Tag Archives: Community of Democracies

Mátyás Eörsi declines the government nomination

At the beginning of August I devoted two posts to a “candid interview” of Péter Szijjártó, minister of foreign affairs and trade, by András Dezső and Szabolcs Panyi of Index. I prefaced my articles by saying that members of the Orbán government rarely give interviews to publications critical of its policies. It is possible that the relatively relaxed manner in which the interview was conducted was Szijjártó’s attempt to show the readers of Index that the government he serves is actually the paragon of cooperation. At one point he dwelt at length on all the assistance the Orbán government extends to opposition politicians in their travels abroad, for example to Ferenc Gyurcsány in China. He added that “it was the most natural thing for me to ask the Department of Chinese Affairs to put together some preparatory material for the former prime minister.”

Seeing the journalists’ astonishment, he decided to surprise them even more. “But I can also tell you some breaking news! Recently I had a visit from Mátyás Eörsi, who lives in Warsaw and works as deputy-secretary general of an international organization called Community of Democracies. This organization has 18 members, among them Hungary, and Eörsi would like to run for the post of secretary-general, but he needs the nomination of his government. He asked me whether such a nomination would be possible, and I said: of course. I visited the prime minister and told him that this was a good idea. He said that [Eörsi’s] merits at the time of the regime change deserve respect even if we have since disagreed on many things.”

In the second part of my two articles I gave a brief introduction to the Community of Democracies. As far as Mátyás Eörsi’s distinguished political career is concerned, a short biography can be found in the English-language Wikipedia. Below you can see the interview with Mátyás Eörsi on ATV’s Egyenes beszéd (Straight Talk) in August, after the Orbán government’s endorsement of him for the post.

Prior to the interview Eörsi published an announcement of his nomination by the government, which was followed by a fairly acrimonious debate in liberal circles, which I described in the second part of my post on the Szijjártó interview.

Since then Mátyás Eörsi had a change of heart. Below you will find his letter to Foreign Minister Szijjártó informing him of his decision to decline the nomination of the Hungarian government for the post of Secretary General of the Community of Democracies. The translation is mine.

♦ ♦ ♦

Péter Szijjártó
Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade
Budapest

Warsaw, October 11, 2016

Dear Mr. Szijjártó:

First of all, let me thank you once more for the support of the Hungarian government in nominating me for the position of Secretary General of the Community of Democracies.

I have to inform you with heartfelt and profound regret that as a result of the incidents that have taken place in Hungary over the past days and weeks I cannot accept your endorsement. I have already informed the president of the Community of Democracies and the State Department of the United States of America of my decision.

When I speak of the reasons for declining your support I have to be, above all, self-critical. Although I have been aware of the Hungarian government’s actions during the past six years by which it has systematically destroyed the democratic institutional structure that functioned more or less well before, I still hoped that as the head of an international organization I could effectively assist the consolidation and development of democratic norms in the participating countries. I thank you specifically for mentioning my accomplishments at the time of the transition to democracy. Over and above my role at that time I hoped that through my past work as caucus leader in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and in the Liberal International—then still in alliance with Fidesz—I had gained sufficient international credibility to enable me to perform this task.

But we must be clear that past merits can provide only a foundation for credibility. A person nominated by a government that has become infamous for destroying democratic institutions cannot credibly lead the Permanent Secretariat of the Community. While my aspiration is still to serve the cause of democracy, it seems ever more impossible with the support of the present Hungarian government.

The hate campaign full of untrue allegations that cost more than the aggregate campaign for and against Brexit in the United Kingdom was unacceptable for a democrat. Claiming victory over a clearly lost referendum and the politically motivated shuttering of the largest Hungarian daily, Népszabadság, marking a crucial landmark in the liquidation of free print media, are diametrically opposed to the Warsaw Declaration of the Community of Democracies signed by Hungary.

While once more I want to thank you for the nomination, please permit me to seize this opportunity to caution you, the Hungarian government and the government party, Fidesz, whose original members were once my friends. Historical experience shows that a government without checks and balances restricts democracy. Its aim is to annihilate those it considers “enemies” of the nation, believing that once the “enemy” is destroyed it will restore democracy.

This was the original idea of the communists who wanted to get rid of Nazism, of Colonel Qaddafi who wanted to get rid of the dictatorship of King Idris, and of Fidel Castro who brought the oppression of Batista to an end, and many others who originally with good intentions began the destruction of their opposition. Slowly, without realizing it, they themselves became the oppressors. By that time there was no way back if for no other reason but fear. Please, don’t misunderstand me: Fidesz and the current government, even if it made attempts at the incarceration of its political opponents, haven’t gotten to this point yet. But you have to be aware of the consequences of the destruction of institutions and the liquidation of critical media and civil society. Once this is done there will be no one to prevent fatal mistakes, the consequences of which can be a catastrophe for the nation, including its leaders. As the saying goes, those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Although I have no reason to think so, I would still like to believe that the government will come to its senses and will restore democratic norms in order to prevent a tragedy.

Sincerely,

Mátyás Eörsi

October 18, 2016

 

A CANDID INTERVIEW WITH HUNGARIAN FOREIGN MINISTER PÉTER SZIJJÁRTÓ.    PART II

Yesterday I covered only about half of the lengthy interview Péter Szijjártó gave to Index a couple of days ago. I talked about Viktor Orbán’s foreign advisers who are attached to the prime minister’s office and described U.S.-Hungarian relations, with special emphasis on Szijjártó’s relationship with Ambassador Colleen Bell and Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland. It is now time to move on to the Hungarian perception of Russia’s diplomatic and military plans. In addition, Szijjártó described at some length his ministry’s active support of even opposition politicians seeking political or business opportunities abroad. This claim came as news to many of us.

If we take Szijjártó’s comments on Russia at face value, the Orbán government has complete trust in Vladimir Putin. The conversation on Russian-Hungarian relations began with the reporter recalling recent statements about possible military threats from the east as well as the south. Does Szijjártó hesitate “to say that this eastern threat means Russia,” the reporter asked. The answer boiled down to the following. The Hungarian foreign minister “doesn’t think that Russia would decide on any threatening act against any of the NATO countries.” Therefore, the fears of the Poles and the inhabitants of the Baltic countries are based only on intangibles like past experience or geography. They look upon Russia as a “threat to their sheer survival.” Hungary’s situation is different: “we don’t consider Russia an existential threat,” he repeated several times. Therefore, he doesn’t think that “NATO soldiers should come to Hungary to defend us from Russia.”

How fast some people forget. It is true that Hungary, unlike Poland or the Baltic states, didn’t encounter Russian encroachment until 1849, but Hungarian aversion toward the Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union has been strong in the last two centuries. The Russian occupation of Hungary after World War II, which lasted almost 50 years, seems to have faded from Hungarian consciousness, and pro-Russian editorials have been abundant in the pro-government, right-wing media. The absence of fear of a Russian military threat can be at least partially explained by the fact that Hungary is no longer a direct neighbor of Russia. As Semjén Zsolt, deputy prime minister, said rather crassly at the time of the Ukrainian crisis in 2014, “It is a good thing to have something between us and Russia.” But, of course, the main reason for the current cozy relationship between Russia and Hungary is Viktor Orbán’s admiration of Vladimir Putin and his, I believe mistaken, notion that Hungary can act as a bridge between Russia and the European Union.

Although Orbán often quite loudly proclaims his opposition to the economic sanctions against Russia, time and again Hungary obediently votes with the rest of the EU countries to extend the sanctions. This was also the case at the end of June when the next six months’ extension was approved. So, not surprisingly, Szijjártó tried to camouflage Hungarian action by first saying that “the approval was reached at the level of deputy permanent representatives only and that it had to be accepted without any discussion because that was the expectation.” Soon enough, however, it became clear that the approval of the extension of the sanctions didn’t go exactly the way Szijjártó first described it. It turned out that there was in fact discussion “and at the beginning there were a few of us who were opposed to it, but the opposition melted away and at the end everybody accepted it.”

One segment in particular from this lengthy interview caused quite a stir in liberal circles. The conversation took an odd turn after a question about instructions the foreign ministry gives to Fidesz politicians when they go to Russia. The journalists were especially interested in Antal Rogán’s trip to Russia in May 2013. It was a secret trip to Moscow to discuss ways in which the Hungarian government could accumulate foreign currency reserves in Russian rubles because of the unstable position of the dollar. This trip created a scandal in Hungary. I wrote about it in “Viktor Orbán’s Russian roulette.”

Szijjártó, who at that point had nothing to do with the foreign ministry, couldn’t enlighten the journalist on this particular event, but he offered juicy information on all the assistance his ministry gives to politicians, and not just those who belong to Fidesz. He continued: “Perhaps it is surprising, but the Demokratikus Koalíció indicated that Ferenc Gyurcsány was going to China. It was the most natural thing for me to ask the Department of Chinese Affairs to put together some preparatory material for the former prime minister.”

Eorsi Matyas

That kind of information shouldn’t prompt an extended discussion in an interview, but in Hungary such simple and customary courtesy astounds everybody because it is so unexpected from the boorish lot that leads the country today. Once Szijjártó saw the astonishment on the faces of the journalists, he decided to tell more about the government’s generosity toward its political opponents. “But I can also tell you some breaking news! Recently I had a visit from Mátyás Eörsi, who lives in Warsaw and works as deputy-secretary general of an international organization called Community of Democracies. This organization has 18 members, among them Hungary, and Eörsi would like to run for the post of secretary-general, but he needs the nomination of his government. He asked me whether such a nomination would be possible, and I said: of course. I visited the prime minister and told him that this was a good idea. He said that [Eörsi’s] merits at the time of the regime change deserve respect even if we have since disagreed on many things.” It was at this point that Szijjártó learned that Mátyás Eörsi is actually a member of the Demokratikus Koalíció.

First, a few words about the Community of Democracies, which was established in 2000 at the initiative of Polish Foreign Minister Bronisław Geremek and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Its purpose is to bring together governments, civil society, and the private sector in support of democratic rules and to strengthen democratic norms and institutions around the world. As for Mátyás Eörsi, his political career is studded with important positions domestically as well as internationally. The English-language Wikipedia has a shorter and the Hungarian version a longer description of his political importance ever since 1990. Given Eörsi’s solidly anti-Fidesz political activities, his endorsement by the Orbán government is indeed a great surprise.

Eörsi, prior to the appearance of the Szijjártó interview, published an announcement of his nomination by the government on Facebook. Ever since, a fierce debate has been going on both in the media and among people on Facebook about Eörsi’s decision to seek the nomination from the Orbán government. There are those who find Eörsi’s move unacceptable. Among these is Christopher Adam, editor of Hungarian Free Press, and Tamás Bauer, formerly an SZDSZ member of parliament and nowadays a member of DK. Christopher Adam is worried that if he actually becomes the secretary-general of this organization he might not be able to publicly condemn Fidesz’s pro-Russian and anti-EU policies freely. Tamás Bauer argues about the inappropriateness of Eörsi’s decision because, while in democratic countries it is perfectly natural for a government to nominate for an international position someone holding different views, in this case we are dealing with a government that has completely destroyed democracy. Eörsi’s decision, Bauer continues, gives the false impression that Hungary is still a democracy. Thus endorsement is in the interest of Fidesz but not of Hungary. This is what Eörsi doesn’t understand, Bauer concludes. Zsolt Zsebesi in gepnarancs.hu called on Eörsi “not to be Orbán’s useful idiot.”

On the other side, Judit N. Kósa of Népszabadság expressed her dismay that the Hungarian political situation is so distorted that Eörsi had to explain why he turned to Szijjártó for a nomination. She expressed her hope that this is not just a trick from the Orbán government but that they truly mean that even an opposition politician can represent Hungary in the Community of Democracies.

Finally, today Ferenc Gyurcsány himself stood by Eörsi, also on Facebook. He assured Eörsi of his support but admitted that he doesn’t understand the government’s motives. “We shouldn’t doubt our colleague’s obvious decency…. It is not Eörsi who should explain the reasons for his action but Viktor Orbán. He should be the one who ought to explain to his own why he supports one of the symbolic representatives of the liberals, one of the leaders of DK for such an important position.” He added that Orbán may know that under the present circumstances it is unlikely that the board of the Community of Democracies will vote for a Hungarian secretary general because that would be considered an endorsement of Orbán’s regime. His final sentence was: “I would be glad if I were wrong . . .”

August 4, 2016

American-Hungarian relations are crumbling

Let me summarize what we know so far about the U.S. action against certain Hungarian businessmen and government employees.

Initially it was reported that ten people were banned from entering the United States, but by now that number has been reduced to six. We definitely know of one businessman who reported on his fate to ATV. It was he who mentioned three employees of the Office of Taxation and Customs (NAV). One of the three was allegedly the president of NAV, Anikó Vida. The spokesman for the tax office did not deny the charge. If the number six is correct, there are still two people about whom we know nothing.

Although the Hungarian government feigns total ignorance of the details and keeps repeating that it is unable to move against the corrupt officials, in fact they have known for two weeks about the American resolve to pursue those Hungarians who have been trying to blackmail American firms and extort kickbacks of billions of forints from them.

M. André Goodfriend, chargé d’affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Budapest, sketched the timeline of events this afternoon. According to him, on October 6 he had a talk with Levente Magyar, one of the undersecretaries in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. During the meeting Goodfriend explained the significance of Proclamation 7750, which is an executive order signed by George W. Bush in 2004. The Proclamation gives the State Department power to ban corrupt individuals and their families from entering the United States. Such a ban can be imposed only by the undersecretary for political affairs–in our case by Wendy Sherman, who is the department’s fourth-ranking official. (Here is a handy chart of the structure of the State Department.)

Levente Magyar must have understood the gravity of the situation because a subsequent meeting was arranged at the request of the Hungarian foreign ministry between Péter Szijjártó and André Goodfriend. This meeting took place on October 13. The American chargé repeated everything he had already told Magyar. Szijjártó then insisted that he reveal the names of those would be affected by the ban. Goodfriend in turn explained that the American government never reveals names in cases connected to Proclamation 7750. What the U.S. expects is swift action against the culprits.

Let’s stop here for a minute. I assume that Viktor Orbán was notified immediately after the encounter between Magyar and Goodfriend on October 6, and I also suspect that the prime minister’s advice was to insist on “proof” from the Americans. When that failed, in typical Orbán fashion the decision was made to launch a counterattack. NAV leaked information to Napi Gazdaság, a financial paper owned by Századvég, a consulting firm and think tank close to Fidesz, that the United States is contemplating evoking Proclamation 7750 against certain Hungarian businessmen in retaliation for NAV’s tax probes against certain American firms. If the Hungarian government hadn’t decided on this counterattack, we perhaps would never have found out about the travel ban on the six, still unnamed individuals. Colossally stupid move, but I think it is typical. Viktor Orbán always has to have the last word.

Since October 16, the day that Napi Gazdaság published its article containing the disinformation concocted by the Hungarian government, the controversy between the United States and Hungary has been escalating rapidly. The Hungarians kept insisting on “creditable proof” while the Americans steadfastly refused to fall into the trap. Moreover, while at the beginning the controversy seemed to be connected only to widespread corruption in Hungary, as time went by it became obvious that the United States might also take action against the Orbán government’s increasingly anti-democratic behavior. A day after the appearance of the accusations against American businesses in Napi Gazdaság, an article was published in Foreign Policy magazine from which we learned that “at a meeting last month, the Community [of Democracies] set in motion a process that could result in Hungary’s removal from the council and withdrawal from the Community. If Hungary leaves, it will be an international acknowledgment  that the nation has ceased to be a democracy.”

What is the Community of Democracies? It is a global intergovernmental coalition of states founded in 2000 at the common initiative of Madeleine Albright and Polish foreign minister Bronislaw Geremek. The organization is headed by a Governing Council consisting of 26 countries, among them Hungary. Apparently it was the United States that suggested that Hungary be removed from the Council and perhaps even from the organization. Or perhaps Hungary might consider a voluntary withdrawal from the Community in order to avoid embarrassment. The likelihood of an American initiative in this case was reinforced by André Goodfriend’s observation that such a move might be warranted under the circumstances.

M. André Goodfriend at one of his press conferences

M. André Goodfriend at one of his press conferences

While the Hungarian government is stonewalling, the U.S. chargé d’affaires in Budapest, most likely following instructions from the State Department, is delivering tougher and tougher messages to the Hungarian government during fairly frequent press conferences at the embassy. Perhaps the strongest language could be heard this afternoon when Goodfriend explained the reason for American action. In Hungary prior to 2010 the level of democracy and transparency, especially in comparison to some other post-socialist countries, was high. But while in other countries the trend is toward greater democracy and transparency, in Hungary the opposite is true. “If that trend continues it may reach a level where the United States can no longer cooperate with Hungary as an ally.” Clearly, the United States is not joking–as Antal Rogán assumed only yesterday during an interview.

Let’s return briefly to the three high officials of the Hungarian tax office who most likely are implicated in the case. In what way can they engage in fraud and corruption? Here is an explanation offered by Dávid Jancsics, who is currently conducting research at the City University of New York. His expertise is corruption. He learned from two independent sources that the NAV employees demanded kickbacks from two American companies in exchange for tax breaks and a lower VAT. Apparently they demanded 2 billion forints in exchange for these favors, money that the American companies were supposed to pay to a foundation associated with Fidesz for purposes of “research and analysis.” In addition, the NAV officials promised heavy fines on the American firms’ competitors. When the Americans didn’t bite, the NAV officials began threatening them with tax probes. It was at this point that the firms turned to the American embassy and reported the bribery attempts. The implication of this analysis, if it is accurate, is frightening because in this case the tax office is part and parcel of a corruption scheme that appears to be centrally organized.

This takes us back to an old story about a whistleblower at NAV who claimed that high NAV officials refused to investigate obvious fraud cases. András Horváth, the whistleblower, said that he was mostly involved in investigating companies that dealt in agricultural products. Index came to the conclusion that one of the two American companies in question was Bunge, a leading agribusiness and food company. It is a global firm with 35,000 employees in forty countries, including Hungary. They produce among many other things cooking oil sold in Hungary under the label Vénusz. It was well known that the management of Bunge was very unhappy about the VAT fraud and that their efforts to enlist the help of NAV were fruitless. It is possible that after a lot of complaints from the Bunge management NAV officials offered to do something about the competition’s fraudulent business practices but only at a price.

Hungarian journalists in the last few days have asked several business groups, like the German-Hungarian Chamber of Commerce, about the extent of corruption in Hungary. The answer is that foreign companies have known for years about corruption involving billions. “Hungary is a part of the Balkans” by now, and the situation is only becoming worse. According to foreign business leaders, Hungarian business life is corrupt through and through. Healthy competition is impossible under such circumstances.

Péter Szijjártó is leaving Budapest for Washington tomorrow to meet Victoria Nuland. I wouldn’t like to be in his shoes.