Tag Archives: Csaba Hende

Hungarian army recruitment: modern-day impressment?

An outcry followed an article that appeared in Kisalföld, a regional paper serving the county of Győr-Moson-Sopron in the northwestern corner of the country. The newspaper learned that people who are currently employed as public workers had received notices to appear at the Hungarian Army’s recruiting center in Győr. If they do not oblige, their names will be deleted from the list of those seeking employment.

Following up, a reporter for the paper got in touch with the recruiting office. He was told that at the recruiting center public workers will receive information about careers in the military and will be given the usual tests. If a person is fit to serve and refuses, he will lose his public work status and therefore his job. Well, that sounded very much like eighteenth-century British impressment. Moreover, within a few hours it became known that public workers in other counties as well will have to pay a visit to the recruiting office. It seems as if the ministry of defense is planning to involve the whole country, hoping to get new recruits this way.

The ministry of defense didn’t outright deny the story reported by Kisalföld. The ministry’s statement stressed only that “acceptance of service is not compulsory. It is merely an opportunity.” That’s fine and dandy, but since it is the ministry of interior that is in charge of the public works program, any retaliation would come from that ministry. After all, according to the rules and regulations, if a public worker declines a job offer, he loses his public works job. But today the ministry of interior assured the public that as long as the public worker shows up at the recruiting office, he will have fulfilled his obligation and will not have to worry about his job in the public works program.

kozmunkasok

We know that the Hungarian Army, according to some estimates, needs an additional 8,000 men and women, but this doesn’t strike me as the best way to beef up the numbers. Yes, at least in theory, military service could benefit those young men and women who lack the skills necessary to get steady, good-paying jobs. Ideally, the army could offer them an opportunity to learn useful skills. But the Hungarian army is not that kind of a place. Moreover, the pay is low.

It is hard to get exact figures on the pay of military personnel. In 2012 Csaba Hende, then minister of defense, in an answer to a socialist MP, said that enlisted men and women on average receive 137,425 forints a month, non-commissioned officers 191,157, and officers 389,522. The take-home pay is about half of these amounts, that is only $246 for an enlisted soldier. In 2011 a career advisory site outlined possibilities for youngsters if they chose a military career. According to information the site provided, 4,800 people visited the recruiting centers in 2011 but only 1,170, among them 80 women, got to the point of actually submitting an application, and only 837 were accepted. According to the career advisory site, a private first class’s basic pay was only 106,000 forints, a corporal made 119,000, a buck sergeant 130,000, and a sergeant 142,000 forints. No wonder that interest in signing up is minimal.

At the very end of 2014 the government at last announced a 30% hike in salaries, starting July 1, 2015, and it promised that by January 1, 2019 salaries will be 50% higher on average than now. The government loves to talk about what they call “életpálya,” which simply means “career,” usually used with an adjective like “katonai életpálya” (military career) “pedagógus életpálya” (teaching career). I came to the conclusion that having a career in their vocabulary means earning “a salary one can live on.” Even with all the wage hikes, the ordinary enlisted man will not have a military “career.”

Despite all the rhetoric, the Orbán government, instead of allocating more money to the military, systematically reduced its funding. For the latest wage hikes the ministry simply had no money. The added expenses were covered by the prime minister’s office.

Hungary is supposed to have a military force of 29,700 men and women. In June 2014 Csaba Hende talked about 5,921 unfilled jobs in the army. And, he said, past efforts at recruitment had yielded meager results. Since then another 2,000 or so have left the army. Thus, the size of the Hungarian army at the moment is only 22,000. Therefore, at the end of 2015 the decision was made to increase the intensity of recruitment in 2016. The army began advertising on the internet and decided to launch mobile recruiting centers, I assume in smaller towns and villages.

It is on the level of enlistees that shortages are acute. According to military analysts, the shortage of personnel could easily be remedied if the army would change the balance among officers, non-commissioned officers, enlisted men, and civil servants. As it stands now, the percentage of professional officers in the force is 30%. If their numbers were reduced to 10%, a great deal of money would be freed to pay the enlisted soldiers and the non-commissioned officers better. Apparently, a healthy mix would be 10% officers, 30% non-commissioned officers, 50% enlisted men and women, and 10% civilians. But such a move would meet stiff resistance from the officer corps, especially the “untouchable” general staff. As long as a more reasonable balance cannot be introduced, the recruitment effort will not be successful.

But let’s return to the deal between the ministry of defense and the ministry of interior. As it is, the public works program is used, especially in smaller places, as a political weapon. Most of those who take part in the program are at the mercy of the mayors, who decide who will and who will not be hired. In smaller places, although voting is secret, it is easy to figure out whether the fairly large public works crew voted for Fidesz. These small-town mayors behave like feudal lords during the reigns of weak kings, who carved out large regions where they acted like “kiskirályok” (little kings). In fact, people refer to these local tyrants as little kings.

The people who have no way to earn money outside of the public works program are in a subservient position economically and politically. I suspect that the ministries of defense and interior thought that some form of impressment was a capital idea, a policy that would fly under the radar. I do hope that the assurances coming from the ministry of the interior are for real because otherwise Hungarians are in bigger trouble than we think.

July 26, 2016

The Hungarian army will soon receive its marching orders

It looks as if the Orbán government will introduce a state of emergency on September 15, when a new era will begin, at least according to Viktor Orbán.

I wouldn’t venture to predict what exactly that state of emergency will entail because the Hungarian government doesn’t seem to be in control of the situation. A decision that was made yesterday is often scrapped today.

The idea of having transit zones on Hungarian territory that are open toward Serbia but impassable toward Hungary was considered to be a capital idea. The great legal wizard of Fidesz, Gergely Gulyás, in a lengthy interview assured the public that this plan couldn’t possibly be challenged by the present laws of the European Union. But then someone with more legal acumen came to the conclusion that since these transit zones will be built on Hungarian soil, they cannot be considered extraterritorial areas as another great legal expert, László Trócsányi, the minister of justice, claimed.

The picture that is emerging of Viktor Orbán not just in Hungary but in the world

He brought shame to the country: The failed immigration policy of Viktor Orbán

So, no more transit zones, only the fence where the thousands who arrive every day will be stopped by Hungarian police and, from September 15 on, by the Hungarian army. The refugees will, I guess, ask for asylum across the fence. The Hungarian authorities will then decline their requests within three days. There will be no exceptions because none of those who are trying to enter Hungary from Serbia are considered to be refugees. Serbia is, according to the Hungarian government, a safe country that could provide them asylum. There is no need for them to cross into Hungary. The whole thing will be a charade. The scenes the world can watch online of Hungarian police chasing refugees around the refugee camp don’t bode well for the future. But the government hopes that the army’s presence will achieve miracles.

And that brings me back to the sudden resignation of Csaba Hende, who had served as minister of defense since 2010. In the past he was often the butt of jokes because of his less than military physique and his lack of knowledge about military matters in general. His critics considered him incompetent. They were certain that he would not be reappointed when Viktor Orbán formed his third government last year. But Hende remained in his post. Orbán couldn’t have been that dissatisfied with him. But then why the decision to resign? It happened right after a meeting of the ministers directly involved with national security issues.

There are at least three stories circulating in Budapest about the circumstances of Hende’s resignation. The first is that Viktor Orbán fired him because the fence that was supposed to keep the refugees out of the country was not ready by August 15. The second story goes something like this: during the meeting Hende received a lot of criticism of his handling of the crisis and, after a heated debate, Hende decided that he had had enough. The third explanation is that Hende, being a lawyer by training, objected to the use of the army for domestic purposes without amending the Hungarian constitution. In addition, his generals also objected to the government’s plans. Hence, the resignation. My hunch is that there is a kernel of truth in all three versions.

So now Hungary has a new minister of defense, István Simicskó, whose encounter with Celeste A. Wallander, currently special assistant to President Obama and senior director for Russia and Eurasia on the National Security Council, I recalled two days ago.

Simicskó, I’m sure, feels on top of the world at the moment. I don’t know how long he has been dreaming about this job, but at least since 2002. In 2010 he was sure that his dream would be fulfilled, but then he ended up as the second man under Csaba Hende. The two of them didn’t get along, and after two years Simicskó resigned and became undersecretary in charge of sports in the ministry of human resources. He is an avid practitioner of martial arts.

In Simicskó Hungary will have a minister of defense who is very taken with the military. Although his college degree was in hotel management, he subsequently got a degree in economics and finally a Ph.D. in military science. So, he seems well prepared for the job, at least on paper.

There are, however, a couple of things in his bio that should give us pause. Simicskó was the only member of parliament of the 365 present who voted against Hungary’s joining the European Union. Mind you, Viktor Orbán simply didn’t show up that day.

For years Simicskó has been a dogged promoter of a Hungarian equivalent of the U.S. National Guard. Originally, he proposed calling it “Magyar Gárda,” but that name was subsequently taken by Jobbik’s paramilitary organization, which was eventually banned. In 2004, after compulsory military service was abolished, he campaigned for summer military training for eighteen-year-old boys. In 2007 he changed the name of his proposed organization to Honi Gárda (Home Guard), which he wanted to employ in the fight against terrorism. It is possible that now, as minister of defense, Simicskó will be able to achieve his goal.

Last year journalists noted that not all was well with the figures in Simicskó’s financial statements. According to journalists who pay attention to such matters, among Hungarian politicians Simicskó is the sloppiest. When they inquired from him about the discrepancies, he was rude. He accused them of besmearching his good name and of taking instructions from above–that is, from politicians of the opposition.

Simicskó was also accused of buying votes by distributing 10 kg sacks of inexpensive potatoes. And he was caught handing out orange-colored gym socks with bars of chocolate in them. All in all, he is considered by many to be a shady character.

His work is cut out for him. One just hopes that no tragedy will befall the frustrated asylum seekers at the hands of the armed military.

István Simicskó’s encounter with Celeste A. Wallander, 2002

Viktor Orbán doesn’t like to waste time. Yesterday afternoon Csaba Hende, minister of defense, resigned, and lickety-split the prime minister named his replacement, István Simicskó, who as of this afternoon could occupy’s Hende’s empty office in the ministry.

I suspect that not too many people are familiar with Simicskó, although he has been a member of parliament since 1998 and off and on has been a member of various Fidesz governments. The name will resonate in the White House, however, with Celeste A. Wallander, special assistant to the president and senior director for Russia and Eurasia on the National Security Council. How on earth, you might ask, would Celeste Wallander know who István Simicskó is? Here in a nutshell is the story.

Back in November 2002, when Wallander was a senior researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, she wrote a study on NATO in Foreign Affairs with the title “Shape Up or Ship Out.” In it she pointed out how the new NATO countries were failing to fulfill their obligations:

Unfortunately, the evidence is that other new members are already falling behind on their commitments. Recently, a senior figure in European security remarked that “Hungary has won the prize for most disappointing new member of NATO, and against some competition,” citing the previous Hungarian government’s antisemitism, extraterritorial claims against its neighbors, and failure to play a constructive role in Balkan security. Indeed, Hungary seems to have accepted this dubious distinction. The new Hungarian defense minister, Ferenc Juhasz, even admitted on local radio after meeting with NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson that Hungary has failed to meet its NATO commitments over the past four years to such an extent that the alliance has unofficially told him that Hungary would already have been expelled if an expulsion were possible.

Hungary appears to be back on the right path after the defeat of Victor Orban’s nationalist government in elections earlier this year.

This article appeared in a highly respected journal, and normally it would not have prompted an incident. Not unless the criticism was directed against anything connected with Viktor Orbán’s government or party. Simicskó, who after the fall of the Orbán government, became the deputy chairman of the parliamentary committee on defense, created a storm over the article. Not only did he point a finger at the Horn government as being responsible for the sorry state of the Hungarian army but he also began working on a conspiracy theory. Celeste Wallander was accused of being in cahoots with members of the Medgyessy government, then in power. Simicskó was convinced that “such critical remarks and articles appearing about Hungary prepare the ground for Hungarian participation in a possible war against Iraq and sending soldiers to Afghanistan.” In plain English, Celeste Wallander the political scientist was pictured as an agent of American military circles in addition to working with the Medgyessy government because “the picture becomes complete when we consider that [the article] came out in preparation for Prime Minister Medgyessy’s visit to Washington.”

A few days later Simicskó wrote a letter to the political scientist and told her off for including the quotation that “Hungary has won the prize for most disappointing new member of NATO, and against some competition.”

I don’t remember all the details, but I believe Celeste Wallander answered Simicskó’s letter. That wasn’t the end of Wallander’s woes, however. She was also attacked by the internet group known as the Hungarian Lobby, which is actually a Fidesz lobby. The group was founded by Béla Lipták, who left Hungary as an engineering student after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and who is the author of several highly technical books on such topics as process measurement and analysis, hazardous waste, and air pollution. Every time a newspaper article critical of Orbán’s Hungary appears, Lipták writes to the thousands of people who receive the Lobby’s newsletter and asks them to bombard the editors of the paper or in this case Celester Wallander herself with letters of complaint. He provides a sample letter but tells the members to change the sentence structure a bit and make sure they add their own name; that is, don’t send the form letter with Lipták’s signature. As soon as Lipták got wind of the Simicskó-Wallander exchange, the Hungarian Lobby machinery moved into action and the poor woman was inundated with hundreds of letters.

I, who out of curiosity receive Lipták’s newsletters, decided to write a letter to Celeste Wallander and express my sympathy. I wanted to show that there are people who don’t share the ideas of Simicskó or those of Lipták’s indefatigable letter writers. We subsequently exchanged a number of letters about the incident.

Lajos Kósa, chairman of the parliamentary committee on military affairs, and István Simicskó after the committee approved Simicskó's appointment for the post of minister of defense

Lajos Kósa, chairman of the parliamentary committee on military affairs, and István Simicskó after the committee approved Simicskó’s appointment to the post of minister of defense

In 2010 the consensus was that the most likely candidate for the post of minister of defense would be István Simicskó, but on April 27 the word came down that Csaba Hende would be appointed and that Simicskó would have to be satisfied with the post of undersecretary. The next day I wrote an article about the 2002 incident in Galamus titled “Simicskó István esete Celeste A. Wallanderrrel” (István Simicskó’s encounter with Celeste A. Wallander). By that time Celeste Wallander was deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia/Ukraine/Eurasia at the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy. In that article I mused over the possibility that if Orbán had appointed Simicskó minister of defense sooner or later he would have had to encounter, perhaps even in person, Celeste Wallander.

Since then Wallander has moved even higher up on the U.S. governmental ladder. Somehow I doubt that Simicskó will ever have to face Celeste Wallander because is unlikely that he will have occasion to pay a visit to the White House. I’m certain, however, that Wallander will remember, and not too fondly, the name of the new Hungarian minister of defense.

Ambassador Eleni Kounalakis on her years in Hungary, Part II

As I indicated yesterday, Eleni Kounalakis’s book on her stay in Budapest as ambassador of the United States is rich enough to spend more than one or even two short posts.

Before her departure to Hungary, the State Department explained to her that the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan was one of President Obama’s top foreign policy priorities. At the time of our story, Hungary had 400 men and women serving in Afghanistan. Kounalakis’s task was to make sure that those troops, unlike some other international forces, don’t leave Afghanistan. That meant courting Csaba Hende.

Of the twenty-one chapters, four deal in one way or another with the Hungarian military. Her first chapter describes a boar hunt near the Ukrainian border to which she was invited by the Hungarian military brass after she told them that she knows how to handle a gun. It turned out that the military attaché of the embassy was very keen on her joining the guys because such an outing would strengthen the good relationship between the military establishments of the two countries. It was the same military attaché who urged her to take part in swimming across Lake Balaton, an affair also organized by the military. It seems that she was ready to do almost anything to ensure that the Hungarian troops would stay in Afghanistan.

Kounalakis describes Csaba Hende, the new minister of defense, as “a smart, affable man” who was rumored “to be out of his depth in the military realm.” (p. 119) Most people would be less charitable and would describe Hende as a bungling country bumpkin. In fact, in the chapters in which Hende figures there are many examples of his utter unsuitability to be a cabinet minister. In December 2010 the American ambassador was still outraged at one of Hende’s inappropriate remarks, yet in a relatively short period of time she described him as a close friend. That friendship is especially curious since it is clear from the text that Hende doesn’t speak a word of English and that their conversations were conducted through an interpreter.

Kounalakis misunderstood Hende’s role in the government. She assumed that he had some say about whether the Hungarian troops stay or leave Afghanistan. She believed that it was her excellent diplomatic skills and her friendship with Hende that resulted in the Hungarian government’s decision to remain part of the international force. We know, and I think Kounalakis should also have known, that no decision is made in Orbán’s Hungary, even about the smallest matter, without the prime minister’s personal approval. What Hende thought was, in the final analysis, irrelevant, so courting him was probably a waste of time.

At their very first meeting Hende indicated to Kounalakis that Camp Pannonia, where some of the Hungarians served, near the town of Pol-e Khumri, had become a very dangerous place. He was worried about his soldiers’ safety. “Something must be done.” (p. 121) The ambassador almost dropped her coffee cup because she was not expecting a change of policy on Afghanistan after the election. Kounalakis took Hende’s words at face value, but if you read her description of comments made later, the Orbán team most likely even before the election decided to threaten troop withdrawal in order to receive more financial help and military equipment.

A few days later the military attaché came with the surprising news that “Minister Hende had invited me to join him on a three-day trip to visit Hungarian troops in Sarajevo and Kosovo.” She decided to accept the invitation because such a trip “would give [her] the opportunity to advance another U.S. foreign policy objective,” this time in the Balkans. (pp. 122-123) During the flight back from Kosovo Hende brought up the topic of the Hungarian troops in Afghanistan again. This time, according to Kounalakis, he was more forceful. He told her that if someone is killed, “the blood will be on [his] hands,” a concern that Kounalakis understood since she felt “the gravity of the dilemma.” The U.S. military attaché in Budapest was less sympathetic. Yes, he told the ambassador, it is a dangerous place. It is a war zone, and it is important that the Hungarians remain there.

Eleni Kounalakis at a joint training seesion of Hungarian troops and the Ohio National Guard, April 2011

Eleni Kounalakis at a  joint training session of Hungarian troops and the Ohio National Guard

A few months later Hende invited her to go with him to Afghanistan. Another opportunity for Hende to extract more money and equipment from the Americans. Kounalakis describes a rather uncomfortable encounter between General David Petraeus and Hende in which the Hungarian minister again explained his worries about his soldiers at Camp Pannonia. It is unsafe, and it prevents them from doing their assigned task, reconstruction work. During the discussion he repeated that “at a minimum, the Hungarians soldiers needed more equipment, especially more secure transport vehicles.” Hende was asked to make a list of equipment his troops needed, and he received a promise that the requests would be “seriously considered.” (pp. 134-135)

It was during this trip that Kounalakis herself was finally convinced that the Hungarian troops needed more equipment. Although earlier there were serious disagreements between Hende and the American ambassador, one morning after a nearby bombing by coalition forces,

It was clear that something had changed. The tension between Csaba and me had diffused, and everyone felt it. I think he finally understood that it would be hard for him to walk away from his country’s commitments, and I think he saw that I finally understood that his troops were exposed at Camp Pannonia and needed more equipment to protect themselves.

The corner that we turned was significant, not just for our countries’ cooperation in Afghanistan but for everything we would accomplish together for the next three years. Despite–or perhaps because of–our confrontation, mutual respect and understanding had been forged between us. Not more than a few weeks later, a large shipment of new transport vehicles was delivered to Camp Pannonia. Within a short period of time, the reconstruction team received all of the equipment they needed. (p. 141-142)

Considering that only a few days before the following conversation took place between Kounalakis and Hende, this change of heart was truly remarkable. Kounalakis kept talking about the importance of reconstruction work in a developing country when

[Hende] responded, very smugly, “You know, Madam Ambassador, we Hungarians have a saying for what your country is trying to do here: it’s like taking a fish stew and trying to turn it into an aquarium.”

It was the final straw. It was an outrageous, disrespectful thing to say about the United States and all of our troops and officers who were serving in this dangerous place. I looked him in the eye, and I raised my voice.

“The cost to my country, in lives and treasure, is enormous. Success or failure will impact the future of my country, our security and yours, and determine the future for our nations’ children, yours and mine included. You can be as critical as you want, but you cannot discount our effort out of hand that way, as if nothing is at stake!”

The minister’s young interpreter looked mortified, but Csaba himself had staked his ground and refused to back down. Not wanting to give further vent to my anger, I stood up and left the room. (p. 138)

Kounalakis visited Afghanistan once more, this time at the invitation of Admiral James Stavridis, the supreme allied commander of NATO. Once there she proposed to the admiral that “maybe we could persuade [the Hungarians] to take another rotation.” Stavridis was doubtful, but Kounalakis was pretty certain that they would agree, adding that “the only thing is, they probably won’t have the money to fund such an effort.” Once back in Budapest she approached Hende, and “the Hungarians responded with incredible speed and surprising flexibility.” (pp. 269-270) Indeed, why not? Kounalakis is certain that it was her excellent personal relationship with the Hungarian minister of defense that was responsible for this happy turn of events from the American point of view.

On May 10, 2013, John Kerry, secretary of state, wrote a letter to Kounalakis praising her for her exceptional service as ambassador of the United States to Hungary. The very first item on the list of her accomplishments was her “efforts [that] convinced the Hungarian government to maintain its Provincial Reconstruction Team in Afghanistan until its mission was completed.” (p. 185)

Ambassador Eleni Kounalakis on her years in Hungary, Part I

I just received Eleni Kounalakis’s Madam Ambassador: Three Years of Diplomacy, Dinner Parties, and Democracy in Budapest (New York: The New Press), recounting her years in Budapest as U.S. Ambassador. I must say that I was pleasantly surprised by the book, which luckily, despite its subtitle, has little to do with dinner parties. Instead, we have an account of the turbulent first three years of the Orbán administration (January 2010-July 2013), told from the perspective of someone who desperately tried to develop a friendly relationship with the Hungarian officials with whom she had to deal.

As far as I know, no former U.S. ambassador to Hungary has written a book about his or her stay in Budapest since John F. Montgomery’s Hungary: The Unwilling Satellite (1947), which is by and large an apologia for the pro-German policies of Admiral Horthy and his governments. So, it is not an everyday affair that a book is published about U.S. -Hungarian relations that allows us to glimpse behind the scenes.

madam ambassadorKounalakis was a political appointee, as most U.S. ambassadors to Budapest are, and therefore upon her arrival she was pretty green, especially since originally she was supposed to be sent to Singapore and the State Department initially prepared her for that post. From sentences dropped here and there, I came to the conclusion that she had very little knowledge of the recent history of the country. What I mean by “recent” is the last 10-12 years of Hungarian politics, because otherwise she should have known that her stay in Budapest was going to be anything but dull, as she anticipated. From her book we also learn that the officials of the U.S. Embassy seemed to have forgotten the years of the first Orbán government (1998-2000) and occasionally showed signs of political naivete when it came to assessing the policies of the prime minister.

I will write more about this book later because the author discusses many aspects of U.S.-Hungarian relations during her tenure. Here I would like to concentrate on Eleni Kounalakis’s attitude toward the Orbán government and her personal relations with Viktor Orbán.

My impression is that while she had uneasy feelings about the direction in which Hungary was headed under the premiership of Viktor Orbán, she desperately tried to convince herself that she would be able to have good relations with the members of the Hungarian government. Orbán himself might be a difficult man, but he “had managed to attract some of conservative Hungary’s best and brightest to work in his government.” She “reasoned that if he was ever tempted to throw a grenade into the U.S.-Hungarian relationship … his own ministers might be motivated enough to hold him back.” (p. 105) Anyone who’s familiar with the servile ministers around Orbán knows that Kounalakis was sadly mistaken in her assessment.

She was especially impressed with Foreign Minister János Martonyi and Justice Minister Tibor Navracsics and describes both of them in glowing terms. Navracsics was “a star of Hungarian politics,” “a brilliant transatlanticist.” For some strange reason she believes that Navracsics was “a politician in his own right, with his own following” and that it was Orbán’s good fortune that he joined his cabinet. In fact, as we know, Navracsics served Orbán well. He could explain in a most reasonable manner how Orbán’s undemocratic policies were not undemocratic at all. A case in point  is a conversation between Attorney General Eric Holder and Navracsics that resulted in Holder’s not bringing up the question of the Hungarian media law because Navracsics “eloquently explained the government’s position.” (p. 163) János Martonyi was equally useful in persuading the Americans that all would be well with the new constitution. In fact, when some small changes were made to the constitution in the summer of 2012 the U.S. officials in Budapest “were very proud that our intervention had resulted in many tangible improvements.” (p. 197)

Other ministers with whom Kounalakis had close relations were Interior Minister Sándor Pintér and Defense Minister Csaba Hende. There are two chapters in which Csaba Hende is the main character, one titled “Travels with Csaba” and the other “Afghanistan Revisited.” But more about them later.

Kounalakis arrived in Budapest in January 2010, practically in the middle of the election campaign. She wanted to meet Orbán, especially since the Americans on the spot heard rumors that Orbán “regretted not working with the United States in a more collaborative way during his first stint as prime minister.” (p. 41) But the meeting was a disaster, due both to Kounalakis’s inexperience and to Orbán’s way of dealing with people with whom he disagreed. The second meeting, however, a few months later, went well, and one senses that the American ambassador was impressed with the “clean-cut, sharply dressed, confident young staffers, busily moving around with efficiency and purpose.” (p. 82)

This kind of ambivalence is evident throughout her book. But she was not alone in failing to grasp the true nature of Viktor Orbán and the people working for him. For example, although the staff of the embassy realized that “the new prime minister and his supermajority in Parliament added a certain level of unpredictability,” they believed that “Orbán would be careful because of the historic importance of Hungary’s first EU presidency.” The Americans were wrong. Hungary took over the presidency on January 1, 2011, and “on January 2, all hell broke loose.” (pp. 156-157) The media law was passed.

Perhaps the best example of  how Eleni Kounalakis, despite her protestation to the contrary, misjudged Viktor Orbán is her description of Viktor Orbán’s performance in Strasbourg before the European Parliament. It is worth quoting the whole passage:

Orbán went to Strasbourg on January 19 [2011] to speak to the European Parliament on general EU matters, but he ended up confronting a hostile gathering. Socialist parliamentarians appeared with duct tape over their mouths to protest the new media restrictions, and “Danny the Red”–Daniel Marc Cohn-Bendit, a German Green Party member–lashed out at Orbán from the floor, comparing him to Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez. Orbán calmly rebutted the criticism and promised to abide by the European Commission’s forthcoming legal opinion on the new media law–as long as the same standards applied to all EU members. With his cool responses to the circus that the Socialists created, Orbán was able to frame the debate of the Hungarian media law along partisan political lines. When I went to see Péter Szijjártó, the prime minister’s senior adviser, a few days after Orbán’s EU speech, he gleefully reported that “we are getting calls from conservative politicians from all over Europe, congratulating us for standing up to these liberals. The response from our friends is overwhelming.” (p. 159)

Just to balance this description of Orbán’s appearance in Strasbourg, I will quote from my post titled “The Hungarian Prime Minister in Strasbourg: A Day Later”:

It is one thing to read written reports of an event and something else to see it on video. It also helps to read other people’s reactions a day after. I did both this morning and I must say that today I consider Viktor Orbán’s performance in the European Parliament a disaster.
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At the beginning of this post I talked about the two Viktor Orbáns. The one that tries to impress the world outside of Hungary and the other not-so-nice domestic Viktor Orbán. A Jekyll and Hyde story that could be played by Orbán while in opposition. The question was how long he could play the same game when in power. The answer is: the game is over. He showed his true self when he answered his critics in Strasbourg. He talked very loudly and his voice by that time had become hoarse. He tried occasionally to be light-hearted but his levities fell flat. For example, when he claimed that he feels quite at home because he receives criticism in similar tones in Hungary. He paused for a second, hoping for an applause that didn’t come.

What did she intend to convey about Viktor Orbán in an exchange with Condoleezza Rice? “So,”[Rice] asked, “you are saying he’s a bully but not a brute?” A bully is certainly better than a brute. What does that mean from the point of view of the U.S. government? Not so dangerous?

There is a fairly long description of a conversation between President Bill Clinton and Kounalakis in his office in New York. Clinton wanted to know what she thought of Viktor Orbán. Here is the whole conversation:

Mr. President, some people say he’s crazy. I don’t think that’s right. I see him as a very smart, very rational man. But he doesn’t seem to me to have the same concept, the same definitions as we do of democracy, freedom, and even free markets. I think he sees himself as the only one who can protect the Hungarian people from what he believes are corrupting outside influences…. But when it comes to the larger issues we’ve been talking about, like energy security for Europe and the Eastern Partnership–and Afghanistan–we are still very much on the same page as the Hungarians. They are as much a reliable partner on international issues now as they have ever been. (p. 259)

Eleni Kounalakis’s confidence was tested when, not long after this conversation, “Hungary faced a decision that pitted its economic interests against its diplomatic ones. The choice would, for the first time, shake our faith in the country’s reliability as a partner and cast a pall over our relations.” (p. 259) She was talking about the release of Ramil Safarov, an Azeri who was serving a life sentence in Budapest for the ax murder of an Armenian.

Kounalakis’s final meeting with Viktor Orbán, when she was about to leave her post, was freewheeling. Out of the blue Orbán began talking about Milan Kundera’s book The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Kounalakis took the opportunity to say that for Kundera “freedom meant the ability to live free from oppression–especially free from oppression by your own government. That’s what democracy is all about.” Orbán’s “eyes narrowed and he waved his hand abruptly as if to beat away the comment. ‘All this talk about democracy is bullshit!'” The departing U.S. ambassador couldn’t quite believe what she heard. “He probably didn’t mean to say that democracy was bullshit, but that he rejected, and resented, my raising the subject with him again.” (pp. 281-82) I wonder what Kounalakis thinks now after hearing the Hungarian prime minister talk about “illiberal democracy” and even the superiority of autocracy over democracy.

The Orbán government is at a loss: Which way to turn?

Today even Válasz had to admit that the Hungarian government’s PR stunt that followed the less than successful Merkel-Orbán meeting was a mistake. Referring to the false news about mega-investment,” Valóság, after an earlier glowing report, had to retreat and acknowledge that “there is no BMW, there is no new Mercedes factory and Fidesz doesn’t seem to be successful in the RTL Klub affair either. This wouldn’t be drama if the government had the guts to deny Vs.hu‘s news. But now we do have a small drama.”

I don’t know whether we can call it a drama, but that the Hungarian government’s already tarnished reputation now has an ugly rusty spot as well, that’s for sure. AFP picked up the news about the gigantic German investments that were agreed on during the meeting between the German chancellor and the Hungarian prime minister, but unlike András Kósa, the author of the Vs.hu article, AFP, before publishing the article, did go to the “spokesman for the Hungarian government [who] declined to comment.” Not did the spokesman not deny the story, as Válasz would have suggested, but he purposely spread the disinformation. That leaves me to believe that this PR stunt was concocted by the large communication team around the prime minister’s office.

What can one say about a government that engages in such cheap tricks? Keep in mind that the team around Viktor Orbán was handpicked by the prime minister himself. The members of this team are the ones who manage “communication,” which seems to be the most important aspect of politics for Viktor Orbán. He is like a salesman who has only one goal: to sell his wares regardless of their value or even utility.

What were these communication wizards thinking? Surely they had to realize that sooner or later reporters will ask these companies about their alleged plans and the truth will be revealed. Indeed, Mercedes and BMW have already denied the leaked information about their plans to build factories in Hungary, and this morning we learned from the Siemens spokesman that Siemens is no longer active in industries connected to nuclear energy and therefore the news about their involvement with the Paks Nuclear Power Plant is untrue. As far as the helicopters are concerned, apparently no decision has been made. It is possible that after the meeting Airbus, the French-German company reported to have won the contract, might not be the favorite.

I can only hope that the story of this ruse will reach Angela Merkel’s office, not that I have any doubt about her assessment of the Hungarian prime minister’s character. In any case, the Orbán government’s courting of Germany as a counterbalance to the United States did not work out to Orbán’s satisfaction. Of course, he himself is partly to blame for the fiasco with his public defense of “illiberal democracy.” Even Gábor G. Fodor, a right-wing “strategic director” of Századvég, a Fidesz think tank, said that Viktor Orbán made a mistake when he openly defended his vision of “illiberal democracy.” In fact, he went so far as to say that “this debate cannot be won,” especially not before a western audience. If this absolutely devoted Orbán fan considers the prime minister’s defense of his ideology to have been a mistake, then, believe me, the mistake was a big one.

So, here we are. After all the effort the government put into good relations with Germany, it looks as if Angela Merkel was not convinced. So, where to go from here? There seems to be a serious attempt at improving U.S.-Hungarian relations. This effort was prompted by the long-awaited arrival of the new U.S. ambassador, Colleen Bell, who shortly after her arrival began a round of visits and attended to a number of official duties. Her first trip was to Csaba Hende, minister of defense, which was reported by Hungary Today, a  newly launched, thinly disguised government propaganda internet site. The news of her visit was coupled with the announcement of Hungary’s plans to purchase a new helicopter fleet. The fleet will consist of 30 helicopters that will cost 551 million euros. Discussing the helicopters and Colleen Bell’s visit in the same article was no coincidence. Most likely, the Hungarian government wants to give the impression that there is a possibility that the helicopters will be purchased from the United States.

Even more telling is the paean on the Hungarian government’s website to “successful Hungarian-U.S. economic cooperation.” The occasion was the opening of Alcoa’s “expanded wheels manufacturing plant in Hungary.” It is, if I understand it correctly, an expansion of facilities that have been in place ever since 1996. The construction cost $13 million, and it will create 35 new permanent jobs. The facility was officially opened by Colleen Bell and Péter Szijjártó. Szijjártó was effusive: “with Alcoa’s new investment, a new chapter has opened in the success story of Hungarian-U.S. economic cooperation.” We also learned that the Hungarian government “granted one billon forints for the project.”

Photo by Márton Kovács

Photo by Márton Kovács

Bell, for her part, appealed to Hungarian pride by reminding her hosts that, although Alcoa has existed for 125 years, “this is not very long in terms of Hungary’s 1000-year-old history, but for the United States, a 125-year period covers half of its existence.” Music to Hungarian ears. Of course, she also promised that in the future she will work hard to create new opportunities for both U.S. and Hungarian businesses and to further improve their cooperation. The mayor of Székesfehérvár, the city where the Alcoa factory is located, announced that the wheels of buses in the city will gradually be replaced with Alcoa products.

I somehow doubt that courting the United States in this manner will make Washington forget about the anti-American rhetoric of  pro-government papers or the incredible performance of the Orbán government in connection with the U.S. banning of Hungarian nationals because of corruption charges. Somehow I have the feeling that courting the United States without changing government policies will be just as unsuccessful as Orbán’s earlier efforts in Germany.

And one final note. Today Orbán announced that the fate of cheaper utility costs depends on his successful negotiation with Vladimir Putin on the price of gas and oil to Hungary. If he is unsuccessful, the current low utility rates cannot be maintained. The message? The Hungarian people should support his Russia policy. If not, their utility bills will rise again. Let me add that the team that came up with the idea of reducing utility prices hit a gold mine. The Orbán government’s popularity in 2012 was even lower than it is now. Yet a year and a half later the popularity of the party and the government soared. For Orbán utility rates are terribly important, and therefore I suspect that he will do everything in his power to strike a deal with Putin. The question is at what price.

The Orbán government’s latest “unorthodox solution”: A unique toll system

The Hungarian public is fixated on everything related to cars and driving, especially when it’s a question of money. Announcements about gasoline prices are daily fare in Hungary. If the price of gasoline goes up or down a couple of forints, it’s big news. Hungary is a poor country, we must not forget. Perhaps the most serious crisis since the change of regime occurred when it was announced that gasoline prices would have to be raised substantially. A blockade of all roads nationwide by taxi drivers paralyzed the country for three days and forced a government retreat.

Therefore it’s mighty strange that the Orbán government, already under considerable domestic and foreign pressure, decided to introduce a new toll system–and a badly designed one at that, which is bound to encounter serious opposition.

The system is geographically based. Each county, and there are nineteen of them in Hungary, is a separate toll unit. A driver who plans to drive on a toll road but strictly within the confines of his county need purchase only a single “matrica/vignette.” A few decades ago that might have been reasonable. A trip from Pécs to Harkány was considered to be quite a journey, and going to Hosszúhetény was an outright adventure. But these days, even with lower gasoline prices, people with cars are a lot more mobile.

The maps the government provided to make car owners’ lives easier are confusing. Some of them even had mistakes. If I figure it right, a person driving from Budapest to Pécs on the relatively new superhighway will need four matricas. Admittedly, the new county matricas are a great deal cheaper (5,000 Ft. each) than the former pass that was good for the whole country at 42,980 Ft/year. But what a hassle to figure out what counties you’re going through each time you plan a trip and which passes you’ll have to buy before you venture outside your own county. Even worse, think about those occasions when you have to get somewhere quickly–a family illness, a business emergency, the funeral of a colleague. You don’t just gas up the car and go. You also have to make sure you have the appropriate passes.

Let’s take a not too far-fetched example. A businessman who travels frequently from Pécs to Budapest will have to buy three or four matricas. And let’s say his family also wants to visit an aunt in Somogy or in Zala. The expenses start adding up.

The suspicion is that the government eventually wants to stop issuing those matricas that are good for a limited period of time. They are handy when the family goes on holiday to Lake Balaton or the Mátra Mountains. For ten days they pay only 2,975 Ft.; for a month, 4,789 Ft.

Drivers had to purchase their matricas by January 1, but as of December 29 no matricas were yet available. The new system was introduced in a great hurry without adequate preparation, as even Gergely Gulyás, the honey-tongued Fidesz politician, had to admit. By Friday (January 2) the computer system handling the issuance of matricas at gas stations crashed. There were long lines of people standing in the cold and rain in front of the headquarters of the office that takes care of the country’s roads. Purchasing passes online was not any easier because the site couldn’t handle the traffic.

And confusion reigns. Csaba Hende, the minister of defense and a member of parliament for Vas County, is furious. Based on the information he received, he promised his constituents that M86, a road between Szombathely and Vát, was going to be toll free. Came the surprise the following day: anyone using this new road will have to get a county matrica.

Utpalyak

There are bits and pieces of roads–because this is what we are talking about–where the introduction of tolls makes no sense. Perhaps the most egregious example is the road to the Budapest Airport. A single trip a year to and from the airport would require a Budapester to buy a county matrica.

The attached map gives some idea of what I’m talking about. As you can see, M1 and M0 serve a very important function: to save Budapest from heavy thru traffic, mainly the thousands and thousands of trucks that cross the country toward the north, the east, and the south. It is hard not to notice that certain parts of a single highway are free while other parts are toll roads. The reason is that those sections marked in green were built with EU support, for the specific purpose of ridding Budapest of the heavy truck traffic that is environmentally harmful. The European Union demanded that these roads remain toll free. Well, on the map they are marked free, but the roads leading to these free sections are toll roads, so, contrary to EU intentions, truckers don’t get a free ride around Budapest. You may ask what the orange-colored sections signify. These three short sections are still within the limits of Pest County, but if you drive onto them, you must have a county matrica for Fejér County in the case of M1 and M7 or Nógrád County in the case of M3. The distances are small. The trip from Törökbálint to Pusztazámor, for instance, is only 17.3 km or 10.7 miles.

A civic group that already blocked the M1 and M7 superhighways for a minute in December is threatening the government with an ultimatum. They now promise a total blockade of all roads if the government does not withdraw the new county toll system by the end of February. They will also demand the resignation of the Orbán government. The organizer is Zoltán Büki, a businessman and Együtt-PM activist in the county of Nógrád.