the White House the National Security Council, which deals with matters of foreign policy and security, supported advocating for the university to a great extent. Of course, this does not mean that the president personally requested this — it’s good if an American president devotes half an hour a year to Hungary. He wouldn’t have time for any more. Hungary’s significance in American politics today is minimal.

What changes have taken place to the State Department since the new president took office?

There are fifty or sixty positions at the State Department filled by political appointees. They have started assuming their positions. However, there is no change in those officials who deal with Hungary in the European department. One or two might be transferred. These experts continue their work independent of the person of the president or party. Deputy Secretary Yee is such an official and counts as the most important operative person in this field. He holds the same position now as at the time of Obama.

The Hungarian government recently recalled Réka Szemerkényi who represented our country to Washington the past two years. What is your view of the ambassador’s work?

Even the most talented diplomat cannot sell junk. An ambassador can stand on her head and it would be of no significance since the experts here know precisely what the situation is in Hungary, how close the Hungarian government is to Putin, how much it tries to undermine the European Union, and how little it contributes to the cost of NATO. I see lobbying the same way: it may be that, of the 535 congressmen, one or two manage to issue a statement. The vast sums of money spent on this by the Hungarian government is actually a complete waste.

What do you think explains the fact that in recent weeks the American president has acted in a manner diametrically opposed to what he promised during the campaign?

The most important question these days is really how long Trump’s political somersault will last. There have been as many changes in a week as Orbán — an ultraliberal in his youth — in a decade. Moreover, among the fresh changes are a number that pertain to Hungary. Trump wooed Putin during the campaign, mentioning him as a potential friend of America. And yet he incurred the anger of the Russian leadership by ordering the bombing of the Syrian airport. One of the most important statements of the campaign was that America would move its embassy from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem. These days we don’t hear anything about this. There was also talk that Hillary Clinton should be imprisoned. But these days he has to be more concerned that it is his people who will end up behind bars. A few days was enough to persuade himself that NATO is not a thing of the past. All of this indicates that the president is starting to move in the direction of the traditional foreign policy of the Republican Party. But in the Republican Party there are two truly important directions. The one is the conservative line near to Wall Street, which back in the day was more or less represented by George W. Bush. The other is the national line, whose nationalist rhetoric Trump made his own during the campaign. Although a nationalist direction won him the election, one senses more and more a Wall Street mentality in his politics. This is especially important from a foreign policy point of view since the direction opposes the politics of isolationism, which was one of the main program points on the side of the nationalists.

What could have caused the change? Did Trump realize that governance is more complicated than he thought? Or was he worried about getting into trouble after it turns out that many of his confidantes conspired with Russian leadership?

The majority of the people around him represent Wall Street: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and all the economic people. On the other side is the representative of the national side, Steve Bannon, who is more and more marginalized in the government. Trump did not understand politics when he assumed the presidency. In certain economic questions he was an absolute beginner, and he has woken up to this fact. The best example of this was when he said about the restructuring of the health-care system he “didn’t know that it was so complicated.” An unprepared and naive president assumed power in America, and now we are seeing a certain willingness to revise certain things.

But don’t these changes alienate him from those who voted for him?

It could easily be the case that sooner or later things go wrong with his electoral base. But it is not yet clear where this is leading, or what group of voters he is trying to win over.

In September 2012 Obama said he would interfere in Syria in the event chemical weapons were used. However, when he should have done so the following year, he stepped back instead. The Obama government explained this by saying that instead of a military attack it was using diplomatic means to persuade the Assad regime to give up chemical weapons. The chemical attack at the beginning of April indicates that the Syrian government retained these kinds of weapons. How does this reflect on Obama’s foreign policy?

In actuality this was the worst episode of Obama’s foreign policy. But when Trump went against his own promises, on the one hand he wanted to prove that he could fix the mistakes of his predecessor, and on the other demonstrate that the photos of destruction and the murdered children touched his soul. However, it is difficult to say whether any conclusions can be drawn from this regarding the foreign policy of the next months or years. The experts are now saying that this was a one-time strike and that we should not calculate with another intervention.

I cannot argue with this, but I have to say that I was personally affected when Trump responded in a human manner to the Syrian events. After all, children died, and it also turned out that Assad lied when he said he had given up all his chemical weapons. In my eyes, this increased Trump’s stature as a person, even if this action did not make him greater politically.

But is some sort of Middle East strategy starting to emerge from his actions? Not long ago he spoke about how he would like to repair US relations with the Gulf countries, and he provided support by telephone to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and supposedly distanced himself from moving the embassy to Jerusalem at the request of King Abdullah II of Jordan. All of this suggests that he is trying to contain Iran’s regional efforts, in alliance with the region’s Sunni leaders 

It is also difficult for me to say anything about the Middle East. A boastful, unprepared man assumed the White House who is incapable of delivering on what he promised. He campaigned on a promise to immediately terminate the Iran nuclear agreement, but he hasn’t done anything. He also said that he would take care of the Islamic State in a few days, but he had to wake up to the fact that this affair is much more complicated than he thought.

Construction of the wall planned for the Mexican border hasn’t started either.

Nevertheless, there are alarming developments here as the authorities are separating families. It is possible to hear a number of stories about parents whose children were born in the United States having no choice but to leave the country without them. This is the insensitive practice that is consistent with his promises. True, immigration policy did not become as cruel as many foretold during the campaign.

Today’s Trump believes China is no longer manipulating the yuan . . .

For now that is the most important change. After he met with President Xi Jinping, he said he understood why he doesn’t do more against North Korea, and he sees that this is a serious question. So there is some hope that relations with the world’s second-largest economy, which of course is still a dictatorship, will improve. This would be extremely important, because the world at this moment is perhaps more dangerous than at the time of the Cold War, and Chinese-American cooperation, which hopefully one day probably after Putin, Russia will also join, is our best hope for world peace in the coming years.

Is there no place for Europe in this constellation?

So long as the European Union is on the defensive and is this divided, it can only play a side role in matters of great strategy.

Who has the greatest influence over Donald Trump?

In many questions his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is the standard, but I would say that in foreign policy it is rather his National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster whose opinion counts. He thinks differently on many issues than the resigned Michael Flynn. McMaster is an old and respected member of the Washington national security elite.

This means that the current change in direction can be attributed to chance? If Flynn had not been compromised by his Russian connections, then would we be seeing a completely different American foreign policy?

These are not by chance. The decision to name such a serious and knowledgable person as McMaster in Flynn’s place was deliberate. The situation is that it is not possible to circumvent the Washington elite. Politics is a profession practiced by qualified people. It is not possible to charge in from New York’s Trump Tower and say we are reordering the world. The president also realized that power is limited. But it is important that the national side has not found sufficient support. Trump may have won the election but he received three million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton. His support is altogether 40 percent, which is far lower that of his predecessor during the first couple of months. The institutions are not giving in. A West Coast court was able to veto the ban on people arriving from Muslim-majority countries because even those sympathizing with Republicans clearly stated that the ban is unconstitutional. Congress rejected the law overwriting the health insurance system. The American press also uniformly condemns the Trump government. So American political culture is asserting itself, and the system of checks and balances is working well. Trump reacts to opposition by searching for more serious answers to the problems at hand.

The Guardian recently wrote that the Democratic Party is worsening its future chances by trying to drive out politicians practicing Bernie Sanders’ politics. The newspaper believes James Thompson of Kansas could have won a seat in Congress, but that the party did not even try to support his campaign, and this is why he failed.

I do not agree with this. In the state of Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff has a good chance of winning in an early election where so far Republicans have been the favorite. He, on the other hand, received a lot of support from the party. It is not as though the Democrats are that clever, but they benefit from Trump’s weakness even if there isn’t a fresh, new face behind which to line up party supporters. Sanders had a lot of followers. My oldest grandson also supported him, but my feeling is that he is a socialist. It is not possible to win an election in America with a social democratic program.

April 27, 2017

Charles Gati: Friedman’s “kapo” comment should disqualify him as ambassador to Israel

Charles Gati is a senior research professor of European and Eurasian Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. He is also a regular reader of and commentator on Hungarian Spectrum. This opinion piece originally appeared in The Hill on February 28, 2017.

♦ ♦ ♦

I am a Holocaust survivor. I was not yet 10 years old in 1944 when my parents and I were locked up in the Budapest ghetto, where some 15 of us lived in one small room. We were cold, hungry and lived in constant fear of being taken away and killed.

My parents and I were initially saved by Carl Lutz, the courageous Swiss diplomat who rescued some 62,000 Hungarian Jews by providing them with letters of protection. In helping the Jews of Hungary, he defied his government’s orders.

As a mark of respect for Lutz’s memory, and also in honor of those members of my family who did not survive, I object to President Trump’s choice of David Friedman as the next ambassador to Israel.

Friedman does not merely hold radical views outside the American mainstream and lack foreign policy credentials; he also negatively compared American Jews who don’t share his positions to “kapos.”

I doubt that Friedman understands who the kapos really were. They were Jews enlisted by the Nazi SS during the Holocaust to serve the SS in the concentration and extermination camps as well as in the ghettos.

They were given a choice between collaboration and death. Some behaved with great brutality in order to survive. Others did the best they could to help themselves and to help us, too. While I do not excuse their actions, no one who was not there in those unimaginable conditions has the right to pass judgment.

Is Friedman sure he knows what he would have done?

To be fair, I don’t know what I would have done. I did not personally experience the camps. With my parents, I evaded deportation thanks largely to the papers provided by Lutz, the Swiss consul-general to Budapest at the time and truly a Righteous Among the Nations.

But my father’s older brother Lajos Gottlieb and his wife disappeared during those dark days and we never heard from them again. My father’s other brother Zsigmond Gellért and his teenage son Gábor were taken to Auschwitz and died there. Zsigmond’s wife — my Aunt Ferike — and her daughter Vera — my first cousin — were also deported to Auschwitz, but survived.

I give their names to make an important point: the Holocaust, the kapos and their many victims are not metaphors or abstractions.

For Friedman to brand other Jews engaged in legitimate debate in our democracy as kapos is not only offensive; it shows a disturbing lack of knowledge.

It borders on incredulous to believe Friedman’s sudden reversal during his Senate Foreign Relations Committee testimony of what he had previously professed.

Despite his last-minute about-face during his hearing, I continue to doubt that Friedman understands who the kapos were. If he did, he would recognize that the damage caused by his hurtful and mean-spirited comments could not be walked back over during a few hours of public testimony.

Watching his testimony for several hours, I had the impression that under his calculating, lawyerly demeanor was an agitator eager to be confirmed as an ambassador.

Worst of all, by freely throwing around words that have a specific meaning in the context of a specific historical event, Friedman dilutes the meaning of the Holocaust and dishonors the memory of those who perished.

Using this term to describe one’s political opponents actually aids the work of Holocaust deniers because it suggests that kapos are an everyday phenomenon that arise in every generation — and not a tragic group of people caught in a uniquely agonizing dilemma during the Holocaust.

To serve in Israel, in particular, we need diplomats in the cast of Carl Lutz who use their office to do good. That is why — for the sake of American interests and values and also for the sake of history and memory — I hope the Senate does not vote to confirm David Friedman’s appointment.

March 2, 2017

A more fitting celebration of the 60th anniversary of ’56 in Washington

About a week ago I included a sentence about the reception Réka Szemerkényi, Hungarian Ambassador in Washington, was giving for the sixtieth anniversary of the outbreak of the October Revolution. I reported that to the best of my knowledge a number of important American officials serving in the White House, Congress, and State Department had declined the invitation over concerns about the alarming political developments in Hungary. In addition to their general concerns, they may well have also noticed the systematic falsification of Hungarian history, which includes the events of the ’56 uprising as well. Mária Schmidt, Viktor Orbán’s court historian who had already perverted the history of the Hungarian Holocaust, rewrote the history of the revolution for the anniversary. The result is a monstrosity that bears no resemblance to reality.

This assault on the revolution prompted a group of people in Washington to organize a gathering to celebrate the real events of sixty years ago. They chose not to celebrate with those who claim that executed Imre Nagy “died nicely but wasn’t a hero.” Yes, this is a direct quotation from the chief organizer of the anniversary, Mária Schmidt. Thomas Melia (who as deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, had extensive dealings with Hungary), former Hungarian Ambassador to Washington András Simonyi, and Professor Charles Gati of Johns Hopkins University organized the event that took place last night. About forty people attended, including Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s national security adviser; Charles Kupchan, currently special assistant to the president and senior director for European affairs at the National Security Council; Damian Murphy, senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs and her husband, Robert Kagan, well-known author, columnist and foreign policy commentator; Hoyt Yee, deputy assistant secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs; André Goodfriend, chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Budapest between August 2015 and January 2016;  Jackson Diehl, deputy editorial page editor of the Washington Post, who writes many of the paper’s editorials on foreign affairs; and Pál Maléter, Jr. son of the minister of defense in the last Nagy government who was reburied along with Imre Nagy on June 16, 1989. Anthony Blinken, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, couldn’t make it but sent his greetings.

Professor Gati briefly retold the story of the revolution, which is admittedly complex because the intellectual unrest that preceded it began as a factional struggle in the communist party between the Stalinists and the reformers but quickly led to a coalition government in which four parties were represented. This coalition government, which naturally included the communist party, decided to leave the Warsaw Pact. Gati emphasized that the revolution was “profoundly democratic—demanding freedom of the press and checks and balances (called ‘socialist legality’ )—and profoundly pro-Europe. These demands were at the top of the list presented by the students.”

One of the few pictures of members of the Nagy government: Zoltán Tildy, Imre Nagy, and Pál Maléter

One of the few pictures of members of the Nagy government: Zoltán Tildy, Imre Nagy, and Pál Maléter

Of course, we know that the Orbán regime’s narrative is very different: the revolution was transformed into an anti-communist crusade led by right-wing representatives of the pre-1945 period. Those intellectuals who were disillusioned communists were removed from the historical narrative prepared for the anniversary celebrations, as were social democrats and liberals. As if they never existed. They simply don’t fit into Orbán’s worldview.

Professor Gati then moved on to the situation in Hungary today and brought up the speeches of Péter Boross and László Kövér. “This Monday, the speaker of the Hungarian parliament blamed the United States not Moscow for crushing the revolution while another high official spoke of the heinous deeds of U.S. imperialism,” adding “I’m not making this up.” And, Gati continued: “Even in Washington, where Hungarian officials work hard to mislead us by praising transatlantic relations, on Sunday they somehow forgot to read Vice President Joe Biden’s message to their invited guests; I guess their feelings were hurt that they didn’t hear from President Obama.”

Gati told his personal story as a refugee after the revolution. “I came here penniless and was treated fantastically by everyone: the International Rescue Committee, Indiana University, and various employees of Columbia University, Johns Hopkins University, even the State Department.” He recalled that the quota for Hungarians (4,400) was quickly filled but that within days Congress was authorized to allow another 40,000 Hungarian refugees to come. He contrasted this behavior with the situation today. In Hungary they build a razor wire fence to keep refugees out and even in the United States some people contemplate building walls. “My hope is that the old spirit of generosity will guide us again someday soon. There is another Hungary there that deserves our attention and support,” he concluded. I think that every Hungarian refugee should join Charles Gati in remembering the generosity of Austrians, Germans, Brits, Swedes, Swiss, Canadians, Australians, and Americans in those days and feel profoundly sad at the behavior of the Hungarian government, which incited ordinary Hungarians against the refugees.

I should add that Anita Kőműves, a young journalist who used to work for Népszabadság, happened to be in Washington and was invited to speak. The applause that followed her words honored those journalists who paid for their bravery with their livelihood because Viktor Orbán doesn’t believe in a free press, one of the very first demands of the Hungarian students in 1956.

October 28, 2016

Charles Gati on Hungarian foreign policy: It is hard to sell junk

Professor Charles Gati of the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University has just returned from a lecture tour in Central Europe and Italy.  After Bologna, Prague, and Berlin he visited Budapest where Gábor Horváth, foreign policy editor of Népszabadság, interviewed him.

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Gábor Horváth: There is quite a lot of chaos all over the world, but can one discover some system in it?

Charles Gati: For the time being there isn’t. A new order is in the making and it is not yet clear where all this will lead. One thing is sure: the United States will remain the dominant world power but with less influence than it had during the cold war. Europe as a unified political player has been considerably weakened. Russia can exert influence on the territories of the former Soviet Union but elsewhere less so, and China is incapable of coping with the problem of combining capitalism with an autocratic political system.

GH: During your Central European and Italian lecture tour you talked about international problems, from the barbarism of the Islamic State to the inertness of the United States and posed the question: what do they have in common? What is your conclusion?

CG: What they have in common is that, in comparison to earlier decades, the United States of President Obama has assumed less and less of its earlier role in world affairs. The United States has become weary of the role it played during the last six or seven decades, especially because at the beginning of the twenty-first century it made a lot of mistakes, even committed crimes. The other common feature is the rise of nationalism everywhere in the world against integrating developments. After 1945, especially in Europe, encouraging revolutionary changes occurred as a result of integration, but now because of its deficiencies a counterrevolutionary, nationalist, demagogic surge is taking place.

GH: Can one make a conjecture about the new world in the making?

CG: The most important characteristic of this new world, especially in Europe and America, is that the political, business, and educational elites slowly but surely have lost their earlier influence. The free-wheeling freedom of the internet is playing an enormous role in that development. Today, throughout the world the view prevails that everybody’s opinion is just as important as everybody else’s. That is, the value of knowledge, experience, and expertise has decreased. A further problem is that the discussions have moved beyond civilized boundaries. Certain anonymously published arguments–not to mention crude invectives—would have been unimaginable twenty years ago or would have appeared only rarely.

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GH: Do those who criticize “political correctness” appeal to this phenomenon?

CG: Partly, and they use the conceit of the ignorant who think that freedom can be invoked for everything. Naturally, I am not an opponent of freedom, but I regret that on the side of knowledge, experience, and civilized behavior there is no normal way of combating demagoguery and malicious opinions. I also regret that the Lenin’s infamous saying, “Those who are not with us are against us,” is becoming more accepted. Anyone who is critical becomes an enemy.

GH: It is impressive that at the age of 80, while gradually retiring from teaching, you decided to enroll in a two-year course as a student of psychoanalysis. Does it help to understand the behavior of people and societies?

CG: That is a complicated topic but I would mention just one example. I find Sigmund Freud’s short masterpiece, Civilization and Its Discontents, very timely. In this book Freud discusses the necessity of defending civilization from the violent instincts that induce mankind to commit murder. My studies have given me an opportunity to get to know various clinical symptoms, which also emerge in politics. But analyses of individuals can be done only by those with a greater knowledge of the subject, and even they can do it only in private. Although several people have asked me to analyze the psyche of Vladimir Putin or Viktor Orbán from afar, I have declined.

GH: I will not ask you to do that. What can Hungary do to lessen the risk of this transitional period?

CG: We mustn’t forget the significant achievements of earlier decades. The present excessive criticisms of the European Union ignore the fact that after 1945 for seventy years—first in the western part of the continent—there was peace and prosperity. That was the result of integration, which is more important than the fact that the bureaucracy in Brussels makes occasional mistakes or acts beyond its power. We shouldn’t judge the European Union’s achievements by the stupid regulations concerning the size of a banana. The overestimation of the role of the nation states strikes me as historical amnesia. After all, we know from the history of Europe what kinds of catastrophic wars swept across the continent prior to the modern integrative efforts.

GH: You left for the United States sixty years ago, and looking back on your career you have succeeded. Today the Hungarian government, and with it many people, fear mass immigration. What explains this panic and what should the task of the government be?

CG: After 1956, 50,000 Hungarian refugees arrived in America. The reception was friendly and people were ready to help. I have only good memories. Others might remember differently; after all, the far-right press often talked about possible Hungarian or Soviet spies among the refugees. But there had been anti-Irish and, later, anti-Italian sentiment. And at the beginning of the twentieth century there was antagonism against the Jewish immigrants, who were accused of being influenced by communist ideology. A minority of people have always been afraid of “otherness.” So, I understand that when so many unfortunate refugees come from the Near East who are not white, not Christians or Jewish, it is easy to say that they don’t belong to Europe or America. There is some truth in that, but at the same time the teachings of Christianity and Judaism and the moral dictates of the irreligious oblige us to aid those in need. That’s why I was impressed by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s gesture, who went to the airport to welcome the Syrian refugees.

GH: The Hungarian government, together with the Russian, Iranian and Zimbabwean, hopes for Donald Trump’s electoral victory. Not the best company. Was it a wise move to commit ourselves?

CG: In the United States only a couple of officials in the State Department or perhaps a few sharp-eyed journalists have noticed that Viktor Orbán has lined up behind Trump. The real problem is the general state of the relationship and not whether the Hungarian prime minister prefers the Republicans. I find this approach incomprehensible. You may recall that Orbán also supported the candidacy of John McCain, who subsequently called him a neo-fascist dictator. It would be better not to get involved in American domestic politics because the Hungarian leadership, as well as the right-wing press, is super sensitive to any criticism coming from the European Union or America.

GH: According to some, the deterioration of U.S-Hungarian relations outright endangers the security of the country. Is there any chance that relations between the two countries would move away from the current low point?

CG: It is a great pity that not even such a talented diplomat as Ambassador Réka Szemerkényi, who received her degree from my university, can overcome the hurdles in the way of better relations. Not even the best businessman can successfully sell junk. We are talking about the quality of the goods, that is, the ever-weakening state of Hungarian democracy and the ever-expanding system of Russian-Hungarian relations. As long as there is no change in these two areas, I don’t see a chance for improved relations. As long as this is the case, it matters not who the ambassador is because the problem is basically a structural one.

October 5, 2016

The Hungarian right-wing media’s attack on the United States and its ambassador, Colleen Bell

Right after Viktor Orbán’s last Friday morning radio interview on October 30, when he mentioned George Soros’s name in connection with civil activists’ work with the asylum seekers, one of the many headlines on the topic read: “Viktor Orbán has taken aim at George Soros instead of Colleen Bell.” The journalist was wrong. Viktor Orbán ordered an attack on both.

A couple of days ago I covered in broad outline the attack on George Soros. And earlier I reported on U.S. Ambassador Colleen Bell’s speech, which seemed to have come as a surprise to the Hungarian government. Or at least this was the impression government propaganda tried to convey. Slowly, however, the truth has come out. Bell informed Jenő Megyesy, Viktor Orbán’s American-Hungarian adviser, about the kind of speech she would be delivering at Corvinus University. Moreover, as it turned out, Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó and Ambassador Bell frequently consult by phone, sometimes several times a week. Surely, the American position couldn’t have been a secret to either the officials of the ministry of foreign affairs or the prime minister’s office.

Only two important government officials commented on the speech: Péter Szijjártó and János Lázár, head of the prime minister’s office. Both accused the United States of meddling in another country’s internal affairs when it calls the Hungarian government’s attention to its abandonment of democratic norms. But does the United States transgress the boundary of diplomatic rules when such criticism is leveled against Hungary? Not at all. Here I would like to thank Professor Kim Scheppele for calling my attention to the Moscow Document. In 1991 all member states of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe agreed to the following statement: “The participating States emphasize that issues relating to human rights, fundamental freedoms constitutes one of the foundations of the international order. They categorically and irrevocably declare that the commitments undertaken in the field of the human dimension of the CSCE are matters of direct and legitimate concern to all participating States and do not belong exclusively to the internal affairs of the State concerned.” Hungary was a signatory to this document.

Even if government officials try to ignore references to Colleen Bell’s speech, instructions surely have reached the new government media. As we know from the new editor-in-chief of Magyar Nemzet, before the falling out between Orbán and Simicska its staff was instructed by the government, sometimes twice weekly, about the “proper” presentation of the news and the tone of the editorials. So, we can be sure that whatever we read in publications like Magyar Idők, Pesti Srácok, or 888.hu reflects the opinion of the Orbán government.

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The first attack on Colleen Bell came from Magyar Idők, which learned “from American sources” that Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs at the U.S. State Department, is dissatisfied with Ambassador Bell because she is not tough enough on the Orbán government. That’s why she is being called back to Washington for consultation. Well, no she isn’t being called back. She is going on a private visit, and naturally while in the United States she will pay a visit to the State Department.

This article, written by László Szőcs, formerly of Népszabadság, was outright polite in comparison to another piece that seems to reflect the opinion of the editorial staff. This second article is full of surprises because here Victoria Nuland is portrayed as the accomplice of George Soros. What is the connection? Believe it or not, it is Ukraine. The leading lights of Magyar Idők, who come from the hard-core Orbán worshippers at the old Magyar Nemzet, are fiercely pro-Russian and thus anti-Ukrainian. In this article both Nuland and Soros are accused of supporting the “bloody revolution of Maidan” in order “to build true democracy in Ukraine.” Soros, according to Magyar Idők, wants a similar fate for Europe. He wants to “bring the Arab Spring to our continent and change the current political systems of individual countries.” And he’s trying to achieve his devilish plan with the help of Viktoria Nuland.

Ottó Gajdics, one of the editors of Magyar Idők, was chosen to deliver an ugly personal attack on the U.S. ambassador, accusing her of having a low IQ. He also points to the Orbán-phobia of Victoria Nuland. In fact, Hungary is “one of the best allies of the United States in the region,” but these people find two serious problems with Hungary. One is that it is right-wing and nationalist, and as such is not ready to “serve the global ambitions of the superpower.” Their other problem with Hungary is that its government has too strong a legitimacy. Ever since 2010 the United States has done its best to foist upon Hungary a policy that would serve the interests of the United States. “But the country has resisted these most shameless attempts at interference by the giant who believes itself to be the policeman of the globe.”

Right after the Bell speech that made such waves in Hungary, Professor Charles Gati gave an interview to Gábor Horváth of Népszabadság. In it, Gati expressed his bafflement over the Orbán government’s foreign policy. As he put it, “There are two countries which are important from the Hungarian perspective. One is the United States, which guarantees the country’s security through NATO. The other is Germany, which is of key economic importance. Both countries are quite popular among Hungarians and yet the government lately has been attacking both. I simply don’t understand Hungarian foreign policy when the government rants against Chancellor Merkel and the United States. This is not in Hungary’s national interest.”

A few days ago three foreign policy experts got together at Corvinus University to discuss Hungarian foreign policy: Géza Jeszenszky, foreign minister (1990-1994) and ambassador to Washington (1998-2002); Péter Balázs, foreign minister (2009-2010); and Tamás Magyarics, ambassador to Ireland (2010-2014). They all agreed that having bad relations with the United States and the European Union is not smart. Perhaps the best description of Viktor Orbán’s foreign policy came from Péter Balázs, who likened the Hungarian government to a teenager going through puberty: insecure and oversensitive, confused. “Like a troubled teenager who turns against his family, makes friends with the wrong kind of people, neglects his studies, loses touch with his cousins who live beyond the borders, and is friendly with those who actually treat him badly.”

Unfortunately, I don’t see any inclination on the part of the Orbán government to change its course. If anything, the opposite is true. The attacks multiply and the volume is being turned up every day. Instead of finding common ground, Orbán hopes to change the atmosphere in Washington by courting Republican lawmakers with the assistance of Connie Mack, a former congressman and now lobbyist. Millions of dollars are being spent on Mack’s meager achievements. After all, the administration is still in Democratic hands, and criticism of the State Department by a few Republican congressmen will not make the slightest difference. But more about this tomorrow.