Tag Archives: Hillary Clinton

Donald Trump’s Russia policy must be a disappointment to Viktor Orbán

I’m beginning to feel sorry for Viktor Orbán, who tries so hard to make the right diplomatic move at the right time but, despite his best efforts, finds himself making missteps. He can expect even more such aborted diplomatic moves now that the United States has a totally unpredictable president. Orbán’s latest effort was an obvious attempt to further strengthen Russian-Hungarian relations in the conviction that this move would have President Trump’s blessing and backing. It looks as if Viktor Orbán didn’t factor in the total unpredictability of the Trump administration’s policies.

Viktor Orbán expected that his favorite candidate, Donald Trump, would conduct a pro-Russian foreign policy and would keep his nose out of the affairs of other countries. Also, he would no longer demand adherence to democratic norms. Consequently, Orbán renewed his attack on non-governmental organizations operating in Hungary, especially those that receive money from George Soros’s Open Society Foundation. After all, Orbán figured, Trump dislikes the billionaire financier because he generously supported Hillary Clinton. As for diplomatic matters, Orbán was certain that he would receive Trump’s support for an even closer relationship with Putin’s Russia.

So, how did Orbán prepare for this new era of international relations? He decided to have a trial run ahead of the scheduled visit of Vladimir Putin, sending Péter Szijjártó to Moscow with a message that indicated a more openly supportive Hungarian policy toward Russia.

The many reports that appeared in both Hungarian and foreign papers on the meeting in Budapest between Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orbán all agree that the much touted “summit” ended with a fairly meaningless press conference dealing mostly with trade relations and including a few announcements about the Russian gas supply and the financing of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant’s extension. To learn more about what most likely transpired between Putin and Orbán behind closed doors, we should focus on the Moscow trip of the much more talkative Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó on January 23 and 24. He was equally chatty after his negotiations with members of the Russian delegation in Budapest.

First of all, Szijjártó’s servility was, even by his own standards, extreme. He oozed praise and talked at length about the personal pleasure he felt at being able to meet Sergei Lavrov again. The normally dour Russian foreign minister seems to have such a close relationship with Szijjártó that in Budapest, the night before the “summit,” Lavrov was a guest at Szijjártó’s private residence.

A bit over the top

After the Lavrov-Szijjártó meeting in Moscow, Szijjártó expressed the views of the Hungarian government: “If the EU and Russia cannot agree on the conditions of a pragmatic and close cooperation, then the Union will seriously lag behind in the international economic and political competition.” He called attention to the fact that historically Central Europe has always been the victim of conflicts between East and West and therefore “it is in Hungary’s interest that the new U.S. administration and Russia establish as soon as possible a pragmatic and close cooperation based on mutual trust.” Politicians in the European Union label everybody whose ideas aren’t mainstream a “Putinist” or a “Trumpist.” But Hungary “wants to break away from such insultingly simplistic and harmful approaches and to realize that it is in Europe’s interest to normalize its relationship with Russia.” This must have been music to Sergei Lavrov’s ears.

A few days later, this time in Budapest, Szijjártó continued his efforts with members of the Putin delegation and announced Hungary’s eagerness for a close relationship between the European Union and Russia. He falsely claimed that by now “the western world” also wants to have a rapprochement with Russia. He exaggerated Hungary’s financial loss as a result of the sanctions and announced that “our position on this matter” will be guided by Hungarian interests. Both Szijjártó and Orbán, as we will soon see, act as if Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its active participation in the disturbances in Eastern Ukraine simply didn’t exist. It looks as if, in the view of the Orbán government, the “western world” should just forget about Putin’s transgression of Russia’s treaty obligations and its settling of territorial disputes by force.

In comparison to Szijjártó, Viktor Orbán was outright reticent. What was most telling was not what he said but what he didn’t. After thanking Putin “for visiting us,” he immediately moved to the “center of the talks,” which were economic issues, specifically the absolutely perfect economic relations between the two countries in recent years. It was only at this point that he gingerly moved to politics. “One of the reasons we should especially value the results of economic cooperation is that we have achieved them in a difficult international environment. We have all seen the development of strongly anti-Russian sentiment in the western half of the continent, and anti-Russian politics has become the fashion.” Fashion? Anti-Russian sentiment out of the blue? Clearly, the Orbán government would love to forget about the whole Ukrainian issue, which seems to me a highly irresponsible position considering that Ukraine is Hungary’s neighbor.

Then he moved on, somewhat obliquely, to the question of sanctions. “Hungary maintains its position that problems of a non-economic nature cannot be addressed with economic measures,” an opinion that is clearly wrong. For example, sanctions against Iran were instrumental in getting Iran to the negotiating table. Or, if these sanctions are as ineffectual as Orbán has often claimed, why is Putin so eager to have them lifted? Orbán added that “it is difficult to imagine Hungary being successful if we do not develop open, strong, and fruitful economic and trade cooperation with the major players in the global economy.”

Putin’s introductory words were equally bland, dealing mostly with economic and cultural relations between the two countries. He spent only one sentence on territories in which Russia has a military presence. He ended his short address with these words: “We discussed the Eastern-Ukrainian and Syrian situations, and we determined that we must unite our forces against terrorism.”

From Putin’s answer to a Russian journalist’s question, however, one has some idea of what Putin must have said to Orbán on the Ukrainian situation. In Putin’s opinion, the Ukrainians provoked the latest military action in the eastern provinces of the country because the Ukrainian government badly needs money, which it hopes to get from the European Union and the United States. Thus, the Ukrainians try to picture themselves as the victims of Russian aggression. Orbán’s response to this fabrication was not exactly courageous. He muttered something about fulfilling the Minsk II Agreement, which will provide peace in Europe. At the same time he felt it necessary to mention that the Minsk Agreement has a clause guaranteeing minority rights, which also affects the Hungarian minority. He expressed his dissatisfaction with the Hungarian minority’s current situation in Ukraine.

The Hungarian assumption underlying Viktor Orbán’s hopes for closer Russian-Hungarian relations was that Donald Trump would conduct a pro-Russian foreign policy, which he has long advocated. But after the chaotic first two weeks of the new administration, there has been an unexpected turn. The Trump administration, counter to all expectations, is taking a hard stand on Russian aggression against Ukraine. The newly appointed U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, delivered a tough speech yesterday in which she condemned Russia’s unacceptable behavior. She said that the United States would like to have better relations with Russia, but “the dire situation in eastern Ukraine is one that demands clear and strong condemnation of Russian actions.” Moreover, in the speech she also said that “the United States continues to condemn and call for an immediate end to the Russian occupation of Crimea. The United States considers Crimea to be part of Ukraine.” She added that “our Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns control over the peninsula to Ukraine.”

Although Haley’s remarks were not all that different from speeches delivered by Samantha Power, the Obama administration’s ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, the Russian ambassador to the UN, felt that “there is a change in tone” with the arrival of the new administration. He claimed that he wasn’t particularly surprised by Haley’s speech, something I find difficult to believe, even though in the last couple of weeks the Russians have also come to the conclusion that one never knows what to expect from this new White House.

What an irony of fate. On the very same day that Viktor Orbán and his foreign minister are laying out their great plans for an entirely different international climate as far as Russia and Europe is concerned, the U.S. ambassador to the UN reinforces the United States’ resolve to keep the sanctions in place as long as it takes. This should put an end to the daydreams of Viktor Orbán and Péter Szijjártó.

February 3, 2017

The race to Trump’s White House: The Romanians are leading

On January 17 a blogger who calls himself “Nick Grabowszki” told his readers that Sorin Grindeanu, the new Romanian social democratic prime minister, and Liviu Dragnea, chairman of the Romanian Social Democratic Party (PSD), will attend Donald Trump’s inauguration in Washington. Our blogger’s story was muddled on the details of the invitation. He misleadingly came to the conclusion that while the Romanians will be two of the 120 invited guests, Orbán, who went all out to receive an invitation, came up empty handed. Grabowszki gleefully remarked that it looks as if the government propaganda about the beginning of a beautiful friendship was merely a pipe dream.

Anyone who knows anything about the protocol of U.S. presidential inaugurations is aware that, with the possible exception of the prime ministers of Mexico and Canada, all foreign countries are represented by their ambassadors. The 120 guests Nick Grabowski was talking about were American dignitaries like former presidents and their wives and other important political personages.

If Grabowski had read the Romanian press either in the original or in English translation, he could have found out how Grindeanu and Dragnea ended up at the inauguration. The invitation came from Elliott Broidy, a venture capitalist, Republican fundraiser, and philanthropist. He was a successful fundraiser for George W. Bush’s campaign and currently serves as vice-chairman of the Trump Victory Fund. The invitation covered three days of events, including a private breakfast with foreign officials at the Trump Hotel in Washington, the candlelight dinner the evening before the inauguration which both Donald Trump and Mike Pence attended, the inauguration itself, and a ball.

And indeed, the two Romanian politicians got the royal treatment. On the first day they met Michael Flynn, future national security adviser in the Trump administration, and Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Dragnea and Flynn apparently “discussed the excellent perspectives of the strategic partnership between Romania and the United States, and the fact that national security and stability are two key factors for the development and prosperity of a nation.” Naturally, the Romanian politicians stressed their country’s determination to spend at least 2% of GDP on defense. In turn, Flynn confirmed the United States’ special interest in Romania. The conversation with Royce was also described as pleasant, during which Dragnea assured the American politician that “Romania will continue to be a reliable pillar for transatlantic relations.”

During the candlelight dinner Dragnea had a chance to exchange a few words with Donald Trump, informing Trump that he “wanted to take the strategic partnership between Romania and the United States to a new level,” to which Trump’s answer was: “We will make it happen! Romania is important for us!”

Donald Trumps shaking hands with Liviu Dragnea

The Romanian politicians obviously started off on the right foot with the Trump administration, which is especially remarkable because they had been anything but enthusiastic about Donald Trump during the presidential campaign and had favored Hillary Clinton. Yet it seems that, unlike Viktor Orbán, they didn’t put all their eggs in one basket. Through Broidy they had a “friend” in the Trump camp, who, when it was important, lent a helping hand to Romania.

Orbán, on the other hand, publicly committed himself to Trump at the time when the Republican nominee’s chances were close to nil. So why didn’t Orbán receive a similar invitation from some Trump insider, especially since the Orbán government has a highly-paid lobbyist, Connie Mack, a former Republican congressman?

To that question there might be an easy answer. Mack is one of those old-fashioned Republicans who found Trump an unacceptable candidate for the presidency. He made no secret of his feelings. In a June interview with Larry King he expressed his low opinion in fairly strong words and admitted that he had no idea what he was going to do when confronted with the ballot on November 8. His disapproving description of Trump was “translated” by 444.hu as “a coward, a shame, a hypocritical fool, and a violent bastard.” Surely, Mack was not the man to curry favor with the Trump crowd.

It took a while for Mack to recover from the shock of the election, but by mid-December Magyar Idők triumphantly reported that, while in Budapest, he had announced that the Trump-Orbán telephone conversation was a very promising beginning, which will be followed by good U.S.-Hungarian relations. He added that “in Trump’s eyes, Viktor Orbán is an important leader not just in Hungary but also in Europe.” As if he has any idea about what Trump thinks. He added that “Donald Trump will bring a new kind of leadership mentality” to American politics. I’m sure Mack is right about that.

It is almost a cliché in Hungary that the Romanians are much better diplomats than the Hungarians. The proof? Their successes during the two world wars. Unlike Hungary, they managed to end up on the winning side. However, these successes are attributed to the slippery nature of Romanian politicians. They are untrustworthy allies who always manage to end up on top. Therefore, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the Hungarian right-wing press finds the two Romanians’ visit to Washington proof of Romanian duplicity.

Magyar Idők simply refuses to talk about the invitations because that would call attention to Viktor Orbán’s absence from events that Dragnea and Grindeanu attended. On the other hand, 888.hu in its typical fashion published a short article on the subject straight from Bucharest. The invitations are described as “purchased goods” to bolster Liviu Dragnea’s role in domestic politics. The reporter ignores all the information available on the source of the invitation and the description of what events the invitations covered. He describes Dragnea’s appearance at the candlelight dinner as accidental, as if he crashed the party, and intimates that he paid someone off to get in. The whole thing is a “seftelős” Romanian story. The Hungarian word “seftelő” comes from the Austrian-Bavarian “gescheft” and means somebody who is known to be a shady businessman. It is true that tickets cost between $25,000 and $1 million depending on the “package,” but my reading is that a certain number of tickets were assigned to important people on the team who could then dispose of them as they saw fit.

Attila Ara-Kovács, DK’s foreign policy spokesman, wrote an opinion piece on the Romanian politicians’ visit to Washington. Ara-Kovács, no friend of Trump, says that it is quite possible that in the future Dragnea and Grindeanu will be sorry that they were congratulating Trump on January 20, but the fact is that their appearance was in the interest of Romania. They don’t share Trump’s optimistic assessment of Putin, but Romania’s national interest dictates good relations with the incoming president. In contrast, there is Orbán, who unabashedly courted Trump for months and yet wasn’t able to secure an invitation.

Indeed, it is very possible that the two Romanian social democrats might not be so happy about their invitations if they find out that Heinz-Christian Strache, chairman of the Austrian Freedom party, also received an invitation. Trump’s national security adviser, the same Mike Flynn that Grindeanu and Dragnea encountered in Washington, had met Strache in December in New York. Considering Strache’s reputation as a neo-Nazi, the Trump team wanted to keep the meeting quiet, but Strache bragged about it on Facebook. According to Occupy Democracy, Strache also attended the inauguration. His invitation came from Representative Steve King of Iowa, who according to this anti-Tea Party site “is one of the worst congressmen to ever sit in the House of Representatives.” Strache’s invitation “speaks mountains to [Trump’s] willingness to welcome such hateful individuals [as Strache] with open arms.”

Another strange guest at the inauguration was Pauline Hanson of One Nation, a nationalist, right-wing populist party in Australia often accused of racism. The story is confused, but the ticket came from Republican congressman Adam Kinzinger, who claims he didn’t know the ticket would end up in the hands of One Nation because apparently it had been requested by the Australian Embassy. Whatever the case, Pauline Hanson tweeted a few days ago: “Would you believe it? I have been gifted tickets to the Presidential Inauguration Ceremony.”

Viktor Orbán, I’m afraid, will have to wait for a while to shake hands with President Trump, whom he so admires.

January 21, 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

Hungarian reaction to Donald Trump’s victory

What else can one write about today except the totally unexpected victory of Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential election? Half of the United States might be in shock that the next president of the United States will be someone of questionable character and temperament who has absolutely no governing experience, but that will not change the fact that in less than three months Donald Trump will be moving into the White House.

Naturally Hungarian papers led with the story of Trump’s “revolution,” as a Hungarian commentator called his landslide victory in the electoral college, especially since Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was one of the very few international politicians looking forward to a Trump presidency.

Before I get to Hungarian reactions to Trump’s victory, let me go back a week, to a poll conducted by the Závecz Research Institute released on October 2, according to which only 10% of Hungarians were rooting for a Trump victory. Reflecting their unfamiliarity with American politics, about a third of the respondents had no opinion. In Hungary there was no disparity between female and male voters in their attitudes toward the candidates. Because of Viktor Orbán’s announcement of his preference for Trump, among his followers support for Trump was the highest, at 23%, but 47% of Fidesz supporters still preferred Clinton. Among Jobbik voters it was even higher, 54%. The most enthusiastic Clinton fans could be found among DK voters, at 93%. Once these poll results were released, Index published this funny picture. So, you can imagine the shock today.

Well, it didn't quite work out

Well, it didn’t quite work out this way

After the announcement of Trump’s victory, politicians all over the world began sending him congratulations. Viktor Orbán was perhaps the first European politician to congratulate Trump on his Facebook page. Whoever wrote the brief English congratulatory note got a bit confused about the grammatical rules of the English language, but what came afterward was really funny. Hungarian trolls passed themselves off as American nationals who in broken English sang the praises of the two great leaders and protectors of the world, Orbán and Trump. Magyar Idők fell for the ruse before the administrator of Orbán’s Facebook page removed the comments.

Later in the day Orbán had an opportunity to elaborate on his assessment of Trump’s victory, which he attributed to the fact that “democracy is still alive.” A few hours later, this time already in London on a brief visit to Prime Minister Theresa May, he told journalists that it was always beneficial to the world when it could free itself from the prison of prevailing ideological trends and could return to reality. Naturally, he was talking about liberalism and its value system.

The other Fidesz politician who commented on the presidential election and its possible consequences for Hungary was Zsolt Németh, Fidesz chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs and the vice president of the Hungarian Atlantic Council. He is a man who supposedly would like to restore good relations with the United States. In an interview he gave to 888.hu, he told the reporter that with the victory of Trump he “expects a much more active U.S. policy relating to the security of the world.” He blamed the U.S. State Department for the lack of dialogue between the two countries. He also expressed his hope that in a Trump administration “the United States will give up its export of democracy and its interventionist policies. He reassured the readers of 888.hu that it was foolish to worry about the future of NATO under Trump. I have no idea on what basis Németh arrived at these pronouncements. So far Trump has shown scant interest in international security issues.

Index said that the democratic opposition’s leading lights were “benumbed,” that they still hadn’t recovered from their shock. Gyula Molnár of MSZP simply wrote: “The American people decided. They elected Trump as their future president. This decision must be respected.” LMP’s message was equally terse: “LMP respects the decision of the American people and congratulates Donald Trump on his electoral success.”

Ferenc Gyurcsány was much more expansive and friendly. “Congratulations to Donald Trump, the new president of the United States. He was the one who captured the imagination of the majority of Americans. There’s no reason to panic. The United States is still a country of freedom and democracy, and it is in the interest of the world that it remains so. I don’t think that the troubled relations between Obama and Orbán substantially weakened the Hungarian government or strengthened its opposition. And the opposite state of affairs will not happen under Trump. Orbán must be beaten at home. We can’t expect assistance from Washington. What we can learn from the U.S. elections is that one can overcome the lack of media and funding. Moreover, pollsters are not infallible. From tomorrow on, we will focus on the tasks ahead and the replacement of the Orbán government.”

Pro-Fidesz papers also weighed in on the U.S. election. According to one of 888.hu’s young journalists, László Bertha, “the victory of Trump may be the beginning of the end, not of democracy, but of the monopoly of liberal opinion.” On the pro-Fidesz but extreme right-wing site Demokrata, László Szentesi-Zöldi began: “Let’s take a deep breath and declare that Viktor Orbán is not lucky but is a genius who can look into the future. Regardless of what kind of president Trump will be, it is already engraved for posterity that only three heads of government in the whole world supported Trump in advance of the election. One of them was Viktor Orbán. This fact will have incalculably beneficial consequences for Hungarian-American relations.” Szentesi-Zöldi hopes that Trump will put an end to Obama’s “cold war” and will move closer to Russia. The prospects in Hungary are bright. “Bell will soon be packing and the new boss will dispense with the services of György Bolgár and his [liberal] ilk.”

Perhaps the most surprising editorial was written by Zsolt Jeszenszky, son of Géza Jeszenszky, foreign minister between 1990 and 1994 who also served as Hungarian ambassador in Washington during the first Orbán administration. As far as I can ascertain, Zsolt Jeszenszky engages in political analysis as a hobby. Otherwise, he is the music director of Lánchíd Rádió, part of Lajos Simicska’s formerly influential, pro-government media holdings. His article titled “America, I Love You!” appeared on the conservative news site mandiner.hu. He explains the reasons for Trump’s spectacular performance this way. “Many people had had enough of constantly being called stupid and racist and being lectured at because the liberal elite wants to prescribe what to think, believing liberalism to be the depository of unquestionable truth.” This stigmatized group went out and voted. Not because they are homophobes, racists, or xenophobic. But because the elite “tries to force its own opinions, affairs, slogans, and goals on ordinary people who are not interested in world peace, the blessings of multiculturalism, gay rights, or female and other kinds of quotas.”

The pro-government commentators found their man in Trump, who in many ways resembles their own idol, a man who tells it as it is. I’m not surprised at their genuine admiration of the man. What especially appeals to them is that he won against all odds. “If for nothing else, for this reason he deserves our trust.” I for one find the connection between trust and the difficulty of the road to victory more than tenuous.

November 9, 2016

The Clinton-Trump debate through Hungarian eyes

Already last night, after watching the U.S. presidential debate, I decided that I would check the Hungarian media’s coverage of the event. I’m happy to report that on the whole coverage of the debate was fair, with the exception of right-wing, pro-government sites that tried to make Trump the winner. A fair number of the leading papers relied in part on MTI’s report from Washington, with additional information coming from the American media. A few sleep-deprived reporters even listened to the debate live, and thus their writing reflects the genuineness of personal experience. Here I am especially thinking of Anita Köműves’s “Clinton was well prepared and didn’t give Trump a chance” in Népszabadság and A. Király’s “Clinton forced Trump to defend himself” in 444.hu. Eszter Balla, a correspondent of sorts for valasz.hu, sent a report from San Francisco titled “Clinton-Trump 1:0,” in which she stated that “Hillary Clinton won the debate with convincing dominance.” In my opinion these reports and assessments can stand on their own. Hungarians who rely on them will have a pretty solid grasp of what transpired last night.

clinton-trump

The same cannot be said of some of the pro-government sources, which have been rooting for Donald Trump for months. First of all, most of the journalists who work for these papers are ideologically close to the right wing of the Republican party (although Trump is not its most obvious spokesman). And, second, Viktor Orbán made it clear some time ago that he is cheering for the Republican candidate.

In the last few months Magyar Idők has worked hard to acquaint its readers with Trump. In almost every issue there has been something about him, however insignificant. Yesterday, for example, it published a short news item picked up from The Washington Times which alleged that CNN had edited “crooked” out of Trump’s tweet before Hillary Clinton’s name. This occasion gave them the opportunity to talk about the biased CNN, which “Republicans simply call Clinton News Network.” Also yesterday we could read in Magyar Idők that “a veterans group that is trying to force swing-state Republican lawmakers to ‘disavow’ Donald Trump is actually being propped up by the George Soros-funded pro-Democrat advocacy group MoveOn.org.” The news originally appeared in breitbart.com, which seems to be the favorite news source in Hungarian right-wing circles.

Hirado.hu is the “official news outlet” of MTVA, the organization that supplies news to the so-called public television and radio stations. M1, the channel concentrating on news almost exclusively, asked a political scientist who is employed by the Külügyi és Külgazdasági Intézet, a think tank that supplies background material to the diplomats of the foreign ministry, to inform the public about Trump’s chances in the battle for the presidency. Márton Ugrósdy, who after getting a degree at ELTE spent a year at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, confidently announced that as long as Trump doesn’t make a huge mistake he will have an easy time of it at the debate. On the other hand, Hillary Clinton will have a much more difficult time. He also predicted that the first few sentences of the debate will decide the end result, adding that actually debates nowadays are not as important as they were, let’s say, ten years ago. Clearly, this expert has been sending reports to the ministry about a Trump presidency as a fait accompli.

By this morning or early afternoon most Hungarian papers concluded that Clinton did a much better job than Trump. But there were exceptions. Magyar Idők to the last minute refused to admit outright that their favorite candidate had lost the debate. The title of their article on the subject was “According to Trump, Clinton doesn’t have enough stamina to be president,” and they added only that “according to CNN the secretary of state won the debate.” And, of course, we know what the journalists of Magyar Idők think of CNN’s liberal bias. Magyar Idők by late afternoon, most likely reluctantly, published an MTI report based on an interview with Tibor Frank, professor of American Studies, who is a real “expert” on the United States, on MTV’s M1 channel. He pointed out Trump’s problems with the truth, adding that “Clinton, once she says something, it is true the next day as well.”

888.hu, one of the newest pro-government tabloids designed to capture the imagination of right-wing youth, also had problems with reality. They found someone who lives in New York who filed his opinion of the debate, which can be summed up as “a half-hearted attempt, a very average performance in which no winner could be named.” This afternoon 888.hu announced that polls conducted by CNN and NBC “naturally will declare the candidate of the Democrats the winner, but the readers of the largest, most authoritative online news sites without question declared Donald Trump to be the winner of the debate.” This announcement was then followed by a list of these sites: Drudge Report, Fortune, Time, CBS New York, CNBC, Washington Times, Slate Magazine, AOL, and Fox5. (We, of course, know how that happened.)

I left Magyar Nemzet to last. Today it came out with a short article which basically collected the results of American media opinion on the debate and freely admitted Clinton’s victory. Four days ago, however, the paper published a very strange opinion piece by Krisztián Pap, who has written two or three articles for the paper in the last couple of years. He seems to be a true right-winger with a hatred of the United States and admiration for Russia. In one of his earlier articles for Magyar Nemzet he called the United States “a terrible drag on Europe” (kolonc a nyakán). Therefore, it is not at all surprising that Pap would welcome the presidency of Donald Trump, who wants to move the United States back to splendid isolation. In the course of the article, for example, he accused the United States of entering the war in 1941 not to save Europe from Nazi domination but for selfish economic reasons. The United States wants to rule the world economically and otherwise, but Trump is a different kind of candidate. His supporters see him as a true patriot and not a figure in the global chess game. Trump is a man who is “the guardian of the old-fashioned American values of the early settlers and farmers while his rival, Hillary Clinton, openly presents herself as the fighter for the rights of Afro-American and Spanish-speaking minorities.” Pap is looking forward to a Trump presidency, which will bring about an inward turn and will cherish the kind of isolationism that was prevalent between the two world wars. “At last the sword will be placed back in its sheath” and the United States will give up its incessant sermonizing. I may add that many comments, even in liberal papers like Népszabadság, are strongly anti-American.

So, media coverage on the U.S. in general and on the presidential campaign in particular is a mixed bag. Opinions about the candidates depend, just like here, on one’s political views. Hungarian society is just as deeply divided, if not more so, than American society. I would like to see a poll on Hungarian attitudes toward the candidates. It could be revealing.

September 27, 2016

Katrina Lantos Swett returns her Knight’s Cross of the Order of Merit

Népszabadság reported this morning that Katrina Lantos Swett, president of the Tom Lantos Foundation and Institute for Human Rights and Justice, returned her Knight’s Cross of the Order of Merit. With her gesture the number of those who expressed their disgust over the decoration of Zsolt Bayer by returning their own awards has increased to 109.

Katrina Lantos recalled that her father was the only Holocaust survivor who served in the U.S. Congress. He was a real Hungarian patriot who, despite all the tragedies he witnessed, “never lost his love for the country. For three decades he did all he could for Hungary.” She herself continued in this tradition and tried to pass the linguistic and cultural traditions of her family on to the younger generation. She was hoping to give the Knight’s Cross to her children one day and is sorry that by returning the decoration she will not have this opportunity. “The Hungarian government bestowing the Knight’s Cross to Zsolt Bayer stained this noble decoration.” She added that if her father were alive he would ask the government “to take back this unearned decoration from Bayer.” I should add that Judit Járai, the Washington correspondent for the Hungarian Telegraphic Agency (MTI), didn’t find Katrina Lantos’s announcement newsworthy.

Katrina Lantos Swett

Katrina Lantos Swett

A few words about the foundation and the institute that is being financed by the Hungarian government. Tom Lantos died suddenly in 2008, and shortly after his death it was proposed to establish a foundation and institute in his memory. But by the time the institute began to take shape there was a change of government. The new prime minister, Viktor Orbán, had had a somewhat strained relationship with Tom Lantos. The last time he asked for an interview in Washington, Lantos made him wait for three days, and at the end of the meeting there was no joint press conference. Orbán left and Lantos had a few measured words to say about their differences.

As was expected, the Tom Lantos Institute’s board was composed primarily of Fidesz faithfuls whose views were a far cry from Tom Lantos’s. For example, Maximilian Teleki of the Hungarian American Coalition based in Washington and Kinga Gál, Fidesz EP MP. The Hungarian American Coalition is a decidedly right-of-center organization that has always favored Fidesz. Just to give you an idea of their bias, here is a story in which I myself was involved. One day sometime in 2002 I read that the Coalition had paid for about 20 members of the Hungarian parliament to spend a couple of weeks in Washington to take a closer look at American democracy in action. They all turned out to be Fidesz PMs. When I asked the then president of the Coalition why they invited only Fidesz MPs, he told me that the socialists and the liberals had turned down the invitation. It was a lie, as I found out in no time from the leader of the socialist parliamentary delegation.

So, the Tom Lantos Institute has been a controversial project from the beginning, mostly because of Viktor Orbán’s insistence on making it a party foundation. After all, he must have figured, it is his government that sponsors it and therefore it is his. This is how his mind works. The fact is that the government has given a fair amount of money to the institute. The institute’s website has no detailed information about its finances. All we know is that under “Donors and partners” they list only two donors: the Hungarian Foreign Ministry and the U.S. Embassy in Budapest. We know that in 2009 the institute received 3 billion forints from the government to cover expenses for five years.

The staff consists of nine full-time associates, of whom five are researchers. The other four deal with finances, communication, and administrative duties. Otherwise, the focal points of the institute’s activities are “Jewish life and anti-Semitism,” “Roma rights and citizenship,” and “human and minority rights.” The institute’s publications are mostly texts of lectures delivered at conferences organized by the institute.

In 2011 Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, visited Budapest specifically for the opening of the institute. At that time I received a letter from a very reliable source who called himself “Diplomat Anonymous.” He begged Clinton not to go to Budapest. I published the letter in its entirety at that time. Here’s an excerpt:

It’s especially painful to hear that you may be coming here to bless the opening of the Tom Lantos Institute (TLI). I didn’t know the late Congressman well; we only shook hands once in Washington. But I know that he fought against prejudice, he fought for human rights. Yes, to his great credit, he cared about the Hungarian ethnic minority in the neighboring countries, and the Institute may well publish books or pamphlets on that issue. But what about media freedom here? What about anti-Semitism? Will TLI address these painful issues? I predict that it will not – it cannot — because the Orbán government authored this very restrictive media law, and it doesn’t believe there’s anti-Semitism in Hungary. As for the Roma issue, which is the most agonizing social problem here, please ask an aide to check out the background of Rita Izsák, TLI’s new Director. In the Roma community, of which she’s a member, she’s known as Uncle Tom. She will respect the wishes of the government, which, after all, is TLI’s sole financial backer.

Since then Rita Izsák has left the institute. In 2013 Anna-Mária Bíró became the new director. She hails from Transylvania, where in the 1990s she was adviser to the president of the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania or, as it is known in Hungarian, Romániai Magyar Demokrata Szövetség (RMDSZ), a right-of-center party. Most of the researchers are young women. Just recently the institute hired a young Hungarian program manager for Jewish life and anti-Semitism and a publications and communications officer from New Zealand. It is hard to pass any judgment on the work the institute is doing based on the scant information that is available.

But let’s return to the president of the Hungarian American Coalition, Maximilian Teleki, who was interviewed by Népszabadság in connection with Katrina Lantos’s return of the Knight’s Cross. He expressed his astonishment at the government’s decision to give a decoration to Bayer and added that “many of us supported some if not all steps of the Fidesz government. We especially approved of their announcement of ‘zero tolerance’ against anti-Semitism. Now we ask ourselves how they are able to go against their own pledge. Two steps forward and one big one backward?” Mr. Teleki, who by the way doesn’t speak Hungarian so his knowledge of the present political situation must be limited, came to the conclusion that the political views of Jobbik and Bayer are identical. Well, just for his information, Bayer is a member of Fidesz and without the blessing of Viktor Orbán he would not be able to publish the smut he does. The members of the Hungarian American Coalition should wake up and admit to themselves that, at least since 1994, they have been supporting a party and a government which no real democrat with a modicum of conscience should. Make a clean break instead of constant excuses. It doesn’t reflect well on the Hungarian American Coalition.

September 2, 2016

What’s next? Expulsion of George Soros’s Open Society Foundation from Hungary?

A vicious media attack is underway in Hungary in the wake of the release of about 2,500 documents by hackers calling themselves DC Leaks. All of the documents are related to George Soros’s Open Society Foundation. The hackers describe Soros as “an architect and sponsor of almost every revolution and coup around the world for the last 25 years.” And, they continue, “the USA is thought to be a vampire due to him and his puppets…. His minions spill blood of millions and millions of people just to make him even more rich.” We may know nothing about the identity of the hackers, but we can say with confidence that whoever wrote this is not a native speaker of English.

The Hungarian right-wing media were ecstatic about this introduction to the leaked documents. And what a happy coincidence! George Soros has been a thorn in the side of the Hungarian government for some time over the refugee issue. Moreover, in the last few weeks the pro-government media has been having a heyday with stories about George Soros’s financial support of Hillary Clinton, whom the Orbán government does not want to see elected.

Journalists discovered a right-wing site called The Free Thought Project, which described “globalist Soros as Hillary Clinton’s Puppet Master.” The proof for this assertion is an e-mail from George Soros to Hillary Clinton dated January 23, 2011 in which Soros calls attention to political unrest in Albania that has produced fatalities. Soros thinks that the U.S. administration should convince Prime Minister Sali Berisha to appoint “a senior European official as mediator” and suggests three names, one of whom was actually chosen. Hence, claims the author of the article, Clinton is Soros’s puppet. Indirectly, U.S. foreign policy is being shaped by the billionaire financier.

puppet

Source: The Free Thought Project

In addition to this one letter discovered by DC Leaks, the Hungarian sleuths found a list of the grant recipients under Open Society’s “European Elections 2014 Project.” 444.hu received a grant of $49,500 to monitor possible election fraud at the 106 precincts in the 2014 national election. After this revelation, the attacks from the pro-government right-wing media came fast and furious. Pesti Srácok, which a few months ago was discovered to have received 1.5 million forints from the ministry of agriculture for a series of articles informing the public about the government’s land auctions and writing anti-Simicska articles, had the gall to attack 444.hu. Magyar Idők’s editorial on the subject can only be described as savage. The journalists of 444.hu are accused of “professionally executed treason.” They are described as being “kept” by foreign powers, antagonistic to the government of their homeland. “They have been bought by the kilo.” A right-wing blog claimed that “Gyurka Soros bought half the [Hungarian] left for the price of half a dinner.”

Although the juiciest item on the list was 444.hu, Index.hu also received 7.7 million forints for its regular column EUrológus Online, which informs the public on the politics of the European Union. The pro-government, anti-EU media might find such information unnecessary, but actually EUrológus is a very informative site.

Also on the list are important civic organizations like the Hungarian Helsinki Commission, Transparency International, the Eötvös Károly Institute, TASZ (Társaság a Szabadságjogokért), Political Capital Intézet, Media Diversity Institute, and Prospekt Műhely Alapítvány. The list of recipients and the size of the grants can be found in 888.hu.

All in all, “Uncle Gyuri,” as Jobbik’s internet news site calls Soros, spent $8 million to keep a few civic organizations alive, without whom government corruption cases and human rights abuses wouldn’t have been uncovered. Without them the Orbán government could have pursued its illegal activities without the public being any the wiser. Even if Péter Polt, the chief prosecutor, makes sure that nothing happens to corrupt government officials, at least, thanks to these hard-working and upright individuals in the service of democracy, Hungarians can learn about these cases.

Source: 888.hu

Source: 888.hu

Most Hungarian businessmen are dependent on the benevolence of the Orbán government. They dare not support any of these organizations for fear of being dropped from the list of companies that receive government orders. As for the media, the government generously supports right-wing newspapers and internet sites via advertising and government subscriptions. It can easily happen that a municipality orders 20 copies of Magyar Idők and Magyar Hírlap and none of the opposition papers, which also receive no ad revenue from state companies. Thus, opposition media outlets are bled to death while pro-government rags like Pesti Srácok and 888.hu thrive. The English-language Hungary Today is, through a phony foundation, financed by the government. Most likely the same is true of CÖF (Civil Összefogás Fórum), which organized countless pro-government demonstrations that allegedly saved Viktor Orbán his job. Otherwise, “hidden forces” would have removed him from power. I assume, especially after all the Hillary Clinton bashing, that he suspects that one of those working toward his removal was Clinton herself, who was then U.S. Secretary of State.

I was taken aback when I read this afternoon that Béla Galló, a political scientist whom I always associated with the left wing of the Hungarian Socialist Party, agreed to a conversation about the newly released Soros documents on the state TV’s program “Ma Reggel.” In the course of the conversation Galló explained that Soros often gets involved in politics without paying attention to the possible consequences. He described Soros’s “politicking” as someone creating “theories that are arrived at a desk” but don’t work in the real world. Galló would have been wise to stop there. But Hiradó, the official government news, said that, according to Galló, “Soros’s political activities determine the future of the world; his money market speculations can shake the economic foundations of countries and thus [he] contributes to the destabilization of the world.” That’s exactly what the employers of the state television station wanted to hear. I will never understand why these people accept invitations to Magyar Televízió when it is obvious that whatever they say will be used for government propaganda.

After reading the articles about Soros’s grants to Hungarian newspapers and organizations, I became afraid that this is just the beginning of a process that might end with the expulsion of Soros’s Open Society Foundation from Hungary, taking a cue from Putin’s Russia. It is especially worrisome that 888.hu brought up the Central European University which, according to them, is financed by Soros for the sole purpose of pro-migration propaganda.

August 17, 2016