Tag Archives: István Lovas

Orbán is unhappy with the results of the French election

Last summer Viktor Orbán predicted that 2017 would be “the year of revolt.” People under the thumb of a liberal political elite incapable of understanding the real needs of the citizens would rebel in the voting booths and vote for right-wing parties like the Austrian Freedom Party, the German Alternative für Deutschland, the Dutch Party for Freedom and Democracy, and the French National Front of Marine Le Pen. Since then, three elections were held, and in all three cases Orbán’s predictions turned out to be wrong. There is one more to go: the German election in September, but the likelihood of AfD winning is about zero.

Since the stakes were highest in France, Emmanuel Macron’s win was perhaps the most disappointing for Orbán. He could hardly hide his bitter feelings in his very brief congratulatory letter to the new French president. While he was the first EU politician to congratulate President Recep Erdoğan on winning the referendum that endows the Turkish leader with practically unlimited power, Orbán was in no hurry in Macron’s case. The perfunctory letter is most likely a true reflection of Orbán’s feelings toward Macron’s victory. “I look forward to our cooperation and trust that in the future we will have the opportunity to further develop our bilateral relations and also to discuss our ideas with relation to the future of Europe.” President János Áder was a bit more expansive. He said in his letter that Hungary considers France an important ally; he talked about the “thriving relationship” that exists between the two countries, which he hopes will be further “enriched in the coming years.” He added that he hopes that he and Macron will have an opportunity to discuss these issues in person in the near future.

Over the years I have been collecting relevant articles on Hungary’s bilateral relations with other countries, but I never managed to find even one event that significantly furthered relations between France and Hungary. I remember only one visit of Orbán to France, in November 2010, when he more or less invited himself to several EU countries, allegedly to discuss matters pertaining to Hungary’s presidency beginning in January 2011. Today, the relationship isn’t exactly, to use Áder’s adjective, thriving.

Viktor Orbán was a great deal more cautious in the case of the French election than he had been in the U.S. election when he openly supported Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, whom he considered to be a disaster for Hungary. When Orbán was asked by reporters of Le Monde a couple of weeks before the election whether he supports Le Pen since the two share similar worldviews, Orbán was evasive. “My star among the candidates was François Fillon, whom I fully supported…. We worked together. We had our differences, but I still have an exchange of letters which is a basic document on modern friendship between men.” Orbán, as usual, might be overstating their friendship. He first met Fillon in November of 2010 when Fillon was prime minister of France. The meeting lasted less than an hour. By May 2012 Fillon resigned, after which he “retired” from politics.

Macron is an ardent supporter of the European Union and no friend of Viktor Orbán. Just the other day Macron said that the National Front’s “program of protectionism, isolationism, and nationalism leads to economic war, misery, and war in general.” It was at this point that the candidate said: “We all know who the friends and allies of Mrs. Le Pen are: Orbán, Kaczynski, and Putin. These aren’t regimes with an open and free society. Every day freedoms and rules are violated there along with our principles.”

István Lovas, a journalist with a checkered career who recently moved over to Magyar Idők as an “expert” on foreign affairs, doesn’t hide his antagonism for everything Macron stands for. Lovas is pro-Russian and by and large anti-American. He sang the praises of Donald Trump for a while, but lately he is no longer sure what he can expect from the new president. Lovas got the job of writing an article on the French election. He opted for a press review of sorts on Macron’s victory, which was an easy way to keep his opinions of the man to himself. Quoting Ryan Heath, the author of “Playbook Plus,” a regular feature of Politico, he stressed that Macron is “shell-shocked” because of the difficulties he is facing. And there is “Macron mania in Brussels.” French people voted for him just because they were against Le Pen. Not outright unfriendly, but Lovas’s disappointment is clear.

His deepest feelings are normally reserved for a blog in which he writes scores of short notes on his readings in the Russian, American, German, and French press. A day before the election he quoted Russia Today, which pointed out that Libération broke the campaign silence imposed on the French press by running an ad for Macron. Lovas introduced this bit of news with: “This is how liberal villains break the French campaign silence.” If one goes to the source, it’s not at all certain that Libération broke the law. But some people on Twitter thought it had.

A few hours later he quoted Deutsche Wirtschafts Nachrichten in a misleading fashion. In the Lovas version, “the campaign team of Macron said to be victim of a hacker attack” (Macron választási csapata hekkertámadás áldozatának mondta magát). The original states that “Emmanuel Macron’s campaign team announced later Friday night that it had become the victim of a massive hacker attack” (Das Wahlkampfteam von Emmanuel Macron teilte am späten Freitagabend mit, dass es Opfer eines massiven Hackerangriffs geworden sei). The Hungarian version intimates that the campaign team’s claim might not be true. The German original is a simple statement of fact. Moreover, the title of Lovas’s note is: “French authorities: No one should dare publish information on Macron acquired by hackers,” which, though true, subtly suggests that the French authorities were suppressing important evidence in favor of Macron and thereby were working against Le Pen.

In his last note Lovas quoted an American publication called The Gateway Pundit, according to which “Macron Busted! Lied about Tax Evasion?” For those (like me) who were unfamiliar with this source, Wikipedia describes it as “a conservative political blog…. It is allied with Donald Trump and elements of the alt-right and extreme right in American politics and is often linked to or cited by Fox News, Drudge Report, Sarah Palin and other well-known conservative people and sites. The website is known for publishing falsehoods and spreading hoaxes.” It’s depressing that István Lovas, the foreign policy “expert” of the foremost government paper in Hungary, receives his information from publications like The Gateway Pundit. Foreign news is filtered through people like Lovas before it reaches the readers of Magyar Idők and other government media outlets.

I suspect that a propaganda campaign against Macron will start soon enough. Such a strong supporter of European integration and an enemy of nationalism will by definition be a foe of Viktor Orbán.

May 8, 2017

Viktor Orbán’s plans foiled: The U.S. government won’t negotiate

Today Viktor Orbán named Kristóf Altusz, deputy undersecretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, to be the prime minister’s representative at the forthcoming “diplomatic negotiations” concerning the status of the “international universities” in Hungary. Considering that, among the international universities, only CEU’s status is being attacked, that would leave Altusz with a single task: to conduct “diplomatic negotiations” with the government of the United States. There is, however, a serious hitch here. Almost simultaneously with the announcement of Altusz’s new job, Hoyt Brian Yee, deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. State Department, announced in Budapest that any negotiations that might take place in the future will have to be between the Hungarian government and the administration of Central European University. The U.S. government is not going to negotiate with the Hungarian government over the fate of CEU.

Assistant Secretary Yee was generous with his time and gave interviews to Index, Magyar Nemzet, and Magyar Idők. The first two are already available online, but I assume Magyar Idők is still contemplating how to package Yee’s messages for its faithful readers. Yee’s first message was that the Trump administration “fully supports” the university, which the Orbán government might not have expected. The second was equally important. He told Index that “although [he] can’t speak on behalf of the Hungarian government, [he] thinks, on the basis of his conversations, that they understand what is at stake.”

Yee’s claim that the university is “the success story of the partnership between Hungary and the United States” was a somewhat more subtle reference to the importance of the issue. Equally pointed was his claim that Budapest was chosen as the venue for CEU because, at the time of the founding of the university (1992), there was great hope that “this city might be the leader of the whole region’s development and that Hungary as a democratic, prosperous, successful country will be the model for others.” For many years that was actually the case, and now “the challenge is to keep this dynamic alive or, in other words, the city, the country should stand up for democracy, the rule of law, fundamental freedoms, including freedom of education.” The message here: the demonstrations are performing a vital task in defense of the future of Hungary.

While government officials behind closed doors are contemplating how to get out of a sticky situation, Fidesz’s radical right has been hard at work. István Lovas, whose favorite pastime is reading Sputnik News from cover to cover, charged that George Soros is trying to make sure that Viktor Orbán’s name will be on the list of dictators. He quoted Sputnik News: “the representatives of the [Hungarian] government believe that his fund receives money for ‘serving the interests of global capitalists’ which contradicts with [sic] Hungary’s national interests.” Lovas also quoted the Daily Caller, which claims that “leaked documents” from Soros’s Open Society Foundations reveal how Soros works “to defeat populist candidates and movements in Europe.” Naturally, Soros uses “a network of nonprofits and partner organizations across Europe to try and affect the outcomes in foreign countries.” And, in a longer piece written for Magyar Hírlap, Lovas tore into Donald Trump, who, he said, committed a war crime by ordering an airstrike after the use of chemical weapons by Syrian forces. That piece of writing inspired a short note by Zsolt Bayer, the viciously anti-Semitic friend of Viktor Orbán who only recently received a high state decoration. He republished Lovas’s article, to which he added:

We are republishing here an important article by my friend István because, after reading it, it becomes clear why the U.S. State Department is sending thunderous warnings to the Hungarian government on account of CEU.

Why? Because in the U.S. State Department the old guard still serves, and there (also) Soros is the boss.

Let’s hope this will change very soon.

We can also point out that very soon we will also be on the streets to protect what is important and sacred for us. And we will be very angry. So, for a while you can rant and rave, you can try to tear the parliament apart, the ministries, the Fidesz headquarters, the president’s office, you can attack the policemen, assault journalists—for a while.

But then no longer.

Then you will experience what it feels like to be persecuted and threatened.

I’m telling you we are very angry. Is it clear?

Keep in mind that up to this point the demonstrations have been peaceful, and let’s hope they will remain so. But no one can guarantee that the protesters will remain patient and disciplined, especially in light of the government propaganda against their efforts, especially the cruder type that was the brainchild of Árpád Habony, Viktor Orbán’s mysterious adviser. They come out with “fake news” that even Donald Trump’s favorite rags would be proud of. For example, they said that George Soros personally paid for airline tickets for people all over the world to attend the rally in Budapest. And the propaganda tabloid 888.hu came up with headlines like “Soros’s men employ anarchists.” People, especially those who were among the 80,000 who demonstrated on Sunday, do get annoyed when they think the Hungarian government and its media take them for fools.

In closing, I would like to call attention to an article written by Péter Pető, formerly deputy editor-in-chief of Népszabadság and now managing editor of 24.hu. The piece was written after a few hundred demonstrators spontaneously gathered in front of Sándor Palace, the office of the president, after János Áder signed the bill into law. They threw white tulips that had been growing in front of the building at the police. The title was “Rebels with white tulips send a message to Orbán: Anything can happen.” Indeed. Anything can happen.

April 11, 2017

A frustrated Viktor Orbán dismisses his ambassador to Washington

On the very same day that the Hungarian parliament passed a bill that would effectively close Central European University, ATV reported that Réka Szemerkényi, Hungarian ambassador to the United States, will be leaving her post within a couple of months. She is being recalled. A few hours later the Foreign Ministry confirmed the report.

The news created quite a stir because the consensus in government circles as well as among analysts was that Szemerkényi was practically an alter ego of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Orbán’s trust in Szemerkényi’s judgment and expertise was boundless, claimed several people in the know. Observers asserted that having Szemerkényi in the Hungarian Embassy was like having Viktor Orbán himself in Washington.

So, what went wrong? According to the well-informed Ildikó Csuhaj, “there was someone in the government” who didn’t find Szemerkényi’s performance in Washington satisfactory. Given the modus operandi of the Orbán government, that someone must have been the prime minister himself who, it seems, expected miracles from his trusted foreign policy and security expert. Among other things, he expected an early invitation to the White House, something that doesn’t seem possible anytime soon. Péter Szijjártó, who visited Washington on March 22-23, also had difficulty meeting anyone of importance in the State Department. Szemerkényi is being accused of not using the diplomatic channels at her disposal to explain the Hungarian government’s position on two important issues: its unyielding attitude towards and treatment of the refugees and its unprecedented attack on an American university.

Poor Réka Szemerkényi. She was sent to Washington with an impossible mission: not just to ease the growing tension between the two countries but to convince the U.S. government that its dim view of Viktor Orbán’s illiberal state has no foundation. Hungary is in fact a blossoming democracy. She was supposed to convince the Americans that the footage they saw on television day in and day out of Hungary’s harsh treatment of refugees was just a mirage. Moreover, the anti-American and pro-Russian rhetoric of Orbán and his press shouldn’t be taken seriously. It is just idle talk or is simply misunderstood.

Szemerkényi did her best, but it is practically impossible to sell inferior or outright rotten produce, and that was all she could offer. She did convince a few Republicans who for one reason or other sympathize with Orbán’s policies, including his pro-Russian stance, but most congressmen and senators were not ready to support Hungary’s cause. As ambassador she received a few invitations for interviews, but most of her time was spent responding to negative reports by U.S. publications. For example, she wrote letters on behalf of Hungary to The Hill, Washington Times, Washington Post, Diplomacy and Trade, Politico, and The York Review of Books where she engaged in a fairly lengthy exchange with Professor Jan-Werner Müller of Princeton University over what she considered to be his “rather distorted picture of Hungary.” She valiantly defended Fidesz as a “center right [party] encompassing views from liberal-conservatives to traditionalists.” She accused him of using “selective quotes,” which will not hide the fact that the Hungarian government’s commitment to traditional European values is well within the mainstream of European politics. Even from this one response we can appreciate the difficulties she faced in defending the indefensible.

In a lengthy interview with an American publication, she explained the problems she was facing in Washington: “A lot of very profound changes in Hungary that took place since 2010 or 2011 were so difficult to understand from far away” and perhaps between 2010 and 2014 the embassy didn’t do a good job of explaining these changes. She found that unfortunate because she “very much believe[s] in the importance and power of the transatlantic relationship.” She is convinced that “the European and transatlantic ties are the most important roots for [her] country.” Yet, she added, “we have a very complex recent past” which is difficult to understand from the outside. One can sense her frustration at the impossibility of her task.

I also suspect that Szemerkényi, who once wrote a glowing essay about János Martonyi as a model foreign minister, doesn’t think highly of Péter Szijjártó the novice. After all, Szemerkényi has almost 30 years of experience, first serving in the Ministry of Defense (1990-1994) and then as undersecretary in charge of foreign policy and national security in the prime minister’s office between 1998 and 2002.

Szemerkényi also gave interviews to Hungarian media outlets: Inforadio, a right-of-center mostly news station, and Figyelő, a respectable financial paper which was acquired by Mária Schmidt recently. (I should mention that the valuable archives of Figyelő has been removed from the internet. New owners of government media outlets learn from each other quickly. This is what happened in the case of Népszabadság until a court order restored the archives.)

In her first interview with Figyelő in December 2015 she stressed the importance of transatlantic ties. Atlantism is not a sub-field of Hungarian foreign policy, alongside the eastern opening. It is the foundation of Hungary’s foreign relations. Or, at least this is what Szemerkényi would like to believe. In the rest of the interview she talked about the efforts she had been making to gather support in the U.S. capital. For instance, once a month the embassy holds a meeting called Budapest Salon—Open Embassy where she invites analysts and congressional advisers. She did notice some “thawing,” but “it wouldn’t be a realistic goal that we agree about everything.”

In her February 9, 2017 interview with Figyelő one can sense that Szemerkényi was under pressure from Budapest to secure a White House invitation for Viktor Orbán. The very first question addressed to her was on the prospects of “building a good relationship with the Trump administration.” I’m sure that Donald Trump’s victory was as much of a surprise to Szemerkényi as it was to everybody else, but she claimed that the embassy had made preparations for both eventualities. And she was eager to reassure people that they were “extremely successful” on that score. She claimed that Hungary is way ahead of other countries in the region in acquiring contacts with the new set of people in the Trump administration. In fact, others come to the Hungarian embassy for advice and contacts. She bragged about her meetings with Jeff Sessions, Mike Pence, Wilbur Ross, Ben Carson, and John Kelly’s and James Mattis’s teams. She personally talked with Rex Tillerson. The Hungarian embassy organized a celebratory brunch called Salute to Freedom after the inauguration, which was attended by high officials of the new administration. Most important, she met President Trump at least three times. For example, “at a smaller conference and ball that took place in Mar-a-Lago, President Trump greeted me as an old acquaintance.” She announced that they are working on “the coordination of the actual meeting” between Trump and Orbán but added that, as far as timing is concerned, the Hungarians must be realistic. The president of a superpower has many other urgent obligations. Well, it seems that Viktor Orbán was not ready to wait.

The Mar-a-Lago encounter between the Trumps and Réka Szemerkényi

And now let’s see what one of her right-wing critics, István Lovas, who just moved from Magyar Hírlap to Magyar Idők as the “foreign policy expert,” had to say about Szemerkényi’s days in Washington. Lovas doesn’t have a heavy work load at Magyar Idők. He writes only one article a week, which leaves him plenty of time to search online for “fake news” coming from Russia Today and Sputnik, which he publishes on his own blog. He is quite capable of posting two dozen short notices with links to Russian or pro-Russian publications in a day. Naturally, he is also a great fan of Donald Trump and finds Szemerkényi’s less than successful efforts the ambassador’s personal failure, due in part to her Atlantist inclinations. Lovas accuses her of being anti-Russian, an accusation that is not without merit judging from several articles she wrote between 2008 and 2011 in Válasz.

Lovas is convinced that Szemerkényi grossly exaggerated her relations with President Trump as well as with other high-ranking members of the new administration. All of her meetings with these people were casual encounters. It is very possible that Donald Trump didn’t even know who Szemerkényi was when he exchanged a few words with her. Her only recorded meeting with the president occurred after the embassy paid several thousand dollars to the American Red Cross in order to get an invitation to the conference and ball held at Mar-a-Lago. In Lovas’s opinion, Szemerkényi’s extreme Atlantism and her harsh anti-Russian views are good enough reason to recall her.

And behold, three days later Szemerkényi was sacked. Of course, I don’t believe that Lovas’s outrageous blog post was the reason for her dismissal. Rather, I suspect that Lovas already knew that something was brewing in the prime minister’s office and the foreign ministry.

Apparently, a deputy of Péter Szijjártó, László Szabó, will replace Réka Szemerkényi. Szabó has no diplomatic experience to speak of. He finished medical school but after a few years gave up his profession and became a businessman working for pharmaceutical companies like Eli Lilly and Teva. He did spend two years at Eli Lilly headquarters in Indianapolis, but he knows next to nothing about Washington. How could Szabó possibly be more successful than Szemerkényi has been with her vast experience in diplomacy and her familiarity with the Washington scene? After the CEU scandal the new Hungarian ambassador’s job will be even harder than before. Sending an inexperienced man to replace Szemerkényi is utter madness in my opinion.

April 9, 2017

The great hope of the Hungarian right: Rex Tillerson as secretary of state

The revelations first disclosed by The Washington Post about possible Russian interference in the 2016 election to help Donald Trump win the presidency were received in Hungarian far-right circles with mixed emotions. Naturally, they identify with the president-elect, who is being portrayed by their media as Superman and the savior of the world. At the same time they find the possibility of Trump’s gaining the presidency with foreign help embarrassing. They even dug up a former secret service official, József Horváth from the Kádár era, who has close ties to Fidesz politicians. He announced with great confidence that “it is unlikely that the Russians intervened for the sake of Donald Trump’s victory.” Horváth’s expertise dates to the 1970s and 1980s, so he knows next to nothing about cyberspace or hacking. Even his reasoning is ridiculous. In his opinion, the claim of interference cannot be true because “such a hacker attack must have immediate legal and diplomatic consequences.” In the United States espionage is taken very seriously, but nothing has happened since the discovery of the alleged cyber crime. This nonsense was taken at face value by Magyar Idők, the government’s semi-official mouthpiece.

It is, however, Magyar Hírlap, the newspaper in which ranting demagogues like Zsolt Bayer and István Lovas publish their opinion pieces, that leads the way in Trump hero worship. Readers of Hungarian Spectrum are only too familiar with Bayer, but they most likely know little about Lovas, whom a couple of years ago I described as “one of the most unsavory characters in the Hungarian right-wing media.” Between 1976 and 1990 he lived in Montreal, Los Angeles, and Munich, where he was on the staff of Radio Free Europe’s Hungarian section. After his return to Hungary, he began working for decidedly right-wing publications. Although he has Jewish ancestry, he is an anti-Semite who received the Palestinian State’s “Objectivity” prize in 2002.

What Lovas cannot understand is how the CIA, which in 40 days will be under the thumb of Trump, dared to put forth a lie without any evidence of Russian support of Trump’s candidacy. The story is nothing more than “a long tale from the neoliberal/left-liberal Washington Post which regularly belches out fake news.” Moreover, Trump doesn’t care about the useless American intelligence reports and is ready to go against the “ruling elite,” which hoped that Trump would choose Mitt Romney, “one of the passengers on the irrational Russophobe hysteria train.” Romney is described by Lovas as someone close to the American defense industry who, if appointed secretary of state, would work hand in hand with the neocons already in the State Department.

But, thank God, Trump was brave and is rumored to have picked Rex Tillerson, an oil magnate and president of Exxon-Mobil “who has a good relationship with Russian President Putin.” Other less enthusiastic commentators describe the relationship between the two men as one of dependency. That is, Tillerson depended on his friendship with Putin to get oil deals done in Russia. Tillerson is described by politico.hu as the head of one of those Western companies who “were bowing and scraping before a man who had just shocked the world by violating international law” with the invasion of Crimea and who subsequently lobbied Washington to lift economic sanctions against Russia.

Rex Tillerson and Vladimir Putin are on very friendly terms

In connection with the nomination of Tillerson, Lovas attacks John McCain, The Washington Post’s “beloved Republican” who “called Orbán a fascist dictator” and who in an interview on Fox News called Putin “an aggressive character and a murderer.” McCain is “the mainstay of the genocidal U.S. policy in the Middle East.” Lovas wouldn’t be true to himself if he didn’t drag Israel into the discussion of Tillerson’s nomination. He cites an opinion piece titled “Thumbing Nose at Alleged Kremlin Debt, Trump Picks Putin’s Pal as Secretary of State” which appeared in Haaretz, adding that Jerusalem is bound to be disappointed by the choice of Tillerson.

A likely pro-Russian foreign policy naturally delights Lovas, although he sadly notes that the neocon John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, might become Tillerson’s deputy. “On our side” is also James Mattis, who is not really keen on the Russian president, “but we, supporters of Trump, are ready for compromise and we are satisfied with the fact that our sworn enemies feel that they are lying bleeding on the battlefield.” The sworn enemies of Hungary are, of course, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and the whole Democratic leadership. In his final sentence Lovas foresees the Democrats and Republicans like McCain one day standing before the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Perhaps the most bizarre analysis of Donald Trump’s alleged decision to nominate Rex Tillerson comes from Viktor Attila Vincze, who writes for Magyar Idők and other right-wing publications. The article, whose title “Is Donald Trump ready to be America’s Gorbachev because of China?” took my breath away, appeared in 888.hu. What on earth is this man talking about? When I hear Gorbachev’s name, my first thought is the collapse of the Soviet Empire, which Vladimir Putin hasn’t been able to accept to this day. Let’s hope that Trump’s presidency wouldn’t have such grave consequences for the United States as Gorbachev’s term did for the Soviet Union. But no, Vincze views Gorbachev as the far-sighted politician who decided to end the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Trump could end the unipolar world order with a diplomatic opening toward Russia “and toward other states” and perhaps, just like Gorbachev, he could end the war in Afghanistan. I assume Vincze would include Hungary among the “other states.”

If Trump wants to confront China, he has to change U.S. diplomacy toward Russia. Tillerson’s nomination “is the first significant step in this direction.” Vincze quite openly talks about Tillerson’s frustration over the sanctions that prevented Exxon-Mobil’s $500 billion deal with the Russian state company Rosneft. Obviously, Vincze doesn’t see any conflict of interest between Tillerson’s business dealings and his future role as secretary of state. Vincze hopes that Tillerson’s presence may result not just in the normalization of the relationship between Russia and the United States but also in a close friendship between the two countries. In this new world, Russia and the United States would be partners. This would put an end to the far too cozy relationship between China and Russia.

As you can see, the Hungarian right is very keen on close cooperation between Russia and the United States, and its spokesmen are counting on Donald Trump. The first sign that their hopes may be realized is Tillerson’s rumored nomination. If, however, the Washington Post is not just belching out another piece of fake news, this nomination is in danger of being blocked on the Hill, which may prompt Trump to go a different direction. That would sorely disappoint the Hungarian far right.

December 12, 2016

The Hungarian National Bank’s foundations and their beneficiaries

Last night, after a legal battle, the lists of all the grants the six Hungarian National Bank foundations approved in the last two years were finally released. It will take some time for analysts to sort through these lists to figure out who got how much for what from the foundations. Not only are the lists long, but it can happen that the same person or company received grants from several foundations.

The six foundations of the Hungarian National Bank have complicated names starting with Pallas Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, courage, inspiration, and many other virtues. By now only acronyms are used, like PADA, PADOC, and PADS. In any case, György Matolcsy sank 265.65 billion forints or 855.7 million euros of public money into his foundations. He had no intention of ever revealing where all that money would eventually end up. But the Kúria, Hungary’s highest court, decided otherwise. Hence the release of the lists of foundation grants.

These foundations, in addition to serving as sources of grants to the regime’s favorites, also provide job opportunities and extra income for close associates or friends of the management of MNB. The yearly salaries of the six foundation directors amount to 320 million forints. In addition, 30 individuals serve as paid members of their boards. Some people have multiple jobs at different foundations.

It will take some time to determine the greatest beneficiaries of György Matolcsy’s largesse. But so far we can say that they all seem to be politically close to the present government. I would place many of them on the far right of the Hungarian political spectrum.

The building of the Hungarian National Bank

The building of the Hungarian National Bank

One major beneficiary was New Wave Media Kft., whose managing director is István Száraz. It recently acquired two internet news sites: vs.hu and Origo. It also owns two English-language sites: welovebudapest.com and welovebalaton.hu. They seem to be useful sites for potential tourists. One can learn very little about the corporate structure of New Wave from its website, but Hungarian newspapers seem to know that György Matolcsy’s cousin, Tamás Szemerey, is one of the owners.

According to a quick estimate, New Wave received grants from all six foundations, amounting to more than 500 million forints. Over and above this amount 70 million forints was given directly to the ailing vs.hu website. In addition, New Wave received 14 million forints for the translation of three books by George Friedman, a geopolitical forecaster of Hungarian origin who seems to be an admirer of Viktor Orbán.

The foundations poured quite a bit of money into publishing ventures–translations as well as original works. One book found worthy of translating–this time into Polish, Romanian, Czech, and Ukrainian–was Chess and Poker: Chronicle of the Victorious Battles of the Hungarian Economic War of Independence, written by Matolcsy’s secretary, Helga Wiedermann. The book created quite a stir in Hungary when it appeared. Wiedermann recounted that on November 17, 2011, when the Hungarian government officially announced that it had decided to turn to the IMF for a loan, Matolcsy had lunch with three representatives of Goldman Sachs. He told them about the decision four hours before the official announcement. According to Wiedermann, one of three visitors immediately excused himself to go to the rest room, presumably to inform, directly or indirectly, Goldman’s forex trading desk. The EUR/HUF chart from that day shows immediate buying pressure after Matolcsy’s indiscretion. I wrote about this incident shortly after the book appeared in March 2014. So now this book will be available to a larger reading public. The cost of translation, printing, and advertising was 68.5 million forints plus VAT.

Kairosz Publishing House, the favorite of the Hungarian right, received 39 million forints for the publication of a six-volume series on Hungarian history by Dr. Miklós Kásler. And no, his doctorate is not in history. He is the director of the National Institute of Oncology. For a number of years he has appeared on state television with his own version of Hungarian history. The members of the board found the publication of this multi-volume work important because “it can serve as a counterbalance to the strongly globalized historical view arriving from the West.” It is supposed “to form the world view of new generations and to strengthen the patriotic sentiment against the globalist views.” The six volumes cover Hungarian history from the arrival of the Magyars in the Carpathian basin to, I assume, the glorious governance of Viktor Orbán.

A new book–“Unorthodox Eccentrics” (Unortodox különcök)–by István Lovas, the Jewish anti-Semite with a questionable past, was also found worthy of financial assistance. It too was published by Kairosz. The book is supposed to be a comparison of the Hungarian, Icelandic, and Malaysian handling of the recent economic crisis. According to the review I read, it is mostly about Viktor Orbán the brave and “everybody else.”

Among the grant recipients is another “favorite” of mine, Tamás Fricz. He calls himself a political scientist and for a while was actually an associate of the Political Science Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. A few years ago the new director of the Institute had the courage to throw him out since Fricz is a Fidesz propagandist, pure and simple. More about his anti-German and anti-Israeli propaganda can be found in one of my earlier posts. Fricz’s subsidized book is a collection of 80 articles written between January 2013 and October 2014. The publisher received 1.2 million forints to help defray costs.

Finally, a 1.5 million grant was given to the Szabad Piac Alapítvány for the publication of the Hungarian translation of Tom G. Palmer’s edited volume After the Welfare State: Politicians Stole Your Future, You Can Get It Back. The book is available online. Palmer’s introduction begins: “Young people today are being robbed. Of their rights. Of their freedom. Of their dignity. Of their futures. The culprits? My generation and our predecessors, who either created or failed to stop the world-straddling engine of theft, degradation, manipulation, and social control we call the welfare state.”

So far I have spent very little time perusing the lists, but I think that even these few examples give us an idea of the mission of the Hungarian National Bank’s foundations. Not financial literacy, not economic research, but the promulgation of Orbán’s ideology and the dissemination in Hungarian of the limited, questionable support it finds in the West. And, of course, assistance for the government’s friends and family.

April 23, 2016

American rapprochement with Viktor Orbán’s Hungary?

While readers of Hungarian Spectrum continue to discuss the possible reasons for André Goodfriend’s departure, let me share one right-wing Hungarian reaction to the exit of the former chargé, István Lovas’s opinion piece in yesterday’s Magyar Hírlap titled “The Bell Change.”

One could devote a whole series of posts to István Lovas himself, from his brush with the law as a teenager to the open letter he wrote recently to Vladimir Putin in which he asked him to start a Hungarian-language “Russia Today” because the Russian propaganda television station is actually much better than BBC. Lovas lived in Canada, the United States, and Germany, where he worked for Radio Free Europe. He was considered to be a difficult man who caused a lot of turmoil in the Hungarian section of the organization.

For many years Lovas was a devoted Fidesz man. He already held important positions in the first Orbán government (1998-2002). For years he worked for Magyar Nemzet, most recently as its Brussels correspondent, but a few months ago Lovas, along with a number of other Orbán stalwarts, lost his job. Mind you, the European Parliament had had enough of Lovas even before he was sacked by Magyar Nemzet, especially after he presented a bucket of artificial blood to Sophie in ‘t Veld, the Dutch liberal MEP. The bucket of blood was supposed to symbolize the Palestinian children who were victims of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Lovas, himself of Jewish descent, is a well-known anti-Semite.

After having lost his job at Magyar Nemzet and after Putin failed to respond to his plea for a Hungarian “Russia Today,” Lovas moved on. Gábor Széles, who owns Magyar Hírlap and EchoTV, offered him a job. Now he has a weekly political program called “Fault Lines” (Törésvonalak) on EchoTV, and he also writes opinion pieces for Széles’s newspaper.

So how does István Lovas see American-Hungarian relations in the wake of the arrival of Colleen Bell and the departure of André Goodfriend? To summarize his opinion in one sentence: from here on the United States and the Orbán government will be the best of friends.

According to Lovas, André Goodfriend was the darling of those lost liberals who have been wandering in the wilderness “ever since SZDSZ was thrown into the garbage heap of history.” They are still hoping that nothing will change. Originally they were certain that Goodfriend would run the embassy while the newly arrived ambassador would be its public face. Meanwhile, Goodfriend would continue visiting “left/neoliberal SZDSZ or MSZP politicians and intellectuals.”

These liberal hopes were dashed soon after Colleen Bell’s arrival. The new orientation was clear from day one. Bell went and laid a wreath at the statue of the unknown soldier on Heroes’ Square. She visited the Csángó Ball organized every year to celebrate a fairly mysterious group of Hungarians living in the Romanian region of Moldavia, speaking an old Hungarian dialect. These are important signs of the new American attitude toward things dear to the current government: fallen heroes and national minorities. Certainly, says Lovas, Goodfriend would never have been found in such places. Yet liberals don’t seem to have grasped the significance of all this. They think that more Hungarians will be banished from the United States and that Hungary will have to pay a high price for peace with the United States. Most likely, Orbán will have to compromise on Paks, on Russian-Hungarian relations in general, and/or will have to buy American helicopters.

But Lovas has bad news for them. There will be no more talk about corruption cases, and Hungary will pay no price whatsoever. Colleen Bell realized that Goodfriend’s methods had failed. Of course, Lovas is talking nonsense here. Even if Lovas is right about a change in U.S. policy, it was not Bell who decided on this new strategy but the United States government.

Lovas is certain that the change has already occurred. It is enough to look at the new website of the U.S. Embassy in Budapest. There are no more programs on tolerance, on Holocaust events, “all those things that are kicks in the groin of the Hungarian people and their elected government.” A drastic change occurred in U.S.-Hungarian relations which even such liberal-socialist diplomats as Péter Balázs, foreign minister in the Bajnai government, László Kovács, foreign minister under Gyula Horn, or András Simonyi, ambassador to Washington (2002-2010), couldn’t explain away.

This change couldn’t have taken place if Goodfriend had stayed or if the Orbán government had conducted “the kind of servile atlantist policy recommended by Géza Jeszenszky,” foreign minister under József Antall and ambassador to Washington during the first Orbán government. Jeszenszky, who just resigned as ambassador to Norway, had a long interview in which he expressed his deep disappointment with Viktor Orbán and his foreign policy, especially with his attitude toward the United States.

According to Lovas, what happened recently is a victory for Orbán’s foreign policy, a feat that “could be achieved only by the courage and tenacity” of the Hungarian prime minister. The United States government tried to mend its ways by sending someone to Budapest who is not worried about such things as tolerance or the Holocaust. From here on the Budapest embassy will function just as American embassies do in other capitals. The U.S. Embassy in Vienna, for example, does not report “breaking news” about the Anschluss.

Lovas might exaggerate, but something is going on. When was the last time that Viktor Orbán called together the whips of all political parties for a discussion on Hungarian foreign policy? As far as I know, never. As Magyar Nemzet put it, “Viktor Orbán asked for the support of the political parties in reaching the nation’s foreign policy goals.” Among the topics was the objective of “strengthening the American-Hungarian alliance.” Péter Szijjártó, who was of course present, claimed that “political relations with the United States are improving” and that the Orbán government “will take further steps toward the restoration of earlier economic, political, and military cooperation.”

The meeting of the leaders of the parliamentary delegations  Source: MTI / Photo Gergely Botár

The meeting of the leaders of the parliamentary delegations convened by Viktor Orbán
Source: MTI / Photo Gergely Botár

I’m sure that we all want better relations between Hungary and the United States, but the question is at what price. The United States can’t close its eyes to Viktor Orbán’s blatant attacks on democracy, the media, human rights, and civil society. And then there is the timing of this alleged renewed love affair between Budapest and Washington. If true, and that’s a big if, it couldn’t have come at a worse time for Hungarian democracy–yes, liberal democracy. Just when Viktor Orbán’s support is dropping precipitously and when it looks as if he may lose his precious two-thirds majority in spite of all the billions of forints he promised from taxpayer money to the city of Veszprém to buy votes. When a large part of the hitherto slavish right-wing media at last decided to return to more critical and balanced journalism.

No, this is not the time to court Viktor Orbán. It would be a grave mistake. It is, in fact, time to be tough because the great leader is in trouble. Trouble abroad, trouble at home. Frans Timmermans, the first vice-president of the European Commission, in a speech to the European Parliament said the following without mentioning Viktor Orbán’s name: “We cannot let our societies imperceptibly slip back; we cannot allow illiberal logics to take hold. There is no such thing as an illiberal democracy…. We are keeping a close eye on all issues arising in Member States relating to the rule of law, and I will not hesitate to use the [EU Rule of Framework established last March] if required by the situation in a particular Member State.”

Anti-American voices after the reactions to Viktor Orbán’s speech

As promised, today I will write a few words about the worsening U.S.-Hungarian relations, not that they have been all that good over the last few years. Magyar Nemzet, the flagship of the Fidesz media empire, has been publishing one vitriolic editorial after the other. The same is true of Magyar Hírlap and the television stations HírTV and EchoTV. The attack is two-pronged. On the one hand, they accuse the United States of interference in the affairs of other countries and, on the other, they charge the U.S. with uncritical support of Israel all the while unjustly accusing Hungary of anti-Semitism.

Here I have selected three articles to give a sense of recent anti-American sentiment among the Hungarian right. Two of the authors work for Magyar Nemzet. They are Tamás Fricz, who is a regular contributor, and István Lovas, the paper’s correspondent in Brussels. The latter’s “Open Letter to the Chargé of the U.S. Embassy in Budapest” actually appeared on a far-right internet portal Flag Magazin. Both pieces were republished on nemzeti.netwhich aggregates articles from hundreds of far-right online publications. It is a treasure trove for those interested in the activities of the Hungarian far right. The third article appeared in Magyar Hírlap and is from Zsolt Bayer, about whom I wrote several times. His targets are liberals, the foreign press, Jews, and anyone who criticizes the Hungarian government–for example, Ulrike Lunacek, an MEP from Austria. In comparison to some of his other writings this particular piece is tame.

I haven’t said much about István Lovas in the past and I will not have time to do so today. I will say only that he is one of the most unsavory characters in the Hungarian right-wing media, and that is something. Although he has some Jewish ancestors, he is a vicious anti-Semite. His open letter to André Goodfriend was occasioned by the visit of  Ira Forman, who was  appointed by John Kerry to be U.S. Special Envoy of the Office to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism.

Forman gave an interview to MTI, the Hungarian news agency, on July 21 in which among other things he talked about the unfortunate situation that developed over the 70th anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust and the memorial the Orbán government insisted on erecting despite strong opposition from Jewish and non-Jewish groups. He stressed that this is not only his personal opinion but also that of the U.S. government. Forman talked about the growing anti-Semitism in Europe ever since the beginning of the 21st century, especially in countries with large Muslim populations. But, he added, in Hungary “there is another kind, the classical 19th and 20th century Nazi type of anti-Semitism.”  And since there is a fairly large Jewish presence in Hungary, his office follows the situation closely.

One can quibble about the accuracy of this statement. After all, we cannot talk about a Nazi type of anti-Semitism in the nineteenth century. Perhaps “political anti-Semitism” might have been a better choice of words. And one might argue that Forman’s description of the Hungarian situation is far too general. But we can definitely say that the Hungarian far right’s political views bear a suspicious resemblance to those of German national socialism. And that the far right is represented in the Hungarian parliament.

It was a few days after this interview that Lovas decided to attack André Goodfriend, who is currently heading the U.S. Embassy in Budapest.  He charged that the embassy is the only one “in the whole world” whose chief activity is “the struggle against anti-Semitism.” Instead of concentrating on Hungary, the U.S. government should worry about the “death of Palestinian infants, children, women, nurses, and doctors.” He described the situation in Gaza as a “massacre.” Then follows a very long list of anti-Semitic incidents in various European countries. At the end he returns to the person of the American diplomat. Without telling the reader what terrible sin André Goodfriend personally committed, he asks him what he is afraid of. “To tell the truth?” And obviously this truth is the reason “why all U.S. embassies must be barricaded and surrounded by guards.” As time goes by they will need more and more barricades and guards.

Tamás Fricz, to the shame of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, is a senior researcher at its Institute of Political Science. He also teaches political science at the University of Miskolc. Interestingly enough, he didn’t major in political science but received a degree in finance and accounting not at a university but at a three-year college. After graduation he enrolled at ELTE but, again, not as a student of political science but of philosophy (1985-1989). In the 1990s he received a doctorate, a title that no longer exists, from the University of Economics, today called Corvinus, but in what field it is hard to tell. That doctorate was then automatically morphed into a Ph.D.

He wrote his anti-American article after the condemnation of Viktor Orbán’s speech by The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Fricz opines that The New York Times‘s editorial pretty well reflects the views of the American government. How do they dare call on the European Union to reduce EU subsidies to Hungary or take away her voting rights? “We are amazed.” What would happen if the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung or Le Figaro demanded sanctions from the president against one of the states, he asks? Perhaps the United States should ask for membership in the European Union and pay the contributions member states of the EU have to pay.

Fricz continues his harangue against the United States by pointing to its military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. The United States’s fight against Taliban “terrorism” led nowhere. The same thing happened in Iraq where “they introduced democracy” and the only result is that there is now total chaos in the country. He explains that “free elections, human rights, rights of citizens in themselves are not enough for the establishment of real democracy. Cultural, historical, societal, religious preconditions must be present for the establishment of democracy and we must declare that these preconditions are stronger than the institutional prerequisites.” How true! What Fricz does not seem to recognize is that he just condemned his own country as one of those lands where these preconditions of democracy don’t exist. I doubt that he thought this through.

Fricz and Bayer

Zsolt Bayer’s piece is just as primitive as the others. Bayer is one of the 37 founders of Fidesz. At the time he was a student of Hungarian literature and history at ELTE. He likes to show off his vast knowledge of history, literature, and philosophy. He is a name dropper. In his “Open letter to the New York Times” he starts off with Nietzsche and finishes with Ortega y Gasset, to which he adds: “It was Ortega who wrote these lines. I don’t suppose you [the editors of The New York Times] understand them.”

The gist of the piece is how much better Hungarians are than Americans. Because they did not start wars “under false pretexts”; they did not ignore the verdicts of international organizations; they did not legalize torture; they did not hold prisoners in Guantanamo; they don’t spy on other people, including their allies; and finally the Hungarian head of state does not have the right “to liquidate people” without consulting with the judiciary as the American president has. I assume Bayer is referring here to a speech by Attorney General Eric Holder at Northwest University in 2012, I believe in connection with American militants like Anwar al-Awlaki.

The Ortega quotation is amusing because it has nothing to do with Orbán’s lecture on “illiberalism.” Ortega is considered to be a “liberal philosopher” and therefore it is hard to believe that he thought that “liberals … were old-fashioned people who marched under faded flags.” The quotation is most likely taken out of context because the portion Bayer quotes begins: “Why are they satisfied with the repetition of ready-made ideas?” Moreover, these old-fashioned people can be either liberals or reactionaries. So, clearly, Ortega is talking about non-thinking people in general.

This is how the open letter ends: “Your obese society is marching under the faded flag of liberalism. Without a thought, pitifully. But you must understand one thing: you have no right to interject yourselves into the affairs of other societies and their future. Is that clear?”

In case you think that one ought not to pay much attention to these lunatics, consider the opinion of a man who in his former life was a respected British scholar and who subsequently became the refined voice of Viktor Orbán in the European Parliament–George Schöpflin. This is what he had to say about the possible effects of the Orbán speech: “it might even be that a decade from now the Bǎile Tuşnad speech will be referred to as the audacious and courageous forerunner of necessary change. Of course, it could be that it will not be. But in that case, democracy will be in trouble.”

With friends like these, democracy needs no enemies.