Tag Archives: Crimea

Donald Trump’s Russia policy must be a disappointment to Viktor Orbán

I’m beginning to feel sorry for Viktor Orbán, who tries so hard to make the right diplomatic move at the right time but, despite his best efforts, finds himself making missteps. He can expect even more such aborted diplomatic moves now that the United States has a totally unpredictable president. Orbán’s latest effort was an obvious attempt to further strengthen Russian-Hungarian relations in the conviction that this move would have President Trump’s blessing and backing. It looks as if Viktor Orbán didn’t factor in the total unpredictability of the Trump administration’s policies.

Viktor Orbán expected that his favorite candidate, Donald Trump, would conduct a pro-Russian foreign policy and would keep his nose out of the affairs of other countries. Also, he would no longer demand adherence to democratic norms. Consequently, Orbán renewed his attack on non-governmental organizations operating in Hungary, especially those that receive money from George Soros’s Open Society Foundation. After all, Orbán figured, Trump dislikes the billionaire financier because he generously supported Hillary Clinton. As for diplomatic matters, Orbán was certain that he would receive Trump’s support for an even closer relationship with Putin’s Russia.

So, how did Orbán prepare for this new era of international relations? He decided to have a trial run ahead of the scheduled visit of Vladimir Putin, sending Péter Szijjártó to Moscow with a message that indicated a more openly supportive Hungarian policy toward Russia.

The many reports that appeared in both Hungarian and foreign papers on the meeting in Budapest between Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orbán all agree that the much touted “summit” ended with a fairly meaningless press conference dealing mostly with trade relations and including a few announcements about the Russian gas supply and the financing of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant’s extension. To learn more about what most likely transpired between Putin and Orbán behind closed doors, we should focus on the Moscow trip of the much more talkative Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó on January 23 and 24. He was equally chatty after his negotiations with members of the Russian delegation in Budapest.

First of all, Szijjártó’s servility was, even by his own standards, extreme. He oozed praise and talked at length about the personal pleasure he felt at being able to meet Sergei Lavrov again. The normally dour Russian foreign minister seems to have such a close relationship with Szijjártó that in Budapest, the night before the “summit,” Lavrov was a guest at Szijjártó’s private residence.

A bit over the top

After the Lavrov-Szijjártó meeting in Moscow, Szijjártó expressed the views of the Hungarian government: “If the EU and Russia cannot agree on the conditions of a pragmatic and close cooperation, then the Union will seriously lag behind in the international economic and political competition.” He called attention to the fact that historically Central Europe has always been the victim of conflicts between East and West and therefore “it is in Hungary’s interest that the new U.S. administration and Russia establish as soon as possible a pragmatic and close cooperation based on mutual trust.” Politicians in the European Union label everybody whose ideas aren’t mainstream a “Putinist” or a “Trumpist.” But Hungary “wants to break away from such insultingly simplistic and harmful approaches and to realize that it is in Europe’s interest to normalize its relationship with Russia.” This must have been music to Sergei Lavrov’s ears.

A few days later, this time in Budapest, Szijjártó continued his efforts with members of the Putin delegation and announced Hungary’s eagerness for a close relationship between the European Union and Russia. He falsely claimed that by now “the western world” also wants to have a rapprochement with Russia. He exaggerated Hungary’s financial loss as a result of the sanctions and announced that “our position on this matter” will be guided by Hungarian interests. Both Szijjártó and Orbán, as we will soon see, act as if Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its active participation in the disturbances in Eastern Ukraine simply didn’t exist. It looks as if, in the view of the Orbán government, the “western world” should just forget about Putin’s transgression of Russia’s treaty obligations and its settling of territorial disputes by force.

In comparison to Szijjártó, Viktor Orbán was outright reticent. What was most telling was not what he said but what he didn’t. After thanking Putin “for visiting us,” he immediately moved to the “center of the talks,” which were economic issues, specifically the absolutely perfect economic relations between the two countries in recent years. It was only at this point that he gingerly moved to politics. “One of the reasons we should especially value the results of economic cooperation is that we have achieved them in a difficult international environment. We have all seen the development of strongly anti-Russian sentiment in the western half of the continent, and anti-Russian politics has become the fashion.” Fashion? Anti-Russian sentiment out of the blue? Clearly, the Orbán government would love to forget about the whole Ukrainian issue, which seems to me a highly irresponsible position considering that Ukraine is Hungary’s neighbor.

Then he moved on, somewhat obliquely, to the question of sanctions. “Hungary maintains its position that problems of a non-economic nature cannot be addressed with economic measures,” an opinion that is clearly wrong. For example, sanctions against Iran were instrumental in getting Iran to the negotiating table. Or, if these sanctions are as ineffectual as Orbán has often claimed, why is Putin so eager to have them lifted? Orbán added that “it is difficult to imagine Hungary being successful if we do not develop open, strong, and fruitful economic and trade cooperation with the major players in the global economy.”

Putin’s introductory words were equally bland, dealing mostly with economic and cultural relations between the two countries. He spent only one sentence on territories in which Russia has a military presence. He ended his short address with these words: “We discussed the Eastern-Ukrainian and Syrian situations, and we determined that we must unite our forces against terrorism.”

From Putin’s answer to a Russian journalist’s question, however, one has some idea of what Putin must have said to Orbán on the Ukrainian situation. In Putin’s opinion, the Ukrainians provoked the latest military action in the eastern provinces of the country because the Ukrainian government badly needs money, which it hopes to get from the European Union and the United States. Thus, the Ukrainians try to picture themselves as the victims of Russian aggression. Orbán’s response to this fabrication was not exactly courageous. He muttered something about fulfilling the Minsk II Agreement, which will provide peace in Europe. At the same time he felt it necessary to mention that the Minsk Agreement has a clause guaranteeing minority rights, which also affects the Hungarian minority. He expressed his dissatisfaction with the Hungarian minority’s current situation in Ukraine.

The Hungarian assumption underlying Viktor Orbán’s hopes for closer Russian-Hungarian relations was that Donald Trump would conduct a pro-Russian foreign policy, which he has long advocated. But after the chaotic first two weeks of the new administration, there has been an unexpected turn. The Trump administration, counter to all expectations, is taking a hard stand on Russian aggression against Ukraine. The newly appointed U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, delivered a tough speech yesterday in which she condemned Russia’s unacceptable behavior. She said that the United States would like to have better relations with Russia, but “the dire situation in eastern Ukraine is one that demands clear and strong condemnation of Russian actions.” Moreover, in the speech she also said that “the United States continues to condemn and call for an immediate end to the Russian occupation of Crimea. The United States considers Crimea to be part of Ukraine.” She added that “our Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns control over the peninsula to Ukraine.”

Although Haley’s remarks were not all that different from speeches delivered by Samantha Power, the Obama administration’s ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, the Russian ambassador to the UN, felt that “there is a change in tone” with the arrival of the new administration. He claimed that he wasn’t particularly surprised by Haley’s speech, something I find difficult to believe, even though in the last couple of weeks the Russians have also come to the conclusion that one never knows what to expect from this new White House.

What an irony of fate. On the very same day that Viktor Orbán and his foreign minister are laying out their great plans for an entirely different international climate as far as Russia and Europe is concerned, the U.S. ambassador to the UN reinforces the United States’ resolve to keep the sanctions in place as long as it takes. This should put an end to the daydreams of Viktor Orbán and Péter Szijjártó.

February 3, 2017

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.

Viktor Orbán crashed the party: the hosts were not pleased

A few days ago some Hungarian newspaper reporters discovered that, according to an international Russian-language site called Birzhevoi Lider, Viktor Orbán turned up uninvited–and unwelcome–in Vilnius last Sunday on the last day of a joint NATO exercise called “Iron Sword 2014.”

The story was more than media gossip. The press secretary of Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitè confirmed that Orbán had not been invited to sit in the grandstand for the military parade marking the end of an almost two-week-long military exercise against a possible attack on Lithuania from the East. Moreover, the president had no intention of meeting him. According to the article, an unannounced visit by a leading politician on such an occasion is considered to be an affront to the host country. The journalists of Birzhevoi Lider asked Laurynas Kasčiūnas, a political scientist who apparently is normally not at all critical of Orbán, for a comment. Even he was taken aback by Orbán’s brazen behavior. He pointed out that we all know why Orbán is now so eager to show his loyalty to his NATO allies, but “the European community no longer falls for Orbán’s gimmicks because Europeans have not forgotten that it is Hungary which supports Putin in Europe and that it was Budapest that stopped supplying gas to Ukraine.”

Source Magyar Nemzet / Photo Andrinus Ufartas/ MTI-EPA

Source Magyar Nemzet / Photo Andrinus Ufartas/ MTI-EPA

NATO began preparing for the defense of the Baltic States as early as 2010, right after Russia invaded Georgia. In the wake of the Russian annexation of Crimea, NATO decided to have a larger presence in the area. The first American paratroopers arrived in April and since then an international NATO battalion has been assembled in Lithuania. This task force includes 140 members of Hungary’s 5th István Bocskai Infantry Brigade.

It is a well-known fact that the leading politicians of Poland and the Baltic states have had serious differences of opinion with Viktor Orbán over his pro-Russian stand. Lithuanians were especially vocal in their condemnation of the Hungarian prime minister. You may recall Orbán’s opposition to the EU sanctions against Russia when he described the decision as a grave mistake, “shooting oneself in the foot.” In response, the Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevčius quipped that “it was better to shoot oneself in the foot than to let oneself be shot in the head.”

The president of Lithuania, Dalia Grybauskaitè, called the Iron Lady at home, is said to be ready to fight the Russians gun in hand if necessary. She is no friend of Putin, whom she described as someone who “uses nationality as a pretext to conquer territory with military means. That’s exactly what Stalin and Hitler did.” She is also a confirmed believer in the European Union. After all, she served as commissioner of education and culture in the first Barroso Commission and later as commissioner for financial programming and the budget. She has been president of Lithuania since 2009. She ran as an independent but with conservative support. “She wants to put permanent boots on the ground in the Baltics to ward off any potential threat from their Soviet-era master.” And the Lithuanian people seem to be equally determined. Her willingness to take up arms has encouraged others to follow suit. There has been a sharp rise in paramilitary recruits. During the weekend civilians receive military training. Students, businessmen, civil servants, journalists, and even politicians have joined the government-sponsored Lithuania Riflemen’s Union. These people are determined. So, for Orbán to make an uninvited appearance there was a serious diplomatic faux pas.

Almost all of the above information comes from English-language sources. Hungarian reporting on the military contingent in Lithuania is practically nonexistent. On November 4 Válasz ran a brief, fairly meaningless article on the military exercises in which soldiers from nine NATO member states are participating. In it Bálint Ablonczy showed off his Google skills, explaining who Silvestras Žukauskas was and noting that the large military center close to the city of Pabrade, near the Belarus border, bears this general’s name. I guess it was safer to talk about Žukauskas’s role in the 1918-1919 Soviet-Lithuanian war than to say something meaningful about Hungary’s participation in these NATO exercises.

Otherwise, nothing. Except we learned from Csaba Hende, minister of defense, after his return from Vilnius that the small Hungarian contingent did fantastically well. Among the troops of the nine participating states the Hungarians were first “according to all indicators.” It is hard to know what kinds of “indicators” Hende is talking about. We don’t even know whether there was such a ranking. Sorry to be so skeptical, but for a long time now government statements have not been credible. Lacking outside verification, we cannot distinguish fact from fiction–and perhaps government officials can’t either.

The Hungarian far right and Russia

There has been a lot of discussion about the Russian sympathies of the extreme right parties in Europe. I have written extensively about Jobbik’s close ties with Russia. I’m sure that many readers remember the strange story of Béla Kovács, Jobbik EP MP, who, by the way, was just barred from the territory of Ukraine by the Ukrainian government. The reason? Most likely Kovács’s participation in the group that found everything in perfect order in the Crimean elections. Gábor Vona also visited Moscow, accompanied by Béla Kovács, and met important Russian political leaders.

The same affinity for Russia holds for France’s National Front, whose leader, Marine Le Pen, visited Moscow last summer and met similarly high-ranking politicians of the Russian Duma. Golden Dawn, the Greek fascist party, also has close connections to Moscow from where it receives financial assistance. When the Greek government imprisoned Nikos Michaloliakos, the party’s leader, Alexander Dugin, the author of Putin’s “Eurasian” ideology, actually sent him a letter in prison. Just to remind people: Gábor Vona also met Dugin in Moscow. And then there is Bulgaria’s far-right party, Ataka, that also has links to the Russian embassy.

All these parties and other right-wing fringe organizations support Russia’s annexation of Crimea and stand by Russia in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. They are all against the European Union and the United States. Most of them are also anti-Semitic, definitely anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian and Iranian.

A previously lesser-known right-wing portal in Hungary, Hídfő (Bridgehead), has recently come into prominence. It was this site that first broke the story that Hungary is secretly supplying tanks to the Ukrainian army. One of their readers saw a tank being transported by train toward Debrecen, which the editors of the portal found suspicious. Soon enough word spread that the tanks were destined for Ukraine. The Hungarian ministry of defense explained that the tanks had been sold to a Czech businessman who deals in used military equipment.

Later the Russian foreign ministry published an official statement stating that “weapons supplied to Ukraine by the EU member-countries … violate legally binding obligations–the Arms Trade Treaty.” The Russian foreign ministry was fairly well-informed on the details: “Hungary’s Defense Ministry is supplying Ukraine with armored vehicles, including T-72 tanks, through a ‘proxy agency.'” The Hungarian Foreign Ministry denied the Russian claim as “groundless.”

As a result of its revelation Hídfő, which apparently has a readership of 3,000/day, became internationally known.  And naturally that aroused the interest of investigative journalists in Atlatszo.hu, one of those NGOs that receive financial support from the Norwegian Civic Fund. They discovered a few interesting items about the organization that is likely behind Hídfő–Magyar Nemzeti Arcvonal, a Hungarist organization that came into being in 1989. Originally it was called Magyar Nemzetiszocialista Akciócsoportok (National Socialist Action Groups) . It considers itself to be the legitimate successor to Ferenc Szálasi’s Arrow Cross Party.

Hídfő, as far as I could ascertain, was established on September 25, 2012, or at least that is the date when the first article appeared. The portal is full of anti-Israeli, anti-American, anti-European Union articles while it is fiercely pro-Russian, pro-Palestinian, and pro-Iranian. Their Russian connections must be substantial. While internet sites normally invite readers to express their satisfaction on Twitter and Facebook, Hídfő has only Vkontakte, a kind of Russian Facebook.

Hídfő is well informed on the exact military situation in Eastern Ukraine

Hídfő is well informed on the precise military situation in “New Russia”

An interesting article, originally published on tarsadalmivirtus.lapunk.hu, appeared in Hídfő in 2013. If one can believe the introduction, a single person writes all the articles; he sees himself as a great observer and analyst of international affairs. He also looks upon the European Union as an enemy that until now has been unable to grab only two countries: Ukraine and Belarus.  But the EU has plans concerning Ukraine. If it manages to get hold of Ukraine, its influence in Europe would be complete while “Russia would be squeezed into the Asian region.” European pressure is great on Ukraine and in case of a civil war “it is possible that Moscow will try to save the Russian population and the country will fall into several pieces.” This, however, will not satisfy the European Union. The final step of the evil European Union will be “the execution of Russia.” Romania will incorporate Moldova while the West will incite the Muslims of Russia to revolt. Eventually Russia will fall apart without any outside military action. Our man seems to know that “the Russian military leadership” has already worked out a strategy to prevent such an outcome. It includes the support of Russia nationalists in Ukraine, to be followed by “tremendous pressure on the Baltic states.” Whoever our man is, he predicted the events on the Russian-Ukrainian border fairly accurately.

Another far-right site is “Jövőnk” (Our Future). This Hungarist site has been in existence since January 2009. It would be fascinating to learn more about this group because the site suggests that they have plenty of money. They publish articles not only in Hungarian but also in English, French, German, Russian, Romanian, Slovak, and Serbian, which is a very expensive undertaking. The people behind Jövőnk are so enthusiastically pro-Russian that their articles could have been written in some Russian government office in Moscow and translated into Hungarian. This particular page will give you an idea about the editors’ infatuation with Vladimir Putin. In one of the articles there are enthusiastic lines about Putin building a Eurasian Empire, and not for a moment does the author worry about the implications of such an empire for his own country, Hungary.

A strange, inscrutable world about which we still know very little. We especially know very little about the nature of these groups’ ties to Russia and Iran. One can only hope that the Hungarian secret service is keeping an eye on these people, although I have my doubts about both the talent and the will of the security agents. When one reads articles in these extremist websites about the decline of the West and glowing descriptions of the East, one has the awful feeling that Viktor Orbán has quite a bit in common with these fellows. A rather frightening thought.

Viktor Orbán between Russia and Brussels

In Budapest there is the usual Friday political turmoil since it’s the day that Viktor Orbán holds a well-rehearsed conversation with a journalist of the Hungarian state radio. I no longer call Magyar Televízió and Magyar Rádió public television and radio stations since in the last four years both have become mouthpieces of the government. Just like in the Kádár regime.

Normally the world does not pay much attention to these early morning chats, but today was different. By 04:45 EST Reuters reported on what Viktor Orbán had to say about the European Union’s sanctions against Russia. After the leaders of the Union decided on tough economic sanctions against Russia, Orbán publicly voiced his opposition to the plan. Referring to the Russian ban on agricultural products coming from the European Union, Canada, the United States, and Australia, he announced that the sanctions policy pursued by the West “causes more harm to us than to Russia…. In politics, this is called shooting oneself in the foot.” He continued: “I will do my utmost–of course we are all aware of Hungary’s weight, so the possibilities are clear–but I am looking for partners to change the EU’s sanctions policy.”

This move of Orbán may not have come at the best time. Just yesterday political observers noticed that Putin adopted a softer tone during a visit to the Crimea that was not carried live on Russian television. Moreover, the sanctions have just begun to bite, but even before there were signs of financial strain as a result of the annexation of the Crimea. Desperate for cash, the Russian government dipped into the national pension fund which means taking away from every Russian two years’ worth of social security payments. Although Putin’s personal popularity is extraordinarily high, according to one survey only 7-12% of the population are ready to make financial sacrifices for the sake of Russia’s policies in Ukraine.

Inflation is up 9% this year while there is no economic growth. The government is contemplating a new 3% sales tax to plug some holes in the federal budget. There are already shortages in the supermarkets. Forty percent of Russia’s food supply comes from abroad, and Russian consumers will be unhappy very soon. In the last twenty years or so they became accustomed to a great variety of products from all over the world and they have no intention of returning to Soviet times of limited supplies and inferior quality. Putin’s propaganda that the ban on Western food is just a means of “supporting the product manufacturers of the fatherland” will wear thin soon enough.

The temporary loss of the Russian market for Hungarian agriculture is less significant than the Hungarian government wants the world to believe. Orbán put in a bid for compensation and therefore, I assume, he exaggerates the potential losses for Hungarian farmers. Reuters in its report claims that Russia is Hungary’s largest trading partner outside the European Union, with exports worth 2.55 billion euros in 2013. However, this figure may be wrong. According to a Hungarian source, that figure is 70 billion forints, which is only 223 million euros at today’s exchange rate. So, the Russian sanctions against Hungary will not be as painful as Orbán would like to portray them. On the other hand, Western sanctions against Russia are more serious from Hungary’s point of view than the Russian sanctions against Hungary, Zsolt Kerner claims. One of the Russian banks affected by the sanctions is the state-owned Vnesneconombank (Bank for Development and Foreign Economic Affairs), which owns part of Dunaferr and is also the bank through which the Russian loan to build a new nuclear power plant in Paks will be administered.

Orbán’s attack on the Russian policy of the European Union is also ill-timed.  Finland’s president, Sauli Niinistö, is currently in Moscow to negotiate with Putin. Although Niinistö is not an official envoy of the European Union, he was in contact with western colleagues. The European Union has been seeking a diplomatic solution to the crisis, and they don’t need Viktor Orbán’s good offices as a messenger between Moscow and Brussels.

While Niinistö was negotiating with Putin in Moscow, the EU foreign ministers held an emergency meeting in Brussels, discussing among other things the Ukrainian situation. Of course, I have no idea what position Tibor Navracsics took at this meeting, but I assume he was instructed to oppose sanctions and perhaps suggest bilateral discussions with Moscow. Whatever the Hungarian position was, according to the agreed-upon statement “any unilateral military actions on the part of the Russian Federation in Ukraine under any pretext, including humanitarian, will be considered by the European Union as a blatant violation of international law.” And, most importantly, “the Council  … remains ready to consider further steps, in light of the evolution of the situation on the ground.” According to diplomats, the new measures would target Russian sales of sovereign debt, its ability to raise funding through syndicated bank loans, and high-tech machine imports.

I may add here that Viktor Orbán’s old friend David Cameron, with whom he saw eye to eye on the nomination of Jean-Claude Juncker to be president of the European Commission, is unlikely to be on his side on the issue of EU sanctions against Russia. Great Britain is one of the harshest critics of Russia’s destabilizing efforts in the region.

By now Orbán has one staunch ally and that is Robert Fico, the prime minister of Slovakia who announced his opposition to sanctions already yesterday. However, it seems that the Slovak leadership is divided. Andrej Kiska, who recently defeated Fico to become Slovakia’s president, came down on the side of sanctions. He said that “when words aren’t enough, economic sanctions can be used to bear greater pressure on countries which seek to expand, dictate or threaten.”

Orbán’s comment that the sanctions policy hurts the European Union more than it does Russia and that EU policy is in fact a move by which the EU shoots itself in the foot was not left unanswered. Lithuania’s foreign minister, Linas Linkevicius, upon arriving for the EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels, retorted that it was better to shoot oneself in the foot than to let oneself be shot in the head. Naturally, Lithuania politicians are a great deal more worried about Russian intentions than is Orbán, who looks upon his country as a kind of bridge between Moscow and Brussels.

What kind of sanctions? Let the man eat his sandwich in piece Source: Posteemes /Photo: Urmas Nemvalts

What kinds of sanctions? Let the man eat his sandwich in peace.
Source: Postimees / Urmas Nemvalts

Estonia, which is in the same boat as Lithuania and Latvia, has lately changed its until now pro-Hungarian attitude. One reason for that change is Orbán’s overly cozy relations with Putin’s Russia. But there is another. While Hungary just opened a new embassy in Ecuador’s Quito, it unceremoniously closed its embassy in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. Estonia is not only a fellow EU member, but Estonians speak a Finno-Ugric language. This linguistic connection has always been the source of a special bond between Estonia and Hungary, just as in the case of Finland. The Estonians not surprisingly took offense and closed their own embassy in Budapest.

And now the largest and most prestigious Estonian newspaper, Postimees, published an editorial with the title: “A delicate European problem called Viktor Orbán.” Here is a pull quote from the English-language editorial: “A headache indeed – the increasingly autocracy-minded statements and the ever tightening cooperation with Putin’s Russia by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. The issue being: how united is Europe in its values, firstly, and secondly in bridling the warlike neighbouring Kremlin. Obviously, the latter is searching for weak links in Europe. Alas, the still economically troubled Hungary and its populist-type anti-Brussels PM provide for one.”

Orbán’s fame is spreading, but it’s not exactly the kind that Hungarians can be proud of.

How not to win friends and influence people: Viktor Orbán

I’m sure that Viktor Orbán never read Dale Carnegie’s famous self-help book How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936) that has sold more than 18 million copies in the last 78 years. In fact, I fear that his own anti-Carnegie principles will ensure that he will eventually be hated by everyone, with the exception of the “hard-core” who think he walks on water.

One of the chapters in Dale Carnegie’s book speaks about the virtues of leaders, specifically “how to change people without giving offense or arousing resentment.” Among the principal virtues Carnegie mentions are qualities that Viktor Orbán totally lacks. He suggests that a good leader should talk about his own mistakes before criticizing the other person. Orbán and self-criticism? Carnegie also suggests that if a leader is wrong he should admit it “quickly and emphatically.” Or another piece of advice: “Be sympathetic with the other person’s ideas and desires.” Or “show respect for the other person’s opinions.” All these are alien concepts to the prime minister of Hungary. In fact, he does just the opposite of everything that Carnegie thought was necessary for a successful leader.

Take, for example, the erection of the ill-fated Archangel Gabriel monument. Regardless of how much criticism he receives, regardless of how many historians and art historians tell him that the concept is historically and artistically inaccurate, he plows ahead with it. Yesterday the Hungarian Academy of Sciences organized a conference on the issue; their condemnation was unanimous.

Or there is the decision to extend the capacity of the Paks nuclear power plant. As Bernadett Szél (LMP member of parliament) continues to dig into the details of the planned expansion it is becoming obvious that no serious feasibility studies were done before Orbán hurriedly signed the contract with Russia. But that is perhaps the least of the problems Paks is causing Hungary. Orbán’s newly found friendship with Vladimir Putin has led him to regard Ukraine as a potential trophy not only for Putin but for himself as well.

First, he tried to ignore the issue of Russian aggression in the Crimea, but since Hungary happens to be situated in a region that borders on Ukraine, Orbán had to line up, however reluctantly, with Hungary’s neighbors. He decided, however, to make a claim of his own–though for people, not land.

In the same speech I wrote about yesterday, he spoke briefly about Hungarian foreign policy. Here is a translation of the relevant part.

We will continue our policy of the Eastern Opening; we will strengthen our economic presence in the Carpathian Basin. This is in the interest of Hungary as well as of the neighboring countries and the European Union. This strengthening of regional economic relations is not in opposition to a resolute national policy [nemzetpolitika]. The question of the Hungarian minorities has not been solved since the end of World War II. We consider the Hungarian question a European affair. Hungarians of the Carpathian Basin deserve dual citizenship, communal rights, and autonomy. This is our view, which we will represent on international forums. The Hungarian question is especially timely because of the 200,000 strong Hungarian community in Ukraine whose members must receive dual citizenship, the entirety of communal rights [ közösségi jogok], and the possibility of  self-government [önigazgatás]. This is our expectation for the new Ukraine currently under reconstruction that otherwise enjoys our sympathy and assistance in the work of the creation of a democratic Ukraine.

Not exactly a friendly gesture toward a neighbor that is in great peril at the moment because of Russian aggression. As if Hungary would like to take advantage of the troubled waters for its own gains. Apparently, according to a leaked foreign ministry document, “Fidesz with its own national policy [nemzetpolitika]–even at the price of ‘fertile chaos’–is striving for a change in the status quo.” If there is one thing the European Union and the United States are worried about, it is ethnic strife in Eastern Europe. And Hungary just took a rather aggressive step in this direction.

The Hungarian ambassador to Kiev was immediately summoned to the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry. He was told in no uncertain terms that such a step “is not conducive to the de-escalation and stabilization of the situation.” The spokesman for the ministry noted that “certain aspects of [Hungarian] national policy were criticized by Hungary’s partners in the European Union.”

The Ukrainian reaction was expected. Donald Tusk’s response, however, was more of a surprise given the normally warm relations between Poland and Hungary. Both Tusk’s party and Fidesz belong to the same conservative People’s Party, and usually Orbán receives a lot of help in Strasbourg from Polish members of EP. But this time the Polish prime minister was anything but sympathetic. “I am sorry to say this but I consider the statement made by Prime Minister Orbán as unfortunate.” And he continued: “Today, when we witness the Russian efforts of Ukraine’s partition such a statement must raise concern. We need to be careful that in no way, whether intentional or not, it should sound as backing the actions of pro-Russian separatists.” He added that the Polish government will make sure that none of its neighbors threatens the integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine.

Donald Tusk and Viktor Orbán / Photo Barna Burger

Donald Tusk and Viktor Orbán on May 5, 2014 / Photo Barna Burger

In cases like this it is Foreign Minister János Martonyi who comes to the rescue. According to Martonyi, Orbán’s words were misinterpreted. Orbán invoked “self governance” not autonomy. But if you read my translation carefully, you can see that he talked about both self-governance and autonomy in the Carpathian Basin. Martonyi tried to explain that self-government and autonomy are actually “cultural autonomy in Hungarian.” No, they are not. Cultural autonomy exists in Subcarpathian Ukraine already. There are Hungarian schools, Hungarian associations, Hungarian theaters.

Naturally, the opposition made hay out of these careless sentences of Orbán. Ferenc Gyurcsány recalled a sentence from the farewell letter of Prime Minister Pál Teleki to Miklós Horthy before he committed suicide. In April 1941 Hungary agreed to let German troops through Hungary in order to attack Yugoslavia with whom Hungary had just signed a pact of eternal friendship. In that letter Teleki told the Governor: “We became body snatchers!” On Facebook Gyurcsány asks Orbán whether he is playing the role of a body snatcher in these hard days in Ukraine.

Martonyi might have tempered Orbán’s harsh words but Orbán himself did not. He announced this afternoon that he simply reiterated the Hungarian government’s “long-standing views on the Hungarian minorities.” As far as he is concerned, the case is closed.

Jobbik and the Russian connection: The role of Béla Kovács

A few days ago I mentioned a possible connection between Jobbik (and other extremist parties in Europe as well) and Putin’s Russia. In that post I quoted a 2009 study from the Hungarian think tank, Political Capital. Considering the importance of the subject I would like to call attention to a new revised, up-t0-date study of Jobbik’s relationship with Russia by Political Capital. It can be read in English here. At that time I didn’t go into any details because, quite frankly, I wasn’t well versed in the matter. But this morning I discovered an English-language blog written by Anton Shekhovtsov. Yesterday he posted an article entitled “Fascist vultures of the Hungarian Jobbik and the Russian connection.” The title was intriguing and what followed were some details I hadn’t found in the Hungarian media. For example, a speech delivered by Jobbik EPM Tamás Gaudi-Nagy in a T-shirt with the following message: “Crimea legally belongs to Russia! Transcarpathia legally belongs to Hungary!” May I remind everybody that Gaudi-Nagy was the man who threw the flag of the European Union out of one of the windows of the Hungarian parliament. Here is Gaudi Nagy’s English-language speech with Hungarian subtitles.

There is widespread belief that Jobbik is being supported by Moscow, although we have no direct evidence of such financial support. One thing is sure. Jobbik has more money than the party could possibly collect from its Hungarian followers. Jobbik couldn’t have run the extensive campaign it did on the meager subsidies the government hands out to the parties. Besides Russia, Iran has also been mentioned as a possible source of revenue.

In any case, Shekhovtsov suggests that Gábor Vona, the party’s chairman, was invited to Russia by Aleksandr Dugin, a professor at Moscow State University “who is known for his proximity to fascism.” He seems to be a political eclectic. He is, for instance, one of the most popular advocates of the creation of a Eurasian empire. And he helped write the program for the Communist Party of the Russian Federation.

Vona had an opportunity while in the Russian capital to deliver a lecture entitled “Russia and Europe.” In this speech Vona called the European Union a “treacherous organization” and declared that it would be better for Hungary to join the Russia-dominated Eurasian Union should the occasion arise.

While in Russia, according to ATV, Vona also had a meeting with Ivan Grachov, chairman of the Russian Duma’s commission on energy, and Leonid Kalashnikov, deputy chairman of the Duma’s committee on international affairs. Kalashnikov is a member of the top leadership of the Russian communist party.

Gábor Vona, Ivan Grachov, and Béla Kovács in Moscow in May 2013 / Photo: Facebook

Gábor Vona, Ivan Grachov, and Béla Kovács in Moscow in May 2013 / Photo: Facebook

The plot only thickens with the entrance of Béla Kovács, a man about whom we know very little but enough for some people to suspect that he is a Russian agent.  He was born in Budapest, but after finishing high school he moved with his parents to Japan, sometime in the late 1970s. His father was apparently employed by the Hungarian Embassy in Tokyo. It is possible that he also spent four years at “one of the private universities” in the United States, but he graduated from the Institute of International Relations, known for its close ties to the KGB. In addition to Hungarian, Kovács speaks Russian, English, French, German, Japanese, and Polish.

He returned to Hungary in 1986 but in 1988 went back to Moscow where he apparently worked for several Russian companies involved in international trade. We don’t know why, but in 2003 he again returned to Hungary, where he established a small salad bar which failed. In 2005 he discovered Jobbik, whose “bright enthusiastic young men” changed his life. Soon enough he became a very important man in the party. He handles the party’s finances, and in 2010 he was chosen to represent Jobbik in Brussels. There he is considered to be a Russian lobbyist.

Kovács is a man of the world and seems to have  connections with leading members of far right parties all over Europe and the United Kingdom. As his Jobbik colleagues said, without him they wouldn’t have been able to find their bearings in Brussels so easily. It was his idea to create the Alliance of European National Movements, which includes all important far-right parties.

He was one of the representatives of extremist parties whom Russia invited “to monitor” the Crimean referendum last month. Most of the overseers came from right radical circles, although there were a few from the far left parties of Finland, Germany, and Greece.

I discovered an article about Kovács on the website of the new neo-Nazi party, Magyar Hajnal (Hungarian Dawn). It claims that in 2010 he was penniless but a couple of years later he managed to live lavishly, a fact that was confirmed by other sources. According to József Gulyás, a former member of the parliamentary committee on national security, Kovács’s background and activities are “entirely impenetrable.”  Mind you, Gulyás is convinced that Jobbik “is a phony nationalist party which serves only Russian interests.”

I assume that, given his background, the Hungarian national security office is keeping an eye on Kovács. Given their poor performance in the past, however, I have the feeling they know no more about Kovács than anyone can discover by diligently searching the Internet for clues.