Tag Archives: Donald Trump

Mária Schmidt and Zsolt Bayer on the fate of Europe

Viktor Orbán’s court historian, Mária Schmidt, has written an article that can perhaps be described as something between a book review and an attack on Germans and Germany. The occasion for her piece was the appearance of a new book by Hans-Peter Schwarz, a conservative political scientist and historian, titled Die neue Völkerwanderung nach Europa: Über den Verlust politischer Kontrolle und moralischer Gewissheiten. Due to Schmidt’s cavalier handling of borrowed text, it is hard to tell how much of the article actually reflects the ideas of Schwarz and how much comes from Schmidt’s own view the world. My sense is that Schwarz’s book is only an excuse for Schmidt to espouse her peculiar views on the state of Europe.

In the article, which bears the title “Egg without its shell, country without borders,” Schmidt vents her anger over the elimination of borders within the European Union. For Schmidt, the removal of borders meant “the abandonment of [the countries’] defense capabilities and thus their national security which are indispensable instruments of national sovereignty.” So, she continues, “Schengen soon became popular among tourists and businessmen, and naturally among drug dealers, human traffickers, prostitutes, pimps, and, naturally, international terrorists.” In brief, it was a dangerous experiment which by now cannot be undone and which leads ever more closely toward federalism. So, if I understand her correctly, if it depended on Mária Schmidt, she would dismantle the single market that seeks to guarantee the free movement of goods, capital, services, and people throughout the European Union. Some people in Hungary claim that this is the path Viktor Orbán will argue for in the future.

Schmidt’s venom is also directed against the European Court of Human Rights, which is “the favorite organization of federalists.” In Schmidt’s opinion the ECHR is largely responsible for the European Union’s crisis, mostly because, according to the court, human rights have priority over the defense of the borders, which means that the European Union became defenseless against the invasion of outsiders. In her tirade against the court, she recounts all the decisions that went against Hungary. The court, with the effective assistance of Soros-financed NGOs, will bankrupt Hungary, which is trying its best to save Europe from the migrants.

Schmidt’s hatred of Germans and Germany has no bounds. Germany was responsible for a borderless Europe which, as we already learned, is the source of all the evil that has befallen the European Union. The Germans are unable to get rid of their feelings of guilt associated with the Third Reich and what it entailed, and therefore they “dream of a federal Europe hoping to leave Hitler behind.” But in their eagerness to build a real union “they forget that a new German-led, unified Europe was in fact Hitler’s cherished dream.” Thus, Schmidt accuses today’s German politicians of continuing Hitler’s conquest of Europe by other means. And, she adds, “as we know, the ideology of socialism began its conquest of the world in Germany and socialism both in its national and international version is deeply rooted in German thinking.”

Mária Schmidt, very deep down, must know that the Hungarian government’s treatment of the refugees is unacceptable by any moral standard. She naturally knows what world opinion is of the Orbán government’s treatment of the refugees and its anti-refugee propaganda that poisoned the souls of Hungarians. One way of minimizing this anti-social behavior is to belittle the magnanimity and compassion of others. This is exactly what Schmidt does when she writes that “in 2015 the entire German elite and public fell in love with their own goodness and generosity, with their chancellor in the lead. They enjoyed the perception that they are now on the right side of history and that they are good-hearted, generous people, helping people in need.” Of course, the German people were told that it was time to be generous, and “once the Germans are told what to do, they don’t stop until they reach the bunker.” Once they receive the so-called order “wir schaffen das,” the consequences don’t matter. “A command is a command.”

It seems that it is not only the Germans who mask their “sentimental and romantic” nature with “arrogance and cynicism,” but the Council of Europe also believes that “the most important task is to prevent humans from drowning in the sea! Thus, the priority is not to halt the surging crowds but to save humans.” Can you imagine?

Schmidt spends considerable time on misinformation being spread in the West about Hungary in general and about the Orbán government’s treatment of the refugees in particular. There is nothing new in her arguments about the manipulated media of the West except for one amusing item. Schmidt uses President Trump’s “memorable” sentence–“The fake news media is not my enemy; it is the enemy of the American people”–as an epigraph for her section on “Fake news media.” Quite a literary coup for a man who, according to Philip Roth, is “incapable of expressing or recognizing subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of seventy-seven words that is better called Jerkish than English.” Decrying all the fake news about Hungary and bolstering her defense with Donald Trump’s attack on the media is pretty low. According to the latest Fact Checker’s ongoing database, Trump in 119 days made 586 false and misleading claims. Moreover, as Ruth Marcus says in today’s Washington Post, Schmidt’s idol “is impervious to embarrassment, no matter how blatant his falsehood.” To use the words of a liar to pass judgment on others is a peculiar way of defending one’s alleged truth.

Of course, the hero of Europe is Viktor Orbán, who stopped the flow of migrants who otherwise would have run down Europe. He saved Europe with his brave move of stopping the invaders at the Serbian-Hungarian border. The following picture appeared with the article.

This depiction of the alleged result of migration is the death of Europe as we know it. That brown foot tells it all. Schmidt is very careful, the word “white” nowhere appears in her essay, but Zsolt Bayer, another favorite of Fidesz and Viktor Orbán, is much more outspoken in his essay that appeared in Magyar Idők today. As far as he is concerned, the Europe Hungarians so fervently wanted to belong to during the Kádár regime in fact no longer exists. That Europe was the world of “white people,” but now the Western Europe of old is gone. He recalls the popular German television series Die Schwarzwaldklinik, which depicted life in the Black Forest where one could see beautifully kept lawns, clean streets, elegant cars, villas, and “white people taking care of their problems who were Europeans like us, only much richer, luckier, happier and freer but still familiar.” Hungary will not accept the demands of the European Union in the name of solidarity. The real solidarity means that “when the European white Christian people lose the battle in the defense of their own past, then we–the humiliated, the betrayed and the despised—will welcome them. However, in the meantime, we will not tolerate lecturing and empty threats. Is that clear?” I guess it is.

May 20, 2017

Orbán is unhappy with the results of the French election

Last summer Viktor Orbán predicted that 2017 would be “the year of revolt.” People under the thumb of a liberal political elite incapable of understanding the real needs of the citizens would rebel in the voting booths and vote for right-wing parties like the Austrian Freedom Party, the German Alternative für Deutschland, the Dutch Party for Freedom and Democracy, and the French National Front of Marine Le Pen. Since then, three elections were held, and in all three cases Orbán’s predictions turned out to be wrong. There is one more to go: the German election in September, but the likelihood of AfD winning is about zero.

Since the stakes were highest in France, Emmanuel Macron’s win was perhaps the most disappointing for Orbán. He could hardly hide his bitter feelings in his very brief congratulatory letter to the new French president. While he was the first EU politician to congratulate President Recep Erdoğan on winning the referendum that endows the Turkish leader with practically unlimited power, Orbán was in no hurry in Macron’s case. The perfunctory letter is most likely a true reflection of Orbán’s feelings toward Macron’s victory. “I look forward to our cooperation and trust that in the future we will have the opportunity to further develop our bilateral relations and also to discuss our ideas with relation to the future of Europe.” President János Áder was a bit more expansive. He said in his letter that Hungary considers France an important ally; he talked about the “thriving relationship” that exists between the two countries, which he hopes will be further “enriched in the coming years.” He added that he hopes that he and Macron will have an opportunity to discuss these issues in person in the near future.

Over the years I have been collecting relevant articles on Hungary’s bilateral relations with other countries, but I never managed to find even one event that significantly furthered relations between France and Hungary. I remember only one visit of Orbán to France, in November 2010, when he more or less invited himself to several EU countries, allegedly to discuss matters pertaining to Hungary’s presidency beginning in January 2011. Today, the relationship isn’t exactly, to use Áder’s adjective, thriving.

Viktor Orbán was a great deal more cautious in the case of the French election than he had been in the U.S. election when he openly supported Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, whom he considered to be a disaster for Hungary. When Orbán was asked by reporters of Le Monde a couple of weeks before the election whether he supports Le Pen since the two share similar worldviews, Orbán was evasive. “My star among the candidates was François Fillon, whom I fully supported…. We worked together. We had our differences, but I still have an exchange of letters which is a basic document on modern friendship between men.” Orbán, as usual, might be overstating their friendship. He first met Fillon in November of 2010 when Fillon was prime minister of France. The meeting lasted less than an hour. By May 2012 Fillon resigned, after which he “retired” from politics.

Macron is an ardent supporter of the European Union and no friend of Viktor Orbán. Just the other day Macron said that the National Front’s “program of protectionism, isolationism, and nationalism leads to economic war, misery, and war in general.” It was at this point that the candidate said: “We all know who the friends and allies of Mrs. Le Pen are: Orbán, Kaczynski, and Putin. These aren’t regimes with an open and free society. Every day freedoms and rules are violated there along with our principles.”

István Lovas, a journalist with a checkered career who recently moved over to Magyar Idők as an “expert” on foreign affairs, doesn’t hide his antagonism for everything Macron stands for. Lovas is pro-Russian and by and large anti-American. He sang the praises of Donald Trump for a while, but lately he is no longer sure what he can expect from the new president. Lovas got the job of writing an article on the French election. He opted for a press review of sorts on Macron’s victory, which was an easy way to keep his opinions of the man to himself. Quoting Ryan Heath, the author of “Playbook Plus,” a regular feature of Politico, he stressed that Macron is “shell-shocked” because of the difficulties he is facing. And there is “Macron mania in Brussels.” French people voted for him just because they were against Le Pen. Not outright unfriendly, but Lovas’s disappointment is clear.

His deepest feelings are normally reserved for a blog in which he writes scores of short notes on his readings in the Russian, American, German, and French press. A day before the election he quoted Russia Today, which pointed out that Libération broke the campaign silence imposed on the French press by running an ad for Macron. Lovas introduced this bit of news with: “This is how liberal villains break the French campaign silence.” If one goes to the source, it’s not at all certain that Libération broke the law. But some people on Twitter thought it had.

A few hours later he quoted Deutsche Wirtschafts Nachrichten in a misleading fashion. In the Lovas version, “the campaign team of Macron said to be victim of a hacker attack” (Macron választási csapata hekkertámadás áldozatának mondta magát). The original states that “Emmanuel Macron’s campaign team announced later Friday night that it had become the victim of a massive hacker attack” (Das Wahlkampfteam von Emmanuel Macron teilte am späten Freitagabend mit, dass es Opfer eines massiven Hackerangriffs geworden sei). The Hungarian version intimates that the campaign team’s claim might not be true. The German original is a simple statement of fact. Moreover, the title of Lovas’s note is: “French authorities: No one should dare publish information on Macron acquired by hackers,” which, though true, subtly suggests that the French authorities were suppressing important evidence in favor of Macron and thereby were working against Le Pen.

In his last note Lovas quoted an American publication called The Gateway Pundit, according to which “Macron Busted! Lied about Tax Evasion?” For those (like me) who were unfamiliar with this source, Wikipedia describes it as “a conservative political blog…. It is allied with Donald Trump and elements of the alt-right and extreme right in American politics and is often linked to or cited by Fox News, Drudge Report, Sarah Palin and other well-known conservative people and sites. The website is known for publishing falsehoods and spreading hoaxes.” It’s depressing that István Lovas, the foreign policy “expert” of the foremost government paper in Hungary, receives his information from publications like The Gateway Pundit. Foreign news is filtered through people like Lovas before it reaches the readers of Magyar Idők and other government media outlets.

I suspect that a propaganda campaign against Macron will start soon enough. Such a strong supporter of European integration and an enemy of nationalism will by definition be a foe of Viktor Orbán.

May 8, 2017

Charles Gati: “Even the most talented diplomat cannot sell junk”

This is a translation of an interview with Charles Gati, senior research professor of European and Eurasian Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, which originally appeared in Magyar Narancs on April 20, 2017 under the title “You cannot circumvent the elite.” The English translation was published by The Budapest Sentinel on April 24.

Hoyt Brian Yee, Deputy State Secretary at the United States Department of State, was recently in Budapest to meet with the Hungarian government. While here he also raised the issue of Central European University (CEU), and confirmed to the press that Fiona Hill, Donald Trump’s advisor responsible for Russian and European affairs, also supports the CEU matter. Is the university remaining also important to Trump?

What I know is that the State Department agreed with the White House, and that in the White House the National Security Council, which deals with matters of foreign policy and security, supported advocating for the university to a great extent. Of course, this does not mean that the president personally requested this — it’s good if an American president devotes half an hour a year to Hungary. He wouldn’t have time for any more. Hungary’s significance in American politics today is minimal.

What changes have taken place to the State Department since the new president took office?

There are fifty or sixty positions at the State Department filled by political appointees. They have started assuming their positions. However, there is no change in those officials who deal with Hungary in the European department. One or two might be transferred. These experts continue their work independent of the person of the president or party. Deputy Secretary Yee is such an official and counts as the most important operative person in this field. He holds the same position now as at the time of Obama.

The Hungarian government recently recalled Réka Szemerkényi who represented our country to Washington the past two years. What is your view of the ambassador’s work?

Even the most talented diplomat cannot sell junk. An ambassador can stand on her head and it would be of no significance since the experts here know precisely what the situation is in Hungary, how close the Hungarian government is to Putin, how much it tries to undermine the European Union, and how little it contributes to the cost of NATO. I see lobbying the same way: it may be that, of the 535 congressmen, one or two manage to issue a statement. The vast sums of money spent on this by the Hungarian government is actually a complete waste.

What do you think explains the fact that in recent weeks the American president has acted in a manner diametrically opposed to what he promised during the campaign?

The most important question these days is really how long Trump’s political somersault will last. There have been as many changes in a week as Orbán — an ultraliberal in his youth — in a decade. Moreover, among the fresh changes are a number that pertain to Hungary. Trump wooed Putin during the campaign, mentioning him as a potential friend of America. And yet he incurred the anger of the Russian leadership by ordering the bombing of the Syrian airport. One of the most important statements of the campaign was that America would move its embassy from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem. These days we don’t hear anything about this. There was also talk that Hillary Clinton should be imprisoned. But these days he has to be more concerned that it is his people who will end up behind bars. A few days was enough to persuade himself that NATO is not a thing of the past. All of this indicates that the president is starting to move in the direction of the traditional foreign policy of the Republican Party. But in the Republican Party there are two truly important directions. The one is the conservative line near to Wall Street, which back in the day was more or less represented by George W. Bush. The other is the national line, whose nationalist rhetoric Trump made his own during the campaign. Although a nationalist direction won him the election, one senses more and more a Wall Street mentality in his politics. This is especially important from a foreign policy point of view since the direction opposes the politics of isolationism, which was one of the main program points on the side of the nationalists.

What could have caused the change? Did Trump realize that governance is more complicated than he thought? Or was he worried about getting into trouble after it turns out that many of his confidantes conspired with Russian leadership?

The majority of the people around him represent Wall Street: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and all the economic people. On the other side is the representative of the national side, Steve Bannon, who is more and more marginalized in the government. Trump did not understand politics when he assumed the presidency. In certain economic questions he was an absolute beginner, and he has woken up to this fact. The best example of this was when he said about the restructuring of the health-care system he “didn’t know that it was so complicated.” An unprepared and naive president assumed power in America, and now we are seeing a certain willingness to revise certain things.

But don’t these changes alienate him from those who voted for him?

It could easily be the case that sooner or later things go wrong with his electoral base. But it is not yet clear where this is leading, or what group of voters he is trying to win over.

In September 2012 Obama said he would interfere in Syria in the event chemical weapons were used. However, when he should have done so the following year, he stepped back instead. The Obama government explained this by saying that instead of a military attack it was using diplomatic means to persuade the Assad regime to give up chemical weapons. The chemical attack at the beginning of April indicates that the Syrian government retained these kinds of weapons. How does this reflect on Obama’s foreign policy?

In actuality this was the worst episode of Obama’s foreign policy. But when Trump went against his own promises, on the one hand he wanted to prove that he could fix the mistakes of his predecessor, and on the other demonstrate that the photos of destruction and the murdered children touched his soul. However, it is difficult to say whether any conclusions can be drawn from this regarding the foreign policy of the next months or years. The experts are now saying that this was a one-time strike and that we should not calculate with another intervention.

I cannot argue with this, but I have to say that I was personally affected when Trump responded in a human manner to the Syrian events. After all, children died, and it also turned out that Assad lied when he said he had given up all his chemical weapons. In my eyes, this increased Trump’s stature as a person, even if this action did not make him greater politically.

But is some sort of Middle East strategy starting to emerge from his actions? Not long ago he spoke about how he would like to repair US relations with the Gulf countries, and he provided support by telephone to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and supposedly distanced himself from moving the embassy to Jerusalem at the request of King Abdullah II of Jordan. All of this suggests that he is trying to contain Iran’s regional efforts, in alliance with the region’s Sunni leaders 

It is also difficult for me to say anything about the Middle East. A boastful, unprepared man assumed the White House who is incapable of delivering on what he promised. He campaigned on a promise to immediately terminate the Iran nuclear agreement, but he hasn’t done anything. He also said that he would take care of the Islamic State in a few days, but he had to wake up to the fact that this affair is much more complicated than he thought.

Construction of the wall planned for the Mexican border hasn’t started either.

Nevertheless, there are alarming developments here as the authorities are separating families. It is possible to hear a number of stories about parents whose children were born in the United States having no choice but to leave the country without them. This is the insensitive practice that is consistent with his promises. True, immigration policy did not become as cruel as many foretold during the campaign.

Today’s Trump believes China is no longer manipulating the yuan . . .

For now that is the most important change. After he met with President Xi Jinping, he said he understood why he doesn’t do more against North Korea, and he sees that this is a serious question. So there is some hope that relations with the world’s second-largest economy, which of course is still a dictatorship, will improve. This would be extremely important, because the world at this moment is perhaps more dangerous than at the time of the Cold War, and Chinese-American cooperation, which hopefully one day probably after Putin, Russia will also join, is our best hope for world peace in the coming years.

Is there no place for Europe in this constellation?

So long as the European Union is on the defensive and is this divided, it can only play a side role in matters of great strategy.

Who has the greatest influence over Donald Trump?

In many questions his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is the standard, but I would say that in foreign policy it is rather his National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster whose opinion counts. He thinks differently on many issues than the resigned Michael Flynn. McMaster is an old and respected member of the Washington national security elite.

This means that the current change in direction can be attributed to chance? If Flynn had not been compromised by his Russian connections, then would we be seeing a completely different American foreign policy?

These are not by chance. The decision to name such a serious and knowledgable person as McMaster in Flynn’s place was deliberate. The situation is that it is not possible to circumvent the Washington elite. Politics is a profession practiced by qualified people. It is not possible to charge in from New York’s Trump Tower and say we are reordering the world. The president also realized that power is limited. But it is important that the national side has not found sufficient support. Trump may have won the election but he received three million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton. His support is altogether 40 percent, which is far lower that of his predecessor during the first couple of months. The institutions are not giving in. A West Coast court was able to veto the ban on people arriving from Muslim-majority countries because even those sympathizing with Republicans clearly stated that the ban is unconstitutional. Congress rejected the law overwriting the health insurance system. The American press also uniformly condemns the Trump government. So American political culture is asserting itself, and the system of checks and balances is working well. Trump reacts to opposition by searching for more serious answers to the problems at hand.

The Guardian recently wrote that the Democratic Party is worsening its future chances by trying to drive out politicians practicing Bernie Sanders’ politics. The newspaper believes James Thompson of Kansas could have won a seat in Congress, but that the party did not even try to support his campaign, and this is why he failed.

I do not agree with this. In the state of Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff has a good chance of winning in an early election where so far Republicans have been the favorite. He, on the other hand, received a lot of support from the party. It is not as though the Democrats are that clever, but they benefit from Trump’s weakness even if there isn’t a fresh, new face behind which to line up party supporters. Sanders had a lot of followers. My oldest grandson also supported him, but my feeling is that he is a socialist. It is not possible to win an election in America with a social democratic program.

April 27, 2017

Viktor Orbán’s plans foiled: The U.S. government won’t negotiate

Today Viktor Orbán named Kristóf Altusz, deputy undersecretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, to be the prime minister’s representative at the forthcoming “diplomatic negotiations” concerning the status of the “international universities” in Hungary. Considering that, among the international universities, only CEU’s status is being attacked, that would leave Altusz with a single task: to conduct “diplomatic negotiations” with the government of the United States. There is, however, a serious hitch here. Almost simultaneously with the announcement of Altusz’s new job, Hoyt Brian Yee, deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. State Department, announced in Budapest that any negotiations that might take place in the future will have to be between the Hungarian government and the administration of Central European University. The U.S. government is not going to negotiate with the Hungarian government over the fate of CEU.

Assistant Secretary Yee was generous with his time and gave interviews to Index, Magyar Nemzet, and Magyar Idők. The first two are already available online, but I assume Magyar Idők is still contemplating how to package Yee’s messages for its faithful readers. Yee’s first message was that the Trump administration “fully supports” the university, which the Orbán government might not have expected. The second was equally important. He told Index that “although [he] can’t speak on behalf of the Hungarian government, [he] thinks, on the basis of his conversations, that they understand what is at stake.”

Yee’s claim that the university is “the success story of the partnership between Hungary and the United States” was a somewhat more subtle reference to the importance of the issue. Equally pointed was his claim that Budapest was chosen as the venue for CEU because, at the time of the founding of the university (1992), there was great hope that “this city might be the leader of the whole region’s development and that Hungary as a democratic, prosperous, successful country will be the model for others.” For many years that was actually the case, and now “the challenge is to keep this dynamic alive or, in other words, the city, the country should stand up for democracy, the rule of law, fundamental freedoms, including freedom of education.” The message here: the demonstrations are performing a vital task in defense of the future of Hungary.

While government officials behind closed doors are contemplating how to get out of a sticky situation, Fidesz’s radical right has been hard at work. István Lovas, whose favorite pastime is reading Sputnik News from cover to cover, charged that George Soros is trying to make sure that Viktor Orbán’s name will be on the list of dictators. He quoted Sputnik News: “the representatives of the [Hungarian] government believe that his fund receives money for ‘serving the interests of global capitalists’ which contradicts with [sic] Hungary’s national interests.” Lovas also quoted the Daily Caller, which claims that “leaked documents” from Soros’s Open Society Foundations reveal how Soros works “to defeat populist candidates and movements in Europe.” Naturally, Soros uses “a network of nonprofits and partner organizations across Europe to try and affect the outcomes in foreign countries.” And, in a longer piece written for Magyar Hírlap, Lovas tore into Donald Trump, who, he said, committed a war crime by ordering an airstrike after the use of chemical weapons by Syrian forces. That piece of writing inspired a short note by Zsolt Bayer, the viciously anti-Semitic friend of Viktor Orbán who only recently received a high state decoration. He republished Lovas’s article, to which he added:

We are republishing here an important article by my friend István because, after reading it, it becomes clear why the U.S. State Department is sending thunderous warnings to the Hungarian government on account of CEU.

Why? Because in the U.S. State Department the old guard still serves, and there (also) Soros is the boss.

Let’s hope this will change very soon.

We can also point out that very soon we will also be on the streets to protect what is important and sacred for us. And we will be very angry. So, for a while you can rant and rave, you can try to tear the parliament apart, the ministries, the Fidesz headquarters, the president’s office, you can attack the policemen, assault journalists—for a while.

But then no longer.

Then you will experience what it feels like to be persecuted and threatened.

I’m telling you we are very angry. Is it clear?

Keep in mind that up to this point the demonstrations have been peaceful, and let’s hope they will remain so. But no one can guarantee that the protesters will remain patient and disciplined, especially in light of the government propaganda against their efforts, especially the cruder type that was the brainchild of Árpád Habony, Viktor Orbán’s mysterious adviser. They come out with “fake news” that even Donald Trump’s favorite rags would be proud of. For example, they said that George Soros personally paid for airline tickets for people all over the world to attend the rally in Budapest. And the propaganda tabloid 888.hu came up with headlines like “Soros’s men employ anarchists.” People, especially those who were among the 80,000 who demonstrated on Sunday, do get annoyed when they think the Hungarian government and its media take them for fools.

In closing, I would like to call attention to an article written by Péter Pető, formerly deputy editor-in-chief of Népszabadság and now managing editor of 24.hu. The piece was written after a few hundred demonstrators spontaneously gathered in front of Sándor Palace, the office of the president, after János Áder signed the bill into law. They threw white tulips that had been growing in front of the building at the police. The title was “Rebels with white tulips send a message to Orbán: Anything can happen.” Indeed. Anything can happen.

April 11, 2017

A frustrated Viktor Orbán dismisses his ambassador to Washington

On the very same day that the Hungarian parliament passed a bill that would effectively close Central European University, ATV reported that Réka Szemerkényi, Hungarian ambassador to the United States, will be leaving her post within a couple of months. She is being recalled. A few hours later the Foreign Ministry confirmed the report.

The news created quite a stir because the consensus in government circles as well as among analysts was that Szemerkényi was practically an alter ego of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Orbán’s trust in Szemerkényi’s judgment and expertise was boundless, claimed several people in the know. Observers asserted that having Szemerkényi in the Hungarian Embassy was like having Viktor Orbán himself in Washington.

So, what went wrong? According to the well-informed Ildikó Csuhaj, “there was someone in the government” who didn’t find Szemerkényi’s performance in Washington satisfactory. Given the modus operandi of the Orbán government, that someone must have been the prime minister himself who, it seems, expected miracles from his trusted foreign policy and security expert. Among other things, he expected an early invitation to the White House, something that doesn’t seem possible anytime soon. Péter Szijjártó, who visited Washington on March 22-23, also had difficulty meeting anyone of importance in the State Department. Szemerkényi is being accused of not using the diplomatic channels at her disposal to explain the Hungarian government’s position on two important issues: its unyielding attitude towards and treatment of the refugees and its unprecedented attack on an American university.

Poor Réka Szemerkényi. She was sent to Washington with an impossible mission: not just to ease the growing tension between the two countries but to convince the U.S. government that its dim view of Viktor Orbán’s illiberal state has no foundation. Hungary is in fact a blossoming democracy. She was supposed to convince the Americans that the footage they saw on television day in and day out of Hungary’s harsh treatment of refugees was just a mirage. Moreover, the anti-American and pro-Russian rhetoric of Orbán and his press shouldn’t be taken seriously. It is just idle talk or is simply misunderstood.

Szemerkényi did her best, but it is practically impossible to sell inferior or outright rotten produce, and that was all she could offer. She did convince a few Republicans who for one reason or other sympathize with Orbán’s policies, including his pro-Russian stance, but most congressmen and senators were not ready to support Hungary’s cause. As ambassador she received a few invitations for interviews, but most of her time was spent responding to negative reports by U.S. publications. For example, she wrote letters on behalf of Hungary to The Hill, Washington Times, Washington Post, Diplomacy and Trade, Politico, and The York Review of Books where she engaged in a fairly lengthy exchange with Professor Jan-Werner Müller of Princeton University over what she considered to be his “rather distorted picture of Hungary.” She valiantly defended Fidesz as a “center right [party] encompassing views from liberal-conservatives to traditionalists.” She accused him of using “selective quotes,” which will not hide the fact that the Hungarian government’s commitment to traditional European values is well within the mainstream of European politics. Even from this one response we can appreciate the difficulties she faced in defending the indefensible.

In a lengthy interview with an American publication, she explained the problems she was facing in Washington: “A lot of very profound changes in Hungary that took place since 2010 or 2011 were so difficult to understand from far away” and perhaps between 2010 and 2014 the embassy didn’t do a good job of explaining these changes. She found that unfortunate because she “very much believe[s] in the importance and power of the transatlantic relationship.” She is convinced that “the European and transatlantic ties are the most important roots for [her] country.” Yet, she added, “we have a very complex recent past” which is difficult to understand from the outside. One can sense her frustration at the impossibility of her task.

I also suspect that Szemerkényi, who once wrote a glowing essay about János Martonyi as a model foreign minister, doesn’t think highly of Péter Szijjártó the novice. After all, Szemerkényi has almost 30 years of experience, first serving in the Ministry of Defense (1990-1994) and then as undersecretary in charge of foreign policy and national security in the prime minister’s office between 1998 and 2002.

Szemerkényi also gave interviews to Hungarian media outlets: Inforadio, a right-of-center mostly news station, and Figyelő, a respectable financial paper which was acquired by Mária Schmidt recently. (I should mention that the valuable archives of Figyelő has been removed from the internet. New owners of government media outlets learn from each other quickly. This is what happened in the case of Népszabadság until a court order restored the archives.)

In her first interview with Figyelő in December 2015 she stressed the importance of transatlantic ties. Atlantism is not a sub-field of Hungarian foreign policy, alongside the eastern opening. It is the foundation of Hungary’s foreign relations. Or, at least this is what Szemerkényi would like to believe. In the rest of the interview she talked about the efforts she had been making to gather support in the U.S. capital. For instance, once a month the embassy holds a meeting called Budapest Salon—Open Embassy where she invites analysts and congressional advisers. She did notice some “thawing,” but “it wouldn’t be a realistic goal that we agree about everything.”

In her February 9, 2017 interview with Figyelő one can sense that Szemerkényi was under pressure from Budapest to secure a White House invitation for Viktor Orbán. The very first question addressed to her was on the prospects of “building a good relationship with the Trump administration.” I’m sure that Donald Trump’s victory was as much of a surprise to Szemerkényi as it was to everybody else, but she claimed that the embassy had made preparations for both eventualities. And she was eager to reassure people that they were “extremely successful” on that score. She claimed that Hungary is way ahead of other countries in the region in acquiring contacts with the new set of people in the Trump administration. In fact, others come to the Hungarian embassy for advice and contacts. She bragged about her meetings with Jeff Sessions, Mike Pence, Wilbur Ross, Ben Carson, and John Kelly’s and James Mattis’s teams. She personally talked with Rex Tillerson. The Hungarian embassy organized a celebratory brunch called Salute to Freedom after the inauguration, which was attended by high officials of the new administration. Most important, she met President Trump at least three times. For example, “at a smaller conference and ball that took place in Mar-a-Lago, President Trump greeted me as an old acquaintance.” She announced that they are working on “the coordination of the actual meeting” between Trump and Orbán but added that, as far as timing is concerned, the Hungarians must be realistic. The president of a superpower has many other urgent obligations. Well, it seems that Viktor Orbán was not ready to wait.

The Mar-a-Lago encounter between the Trumps and Réka Szemerkényi

And now let’s see what one of her right-wing critics, István Lovas, who just moved from Magyar Hírlap to Magyar Idők as the “foreign policy expert,” had to say about Szemerkényi’s days in Washington. Lovas doesn’t have a heavy work load at Magyar Idők. He writes only one article a week, which leaves him plenty of time to search online for “fake news” coming from Russia Today and Sputnik, which he publishes on his own blog. He is quite capable of posting two dozen short notices with links to Russian or pro-Russian publications in a day. Naturally, he is also a great fan of Donald Trump and finds Szemerkényi’s less than successful efforts the ambassador’s personal failure, due in part to her Atlantist inclinations. Lovas accuses her of being anti-Russian, an accusation that is not without merit judging from several articles she wrote between 2008 and 2011 in Válasz.

Lovas is convinced that Szemerkényi grossly exaggerated her relations with President Trump as well as with other high-ranking members of the new administration. All of her meetings with these people were casual encounters. It is very possible that Donald Trump didn’t even know who Szemerkényi was when he exchanged a few words with her. Her only recorded meeting with the president occurred after the embassy paid several thousand dollars to the American Red Cross in order to get an invitation to the conference and ball held at Mar-a-Lago. In Lovas’s opinion, Szemerkényi’s extreme Atlantism and her harsh anti-Russian views are good enough reason to recall her.

And behold, three days later Szemerkényi was sacked. Of course, I don’t believe that Lovas’s outrageous blog post was the reason for her dismissal. Rather, I suspect that Lovas already knew that something was brewing in the prime minister’s office and the foreign ministry.

Apparently, a deputy of Péter Szijjártó, László Szabó, will replace Réka Szemerkényi. Szabó has no diplomatic experience to speak of. He finished medical school but after a few years gave up his profession and became a businessman working for pharmaceutical companies like Eli Lilly and Teva. He did spend two years at Eli Lilly headquarters in Indianapolis, but he knows next to nothing about Washington. How could Szabó possibly be more successful than Szemerkényi has been with her vast experience in diplomacy and her familiarity with the Washington scene? After the CEU scandal the new Hungarian ambassador’s job will be even harder than before. Sending an inexperienced man to replace Szemerkényi is utter madness in my opinion.

April 9, 2017

The Orbán media on the U.S. air strikes in Syria

The reaction of the Hungarian government and its media to the U.S. missile strikes against a Syrian air base manifests its pro-Russian bias and its disappointment in President Trump.

Magyar Hírlap published a lengthy article, “Act of War or a Clear Message?,” on the international reception of the American move in which the dominant theme was the rejoinders of Russian politicians. The article started with quotations from President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and ended with Russian Foreign Minister Spokeswoman Mariia Zacharova’s detailed description of the Russian position on the issue. In between, the paper summarized the attitudes of the more important countries in Europe and Asia.

In the Central and East European region, the article covered only Poland and Hungary. Poland approves the move because it considers “the United States the guarantor of world peace and order. There are times when one must react and when actual steps must be taken.” By contrast, this was one of the few times that Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó struck a pessimistic note. Although “a U.S.-Russian agreement on Syria is not only in the interest of Hungary and Europe but the whole world … we have never been farther from such an understanding.” Judging from this statement, the Orbán government must be deeply disappointed with the way in which the Trump administration’s Russia policy is evolving. As for the use of chemical warfare, Hungary naturally “condemns it and hopes that it will not be repeated.” Szijjártó, unlike most of the journalists writing for the government press, didn’t question the Syrian government’s likely role in the chemical attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun, resulting in the deaths of 87 people. Even Viktor Orbán said a few meaningless words that carefully avoided any judgment on the attack one way or the other. He simply stressed the need for security and order.

As for the government media, news from Russia dominated the reporting. 888.hu even has a man in Moscow who reported straight from the Russian capital. He attended the press conference of the spokesman for the ministry of defense, who gave details on the American attack which, according to him, was not effective. He also reported from the foreign ministry and described Russian naval movement on the Black Sea.

The bias in Magyar Idők’s reporting in Russia’s favor is evident even in simple news articles. For starters, the author talked about an “alleged chemical attack” when by today, when the article was published, there can be no question that such a chemical attack did in fact take place. The article used the verb “to accuse” in connection with Assad’s role in the attack instead of “to maintain” or “to assert.” After reporting on the so-called events, the paper turned to a U.S. expert who works for an institute attached to the Hungarian foreign ministry. He is known to sympathize with the politics and ideology of the Republican Party. He noted the “great changes that have taken place in the policies of the American president,” policies that run counter to Russian interests.

Of course, from our point of view, the most interesting articles are the opinion pieces that allow us to gauge the views of pro-government, right-wing members of the media. I will start with a journalist whose op-ed articles often appear in Magyar Idők, Levente Sitkei. The piece’s title is “Sirens.” Sitkei compares the accusation that Bashar el-Assad waged chemical war against his citizens to allegations that Saddam Hussein stockpiled weapons of mass destruction. Since the latter claim turned out to be untrue, the implication is that the charge against Assad is similarly untrue. “In those days, he [Saddam Hussein] was the bad boy who could hear at least twenty times a day that accusation about himself until [the Americans] toppled his statue and hanged him.” Bashar al-Assad will not end his life this way because “he is only a pawn, a minor character.”

Sitkei claims that a photo of an ISIS fighter crying over the fate of the children in Aleppo is accepted as truth by CNN viewers, but when the same man on Russia Today tramples on a cross, it is labelled Russian propaganda. “Syria is not a state but a wretched, blood-soaked stage … where every move is carefully calculated by experts of a far-away country.” We all know whom he is talking about. As far as the chemical attack is concerned, Sitkei has his doubts about the veracity of the event because it was reported by activists of a civic organization with headquarters in Great Britain. So, it might be nothing more than simple deception. It might never have happened. Or, if it did happen, it might have been done by a rebel group. “The usefulness is what matters, not the truth.” In brief, the western world, and Americans in particular, lie.

The second opinion piece, which also appeared in Magyar Idők, was written by László Szőcs, formerly the Washington correspondent of Népszabadság. He portrays the civil war in Syria as a “proxy war” in which “the Syrian people have only a minor role to play.” The key actors in this fight are the United States and Russia, “the two most important factors of world politics.” I doubt that too many military experts or political commentators would agree with Szőcs on this score.  His conclusion is that no peace can be achieved in Syria “without a reconciliation between Washington and Moscow.”

Mandiner, a site run by younger conservatives but read mostly by hard-core right-wingers, is not convinced by the American claim that the chemical attack was carried out by the Assad regime. They found a brief note on Facebook from Jakob Augstein, a well-known German journalist, in which he criticizes journalists who praise Trump for his attack on Syria while at the same time talk about “the possibility of the use of chemical weapons.” Either we are sure or we’re not.

In the independent Hungarian media there is silence for the most part. Of course, they reported the events and covered Russian as well as American reactions, but no one wanted to express an opinion on the matter.

The pro-government media is largely anti-American and pro-Russian while the government is sitting on the fence, advocating a Russian-American understanding which Orbán and Szijjártó no longer believe is possible. I suspect that Viktor Orbán is starting to suffer from buyer’s remorse. Yes, the candidate he (and Russia) backed became president of the United States, but it seems that no pro-Russian policy will be forthcoming from Washington.

April 8, 2017

Attack on Central European University is part of an ideological struggle

In the last couple of days I have received several telephone calls from journalists. They wanted me to offer reasons for the attacks against George Soros, Central European University (which he founded), and the handful of non-governmental organizations that receive a few thousand dollars from him. Journalists who are less familiar with the Hungary of Viktor Orbán find the whole thing baffling, if not downright incomprehensible. What nonsense, one of them told me, to endow Soros with the power to move millions of refugees half the length of the continent in order to infiltrate the European Union and thereby change its ethnic composition. This is madness, he said.

As usual, ever since the news broke that the very existence of the Central European University is in jeopardy, all sorts of fanciful explanations for the government’s action have surfaced. One that gained some traction came from Lajos Bokros, chairman of the Modern Magyarország Mozgalom party. According to him, Vladimir Putin expressly demanded the shuttering of Central European University (CEU). Apparently, this theory circulated widely in the Russian media, which is where Bokros picked it up. Putin noticed that in the Russian, Ukrainian, and Georgian administrations there are just too many graduates of CEU, which seems to specialize in educating free thinkers and opposition leaders.

I for one doubt that such a conversation between Putin and Orbán took place, but I think we can safely assume that Viktor Orbán finds Vladimir Putin’s template attractive. The Russian president’s harsh measures against NGOs resonate with the Hungarian prime minister. Let’s face it, the Helsinki Commission, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, and Transparency International are thorns in his side. He has every reason to be angry: they keep winning cases against the Hungarian government and are therefore considered to be enemies of the present political system. How much easier the life of the Orbán government would be if all these organizations simply disappeared.

The only reason the Hungarian prime minister didn’t move against them with full force until now was his fear that the United States would put roadblocks in his way just as it did in December 2015 when several high-level U.S. diplomats descended on Budapest. They told Orbán that there would be serious consequences if he went through with his plan to erect a statue honoring the anti-Semitic Minister of Education Bálint Hóman. He caved. And most likely viewed the encounter as one of greatest humiliations of his political life.

When it comes to CEU, the reason for the government’s antipathy toward it is not as direct as in the case of the NGOs, but I’m sure it has been an irritant all along. First of all, in only 25 years this university has come to be regarded as one of the leading institutions of higher learning in Europe, whereas none of the other Hungarian universities managed to crack the top 500 on the World University Rankings’ list. This fact alone must rankle the Hungarian government. Moreover, CEU has an endowment of $888 million, making it one of the wealthiest universities in Europe. This means that, unlike the teaching staff at the other Hungarian universities, the 300 faculty members who come from more than 30 countries are very well paid.

CEU’s prestige in the region and even beyond aroused jealousy in certain Hungarian academic circles. They began to look upon the university’s faculty and students as a bunch of privileged snobs. The very fact that the language of instruction is English annoys some people to no end. András Bencsik, editor of the far-right Magyar Demokrata and a strong supporter of Fidesz, expressed his irritation by pointing out that, after all, the official language of the country is Hungarian. (Other countries, such as the Netherlands and Denmark, whose languages are spoken by too few people had the good sense to use English as the language of instruction in their universities.) Orbán, who recently announced that he wants to see only Hungarians in Hungary, would naturally recoil from the idea of a multi-ethnic, multi-language group of teachers and students using English as the language of instruction. What right-wing critics of the university don’t want to realize is that, in large measure, it is the language of instruction that made CEU’s entry into the top tier of European universities possible.

Another reason for Orbán’s dislike of CEU is that it is a private university in whose internal affairs the Hungarian state cannot easily meddle. Moreover, Fidesz politicians are certain, and not without reason, that the great majority of the students and faculty do not sympathize with the present Hungarian government. In fact, Fidesz and KDNP politicians expressed their belief that CEU is a university whose graduates are their enemies. As Péter Harrach (KDNP) said about the massive Sunday demonstration, “an international crowd demonstrated for a university that serves international goals. It has become obvious that [the university] is part of an ideological and political struggle and that it is the officer training school of an army that fights a hard fight in Hungarian society. This is the gist of it.”

Demonstration in front of the parliament building, April 4, 2017

And so, however despicable it may be, the Orbán regime’s hatred of George Soros and the people who believe in an open, pluralistic society is both rational and understandable. The antipathy is not new. Orbán has been harboring these feelings for a very long time, but only in the last couple of years was the international climate conducive to a frontal attack on George Soros. The refugee crisis offered Orbán an opening, especially since Soros was outspoken on the subject. Soros’s larger presence in Europe gave Orbán the opportunity to turn up the volume on his condemnation of Soros, who is meddling in the internal affairs of Hungary by helping his enemies. And, of course, Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States further emboldened the Hungarian prime minister, who was an early and ardent supporter.

People who are critics of the Orbán government are stunned. In a few hours parliament passed the amendments to the law on higher education, which make the existence of CEU in Hungary impossible. Although Fidesz spokesmen keep insisting that this was just a small administrative adjustment, this is not the case. CEU is supposed to fulfill two obligations. One is to establish a brand new university practically overnight in the United States. The other is that a bilateral treaty must be signed between Washington and Budapest, without which the university cannot accept any students after January 1, 2018. Neither demand can be met.

The insistence on a bilateral treaty prompted Hungarian opposition politicians and commentators to conjecture that the attack against CEU was manufactured for the sole purpose of forcing direct contact between the Trump administration and the Orbán government. These same people recall that Péter Szijjártó failed to meet anyone of importance at the State Department. That might be true, but he did manage to speak with two people who are very close to the president–Sebastian Gorka, Trump’s deputy assistant, and Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s former lawyer and now U.S. special representative for international negotiations.

Orbán certainly didn’t endear himself to the U.S. State Department with this move. Its spokesperson announced on March 31 that “the United States is concerned about legislation proposed by the Government of Hungary … that imposes new, targeted, and onerous regulatory requirements on foreign universities.” The United States urged the government of Hungary “to avoid taking any legislative action that would compromise CEU’s operations or independence.” After the passage of the amendments, the U.S. embassy in Hungary issued another statement today, saying that “the United States is disappointed by the accelerated passage of legislation targeting Central European University, despite the serious concerns raised by the United States.”

It is possible that the Hungarian government is dissatisfied with the Trump administration’s relative neglect of Viktor Orbán, who so far has not received any special treatment as a reward for his support. Just today we heard that Réka Szemerkényi, the Hungarian ambassador in Washington, will be recalled soon. 24.hu learned from diplomatic sources that the Hungarian government is dissatisfied with Szemerkényi’s performance because she didn’t manage to convince the State Department of the legitimate and non-discriminatory nature of the legislation regarding Central European University. We don’t yet have confirmation of these reports. When ATV’s journalist asked Viktor Orbán whether it is true that Szemerkényi will be recalled, he answered: “I don’t handle entanglements with women” (nőügyekkel nem foglalkozom). The crudity of the man never ceases to amaze me.

P.S. While I was writing this post, thousands of people were demonstrating in front of the parliament building.

April 4, 2017