Tag Archives: Colleen Bell

US Ambassador Colleen Bell’s farewell interview

What follows is an English translation of Ambassador Colleen Bell’s interview with index.hu’s Szabolcs Panyi and Gábor Miklósi. The translation was done by the staff of The Budapest Sentinel. I am grateful for their work and their permission to reprint it in Hungarian Spectrum.

Source: index.hu

“When we talk about civil organizations, we are talking about groups of Hungarians who love their country and joined together in order to improve the country in certain areas.  Or in order to give voice to certain matters, like the problem of corruption and the promotion of tolerance, or improving education.  They do not constitute a threat to Hungary, but are vital to a democracy  For this reason I would encourage the government to cooperate with these civil organizations in the matters they consider important.” 

The following is a translation of the interview with US Ambassador to Hungary Colleen Bradley Bell published in Hungarian by daily online index.hu on January 18, 2017.

Colleen Bell, the accredited Ambassador of the United States to Budapest, is leaving after two years and the election of Donald Trump as President.  She gave a farewell interview to Index.

First she reacts to criticism surrounding her appointment.  She thinks this was not personal.

  • Bell defends the civil organizations attacked by the Hungarian government.  She believes the government is overestimating George Soros’ role and that the billionaire has no influence over American foreign policy.
  • Bell thinks Jobbik will be handled the same way as now: there will be no contact with the far-right party.
  • She says there is a decrease in the independent Hungarian media and she misses Népszabadság, but cannot state that the newspaper was closed for political purposes.
  • She says it is conceivable she will run for public office in America and play a role in the Democratic Party finding its way again.

You’ve had a pretty exciting two years in Hungary but we’re not going to start with that.  Rather, you have never officially responded to the criticism and negative media reaction surrounding your appointment and Senate confirmation hearing in the United States.   We are curious how this affected you and your family, and whether looking back there was any criticism you found warranted.

I put that so far behind me that I haven’t really thought about this, to be honest.  Look, this is politics, and politics are brutal.  It is fierce, competitive, combative – that’s just the way politics works  You can see the same thing in the Senate hearings of the pending members of the Trump administration.  However, eventually I was unanimously approved by the Senate foreign relations committee, both on the part of Democrats and Republicans.  As I see it, criticism of me was a combination of political and economic interests and sexism.  But I repeat, if you enter the political arena, you have to suck it in and be very prepared.

And you were?

I’m tough.  A lot tougher than I look.  But I understood that these criticisms were not directed at my person, but were politically motivated.  It helped that for every criticism there were a hundred compliments from those people who worked with me, and that they had complete confidence in my abilities.  And the criticism afforded me a perfect opportunity to discuss with my children how the media works and how information spreads today, and the fact that there is an awful lot of invention, false information, and that there are certain powers that try to paint people’s successes as failures, or simply understate their accomplishments.

Did you not entertain any doubts?  Obviously, you had no diplomatic experience and had not dealt previously with foreign policy.  Do you not think there was some truth in some of the reservations relating to your person?

I did not doubt for a minute that I would be an effective American ambassador in Hungary.  Not for a minute.  I am perfectly aware of my abilities, as are those people who know me or even President Obama himself who nominated me for this task.  But I also know that I had to learn a lot and had to properly prepare, and that is precisely what I did.  We should also add that it is a tradition for the US president to choose ambassadors from the private sector to all parts of the world.  There is a memorial plaque to Benjamin Franklin here at the Budapest embassy: it was through political appointment that he became ambassador to France.

Some believe Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was expressly happy that the US president continuously sends female ambassadors to Budapest, because he thought that he could charm them with his politeness, hand-kissing and all the rest.

Well, that is really sexism if someone believes that, and completely ridiculous.  You cannot easily charm me, and I know the same applies to my predecessors, who historically have been women.  Anyone who claims this about us simply does not know us!

On those occasions when you met with Orbán, did you not sense that the head of government wanted to impress you, or that he did not regard you as an equal?

Prime Minister Orbán was respectful and cordial, and willingly shared his knowledge about Hungary.  He was extremely professional and supported my efforts here.

How many times did you meet officially?

I had numerous official meetings with the prime minister.  After my arrival we met together.  Later we had a long and substantive meeting at the American-Hungarian Business Council meeting.  Our discussion at 8:45 am on the morning after Brexit was memorable when the prime minister shared his thoughts and expectations for twenty-five minutes with regard to the extraordinary change taking place in the EU.

Have you met with Orbán since the US presidential elections in November?

Not with him, but I regularly sit down with representatives of the government, after the election as well.

We would have been interested in knowing Orbán’s opinion about Donald Trump’s pending presidency.

You know just as well as I do from the news that he is extraordinarily enthusiastic and excited by the opportunities offered by the next administration.

Do you think there is basis for his optimism?  You and your predecessors expressed condemnation of the government over problems regarding freedom of speech, rule of law, and democracy.  Will the Trump administration be more lenient?

I cannot speak about the policies of the future administration of the elected president, only that, in general, foreign policy tends to be extremely values-based and consistent.

I believe the next administration will continue the same road and will continue to promote trade, security, law enforcement.  Hungary is a reliable and important ally in the fight against international crime and terrorism.

You neglected to mention those areas raised in the previous question.  Do you believe those groups – civil organizations, civil rights defenders, organizations dealing with minority rights or media freedom  – who shared the values of the outgoing Obama administration should start to worry?

Freedom of expression, media freedom, human rights – these are universal, fundamental democratic values and cornerstones of our foreign policy.  At the same time I believe we will continue to promote policies committed to their maintenance and support.

Do you really believe this?

Yes.

Several days ago the Fidesz deputy chairman, Szilárd Németh, announced that with Trump’s election arrived the international possibility of sweeping away civil organizations tied to George Soros.  I think this contradicts what you have just said.  The reason the Hungarian government is awaiting the Trump administration so is because it thinks it will allow them to do whatever it wants, including cracking down on civil organizations and independent media. 

I repeat that promoting the values mentioned is a central element of our foreign policy.  But what I can say about what I have read here in Hungary in recent weeks about the so-called threat to civil organizations, and about how they should be closed, is the following: When we talk about civil organizations, we are talking about groups of Hungarians who love their country and joined together in order to improve the country in certain areas.  Or in order to give voice to certain matters, like the problem of corruption and the promotion of tolerance, or improving education.  They do not constitute a threat to Hungary, but are vital to a democracy  For this reason I would encourage the government to cooperate with these civil organizations in the matters they consider important.

Have you spoken with Hungarian civil organizations and their leaders in recent weeks or months?

Yes, of course.

Did these Hungarian civil organizations feel threatened by their own government?  What was your impression?

As the American ambassador I met with a great many different people from every section of society, including civil organizations.  We had important and honest discussions about their priorities and affairs they deal with.  There were some who expressed their desire to be more respected.

And they said this so politely how wonderful it would be if they respected us more?  Or did they express themselves more forcefully?

I heard various opinions.  Some civil organizations feel that their work is recognized and respected.  Others not so much.

One of the main accusations on the part of Fidesz is that George Soros is supporting liberal political goals through these organizations, which in this way are quasi-foreign agents.

Civil organizations are fundamental to the operation of any democracy, as I mentioned earlier.  They need to feel that there is room for them to complete their work.  Who devotes their lives to serving a cause are driven by good intentions.  They are not foreign agents, they do not want to bring the government down, and they do not want to influence the outcome of elections.

In recent years, since my arrival, George Soros has received an important role in the news.  They accuse him of all sorts of nefarious doings.  But George Soros did many wonderful things for the Roma community, created scholarship opportunities, and did an incredible job supporting institutions like the Central-European University.  I told my various Hungarian governmental interlocutors again and again: they are overestimating George Soros’ ability to influence the policies of the United States or US elected officials. This is simply not the case. But then why do they portray him as such an important person?  Some tell me it may be because the government is using him to divert attention.  They attribute all evil which exists in Hungary to him and make an effigy, bogeyman out of George Soros.

Do you see signs of anti-semitism in attempts to create a public enemy out of Soros?

George Soros is a businessman, an entrepreneur.

And a Jew.

And a Jew.  But I have never really thought about that.  Obviously, it would be shameful on anyone’s part to condemn George Soros or his work based on this one fact.

You stated that Soros does not influence US foreign policy.  Not at all?

I can state what I sense, and I do not see Soros having any influence.  Let us not forget that I worked on the Obama campaign, and I was a member of the Democratic National Committee’s financial committee.  So I am saying this as someone who was active in business life, as well as in the campaign and the political and public sector as well, as as someone with a wide scope of information.

And what do you think when George Soros supposedly tries to interfere in Hungary’s internal politics, and when he works to create sentiment in favor of changing the government?

Are we really still talking about George Soros?!  I completely respect George Soros, so much so that I do not concern myself with what he may be working on.  As American ambassador I have rather preoccupied with matters of security, law enforcement, economics, and international diplomacy.  I read about him in the news and I see what they write about him.  But beyond this I have no opinion about what he is working on.

There is a certain Hungarian opposition party which the American embassy has never invited anywhere, and that is Jobbik.  What do you think about Gábor Vona’s attempts to repackage his party as a modern, conservative, moderate entity?  Can Jobbik expect a change in attitude in American diplomacy towards them?

We have practically no contact with Jobbik.  Historically Jobbik is fraught with discriminative, anti-semitic statements, and this is contrary to our interests which we represent here in Budapest through the American embassy.

So you do not see any change in the party’s direction, or you do not believe that this is a real change?

I have heard that they are trying to change their image.

So the embassy continues to consider them an undemocratic, obscene party?

At present there is no intention on the part of the embassy to expand our contact with them.

Is this something that may be re-evaluated in the future if Jobbik happens to better satisfy democratic values?

I don’t have a crystal ball.  All I can say is that there is no room for discriminative behavior, statements, or politics in modern society.  Regardless of party, I can only hope they move away from this and come to represent appropriate values.

Do you think Russia is interfering in the modern political life of Hungary, say through supporting Jobbik?

I do not think I possess sufficient information to comment on that.

But I suppose you are familiar with the espionage case of Jobbik politician Béla Kovács.

I read about it.

The campaign against civil organizations and George Soros directed by Russia might also be familiar.  Do you not see more similarities between the Russian regime and the Hungarian government?

I am not a Russian expert, but the events of the past few years, the annexation of the Crimean peninsula, and the greater challenge posed by aggressive Russian behavior – for example the directed disinformation campaign, and lastly the interference in the American election – gives cause for concern.

Did you ever get the feeling that the Russians wanted to interfere in Hungarian politics as well?

I cannot comment on that, and I have no evidence to suggest that.

Let’s talk about the media.  Since you arrived to Hungary in the spring of 2015, from TV2 and vs.hu to Népszabaság you have seen a fair number of examples of the demise of that part of media that is still independent. 

I have absolutely seen how the media market has decreased since my arrival.  You mentioned Népszabadság, which is but one example of this.  It is important that the Hungarian people have access to a broad scope of opinions and information in order for them to be informed citizens.

At the time of closing Népszabadság, the American embassy, in fact a State Department deputy undersecretary, expressed solidarity with the editorial staff.  We have just one question about this.  The Hungarian government and Fidesz politicians claim that Népszabadság was closed for purely economic reasons.  Do you agree?

I miss Népszabadság.  It was an important source of information for me day in and day out.  I’ve heard various opinions as to the reasons behind the paper’s closure.  Some believe the causes were political, others say it was economic.

But what do you think?

I think the decrease in independent media is a general trend we need to calculate with.  It is not my task to decide whether a concrete organ was closed for political or economic reasons.  But I value people’s opinions and the fact that they concerned themselves with the reasons behind the paper’s closure, and how this could potentially impact society.

So if we understand correctly, you are not willing to state that Népszabadság was closed for political reasons?

Look, I am a businesswoman and the American ambassador.  I do not have every fact, number and data in front me in order to make such a statement.  It would be irresponsible of me.

Source: index.hu

In recent years certain individuals on the side of the Hungarian government have accused American foreign policy of interfering in Hungary’s internal politics, and of supporting opposition parties, movements, and even that it wanted to bring down the Orbán government.  Many named deputy secretary Victoria Nuland as the mischief-maker.

This is simply not true. Hungary is a partner and ally of the United States.  We are bound together by NATO, OSCE, and the UN, and we have a close relationship through the European Union as well.  These organizations are all based on mutual values like democracy and freedom of expression and human rights.  Naturally, friends and partners can hold each other to account within these organizations.  Naturally, they are only free to do so in the spirit of respect and partnership.  On the other hand, it would be a mistake not to acknowledge any problems that exist.  In addition to George Soros, deputy secretary of state Victoria Nuland also figured more prominently in the news recently.  A number of allegations and negative statements were made about my colleagues, and there are those in the Hungarian government and media who blame her for friction in the US-Hungarian relationship.   But that is unfair.  Victoria Nuland  enthusiastically and competently applied herself to realizing President Obama’s foreign policy priorities in order that Europe might be united, free, and at peace.  Victoria Nuland honestly stated what she saw in the world and was open to honest answers and dialogue.  She is an extraordinarily talented and experienced diplomat, and it was an honor to work with her.

What are the three objectives whose achievement you are most proud of?

I am extraordinarily satisfied in terms of what I accomplished as American ambassador.  I focused on the three pillars of our cooperation – security, law enforcement, and trade and economic relations – and these worked very well.  This was a very awkward and sensitive period in this region with the migration crisis, the Ukrainian situation, with Brexit, and even with the attempted coup in Turkey.  But with regard to these three pillars, I found the Hungarian government to be a reliable partner. That was the “hard” side of my diplomatic work.   The softer side, meaning public diplomacy, was visiting all 19 counties, for example.  I spent a lot of time traveling by car in order to meet as many Hungarian people in every part of the country as possible.  On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the US National Park Service, I resolved to visit all ten national parks in Hungary.

I would like to say that I worked a double shift day, night and at weekends, and loved every minute of it, the happy and exciting, and even the awkward moments as well.

What would you have liked to continue working on if you could stay.  What are the other goals?

Actually, these objectives will continue after my departure.  For example, I started the women’s networking salon, where women working in different sectors and fields from the arts to business life to health-care could meet one another and share ideas and experiences with one another and exchange telephone numbers.  This will continue after me.  Apart from that, I was the first ambassador to take a Hungarian delegation to the Select USA Summit, which is a meeting of American investors.  Although I’m leaving my post here, on the next occasion a significantly larger Hungarian delegation will attend.  So this objective will continue without me.

The third is a personal goal I would have liked to have worked on, and that was the improvement of my knowledge of the Hungarian language.  This will continue, and there is plenty of room for improvement.  This is a wonderful language, if only it wasn’t so difficult!

Do you see areas where the situation became worse since you arrived?

I am an experienced problem solver.  If a situation is getting worse, I have a hard time turning off my brain and not trying to solve it.  I feel that in every difficult situation I did everything in the hope of a positive outcome.

You do not acknowledge failing at anything?

All right, now comes the failure!  One of my goals for myself was to learn before I left how to make pogácsa (Hungarian scones) and stuffed cabbage, which is my favorite.  I could eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner!  And a good gulyás (beef stew).  I only have a few days left to learn all of this, and I don’t think it will be enough.  So I will take this task along with me to New York where I arrive on Friday.

Do you have political plans for the future?  For example, would you run for political office in America?

I’ve dealt with politics all my adult life.  But as an elected official?  It is entirely conceivable.  The truth is that I thrive on fierce competition, and the political arena is full of challenges and unpredictability. I am a “political animal.”

Barack Obama wants to deal with the rebuilding of the Democratic Party in the future.  Do you see a role for yourself in this.  Are you going to help?

The Democratic Party is a solid, effective and strong political party.  Even if the election result was not favorable for it, this is an occasion to reflect and reconsider what you can do in the interest of performing better and addressing the people more effectively.  There will be a lot of discussion about this, and I suspect that I will also play a role in this.

January 20, 2017

Valiant efforts to sell Viktor Orbán’s version of 1956

Let me start with a brief summary of some events that will take place in Budapest and Washington on the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary of the outbreak of the Hungarian revolution of 1956. I’m certain that Viktor Orbán can never forgive fate that he was not the prime minister of Hungary on the fiftieth anniversary of that important event in the history of the international communist movement. After all, a fiftieth anniversary carries a great deal more weight than a sixtieth. Ten years later, Orbán is trying to compensate for that missed opportunity. Mind you, he was certainly not inactive on October 23, 2006, when he orchestrated a demonstration that eventually became a large-scale struggle between the inexperienced and ill-equipped police force and the rabble that had been egged on by Fidesz politicians for weeks. They had a second revolution in mind.

Now he is basking in glory, as if he and his kind had a legitimate right to speak about those days. The Orbán government has spent an inordinate amount of money both at home and abroad on the celebrations, but as far as I can see the results are meager. One of the Hungarian papers triumphantly announced that Hungary will have a very important visitor for the anniversary in the person of Polish President Andrzej Duda, who will appear alongside Orbán as he delivers his speech in front of the parliament building. The article made it clear that Duda will be the only foreign visitor in Budapest on that day. A rather interesting situation. Is it possible that the Hungarian government didn’t invite any foreign dignitaries for fear of being rebuffed and therefore settled for a show of Polish-Hungarian friendship that has an important message to convey to the rest of the world today? In any case, given the hype surrounding this not so significant anniversary, the absence of foreign visitors is glaring.

The Washington events are not faring any better as far as I know. The Hungarian government originally wanted to organize a conference on the significance of the 1956 revolution at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, but the Center refused to hold the event. Of course, it is hard to know what the management of the Center had in mind when it declined the request of the Hungarian government. There are a couple of possibilities. One is that the participants were mostly members of the government instead of scholars. The second complaint of the Center might have been the lopsidedness of political views of the participants presented to them. Well-known scholars of 1956 were most likely left out on ideological grounds. At the end, the conference had to be moved to the National Defense University, where it was held on August 12.

The theme of the conference was “1956: The Freedom Fight that Changed the Cold War—Geopolitics and Defense Policy.”  Donald Yamamoto, senior vice president of the National Defense University, and Réka Szemerkényi, ambassador of Hungary, welcomed the audience. The keynote speaker was István Simicskó, minister of defense. In connection with Simicskó it is perhaps worth remembering that he was the only member of parliament who voted “no” to Hungary’s joining the European Union in 2003.

Finlay Lewis, a journalist from CQ Now and CQ Roll Call, was the moderator of the morning session, during which Brigadier General Peter B. Zwack from the Institute for National Strategic Studies and the National Defense University, László Borhi, a historian from Indiana University, and Áron Máthé, vice chairman of the Committee of National Remembrance, Budapest discussed “Cold War Geopolitics and the Broader Context to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.” Peter Zwack’s only connection to Hungary is that he is the son of Péter Zwack of Unicum fame. He doesn’t speak Hungarian. László Borhi has written several books on U.S.-Hungarian diplomatic relations, but apparently he is far too close to Mária Schmidt. Áron Máthé is a fairly young historian who so far has published one book about a court case against a number of Arrow Cross men in 1967, which has nothing to do with 1956.

After a coffee break an hour was devoted to “the memory of the 1956 revolution and freedom fight,” during which “Time Capsule 1956—Revolt in Hungary” was screened and Imre Tóth, a member of the revolutionary government of 1956, spoke briefly. I didn’t manage to find anything about Imre Tóth’s precise role in 1956, but I heard from a friend that he might have been an employee of the ministry of foreign affairs, which was in utter chaos during October-November 1956.

After lunch were four more speeches, including one by Tamás Magyarics from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Magyarics’s specialty is U.S.-Hungarian relations.

On the same day the ribbon cutting ceremony of the “1956 Hungarian Freedom Fighters Exhibit” took place at the Pentagon. Present were U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense James J. Townsend, Ambassador Colleen Bell, Defense Minister István Simicskó, and Ambassador Réka Szemerkényi. Ambassador Bell delivered this short speech:

Good afternoon. It is my pleasure to be here today at such a special event. Ambassador Szemerkényi, Minister Simicskó, special guests and friends of Hungary, I am honored to be here.

As many of you may know, I serve as the U.S. Ambassador to Hungary and I have the honor of representing the United States and President Obama in Budapest. During the past two years, I have grown to love the Hungarian people and their devotion to freedom. I have had the pleasure of getting to know Minister Simicskó and greatly appreciate all he and the Hungarian Defense Forces do to make Europe a more free and democratic continent. Thank you for your contributions to NATO, as well as all of the other bilateral and multilateral exercises you participate in on a continual basis. The Hungarian military has deployed – and currently remains deployed – in Afghanistan, Iraq, Africa, the Balkans, and the Baltics. Even if our countries don’t always see eye to eye on all issues, our troops still stand shoulder to shoulder. Hungarian forces’ contributions to democracy and freedom help to make the world a freer place in which to live.

As friends and allies, the United States and Hungary share a faith in democracy. We share a common heritage, cherishing our rights not as subjects or vassals, not as dependents or followers, but as citizens.  We are citizens bound together by our love of liberty, and our willingness to serve.

That is why we are here today – to honor those very brave men and women who sixty years ago attempted to throw off the yoke of communism. Today, in a free Hungary, in the United States, and in many other places around the world, we honor their memory and sacrifices.

Thank you so much for joining us here today. Köszönöm szépen.

Finally, a controversial bronze statue depicting a young boy, a “Budapest Lad/Pesti srác,” will be unveiled on October 16 in Washington.

"The Budapest Lad" in Washington I guess they don't dare to show the rest

“The Budapest Lad” in Washington

The Budapest version of the statue "Pesti srác

The Budapest version of the statue “Pesti srác”

I must say that the Budapest version is a great deal better from an artistic point of view, but as the photo of the model for the statue demonstrates, these kids couldn’t possibly have known what the revolution was all about.

pesti-srac3I really should devote a post to the interpretations of the Hungarian Revolution put forth by Fidesz over the years. Initially, the party viewed the event as a “bourgeois democratic revolution.” But then the Fidesz leadership found their real idols, about 200-300 street fighters who were mostly working class youngsters and whose leaders as time went by became far-right spokesmen for those revolutionary times. They claimed that the real heroes and leaders came from their ranks, as opposed to those anti-Stalinist communists who were responsible, in the final analysis, for the outbreak of an armed revolt. Members of Fidesz have never been admirers of Imre Nagy. As Orbán said years ago, “Imre Nagy is not our hero.” For a while, they even contemplated removing his bust from a site near the parliament building.

These young street fighters did have a role to play in forcing the Nagy government to transform itself into a coalition government of sorts. But had the revolution been successful and had it ushered in a period of consolidation, these unruly groups would most likely have been quietly disarmed and eliminated. For Orbán and Fidesz, however, these kids and their intransigent leaders are the embodiment of 1956.

Of course, there will be speakers from Hungary at the unveiling: Miklós Seszták, minister of national development, Zsolt Németh, chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Hungarian parliament, and János Horváth, former doyen of parliament. Horváth was born in 1921 and left Hungary in 1956 for the United States. In 1992 he was the Republican candidate for Indiana’s 10th congressional district, which was a fairly hopeless undertaking against the Democrat Andrew Jacobs, Jr., who held the seat between 1983 and 1997.

Colleen Bell will also give a speech, which is somewhat strange since, to the best of my knowledge, Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, and Thomas Melia, USAID’s assistant administrator for Europe and Eurasia, declined invitations to the reception organized by Ambassador Réka Szemerkényi. Keep in mind that both of them have been and still are heavily involved in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy vis-à-vis Hungary. Their refusal to attend is not a good sign.

It matters not how many billions the Orbán government is ready to spend on this sixtieth anniversary extravaganza as long as the whole democratic world is watching what’s going on in Hungary with horror. As long as foreign observers and politicians look upon Viktor Orbán as an ally of Vladimir Putin and someone who wants to destroy the European Union. No amount of paint or bronze can cover the grime that has accumulated in Hungary in the last six years.

October 14, 2016

A candid interview with Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó.    Part I

Members of the Orbán government rarely give interviews to news outlets that don’t belong to the government-controlled media empire. I can count on one hand Fidesz politicians who have dared to walk into these “lions’ dens.” In fact, I can think only of Nándor Csepreghy, deputy to János Lázár; Gergely Gulyás, deputy chairman of Fidesz and deputy speaker of parliament responsible for legislation; and Lajos Kósa, today the leader of the Fidesz delegation in parliament. It was therefore quite a surprise to see a lengthy interview with Péter Szijjártó published in Index yesterday. And even more of a surprise that the interview was refreshingly candid.

What can we learn from this interview that we didn’t know before? One cannot expect revelatory information about the general thrust of Hungarian foreign policy, but some until now unknown details emerged.

Let me start with the internal mechanism of decision-making in the Orbán government as far as foreign policy is concerned. At least according to Szijjártó. Three individuals are full-time advisers to Viktor Orbán on foreign policy. The man who is in charge of U.S.-Hungarian relations is Jenő Megyesy, formerly honorary consul in Denver, Colorado. Orbán met him in 2008 when he attended the Republican Convention and was obviously impressed with the man. Hungarians are convinced that Megyesy has an extensive political network in the U.S. and therefore is useful as an adviser. He has been employed by the prime minister’s office ever since 2010. He is the one Szijjártó turns to when it comes to matters concerning the United States.

szijjarto interview

The second adviser, Péter Gottfried, is an old-timer who has been involved in foreign trade and foreign policy ever since the late 1970s. He has served in high positions in all the post-1990 governments. According to Szijjártó, Gottfried deals exclusively with Europe.

The latest addition is József Czukor, a former intelligence officer, who started his career in 1988 at the Hungarian embassy in Bonn. He has also served all governments and has had friends on both sides of the aisle. In 2010 he was named ambassador to Germany, and in the fall he is moving into the prime minister’s office to be an overall foreign policy adviser to Orbán. From the interview Szijjártó seems to be less enthusiastic about Czukor than his boss is.

You may have noticed that there are no permanent advisers to Orbán who handle Russia and countries in the Far East. Szijjártó is, according to his own account, solely responsible for Russian-Hungarian relations. He relies on the advice of János Balla, Ernő Keskeny, and Zsolt Csutora. Balla, who has been a professional diplomat since 1982, is currently Hungarian ambassador to Russia. Keskeny is in Kiev. In February 2015 I wrote about Keskeny, whom I described as a “rabid Russophile” who allegedly was behind the Russian-Hungarian rapprochement. Subsequently, Keskeny was named ambassador to Ukraine, an appointment that the Ukrainian government couldn’t have welcomed given Keskeny’s well-known pro-Russian sympathies. Csutora began his career as an army officer in 1986 and then moved into the foreign ministry during the first Orbán government. Until recently he was ambassador to Azerbaijan.

What does Viktor Orbán consider to be the essence of Hungary’s foreign policy under his watch? When Orbán asked Szijjártó to be his foreign minister, he told him: “Péter, be a Hungarian foreign minister, and conduct a Hungarian foreign policy. That’s all he told me.” Of course, the journalists’ next question concerned the foreign policy of János Martonyi and Tibor Navracsics. Wasn’t theirs a Hungarian foreign policy? Szijjártó sidestepped that question and tried to explain that the style of foreign policy that Martonyi, for example, conducted wouldn’t work in today’s international climate. The harsher style he is using is the only one that is appropriate in the present circumstances.

As for his own less than diplomatic style, which shocks a lot of observers and analysts, Szijjártó has the perfect answer. He never starts a fight, but when someone attacks Hungary he must immediately counter it because, if there was no rapid response from Budapest, these unfair criticisms and insults would only multiply. At the probing of the interviewing journalists, Szijjártó guessed that he told off foreign politicians about 20 times during his tenure as foreign minister, although Index diligently collected 60 such instances. Szijjártó called in the ambassadors of Croatia, Romania, Austria, Greece, France, and the United States. Which countries’ leaders were given a piece of Szijjártó’s mind? Austria, the United States, Luxembourg, Greece, Germany, Croatia, Spain, France, Italy, Romania, the Netherlands, Serbia, and Sweden.

We found out who Szijjártó’s favorite ambassadors are: Iain Lindsay of the United Kingdom and Colleen Bell of the United States. I’m not surprised about Lindsay, who is an unusual sort of ambassador. On April 11, which is the day of poetry in Hungary, he recited an Attila József poem in very respectable Hungarian. As for Colleen Bell, Szijjártó has the highest opinion of her. According to him, “if Colleen Bell were not the ambassador of the United States in Hungary, political relations between [the two countries] would be much worse. She represents a very calm voice in the U.S. Embassy in Hungary and her presence has helped a lot in the somewhat improving relations between the two countries. Somewhat.”

When the journalists reminded the foreign minister that one finds the same American criticisms of the Orbán government in Bell’s public speeches that were present in André Goodfriend’s utterances, Szijjártó said: “Look, when I have a conversation with her it is a perfectly normal, honest and open talk. Such dialogue was impossible with her predecessors. She is a person who comes from the business world and is therefore pragmatic and approaches matters rationally and not emotionally.” Bell apparently occasionally does bring up these questions, but Szijjártó asked her “to bring concrete examples, not generalities because otherwise our talks will be no more than conversations between deaf people.”

In contrast to Szijjártó’s amiable relations with Colleen Bell is his strong dislike of Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, the highest ranking state department official Szijjártó has managed to meet. According to him, her criticisms were only vague generalizations. “I told Victoria Nuland after our second meeting that we should not meet again. Because there is no use further damaging our bilateral relations by her leveling unsubstantiated accusations [against Hungary] while I—how shall I say—more and more dynamically deny them because they are truly outrageous.”

From the interview I got the impression that the Hungarian government has no intention of fully investigating the corruption case the American company Bunge reported to the American authorities. I have written many articles about the case. Those of you who are unfamiliar with the story should read my last piece on the final outcome of the case. The upshot is that the prosecutors refused to investigate the case properly and brought charges only against the man who delivered the blackmail offer. They charged the messenger, not the person who sent him. The judge found him guilty, and that was, as far as the Hungarian government is concerned, the end of the matter. That the source of the blackmail offer was allegedly the director of Századvég, the same company I wrote about yesterday, was never pursued. The Orbán government refuses to move an inch on any of the corruption cases, which is perfectly understandable since corruption is at the heart of Orbán’s mafia state.

To be continued

August 3, 2016

Love affair: Ambassador Bell on U.S.-Hungarian relations

U.S. Ambassador Colleen Bell delivered a speech before the members of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Hungarian Parliament on May 5. It was given behind closed doors, a decision, it would seem, of the Fidesz-KDNP majority urged on them by Zsolt Németh, Fidesz chairman of the committee. Ordering a closed session for such an occasion is unusual, and the Hungarian media–or more specifically Népszava, the only major newspaper to pay attention to the event–began speculating about the source of the decision. Some who were familiar with preparations for the event claimed that it was the ambassador herself who had insisted on secrecy, which seems unlikely since her remarks were promptly published on the U.S. Embassy’s website. The lack of coverage of the speech by leading pro-government publications also supports my suspicion that Zsolt Németh was not eager to make the content of the speech public.

Of course, we don’t know what kind of bad news or unpleasant messages Németh expected from the ambassador. In reality, her remarks were far too complimentary to the Orbán government. My recurring complaint about U.S. policy toward Hungary is that American diplomats fail to understand Viktor Orbán’s way of thinking. The Americans coat their criticisms with so many layers of sugary compliments that the casual reader has a hard time finding even the few mild criticisms. This is not the way to talk to Orbán’s entourage. Orbán and his minions consider such overly polite speech a sign of weakness, which only encourages further verbal aggression on the part of the Hungarian government.

Unlike some others, I am not surprised that Bell didn’t level any criticism of the Orbán government’s domestic policies in this speech. After all, it was delivered before members of the foreign affairs committee, and therefore it was focused almost exclusively on international
fishiesrelations. But refraining from criticism of domestic policy is one thing, sending unnecessary and most likely counterproductive love messages to the Orbán government is something else.

At the beginning of her speech she recalled that she arrived in Hungary in the dead of winter. Since then, she has worked with government and opposition politicians “so that together, out of that winter, we would force the spring. Our collective effort has succeeded.”

To demonstrate the excellence of U.S.-Hungarian relations, Bell reached back, probably to David Foster Wallace’s famous commencement address at Kenyon College in 2005, for her guiding image: “you may know the old joke about the fish who was asked one day, ‘So, how’s the water?’ And the fish replied, ‘Water? What the heck is water?’ This is how our alliance feels to us both, like the water we swim in, scarcely felt but all around us, our life support, our milieu.” Isn’t that a tad more than polite diplomatic language? This and similar undeserved praise throughout her speech blunted the few messages she delivered to the Hungarian government on Russia, Ukraine, and the handling of the refugee crisis.

As I said, one has to look hard to find substantive U.S. messages, but she was pretty clear on the American commitment to maintain sanctions against Russia. You may recall that Viktor Orbán, during his visit to Moscow, indicated to Vladimir Putin that Hungary would not support the automatic renewal of the sanctions. So let’s see what Bell had to say on this topic.

As many Hungarians reminded me, you need no introduction to the nature of Russian aggression. Your response has always been to show resolve. Our best weapons, in fact, are resolve and solidarity. They speak to our unity and our common purpose. Europe and the United States are going to continue to stand united, sustaining sanctions for as long as they are necessary, and providing assistance to Ukraine until full implementation of the Minsk agreement…. Hungary has made economic sacrifices to support Russian sanctions, and you have done so with the full awareness of their greater purpose. We in the international community know that sanctions are having a direct impact on Russia. As the United States and Hungary have both stated many times, Russia has a simple choice: fully implement Minsk or continue to face sanctions.

I read this passage with astonishment because this is not how I remember the recent course of Russian-Hungarian relations. Resolve to stick with sanctions? Just remember all the negotiations with Russia over handling Hungarian agricultural exports differently from those of the rest of the EU countries because, after all, Hungary is such a good friend of Putin’s Russia. Or, what about Viktor Orbán’s pronouncement that by voting for sanctions the EU shot itself in the foot? I assume from the words of the ambassador that the duplicitous Hungarian prime minister has already reversed himself. But do these “concessions” on Orbán’s part warrant all this lavish praise from the United States? I believe that such a reaction only encourages Viktor Orbán’s double games.

And the panegyric doesn’t end here. We learn that

Hungary has all the imagination, vision, and understanding to contribute substantially to collective security, to endow the global economy with its resources and its enterprise, and to broker solutions to conflicts that defy other statesmen. Whether it is the moral resolve that drives European unity on sanctions or the material sacrifice of investing more in your country’s defense to meet the pledge of the Wales Summit, Hungary is striving to meet some of the most critical challenges of the day. More than this, Hungary is equal to the great challenges of our times and the United States is counting on you.

The only conceivably critical sentence in the entire lengthy speech was the following: “Every sovereign nation has the right and an obligation to protect its borders. But every nation, as a part of the international community, also has a fundamental obligation to help refugee populations seeking safety. We commend the humanitarian spirit of Hungarian leaders, law enforcement and military personnel, and ordinary citizens who are responding to this crisis with generosity and compassion.” Even here, however, what started off as potential criticism ended up as praise.

We also learned from this speech that “Hungary and the United States share the view that our alliance is the cornerstone of our security, and that together, we secure a Europe that is whole, free, and at peace,” a rather surprising observation in light of Viktor Orbán’s relentless efforts to divide Europe, thus making it a potential target of Russian diplomatic machinations.

All in all, this speech, which bordered on the servile, didn’t show the United States in the best light. No wonder, therefore, that both Chairman Zsolt Németh and Deputy Chairman Gábor Vona (Jobbik) expressed their utmost satisfaction after the session was over. Németh noted that “a perceptible change” for the better has occurred in U.S.-Hungarian relations, while Vona specifically mentioned the attitude of the ambassador, who is “more open, more ready for consensus” than her predecessors.

Pro-government papers decided not to spend any time on the speech itself. I suspect the reason for their silence is what they would consider a shameful capitulation of their favorite government on several issues that are important to the United States: Russian sanctions, defense of Ukraine’s sovereignty, and a positive attitude toward Europe which should remain “whole.”

Instead, G. Gábor Fodor’s internet rag, 888.hu, picked up an English-language article by Daniel McAdams, the director of the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity, described by James Kirchick, a freelance journalist writing for The Daily Beast, as “a bevy of conspiracy theorists, cranks, and apologists for some of the worst regimes on the planet.” McAdams is no stranger to Hungary, having spent six years there as a journalist. During this time he was the editorial page editor of the Budapest Sun. McAdams also worked closely with John Laughland, who was described in Kirchick’s article as someone “who has never met a Central or Eastern European autocrat he didn’t like.” Laughland’s organization, the British Helsinki Human Rights Group, for whom McAdams was a rapporteur, has been fiercely defending Viktor Yanukovych, Alexander Lukashenko, and other similar shady characters. This group believes that “Washington is promoting a system of political and military control not unlike that once practiced by the Soviet Union.” The article by McAdams titled “US Ambassador to Hungary: Overthrow Assad, Let in Refugees, and Fight Russia … or Else!” is written in this vein. Obviously, members of the Fidesz media empire don’t like the chummy relationship between the evil United States and Hungary that they might extrapolate from the extravagant tribute the U.S. ambassador delivered.

If, however, the diplomats in Washington think that the attitude of the Orbán government toward the United States has changed dramatically in the last year or so because of the more accommodating new ambassador, they are wrong. I do hope that the staff of the U.S. Embassy in Budapest diligently follows Magyar Idők and Magyar Hírlap because these two publications are timely barometers of the thinking of the Hungarian government.

In today’s Magyar Hírlap, for example, Zsolt Bayer wrote an open letter to the citizens of the United States. He said that by now he’s keeping fingers crossed for Russia and that he thinks of the United States the way he used to think of the Soviet Union. The U.S. government is responsible for “the dreadful situation that exists in the world,” and all that “syrupy propaganda about democracy, world peace, and the greatness of the United States is truly unbearable.” There is, however, hope on the way: a man appeared out of nowhere “who wants to create a new America.” And this new America will give up its imperial ambitions and will be satisfied with a strong American national state. In brief, the United States will return to its former splendid isolation and will leave Hungary alone. This new great statesman who has discovered the key to saving the United States from itself is, of course, Donald Trump, for whom the Hungarian right, including the Fidesz top brass, will root in the next few months.

So, let’s not kid ourselves, please!

May 8, 2016

Colleen Bell on corruption; Fidesz on Colleen Bell

It is not easy to be the U.S. ambassador to Hungary, especially not since 2010. The Orbán government is outright antagonistic toward the United States, and some of the cabinet members make no secret of their “irritation” at the American ambassador’s critical remarks when, in their opinion, she has no right to meddle in Hungary’s internal affairs. On the other side, the anti-Orbán forces are dissatisfied with her because, in their opinion, she is not critical enough of Orbán’s illiberal democracy. The current ambassador, Colleen Bell, is trying to satisfy both sides by praising the military cooperation between the two countries while criticizing some other aspects of Hungarian political life.

In the last week or so we could witness the predicament in which Bell finds herself. On December 2 she visited the Pápa military base where she agreed to a fairly lengthy interview with one of the reporters of M1, the government’s main propaganda channel. Although the interview was aired only on December 5, Magyar Idők triumphantly announced on the 3rd that, according to Bell, “Hungary is a sovereign nation that has the right to defend its borders.” What Magyar Idők neglected to report was that Bell at the same time stressed the necessity of a common European solution to the migrant crisis and said that the asylum seekers are not terrorists. In fact, they are the ones who are escaping from the people who are committing terrorist atrocities in Iraq and Syria.

When the interview was broadcast, the few Hungarians who actually watch M1 could see an antagonistic reporter accusing the United States of double standards and wanting to know Ambassador Bell’s opinion of the”American-Hungarian billionaire’s involvement with the migrants.” The interview was, as far as I can judge, favorably received by the government and much less so by the opposition, where the opinion was that Bell was not forceful enough even in her defense of the human rights of the asylum seekers and far too effusive about military cooperation.

A few days later, on December 9 and 10, the Hungarian branch of Transparency International organized a two-day conference on corruption. The occasion was Anti-Corruption Day, which has been observed on December 9 ever since 2003 when in Merida, Mexico the United Nations Convention against Corruption was signed. Colleen Bell was one of the principal speakers.

I don’t think that I have to say much about the United States’ commitment to fighting corruption. After all, last fall the sticking point in U.S.-Hungarian relations was precisely the widespread corruption in Hungary and the Hungarian government’s reluctance to tackle it. So, it was expected that the U.S. ambassador would say something important on the subject and that in her speech there would be a fair amount of criticism of the Hungarian government’s attitude toward corruption. U.S. diplomats are keenly aware of the systemic corruption that ensnares the whole government, starting with the prime minister and his family.

Colleen Bell pretty well repeated the negative ramifications of corruption that she had outlined in her much-criticized speech in October. In addition, she spoke of problems specific to Hungary. Here are a couple of examples: “America’s commercial relationship with Hungary is healthy and bilateral trade is on the rise, but I’m told by some American business executives that perceptions of corruption in Hungary impact the investment climate and directly affect American businesses, and as a result, our trade. When public procurement decisions are made on the basis of favoritism instead of on the basis of merit, our companies will often just stay home. American businesses should not be asked to compete in a public tender against a company owned by the relatives of decision-makers. That is why this practice is banned in many countries.”

nepotism

The ambassador also had something to say about transparency which, as we know, is in short supply in Orbán’s Hungary. “Administrations, too, can increase transparency by allowing citizens open access to information that affects their lives, and that enables them to make informed and educated decisions about policies made in their name. For example, the United States applauds the recent Capital Court of Appeals decision requiring documentation regarding the Paks contracts.” And finally, she stressed that “prosecutors [should be] empowered to investigate and prosecute officials suspected of crimes of corruption.”

It was expected that János Lázár in his Thursday press conference (“government info”) would strike back. Indeed, we didn’t have to wait for long. He hit below the belt. After explaining that the new law on public procurement is fair and the Hungarian government will not discriminate against any U.S. firm in favor of relatives of public officials, he added that “we don’t guarantee an advantage to anybody because we are not in America where somebody can become an ambassador just because he/she supports a party.” This ad hominem attack on Bell was not only boorish, it was also a blatant lie as far as the Hungarian situation is concerned. By now the great majority of ambassadorial posts are given to strong supporters of Fidesz who frequently have no diplomatic experience. Moreover, very often they are handpicked by Viktor Orbán himself.

Some key members of the government were also present at the conference. They tried to convince the audience, without much success, that the law on public procurement which allows government officials’ relatives to compete in government tenders is the strictest in all of Europe. When Péter Polt, the chief prosecutor, tried to convince people that the number of anti-corruption cases is growing, people in the audience snickered. Sándor Pintér, minister of the interior, and László Trócsányi, minister of justice, also rose in defense of the government.

Magyar Idők reported on the conference as a government mouthpiece ought to. The headline reads: “The new law on public procurement helps the struggle against corruption.” In this article even Colleen Bell’s remarks sounded positive, although at the end of the article there was one sentence that said that “the ambassador in connection with transparency mentioned among other things the importance of making the documents related to Paks public.”

Meanwhile the wholesale expropriation of the nation’s wealth continues, including the agricultural land currently in the hands of the state.

Viktor Orbán’s lobbying efforts in Washington: The latest recruit is Jeff Duncan of the Tea Party

Yesterday I mentioned that the Orbán government’s answer to the State Department’s latest salvo was a renewed lobbying effort in Washington. Let me recap first.

Back in May I wrote about Connie Mack’s new job as a well-paid lobbyist for the Hungarian government. At that time the former politician turned lobbyist managed to convince Representative Dana Rohrabacher of California, the chairman of one of the subcommittees of the House’s Foreign Relations Committee, to hold a full-fledged hearing on the Hungarian situation. Rohrabacher is perhaps the only member of the U.S. Congress who is an unabashed supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Rohrabacher, whose knowledge of Hungary was pretty much what Connie Mack had told him, was helped along by the recently arrived Hungarian ambassador, Réka Szemerkényi, who naturally painted a rosy picture of the democratic paradise called Hungary. Those who were invited to report on the true state of affairs under Viktor Orbán’s governance were not given much credence by the aggressive Rohrabacher. The whole thing was a farce. The Democratic members of the subcommittee were poorly prepared and had no chance against the loud, antagonistic Rohrabacher.

This time Connie Mack couldn’t get a full-fledged hearing on how badly the United States is treating the Hungarian government. He had to settle for a brief encounter between Representative Jeff Duncan of South Carolina and Assistant Undersecretary Victoria Nuland, who happened to be a witness at a hearing on Syria. Their exchange of words became the following headline in Magyar Idők: “U.S. Congress: Nuland must take back statements on our homeland.” Of course, that sounds as if a congressional resolution was adopted to force Victoria Nuland to change U.S. policy toward Hungary.

duncan

Just to give you an idea of Nuland’s position in the State Department hierarchy, as assistant undersecretary of state for Europe and Eurasia she is responsible for thirty countries all told, from Albania to the United Kingdom, and therefore she is not directly involved in formulating U.S.-Hungarian policy on a day-to-day basis. Under her there are several deputy assistant undersecretaries who take care of smaller areas. So, when she was confronted by Jeff Duncan about Colleen Bell’s speech, it is not surprising that she was unfamiliar with the final text, although she was fully aware of the general thrust of the message that was delivered by the U.S. ambassador in Budapest. After all, the “non paper” that was presented to the Hungarian government a year ago was handed to Hungarian Foreign Minister Szijjártó in Washington by Nuland herself. And, just as Ambassador Bell repeated several times, there was nothing in her speech that the Orbán government didn’t know before.

While discussing the Syrian civil war Duncan began talking about the European migration crisis, and from there it was just a small step to end up in Hungary. Duncan wanted to know: “Why did the ambassador of the United States decide to provoke an attack against Hungary which is a western democracy and a NATO ally?” Nuland, while stressing that she was not familiar with the details of the speech, assured Duncan that the speech “confirmed the support of the United States to a Hungary which will be increasingly democratic.” On the other hand, Washington has misgivings about the Hungarian government’s handling of corruption and its treatment of the media.

Duncan repeated the Orbán government’s argument on sovereignty and undue interference in Hungary’s domestic affairs. Given Duncan’s fiercely anti-immigrant position in this country, he was especially eager to learn whether Colleen Bell had said anything disapprovingly about Viktor Orbán’s fence. As we know, she didn’t. Nuland, however, wasn’t cowed and explained to Duncan that the U.S. government supports a common European policy concerning the migrant crisis and that it is not particularly happy about fences being built at the borders of individual nation states. As for American misgivings, Nuland told Duncan that the United States in the last fifty years has been a steadfast supporter of a democratic and stable Europe. When a country is turning away from democracy and does nothing against corruption, “we will continue to speak about our misgivings.” This was the extent of the exchange, which was jubilantly presented to the Hungarian public by the right-wing press as a victory for Hungary. One new government-sponsored internet site called Duncan’s words to Nuland “a punch in the stomach.”

Finally, a few words on Jeff Duncan. Before he was elected to Congress in 2010 he was a member of the South Carolina House of Representatives between 2002 and 2010. According to his official biography, “during his tenure in the South Carolina House of Representatives, Jeff was known as one of the most conservative House Members, earning recognition as a ‘Taxpayer’s Hero.'” In Congress he serves on three different House committees, including the Foreign Affairs Committee. He was also appointed by former Speaker John Boehner to the Executive Committee of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. (Poor Tom Lantos! If he just knew who is serving on a human rights commission named after him.) In addition, he is a member of both the Republican Study Committee and the Tea Party Caucus, but lately over the budget issue he completely split from mainstream Republicans. He advocates an “all-of-the-above” strategy for border enforcement, including physical fencing, greater use of surveillance technology, and increased manpower. He opposes amnesty for illegal immigrants already in the country.

Duncan’s interpretation of the recent church shooting that killed nine people in Charleston is telling. In his opinion, the man who obviously attacked the church for racial reasons is only mentally ill. He thinks that “right-wing domestic terrorism is but the figment of the liberal imagination.” This is the kind of person Connie Mack manages to recruit to the cause of Viktor Orbán’s regime.

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.

diplomacy

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.