Tag Archives: Federica Mogherini

Western worries about Russian disinformation just “fits of hysterics”

Two days ago the foreign ministers of the European Union met in Brussels with Federica Mogherini, the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, presiding. She asked the ministers to support her request to increase human and financial resources “to fight against disinformation and propaganda coming from abroad,” in particular from Russia. According to newspaper reports, “nobody inside the room was opposed to beefing up the task forces involved in such an undertaking.” This unanimity is quite a change from only a few months ago, when the European Council blocked a similar proposal.

The initiative for a joint European effort to combat Russian interference in the political processes of member states came from a Romanian member of the European Parliament, Siegfried Mureșan, who suggested in May that funds for that use be included in next year’s EU budget. It was high time to pay more attention to the problem. Russia has a small army of hackers and trolls. By contrast, the EU’s task force that concentrates on the eastern front has 15 employees and the one that focuses on the Western Balkans and the Arab-speaking world is even smaller than that.

For some time Russia has been active in Europe as well as in North America. For instance, Russian hackers got hold of nine gigabytes of e-mails from Macron’s campaign. Macron complained to Putin at their first meeting in May about Russia Today and Sputnik, financed by Russia’s defense ministry, which attacked Macron’s En Marche! Movement. But Russia’s cyber weapon against the West has proved to be very effective, and Putin has no intention of curbing his hackers’ activities.

Good examples of Russian manipulation can be seen in the Catalonian independence referendum and Brexit. Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis announced that his government had confirmed that a propaganda campaign intended to destabilize Spain came from Russia and Venezuela. They used Twitter, Facebook, and other internet sites to publicize the separatist cause and swing public opinion to support it.

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh identified 419 accounts operating from the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) that attempted to influence British politics. Russian hackers also spread anti-Islamic sentiments in Great Britain after the recent terrorist attacks. According to The Guardian, hundreds of paid bloggers work around the clock at IRA “to flood Russian internet forums, social networks and the comments sections of western publications—sowing disinformation, praising the country’s president, Vladimir Putin, and raging at the west.” On Monday Theresa May addressed the issue in a speech, saying that Russia’s actions were “threatening the international order on which we all depend.”

The latest complaint came today from the Netherlands. Kajsa Ollongren, minister of the interior, accused Russia of attempting to influence public opinion in the Netherlands by spreading fake news and misinformation. She stated that her country is being “monitored by Russia’s security services which constantly search for opportunities to undermine it in ways that are easy, anonymous, fast and cheap.” She came up with specific examples, one of which was using a group of Ukrainian émigrés with Russian sympathies to try to tilt Dutch public opinion towards a no vote in the referendum on the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement—which was, in fact, rejected in 2016.

Today Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, answered these accusations. “We are quite accustomed now that some of our partners in Europe and across the ocean apparently have no better things to do than blaming our media or branding them as foreign agents. Apparently, the explanation is that people in the capitals, from which such accusations come, be that Madrid or London, are facing numerous unresolved domestic problems. And, probably, get into such sensationalized fits of hysterics to draw the attention of their voters away from their inability to solve those problems,” reported Russia Today.

Hungary’s attitude to Russian internet propaganda shows the usual ambivalence. In May 2017 the European People’s Party held its conference in Malta, where the Fidesz members of the party voted with the majority in condemning “Russian disinformation undermining Western democracy.” Two months later, however, in Budapest, the Fidesz members of parliament rejected a proposal identical with the one Fidesz MEPs voted for. The opposition party LMP translated the text of the EPP statement into Hungarian and turned it in as their own proposal. The document didn’t even get to the floor. It died in committee.

At the November 13 meeting of EU foreign ministers, Szijjártó, along with all his colleagues, voted for the expansion of EU efforts to defend against the systematic cyberattacks on EU member countries. But this piece of information didn’t make it to the Hungarian media. Foreign Minister Szijjártó gave a quick press conference in the intermission, during which he assiduously avoided talking about Russian cyberattacks and concentrated instead on the migrant issue. He also complained bitterly about Ukrainian atrocities against Hungarian symbols in Berehove/Beregszász, where someone took off the Hungarian flag from town hall and put a dirty shirt on Sándor Petőfi’s statue. This anti-Hungarian incident is probably a response to Hungary’s recent treatment of Ukraine.

Hungary has been preoccupied with Ukraine ever since Kiev passed an education law stating that minority students will be able to learn all subjects in their own language in the first four grades but, starting with grade five, with the exception of one or two subjects, the language of instruction will be Ukrainian. Péter Szijjártó said that Hungary will veto all of Ukraine’s moves to strengthen its ties to the European Union. Hungary’s first opportunity to isolate Ukraine came at the end of October when Hungary vetoed a planned December 6 meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission. The NATO-Ukraine Commission is a decision-making body responsible for developing relations between NATO and Ukraine and directing cooperative activities between them. Sputnik reported the good tidings that “Hungary announced that it will block Ukraine’s aspirations to integrate into NATO.” In the meantime, Russian hackers and trolls are incredibly active in Ukraine. In Hungary one doesn’t have to worry about Russian fake news and disinformation because Hungarians are fed the same by their own government.

November 15, 2017

Viktor Orbán stood alone at the EPP congress

Viktor Orbán has been headline news in the last few days. One reason for this sudden interest in the pocket dictator of Hungary is his determination to close Hungary’s best institution of higher learning, the Central European University. The other was his performance at the annual congress of the European People’s Party (EPP) in Malta, where he delivered a speech that went against everything the other EPP politicians stand for.

The new government mouthpiece Origo described the Hungarian leader’s fantastic energy, which allowed him to have so many negotiations in one day in Malta. “Even foreign journalists commented on the Hungarian prime minister’s stamina.” On March 29 he had talks with an Albanian party chairman, a former Macedonia prime minister, the Bulgarian prime minister, the Croatian prime minister, an opposition politician from Malta, and the Austrian deputy chancellor. As for politicians from the European Union, he met with Jyirki Katainen, vice president of the European Union, and an official of the European Council.

Then came the second day of the congress and speeches by European politicians, who all spoke about unity and solidarity. Donald Tusk, who has been highly praised in the international media of late, talked at length about the necessity of a united Europe as the only guarantee of its sovereignty. “For a responsible patriot there is no better alternative than a united and sovereign Europe.” Romanian President Klaus Iohannis showed himself to be a strong supporter of a unified Europe bound together by the basic values of the European Union. Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish prime minister who is one of those few European politicians striving for a United States of Europe, talked about the advantages of integration. Manfred Weber, head of the EPP’s parliamentary delegation, announced that “anyone who loves his birthplace must say yes to a strong Europe.”

Then it was Viktor Orbán’s turn. His speech was described by Bloomberg as a “litany of charges” against migration into the EU, warning of “a dominant Muslim presence” in western Europe in the coming years, and condemning a “leftist ideology” that imposed guilt “for the crusades and colonialism.” Alluding to the Syrian conflict, he said that “if you kick an anthill, we should not be surprised if the ants overwhelm us.” I don’t know how other people feel about this metaphor, but it struck me as crude and demeaning. Perhaps unfairly, it reminded me of Albert Wass’s story of the rats that the farmer allowed to take over his house. Of course, Wass was writing not about the Syrians but about the Jews.

Angela Merkel, who spoke after Orbán, didn’t directly address the Hungarian prime minister but clearly was referring to Orbán’s hard-nosed inhumanity. “Do we just want to say that we don’t have any humanitarian responsibilities here?” she asked. According to Bloomberg, this clash between Merkel and Orbán laid “bare European disunity.” What they should have added was that, of all the speeches delivered, it was only Viktor Orbán’s that went against the consensus.

We are trying to be charming / Photo: MTI

Bloomberg didn’t elaborate on the part of Orbán’s speech that dealt with human rights. Orbán is mighty upset over the European Court of Human Rights/ECHR’s verdict that fined the Hungarian government for the ill treatment of two refugees from Bangladesh. In fact, Fidesz politicians were so upset that they were quite seriously talking about withdrawing Hungary from adherence to the European Convention of Human Rights. Of course, cooler heads prevailed. The hotheads calmed down once the minister of justice said that the government, although it will appeal the verdict, has no intention of taking such a foolish step. But it seems that the Hungarian government is not satisfied with a simple appeal. Viktor Orbán wants “urgent reforms” of the ECHR because “its judgments were a threat to the security of EU people and an invitation for migrants.” It is a mystery why Orbán thought that the EPP’s annual congress was the best place to suggest reform of the court when it functions under the aegis of the Council of Europe, which is a different entity from the European Union.

Orbán also decided to bring his ideological fight to the fore when he called the European Left “fatal for Europe.” Leftist politicians “want to force bureaucratic rules in our labor market, raise taxes, and … build socialism in Europe.” He called on his fellow Christian Democrats to fight these forces. “We are the EPP. We should not be afraid of leftist criticism calling us populist.” According to Euractiv, these words were received enthusiastically, which I find strange because practically no one considers the Christian Democrats populists. We normally talk about them as politicians of the right of center. The label “populism” is reserved for politicians of the far right, for example, Viktor Orbán and leaders of populist parties all over Europe. In this regard, it should be noted, Fidesz’s presence in the EPP delegation is something of an anomaly.

My sense is that because of Viktor Orbán’s behavior in the past few years, Hungary is isolated even within the EPP. For instance, at the congress there were several panels on a range of topics where experts and politicians gave speeches or led discussion groups. There was not one Hungarian leading such a group. Hungary was represented only once, on a panel discussion organized by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in which János Martonyi, the former Hungarian foreign minister, was one of the participants. Martonyi has the reputation of being a respectable diplomat, and Viktor Orbán usually trots him out when he wants to show the better side of his government and Fidesz.

There was one piece of news from the congress about which the Hungarian government media was silent. The EPP adopted a resolution on “Russian disinformation undermining Western democracy.” We learned about the existence of this resolution from István Ujhelyi, an MSZP member of the European Parliament, who wrote about it on his Facebook page. He pointed out that Viktor Orbán signed the document, but obviously the party and the government were not too eager to advertise this fact.

The path to this resolution started with an open letter by members of the EPP to Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. The letter asked her to “Please start taking the Russian disinformation threat seriously!” Apparently, she didn’t answer “nor did she acknowledge what the letter’s signatories seemed to want her to say: that Russian disinformation, as well as the separate but related issues of illiberalism and political extremism, is increasingly becoming a big problem in Europe, and specifically in the ‘Visegrad Four’ countries in Central and Eastern Europe, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia.”

Unfortunately, I very much doubt that Viktor Orbán’s signature on this declaration will make any difference in the government media’s pro-Russian orientation.

March 31, 2017

Viktor Orbán: “Hungary is a serious country” where gays are patiently tolerated

First, some background to today’s post. May 17 is the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia. Governments in Europe and North America usually release a statement on the occasion, just as President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry did. Obama and the First Lady reaffirmed that “lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights are human rights” and said that they wanted “to underscore that all people deserve to live free from fear, violence, and discrimination, regardless of who they are or whom they love.” According to Kerry, “the human rights of LGBTI persons are fundamental and enshrined in the Universal Declaration,” and he reasserted the United States’s “unwavering commitment to advance the human fights of LGBTI persons here at home and around the world.” In Europe, similar sentiments were expressed by leaders of the European Union. Federica Mogherini, high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs and security policy, promised the European Union’s support for the LGBTI community. Vera Jourová, commissioner for justice, emphasized that “we are all born equal in dignity and rights.”

I assume that nobody will be surprised to hear that no member of the Hungarian government offered such pledges to the LGBTI community in Hungary. So, on May 18, a day after the International Day Against Homophobia, a reporter from Index decided to ask a provocative question of Viktor Orbán. I am using here a somewhat modified translation of that conversation, provided by the blogger of Congress of Baboons, an English-language site.

Index: As today is the International Day Against Homophobia, politicians worldwide, including conservatives, declared their “Respect for the Gays.” Your government did not make a statement on this subject. Therefore, my question is: As prime minister, what message would you send to the homophobes, and what actions will the government take to ensure that in Hungary non-heterosexual couples can hold hands in public without fear?

Viktor Orbán: This is a question that makes one want to joke around, but I should spare us from anything of the sort. So, . . . I would suggest that anyone who makes public statements about this matter . . . do so with reasonable care. Hungary is a serious country. It is fundamentally based on traditional values. Hungary is a tolerant nation. Tolerance, however, does not mean that we would apply the same rules for people whose life style is different from our own. We differentiate between them and us. Tolerance means patience, tolerance means an ability to coexist, this is the basis of the Hungarian Constitution which clearly differentiates between a marital relationship between a man and a woman and other, different forms of cohabitation. We are going to keep this. By the way, I am grateful to the Hungarian homosexual community for not exhibiting the provocative behavior against which numerous European nations are struggling and which results in an outcome that is the exact opposite of what they want to achieve. I believe that in Hungary, even though the constitution clearly differentiates between marriage and other forms of cohabitation, the people with lifestyles different from our own outlook on life are safe, they are given the respect of basic human dignity that they deserve. I believe that . . . foreigners don’t feel that in this respect Budapest is a dangerous city. This is good, this is how we can live together. If we … make more stringent regulations or the community of homosexuals starts being more provocative, I think that the current peaceful, calm equilibrium will be no more. No one would benefit from this. Everyone benefits from being able to coexist. I believe that as we now are, we can live together.

In brief, people whose sexual orientation is different from the “norm” are not equal to the heterosexual members of society. They are only tolerated, and they are tolerated only as long as they don’t rock the boat.

Orban Debrecen

Of course, Orbán didn’t answer the reporter’s question about the Hungarian government’s attitude toward the International Day Against Homophobia. Instead, in his statement, he tried to explain the place of LGBTI people in Hungarian society and their rights as full members of a national community. In this answer, which he delivered with obvious discomfort, he revealed that their status in Hungary is anything but comfortable. An umbrella organization of LGBTI people in Hungary, Budapest Pride, immediately announced that “the LGBTI people living in Hungary are not at all grateful to Viktor Orbán. Instead of joking about it, perhaps the Hungarian government should do something against the discrimination this community suffers.” Magyar Narancs summarized Orbán’s message well: “A Hungarian doesn’t harass anyone, unless he is forced to harass him in a tolerant manner with mercy in his heart.”

The above exchange prompted some interesting responses. Because of Hungarian intolerance, few people ever admit that they are gays or lesbians. One exception is Klára Ungár, former SZDSZ politician and a member of parliament, who, it seems, got mad enough to out two Fidesz politicians who are closet gays. She was heavily criticized for the indiscretion, but she doesn’t regret her decision. The conversation above also prompted András Léderer, another former SZDSZ politician, to “confess” his homosexuality. In the article he wrote for HVG he accuses Orbán of not too well hidden homophobia.

Orbán’s words also elicited explicitly homophobic outbursts. Zsolt Bayer, a great friend of Orbán and one of those handful of students who established Fidesz, wrote a most disgusting article in Magyar Hírlap, which was openly and viciously homophobic. The article begins: “I was a bit disappointed that he didn’t wear a sheer pink tutu, but I still liked it. It was truly European, and unfortunately there is no cynicism in this. Because today this is Europe.” Bayer was talking about the wedding of Luxembourg’s Prime Minister, Xavier Bettel. He is the first European prime minister to marry someone of the same sex.

The beginning of the article is actually mild in comparison to what comes afterward. “Let’s stop and say it proudly: The hell with the International Day Against Homophobia!” (In the original, “leszarjuk a homofóbia elleni világnapot!”) And, “we have as much right to be homophobes as anyone else.” The prime minister made a mistake by even answering this “European provocation.” The proper answer would have been: “I don’t send any message because I have nothing to do with it.” But because he didn’t tell the reporter to get lost, the “provocation was successful.” As a result, “the domestic Europeans are whining, seething, gnawing.”

A less vituperative article appeared in Napi Gazdaság, which is quickly becoming as unreadable as Magyar Nemzet was a couple of months ago. Péter Szikszai, a young actor, lists all those sitcoms and films with gay or lesbian themes. According to him, there is a steady pro-gay propaganda through television and movie theaters. It is spreading rapidly and occupies “the beachheads of the entertainment industry.”

Jobbik a few weeks ago wanted to forbid the Pride’s demonstration, coming up in July, but “forbidding Pride can no longer help.” And “the International Day Against Homophobia is neither here nor there.”

For the prime minister and his defenders, it’s always them (where the “them” are alleged to be somehow inferior) against us. Their problem is that the “them” are growing and the “us” are shrinking. Perhaps one day in the not too distant future individual rights will be respected in Hungary, not merely tolerated.

Viktor Orbán and the gathering storm clouds in the East

Meetings of the heads of EU member states usually last much longer than anticipated. At eight in the evening participants were still discussing who will replace Herman Van Rompuy as European Council president and Catherine Ashton as foreign policy chief.  They finally determined that the former post will be filled by Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk and the latter by Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini.

It seems, however, that the decision on further sanctions against Russia will be postponed for at least a week, although a draft of such sanctions dated August 27 exists which says that the bloc “stands ready to consider further steps” against Russia due to the “reported participation of Russian armed forces in operations on Ukrainian soil.” Petro Poroshenko, who was present at the discussions about his country, indicated that further sanctions are likely. The EU only wants to wait on implementation to see how Russia reacts to his attempt to revive a “peace plan” next week.

If Vladimir Putin’s threatening remarks are any indication, further sanctions and an increased Western military presence in Eastern Europe are indeed likely. Putin told the press that “Russia’s partners … should understand it’s best not to mess with us,” adding: “I think no one is thinking of unleashing a large-scale conflict with Russia. I want to remind you Russia is one of the leading nuclear powers.” Nuclear threat or not, the number of NATO troops in Poland and Romania has doubled already, and NATO is planning to send an additional 1,ooo troops to the region. And Britain and six other states are planning to create a new joint expeditionary force of at least 10,000 personnel to bolster NATO’s power.

map2

Meanwhile a rather frightening map was published by the Russian weekly Expert that showed the sphere of influence Russia is attempting to create. The green line indicates the reach of Soviet dominance, the red the current situation, and the orange Russian hopes for an expanded sphere of influence. That would include Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia.

Observers of Russia and its plans might be also interested in reading a statement by Kazakhstan’s 74-year-old dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev. Let me quote it verbatim from Kazakhstan’s official English-language website Tengri News.

If the rules set forth in the agreement are not followed, Kazakhstan has a right to withdraw from the Eurasian Economic Union. I have said this before and I am saying this again. Kazakhstan will not be part of organizations that pose a threat to our independence. Our independence is our dearest treasure, which our grandfathers fought for. First of all, we will never surrender it to someone, and secondly, we will do our best to protect it.

Of course, he added that nothing of the sort can possibly happen because “there are three representatives from each country [Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan] and three Vice-Prime Ministers. They also make their decisions together.”

Putin’s response to Nazarbayev’s statement called Kazakhstan’s future independence into question. Yesterday he said that Kazakhstan, although large, is only one-tenth the size of Russia. He also explained that Nazarbayev “created a state on territory where no state had ever existed. The Kazakhs had never had statehood. Nazarbayev created it. In this sense, he is a unique person for the former Soviet space and for Kazakhstan too.” But, Putin continued, underscoring his expansionist intentions, Kazakhstan is better off in the “big Russian world.”

Meanwhile Viktor Orbán, as his wont, gave a press conference upon his arrival in Brussels. Interestingly enough, he is usually driven to these meetings in his own Volkswagen minibus, an odd choice for such occasions. According to normal protocol, the hosts provide vehicles for visiting dignitaries, but for one reason or another Orbán insists on his own bus. One must wonder how this vehicle gets to Brussels. Is it driven or transported there ahead of time? Or, perhaps he has several identical vehicles?

It is also hard to know whether only Hungarian reporters are interested in what the prime minister has to say or whether journalists from other countries are also present. I suspect that only Hungarian reporters attend these events. On one of the pictures taken at the press conference I could see the mikes of only MTV and HírTV.

In Orbán’s opinion, today’s meeting was organized only for “the review and correction of the current political situation.”  The discussion centers around whether “the sanctions have reached their desired goals” but for that “we should know what the desired goals are.” He is convinced that sanctions will not work. Sanctions until now have not been successful and it would be self-deception to think that more of the same would end the conflict.

Finally, I would like to say a few words about the Conference of Western Balkan States that took place in Berlin on August 28, 2014. Participating were representatives of the European Union, Germany, Austria, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, and the Republic of Macedonia. It was called together by Chancellor Angela Merkel, who also chaired the meeting.

The idea for the conference came in response to the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I. The intention was to show commitment to the process of future enlargement of the European Union as well as to shore up relations with Serbia as a strategic partner of the EU, especially in light of the problems in Ukraine.

Serbia has, since the second half of the nineteenth century, been a close friend and ally of Russia. Its negotiations with the European Union for membership have been going on for a long time, but Serbia’s chances have been strengthened by what is going on in Ukraine. Because, as Adelina Marini of euinside.eu points out, “if Serbia becomes part of the EU, Russia will lose its influence in the Balkans or, at least, it will be significantly limited.”

However, Serbia apparently wants to have its cake and eat it too. Although it desperately wants to join the European Union, it also wants to keep its special relationship with Russia. Brussels is unlikely to accept such a “special status” for Serbia. But if Russia becomes a real threat to Europe, Serbia’s membership in the EU might help block the spread of Russian influence.

Diplomacy in Europe and especially in Eastern Europe and the Balkans is a much more complicated enterprise than it was a few years back when these countries did not have to worry about the Russian bear. Orbán’s idea that diplomacy can be pretty much replaced by foreign trade is patently wrong. The current situation is complex, negotiations are difficult, and a bad outcome would be very dangerous for Europe. And even as storm clouds are gathering in the East, Hungarian diplomacy is being guided by Péter Szijjártó, who is totally unfit for the job.