Tag Archives: Connie Mack IV

The race to Trump’s White House: The Romanians are leading

On January 17 a blogger who calls himself “Nick Grabowszki” told his readers that Sorin Grindeanu, the new Romanian social democratic prime minister, and Liviu Dragnea, chairman of the Romanian Social Democratic Party (PSD), will attend Donald Trump’s inauguration in Washington. Our blogger’s story was muddled on the details of the invitation. He misleadingly came to the conclusion that while the Romanians will be two of the 120 invited guests, Orbán, who went all out to receive an invitation, came up empty handed. Grabowszki gleefully remarked that it looks as if the government propaganda about the beginning of a beautiful friendship was merely a pipe dream.

Anyone who knows anything about the protocol of U.S. presidential inaugurations is aware that, with the possible exception of the prime ministers of Mexico and Canada, all foreign countries are represented by their ambassadors. The 120 guests Nick Grabowski was talking about were American dignitaries like former presidents and their wives and other important political personages.

If Grabowski had read the Romanian press either in the original or in English translation, he could have found out how Grindeanu and Dragnea ended up at the inauguration. The invitation came from Elliott Broidy, a venture capitalist, Republican fundraiser, and philanthropist. He was a successful fundraiser for George W. Bush’s campaign and currently serves as vice-chairman of the Trump Victory Fund. The invitation covered three days of events, including a private breakfast with foreign officials at the Trump Hotel in Washington, the candlelight dinner the evening before the inauguration which both Donald Trump and Mike Pence attended, the inauguration itself, and a ball.

And indeed, the two Romanian politicians got the royal treatment. On the first day they met Michael Flynn, future national security adviser in the Trump administration, and Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Dragnea and Flynn apparently “discussed the excellent perspectives of the strategic partnership between Romania and the United States, and the fact that national security and stability are two key factors for the development and prosperity of a nation.” Naturally, the Romanian politicians stressed their country’s determination to spend at least 2% of GDP on defense. In turn, Flynn confirmed the United States’ special interest in Romania. The conversation with Royce was also described as pleasant, during which Dragnea assured the American politician that “Romania will continue to be a reliable pillar for transatlantic relations.”

During the candlelight dinner Dragnea had a chance to exchange a few words with Donald Trump, informing Trump that he “wanted to take the strategic partnership between Romania and the United States to a new level,” to which Trump’s answer was: “We will make it happen! Romania is important for us!”

Donald Trumps shaking hands with Liviu Dragnea

The Romanian politicians obviously started off on the right foot with the Trump administration, which is especially remarkable because they had been anything but enthusiastic about Donald Trump during the presidential campaign and had favored Hillary Clinton. Yet it seems that, unlike Viktor Orbán, they didn’t put all their eggs in one basket. Through Broidy they had a “friend” in the Trump camp, who, when it was important, lent a helping hand to Romania.

Orbán, on the other hand, publicly committed himself to Trump at the time when the Republican nominee’s chances were close to nil. So why didn’t Orbán receive a similar invitation from some Trump insider, especially since the Orbán government has a highly-paid lobbyist, Connie Mack, a former Republican congressman?

To that question there might be an easy answer. Mack is one of those old-fashioned Republicans who found Trump an unacceptable candidate for the presidency. He made no secret of his feelings. In a June interview with Larry King he expressed his low opinion in fairly strong words and admitted that he had no idea what he was going to do when confronted with the ballot on November 8. His disapproving description of Trump was “translated” by 444.hu as “a coward, a shame, a hypocritical fool, and a violent bastard.” Surely, Mack was not the man to curry favor with the Trump crowd.

It took a while for Mack to recover from the shock of the election, but by mid-December Magyar Idők triumphantly reported that, while in Budapest, he had announced that the Trump-Orbán telephone conversation was a very promising beginning, which will be followed by good U.S.-Hungarian relations. He added that “in Trump’s eyes, Viktor Orbán is an important leader not just in Hungary but also in Europe.” As if he has any idea about what Trump thinks. He added that “Donald Trump will bring a new kind of leadership mentality” to American politics. I’m sure Mack is right about that.

It is almost a cliché in Hungary that the Romanians are much better diplomats than the Hungarians. The proof? Their successes during the two world wars. Unlike Hungary, they managed to end up on the winning side. However, these successes are attributed to the slippery nature of Romanian politicians. They are untrustworthy allies who always manage to end up on top. Therefore, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the Hungarian right-wing press finds the two Romanians’ visit to Washington proof of Romanian duplicity.

Magyar Idők simply refuses to talk about the invitations because that would call attention to Viktor Orbán’s absence from events that Dragnea and Grindeanu attended. On the other hand, 888.hu in its typical fashion published a short article on the subject straight from Bucharest. The invitations are described as “purchased goods” to bolster Liviu Dragnea’s role in domestic politics. The reporter ignores all the information available on the source of the invitation and the description of what events the invitations covered. He describes Dragnea’s appearance at the candlelight dinner as accidental, as if he crashed the party, and intimates that he paid someone off to get in. The whole thing is a “seftelős” Romanian story. The Hungarian word “seftelő” comes from the Austrian-Bavarian “gescheft” and means somebody who is known to be a shady businessman. It is true that tickets cost between $25,000 and $1 million depending on the “package,” but my reading is that a certain number of tickets were assigned to important people on the team who could then dispose of them as they saw fit.

Attila Ara-Kovács, DK’s foreign policy spokesman, wrote an opinion piece on the Romanian politicians’ visit to Washington. Ara-Kovács, no friend of Trump, says that it is quite possible that in the future Dragnea and Grindeanu will be sorry that they were congratulating Trump on January 20, but the fact is that their appearance was in the interest of Romania. They don’t share Trump’s optimistic assessment of Putin, but Romania’s national interest dictates good relations with the incoming president. In contrast, there is Orbán, who unabashedly courted Trump for months and yet wasn’t able to secure an invitation.

Indeed, it is very possible that the two Romanian social democrats might not be so happy about their invitations if they find out that Heinz-Christian Strache, chairman of the Austrian Freedom party, also received an invitation. Trump’s national security adviser, the same Mike Flynn that Grindeanu and Dragnea encountered in Washington, had met Strache in December in New York. Considering Strache’s reputation as a neo-Nazi, the Trump team wanted to keep the meeting quiet, but Strache bragged about it on Facebook. According to Occupy Democracy, Strache also attended the inauguration. His invitation came from Representative Steve King of Iowa, who according to this anti-Tea Party site “is one of the worst congressmen to ever sit in the House of Representatives.” Strache’s invitation “speaks mountains to [Trump’s] willingness to welcome such hateful individuals [as Strache] with open arms.”

Another strange guest at the inauguration was Pauline Hanson of One Nation, a nationalist, right-wing populist party in Australia often accused of racism. The story is confused, but the ticket came from Republican congressman Adam Kinzinger, who claims he didn’t know the ticket would end up in the hands of One Nation because apparently it had been requested by the Australian Embassy. Whatever the case, Pauline Hanson tweeted a few days ago: “Would you believe it? I have been gifted tickets to the Presidential Inauguration Ceremony.”

Viktor Orbán, I’m afraid, will have to wait for a while to shake hands with President Trump, whom he so admires.

January 21, 2017

Jean-Claude Juncker: “The dictator is coming”

More than a million people have looked at the YouTube clip of the by now infamous scene where Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, greets Viktor Orbán with “The dictator is coming” and raises his right hand in a quasi-Nazi salute. The news spread like wildfire. I found well over fifty articles in the Hungarian media describing this 26-second video. I’ve seen an unusually large number of references to it in American papers, in addition to the usual German and Austrian avalanche of Hungarian news items. Those commentators who are critical of the Orbán government found it hilarious, while the two pro-government organs, Napi Gazdaság and Magyar Hírlap, decided to remain quiet on the subject. Orbán’s press secretary explained that there is nothing new in this exchange. Juncker always greets Orbán this way and, in return, Orbán calls Juncker Grand Duke. How jolly.

A commentator from the right Dávid Lakner didn’t find the scene at all funny. Instead, it struck him as embarrassing, especially at a time that more and more people view the European Union itself as a joke. Lakner called Juncker “an imprudent clown.” He suspects that the president was inebriated. (Juncker has been accused of heavy drinking by some of his critics.) On the other hand, journalists of Luxembourger Wort, who ought to know Juncker very well, were not not shocked, nor did they accuse him of drunkenness. They simply noted that “Juncker lived up to his reputation for straight talking … when he hailed Hungarian Premier Viktor Orbán as ‘dictator’ on his arrival at an EU summit in Riga.”

I have also have objections to Juncker’s joking mood, but on very different grounds from Lakner’s. Hungary’s sinking into a one-man dictatorship is no laughing matter. It is not a joke. It is a deadly serious business. Merriment over what Orbán is doing in Hungary is an inappropriate reaction from the president of the European Union.

And this brings me to an op/ed piece by Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman in yesterday’s New York Times titled “The New Dictators Rule By Velvet Fist.” Their short article is based on an earlier longer study, “How Modern Dictators Survive,” prepared for the Centre of Economic Policy Research in London. Their argument is that modern dictatorship no longer needs to have totalitarian systems and tyrants like Stalin, Hitler or Mao. Instead, “in recent decades, a new brand of authoritarian government has evolved that is better adapted to an era of global media, economic interdependence and information technology.” These new dictators achieve a high level of control over society by stifling opposition and eliminating checks and balances–and they achieve this without any violence at all.

Among “these illiberal leaders” we find Viktor Orbán alongside of Alberto K. Fujimori of Peru, Vladimir Putin of Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey, Mahatir Mohamad of Malasyia, and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. What illustrious company! But at least the others are not being financed by European democracies the way Viktor Orbán’s dictatorship is being subsidized by the EU. I wonder how the taxpayers of Western European countries would feel if they fully realized to what end Viktor Orbán is using their hard-earned money. I doubt that they would find it a joking matter.

According to Guriev and Treisman, “the West needs to address its own role in enabling these autocrats.” This is certainly true about the European Union vis-à-vis Hungary. But the authors also talk about lobbying efforts on behalf of these dictators. We know from earlier posts what an incredible amount of money is being spent by the Orbán government on foreign propaganda just in the United States. The four-year contract Connie Mack and Századvég signed was for $5 million.

The authors suggest, and I fully agree with them, that “lobbying for dictators should be considered a serious breach of business ethics.” Although Representative Dana Rohrabacher, speaking to Kriszta Bombera of ATV, denied that he was coached by the Hungarian government through Connie Mack and said that holding the hearing was his own idea, the director of Századvég made no secret of Connie Mack’s usefulness as a top lobbyist in Washington in getting a hearing on U.S.-Hungarian relations during which the chairman and his Republican colleagues defended the Orbán government with full force. “It was a breakthrough,” said Kristóf Szalay-Bobrovniczky of Századvég.

And finally, let me talk about other enablers, specifically the two Hungarian-American associations whose leaders claim that for years they have been tirelessly promoting better understanding between the two countries. They are the Hungarian American Coalition and the American Hungarian Federation. Although they claim to be politically neutral, in fact they are conservative lobbying groups which support right-wing Hungarian governments. I know from personal experience that the Coalition at least moves into high gear only when a right-wing government is in power. After Fidesz lost the election in 2002, the Coalition paid for a group of Fidesz members of parliament to spend two or three weeks in Washington to learn something about American democracy. When I asked why only Fidesz politicians were invited, I was told that the socialists were simply not interested in spending time in Washington. I found the explanation improbable. So I wrote to Ildikó Lendvai, who was the whip of the socialist parliamentary delegation at the time, and it turned out that the socialists had never received any such invitation. That should give you some sense of the true nature of these organizations.

I was therefore somewhat surprised when I heard that the presidents of these two organizations decided not to attend Rohrabacher’s hearing. I thought that perhaps they realized that something was very wrong in Orbán’s Hungary. Perhaps they decided that they would no longer stand by the Hungarian dictator with a velvet fist. I was hoping that the statement Maximilian Teleki, president of the Coalition, released on May 22 would explain his reasons for not participating in the hearing. Instead, we learned only about the dangers of Jobbik and the great achievements of the Orbán government, which in 2010 “faced a Greece-like economic and financial crisis” and which by now has achieved “a respectable economic growth.” As for Jobbik’s anti-Roma and anti-Semitic propaganda, the only thing Teleki could say is that “the Hungarian government has taken a zero-tolerance policy,” adding that much still remains to be done.

Maximilian Teleki with April H. Foley, former U.S. ambassador to Hungary ad a great supporter of Viktor Orbán

Maximilian Teleki with April H. Foley, former U.S. ambassador to Hungary and a great supporter of Viktor Orbán

In his opinion, the United States “has done little to assist Hungary in developing a long-term [energy] strategy and implementing an effective action plan.” He mentioned “Russia’s aim of reestablishing Cold War-era borders and spheres of influence in the region” but had nothing to say about the close Russian-Hungarian relations and Paks II. What should the United States do to improve the “bilateral relationship” between the two countries? The U.S. should offer more opportunities for Hungarian decision makers to visit the United States; more U.S. officials and decision-makers should obtain first-hand experience by visiting Hungary frequently; and the U.S. should “make possible meetings at the highest political levels: it has been more than 10 years since Hungary’s Prime Minister was received in the White House.” And yes, the United State should support educational and cultural programs sponsored by NGOs. In brief, the dictator with a velvet fist should be rewarded for degrading Hungarian democracy into a modern-style dictatorship.

Congressmen not at their best: Hearing on U.S.-Hungarian relations

Year after year the approval rating of the U.S. Congress is abysmally low. In 2012 Huffington Post reported on the findings of a Gallup poll that showed that “Americans are about as likely to trust members of Congress as they are car salespeople.” A year later Public Policy Polling found that “Congress is less popular than cockroaches, traffic jams, and even Nickelback.” After watching the hearing of the House Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats on U.S.-Hungarian relations, I understand why. It was one of the most disheartening scenes I have witnessed of late.

As I indicated in an earlier post, I suspect that the hearing was staged as a result of the efforts of Connie Mack IV, the new lobbyist for the Hungarian government who in 2012 failed in his attempt to become a senator. Since Mack had been a Republican representative from Florida for twelve years, he naturally has many old friends on the Hill, including Dana Rohrabacher, a fellow Republican from California, who happens to be the chairman of this subcommittee of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

Some Hungarian-American leaders who were supposed to testify on behalf of the Hungarian government chickened out. Frank Koszorus, Jr. of The American Hungarian Federation and Maximilian Teleki of the Hungarian American Coalition thought that there was no reason to hold such a hearing because, in the wake of the appointments of two new ambassadors, relations between the two countries have improved greatly. I suspect that there was something else behind their refusals to testify: the person of the chairman, who is known as a strong supporter of Vladimir Putin and his ideas about the future of Russia. Teleki and Koszorus most likely figured that it is bad enough that Viktor Orbán is considered to be the Trojan horse of Putin in Europe; they didn’t want to fortify this image with some possibly pro-Russian remarks by Rohrabacher.

For a while it looked as if the hearing might not even take place. But then Rohrabacher found Kurt Volker, currently executive director of the McCain Institute for International Leadership, as a replacement for the two reluctant supporters of the Orbán regime. Volker has had a distinguished career in the State Department and on the National Security Council. He is also something of an expert on Hungary and speaks fluent Hungarian. He usually stands by the Orbán government, and thus he was ready to testify on its behalf.

Photo by Anita Köműves / Népszabadság

Photo by Anita Köműves / Népszabadság

On the other side, there were two witnesses: András Simonyi, former Hungarian ambassador to the United States, and Ted Stahnke, vice president for research and analysis in Human Rights First, a non-governmental organization whose report on human rights abuses in Hungary I found outstanding. The State Department was represented by Hoyt Yee, deputy assistant secretary of the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs.

In addition, in a highly unusual move for such a hearing, Réka Szemerkényi, the new Hungarian ambassador, was asked to deliver a short account of the state of democracy in Hungary. In excellent English, she did what a good ambassador should on such an occasion: she painted a rosy picture of Hungarian democracy.

What followed was deeply disturbing and disheartening. The Democratic members were poorly prepared, even though the Congressional Research Service had written an admirable six-page summary of Viktor Orbán’s six years in office. As for the Republican members, I’m afraid they were “briefed” by the Hungarian government instead of the Congressional Research Service. All of the information they had was most likely spoon-fed by the “political scientists/propagandists” of Századvég, Fidesz’s think tank, via Connie Mack. It was a disgusting affair. The four Republicans–Ted Poe of Texas, Paul Cook of California, Randy Weber of Texas, and Dana Rohrabacher–bullied both Hoyt Yee and Ted Stahnke. They used the occasion to bash the Obama administration’s foreign policy and to express their disgust with such liberal ideas as equal rights. They seemed to be convinced that Viktor Orbán’s Hungary is more of a democracy than the United States is–or at least it’s more of the kind of democracy they would like to see.

The testimonies of Hoyt Yee and Ted Stahnke are available online, and both contain plenty of criticism of the Orbán government. But our four congressmen were not interested in their facts. They had made up their minds way before the hearing began. Unfortunately, both Yee and Stahnke eventually became somewhat rattled and were unable to respond to some of the accusations. Rohrabacher kept accusing the State Department of using a double standard against Hungary just because the country’s current government is Christian and conservative. Interestingly, Rohrabacher seemed to be perfectly ignorant of the very controversial law on the churches, and Stahnke was unable to explain it because he was short on time.

The man who best withstood the assault was András Simonyi, who managed in the few minutes he was allotted to summarize the most blatant attacks on democracy in Orbán’s Hungary.

One can be grateful that these ignorant bullies are not responsible for the country’s foreign policy.

* * *

Anna Bayer, who was present at the hearing, decided to send the following letter to Dana Rohrabacher because of his views on the controversial German Occupation Memorial.

Honorable Representative Rohrabacher
2300 Rayburn HOB
Washington, DC 20515

Dear Representative Rohrabacher,

As an American and daughter of Hungarian Holocaust survivors, I was appalled by your comments at the May 19 Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on US-Hungary relations. Your comments during the hearing were not only factually incorrect and offensive to the victims of the Holocaust, but also constitute Holocaust denial.

When discussing the German Occupation Memorial constructed in Budapest by the current Hungarian government, you publicly said during the hearing that your view is that the issue “that they didn’t build a statue that expanded upon the victims of Hungary during the Second World War to specifically include Jews instead of everyone who suffered, that is not anti-Semitism, you should be ashamed of yourself for suggesting that it is.” The German Occupation Memorial is designed to distort the history of the Holocaust in Hungary. In 1944, the Hungarian authorities, allied with Nazi Germany, deported over 400,000 Hungarian Jews to concentration camps. Much of Hungary’s Jewish community was then murdered. The deportations were carried out with the consent of the Hungarian government of the time, with the participation of over 200,000 Hungarian citizens in the administration of this deportation.

I ask that you publicly apologize and retract your comments. You have done a disservice to your constituents, to the Jewish-American community, and those Hungarians who have worked to recognize the atrocities of the past and make sure that such a tragedy never occurs again, in Hungary or elsewhere.

Sincerely,

Anna Bayer
Washington, D.C.

Hungary’s latest lobbying effort: Connie Mack IV and Dana Rohrabacher

When I read last fall that Századvég, Fidesz’s favorite think tank, won a 1.4 billion forint contract to conduct lobbying activities in Washington, I was baffled. What expertise do the political analysts of Századvég have that would enable them to be successful lobbyists in the U.S. capital?  None. But obviously I don’t understand how these things work. Századvég got this huge amount of money to find someone with Washington connections to do the actual lobbying.

Of course, the Orbán government didn’t need Századvég to find the right man for the job. In fact, I suspect that Századvég had mighty little to do with this latest Hungarian attempt to influence American political opinion. It was most likely not Századvég who tapped Connie Mack IV, a former Republican congressman from Florida, to be Hungary’s new lobbyist but Arthur Finkelstein, a prominent Republican consultant with whom Fidesz has had a long-standing relationship and who was at one point Mack’s campaign manager. But since Századvég is suspected of being a kind of money laundering arm of Fidesz, a chunk of that 1.4 billion will most likely eventually end up in Fidesz coffers, if it hasn’t already.

Mack’s congressional career ended in January 2013 when, after eight years in the House of Representatives, he ran for the Senate and was badly defeated by the incumbent Democratic senator, Bill Nelson. He decided to try his hand at lobbying instead. Former politicians are ideal lobbyists because of their extensive ties with members of Congress.

In March, Századvég organized a conference on the country’s foreign policy where Connie Mack was one of the speakers. To the astonishment of a reporter from 444.hu, Mack insisted that Hungary’s reputation is actually quite good in Washington. Many American politicians acknowledge the achievements of the Orbán government. His job, it would appear, is to convince even more politicians that Hungary is a stalwart ally of the U.S. and that the Hungarian government is worthy of praise.

Connie Mack IV at the conference organized by Századvég / MTI, Photo by Zsolt Szigetvári

Connie Mack IV at the conference organized by Századvég / MTI, Photo by Zsolt Szigetvári

Mack, it seems, has been working pretty hard to improve Hungary’s image, and he’s even managed to show something for his money. On May 19 a hearing will be held on “The Future of U.S-Hungary Relations.” It is being organized by the Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats, a subcommittee of the Committee on Foreign Affairs. The chairman of this subcommittee is Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican congressman from California, who is considered to be the only defender of the Kremlin in Congress. According to a New York Times article, the congressman “speaks up for Moscow with pride” and is somewhat sore that he “hasn’t gotten so much as a thank you” from Moscow. In his ideological career Dana Rohrabacher has gone from being a free market anarchist to a a cold warrior who played a leading role in the formulation of the Reagan Doctrine and, now, to a Putin apologist. He finds the annexation of Crimea legitimate because the people of Crimea spoke and they have the right of self-determination. Recently, he voted against a $1 billion loan guarantee to support the new government of Ukraine and abstained on the vote to condemn Russia for violating Ukraine’s sovereignty. In a way, Rohrabacher is an obvious choice to press Hungary’s case since Viktor Orbán is considered to be Vladimir Putin’s Trojan horse in the European Union. How successful the openly pro-Russian congressman will be in today’s political climate in Washington is another question.

According to the invitation to the open hearing, there will be four “witnesses,” two who will most likely speak on behalf of the Hungarian government and two who will criticize it.

Frank Koszorus, Jr, president of the American Hungarian Federation, and Maximilian Teleki, president of Hungarian American Coalition, will undoubtedly extol the Orbán government while András Simonyi, former Hungarian ambassador to the United States who is currently with Johns Hopkins University’s SAIS, and Tad Stahnke, vice president for research and analysis of Human Rights First, will point to the darker side of the Orbán regime.

Koszorus’s relations with the current government have been very close, especially recently, since the government is in the process of making a national hero out of his late father for his alleged role in “saving the Jews of Budapest.” Max Teleki has been a bit more critical of the Orbán government lately than he was earlier. He is not alone in right-of-center circles in and out of Hungary. See his interview in The Budapest Beacon.

András Simonyi is considered to be an accomplished debater, and I’m sure that he will eloquently represent the other side. As for Stahnke, he works for Human Rights First, which last August published the best report ever on human rights violations in Hungary. I wrote about this excellent publication under the title ‘”We’re not nazis, but …: Human Rights First report on Hungary and Greece.” There are few people in the United States who are as familiar with the Hungarian domestic situation as he is.

I suspect that Rohrabacher’s attempt to whitewash Orbán’s domestic record and his double game with Putin will not succeed. He represents a view that is shared by mighty few American politicians, so I doubt that his advocacy of the Orbán regime will make an appreciable difference among those who matter. Connie Mack will have to come up with something better.