Tag Archives: cold war

Is the Hungarian far-right Jobbik party financed by Russia?

It’s amusing to watch an old piece of news reemerge and be heralded as an important discovery. This is exactly what happened a few days ago when the British conservative paper, The Telegraph, published an article with the title “Russia accused of clandestine funding of European parties as US conducts major review of Vladimir Putin’s strategy.”

Suspicions of Russian financial assistance to far-right parties in both Eastern and Western Europe are not new. For instance, ever since Jobbik surfaced as a substantial political force in Hungary, people have questioned the source of the party’s financing. How was it able to spend so lavishly on its 2010 political campaign?

Suspicions were further aroused when articles appeared in Index and elsewhere about Béla Kovács, a Jobbik member of the European Parliament, who was accused of spying for Russia. He is also thought to be the man through whom Russian financial contributions reached Jobbik. Those of you who are unfamiliar with Kovács’s shady activities should check out two of my posts about him, one from April and the other from May 2014. At that time the Hungarian chief prosecutor, Péter Polt, expressed his intention to start an investigation of the case, but for such an action to take place the European Parliament had to lift Kovács’s parliamentary immunity. The European Parliament took its sweet time but finally, more than a year and a half later, on October 15, 2015, the European Parliament acted. Since then Polt has been free to investigate and to question Kovács. To this day, however, nothing has happened.

In December 2014 newspapers were also full of stories about a €9.4 million loan from the First Czech-Russian bank in Moscow to the French National Front. Putin’s goal, it seemed evident, was “to undermine the European Union.” The Guardian called on Europe “to wake up to [Russia’s] insidious means of funding, or risk seeing its own institutions subverted.”

Even the U.S. decision to investigate the funding of far-right parties isn’t exactly new. It was on June 17, 2015 that the Senate authorized “appropriations for fiscal year 2016 for intelligence and intelligence-related activities of the Unites States Government.” Among the long list of “duties” was an “assessment of funding of political parties and nongovernmental organizations by the Russian Federation … in [the] former Soviet states and countries in Europe” since January 1, 2006.

What is new, however, is that The Telegraph’s reporter had the opportunity to see a “dossier of Russian influence activity” which identified Russian operations running in France, the Netherlands, and Hungary as well as in Austria and the Czech Republic.

US Intelligence Community

The Telegraph article was naturally met with great interest in Hungary. Most of the articles simply summarized the story, but there were a few that went beyond Jobbik-Russian relations and focused on Putin’s designs on Europe. For example, Propeller published an article on the subject with the headline: “It is because of Putin that the American secret service is investigating us.” The article talks about Hungary as a “danger zone” of Putin’s designs.

Fidesz is delighted. The party doesn’t even mind that the so-often maligned U.S. intelligence service has extended its activities to the sovereign Hungarian state. According to Szilárd Németh, one of the newly elected vice-chairmen of the party, Gábor Vona, Jobbik’s chairman, “must avow the party’s relations with Russia not only to the people of Europe and of Hungary but also to the American authorities.” Suddenly Viktor Orbán and his party are worried about the future safety of Europe and even care what the “American authorities” think.

The government paper, Magyar Idők, has published two articles on the topic in two days, even though it is ideologically conflicted. On the one hand, the pro-government journalists working for the paper are delighted that Jobbik might be in trouble but, on the other hand, they don’t quite know how to handle the involvement of Putin’s Russia and the United States in such an investigation. Magyar Idők, just as its predecessor Magyar Nemzet, is pro-Russian and anti-American. It must be quite a challenge to combine joy over Jobbik’s troubles with an adoration of Russia and hatred of the United States. In the paper’s second article they solved the problem:

The widening of the Russian sphere of interest is obviously a thorn in the side of the United States and that’s why it is important for the American intelligence services to investigate the activities of the European parties with strong eastern ties. At the same time one ought to note that U.S. authorities haven’t moved a finger against kuruc.info, which uses a server operating from the United States. … It is not the radicalism of Jobbik that worries the leaders of the United States but the possibility of Russia’s European expansion.

May I add that the editors of kuruc.info, an openly anti-Semitic neo-Nazi site, write their articles in Hungary. The Hungarian authorities know full well who they are and could start proceedings against them at any time, but they choose not to.

How did Russia react to the news published in The Telegraph? Finian Cunningham, in a fairly lengthy article titled “Russian Red Scare No Longer Works” in Sputnik International, lashed out at the American and British governments, accusing them of a media campaign to demonize Russia. During the Cold War, “in the good old days,” they could control their public with scare stories about the “Red menace” or the “Evil Empire,” but these old formulas don’t work anymore. So now the U.S. and Great Britain are adopting different tactics. They are portraying Vladimir Putin “as a malign specter trying to break up European unity by funding political parties.” There is “not a scrap of evidence … to substantiate the story of alleged Russian conspiracy to destabilize European politics.” The problem is not Putin but the “massive numbers of ordinary citizens who have become disillusioned with the undemocratic monstrosity,” meaning the European Union.

But the real “problem is that the EU has shown no independence from Washington. The European governments under the harness of the American-led NATO military alliance have blindly joined the US in its disastrous, illegal wars for regime change.” It is clear that “Washington wants to isolate Russia for its own self-interest of displacing Russia as a major energy supplier to the continent. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot.” Cunningham’s article didn’t forget about Poland either. According to him, “Europe’s pathetically servile deference to Washington’s economic and foreign policies is manifesting in forms of protest and dissent towards the entire EU project. The rise of Poland’s rightwing, nationalist ruling party is another sign of the times.” The similarities in style and content between Sputnik International and Magyar Idők are striking.

For the time being, Jobbik is facing the attacks with confidence. An English-language communiqué was issued by the party today:

Fidesz welcomes the news that the US Congress has instructed James R. Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, to conduct an investigation into any Russian influence operations or funding of political parties in EU member states…. Jobbik requests the US authorities to reveal the findings of their investigation as soon as possible since the public has the right to know which political parties are funded by external powers. In the meantime, we request Russia to also disclose the findings of its own intelligence services regarding the potential US funding of European political parties. European citizens deserve to see a clear picture.

We attribute a special significance to the US Congress’ initiative in light of the ongoing political farce which was launched by Fidesz against MEP Béla Kovács, a representative of Hungary’s strongest opposition party one and half years ago, and so far has been unable to produce any evidence to support the allegations. We hope that the earliest possible disclosure of the report will reveal the truth and unveil Fidesz’ vicious political game solely designed to divert public attention from the rampant corruption of the government party.

January 20, 2016

Hungary as a “field of operation”

Paranoia seems to have swept through the Hungarian government. Fidesz politicians are convinced that the United States wants to remove Viktor Orbán and cause his government’s fall. All this is to be achieved by means of the “phony” charge of corruption.

Recently a journalist working for Hetek, a publication of Hitgyülekezet (Assembly of Faith), managed to induce some high-ranking members of the government to speak about the general mood in Fidesz circles. The very fact that these people spoke, even about sensitive topics, to a reporter of a liberal paper points to tactical shifts that must have occurred within the party.

Their argument runs along the following lines. Until now the Obama administration paid little attention to the region, but this past summer the decision was made to “create a defensive curtain” in Central Europe between Russia and the West. The pretext is the alleged fight against corruption. The Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania are the targets. Fidesz politicians point to recent Slovak demonstrations against corruption which were “publicly supported” by the U.S. ambassador in Bratislava. Or, they claim, the Americans practically forced the Romanian government to take seriously the widespread corruption in the country. They are certain that the resignation of Petr Nečas, the former Czech prime minister, “under very strange circumstances” was also the work of the CIA.

In its fight against the targeted Central European governments Washington relies heavily on NGOs and investigative journalists specializing in unveiling corruption cases. George Soros’s name must always be invoked in such conspiracy theories. And indeed, Átlátszó.hu, sponsored in part by the Soros Foundation, was specifically mentioned as a tool of American political designs.

To these Fidesz politicians’ way of thinking, all of troubles recently encountered by the government are due solely to American interference. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that the government itself has given plenty of reason for public disenchantment. In fact, the first demonstrations were organized only against the internet tax. Admittedly, over the course of weeks new demands were added, and by now the demonstrators want to get rid of Viktor Orbán’s whole regime.

The Fidesz politicians who expressed an opinion think, I am sure incorrectly, that the Americans have no real evidence against Ildikó Vida and, if they do, they received it illegally. Vida got into the picture only because of the new “cold war” that broke out between the United States and Russia. Hungarian corruption is only an excuse for putting pressure on the Hungarian government because of its Russian policy and Paks.  As for Hungary’s “democracy deficit” and American misgivings about Orbán’s “illiberal state,” Fidesz politicians said that if the United States does not accept Orbán’s system of government as “democratic” and if they want Fidesz to return to the status quo ante, this is a hopeless demand. “Not one Hungarian right-wing politician would lend his name to such ‘retrogression.'”

The latest American “enemy” of the Orbán government is the State Department’s Sarah Sewall, Undersecretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, who a week ago gave a speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in which she said that “we [recently] denied visas to six Hungarian officials and their cronies due to their corruption. This action also bolstered public concern, and on November 9th, the streets of Budapest filled with 10,000 protesters who called for the resignation of corrupt public officials.” As soon as Hungarian officials discovered the text of that speech, André Goodfriend, the U.S. chargé in Budapest, was once again called into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

I think it would be a mistake to characterize the American fight against corruption simply as a smokescreen for exerting political pressure on foreign governments. Sewall in that speech explains the potentially dangerous political ramifications of corruption.

Corruption alienates and angers citizens, which can cause them to lose faith in the state, or, worse, fuel insurgencies and violent extremism…. Ukraine …provides [an] illustration of how corruption can both increase instability risks and cripple the state’s ability to respond to those risks. The Maidan Movement was driven in part by resentment of a kleptocratic regime parading around in democratic trappings.

All this makes sense to me, and what Sewall says about Ukraine is to some extent also true about Hungary. But the Fidesz leadership sees no merit in the American argument. In fact, today both Viktor Orbán and Péter Szijjártó used very strong words to accuse the United States of interfering in Hungary’s internal affairs.

"We can't pay as much in taxes as you steal"

“We can’t pay as much in taxes as you steal”

Viktor Orbán sent a message from Belgrade. The prime minister does not know why the United States put aside 100 million dollars for “the preparation of an action plan against two dozen Central- and East-European countries in order to put pressure on their governments.” The United States declared Hungary to be a “field of operation,” along with others. Referring to Sewall’s speech, he expressed his dissatisfaction that he has to learn about such plans from a public lecture. “If someone wants to work together with Hungary or with any Central-European government for a good cause, we are open. We don’t have to be pressured, there is no need to spend money behind our backs, there is no necessity of organizing anything against us because we are rational human beings and we are always ready to work for a good cause.” It is better, he continued, to be on the up and up because Hungarians are irritated by slyness, trickery, and diplomatic cunning. They are accustomed to straightforward talk. (He presumably said this with a straight face.)

Viktor Orbán’s reference to the military term “field of operation” captured the imagination of László Földi, a former intelligence officer during the Kádár regime as well as for a while after 1990, who announced that in secret service parlance “field of operation” means that every instrument in the intelligence service can be used to undermine the stability of a country. The Americans’ goal, as Orbán sees it, is the removal of his government.

Meanwhile the staff of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade who were brought in by Péter Szijjártó are solidly anti-American. They consider the diplomats who served under János Martonyi to be “American agents” because of their alleged trans-atlantic sentiments. So I don’t foresee any improvement in American-Hungarian relations in the near future, unless the economic and political troubles of Putin’s Russia become so crippling that Orbán will have to change his foreign policy orientation. But given the ever shriller condemnations and accusations, it will be difficult to change course.