Tag Archives: Donald Trump

The Orbán government is dragging its feet on the issue of Central European University

Over the last few months I have received several letters from readers of Hungarian Spectrum, wanting to know more about the status of Central European University, an English-language graduate school founded by George Soros, the bogeyman of the Orbán government. Unfortunately, I was unable to give any update on the fate of CEU because not much happened from May to late September.

Between February and May 2017 I devoted seven posts to the Hungarian government’s efforts to get rid of Central European University. It seemed that the decision to launch a frontal attack against the university was reached sometime after the surprise victory of Donald Trump, which promised, at least as far as Viktor Orbán was concerned, amicable relations between the new Republican administration and the illiberal state of Hungary. Viktor Orbán most likely thought that the new Republican president would be only too happy to assist him in getting rid of the university that was established by George Soros, a well-known supporter of his opponent, Hillary Clinton.

Well, it didn’t turn out that way. Viktor Orbán managed to get himself and Hungary into a big mess. The new White House was not willing to turn against a well-known university, so the Orbán government had to save face somehow. This process has taken months. The first bitter pill the Hungarian government had to swallow was that there was no way to “negotiate” with the American federal government about the fate of CEU, on which the Orbán government insisted. By the end of June the Hungarian government realized that there was no way out. They would have to negotiate with New York State’s Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo.

By the end of September the hurdle of establishing an American campus of Central European University was surmounted through an agreement with Bard College, located in New York State. Bard is well known for its close ties with Hungary and Hungarian causes in general. For example, it volunteered to receive 325 Hungarian refugee students in 1956-1957, who spent nine weeks on its campus. The fiftieth anniversary of this event was celebrated in 2007, and many of these former students returned to the college to remember the time they spent there. In recent years, many Hungarian youngsters have received Hungarian Heritage scholarships to attend Bard College. And yes, George Soros has made sizable donations to the college.

Thus, an arrangement between these two institutions was an obvious answer to Hungary’s insistence on the physical presence of CEU on U.S. soil. Yet the government was silent until a few days ago, when László Trócsányi staged an “extraordinary press conference.” He announced an amendment to the law on higher education. The modification consists of a one-year extension of the deadline for CEU to come into full compliance, from January 1, 2018 to January 1, 2019.

Below is the university’s reaction to this latest “modification” of the law.

♦ ♦ ♦

Dear Members of the CEU Community,

CEU welcomes any initiative that reduces uncertainty, but the Minister of Justice’s proposed extension of the deadline prolongs the uncertainty while walking away from a solution that lies at hand.

An agreement between the State of New York and the Government of Hungary guaranteeing CEU’s existence is ready for signature. Resolution of this matter is now up to the government. The government can simply sign the agreement it has already negotiated.

In line with the agreement, CEU has signed an MOU with Bard College to undertake ‘educational activities’ in the State of New York. We have already initiated a program registered with the New York State Board of Education that should be operational within weeks. Thus there exists no obstacle to an agreement bringing this whole episode to a conclusion.

Hungary has already signed an agreement with the State of Maryland in respect of McDaniel College. Failure to sign an agreement with the State of New York in relation to CEU can only be perceived as discriminatory.

Extending the deadline and failing to sign the agreement are a step backward. CEU wants to move forward. CEU calls on the Government of Hungary to sign the New York-Hungary agreement without delay and re-affirms its commitment to fulfill all obligations, defend its freedom and continue its presence as a respected member of Hungarian and international academic life.

Michael Ignatieff, CEU President and Rector

Liviu Matei, CEU Provost and Pro-Rector

October 15, 2017

Moving to the center? Anne Applebaum’s essay on Viktor Orbán and Donald Trump

This morning I encountered Anne Applebaum’s name on the “Reggeli gyors” (Morning express) program on KlubRádió, on several Hungarian internet news sites, and in a Hungarian-language summary of foreign news related to Hungary that I receive daily. Anne Applebaum is an American journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author who has written several books on the Soviet Union and on Eastern Europe. She knows the region of East-Central Europe well, having spent several years in Poland while working as a correspondent for multiple British publications.

As a student of East-Central Europe, she is well acquainted with Hungary’s history and follows its current political events. She often writes about Hungarian affairs, so her name appears frequently in the Hungarian media. Every time an article of hers is published in The Washington Post, this or that Hungarian newspaper or internet site will report on its content. Hungarian journalists even follow her tweets.

As for her opinion of Viktor Orbán and his regime, it is devastating. This was not always the case. In 2010 she received the Petőfi Prize for her 2003 book on the Gulag, which was translated into Hungarian (as was her 2012 book Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956). The Petőfi Prize was established by the Public Foundation for the Research of Central and East European History and Society, which is a Fidesz-sponsored foundation. The prize was bestowed on her by Mária Schmidt, whom I call Viktor Orbán’s court historian.

Anne Applebaum (2015) Source: Václav Havel Library

If Anne Applebaum had any hopes for the Fidesz government in 2010, they evaporated soon after. She has written many harsh words on Hungarian domestic and foreign policy as well as on the government’s treatment of refugees. But this is not what I want to talk about here. Anyone who is interested in Anne Applebaum’s political opinions should visit her website, which offers an extensive collection of her writings over the years. Here I will focus on her latest article, “Beware: Trump may use the alt-right to turn himself into the center,” which appeared last night in The Washington Post, because it has a great deal to do with Hungary.

The article is about Donald Trump’s bigotry, which he has used as “an electoral tool, to excite a relatively small group of supporters.” He was successful mainly because the rest of his voters, mainstream Republicans, overlooked his tactics in their eagerness to win the election. Applebaum’s question is whether Trump will further manipulate racism “for political ends.” If he does and proves to be successful, the alt-right will gain strength, which might result in a level of violence that could offer Trump the opportunity to “present himself as the candidate of law and order.” In addition, “by encouraging the alt-right, Trump can also change our definition of what it means to be a moderate or a centrist.”

It is at this point that Anne Applebaum brings up the comparison with Hungary, where “the center-right ruling party, Fidesz, turned a neo-fascist alt-right party, Jobbik, into an electoral asset” and where Viktor Orbán can portray himself and his party as a centrist party that alone can save the country from extremism. A couple of years ago Fidesz used Jobbik very much as Anne Applebaum describes it, but I don’t believe this formula applies today.

In Hungary there are three main political forces: the left-liberals, Jobbik, and Fidesz. After 2006 the left-liberal group lost a great deal of its appeal, and at roughly the same time Jobbik, representing the extreme right, became an important political party. It was in this political climate that Viktor Orbán portrayed himself as the head of a right-of-center party that would save Hungary and Europe from the curse of a government of Gábor Vona, the leader of a racist, anti-Semitic party, which proudly declared itself to be an enemy of democracy.

But, as Anne Applebaum correctly points out, as time went by Fidesz, in order to maintain its support, took over more and more of Jobbik’s program. Applebaum says in this article that “Fidesz borrowed some of Jobbik’s ideas and language.” I think she is too kind. It wasn’t borrowing. It was a wholesale adoption of Jobbik’s program. From day one the Orbán government began fulfilling all of the important nationalistic demands of Jobbik, until the two parties and their constituents were barely distinguishable.

As the result of Fidesz’s rapid move to the right, it became increasingly difficult to maintain the myth of Fidesz as a central force, balancing between the “communists” and the “Nazis.” If Anne Applebaum had written this piece a few years ago, I would have fully agreed with her, but today I believe the picture needs to be refined.

As Fidesz was moving to the far right, becoming a nationalistic party with racist, anti-Semitic undertones, Gábor Vona of Jobbik realized that the political territory his party once occupied was being usurped. He decided to move his party more toward the center, with some success. Thus, the myth that the Fidesz government guarantees law and order in the face of a physically dangerous extreme right has collapsed. Today there is no longer a serious threat of extremists, akin to the alt-right extremists we saw demonstrating in Charlottesville, using deadly force in Hungary.

So, let’s go back to the United States and the “centrist” scenario Anne Applebaum foresees as a possibility. Viktor Orbán is a shrewd, intelligent politician, which we can’t say about Donald Trump. Such sophisticated thinking is, to my mind, unimaginable from Trump. I also believe that both his temperament and his deep-seated political views incline him toward extremism. I cannot picture him as a centrist in any guise, promising calm and the rule of law. He thrives on conflict and discord.

Before the 2010 Hungarians election I said in a lecture that “one doesn’t know where Jobbik ends and where Fidesz begins.” Today I am convinced that the same can be said about Donald Trump and the alt-right in all of its variations.

August 18, 2017

Charlottesville from a Hungarian perspective

White supremacists, neo-Nazis, and Ku Klux Klan members rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia, yesterday afternoon “to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump” to “take our country back.” The event ended in tragedy: a full-fledged terrorist attack by a white supremacist. In the end three people were dead and 19 injured. This was the first terrorist attack on U.S. soil since Donald Trump became the 45th president of the United States, and ironically it was committed not by an Islamic extremist but by a man who is most likely an admirer of the president.

David Duke, the former KKK grand wizard who was one of the organizers, announced before the event that the neo-Nazi rally was the fulfillment of President Trump’s vision for the United States. Duke was an enthusiastic supporter of Trump as far back as the Republican primaries. In turn, Trump was reluctant to disavow him when asked to do so by the Anti-Defamation League. He claimed that he didn’t know enough about the group or David Duke. Just as he was unwilling to repudiate his white supremacist followers back in February 2016, he is equally averse now to name the real culprits of the terrorist attack. “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides. On many sides,” he added for emphasis. Most Americans found Trump’s statement, which “couldn’t distinguish between the instigators and the dead,” morally unacceptable. David Duke was also unhappy, but for a different reason. “I would recommend you take a good look in the mirror & remember it was White Americans who put you in the presidency, not radical leftists,” he tweeted.

Some commentators believe that it was Trump’s public show of admiration for Andrew Jackson that told white nationalists their time had come. The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website, considered it fitting that Trump was honoring Jackson, whom they call “a white supremacist extremist.” The group created a poster with a quotation from Bannon: “Like Andrew Jackson’s populism, we’re going to build an entirely new political movement.” Trump’s admiration for Jackson also lent credence to the position of Steve King (R-Iowa), a Tea Party conservative for whom America looks very much like the country from the days of the Founding Fathers. King does not welcome immigrants from Central and South America or the Middle East because “we can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” I should add that Steve King is a great admirer of Viktor Orbán and his regime. In March-April, when Orbán moved against Central European University and the NGOs, Steve King was elated. “Prime Minister Viktor Orbán leads the way again,” he tweeted. “Marxist billionaire Soros cannot be allowed to influence U.S. elections either.”

Given this background, it is perhaps more understandable why some leading Republicans and Democrats are demanding the immediate removal of Steve Bannon and his sidekick Sebastian Gorka from the White House. These critics call both of them “alt-right neo-fascists.” For example, Richard Painter, who was the chief White House ethics lawyer in the George W. Bush administration, said in an MSNBC panel discussion that “Breitbart News is a racist organization…. This is Breitbart News that you’re watching on the streets of Charlottesville.” For good measure he added that “Bannon needs to be fired, Sebastian Gorka and the rest of the fascists or we have to remove this president.” Democratic Congressman Ruben Gallego called Trump “an absolute racist” on a SiriusXM radio show. He recalled that Trump had refused to comment on the attack or show his support for the American Muslim community in Bloomington, Minnesota. Moreover, his adviser Sebastian Gorka suggested on MSNBC that the bombing may have been faked “by the left.” One ought not to be surprised, Gallego continued, because Trump has surrounded himself with racists like Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, and Stephen Miller.

So Sebastian Gorka is back in the news big time. Not that he has been quiet in the last few months, but at the beginning he was mostly defending himself against charges of being a member of the Vitézi Rend, a knightly order created by Miklós Horthy for heroes of World War I. I have written many articles on the subject, most of which appeared on Hungarian Spectrum. The Vitézi Rend wasn’t a fascist or Nazi organization per se, but after Hungary entered World War II the order ended up on the U.S. State Department’s blacklist of pro-Nazi institutions. On the other hand, given the anti-Semitic nature of the Horthy regime and the anti-Semitism of the governor himself, no Jews could be admitted to the order regardless of military valor. Gorka steadfastly denies his membership, but current leaders of the Vitézi Rend confirmed his participation in the group. We also know that Gorka was involved with an extreme-right group that made its appearance in 2006 during the long vigil of hundreds of people on the square in front of the parliamentary building. He was as well a regular contributor to the anti-Semitic Demokrata, a still existing periodical under the editorship of András Bencsik, a friend and colleague of Zsolt Bayer.

Otherwise, as the White House “pit bull,” Gorka was often on television touting the greatness of Donald Trump, who was apparently thrilled every time he heard Gorka expounding on Fox News. Gorka’s first serious “political comment,” however, didn’t turn out too well. He gave an interview to BBC radio in which he said, in connection with Trump’s threat to North Korea, that “You should listen to the president; the idea that Secretary Tillerson is going to discuss military matters is simply nonsensical.” This comment went too far, and Gorka was forced to backtrack. He claimed that his words were misconstrued and that he was merely saying that the media shouldn’t ask Tillerson questions about military matters.

Gorka survived the Tillerson misstep, but this time he might be in more trouble because a couple of days ago, in a radio interview with Breitbart News, he belittled the danger white supremacists pose. “It’s this constant, ‘Oh, it’s the white man. It’s the white supremacists. That’s the problem.’ No, it isn’t.” And a few hours later comes the Charlottesville tragedy. Unfortunately Charlottesville wasn’t an isolated incident. In the decade after 9/11 the number of right-wing extremist attacks averaged 337 per year, causing a total of 254 fatalities, while Muslim extremists were responsible for a total of 50 deaths in the United States during the same period.

Is Gorka a racist? We have no idea, but some of his words are supportive of a racist culture.

The same question can be asked about Viktor Orbán, and pretty much the same answer given. Orbán’s views on the purity of European culture, which is under siege by outsiders, can easily be interpreted in a racial sense. Viktor Orbán is a devilishly clever politician who can rarely be caught saying something truly inappropriate or something that could be interpreted as a racial slur or as anti-Semitic. On the other hand, there have been innumerable occasions when he uttered sentences that were ambiguous, which only those who are familiar with the cultural context in which they are uttered can properly decipher. It is relatively easy to find Orbán speeches in which he talked about Europeans as a distinct group whose culture must be defended. At one point he even talked about ethnic purity, which his staff found too offensive and removed from the transcript of the speech, only to be found out and forced to reinsert it.

Racism is rampant in Hungary. According to a 2014 poll, 59% of Hungarians wouldn’t consent to a black neighbor and by 2016 80% wouldn’t want to live next door to an Arab. In the United States, according to the Brookings Institute, in 1958 44 percent of American whites said they would move if a black family moved next door; 40 years later, in 1998, the figure was 1 percent. By refusing to disavow white supremacists, Trump and his White House advisers may be helping to turn the clock back to the 1950s.

August 13, 2017

A Hungarian reassessment of Donald Trump

The Orbán government, as we know, was initially delighted over Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States. Viktor Orbán expected a favorable change in U.S.-Hungarian relations, especially since the Hungarian prime minister was the only European leader to express a preference for Donald Trump over Hilary Clinton during the election campaign. A reciprocal sign of goodwill on the part of Trump was presumed, not just by the Hungarian administration but by the public as well. The prime minister undoubtedly expected an early invitation to the White House in addition to friendlier gestures from the U.S. State Department. None of these expectations has materialized. On the contrary, Viktor Orbán’s attack on Central European University was sharply denounced by the State Department. At the same time U.S.-Russian relations, instead of getting better, have soured. By now there’s a Cold-War-like chill in the relationship between the two countries.

In the last few weeks we have seen signs that the Orbán government is in the process of reassessing its opinion of the American president, who lost his first rounds against the Washington establishment and might already have been mortally wounded under the barrage of revelations about his and his family’s questionable conduct. Thus, I assume, the journalists of the government media received permission to use stronger language against the American president which, given their pro-Russian views, comes naturally to them.

Leading the way is István Lovas, who used to be Magyar Nemzet’s Brussels correspondent at the time the paper was the main mouthpiece of Fidesz. Lovas, after 20 years of living in Canada, the United States, and Germany where he worked for Radio Free Europe, returned to Hungary. He began writing for right-wing papers, like the now defunct Pesti Hírlap, Magyar Demokrata, Magyar Hírlap, and Magyar Idők. He is also a regular participant in a political roundtable program alongside Zsolt Bayer on the far-right Echo TV, now owned by Lőrinc Mészáros. His expertise is foreign policy. In addition, he maintains a blog.

Lovas published two articles on Trump today, one in Magyar Hírlap and the other in Magyar Idők. The first deals with “The collapse of Trump” and the other with the forthcoming economic sanctions against “dishonest” China. In addition, Magyar Idők added an editorial on the “economic saber rattling” of the United States. So, the honeymoon, if there ever was one, is over.

In Lovas’s assessment, the last remnants of Trump’s “pretense of power” evaporated when he signed the sanctions against Russia, Iran, and North Korea. It was a cowardly and unconstitutional act, in Lovas’s opinion. His performance as president has been disgraceful, and all those who believed his campaign promises about his plans for good relations with Russia are greatly disappointed. Trump is universally despised—at one point Lovas calls him a cockchafer’s grub—and therefore, in Lovas’s opinion, “it is not worth meeting this man.” I guess this is a message to Viktor Orbán: “Don’t be too disappointed that you haven’t been invited to Washington to meet the failed president. It’s not worth the bother.”

Lovas’s other article, on America’s possible trade war with China, is not an original piece but a summary of an article originally published in Deutsche Wirtschafts Nachrichten. Lovas, who spent more than a week in China recently, is impressed with the super-modern world the Chinese created in the last few decades and therefore is worried about American plans that might result in a full-fledged trade war between the two countries.

The third article, “Trumps attacks on many fronts,” by Attila Mártonffy, deals with U.S. sanctions against Russia, China, and Iran which in turn hurt the economic interests of the European Union. The author calls the American moves “saber rattling.”

All in all, after relative media silence, the open criticism of Donald Trump has begun. Knowing the practices of the Hungarian government media, the articles that appear in Magyar Idők and Magyar Hírlap will a few days later be followed by pieces on all the lesser right-wing internet sites. We can expect article after article reassessing the role of Donald Trump as “the leader of the free world.”

Meanwhile, it might be educational to take a look at a by-now admittedly dated study (the material was collected from February 16 to May 8 and the report published in late June) by the Pew Research Center. It focuses on the opinions of people living in 37 countries about Donald Trump and the United States. We are lucky because Hungary was one of the 10 European countries included in the survey.

Overall, confidence in the U.S. president to do the right thing in world affairs dropped sharply (from 64% to 22%) after Trump became president. This is true in Hungary as well. Hungarian trust in the presidency in the closing years of Obama’s second term was 58%, but by the time of the survey it was only 29%. I should add that there are only two countries of the 37 included in the survey where confidence in Trump was greater than it was in Obama: Israel (from 49% to 56%) and Russia (from 11% to 56%). Disappointment among Russians must be great nowadays.

When the researchers wanted to pinpoint the effect of the change in U.S. administration on public opinion in the countries studied some interesting results surfaced. Ten European countries were included in the survey: Hungary, Poland, Greece, Italy, France, United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and Sweden. In most of these countries there was a sizable drop in people’s favorable views of the United States after Trump moved into the White House. For example, this drop was 28 percentage points in Spain and 26 percentage points in the Netherlands. Hungary and Greece were the only two exceptions. In Hungary’s case there was a +1 move (62% to 63%) and in Greece a +5 change after Trump was elected.

Confidence in Trump as president is low everywhere in Europe. For example, 92% of Spaniards have no confidence in him, but even other European countries, including Greece and Italy, expressed very strong anti-Trump sentiments. Poland and Hungary are the last two countries on the list, each with only a 57% disapproval rate. In its opinion of the U.S.-Mexican wall, Hungary is at the bottom of the list, with a 49% disapproval rate, which may not sound like much of an endorsement until we compare it to the other European countries. The European median is 86%. Another telling figure is Hungarians’ strong approval of restrictions on entry to the United States from majority-Muslim countries. Hungary heads the list with 70% as opposed to the European median of 36%.

At the time Hungarians were also a great deal less critical of Donald Trump’s qualifications for the presidency. The European figures are devastating, but in Hungary more people believe he is qualified for the job (39%) than in any other European country. This is also true when it comes to questions about his personal traits, like his alleged arrogance and intolerance. Hungary is always at the end of the list, often together with Poland, in being the least critical. It is also telling that while overwhelming majority of Spaniards, French, Swedes, Dutch, and Germans consider Trump to be very dangerous as far as the world is concerned (76%-69%), only 42% of Hungarians do.

An intriguing situation. Within the European context Hungarians are less inclined to be harsh in their assessment of Donald Trump’s presidency. At least this was the case a few months ago. It will be fascinating to watch what happens in the coming months, especially if government media criticism of Trump’s policies becomes more widespread.

August 4, 2017

Viktor Orbán, the leading statesman of Europe

I’m not sure whether it is worth devoting a whole post to the latest Orbán speech at the Tusnádfűrdő/Băile Tușnad gathering of Fidesz leaders, especially after I waded through the dreadfully boring text. A reporter from one of the Hungarian internet sites asked some people in the audience after it was all over what particular sentence or idea they thought was most memorable. The less imaginative ones just stood there mum, while a clever middle-aged lady in a state of rapture announced that “every word the prime minister uttered” was equally unforgettable. How clever.

The most “exciting” moment of the event was a sight to behold. Muscled-up Szekler “gentlemen” began roughing up a woman who foolishly braved the crowd alone to protest the building of the Paks II Nuclear Power Plant. One of her attackers dragged her to the ground by her hair. Judging from what we can see on the video, the incident could have ended very badly.

I don’t know how other people will judge this speech, how others will interpret the speaker’s state of mind, but my overarching impression is that Viktor Orbán is afraid. This judgment might surprise some people, especially since most people, just like Péter Magyari of 444.hu, would undoubtedly find the speech little more than an attempt to explain “why he is the most important person in the world today.” It was precisely this extended and continuous self-aggrandizing that made me suspicious that the Hungarian prime minister is not as self-assured as he would have us believe.

Let’s start with “the strengthening of the Visegrád 4 countries,” which he considers to be the most momentous event for Europe in the last 12 months. Admittedly, there was the U.S. presidential election and the French presidential and parliamentary elections, which “swept away the whole French party system,” but they fade in comparison to the reality that “the cooperation of the Visegrád 4 has become closer than ever before.” Of course, he takes credit for this feat. But even a superficial perusal of the international media tells a different story. The coming reform of the European Union will most likely force these four countries to make choices that may vary according to their perceived national interests. Orbán’s claim that “Warsaw, Prague, Bratislava, and Budapest speak the same language” might have been true regarding their position on the refugee issue, but it is most likely a very temporary phenomenon. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s meeting with the Visegrád 4 may have served Israeli interests, but it had no appreciable effect on the cohesion of the alliance.

From his alleged diplomatic success he moved on to his incredible foresight in recognizing ahead of everybody else that the days of global, supranational elites are over and that the future will be in the hands of “patriotic national leaders.” Here, I believe, he is thinking of the U.S. presidential election, because the description fits only the political system Donald Trump is trying to create, for the time being without much success. In Europe, most likely to the chagrin of Orbán, those extreme right-wing leaders whom Orbán calls “patriotic political leaders” have not yet emerged–with the exception of Poland, and let’s hope that the European Union will muster its courage and ensure that the Polish “disease” does not spread across Europe.

It is a well-known fact that Orbán, who spent his first 14 years in a small village, is no friend of Budapest, where he never felt quite at home. Yet now he decided to brag about the country’s capital as the only city between Vienna and Istanbul that is a metropolis. As he put it, “our capital is capable of serving more than the Hungarian state.”

Naturally, a good portion of the speech was devoted to the refugee crisis and the dire situation that awaits Europe, which will inevitably be Islamized. He repeated his usual arguments, especially about the alliance of George Soros and the Brussels bureaucrats. The only noteworthy passage from this section of the speech was Orbán’s claim that his determined anti-migrant policies saved Europe “from the migrant invasion.” Therefore, “next year’s Hungarian election will be a special one because all of Europe will have a stake in it.” If he loses the election, his political opponents will take down the fence he built and will allow immigrants into the country. Thus, “they are ready to hand over the Europeans of today to a new future continent with a mixed population.” There are forces in Europe that want to see a change of government in Hungary because they want to weaken the Visegrád 4 alliance and, with it, the whole of Central Europe.

From this rant I think we can hypothesize that Orbán is actually worried about the outcome of the election, however crazy this sounds given the utter disarray in which the opposition finds itself at the moment. The incredible effort Orbán has expending lately urging all Romanian-Hungarians to vote is telling. At the last national election 97% of Romanian-Hungarians voted for Fidesz. So virtually all votes coming from there will be cast for Orbán’s party. Fidesz has managed to get close to a million people to register and the campaign is still under way. Second, the reference to certain political forces that want to weaken the Visegrád 4 alliance is also a telling sign of his worries about the stability of the group.

So, what kind of a picture emerges from all this? He is a politician who wants to portray himself as the leading statesman of Europe. In addition, he, and not Donald Trump, was the harbinger of the “patriotic leader” whose main concern is national interest. He was the man who saved Europe from a migrant invasion. Budapest is destined for greater things than being the capital of Hungary. And finally, his rule over the country is so important that all Europeans must keep fingers crossed for his political survival because otherwise Europe as we know it will be lost. It’s no wonder that the opposition claims that Orbán has lost his sense of reality. Yet, all that brings to mind the saying about the man who whistles in the dark although, in fact, he is fearful of the world around him.

July 22, 2017

The Three Seas Initiative and Donald Trump

On June 9 the White House Office of the Press Secretary announced the upcoming visit of President Trump to Poland at the invitation of Polish President Andrzej Duda in advance of the G20 Summit in Hamburg. At the end of the short statement we learned that, in addition to meeting with Duda and delivering a major speech, “he will attend the Three Seas Initiative Summit to demonstrate our strong ties to Central Europe.”

SouthFront: Analysis & Intelligence announced that “this visit deserves to be closely monitored for it will reveal more about the Trump Administration’s foreign policy agenda than his previous actions.” The opinion piece considered Trump’s presence at the Three Seas Initiative Summit especially meaningful since Poland’s current political elite is advancing the idea of Intermarium, a Polish-dominated confederation that would include the Baltic States, Ukraine, and possibly also the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, and Slovenia. It is supposed to serve “as a ‘cordon sanitaire’ against Russia and a counterweight to the power of Germany and the European Union.”

Before we embark on current opinions on the Three Seas Initiative, let’s look at its precedent–Intermarium, or in Polish Międzymorze, between the seas. It was a plan proposed by Józef Piłsudski, an important political figure and military leader of interwar Poland. He envisaged a confederation that, by its third iteration, would have included practically the whole of Central Europe, including Hungary. Nothing came of the plan because there were just too many conflicting national interests at work. In addition, other countries were suspicious of the whole project, which they viewed as an attempt to re-establish the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which in the seventeenth century included half of today’s Estonia, all of Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, the westernmost parts of Russia, and the larger part of Ukraine.

Józef Piłsudski’s Intermarium Plan and its different stages

A revival of the Intermarium project surfaced after the 2014 Ukrainian crisis when the present Euroatlantic arrangement couldn’t prevent the annexation of Crimea and the armed conflict in Donbas. Ukraine and its neighbors were looking for alternative models for regional cooperation. At that time the concept of a modern Intermarium began gaining adherents, among them Polish President Andrzej Duda, who “is attempting to recreate the Polish long-life plan of building a natural defensive alliance among like-minded neighbors in the face of the Russian threat, and with NATO military support.”

Duda looks upon the formation of the Three Seas Initiative (TSI) as his great diplomatic feat. On August 28, 2016 a two-day meeting took place in Dubrovnik, Croatia, which was attended by representatives of 12 countries, including Hungary’s president, János Áder. The Croatian president called the area between the Adriatic, the Baltic, and the Black Sea “the lifeblood of Europe.”

It is the second summit of this group that Donald Trump agreed to attend. Trump’s attendance, according to Wojciech Przybylski writing for Euobserver, will definitely put the spotlight on TSI. It is not impossible that Trump’s Polish visit is intended as “a slight against German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Emmanuel Macron.” In addition, some European leaders fear that the Polish ministry of foreign affairs can’t handle such a diplomatically sensitive visit. There is also the possibility that, after Trump’s visit, the Poles will be even more confrontational than before when dealing with the European Union, Przybylski concludes. Others, like the pro-Russian World Socialist Web Site, use stronger language. They are certain that “Trump’s meeting with the leaders of this alliance is a clear signal that the White House is reintroducing the Intermarium strategy which will exacerbate conflicts with Germany.”

Last December Vit Dostál, writing for visegradplus.org, called the Three Seas Initiative a “pipe-dream coming from Warsaw.” He may have been right because the Polish Gazeta Wyborcza cited at least one Czech diplomat who said that Prague will not attend the Three Seas event because it is far too close to the “concept of Piłsudski.” Sputnik Polska conducted an interview with Adam Wielomski, a Polish political science professor, who considers Trump’s visit to Poland and his presence at the TSI summit “support of Duda’s governing Law and Justice Party and the initiative to forge a Central and Eastern European union.”

The TSI project or, in Hungarian, “Három Tenger Kezdeményezés” was not widely covered in Hungary before the news of Trump’s attendance. MTI reported on the Dubrovnik summit, but no one was really interested in what was described as a round table discussion on energy. On the other hand, in November 2015, at a conference attended by politicians, both Jobbik’s Gábor Vona and LMP’s András Schiffer envisaged Hungary’s future in an East-Central European Union. I have not followed Schiffer’s foreign policy ideas, but Vona’s adherence to such a regional solution didn’t surprise me because a couple of months ago Matthew Kott of New Eastern Europe reported that Intermarium was hijacked by the far right in certain countries of the region.

The only serious Hungarian piece on the Three Seas Initiative and Donald Trump’s decision to attend its summit is by Attila Ara-Kovács, a foreign policy analyst, which appeared a couple of days ago. He is skeptical of the success of Duda’s project and Trump’s power to substantially influence the present geopolitical situation in Europe.

Donald Trump’s visit to Warsaw is fraught with danger. He knows absolutely nothing about the situation in Poland or, for that matter, about the whole complicated region. His visit will give a boost to the present Polish government, which is good neither for the Polish people nor for the people of the European Union.

June 29, 2017

Government media on foreign affairs: The British election

For today I chose a topic that may help readers become more familiar with the Hungarian government media’s coverage of foreign news: British Prime Minister Theresa May’s ill-fated snap election that brought political uncertainty to the United Kingdom and that greatly weakened the May-led Conservative Party.

As is often the case, the inspiration for this post came from a friend from Hungary who called my attention to an article in Origo that kept insisting, even after the election results showed that the Conservatives hadn’t achieved a majority, that the Tory victory was spectacular.

The Hungarian government has a clear preference for the Tories. Orbán had excellent relations with David Cameron, and Cameron’s departure after the Brexit vote was a heavy blow to the Hungarian prime minister. He lost a powerful friend in the European Council. Moreover, the Labour Party led by the “Marxist” Corbyn is an anathema as far as the far-right Fidesz is concerned.

Flórián Hecker, a regular op-ed writer of Origo, wrote a wildly optimistic forecast of the election results on June 8 when British newspapers were already full of devastating descriptions of the very poor Tory campaign and the likelihood that there would be an unexpected turnabout in public sentiment. Hecker predicted that “Conservatives are in the home stretch and Labour in the lee,” although he admitted (in a seeming lapse of logic) that the “Jeremy Corbyn-led party had somewhat forged ahead.” In Hecker’s view, the really important issues of the British election were terrorism and migration. The two terrorist attacks and May’s radical reaction were helping the Conservatives. The majority of the Brits are still pro-Brexit and May’s hard Brexit stance also helps May’s chances, while Corbyn’s desire for the U.K. to have access to the EU market is not a popular position in Britain.

After the election Origo announced the results with surprising enthusiasm. “It was the Conservative Party that finished first in the British parliamentary election. The exit polls indicated their victory with 314 seats, which they surpassed by a little.” Yes, this is an exact translation. The article dismissed Labour’s gains by saying: “266 seats were predicted for the Labour party [but] they received a bit fewer.” Moreover, nowhere in the article do we learn outright that the Conservative Party hadn’t won enough seats to form a majority government. The closest the article comes to the hard truth that Theresa May’s gamble failed is the muddled statement that “the Conservatives may be in the majority with the Democratic Unionists.”

A day later, on June 9, another article appeared in Origo, heralding that “the Conservative party has won the snap election with a convincing ascendancy.” This time the “impressive” win was interpreted as a supportive vote on Brexit. Origo consulted a foreign policy expert from Századvég, who said that the number one topic in Great Britain is still the country’s relationship with the European Union. Terrorism and national security, he said, despite the recent terrorist attacks, played a relatively insignificant role in the election results.

Today Magyar Idők ran an editorial by Zoltán Kottász, an old supporter of the British Conservatives, who a couple of months ago predicted a conservative turn from France through Germany all the way to Eastern Europe. This time he admitted that Theresa May made a lot of mistakes, but “the fact is that she won” and her situation is not significantly worse today than it was before the election. As the headline of the op-ed piece read in English: “Business as usual.”

It was difficult to maintain this phony enthusiasm for a great Conservative victory for long. Mariann Őry of Magyar Hírlap admitted today that May had made a bad mistake by calling for a snap election. She cataloged a host of mistakes that May made during the campaign and announced that many Conservatives want her to resign. Her conclusion is that May wanted to be a new Margaret Thatcher, “but according to all signs she is unequivocally not.”

Also today Origo decided to ask an associate professor of Corvinus University for his assessment of the election results. He said that “the results of the snap election have made Britain’s domestic politics unpredictable.” This was translated in the headline to the short article as “Political chaos may await the Brits.” The professor believes that Theresa May will resign shortly after the opening rounds of the negotiation talks. Accompanying the short article was the following photo.

Source Citizenside / Photo: David Whinham

Magyar Idők also eventually decided to recount the real story of the snap election. Instead of relying on MTI reports, Tamara Judi, a regular at the paper, wrote a lengthy article in which, quoting The Telegraph, she reported that the “remain camp took the election as a second referendum and supported those who offered the mildest exit conditions.” This must be difficult for the Orbán government to swallow since it has been a strong supporter of Theresa May’s position on many issues–save, of course, for the status of the half a million Hungarians who live and work in the United Kingdom.

Within two days the key government papers, Origo and Magyar Idők, wrote conflicting (I suppose one could kindly describe them as “evolving”) stories about the British election. Imagine that these papers were your only source of information about the election. Is it any wonder that there is such confusion in Hungarian right-wing heads?

June 10, 2017