Tag Archives: lobbying

Hungary’s latest lobbying effort: Connie Mack IV and Dana Rohrabacher

When I read last fall that Századvég, Fidesz’s favorite think tank, won a 1.4 billion forint contract to conduct lobbying activities in Washington, I was baffled. What expertise do the political analysts of Századvég have that would enable them to be successful lobbyists in the U.S. capital?  None. But obviously I don’t understand how these things work. Századvég got this huge amount of money to find someone with Washington connections to do the actual lobbying.

Of course, the Orbán government didn’t need Századvég to find the right man for the job. In fact, I suspect that Századvég had mighty little to do with this latest Hungarian attempt to influence American political opinion. It was most likely not Századvég who tapped Connie Mack IV, a former Republican congressman from Florida, to be Hungary’s new lobbyist but Arthur Finkelstein, a prominent Republican consultant with whom Fidesz has had a long-standing relationship and who was at one point Mack’s campaign manager. But since Századvég is suspected of being a kind of money laundering arm of Fidesz, a chunk of that 1.4 billion will most likely eventually end up in Fidesz coffers, if it hasn’t already.

Mack’s congressional career ended in January 2013 when, after eight years in the House of Representatives, he ran for the Senate and was badly defeated by the incumbent Democratic senator, Bill Nelson. He decided to try his hand at lobbying instead. Former politicians are ideal lobbyists because of their extensive ties with members of Congress.

In March, Századvég organized a conference on the country’s foreign policy where Connie Mack was one of the speakers. To the astonishment of a reporter from 444.hu, Mack insisted that Hungary’s reputation is actually quite good in Washington. Many American politicians acknowledge the achievements of the Orbán government. His job, it would appear, is to convince even more politicians that Hungary is a stalwart ally of the U.S. and that the Hungarian government is worthy of praise.

Connie Mack IV at the conference organized by Századvég / MTI, Photo by Zsolt Szigetvári

Connie Mack IV at the conference organized by Századvég / MTI, Photo by Zsolt Szigetvári

Mack, it seems, has been working pretty hard to improve Hungary’s image, and he’s even managed to show something for his money. On May 19 a hearing will be held on “The Future of U.S-Hungary Relations.” It is being organized by the Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats, a subcommittee of the Committee on Foreign Affairs. The chairman of this subcommittee is Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican congressman from California, who is considered to be the only defender of the Kremlin in Congress. According to a New York Times article, the congressman “speaks up for Moscow with pride” and is somewhat sore that he “hasn’t gotten so much as a thank you” from Moscow. In his ideological career Dana Rohrabacher has gone from being a free market anarchist to a a cold warrior who played a leading role in the formulation of the Reagan Doctrine and, now, to a Putin apologist. He finds the annexation of Crimea legitimate because the people of Crimea spoke and they have the right of self-determination. Recently, he voted against a $1 billion loan guarantee to support the new government of Ukraine and abstained on the vote to condemn Russia for violating Ukraine’s sovereignty. In a way, Rohrabacher is an obvious choice to press Hungary’s case since Viktor Orbán is considered to be Vladimir Putin’s Trojan horse in the European Union. How successful the openly pro-Russian congressman will be in today’s political climate in Washington is another question.

According to the invitation to the open hearing, there will be four “witnesses,” two who will most likely speak on behalf of the Hungarian government and two who will criticize it.

Frank Koszorus, Jr, president of the American Hungarian Federation, and Maximilian Teleki, president of Hungarian American Coalition, will undoubtedly extol the Orbán government while András Simonyi, former Hungarian ambassador to the United States who is currently with Johns Hopkins University’s SAIS, and Tad Stahnke, vice president for research and analysis of Human Rights First, will point to the darker side of the Orbán regime.

Koszorus’s relations with the current government have been very close, especially recently, since the government is in the process of making a national hero out of his late father for his alleged role in “saving the Jews of Budapest.” Max Teleki has been a bit more critical of the Orbán government lately than he was earlier. He is not alone in right-of-center circles in and out of Hungary. See his interview in The Budapest Beacon.

András Simonyi is considered to be an accomplished debater, and I’m sure that he will eloquently represent the other side. As for Stahnke, he works for Human Rights First, which last August published the best report ever on human rights violations in Hungary. I wrote about this excellent publication under the title ‘”We’re not nazis, but …: Human Rights First report on Hungary and Greece.” There are few people in the United States who are as familiar with the Hungarian domestic situation as he is.

I suspect that Rohrabacher’s attempt to whitewash Orbán’s domestic record and his double game with Putin will not succeed. He represents a view that is shared by mighty few American politicians, so I doubt that his advocacy of the Orbán regime will make an appreciable difference among those who matter. Connie Mack will have to come up with something better.

The Orbán government and the international Jewish community

Today’s topics are seemingly unrelated: the lobbying activities of Tamás Fellegi in Washington and the Orbán government’s proposal to establish another Holocaust Memorial in Budapest.

On November 8, in my piece on the new American ambassador to Budapest, I mentioned Fellegi’s lobbying efforts. I also gave a link to the article by Lili Bayer of politics.hu that detailed his activities. For those who didn’t read her article, here’s the upshot. Fellegi is the Hungarian government’s chief lobbyist in the United States who simultaneously heads a U.S. foundation which claims that its leadership is independent of the Hungarian government. The complicated setup of three different organizations is most likely designed to get around U.S. tax laws regarding the nonprofit status of  an organization funded by a foreign government. In order to understand this complicated story, one really ought to go to Bayer’s article.

Here, however, I would like to concentrate on something else, the targets of Fellegi’s lobbying activities. According to the document filed with the U.S. Justice Department, Fellegi’s lobbying  activities include building and developing contacts in “Congress, the Executive Branch, think tanks, the investment community, the Jewish community, and the Hungarian-American community.” What struck many of us was the inclusion on this list of “the Jewish community.” What does the Orbán government hope to achieve by trying to influence U.S. Jewish organizations and individuals?

And that leads me to the latest government effort to influence the international Jewish community, perhaps even Israel, by demonstrating its commitment to bringing into the open the atrocities the Hungarian Jewish community suffered in the past. And naturally, to show that the current Hungarian government is doing everything in its power to curb anti-Semitism, a constant topic in the foreign media.

I don’t think they can fool ordinary Hungarian citizens of Jewish ancestry, but they might succeed when it comes to the official Hungarian Jewish organizations. Perhaps they can even impress the state of Israel. And obviously the Orbán government decided to target the American Jewish community. Fellegi as a lobbyist was an excellent choice because he is a Jew, and he makes sure that everybody in the American Jewish community is aware of that fact. I might add that another member of the group, Gábor Róna, is also Jewish. He was once secretary of the Council of Europe’s program against racism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia. The third person is Péter Heltai, who is not Jewish; he was reported to have been an informant for the Romanian Securitate.

So, let’s move back to Budapest where a mega-project is underway. Out of the blue, with unusual speed and a lot of money the Hungarian government doesn’t have, the decision was made to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust with a new museum. Spearheading the “Hungarian Holocaust Memorial Council 2014” is János Lázár. And overseeing the project is Mária Schmidt, director of the House of Terror where only one room out of dozens is devoted to the Hungarian Holocaust and its 400-500,000 victims as opposed to the few thousand victims of the Hungarian communist period. Moreover, Schmidt has rather odd ideas on Hitler, the war, and the Final Solution. Here are a couple of examples: “We stayed on the side of Nazi Germany in order to defend the Hungarian Jewry.” Or, “It was Germany that forced the 1938-1939 anti-Jewish laws on Hungary.” Both are false.

The site of the new museum will be an old, abandoned sideline railroad station in Józsefváros (Josefstadt), the notorious VIII. district, that badly needs refurbishing. It will be called the “Sorsok háza,” which most Hungarians understand to mean “House of Fate.” The word “sors” also appears in the title of Imre Kertész’s Nobel Prize-winning book: Sortalanság/Fateless. Some naturally objected to Lázár’s choice of Mária Schmidt. My distinct impression, having heard her talk about her ideas for the project on György Bolgár’s program, was that Schmidt will try her best to inflate the number of Hungarians who risked their own lives helping their Jewish compatriots.

The future site of a new Holocaust memorial devoted only to child victims / Józsefváros Railway Station

The future site of a new Holocaust memorial devoted to child victims
Józsefváros Railway Station

Others objected to the name of the museum, saying that it wasn’t fate that destined these people to be transported to Auschwitz and other concentration camps. Rather, it was the decision of the Hungarian authorities who were eager to rid the country of its Jewish citizens. Still others couldn’t figure out why this particular station was picked as the site of the future museum since almost no transports left for Auschwitz from it.

I should mention that in order to justify creating another Holocaust Museum instead of giving more generous support to the existing one this new museum will be specifically devoted to the children who were victims of the Holocaust. Lázár explained the choice this way. “We chose the ‘child Holocaust’ as the theme because we were trying to find a point which cannot be relativized: no explanation, no answer can be accepted when it comes to the murder of a child.” As if the murder of adults can be relativized or explained. Some people commented that if Lázár had made such a statement in another country he would have had to turn in his resignation.

It’s an open question whether it is at all possible to finish the project by April–this date is no coincidence, since that’s when the election most likely will take place. But the members of the advisory board have already been chosen: Anne Applebaum (journalist), Annette Lantos (widow of Tom Lantos), Chava Baruch (Yad Vashem), Gabriel Gorodetsky (Oxford), György Haraszti (historian, Hungarian Jewish University), András Heisler (Mazsihisz), Joshua Muravchik (Johns Hopkins), Michael Wolffsohn (Universität der Bundeswehr), Rabbi Andrew Baker (American Jewish Committee), Mária Schmidt (House of Terror), János Szász (film director), and Yehudit Shendar (Yad Vasem). According to András Heisler of Mazsihisz, some of the members expressed sharp criticisms. He didn’t elaborate.

It is unlikely that these people can have much influence on the whole process. After all, there are only four and a half months before the planned opening. As you can see from the picture, the station is in very bad shape. Moreover, the inhabitants of the 23 service apartments within the building must be evacuated and provided with comparable or better apartments. All that takes time. Restoring the building will cost 6.6 billion forints, and then there are still the expenses involved in transforming it into a functioning museum. As a point of comparison, the Hungarian government gives only 240 million forints a year to the Holocaust Memorial Center on Páva utca.

I don’t know why the government is establishing a new museum and why in such a hurry. I don’t know why the Orbán government is lobbying American Jewish organizations. All I can say is that it never acts without a good, self-interested reason. Perhaps in time that reason will become more transparent.

New American ambassador in Budapest

I will devote today’s post to U.S.-Hungarian relations. At last the White House appointed a new ambassador to replace Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis, whose tenure as U.S. ambassador to Hungary came to an end in July.

I devoted at least three posts to her less than sterling ambassadorship. In passing I also talked about her predecessor, April H. Foley, who was totally under the spell of Viktor Orbán and János Martonyi and hence had a very bad relationship with the socialist-liberal Hungarian government.  These two as well as their predecessors were so-called political appointees with no prior experience in diplomacy and no prior knowledge of the country in which they served. In September I introduced Colleen Bell, the producer of a very successful daytime soap, as the possible next U.S. ambassador in Budapest. And indeed, it is official: Ms Bell will soon be in Budapest. Right now, I’m certain, she is being prepped by the officials of the State Department. I can well imagine how difficult it must be to cram all the basic information about the past and present of a country one most likely knew nothing about a couple of months ago. I mean that in all sincerity. Of course, she will have a large staff of professionals who will help her along, but it still won’t be easy.

I wonder whether she is fully aware of the depth of the strained relations between Washington and Budapest, which hit a new low two days ago, exactly when Bell was appointed ambassador. The U.S. embassy in Budapest published the following press release:

The United States strongly condemns the shameful event organized by Jobbik, a Hungarian political party identified with ethnic hatred and anti-Semitism, to unveil a bust honoring Nazi ally Miklos Horthy, Hungary’s leader during World War II, at the entrance to the Hungarian Reformed Church at the edge of Szabadsag ter in Budapest on November 3.  Those who organized and participated in the event, including members of Hungary’s Parliament, promoted not only their own intolerance, but also a dramatically negative image of Hungary.  Although the significant number of counter-demonstrators showed there is strong opposition to the organizers’ views, and members of the Hungarian government have expressed disapproval, an event such as this requires swift, decisive, unequivocal condemnation by Hungary’s highest ranking leaders.

Seasoned reporters don’t remember such a strongly worded communiqué from the United States government in the longest time. In this press release the U.S. is calling on Viktor Orbán himself to condemn what happened on Szabadság tér. For the time being we haven’t heard anything from either Viktor Orbán or his deputies Tibor Navracsics and Zsolt Semjén. I am expecting an official silence, which will further strain the relations between the two countries.

U.S. Embassy, Szabadság tér, Budapest Source: commons.wikipedia.org

U.S. Embassy, Szabadság tér, Budapest
Source: commons.wikipedia.org

Of course, we all know that the warning comes straight from the State Department. Perhaps with the change of personnel that occurred after John Kerry took over the post of secretary of state, the State Department decided to be tougher on the Orbán government than it had been in the last three years. Perhaps they began to realize in Washington that the Orbán team doesn’t understand the polite language of diplomacy. One must be plain spoken and hard hitting with the man. As an old acquaintance of Orbán said, the Hungarian prime minister is basically a bellicose coward who when meeting strong resolve and firm resistance on the other side usually retreats. At least temporarily.

Gábor Horváth, one of the editors of Népszabadság, wrote an editorial in today’s paper in which he expressed his sympathy for the incoming ambassador who might not be aware of the difficulties she will face in Budapest. Horváth for a number of years was the paper’s correspondent in Washington, and therefore he is thoroughly familiar with the Washington scene. In his opinion, the millions of dollars the Hungarian government is spending in Washington are a total waste: the Orbán government’s reputation is irreparably ruined due to Viktor Orbán’s policies and behavior. And the government does indeed spend a lot of money lobbying “in Congress, the Executive Branch, think tanks, the investment community, the Jewish community, and the Hungarian-American community.” For details on the lobbying activities of Tamás Fellegi, former minister of national development, see politics.hu’s exclusive by Lili Bayer.

Horváth thinks that the ambassador will have difficulties establishing a cordial relationship with the Hungarian government. I agree with him, with one correction. She will have no difficulty establishing a working relationship with János Martonyi, the minister of foreign affairs, but that will not take her very far. Martonyi will assure her that everything is just fine and dandy and that what she and her staff see is not really so. But all this means nothing because the conduct of foreign policy is not in the hands of Martonyi. The semi-official organ of the government, Magyar Nemzet, only today accused the United States of spying on Viktor Orbán and his government in order to pass on information to the socialist-liberal opposition. So, this is where we stand. I hope the new ambassador will understand the workings of the Hungarian government because otherwise she will be truly lost.