Tag Archives: foreign policy

Foreign Minister Szijjártó goes to Washington, and silence follows

Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó just returned from a three-day visit to Washington where he was to meet Wess Mitchell, the new assistant secretary of state in charge of European and Eurasian Affairs. Mitchell is the successor to Victoria Nuland, whom Magyar Idők called, less than a week ago, the “gravedigger of Hungary.”

Mitchell’s appointment was finalized only in October 2017, but the Hungarian government began assessing its possible chances with Mitchell as soon as his name emerged as a potential assistant secretary. The government’s reaction was mixed. On the one hand, it was pleased that Mitchell, before accepting the State Department post, had been the president of the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), the American think tank that concentrates exclusively on East-Central Europe. Therefore he should be more familiar with the region and hence with Hungarian affairs. However, Index noted at the time that “one of the main research fields of [CEPA] is Russian propaganda, disinformation and the fight against it, which is not a priority for the Hungarian government.” I would call this a gross understatement. In fact, the Hungarian government does a superb job of misinforming the public and gives free rein to Russian disinformation on the pages of the newspapers and internet sites it supports.

Whatever misgivings Viktor Orbán and his foreign policy experts originally had, they eventually decided that Mitchell’s appointment “could mean the beginning of a new chapter in Hungarian-American political relations.” Under the previous administration Hungary “had to face several instances of undue criticism and lack of understanding.” The Hungarian Foreign Ministry hoped that, with the appointment of Mitchell, “now is the best opportunity” to establish close diplomatic relations.

Szijjártó arrived in Washington on January 15 to conduct two days of negotiations, which began on January 16 with a conversation with Assistant Secretary Wess Mitchell, followed by meetings with two White House officials –Jason Greenblatt, assistant to the president and special representative for international negotiations, and Fiona Hill, special assistant to the president and senior director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council. Greenblatt, prior to his Washington job, was chief legal officer to Donald Trump and The Trump Organization. Hill is a highly regarded Russia expert from the Brookings Institution, who most likely is critical of the Orbán government’s Russia policy and Viktor Orbán’s personal relations with Vladimir Putin.

Szijjártó anticipated that his encounter with Mitchell would “take the form of a long discussion.” One of the topics, I’m sure, was the U.S. State Department’s  “funding opportunity” for support of “objective media in Hungary.” Szijjártó noted that “the Hungarian government views this plan as interference in Hungary’s domestic affairs.”

No one has any idea how long the conversation between Mitchell and Szijjártó lasted because, since his meetings with the assistant secretary and the two White House officials, Szijjártó has said nothing about the encounters. Not one word. Certain Hungarian news outlets reported earlier that Szijjártó, in addition to having discussions on U.S.-Hungarian relations, was supposed to prepare Viktor Orbán’s visit to the United States in February. As Klub Rádió’s “Tények, Vélemények” (Facts, Opinions) put it, “the Hungarian prime minister is planning to attend the National Prayer Breakfast.” This annual event, which is held at the Washington Hilton, is a gathering of 3,000-3,500 invited guests from 100 countries. Therefore, it is immaterial what Viktor Orbán “is planning.” The question is whether he has an invitation or not. By the way, this event is not organized by the White House. The president is just one of the invitees.

The only record so far of the meeting between Szijjártó and Mitchell is a photograph taken of the two men shaking hands, but it doesn’t look as if they were standing in the State Department. Klub Rádió’s guess is that the photo was taken at the Hungarian Embassy, a rather strange arrangement if true.

In any event, Szijjártó’s silence indicates to me that wherever this important meeting took place, it was not a success, that the anticipated breakthrough didn’t materialize. The usual explanation for the still icy relations between the two countries is that the holdover diplomats from the Obama administration continue to run the show in the State Department. The hope in Budapest is that soon enough Donald Trump’s people will be in charge and that they will appreciate the American president’s kindred soul in Europe. But Orbán’s diplomats are overlooking a major stumbling block: the worrisomely close relationship between Putin’s Russia and Orbán’s Hungary, which, given the climate in the United States, is not the best recommendation for closer ties with the Orbán regime.

MTI /EPA/ Photo: Georgi Licovszki

On the very day of Szijjártó’s negotiations in the United States, Magyar Idők ran an article on its front page with the following headline: “Lavrov: America is not doing any favor to the world.” Lavrov, according to the article, accused the United States of using illegitimate means to maintain its waning supremacy in a multi-polar world. Not the best way of endearing oneself to the United States, claimed the commentator from Népszava. This editorial, I’m afraid, is a bit naïve. Diplomats of the State Department don’t need the Hungarian government’s propaganda machinery to be aware of the state of Russian-Hungarian relations. They are fully cognizant of them and find them troubling. Mátyás Eörsi, former undersecretary of foreign affairs and former leader of the ALDE-Pace Group in the Council of Europe, wrote an excellent opinion piece in HVG about the Orbán administration’s total incomprehension of the futility of trying to build a close relationship with the United States under the present circumstances.

I agree. Orbán will have to choose: either Putin’s Russia or the United States. There is no middle ground now. I also suspect that as the investigation of Russian involvement in the U.S. election process unfolds, more suspicion will be focused on Hungary as a client state and Viktor Orbán as a Trojan horse. These are not the best recommendations in Washington today or in the foreseeable future.

In recent days the Orbán government welcomed a letter written on January 11 by ten extremely conservative members of Congress addressed to Secretary of State Tillerson, urging him “to strengthen the strategic cooperation between the United States and Hungary,” claiming common threats from an unnamed source. They suggest “high-level meetings between the leaders of [the] two countries in order to build mutual trust.” The leader of the group, Andy Harris, must have received word from Connie Mack III, Orbán’s lobbyist in Washington, that one of Viktor Orbán’s greatest desires is to be invited to the Oval Office. At this point we don’t even know whether he will be one of the 3,000-3,500 invitees at the National Prayer Breakfast on February 8.

January 19, 2018

Do we know what Jobbik is all about?

I have somewhat neglected the affairs of Jobbik, but the speech that Gábor Vona, the leader of the party, delivered on October 23 was significant enough to prompt me to take stock of what’s going on in what was once the most notorious extremist right-wing party in all of Europe. The reputation of Jobbik was so tarnished a few years ago that not even the very right-wing Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe (ACRE) in the European Parliament wanted anything to do with the party’s three European parliamentary members. They sit with the independents. In 2015, however, Vona and people close to him in the party decided to abandon their former ideology and move toward a more centrist position on the political spectrum.

The move was logical because, over the years, Viktor Orbán had moved his own party, Fidesz, more and more to the right until the two parties were practically indistinguishable. Vona’s move resulted in a loss of support on the extreme right wing of the party. These people most likely today are Fidesz supporters. As the election nears and the size of the liberal and socialist camp shrinks, Vona has been making great efforts to appeal to disillusioned MSZP voters. The job is not easy because too many people remember the party’s anti-Semitic outbursts, their burning of the European Union’s flag, their support for all sorts of extremist groups, and their establishment of the Hungarian Guard, whose flag bore a suspicious resemblance to that of the Hungarian national socialist Arrow Cross movement of the 1930s and 1940s.

Because of the heavy baggage Jobbik carries, for the time being there is solid opposition on the left to cooperating with Vona’s party, even though there is quite a bit of pressure from below to enter into some kind of “technical coalition” because otherwise Fidesz might emerge with an even greater plurality than in 2010 and 2014. But Gergely Karácsony of Párbeszéd put it well when he said that “once Jobbik made it clear that it doesn’t want to cooperate with the other parties but is interested only in its own voters, any discussion on the subject would be counterproductive.” Moreover, if the opposition parties on the left made a deal with Jobbik, it would essentially be rolling out a red carpet for Jobbik voters.

Yet there are observers like Béla Galló, a political scientist who formerly had close connections with the socialist party, who are convinced that although Vona and his comrades swore in 2010 that they would never have anything to do with the members of the pre-2010 political elite, they are in fact surreptitiously flirting with the left opposition. Indeed, there are signs that may be interpreted as Jobbik making efforts at getting closer to the other parties. For instance, Vona readily accepts invitations to conferences organized by the other side. A couple of days ago Gábor Vona, together with Bernadett Szél (LMP), Zsuzsanna Szelényi (independent), Gyula Molnár (MSZP), and Péter Balázs, former foreign minister, participated in a conference organized by Political Capital and the Friedrich-Ebert Stiftung, a socialist think tank. He was also recently invited by Momentum to a meeting, after which he announced that the young leaders of this new political party had made a very good impression on him.

Gábor Vona and Péter Balázs at the Conference of Political Capital and the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung / Source: zoom.hu

Gábor Vona’s October 23 speech was the latest and perhaps the clearest indication that he now wants to position his party exactly opposite the stance that originally elevated the party to considerable heights in Hungarian politics. Instead of basing the party’s policy on harsh opposition to mainstream politics, he wants to cooperate with others. As he put it, “the destructive energies must come together.” He has had enough of strife. He is no longer “interested in who is on the right and who is on the left, he is not interested in who is moderate and who is radical, and he is not interested in who is conservative and who is liberal.” He agreed with Viktor Orbán that Hungary is “a freedom-loving nation,” but “the country’s whole history must be a continuous fight for freedom not just against foreign powers but also against domestic potentates.” The reporter of 24.hu had the impression during the speech that “Vona has become so tame that one had the distinct feeling that he even buried his own extreme right-wing, semi-Nazi past.”

This might be too optimistic an assessment of the situation. There are plenty of issues on which Jobbik hasn’t changed its mind at all. It is still an extremely nationalistic party, and although there is no more overt anti-Semitism coming from the very top Jobbik politicians, many of the loudest anti-Semites are still in leading positions within the party. So are some Islamophobes. In addition, it is not at all clear what Jobbik’s position is on the Horthy regime and Hungary’s responsibility for the Holocaust. Vona’s foreign policy ideas are also worrisome. A couple of days ago Jobbik organized an international press conference for foreign journalists where Vona tried to explain Jobbik’s position on a number of issues. I found his foreign policy ideas convoluted, unrealistic, and even dangerous. They wouldn’t be an improvement over those of Viktor Orbán because “he would place Hungary in a German, Turkish, Russian, American, and Chinese sphere of influence (erőtér).” I remember similar noises from Viktor Orbán often enough. Vona’s ideas on Jobbik in the European Parliament are difficult to comprehend. What does he means when he says that he “sees the place of Jobbik and the country not in a party family [párpolitikai család] but in regional cooperation?”

Finally, just a short note on a new development. Krisztina Morvai, one of Jobbik’s three EP members of parliament, gave a long interview to Magyar Idők in which she wholeheartedly supported Viktor Orbán’s war against the “Soros Plan.” In brief, she turned against her own party, which just sued the Orbán government to produce the so-called Soros Plan which Vona and friends don’t think exists. Fidesz is most likely thrilled because Zsolt Bayer, whose writing is a good barometer of Fidesz’s positions on issues, welcomed his old friend, Krisztina Morvai, who returned to the fold. He joyfully announced that “this interview could have been given by Viktor Orbán himself.” That’s a real compliment. A left-wing internet news site wryly commented that Gábor Vona must be a happy man because Krisztina Morvai’s radicalism and anti-Semitism were heavy baggage for this new allegedly right-of-center Jobbik. Actually, Krisztina Morvai’s political career deserves a separate post, if not two, which I will certainly write one day.

October 29, 2017

How strong is the Visegrád Four? According to some, it barely exists

Martin Mojžiš, professor at Comenius University in Bratislava, wrote an article recently with the title “How strong is V4?.” He came to the conclusion that “there is no V4, with a real political life, in reality.” Only recently Viktor Orbán claimed that the V4 is “strong as never before,” but Mojžiš’s opinion is that V4’s strength relies only on “strong words,” coming mostly from Viktor Orbán.

The ambassadors to the United States of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia got together the other day and gave a joint press conference which, according to Foreign Policy, is the only way for small countries to call attention to themselves. And yet, asks the author of the article, “Does anyone in the Trump administration care about the Visegrád 4?” The answer is “no.” I suspect that the gathering in the Hungarian Embassy’s Pulitzer Salon was initiated by the new Hungarian ambassador, László Szabó, former human resources director for the U.S. pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly. One of his jobs is to promote the concept and policies of the Visegrád Four in Washington. During the press conference the Czech ambassador conceded that to have the four countries act in concert is a “challenge.” For example, a meeting of representatives of the four countries’ foreign ministers was planned, but it never took place.

From left to right Ambassadors Hynek Kmoníček, László Szabó, Piotr Wilczek, Jozef Polakovič / Source: The Georgetown Dish

One reason for the U.S.’s lack of interest is the chaos that has reigned in Washington this year. But I suspect that even the State Department’s seasoned diplomats think that the Visegrád Four might not survive for long. Indeed, there are more and more signs of the regional alliance’s possible demise, which would be a major blow to Viktor Orbán, who considers the recent “revival” of the group his own handiwork. In fact, some people already in early July came to the conclusion that “Visegrád is dead” and that, in fact, “an anti-Orbán alliance is in the making in Central Europe.” This interpretation is a bit too Hungaro-centric for my taste, but there are indications that Orbán’s pride and joy is in trouble. For instance, the Czech Republic and Slovakia are reconsidering the efficacy of partaking in the fight of Poland and Hungary against the European Union. Thus, these two countries are looking for partners elsewhere. One result of this search is the Slavkov Triangle (S3) named after Slavkov, formerly known as Austerlitz, where the prime ministers of Austria, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia met at the end of June. More can be found on the Slavkov Triangle in my post “What awaits the Visegrád Four?”

A couple of months later, on August 15, Robert Fico backtracked from his previous euroskeptic position and distanced himself from Hungary and Poland when he announced that Slovakia’s place is in the deeply integrated “core” Europe. Fico announced that “the fundamentals of my policy are being close to the [EU] core, close to France, to Germany.” He added that he is “very much interested in regional cooperation within the Visegrád Four, but Slovakia’s vital interest is the EU.” One could foresee such a development earlier when Fico, after conferring with Jean-Claude Juncker, announced his willingness to accept 60 refugees. Moreover, of the four Visegrád countries it was only Slovakia against which the European Commission didn’t initiate infringement procedures for rejecting migrant quotas.

But that’s not all. The Czech Republic’s foreign minister Lubomír Zaorálek just announced, according to Reuters, that his country may try to get an observer seat at the Eurogroup of Eurozone finance ministers if the body’s decision-making powers are boosted under plans to reshape the European Union. Having an observer status would be beneficial to the Czech Republic, and it is unlikely that this attitude would change even if a new government wins the elections in October. All in all, there is a fairly rapid abandonment of the hard-line positions of Poland and Hungary by the Slovaks and Czechs.

A couple of weeks ago we learned that the prime ministers of S3 will gather in Salzburg on August 23, where they will meet the French president on his way to a three-day trip of some Central European countries. The topic will be “the future of Europe.” From Austria Macron will fly to Romania and Bulgaria. Hungary and Poland are not included in his itinerary. We don’t know whether Hungary tried to convince Macron to visit Budapest or not but, according to Politico, the Polish government tried its best to entice Macron to stop over in Warsaw but hey “didn’t see much willingness” on the part of the Élysée Palace. Perhaps Macron has given up on the two intransigent illiberal states, although French diplomats keep insisting that Macron has no intention of driving a wedge between the Central European nations that came together in this regional alliance.

Still, there is little doubt that the European Commission and the some of the Western European leaders would like to weaken the influence of Poland and Hungary over the Visegrád Four. Deutsche Welle’s reporter, for example, believes that “the EU is now eyeing Slovakia as a peacemaker,” a country that might be helpful in keeping Poland and Hungary at bay. Moreover, if the Czechs join “core” Europe, Hungary will certainly want to reconsider its relationship with “Brussels.” As we know from past experience, Polish-Hungarian friendship has its limits. Viktor Orbán will not hesitate to abandon Warsaw if he feels that it is no longer to his advantage to support the Polish position. Now that the summer is more or less over, I’m sure that exciting days are ahead of us, especially within the sphere of EU-Hungarian relations.

August 22, 2017

Hungarians on foreign affairs and the U.S. election

I’m very pleased with Vasárnapi Hírek’s decision to commission Publicus Research Institute to conduct public opinion polls. Its latest, which was published today, deals with Hungarians’ views on foreign policy in general and the European Union, the United States, and Russia in particular. In addition, Publicus asked people their perceptions of specific world leaders. And, since the poll was conducted just after the U.S. presidential election, they were asked about their reactions to the outcome.

I guess I don’t have to dwell on the Orbán government’s systematic hate campaign against the present U.S. administration and Viktor Orbán’s clear preference for Donald Trump as the future president of the United States. Moreover, Orbán’s incessant verbal warfare with the European Union is legendary by now. Yet, as we will see, all this propaganda hasn’t really paid off. By and large, the majority of Hungarians are still western-oriented and consider themselves friends of the United States. It seems that the engaging personality and reassuring presence of Barack Obama touched the Hungarian public. He is now the most popular and most trusted foreign politician in the country. And Orbán’s battles with the European Union haven’t made much of an impact on Hungarian public opinion either. Few people think that Hungary should be on its own, with independent foreign policy objectives.

Let’s look first at how much trust Hungarians have in foreign leaders: Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel, Donald Trump, and as the odd “man” out, the European Union. Among foreign leaders, Barack Obama is the clear winner: 55% of adult Hungarians surveyed have trust in him, 24% don’t. Putin runs way behind with 34% fans and 47% skeptics. Angela Merkel is truly unpopular in Hungary (21%), which is undoubtedly due to her policies on migration.

Of course, there is a marked disparity between right-wing and left-wing voters when it comes to their perceptions of foreign leaders. Far more left-wingers place their trust in Obama and Merkel than the average (65% and 47%) while Fidesz-Jobbik voters prefer Putin (50%) over Barack Obama (28%). The same is true when it comes to the assessment of Trump. His overall support is only 21%, but 36% of right-wingers welcomed his election.

Source: NBC news

Source: NBC news

I left the European Union to last. Hungarian public opinion is evenly split (46% for and 44% against) when it comes to passing judgment on its trustworthiness. Yet, when respondents had to pick only one “great power” to which Hungary should adjust its foreign policy, the European Union was the clear winner (53%). There is a small minority that would like to strengthen transatlantic ties and designated the United States as the country with which Hungary should have the closest relations (11%). Russophiles are an equally small minority: 11% would like to have Hungary committed to a pro-Russian foreign policy.

A small minority (14%) still clings to a separate “Hungarian road,” which I interpret as an independent foreign policy, which can be done only if Hungary is ready to abandon the European Union. But if that is the case, I don’t quite know what to make of a graph showing that 54% of the respondents don’t see any danger with a “Hungarian foreign policy (Hungarian road).” Clearly, a “go it alone” policy would be extraordinarily dangerous to the security and independence of Hungary. It is, of course, possible that the respondents misunderstood the question and simply thought that Orbán’s “fighting for national interests in Brussels” is what “Hungarian foreign policy” means.

Otherwise, Hungarians feel extremely secure. They don’t think that the far-away United States has a threatening presence in Hungary (70%), they don’t worry about the European Union’s encroachment (67%), and they don’t think that the Russian expansionist moves and threat to the Baltic states have anything to do with Hungary (58%).

The rest of the poll was devoted to the U.S. presidential election. First of all, almost 30% of the respondents knew so little about American politics that they couldn’t express an opinion on whom they thought would be better for Hungary, Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. Those who had an opinion were evenly split: about 30% for Clinton, 30% for Trump. Of course, given Viktor Orbán’s clear preference for Trump, the majority of Fidesz voters (53%) considered Trump’s election a bonanza for Hungary and only 18% thought that a Clinton presidency would have been better for the country. Interestingly enough, Jobbik voters’ view of the U.S. election was more “liberal,” if I may use this word. A third of the Jobbik voters sampled, that is about twice the percentage of Fidesz voters, considered Clinton a better choice for Hungary; only 24% thought that Trump would be better. From the point of view of Clinton versus Trump as far as U.S.-Hungarian relations are concerned, left-wingers considered Clinton (68%) a far better choice than Trump (7%).

Finally, Publicus wanted to know the mood of Hungarians after the election. Given Hungarians’ insularity, 23% of the sample was simply “not interested” in the election and 17% had no clue what is going on in the United States. Of the remaining 60%, 24% are “rather happy” over Donald Trump’s victory and 36% are “rather unhappy” with the result. It seems that their reactions didn’t depend solely on whom they thought would be better for Hungary.

Finally, a footnote to Orbán’s high hopes for greatly improved relations between the United States and Hungary. The Hungarian media learned from the Polish press that Polish President Andrzej Duda and Donald Trump had a conversation on Wednesday night and “the presidents also reportedly invited each other to visit their countries.” Trump called Poland “an important ally.” The next day, at János Lázár’s “government info,” a question was addressed to the head of the prime minister’s office as to whether Trump had phoned Orbán. After all, Duda and Trump had already spoken. Apparently, Lázár expressed his bafflement over the very question: what would the significance of such a conversation be, he asked. HVG pointed out that considering that Viktor Orbán was the only European prime minister who had expressed support for Trump at the time when Trump’s candidacy was a long shot, one would have expected Trump to get in touch with his fan in Hungary. The journalist added that Orbán was the first European head of state to congratulate Trump and “since then he has been constantly talking about the arrival of democracy in the United States” with Trump’s victory. “Apparently all that effort was not enough for a telephone call,” the reporter announced with a certain glee.

November 19, 2016

A candid interview with Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó.    Part I

Members of the Orbán government rarely give interviews to news outlets that don’t belong to the government-controlled media empire. I can count on one hand Fidesz politicians who have dared to walk into these “lions’ dens.” In fact, I can think only of Nándor Csepreghy, deputy to János Lázár; Gergely Gulyás, deputy chairman of Fidesz and deputy speaker of parliament responsible for legislation; and Lajos Kósa, today the leader of the Fidesz delegation in parliament. It was therefore quite a surprise to see a lengthy interview with Péter Szijjártó published in Index yesterday. And even more of a surprise that the interview was refreshingly candid.

What can we learn from this interview that we didn’t know before? One cannot expect revelatory information about the general thrust of Hungarian foreign policy, but some until now unknown details emerged.

Let me start with the internal mechanism of decision-making in the Orbán government as far as foreign policy is concerned. At least according to Szijjártó. Three individuals are full-time advisers to Viktor Orbán on foreign policy. The man who is in charge of U.S.-Hungarian relations is Jenő Megyesy, formerly honorary consul in Denver, Colorado. Orbán met him in 2008 when he attended the Republican Convention and was obviously impressed with the man. Hungarians are convinced that Megyesy has an extensive political network in the U.S. and therefore is useful as an adviser. He has been employed by the prime minister’s office ever since 2010. He is the one Szijjártó turns to when it comes to matters concerning the United States.

szijjarto interview

The second adviser, Péter Gottfried, is an old-timer who has been involved in foreign trade and foreign policy ever since the late 1970s. He has served in high positions in all the post-1990 governments. According to Szijjártó, Gottfried deals exclusively with Europe.

The latest addition is József Czukor, a former intelligence officer, who started his career in 1988 at the Hungarian embassy in Bonn. He has also served all governments and has had friends on both sides of the aisle. In 2010 he was named ambassador to Germany, and in the fall he is moving into the prime minister’s office to be an overall foreign policy adviser to Orbán. From the interview Szijjártó seems to be less enthusiastic about Czukor than his boss is.

You may have noticed that there are no permanent advisers to Orbán who handle Russia and countries in the Far East. Szijjártó is, according to his own account, solely responsible for Russian-Hungarian relations. He relies on the advice of János Balla, Ernő Keskeny, and Zsolt Csutora. Balla, who has been a professional diplomat since 1982, is currently Hungarian ambassador to Russia. Keskeny is in Kiev. In February 2015 I wrote about Keskeny, whom I described as a “rabid Russophile” who allegedly was behind the Russian-Hungarian rapprochement. Subsequently, Keskeny was named ambassador to Ukraine, an appointment that the Ukrainian government couldn’t have welcomed given Keskeny’s well-known pro-Russian sympathies. Csutora began his career as an army officer in 1986 and then moved into the foreign ministry during the first Orbán government. Until recently he was ambassador to Azerbaijan.

What does Viktor Orbán consider to be the essence of Hungary’s foreign policy under his watch? When Orbán asked Szijjártó to be his foreign minister, he told him: “Péter, be a Hungarian foreign minister, and conduct a Hungarian foreign policy. That’s all he told me.” Of course, the journalists’ next question concerned the foreign policy of János Martonyi and Tibor Navracsics. Wasn’t theirs a Hungarian foreign policy? Szijjártó sidestepped that question and tried to explain that the style of foreign policy that Martonyi, for example, conducted wouldn’t work in today’s international climate. The harsher style he is using is the only one that is appropriate in the present circumstances.

As for his own less than diplomatic style, which shocks a lot of observers and analysts, Szijjártó has the perfect answer. He never starts a fight, but when someone attacks Hungary he must immediately counter it because, if there was no rapid response from Budapest, these unfair criticisms and insults would only multiply. At the probing of the interviewing journalists, Szijjártó guessed that he told off foreign politicians about 20 times during his tenure as foreign minister, although Index diligently collected 60 such instances. Szijjártó called in the ambassadors of Croatia, Romania, Austria, Greece, France, and the United States. Which countries’ leaders were given a piece of Szijjártó’s mind? Austria, the United States, Luxembourg, Greece, Germany, Croatia, Spain, France, Italy, Romania, the Netherlands, Serbia, and Sweden.

We found out who Szijjártó’s favorite ambassadors are: Iain Lindsay of the United Kingdom and Colleen Bell of the United States. I’m not surprised about Lindsay, who is an unusual sort of ambassador. On April 11, which is the day of poetry in Hungary, he recited an Attila József poem in very respectable Hungarian. As for Colleen Bell, Szijjártó has the highest opinion of her. According to him, “if Colleen Bell were not the ambassador of the United States in Hungary, political relations between [the two countries] would be much worse. She represents a very calm voice in the U.S. Embassy in Hungary and her presence has helped a lot in the somewhat improving relations between the two countries. Somewhat.”

When the journalists reminded the foreign minister that one finds the same American criticisms of the Orbán government in Bell’s public speeches that were present in André Goodfriend’s utterances, Szijjártó said: “Look, when I have a conversation with her it is a perfectly normal, honest and open talk. Such dialogue was impossible with her predecessors. She is a person who comes from the business world and is therefore pragmatic and approaches matters rationally and not emotionally.” Bell apparently occasionally does bring up these questions, but Szijjártó asked her “to bring concrete examples, not generalities because otherwise our talks will be no more than conversations between deaf people.”

In contrast to Szijjártó’s amiable relations with Colleen Bell is his strong dislike of Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, the highest ranking state department official Szijjártó has managed to meet. According to him, her criticisms were only vague generalizations. “I told Victoria Nuland after our second meeting that we should not meet again. Because there is no use further damaging our bilateral relations by her leveling unsubstantiated accusations [against Hungary] while I—how shall I say—more and more dynamically deny them because they are truly outrageous.”

From the interview I got the impression that the Hungarian government has no intention of fully investigating the corruption case the American company Bunge reported to the American authorities. I have written many articles about the case. Those of you who are unfamiliar with the story should read my last piece on the final outcome of the case. The upshot is that the prosecutors refused to investigate the case properly and brought charges only against the man who delivered the blackmail offer. They charged the messenger, not the person who sent him. The judge found him guilty, and that was, as far as the Hungarian government is concerned, the end of the matter. That the source of the blackmail offer was allegedly the director of Századvég, the same company I wrote about yesterday, was never pursued. The Orbán government refuses to move an inch on any of the corruption cases, which is perfectly understandable since corruption is at the heart of Orbán’s mafia state.

To be continued

August 3, 2016

In Viktor Orbán’s world is foreign policy the handmaiden of propaganda?

The storm created by János Lázár’s comments about American designs on Europe and George Soros’s vital role in shaping U.S. foreign policy hasn’t subsided. One commentator after another is trying to figure out what this frontal attack against the United States. and particularly against the Democratic Party, is all about. Viktor Orbán’s radio interview this morning further stoked the fire because, echoing earlier remarks by his foreign minister and chief-of-staff, Orbán accused George Soros of masterminding the anti-Hungarian policies of the current U.S. government. In a way, the Orbán government is injecting itself into the presidential campaign, indicating that Hungary’s interests are aligned with the opponent of Hillary Clinton who, we can by now be all but certain, will be Donald Trump.

Viktor Orbán didn’t say anything new over and above what Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó and János Lázár, head of the prime minister’s office, said on Wednesday and Thursday. The difference was that Viktor Orbán himself repeated all the nonsense we heard earlier from his underlings. He made no effort to backpedal. Although the complete transcript of his interview is still not available, the few sentences most newspapers quote are indicative of the prime minister’s thoughts on the subject of “the American plans inspired by [George] Soros.” We learn from Orbán that “George Soros is behind the leaders of the Democratic party and although the mouth is that of Clinton, the idea belongs to George Soros.” Soros’s “clandestine power” (háttérhatalom or, in German, Hintergrundmacht) is far greater than Hungary’s domestic opposition

Of course, one’s first reaction is that the man is mad or, as the foreign policy expert of Gábor Fodor’s Magyar Liberális Party, István Szent-Iványi, suggested, the members of the Orbán government demonstrate signs of paranoia or suffer persecutory delusions. Surely, these utterances cannot be taken at face value. It is ridiculous even to spend time and energy pointing out their absurdity. And yet, whatever we think of Szijjártó, Lázár, and Orbán, we can be sure that they are not that mad. Therefore, Szent-Iványi’s final verdict–that “they lost their critical faculties, which poses a great danger to the country”–is off target.

I myself am guilty of lamenting the negative reaction of foreign leaders to Hungary as a result of these incredible statements by politicians in important governmental positions. It is hard to fathom that the prime minister of a middle-sized European country would spin these bizarre, utterly unbelievable tales. I often ask my friends: “Are they not ashamed of themselves?” A very pragmatic American friend usually answers after such outbursts: “No, try to understand. They don’t care.”

A friend from Hungary goes further. Not only do they not care, but all this is nothing but propaganda for domestic consumption. Right now they have only one goal: a valid referendum that would prove that the Hungarian electorate overwhelmingly rejects the resettlement of any refugees on the territory of Hungary. So, to further the cause, time to dredge up Orbán’s bogeyman again. The brain or brains behind Fidesz propaganda, perhaps Árpád Habony, may have come up with the idea of personalizing this attack against Hungary. George Soros represents the antithesis of Hungarian Christian/national values. He’s a financial speculator who moves money around instead of doing honest work that produces tangible products. He is a Jew with Hungarian ties who funds enemies of the Hungarian government. He is a liberal with an international reach. His Open Society Foundations “work to build vibrant and tolerant democracies whose governments are accountable to their citizens.”

propaganda

All in all, linking Soros’s name with some wild theory of a hidden, antagonistic power might ring true with a large segment of the Hungarian electorate. According to a poll conducted by Political Capital, a think tank, 42% of Hungarians believe that it is not the Hungarian government that in effect conducts the affairs of state but that “somebody in the background is pulling the strings.” As long as the Soros story resonates, Viktor Orbán could care less whether the world thinks he is mad or whether Hungarian-U.S. relations suffer as a consequence. He doesn’t care whether, if Hillary Clinton becomes the next U.S. president, she and her husband might remember his comments. Someone suggested to me that in fact Orbán turns up the volume in order to create even greater noise, calling attention to himself.

György Balavány, who before 2010 worked for the then pro-Fidesz opposition paper, Magyar Nemzet, wrote an editorial in which he said, “I don’t know whether the prime minister believes what he says. If he does it is really worrisome, but it is an even bigger worry if the people believe all the nonsense he spreads around.” It seems that Orbán’s advisers are convinced that Hungarians will believe him, that this strategy will achieve the desired result. And that is the only thing that matters at the moment.

May 20, 2016

Love affair: Ambassador Bell on U.S.-Hungarian relations

U.S. Ambassador Colleen Bell delivered a speech before the members of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Hungarian Parliament on May 5. It was given behind closed doors, a decision, it would seem, of the Fidesz-KDNP majority urged on them by Zsolt Németh, Fidesz chairman of the committee. Ordering a closed session for such an occasion is unusual, and the Hungarian media–or more specifically Népszava, the only major newspaper to pay attention to the event–began speculating about the source of the decision. Some who were familiar with preparations for the event claimed that it was the ambassador herself who had insisted on secrecy, which seems unlikely since her remarks were promptly published on the U.S. Embassy’s website. The lack of coverage of the speech by leading pro-government publications also supports my suspicion that Zsolt Németh was not eager to make the content of the speech public.

Of course, we don’t know what kind of bad news or unpleasant messages Németh expected from the ambassador. In reality, her remarks were far too complimentary to the Orbán government. My recurring complaint about U.S. policy toward Hungary is that American diplomats fail to understand Viktor Orbán’s way of thinking. The Americans coat their criticisms with so many layers of sugary compliments that the casual reader has a hard time finding even the few mild criticisms. This is not the way to talk to Orbán’s entourage. Orbán and his minions consider such overly polite speech a sign of weakness, which only encourages further verbal aggression on the part of the Hungarian government.

Unlike some others, I am not surprised that Bell didn’t level any criticism of the Orbán government’s domestic policies in this speech. After all, it was delivered before members of the foreign affairs committee, and therefore it was focused almost exclusively on international
fishiesrelations. But refraining from criticism of domestic policy is one thing, sending unnecessary and most likely counterproductive love messages to the Orbán government is something else.

At the beginning of her speech she recalled that she arrived in Hungary in the dead of winter. Since then, she has worked with government and opposition politicians “so that together, out of that winter, we would force the spring. Our collective effort has succeeded.”

To demonstrate the excellence of U.S.-Hungarian relations, Bell reached back, probably to David Foster Wallace’s famous commencement address at Kenyon College in 2005, for her guiding image: “you may know the old joke about the fish who was asked one day, ‘So, how’s the water?’ And the fish replied, ‘Water? What the heck is water?’ This is how our alliance feels to us both, like the water we swim in, scarcely felt but all around us, our life support, our milieu.” Isn’t that a tad more than polite diplomatic language? This and similar undeserved praise throughout her speech blunted the few messages she delivered to the Hungarian government on Russia, Ukraine, and the handling of the refugee crisis.

As I said, one has to look hard to find substantive U.S. messages, but she was pretty clear on the American commitment to maintain sanctions against Russia. You may recall that Viktor Orbán, during his visit to Moscow, indicated to Vladimir Putin that Hungary would not support the automatic renewal of the sanctions. So let’s see what Bell had to say on this topic.

As many Hungarians reminded me, you need no introduction to the nature of Russian aggression. Your response has always been to show resolve. Our best weapons, in fact, are resolve and solidarity. They speak to our unity and our common purpose. Europe and the United States are going to continue to stand united, sustaining sanctions for as long as they are necessary, and providing assistance to Ukraine until full implementation of the Minsk agreement…. Hungary has made economic sacrifices to support Russian sanctions, and you have done so with the full awareness of their greater purpose. We in the international community know that sanctions are having a direct impact on Russia. As the United States and Hungary have both stated many times, Russia has a simple choice: fully implement Minsk or continue to face sanctions.

I read this passage with astonishment because this is not how I remember the recent course of Russian-Hungarian relations. Resolve to stick with sanctions? Just remember all the negotiations with Russia over handling Hungarian agricultural exports differently from those of the rest of the EU countries because, after all, Hungary is such a good friend of Putin’s Russia. Or, what about Viktor Orbán’s pronouncement that by voting for sanctions the EU shot itself in the foot? I assume from the words of the ambassador that the duplicitous Hungarian prime minister has already reversed himself. But do these “concessions” on Orbán’s part warrant all this lavish praise from the United States? I believe that such a reaction only encourages Viktor Orbán’s double games.

And the panegyric doesn’t end here. We learn that

Hungary has all the imagination, vision, and understanding to contribute substantially to collective security, to endow the global economy with its resources and its enterprise, and to broker solutions to conflicts that defy other statesmen. Whether it is the moral resolve that drives European unity on sanctions or the material sacrifice of investing more in your country’s defense to meet the pledge of the Wales Summit, Hungary is striving to meet some of the most critical challenges of the day. More than this, Hungary is equal to the great challenges of our times and the United States is counting on you.

The only conceivably critical sentence in the entire lengthy speech was the following: “Every sovereign nation has the right and an obligation to protect its borders. But every nation, as a part of the international community, also has a fundamental obligation to help refugee populations seeking safety. We commend the humanitarian spirit of Hungarian leaders, law enforcement and military personnel, and ordinary citizens who are responding to this crisis with generosity and compassion.” Even here, however, what started off as potential criticism ended up as praise.

We also learned from this speech that “Hungary and the United States share the view that our alliance is the cornerstone of our security, and that together, we secure a Europe that is whole, free, and at peace,” a rather surprising observation in light of Viktor Orbán’s relentless efforts to divide Europe, thus making it a potential target of Russian diplomatic machinations.

All in all, this speech, which bordered on the servile, didn’t show the United States in the best light. No wonder, therefore, that both Chairman Zsolt Németh and Deputy Chairman Gábor Vona (Jobbik) expressed their utmost satisfaction after the session was over. Németh noted that “a perceptible change” for the better has occurred in U.S.-Hungarian relations, while Vona specifically mentioned the attitude of the ambassador, who is “more open, more ready for consensus” than her predecessors.

Pro-government papers decided not to spend any time on the speech itself. I suspect the reason for their silence is what they would consider a shameful capitulation of their favorite government on several issues that are important to the United States: Russian sanctions, defense of Ukraine’s sovereignty, and a positive attitude toward Europe which should remain “whole.”

Instead, G. Gábor Fodor’s internet rag, 888.hu, picked up an English-language article by Daniel McAdams, the director of the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity, described by James Kirchick, a freelance journalist writing for The Daily Beast, as “a bevy of conspiracy theorists, cranks, and apologists for some of the worst regimes on the planet.” McAdams is no stranger to Hungary, having spent six years there as a journalist. During this time he was the editorial page editor of the Budapest Sun. McAdams also worked closely with John Laughland, who was described in Kirchick’s article as someone “who has never met a Central or Eastern European autocrat he didn’t like.” Laughland’s organization, the British Helsinki Human Rights Group, for whom McAdams was a rapporteur, has been fiercely defending Viktor Yanukovych, Alexander Lukashenko, and other similar shady characters. This group believes that “Washington is promoting a system of political and military control not unlike that once practiced by the Soviet Union.” The article by McAdams titled “US Ambassador to Hungary: Overthrow Assad, Let in Refugees, and Fight Russia … or Else!” is written in this vein. Obviously, members of the Fidesz media empire don’t like the chummy relationship between the evil United States and Hungary that they might extrapolate from the extravagant tribute the U.S. ambassador delivered.

If, however, the diplomats in Washington think that the attitude of the Orbán government toward the United States has changed dramatically in the last year or so because of the more accommodating new ambassador, they are wrong. I do hope that the staff of the U.S. Embassy in Budapest diligently follows Magyar Idők and Magyar Hírlap because these two publications are timely barometers of the thinking of the Hungarian government.

In today’s Magyar Hírlap, for example, Zsolt Bayer wrote an open letter to the citizens of the United States. He said that by now he’s keeping fingers crossed for Russia and that he thinks of the United States the way he used to think of the Soviet Union. The U.S. government is responsible for “the dreadful situation that exists in the world,” and all that “syrupy propaganda about democracy, world peace, and the greatness of the United States is truly unbearable.” There is, however, hope on the way: a man appeared out of nowhere “who wants to create a new America.” And this new America will give up its imperial ambitions and will be satisfied with a strong American national state. In brief, the United States will return to its former splendid isolation and will leave Hungary alone. This new great statesman who has discovered the key to saving the United States from itself is, of course, Donald Trump, for whom the Hungarian right, including the Fidesz top brass, will root in the next few months.

So, let’s not kid ourselves, please!

May 8, 2016