Tag Archives: Iran

Orbán’s latest foray into world affairs: the Iranian-Hungarian nuclear deal

A couple of months ago I reported that Iran and Hungary were on the verge of signing an agreement to expand nuclear cooperation. The lack of transparency of the Orbán government is such that the Hungarian public learns about deals between Budapest and countries like Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, etc. from foreign sources. This was also the case with the Iranian-Hungarian “declaration of intent” regarding nuclear cooperation that was signed by the two countries on April 8 in Tehran.

Cozy relations between Iran and Hungary began with a visit of Viktor Orbán to Tehran in late November 2015 and continued in February 2016 with negotiations on a joint project to develop a small, 25 megawatt nuclear reactor. In November László Kövér, president of the Hungarian parliament, spent a whole week in Iran where he praised Iran’s “expansive capabilities in the area of technical and engineering services” and promised Hungary’s support of Iran’s fight against terrorism. In order “to facilitate cooperation between Hungarian and Iranian businesses and to finance export-import transactions and the founding of joint ventures,” Hungary’s Eximbank extended an 85 million euro line of credit to Iran.

The news that Zsolt Semjén, deputy prime minister, had signed such an agreement stunned the government-critical media as well as the opposition. After all, it was only in January 2016 that sanctions against Iran, because of its alleged development of nuclear weapons, were lifted. It also seemed to be out of character for the Orbán government, which is so keen on Christian virtues, to do business with Iran, number six on the list of Muslim countries with anti-Christian laws on the books. Moreover, if the Orbán government expects better treatment at the hand of the Trump White House, making a nuclear deal with Iran is not the best way to curry favor. It is a well-known fact that Donald Trump eyes the Iranian regime with even greater suspicion than his predecessor did and until very recently was ready to scrap the Iranian nuclear deal of 2015 altogether.

The timing of the signing was also unfortunate. The agreement between Iran and Hungary took place on the very same day, April 8, that Russia notified the United States that it was suspending a communication hotline between Moscow and the Pentagon following a U.S. air strike on the Shayrat airfield. Iran and Syria are close strategic allies, and Iran has provided significant support for the government in the Syrian civil war. At the time of the signing of the Iranian-Hungarian agreement, Iran was considering the deployment of ground forces “to counter U.S. intervention in Syria.” Iran and the United States are also on a collision course in Yemen. Only a couple of months earlier, in February, Trump said that “nothing is off the table” in dealing with Iran. In addition, at about the same time, the U.S. Treasury Department announced sanctions on 13 people and 12 entities under the U.S. Iran sanctions authority. As Csaba Káncz, whose articles on foreign affairs appear regularly on Privatbankar.hu, said, the Hungarian “government poked its nose into the mid-eastern powder-keg,” which is not the wisest move in these fluid circumstances. In any case, if Viktor Orbán seriously wants to develop good relations with the Trump administration, the road to that goal is certainly not through Tehran.

A month later, on May 6, Zsolt Semjén showed up in Belgrade, where he met Iran’s ambassador to Budapest, Gholamali Rajabi Yazdi. Of course, Hungarians learned about this meeting from an Iranian source, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA). Why these two men had to meet in Belgrade is a puzzle in and of itself. Otherwise, IRNA’s description of the topics discussed sounded innocent enough. “Semjén called for the enhancement of cooperation between the Iranian and Hungarian cities of Tehran and Budapest, Shiraz and Pécs, and Yazd and Jászberény.” As for increased economic and commercial cooperation between the two countries, he expressed his hope that stronger banking relations between Hungary and Iran would bolster trade between them.

Zsolt Semjén with the Iranian ambassador in Belgrade / IRNA

Meanwhile, Bernadett Szél (LMP), a tenacious opponent of nuclear energy and the construction of the Paks II Nuclear Power Plant, demanded the release of the agreement’s text on nuclear cooperation signed in April. Since it is only a “declaration of intent,” little can be learned about specifics from the text, but the emphasis is on education, training and research, and the free flow of information between the parties. There is, however, mention of “joint investment projects” related to nuclear energy. It is also likely that the Orbán government wants to use EU funds for some of these joint projects because the “declaration of intent” states that “the Parties shall endeavor to use the funds set up by the European Union for nuclear safety cooperation between the European Union and Iran within the framework of this Declaration of Intent.”

What truly worries people who are distrustful of Iran’s intention is that the “declaration of intent,” although it talks only about the peaceful use of nuclear power, doesn’t contain any guarantee that Iran will actually use whatever information it receives from the Hungarians for peaceful purposes. There is no bilateral monitoring or international mechanism mentioned in the document. The likely scenario is that Iranian nuclear experts and students will come to Hungary to work together on the development of the 25-watt mini-reactor. And then, critics ask, what will happen to the nuclear waste produced in the process? LMP politicians find the “the deal extremely risky.” Moreover, they don’t quite understand why Hungary has to get involved in any kind of cooperation with Iran “in the field of nuclear energy.”

Meanwhile, Iranian-U.S. relations are going from bad to worse. A few days ago the U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly to advance a bill that would impose new sanctions on Iran over its ballistic missile development, arms transfers, support for Islamist militant groups, and human rights violations. To become law, the measure must pass the Republican-led House of Representatives and be signed by Donald Trump which, I think, can be taken for granted. I should also mention that Iran, perhaps not without reason, considers Trump’s response to the twin terrorist attacks in Tehran “repugnant.” Trump said that “we grieve and pray for the innocent victims of the terrorist attacks in Iran, and for the Iranian people who are going through such challenging times.” However, he added, “we underscore that states that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote.”

Given the Trump administration’s support for Saudi Arabia and Israel and its antagonism toward Iran, it is indeed difficult to figure out what Viktor Orbán has in mind when he signs nuclear deals, however innocent the “declaration of intent” may sound, with the Iran of the ayatollahs. Has he already decided that pursuing a U.S.-friendly policy, even with Trump in power, is a fool’s errand?

June 11, 2017

As far as Hungarian state television is concerned, Soros is an evil Zionist

On May 24 the M1 evening news aired a fairly lengthy report on George Soros. Such stories are everyday occurrences in the government controlled media nowadays. But what made this particular report noteworthy was that it was the first time Soros was identified as being Jewish. Earlier, he was simply called an “American speculator” who uses his ill-gotten money in support of liberal causes and who meddles in the internal affairs of countries through his Open Society Foundations.

Many observers suspected an anti-Semitic tinge to the word “speculator,” which is considered to be a loaded word in Hungarian public discourse. But one could still argue about the intended meaning of the word, as commentators actually did. After May 24, however, I think the question has been settled. Soros was described as an “evil multibillionaire Zionist-American.” The inspiration for this description came from, of all unlikely sources, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran.

444.hu’s eagle-eyed journalists tracked the reference to Khamenei’s blog. Near the end of a very long speech delivered to the graduating class of Imam Hussein University, the Supreme Leader announced that “a wealthy, vicious Zionist from America once said that he had managed to turn Georgia upside down with only 10 million dollars! In the year of 1388 (2009) he thought of doing the same thing to the Islamic Republic.” Here Khamenei was referring to the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which was by all accounts rigged. Demonstrations, arrests, and mass trials followed, resulting in the deaths of at least 36 people. Iran’s establishment concluded that foreigners had orchestrated the post-election events. Khamenei, by the way, didn’t mention Soros’s name.

Using a very lightly edited description of Soros by a well-known anti-Semitic ayatollah was too much for the democratic media and public, including the leadership of Mazsihisz, the Association of Jewish Religious Communities of Hungary. They decided to publish a statement with MTI, the official news service which is supposed to publish announcements of parties, associations, and other public organizations. Mazsihisz was planning to publish the following statement:

We are deeply concerned about the newscast on public television on Wednesday, which quoted as a creditable source the well-known anti-Semitic Iranian ayatollah. Ali Khamenei’s description of George Soros as “an evil, multibillionaire Zionist American” was repeated without comment. This type of word usage can be found only in Hungarian media on the extreme right. It is outrageous that this kind of anti-Semitic talk is tolerated on the public television station.

The Hungarian Basic Law protects freedom of conscience, speech, and religion. In our opinion it is no sin to be a Jew or a Zionist. In a few months, the Israeli prime minister will visit the birthplace of the father of political Zionism, Budapest. We find it important that the Media Service and Asset Management Fund (MTVA) adhere to the principle of zero tolerance against anti-Semitism declared by the Hungarian government.

And we expect the Hungarian government to demand compliance with the constitutional principles from the media it oversees.

The statement was sent to MTI, which refused to publish it because one of the rules governing the publication of outside materials states that the news agency is not obliged to publish “a piece of communication which damages the credibility of the state media and its business interests.” Since Mazsihisz’s statement contained criticism of a public media organization, i.e. Magyar Televízió (MTV), MTI was within its right to refuse publication.

Of course, Mazsihisz’s statement and MTI’s refusal to publish it didn’t remain a secret. Several English-language publications have already picked up the story, and I’m certain that they will be followed by many more in the coming days.

Meanwhile, one of the Budapest rabbis, Zoltán Radnóti, wrote an article in HVG in which, besides condemning the state television’s adoption of accusations by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, pointed out that the historical knowledge of journalists in the pay of the Orbán media machinery leaves a great deal to be desired. They claimed in the program that George Soros actually succeeded in unseating Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009 which, of course, is not true. Radnóti also pointed out that the Orbán government has been very concerned about the fate of Christians in the Middle East of late. In fact, Péter Szijjártó talked about the anti-Christian attacks in Egypt and elsewhere in the same newscast. Yet, a few minutes later the journalists approvingly quoted the leader of a country where Christianity is banned and its followers persecuted.

The Orbán propaganda machine must always have the last word, and this case was no exception. Híradó, which is the “official” last word on all news, published an article with the following title: “The online media lied again about one of the news items of M1.” What follows is a close to incomprehensible few sentences, the upshot of which is that M1 didn’t quote the ayatollah himself but found the quotation in a New York Times article. “M1 simply used The New York Times as a source.” Moreover, Híradó adds, M1’s journalists were so conscientious that they actually checked the original source which the Times gave. So, the original sin belonged to The New York Times, which figured that Khamenei must have been talking about George Soros. Let me quote what the paper had to say on the subject. “‘An evil American and rich Zionist said that he managed to turn everything upside down in Georgia with $10 million,’ Ayatollah Khamenei said, referring to Mr. Soros and his alleged role in the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia. ‘In 2009, he was foolish enough to try to affect the Islamic republic, but he slammed against a strong wall of national will and determination,’ Ayatollah Khamenei said. ‘It is the same today.’ Mr. Soros’s representatives did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.”

As for the mistake the journalists of M1 made about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Híradó decided to ignore it. It wrote: “The Iranian ayatollah was also convinced that George Soros’s organizations were responsible for the fall of the former Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.” Somebody has to learn to read.

May 26, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is there no place for Europe in this constellation?

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

Who has the greatest influence over Donald Trump?

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

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

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

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

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

April 27, 2017

Hungary, as a partner of Iran, is now in the nuclear business

As is customary in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, the Hungarian public learned that Iran and Hungary are on the verge of signing an agreement to expand nuclear cooperation from The Tehran Times, the English-language voice of the Islamic Revolution. The short notice announcing the arrival of Deputy Foreign Minister Zsolt Semjén said that “following the lifting of international sanctions on Iran, Tehran has strived to fully utilize economic and scientific opportunities, including the pursuit of peaceful nuclear activities.” The paper, quoting the English-language Russian publication Sputnik, noted that last week President Hassan Rouhani and Vladimir Putin “decided to sign a memorandum on the development of peaceful nuclear cooperation.” Amerikai Magyar Népszava believes that Putin “blackmailed” Orbán into participating in a nuclear deal with Iran. I’m not sure that Viktor Orbán needed too much prodding. I suspect that the prospect of partnering with Iran in a project to build small nuclear reactors to sell in Africa and Asia boosted the ego of Hungary’s prime minister.

Since having closer economic relations with Iran fits in with Orbán’s “Eastern Opening,” his state visit to Tehran in late November 2015, where the two partners signed a number of bilateral agreements, wasn’t considered extraordinary. What was more telling was a Reuters report from Budapest on February 18, 2016 that Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, had proposed a project to design and develop a small, 25 megawatt nuclear reactor. It would be followed a second project to develop a reactor perhaps as large as 100 megawatts. This proposal was well received by the Hungarian government. As Népszabadság put it, the reactor was offered on a “Persian rug.” It may have been a coincidence, but Salehi’s offer coincided with Viktor Orbán’s visit to Moscow. In any case, Russia is extremely active in the development of Iranian nuclear energy. In the coming years eight power plants will be built with Russian help.

In the months following the Iranian proposal there were frequent visits back and forth between Budapest and Tehran. László Kövér, president of the Hungarian parliament, spent almost a whole week in Tehran in November 2016, where he was warmly received. President Hassan Rouhani, after meeting with Kövér, said that Iran’s “expansive capabilities in the area of technical and engineering services and the implementation of infrastructure projects as well as Hungary’s competence in the field of industry and agriculture have created proper bases for the expansion of Tehran-Budapest ties.” Kövér assured the Iranians that “Budapest was prepared to cooperate with Tehran in the fight against terrorism.”

On February 8 the English-language section of the Hungarian government’s website announced that “several agreements had already been concluded at the first session of the Hungarian-Iranian Joint Economic Committee,” one of which was that “Eximbank has established an 85 million euro credit line to facilitate cooperation between Hungarian and Iranian businesses, and to finance export-import transactions and the founding of joint ventures.” The Hungarian media didn’t pick up this news item, but the Iranian press, including the Iranian Financial Tribune, reported it.

These were the preliminaries to the news on April 5, 2017, which stunned a lot of people in Hungary, that Iran and Hungary plan to sign an agreement on April 8 to expand nuclear cooperation between the two countries. As is clear from the diplomatic traffic between Hungary and Iran, at least since November 2015, this news shouldn’t have surprised anyone–and most likely didn’t outside of Hungary. But in Hungary there were no follow-up reports about this nuclear deal after February 18, 2016, when Ali Akbar Salehi made his initial offer. In fact, the Hungarian media was completely unaware of Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén’s presence in Tehran until two days after Iran’s Financial Tribune reported it. According to the Iranian paper, Semjén arrived with a delegation of five ministers and about 100 businessmen. Semjén apparently assured the Iranians of Hungary’s “profound respect for President Rouhani’s policies” and stressed that Hungary has “always been against sanctions, as [it] tried to hold talks with Iran even before JCPOA’s conclusion.” Semjén is referring here to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action negotiated by China, France, Germany, the European Union, Iran, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén and Vice President Hossein Ali Amiri

Once it sank in that Hungary and Iran are indeed in the “nuclear business,” the independent media was up in arms. Népszava found the idea “absurd.” After all, it was only in 2016 that sanctions against Iran because of its alleged development of nuclear weapons were lifted. It is also an absurdity that the Orbán government, which is so keen on Christian virtues, decided to do business with Iran, number six on the list of Muslim countries with anti-Christian legislation on the books. 24.hu found the timing most unfortunate: “Quite a week for Hungary’s turning away from the West. On Tuesday Parliament votes on amendments that make the functioning of the largest and best American university in Central Europe impossible. On Saturday Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén will sign an agreement on cooperation in the field of nuclear energy.” Zsolt Kerner of 24.hu predicted that this agreement with Iran will further tarnish Hungary’s not so “shiny relations” with the United States.

LMP, Hungary’s green party, was naturally outraged. The co-chair of LMP, Bernadett Szél, has been battling against the expansion of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant ever since it was first proposed. The party published the following statement: “The Hungarian public learned today that Hungary will sign an agreement on nuclear cooperation with Iran. With Iran, a country about which we cannot exclude the possibility that it is developing nuclear weapons. In addition, it is a well-known fact that Iran is a major sponsor of terrorism.”

More than two months before this news broke, on February 1, 2017, George Lázár wrote an article which appeared in The Hungarian Free Press. Lázár spotted a photo taken at the Hungarian Embassy in Washington where Ambassador Réka Szemerkényi can be seen in the company of Republican Representative Marsha Blackburn and her husband. Marsha Blackburn is apparently quite close to Ivanka Trump, and Lázár suspects that Szemerkényi’s courting of Blackburn was an attempt to get closer to the White House in order to wangle an invitation for Viktor Orbán. However, says Lázár, Blackburn was known to be a strong critic of President Obama’s nuclear deal. She released a statement in 2015 which said in part: “Iranians were chanting ‘Down with America’ and ‘Death to Israel’ as they celebrated Al-Quds day. How can we possibly trust them to act in good faith?” Lázár pointed out that “Prime Minister Orbán is not only a casual friend of Iran but also supports nuclear cooperation with them.” His conclusion was that perhaps Szemerkényi didn’t do her homework before she picked Marsha Blackburn as an emissary between Orbán’s Hungary and the Trump White House.

We know by now that President Michael Ignatieff of Central European University did get to the White House by contacting Fiona Hill, who recently joined the National Security Council as deputy assistant to the president and senior director for European and Russian Affairs. In addition to being the author of an excellent book on Putin, she has written extensively on energy issues. We already know that Mr. Ignatieff has been assured that the U.S. State Department is sending people to Budapest next week. While they are at it, they might inquire about Hungary’s growing friendship with Iran as well.

April 7, 2017

Hungarian foreign minister in Washington: A stalemate

Let’s cut to the chase: neither the Hungarian nor the American position has changed despite Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó’s meeting with Assistant Undersecretary Victoria Nuland in Washington today. So far we have two brief reports on the meeting. The first was published in Magyar Nemzet; its source is HírTV, which sent its own crew to Washington for the occasion. The second is from the Washington correspondent of MTI, which I found in HVG. The former is a more expansive summary of what transpired between Nuland and Szijjártó, complete with direct quotations from Szijjártó himself.

What did we learn from this report? Despite repeated American explanations of why the U.S. government is unable to reveal the names of the individuals who have been banned from entering the U.S., Szijjártó was still hoping for such information. Here is Szijjártó in his own words: “I asked the government of the United States to share with us creditable information on the basis of which they accuse certain Hungarian citizens of corruption.” As long as there is no such information “we cannot move forward…. It is only the United States that can make the first move.” A stalemate. The United States expects the Hungarian government to clean up the country’s thoroughly corrupt behavior toward international businesses while the Hungarian government’s interpretation of the situation is much more narrowly defined. As far as the Hungarians are concerned, there may be some corrupt officials but unless the United States names these people the Hungarian government can do nothing. The only positive development, according to Szijjártó, was that Nuland did not repeat the threat uttered by Goodfriend that “if that trend continues it may reach a level where the United States can no longer cooperate with Hungary as an ally.” I do hope that Szijjártó doesn’t interpret this omission to mean that Goodfriend made an empty threat  because I’m almost certain that if Hungary stonewalls, other harsh steps will be taken against the Orbán government. And for the time being stonewalling seems to be the Hungarian diplomatic strategy.

The MTI report was more upbeat. Who knows why Szijjártó changed his story, but he did. No more talk about who will have to take the next step. Instead, he emphasized his government’s willingness to fight corruption and said that in this fight the two governments can count on each other. Economic and military relations between the two countries are excellent. According to Szijjártó, Nuland was full of praise for Hungary’s decision to supply gas to Ukraine. There was an interesting remark made in passing. It turned out that Nuland brought up some specific criticisms of certain pieces of Hungarian legislation, but Szijjártó brushed these objections aside as being irrelevant because they have been accepted and approved by the European Commission.

György Szapáry, Hungarian ambassador to Washington, and Péter Szijjártó MTI / Ministry of Forreign Affairs and Trade / Tamás Szémann

György Szapáry, Hungarian ambassador to Washington, and Péter Szijjártó
MTI / Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade / Photo: Tamás Szémann

What did the Hungarian government know about the coming storm? It seems a lot, and not only about the corruption cases. One had to be blind and deaf not to notice the growing dissatisfaction of foreign governments with the Orbán regime. One also assumes that Hungarian diplomats do their job and write reports on the current attitude toward Hungary in their host countries. Of course, given the atmosphere in government offices in the Orbán regime, it is possible that the ambassadors don’t dare tell the truth. Still, although there was a stream of denials of any wrongdoing and everything was chalked up to Hungarian liberals’ squealing and turning against their own country, I believe they knew full well that trouble was brewing all around. And yet Népszabadság‘s Ildikó Csuhaj, who seems to have good Fidesz sources, claimed today that Viktor Orbán himself knew nothing about the NAV affair. One wonders how much disinformation from “reliable” Fidesz sources lands on Csuhaj’s desk. This seems to be one of them.

Although there was plenty of evidence of growing U.S. dissatisfaction with Viktor Orbán’s policies, he did not change his ways on issues that seemed important to Washington. He even ignored Zsolt Németh’s warning. I wrote about a conference held in Washington on October 2 where one of the speakers was Németh, an old friend of Orbán–at least until recently, who received a very chilly reception. It was here that Victoria Nuland delivered the speech I republished in Hungarian Spectrum. Today Németh decided to speak and tell the world that he had forewarned Orbán about the impending bomb that might be coming from Washington. The interview with Németh appeared in Válasz. In it Németh expressed his hope that “several of the questions surrounding the [NAV] affair will be cleared up.” (As we know by now they were not.) Hungarian right-wing journalists dismiss corruption as the real cause of the present situation. In their interpretation the reference to corruption is only a pretext. Válasz‘s reporter also wanted to know whether the real reason for the ban on corrupt officials is Viktor Orbán’s relations with Russia. Németh wouldn’t dismiss corruption entirely, but he thinks that in addition to the Russian connection there are other very irritating issues: the NGOs, Hungary’s attitude toward Ukraine, the Russian sanctions, and the speech on “illiberalism.” Németh sensed all that, and on his return to Budapest he informed the foreign minister–still Tibor Navracsics then–and the prime minister of his experience. At the end of the interview Németh indicated that a new chapter should open in U.S.-Hungarian relations: “we are right after the election, both countries will send new ambassadors. Let’s see the good side of this affair: we are at a point from which we can take off.” Although not in so many words, what Németh suggests is an entirely new Hungarian foreign and domestic orientation.

Németh is most likely right. I can see no room for improvement in U.S.-Hungarian relations if the Orbán foreign policy proceeds apace. I even have my doubts about improvement if Orbán makes some adjustments in his domestic and foreign policies. By now Orbán strongly believes in his vision of a new Hungary in which liberalism has no place. This new Hungary is an authoritarian country with pseudo-democratic trappings. He is also convinced in the declining West and the rising East. He will not change course. He really can’t. He is what he is. He can never satisfy the demands of western democracies.

Just to reinforce my point about Orbán’s mindset, here are two pieces of news about the latest Hungarian diplomatic moves. Hungary may be experiencing a serious diplomatic crisis with the United States but the foreign ministry just announced that Hungary will open a cultural and commercial agency in Northern Cyprus, a “country” recognized by only one country, Turkey. This move might make Hungary’s relations with two EU countries, Greece and Cyprus, less than friendly. This is a gesture toward Turkey, whose “illiberal democracy” is a thorn in the side of western democracies.

The second diplomatic move also sends a not too cordial message to the United States. Two days ago the Iranian Tasmin News Agency announced that a Hungarian parliamentary delegation is scheduled to pay an official visit to Iran. The visit will be fairly long. The delegation is headed by deputy speaker János Latorcai (KDNP). The invitation to the Hungarians was extended by the deputy speaker of the Iranian parliament Seyed Mohammad Hassan Abu Torbifard. It is interesting that reports of controversial Hungarian diplomatic moves usually don’t appear in the Hungarian press. Hungarians hear about the events from the other countries’ news agencies. From a later Tasmin News Agency report we learned that Latorcai had a meeting with the chairman of the Iranian parliament’s national security and foreign policy commission, Alaeddin Boroujerdi. According to the report, Boroujerdi made the following comment during their conversation: “the illogical and wrong policies adopted by the US and its regional allies have caused the spread of terrorism and instability across the region and their continuation has turned terrorism into a global concern.” As for Iranian-Hungarian relations, the Iranian politician said that “the two nations have great potential for the enhancement of relations in the political, economic, and cultural fields.” Latorcai, for his part, emphasized that “Budapest is determined to strengthen its ties with the Eastern nations, with Iran in particular.” One must wonder whether these diplomatic moves are the result of inexperience or, as I suspect, are designed to irritate Hungary’s allies and flaunt the country’s total independence. Whatever it is, this attitude will eventually lead to diplomatic disaster. It’s just a question of time.

Viktor Orbán feels at home in Iran, Azerbaijan, and China

It’s time to move on, although the saga of the Holocaust Memorial is far from over. Let’s look outside of Hungary to see what Hungarian foreign policy is up to. The first news item is from yesterday; I discovered it on the Iranian news agency’s website. The highest Hungarian dignitaries–János Áder, president; Viktor Orbán, prime minister; László Kövér, speaker of the house; and János Martonyi, foreign minister–tried to outdo each other in sending separate congratulatory messages on the occasion of “the anniversary of victory of the Islamic Revolution.” The news agency naturally mentioned that “Hungary has been a member of the European Union” ever since 2004. It also reported that in addition to the Hungarians, dignitaries of Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, and Tajikistan also sent greetings to the Iranian leaders.

Today another piece of news arrived from which we learned that a delegation of Hungarian journalists and film makers from MTV arrived in Azerbaijan. They are looking for a proper setting for a film about the “atrocities committed by Armenian troops” in the Nagomo Karabakh region. According to the Azerbaijan news agency, the Hungarian television crew will make a documentary about the town of Khojaly that was attacked by Armenian forces and where several hundred Azerbaijani were killed. The Azerbaijanis are certain that “the film will tell the truth to the world about Karabakh.” So, as you can see, the Orbán government finds kindred souls in Iran, Azerbaijan, and yes, China.

Because Viktor Orbán is in China right now where he keeps boasting about the Asiatic origin of the Hungarians. Not long ago he called his people “half Asiatic,” but by now it seems they have become completely Asiatic. He added that “Hungarians were ridiculed many times for their Asiatic origins” but by now that origin has become an asset because it is clear that “the center of gravity of the world economy has shifted from west to east.” I just hope that Orbán didn’t mention anything about the alleged relationship between the Huns and the Hungarians because the Chinese built the Great Wall in order to save themselves from the ferocious Hun invaders.

In Beijing, similar to other foreign visits/trade missions, the program started with a speech by Orbán before an audience of business people that included about 100 Hungarian business men who accompanied him. As usual, the speech was full of falsehoods about Hungary’s economic performance. It is hard to believe that Chinese businessmen who are known for their acumen are so ignorant that they believe that “whoever makes a business deal with the Hungarians will have a direct relationship with the economic engine of the European Union.” Or, “Hungary is Europe’s most competitive economy where a considerable production center came into being in addition to an important research-and-development network.” Furthermore, he outlined the future economic prospects of Hungary as outright rosy: a 4% economic growth year after year and 3-4 % unemployment, which is considered to be full employment.

In addition to the country’s economic prospects, he stressed “the political stability” in Hungary which is such an advantage when it comes to economic growth. In this respect the Hungarian situation is very similar to that of China, he said, adding that he very much hoped that “the Hungarian people will vote for political stability” in the coming election. This particular claim made quite a splash in Hungary where a blog writer pointed out that “Chinese political stability in other words means communist dictatorship” and that Orbán actually gave himself away by in effect admitting that Hungary is no longer a democracy.

The Chinese news agency was less effusive than the Hungarian prime minister, although Premier Li Kequiang and Viktor Orbán remembered fondly the 65th anniversary of Chinese-Hungarian diplomatic ties. Again, one just hopes that neither man remembered Mao Zedong’s less than friendly attitude toward Hungary at the time of the Hungarian October Revolution of 1956 when he urged Khrushchev to put down the revolt and show no mercy.

China-Orban

The Chinese seem to be interested primarily in building roads and railways. We heard about the Budapest-Belgrade railway line earlier, but now it seems to have become a reality. China also expressed an interest in expanding investment and local currency swap agreements. China will provide assistance to Hungarian companies to invest in China while Hungary will help Chinese businessmen acquire visas and working licenses and will provide them with health insurance. In addition, representatives of Huawei Technologies Hungary and the Hungarian government signed an agreement to establish an innovation center in addition to two Huawei Europe supply centers, one in Pécs and another in Komárom. What is really new is that Li called for Chinese-Hungarian cooperation on nuclear energy and hinted that it  could be accomplished jointly with a third party.

This last item sounds rather intriguing. Is it possible that Viktor Orbán realized in the last month or so that the Russian loan might not be quite enough to build the new nuclear power plant and that he is also soliciting Chinese money and know-how? What will Russia think of such an arrangement?

Another item of note is the establishment of a regional center of the Bank of China. While the Orbán government does everything in its power to get rid of western banks, the prime minister welcomes the Bank of China with open arms. I am curious what kinds of guarantees he offered the Chinese to prompt them to establish the Bank of China’s European regional headquarters in Hungary. Without some guarantees I can’t imagine that any banker in his right mind would choose Hungary.

The rest of the agreements are less exciting: the usual cultural centers, more bilingual Chinese schools, and additional scholarships for Chinese students to study in Hungary. It seems there is money for foreign students even as the government sharply reduced the money available for Hungarian higher education in general and introduced very high tuition fees for Hungarian students.

The question of a direct flight between Budapest and Beijing came up again. When there were such flights they operated at a loss. Of course, if Chinese business is substantial enough in Hungary, such flights might be feasible. At first glance, however, it is hard to tell how extensive Chinese economic penetration will be as a result of these agreements.