Tag Archives: János Martonyi

Will communist-era internal security files finally be open in Hungary?

At last the archives of the huge internal security network, currently stored in the Alkotmányvédelmi Hivatal or AH (Constitutional Defense Office), an idiotic name for one of the many offices dealing with national security, will be transferred to the Állambiztonsági Szolgálatok Történeti Levéltár/ASzTL (Historical Archives of the National Security Services). On March 6 a lengthy report on the “study of the pre-1990 data preserved on magnetic tapes” was released by a working group of the National Remembrance Committee and the Historical Archives of the National Security Services. Three days later the Hungarian government approved the transfer of the material.

Over the years socialist-liberal governments, at least halfheartedly, supported opening the archives, but right-wing governments categorically rejected the idea. For example, one of the most vociferous opponents of opening the archives of the feared III/III department of Kádár’s ministry of interior was Péter Boross, the arch-conservative interior minister and later prime minister in the early 1990s. As for Fidesz, the Orbán government’s reluctance is demonstrated by the fact that in the last seven years LMP turned in 14 proposals to make all documents pertaining to the workings of the internal security apparatus of the Rákosi and Kádár periods accessible. These proposals never got out of the parliamentary committee on judicial affairs.

The present report focuses on one aspect of the vast archival collection of the secret services: “the study of the magnetic tapes.” The existence of these tapes first came to light in 1995, although the initial reaction was one of denial. At that point I belonged to an internet political discussion group in which one of our members, who had been employed by the ministry of interior, had first-hand knowledge of the existence of such tapes. Once their existence could no longer be denied, those who didn’t want the content of these tapes to be revealed announced that they could no longer be read because the recording was done on by now obsolete equipment. Of course, this was just a diversionary tactic. Years later, in 2007, it was Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsán who at last set up the so-called Kenedi Commission, a group of researchers familiar with the history of the internal security apparatus. It was that commission which asked a group of IT experts to find a way to make the tapes readable. One of these tech gurus gave a fascinating description of how they managed to accomplish the task. By the way, I should mention that the material on these tapes was made secret until 2060. I don’t know which so-called democratic government decided that the “secrets” of the Kádár regime must be preserved until 2060 (when, presumably, everybody who’s implicated will be dead), but I will note that the Kenedi Commission was promptly dismantled by the Orbán government.

As opposed to other post-communist countries, Hungary allows only extremely limited access to communist-era documents. The East German archives were opened immediately after the regime change. Somewhat later both the Czechs and the Slovaks put all their material online, and anyone can comb through it to his heart’s content. Knowing the “enthusiasm” of the Fidesz government for transparency, I doubt that such a situation will exist in Hungary as long as Viktor Orbán is prime minister.

The present system is quite restrictive. Individuals can ask for their own file if such a file exists. If in that folder he finds a cover name, he can ask for the informer’s real name. But an ordinary mortal can conduct “research” only if he can prove that the person he is researching is a public figure. And only approved historians who can demonstrate a real need to do research in this field are allowed to use the stored archival material. Details of the procedure and the appropriate sections of the 2003 law are given on ASzTL’s website.

Even if one gets permission to do research on public figures to find out whether they were informers, the 2003 law governing accessibility to this material was written in such a way that even if it is perfectly obvious that X or Y was an informer, it is almost impossible to prove it. The law demands supportive material that more often than not is simply not available. For example, the law requires a signed agreement between the security services and the informer or a handwritten report from the agent. It has often happened in the past that the “maligned victim” dragged the historian to court and won because these demands were not met. Historian Krisztián Ungváry claims that as long as the 2003 law is in force nothing will change. For the time being all public figures can rest easy: their “sterling reputations” are being protected by the Hungarian government.

The procedure a historian must go through at ASzTL reminds me of my own experience in the Hungarian National Archives in the 1960s. One had to define one’s research topic quite narrowly–in my case, the foreign policy of the Friedrich government in 1919. I wanted to look at the transcripts of the cabinet meetings. Instead of giving me the full transcripts, the staff extracted only those parts that dealt with foreign policy. One was at their mercy. I assume the situation is similar at ASzTL. Let’s assume that in order to get a full picture of a specific case one needs to look at files on others. Surely, according to the present rules, this is not allowed.

Some people claim that nobody is interested in the issue. Who cares? people say. It was a long time ago. Why disturb the past? It is over with. At one point Bence Rétvári (KDNP), at the time the political undersecretary of the justice department, came up with the brilliant idea that the whole archives should be dismantled and that anyone who has a file should just pick it up and take it home. This kind of talk totally disregards the fact that the history of those 40 years requires an understanding of the enormous network which over the years might have had about 200,000 members. Ever since 1990 the issue has been discussed back and forth, committees have been formed, but governments made sure that the public would know as little as possible about the potentially checkered past of present-day politicians.

In 2002, after the public learned that Prime Minister Péter Medgyessy had been a paid officer of the counter-intelligence unit of the ministry of interior, a committee was set up that became known as the Mécs Committee after Imre Mécs (SZDSZ), its chairman. The commission, because of Fidesz’s obstruction, got nowhere. But apparently those members of the commission who had access to the files found at least ten politicians from the post-1990 period who had worked for the internal security forces.

In fact, as far back as 1990 Miklós Németh, the last prime minister of the old regime, was said to have handed over a long list of former informers who had important positions in the newly formed parties and later became members of parliament or members of the Antall government. This list of informers was leaked by someone called “Szakértő 90” in 2005 and is still available on the internet. In the interim historians have published several articles about the shady past of public figures–for example, János Martonyi, foreign minister in the first and second Orbán governments. He was one of the people who successfully sued Krisztián Ungváry.

It would be high time to set the record straight, but I have my doubts.

March 12, 2017

U.S. Undersecretary Sarah Sewall in Hungary

Sarah Sewall, U.S. undersecretary for civilian security, democracy, and human rights, paid a visit to Hungary at the end of May. As one of the Hungarian papers noted, she was the highest-ranking U.S. diplomat to visit Hungary since the summer of 2011, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a quick trip to Hungary.

Before Sewall was appointed to this post in February 2014, she taught at the Kennedy School and at the Naval War College. She served as deputy assistant secretary in the Department of Defense during the Clinton administration. She is a graduate of Harvard College and as a Rhodes scholar got her Ph.D. at Oxford.

Sewall’s name should be familiar to those who follow U.S.-Hungarian relations because, for about a week at the end of 2014, Hungarian papers gave her extensive coverage. The reason was a speech she delivered at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In it she announced that the U.S. government had set aside $100 million to combat corruption in Central and East European countries because “corruption alienates and angers citizens, which can cause them to lose faith in the state, or, worse, fuel insurgencies and violent extremism.” Therefore, helping these countries fight corruption is in the interest of the United States. The Hungarian reaction to her speech was antagonistic. Viktor Orbán interpreted the U.S. “action plan” as a hostile act by which the United States had declared Hungary to be a “field of operation.”

Undersecretary Sarah Sewall / Magyar Nemzet / Photo: Attila Béres

Undersecretary Sarah Sewall / Magyar Nemzet / Photo: Attila Béres

Sewall’s visit to Hungary was a first for the undersecretary. She met with government officials, opposition leaders, journalists, and judges. She delivered a speech at the Magyar Újságírók Országos Szövetsége (MÚOSZ), which was described by the English-language government propaganda publication Hungary Today as thinly-veiled criticism of the Hungarian government. Magyar Idők sent a journalist to the event, but his summary of the speech was brief and greatly toned down.

Since the speech is available online, it is not necessary to summarize it at length, but here are a few snippets. Sewall emphasized that democracy must be defended “not only against threats from without, but also inevitable pressures from within.” Or, “we have seen how demagogues can exploit difficult moments for political gain by playing to our worst human impulses and targeting the constitutional rights and institutions designed to limit the power of those impulses.” Or, “We all know that, at times, democratic majorities can stray from democratic values. By upholding individual rights, however, democracies protect the few from the abuse of the many, and empower them to challenge majority views that conflict with democratic values.” Or, “as undemocratic forces seek to consolidate power and escape accountability, they often target independent media and other checks and balances.” Or, “They also use corruption to corrode the rule of law and buy off opponents. Or they push through significant changes to laws and the constitution with little or no consultation with citizens and opposition parties.” Surely, anyone who’s familiar with the situation in Hungary will recognize that Sewall was talking about the Orbán government throughout her speech.

Ádám Csillag, the man who without any compensation records all important events staged in defense of Hungarian democracy, also videotaped the speech.

Of course, I quoted only a handful of sentences from Sewall’s speech, but the undersecretary covered issues like free elections, free media, checks and balances, and the need for an independent judiciary. She fielded questions concerning the independence of the Constitutional Court and the electoral law, which cannot be a guarantee of fair elections. Her staff had prepared her well because she even knew that “a Hungarian television station reported that government officials had ‘instructed’ senior managers on which politicians to interview and which topics to cover.” She was talking about the head of HírTV.

We also know quite a bit about what transpired between László Trócsányi, minister of justice, and Sarah Sewall. Magyar Idők summarized the ministry’s side of the story, from which we learn that, in addition to Trócsányi, Gergely Prőhle was also present. Prőhle is one of those diplomats who was dismissed during the summer of 2014 when, during Tibor Navracsics’s brief tenure as foreign minister, the administration got rid of close to 200 diplomats from the ministry and replaced them with political loyalists. Prőhle, as far as I know, for months didn’t know what his fate would be, but eventually Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources, created a post for him. He is now deputy undersecretary responsible for international and European Union affairs. What that means in a ministry dealing with education, healthcare, sports, and Roma affairs I wouldn’t know. It seems, however, that whenever the Orbán government wants to produce “a moderate face” for foreign consumption, they drag out Prőhle.

Even from Magyar Idők’s summary it is clear that Sewall brought up uncomfortable questions about the state of constitutional guarantees. Trócsányi assured her that all disputed questions had been settled during the second Orbán government and even Hungary’s “European partners” consider the case closed. The minister gave a lecture to Sewall on the new Hungarian constitution and the institutions that safeguard basic rights. As for questions concerning the freedom of the media, Hungary settled all those issues with the European Council and the Council of Europe. The last sentence of the communiqué stated that “the two sides agreed that Hungarian-American relations are very extensive and they are solid foundations for further cooperation which both sides find important. There was also consensus about the necessity of a dialogue in the spirit of alliances.”

Sewall’s own report on the meeting wasn’t that upbeat. She described the meeting to Magyar Nemzet as “an honest and occasionally tough talk.” Both sides had an opportunity to explain their positions, but “there are many points where the Hungarian and the American positions differ.” After probing for specifics, Sewall brought up the legal changes introduced in the last few years. She also expressed her dismay over the conspiracy theories the Hungarian government concocts. She specifically objected to János Lázár’s accusation that President Barack Obama wants to flood Europe with Muslim immigrants.

I often comment on the inordinate number of articles that can appear on Hungarian-language internet sites in response to certain events. Literally hundreds in a day or two. On Sarah Sewall’s hard-hitting speech, however, I found only a handful. Few reporters showed up at her speech in the headquarters of the Hungarian Journalists’ Association. To my great surprise, HVG  didn’t send anyone to cover the story. The short article they published was based on reports by Origo and Népszabadság. As for the parties, Fidesz reprinted the ministry of justice’s communiqué but MSZP didn’t consider Sewall’s visit important enough to mention. The only party that issued a statement of its own was the Demokratikus Koalicíó (DK). Attila Ara-Kovács, head of DK’s foreign affairs cabinet, gave it a witty title: “The United States sent a message that Orbán would also understand.” It is a takeoff on the latest mega-poster of the government that encourages Hungarians to vote in the forthcoming referendum on “compulsory quotas.” The poster reads: “Let’s send a message to Brussels so they would understand.”

A footnote to this story. Right beside Ambassador Bell was an invited guest: János Martonyi, former foreign minister of Viktor Orbán. I would love to know why American diplomats feel compelled to invite him to all functions in which there is an American presence. Why do they think that he, unlike other members of present and past administrations of Viktor Orbán, is a perfect democrat? All told, this man served under Viktor Orbán for eight years and served him loyally. I have never heard him express any misgivings about the direction in which Viktor Orbán was taking the country. He defended him at every turn. Yet, regardless of whether Republicans or Democrats run the United States there is János Martonyi, everybody’s favorite. If I just knew why.

 June 2, 2016

AMBASSADOR ELENI KOUNALAKIS ON HER YEARS IN HUNGARY, PART III

My two posts on Eleni Kounalakis’s book about her years in Budapest as U.S. ambassador elicited a great many comments. In fact, the debate continues among the active commenters to Hungarian Spectrum. Some were very harsh on the United States for not taking a stronger stance against the growing manifestations of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s antidemocratic measures. Others correctly pointed out that no country has the right to tell another one what to do and what not to do. The blame, these people argued, lies with the Hungarian electorate that handed Fidesz a super-majority, which enabled Viktor Orbán to enact about 700 laws in the course of four years. Most of these laws chipped away at the democratic achievements of Hungarian lawmakers between 1990 and 2010.

Indeed, as many of you so often remind your fellow commenters, it is only the Hungarian people who can get rid of Viktor Orbán and his mafia state. The United States has no leverage over Hungary. The European Union’s clout is limited. Admittedly, Brussels could have been more forceful when it came to the generous subsidies that ended up in the pockets of Viktor Orbán’s oligarchs. In fact, in large measure it was the European Union that kept Viktor Orbán in power over the past five years.

I think the American Embassy staff did their best to gently nudge Hungarian government officials toward democratic solutions. I have the feeling that other embassies did even less than that. The problem, as I see it, was that the Americans did not fully understand the nature of Viktor Orbán’s regime, so they put an awful lot of energy into a cause that was hopeless from the very beginning.

Eleni Kounalakis at her swearing in ceremony as U.S. ambassador to Hungary with Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi and her father Angelo

Eleni Kounalakis at her swearing-in ceremony as U.S. Ambassador to Hungary with Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi, her father Angelo, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

Eleni Kounalakis, after her first disastrous encounter with Orbán, came up with a plan. She would “extend an olive branch to the touchy opposition leader, a message that I wanted to try to work with him in spite of our rough start.” (p. 44) Such a strategy is usually successful, but what Kounalakis didn’t seem to know is that, for Viktor Orbán, an olive branch means weakness.

Kounalakis writes about the extensive preparation she received before her departure to Budapest, but her “handlers” neglected to prepare her with a “course on Viktor Orbán.” It is hard to imagine, however, that Jeffrey Levine, her deputy-chief-of-mission for the first six months, didn’t fill her in. But most likely she was charmed by Viktor Orbán, who, according to people who have met him, is a very charismatic person. Kounalakis herself tells us that “whenever I briefed visitors about to meet Orbán, I always noted that they would be surprised by how much they liked him. Usually, having heard so many negative reports about him, they didn’t believe me, but my prediction always came true…. [He usually] charmed his guests with clever observations and funny, self-deprecating comments.” (p. 164) Obviously, this tactic worked for a while with Kounalakis as well.

In addition to Viktor Orbán’s alleged charms, I think there were two people in the cabinet who were largely responsible for the relatively benign attitude of foreign countries toward Orbán’s regime. I have in mind János Martonyi and Tibor Navracsics. It is hard to imagine that these two intelligent men could embrace the tenets and practices of the Orbán government. And yet one cannot say that they didn’t know who Viktor Orbán was. They had worked closely with him ever since 1998 when Martonyi became foreign minister and Navracsics was in the prime minister’s office.

In 2010 Martonyi’s second stint as foreign minister was never in question, although he was about to be put in an even more humiliating position than he had endured the first time around. During his first term as foreign minister his job was to explain away Orbán’s gaffes. By his second term he became totally irrelevant. And yet he still managed to convince foreign diplomats of the good intentions of the Hungarian government even though it should have been crystal clear to everybody, including Eleni Kounalakis, that Martonyi simply didn’t matter.

Navracsics is equally guilty of serving a corrupt and undemocratic government. Being a legal scholar as well as a political scientist, he must have known that Orbán’s policies were a deadly blow to Hungarian democracy. Yet he used his gentlemanly manners and considerable intellect to mislead his well-meaning negotiating partners.

These smooth operators, these enablers of Orbán are perhaps more guilty than Orbán himself. Orbán has a vision, however warped, but Martonyi and Navracsics, who should have known better, willingly and ably served a regime rotten to the core. Kounalakis, who speaks so highly of these two men, should have understood that they were the ones who were largely responsible for her misplaced trust in the Orbán government.

Eleni Kounalakis was in her post for almost two years before she realized that she had been taken. In the summer of 2011, that is after a year and a half as ambassador, she was still ready to resign if Hillary Clinton, during a short visit to Budapest, delivered a strong speech criticizing the Orbán administration’s domestic policies. The speech was written in the State Department without her input. She was horrified that Clinton would deliver “a lecture on the Hungarian political reform process. And she would do all this before she met with him privately.” (p. 180) But six months later, when the cardinal laws related to the judiciary were passed without addressing any of the concerns the Americans had raised, she suddenly understood that she had been badly misled by her Hungarian friends in the different ministries.

It’s over, I thought, shoulders slumping. My efforts to help the Hungarian government government prove its commitment to democratic principles, to encourage lawmakers to listen to all their constituents, had failed. I was disappointed and angry that I’d been misled. (p. 193)

It now became clear to her that she had been dealing with a bunch of liars, including her favorite Martonyi and Navracsics. Yet she made one final attempt, writing an article titled “A Second Look” in which she asked “lawmakers to reconsider some of the most controversial of the cardinal laws, including those related to the judiciary, religious organizations, and the media.” Hillary Clinton also tried to plead, to no avail, with Viktor Orbán in a private letter that was leaked. I myself received a copy of it and published it on December 30, 2011. On January 1 the new constitution, unaltered, became the law of the land.

That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Eleni Kounakalis refused to attend the celebration to mark the great day held in the Opera House. An official of the State Department suggested that she might take a quick trip to Vienna, but she decided that if she “wasn’t going to attend the celebration, [she] wasn’t going to be coy about it…. This was without a doubt the lowest point of [her] ambassadorship.” (p. 194)

I do realize that this had to be a bitter pill to swallow. At the same time I wonder whether perhaps she relied too heavily on government informants and neglected to talk with some of the more important figures in the opposition and some of the Hungarian scholars who had great reservations about Viktor Orbán and his policies. But I have the feeling that she wouldn’t have believed them, given her faith in the Orbán government at that stage. She writes that “in all fairness, I should note that for weeks anti-Orbán pundits had been declaring that in handing [Orbán] a supermajority the Hungarian people had signed a death warrant for Hungarian democracy. While these pundits included well-respected and well-informed Hungarian American scholars, they were almost all people who had a personal history with Orbán.” (p.85) Perhaps Eleni Kounalakis could have saved herself a lot of grief if she had listened to these “pundits” in Hungary and in the United States.

Ambassador Eleni Kounalakis on her years in Hungary, Part I

I just received Eleni Kounalakis’s Madam Ambassador: Three Years of Diplomacy, Dinner Parties, and Democracy in Budapest (New York: The New Press), recounting her years in Budapest as U.S. Ambassador. I must say that I was pleasantly surprised by the book, which luckily, despite its subtitle, has little to do with dinner parties. Instead, we have an account of the turbulent first three years of the Orbán administration (January 2010-July 2013), told from the perspective of someone who desperately tried to develop a friendly relationship with the Hungarian officials with whom she had to deal.

As far as I know, no former U.S. ambassador to Hungary has written a book about his or her stay in Budapest since John F. Montgomery’s Hungary: The Unwilling Satellite (1947), which is by and large an apologia for the pro-German policies of Admiral Horthy and his governments. So, it is not an everyday affair that a book is published about U.S. -Hungarian relations that allows us to glimpse behind the scenes.

madam ambassadorKounalakis was a political appointee, as most U.S. ambassadors to Budapest are, and therefore upon her arrival she was pretty green, especially since originally she was supposed to be sent to Singapore and the State Department initially prepared her for that post. From sentences dropped here and there, I came to the conclusion that she had very little knowledge of the recent history of the country. What I mean by “recent” is the last 10-12 years of Hungarian politics, because otherwise she should have known that her stay in Budapest was going to be anything but dull, as she anticipated. From her book we also learn that the officials of the U.S. Embassy seemed to have forgotten the years of the first Orbán government (1998-2000) and occasionally showed signs of political naivete when it came to assessing the policies of the prime minister.

I will write more about this book later because the author discusses many aspects of U.S.-Hungarian relations during her tenure. Here I would like to concentrate on Eleni Kounalakis’s attitude toward the Orbán government and her personal relations with Viktor Orbán.

My impression is that while she had uneasy feelings about the direction in which Hungary was headed under the premiership of Viktor Orbán, she desperately tried to convince herself that she would be able to have good relations with the members of the Hungarian government. Orbán himself might be a difficult man, but he “had managed to attract some of conservative Hungary’s best and brightest to work in his government.” She “reasoned that if he was ever tempted to throw a grenade into the U.S.-Hungarian relationship … his own ministers might be motivated enough to hold him back.” (p. 105) Anyone who’s familiar with the servile ministers around Orbán knows that Kounalakis was sadly mistaken in her assessment.

She was especially impressed with Foreign Minister János Martonyi and Justice Minister Tibor Navracsics and describes both of them in glowing terms. Navracsics was “a star of Hungarian politics,” “a brilliant transatlanticist.” For some strange reason she believes that Navracsics was “a politician in his own right, with his own following” and that it was Orbán’s good fortune that he joined his cabinet. In fact, as we know, Navracsics served Orbán well. He could explain in a most reasonable manner how Orbán’s undemocratic policies were not undemocratic at all. A case in point  is a conversation between Attorney General Eric Holder and Navracsics that resulted in Holder’s not bringing up the question of the Hungarian media law because Navracsics “eloquently explained the government’s position.” (p. 163) János Martonyi was equally useful in persuading the Americans that all would be well with the new constitution. In fact, when some small changes were made to the constitution in the summer of 2012 the U.S. officials in Budapest “were very proud that our intervention had resulted in many tangible improvements.” (p. 197)

Other ministers with whom Kounalakis had close relations were Interior Minister Sándor Pintér and Defense Minister Csaba Hende. There are two chapters in which Csaba Hende is the main character, one titled “Travels with Csaba” and the other “Afghanistan Revisited.” But more about them later.

Kounalakis arrived in Budapest in January 2010, practically in the middle of the election campaign. She wanted to meet Orbán, especially since the Americans on the spot heard rumors that Orbán “regretted not working with the United States in a more collaborative way during his first stint as prime minister.” (p. 41) But the meeting was a disaster, due both to Kounalakis’s inexperience and to Orbán’s way of dealing with people with whom he disagreed. The second meeting, however, a few months later, went well, and one senses that the American ambassador was impressed with the “clean-cut, sharply dressed, confident young staffers, busily moving around with efficiency and purpose.” (p. 82)

This kind of ambivalence is evident throughout her book. But she was not alone in failing to grasp the true nature of Viktor Orbán and the people working for him. For example, although the staff of the embassy realized that “the new prime minister and his supermajority in Parliament added a certain level of unpredictability,” they believed that “Orbán would be careful because of the historic importance of Hungary’s first EU presidency.” The Americans were wrong. Hungary took over the presidency on January 1, 2011, and “on January 2, all hell broke loose.” (pp. 156-157) The media law was passed.

Perhaps the best example of  how Eleni Kounalakis, despite her protestation to the contrary, misjudged Viktor Orbán is her description of Viktor Orbán’s performance in Strasbourg before the European Parliament. It is worth quoting the whole passage:

Orbán went to Strasbourg on January 19 [2011] to speak to the European Parliament on general EU matters, but he ended up confronting a hostile gathering. Socialist parliamentarians appeared with duct tape over their mouths to protest the new media restrictions, and “Danny the Red”–Daniel Marc Cohn-Bendit, a German Green Party member–lashed out at Orbán from the floor, comparing him to Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez. Orbán calmly rebutted the criticism and promised to abide by the European Commission’s forthcoming legal opinion on the new media law–as long as the same standards applied to all EU members. With his cool responses to the circus that the Socialists created, Orbán was able to frame the debate of the Hungarian media law along partisan political lines. When I went to see Péter Szijjártó, the prime minister’s senior adviser, a few days after Orbán’s EU speech, he gleefully reported that “we are getting calls from conservative politicians from all over Europe, congratulating us for standing up to these liberals. The response from our friends is overwhelming.” (p. 159)

Just to balance this description of Orbán’s appearance in Strasbourg, I will quote from my post titled “The Hungarian Prime Minister in Strasbourg: A Day Later”:

It is one thing to read written reports of an event and something else to see it on video. It also helps to read other people’s reactions a day after. I did both this morning and I must say that today I consider Viktor Orbán’s performance in the European Parliament a disaster.
….
At the beginning of this post I talked about the two Viktor Orbáns. The one that tries to impress the world outside of Hungary and the other not-so-nice domestic Viktor Orbán. A Jekyll and Hyde story that could be played by Orbán while in opposition. The question was how long he could play the same game when in power. The answer is: the game is over. He showed his true self when he answered his critics in Strasbourg. He talked very loudly and his voice by that time had become hoarse. He tried occasionally to be light-hearted but his levities fell flat. For example, when he claimed that he feels quite at home because he receives criticism in similar tones in Hungary. He paused for a second, hoping for an applause that didn’t come.

What did she intend to convey about Viktor Orbán in an exchange with Condoleezza Rice? “So,”[Rice] asked, “you are saying he’s a bully but not a brute?” A bully is certainly better than a brute. What does that mean from the point of view of the U.S. government? Not so dangerous?

There is a fairly long description of a conversation between President Bill Clinton and Kounalakis in his office in New York. Clinton wanted to know what she thought of Viktor Orbán. Here is the whole conversation:

Mr. President, some people say he’s crazy. I don’t think that’s right. I see him as a very smart, very rational man. But he doesn’t seem to me to have the same concept, the same definitions as we do of democracy, freedom, and even free markets. I think he sees himself as the only one who can protect the Hungarian people from what he believes are corrupting outside influences…. But when it comes to the larger issues we’ve been talking about, like energy security for Europe and the Eastern Partnership–and Afghanistan–we are still very much on the same page as the Hungarians. They are as much a reliable partner on international issues now as they have ever been. (p. 259)

Eleni Kounalakis’s confidence was tested when, not long after this conversation, “Hungary faced a decision that pitted its economic interests against its diplomatic ones. The choice would, for the first time, shake our faith in the country’s reliability as a partner and cast a pall over our relations.” (p. 259) She was talking about the release of Ramil Safarov, an Azeri who was serving a life sentence in Budapest for the ax murder of an Armenian.

Kounalakis’s final meeting with Viktor Orbán, when she was about to leave her post, was freewheeling. Out of the blue Orbán began talking about Milan Kundera’s book The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Kounalakis took the opportunity to say that for Kundera “freedom meant the ability to live free from oppression–especially free from oppression by your own government. That’s what democracy is all about.” Orbán’s “eyes narrowed and he waved his hand abruptly as if to beat away the comment. ‘All this talk about democracy is bullshit!'” The departing U.S. ambassador couldn’t quite believe what she heard. “He probably didn’t mean to say that democracy was bullshit, but that he rejected, and resented, my raising the subject with him again.” (pp. 281-82) I wonder what Kounalakis thinks now after hearing the Hungarian prime minister talk about “illiberal democracy” and even the superiority of autocracy over democracy.

The man behind the Russian-Hungarian rapprochement: Ernő Keskeny

A few days ago a fascinating article appeared about the diplomatic impasse in which Viktor Orbán finds himself. It was written by Szabolcs Panyi of Index. Most of the information the journalist received seems to have come from disgruntled diplomats who either have already lost their jobs or fear that they will in the near future.

Earlier I wrote about the massive firings that took place last year. The first round of pink slips were handed out after the arrival of Tibor Navracsics as interim minister of foreign afffairs. The second, when Péter Szijjártó became the new minister.

It is customary to make personnel changes when there is a change of government, and therefore it was not at all surprising that in 2010, after the formation of the second Orbán government, the newly-appointed minister, János Martonyi, got rid of many of the top diplomats of the earlier socialist-liberal governments. The cleanup was thorough, more thorough than is usual in Hungary.  So, the diplomats who today are complaining about the direction of Hungarian diplomacy are not socialist or liberal leftovers. On the contrary, they are people who wholeheartedly supported the Orbán government’s foreign policy. At least until recently.

Panyi’s article covers many topics, each of which deserves deeper analysis. Today I am focusing on what–or, more accurately, who–is responsible for the present state of Russian-Hungarian relations. In the opinion of the more seasoned diplomats, “the lack of knowledge of Russia in the government is astonishing.” The Russia experts in the ministry were systematically excluded from any decision-making. The prime minister made decisions on the basis of personal contacts. One key player was Ernő Keskeny, today Hungarian ambassador to Kiev.

Anyone who wants to go beyond the bare bones biographical data about Keskeny available on the website of the Hungarian government should visit the Russian-language website Regnum. Apparently this news portal employs a fair number of former secret service experts who presumably are quite familiar with Keskeny. He is described as something of a country bumpkin “without diplomatic education or foreign diplomatic gloss” who comes “from the bottom of Hungarian society.” His education began in a vocational school. Later he studied in a pedagogical institute in Nyíregyháza. Eventually he received a university degree from ELTE, as Regnum notes, “in absentia.” Years later he received his Ph.D. in Russian Studies, also at ELTE. Apparently, it was Foreign Minister Géza Jeszenszky who helped him get a job in the ministry (1990-1994). By 1995 he became head of the Hungarian consulate in St. Petersburg. During the first Orbán administration he was ambassador to Moscow.

Keskeny is known as a rabid Russophile and as someone who knows Vladimir Putin quite well, most likely from the years he spent in St. Petersburg in the 1990s. Apparently, he was the one who arranged the first meeting between Putin and Orbán in November 2009, and ever since he has been promoting close relations between the two countries. He is described by Regnum as not too smart but a “reliable workhorse” who looks “more like a bandit than a diplomat.” Keskeny seems to be the chief adviser to Viktor Orbán on Russia.

Ernő Keskeny, standing in the background on the left, Moscow, December 2014

Ernő Keskeny, standing in the background on the left, Moscow, December 2014

Between 2010 and 2014, when he was in the Foreign Ministry, he was head of the department dealing with Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Later he was also named to be ministerial councillor in charge of the Commonwealth of Free Nations. Keskeny was known in the ministry as an unwavering supporter of a pro-Russian policy. As early as 2010 he tried to convince Martonyi to turn toward Russia, but at that time Martonyi could still prevent such a diplomatic move. As time went on, however, Keskeny gained more and more influence. As one of Index‘s sources put it, “everything concerning Russia went through Ernő Keskeny without any transparency or control.”

And now we come to the most frightening aspect of Keskeny’s role in Russian-Ukrainian-Hungarian relations. In November 2014 he was named ambassador to Kiev. One really wonders what message this is meant to send to the Ukrainian government. Keskeny’s devotion to Mother Russia is well known. Why did Orbán post him to Kiev? As one of Index‘s informers put it, sending Keskeny to Kiev is like sending him to Siberia. He will not be able to move an inch there. No one will talk to him. He will be totally useless in the Ukrainian capital. What worries people in the foreign ministry is that sending Keskeny to Kiev is “a gesture toward Russia.” Another source who is less antagonistic toward Keskeny thinks that he was sent there because he is “a hard worker” and the post in Kiev is not an easy one, a hypothesis that agrees with Regnum‘s description of the man.

Index learned who some of the more important pro-Russian people are in the ministry: Csaba Balogh, deputy undersecretary in charge of the Eastern Opening; János Balla, the new ambassador to Moscow; and Péter Györkös, ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary, permanent representative of Hungary to the Council of the European Union. Today there are still approximately one hundred graduates of the Moscow Diplomatic Academy who work in the Hungarian foreign ministry. Not all are pro-Russian, of course. But the ministry faithfully carries out Viktor Orbán’s pro-Russian policy.

Index‘s sources believe that by now Orbán realizes that his policies have led to isolation, but I would disagree. Today in the presence of the visiting Turkish prime minister he was still clinging to his ideas for a Turkish-Macedonian-Serbian pipeline.

The sorry state of Hungarian foreign policy

This morning I listened to lectures delivered at a conference,”Az elszigetelt Magyarország és a globális világ” (Isolated Hungary and the Global World), that took place on Friday. The conference was organized by Attila Ara-Kovács, who is currently heading the foreign policy “cabinet” of the Demokratikus Koalíció (DK) and who earlier worked in the foreign ministry under László Kovács. Ara-Kovács was joined by Charles Gati, professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, for a conversation centering on U.S.-Hungarian relations. Mátyás Eörsi, who was undersecretary of foreign affairs between 1997 and 1999, assessed the Orbán government’s foreign policy and came to the conclusion that as such it doesn’t really exist. Ferenc Gyurcsány delivered a short speech in which he insisted that the whole political system built by Viktor Orbán must be dismantled. There is no possibility of changing the current foreign policy strategy because that would mean a denial of “the essence of the system.” Zoltán Sz. Biró, an expert on Russia, delivered a fascinating lecture on the state of the Russian economy. Finally, Zoltán Balázs, a political scientist whose sympathies lie with the right of center, offered a few critical remarks, saying among other things that the speakers had ignored the resilience of Orbán’s followers. Orbán may go but his devoted admirers remain, and for them Hungary’s martyr complex is very much a reality. I can strongly recommend these lectures to anyone who understands the language.

Zoltán Sz. Biró, while outlining the grave Russian economic situation, expressed his surprise at the ignorance of Hungarian policymakers about the real state of affairs in Russia. Don’t they ever look at the economic and financial data available online? Obviously not, because otherwise Viktor Orbán and Péter Szijjártó should have been more cautious in their approach toward Moscow. But behind their Russia policy is Viktor Orbán’s mistaken notion of “the decline of the West” and thus he put all his eggs in one basket. By now it looks as if even the enlargement of Paks will come to naught.

As for the diplomatic corps, according to Mátyás Eörsi fear is widespread because of the hundreds of “pink slips” handed out to old-timers with diplomatic experience at the foreign ministry in the wake of János Martonyi’s departure. One “bad” sentence and the person’s job is in jeopardy. Thus, nobody offers any opinion that might differ from that of the “diplomatic expert,” Viktor Orbán.

Ferenc Gyurcsány and M. André Goodfriend at the Conference on Hungary in Isolation and the Global World

Ferenc Gyurcsány and M. André Goodfriend at the Conference on Hungary in Isolation and the Global World

The housecleaning was so thorough that Szijjártó proudly announced that “we will lay the foundations of the new Hungarian foreign policy irreversibly, once and for all.” They will not retreat but forge ahead according to what they consider to be Hungary’s economic interest. Two weeks later it was announced that out of the staff of 900 at the ministry more than 200 will be fired, including some who were brought in by Tibor Navracsics a few months earlier. As a result there is total chaos in the ministry, whose new spokesman is a former sports reporter.

Not only is the ministry’s staff decimated but certain background institutions like the Magyar Külügyi Intézet (Hungarian Institute of Foreign Affairs) no longer exist since its entire research staff resigned en bloc. The administration is in the throes of “reorganization” of the institute. It’s no wonder that no one was prepared for the crisis in U.S.-Hungarian relations that came to the fore in mid-October.

By October and November there was such chaos in the ministry that some of the diplomats were certain that Szijjártó couldn’t possibly remain in his new position. Rumors circulated at the time that the ministry of foreign affairs and foreign trade would split into two ministries and that Szijjártó would be in charge of foreign trade only. This was probably a reflection of the long-suffering diplomats’ wishful thinking.

Others were convinced that Orbán will change his foreign policy orientation and will give up his anti-West rhetoric and policies. However, Attila Ara-Kovács in an article that appeared in Magyar Narancs outlined the impossibility of such a scenario. In the same article Ara-Kovács shed light on the atmosphere at the ministry of foreign affairs nowadays. An ambassador with close ties to Fidesz happened to be back in Hungary and wanted to talk to his superiors in the ministry. He was not allowed to enter the building because, as he was told by the security officer at the door, “you are on the list of those who are forbidden to wander around the corridors alone.”

Since then the situation has only gotten worse.  According to insiders, “in the last two months the chief preoccupation in the ministry is saving one’s job.” By October 34 ambassadors were sacked in addition to the hundreds who were fired earlier. János Martonyi, the previous foreign minister, because of his pro-trans-atlantic sentiments is considered to be a traitor and an American agent by those people who were brought in by Navracsics and Szijjártó from the ministry of justice and the prime minister’s office. Indicative of this new anti-American orientation, a recent order from the prime minister’s office required employees to report in writing all contacts with American diplomats over the last few years.

Szijjártó seems to have a free hand when it comes to personnel decisions. He created a job for a friend of his from the futsal team Szijjártó played on until recently. Despite no degree or experience, the futsal player will coordinate the work of the “minister’s cabinet.” For Szijjártó, as for the prime minister, it is “loyalty” that matters. Among the five undersecretaries there is only one with any diplomatic experience and he is, of all things, responsible for cultural and scientific matters. The newcomers don’t understand the world of diplomacy, so they’re creating their own rules. They are introducing a “new language” for diplomatic correspondence. They tell the old-timers that they mustn’t be “too polite” in official letters. Also, apparently they don’t consider it important to put conversations or decisions into writing. They think that a telephone conversation or perhaps an e-mail is enough. Therefore it is impossible to know what transpired between Hungarian and foreign diplomats. All that writing is cumbersome and slow. It seems that they want to follow the well-known practice of the Orbán government. A decision is made without any discussion and the next day the two-thirds majority passes the new law. But diplomacy doesn’t work that way. It is a delicate business.

Currently, I’m reading a biography of Benjamin Franklin in which his efforts at securing an alliance with France are described in some detail. It took him a year and a half to achieve that feat, which was vital for the young United States at war with Great Britain. And he was a seasoned diplomat. The new staff at the foreign ministry is decidedly unseasoned. Some of them haven’t even been schooled in foreign affairs, history, or political science. Believe it or not, two of the five undersecretaries have medical degrees. A rather odd background, I would say, for conducting foreign policy.

Diplomacy is the antithesis of everything that characterizes the Orbán government. For Viktor Orbán the “peacock dance,” which is basically nothing more than deceiving your negotiating partners, passes for diplomacy. And the new, “irreversible” foreign policy has already led Hungary to the brink of diplomatic disaster.

By the way, U.S. Chargé d’Affaires M. André Goodfriend, as you can see from the photo accompanying this post, attended the conference.

Hungary as a “field of operation”

Paranoia seems to have swept through the Hungarian government. Fidesz politicians are convinced that the United States wants to remove Viktor Orbán and cause his government’s fall. All this is to be achieved by means of the “phony” charge of corruption.

Recently a journalist working for Hetek, a publication of Hitgyülekezet (Assembly of Faith), managed to induce some high-ranking members of the government to speak about the general mood in Fidesz circles. The very fact that these people spoke, even about sensitive topics, to a reporter of a liberal paper points to tactical shifts that must have occurred within the party.

Their argument runs along the following lines. Until now the Obama administration paid little attention to the region, but this past summer the decision was made to “create a defensive curtain” in Central Europe between Russia and the West. The pretext is the alleged fight against corruption. The Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania are the targets. Fidesz politicians point to recent Slovak demonstrations against corruption which were “publicly supported” by the U.S. ambassador in Bratislava. Or, they claim, the Americans practically forced the Romanian government to take seriously the widespread corruption in the country. They are certain that the resignation of Petr Nečas, the former Czech prime minister, “under very strange circumstances” was also the work of the CIA.

In its fight against the targeted Central European governments Washington relies heavily on NGOs and investigative journalists specializing in unveiling corruption cases. George Soros’s name must always be invoked in such conspiracy theories. And indeed, Átlátszó.hu, sponsored in part by the Soros Foundation, was specifically mentioned as a tool of American political designs.

To these Fidesz politicians’ way of thinking, all of troubles recently encountered by the government are due solely to American interference. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that the government itself has given plenty of reason for public disenchantment. In fact, the first demonstrations were organized only against the internet tax. Admittedly, over the course of weeks new demands were added, and by now the demonstrators want to get rid of Viktor Orbán’s whole regime.

The Fidesz politicians who expressed an opinion think, I am sure incorrectly, that the Americans have no real evidence against Ildikó Vida and, if they do, they received it illegally. Vida got into the picture only because of the new “cold war” that broke out between the United States and Russia. Hungarian corruption is only an excuse for putting pressure on the Hungarian government because of its Russian policy and Paks.  As for Hungary’s “democracy deficit” and American misgivings about Orbán’s “illiberal state,” Fidesz politicians said that if the United States does not accept Orbán’s system of government as “democratic” and if they want Fidesz to return to the status quo ante, this is a hopeless demand. “Not one Hungarian right-wing politician would lend his name to such ‘retrogression.'”

The latest American “enemy” of the Orbán government is the State Department’s Sarah Sewall, Undersecretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, who a week ago gave a speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in which she said that “we [recently] denied visas to six Hungarian officials and their cronies due to their corruption. This action also bolstered public concern, and on November 9th, the streets of Budapest filled with 10,000 protesters who called for the resignation of corrupt public officials.” As soon as Hungarian officials discovered the text of that speech, André Goodfriend, the U.S. chargé in Budapest, was once again called into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

I think it would be a mistake to characterize the American fight against corruption simply as a smokescreen for exerting political pressure on foreign governments. Sewall in that speech explains the potentially dangerous political ramifications of corruption.

Corruption alienates and angers citizens, which can cause them to lose faith in the state, or, worse, fuel insurgencies and violent extremism…. Ukraine …provides [an] illustration of how corruption can both increase instability risks and cripple the state’s ability to respond to those risks. The Maidan Movement was driven in part by resentment of a kleptocratic regime parading around in democratic trappings.

All this makes sense to me, and what Sewall says about Ukraine is to some extent also true about Hungary. But the Fidesz leadership sees no merit in the American argument. In fact, today both Viktor Orbán and Péter Szijjártó used very strong words to accuse the United States of interfering in Hungary’s internal affairs.

"We can't pay as much in taxes as you steal"

“We can’t pay as much in taxes as you steal”

Viktor Orbán sent a message from Belgrade. The prime minister does not know why the United States put aside 100 million dollars for “the preparation of an action plan against two dozen Central- and East-European countries in order to put pressure on their governments.” The United States declared Hungary to be a “field of operation,” along with others. Referring to Sewall’s speech, he expressed his dissatisfaction that he has to learn about such plans from a public lecture. “If someone wants to work together with Hungary or with any Central-European government for a good cause, we are open. We don’t have to be pressured, there is no need to spend money behind our backs, there is no necessity of organizing anything against us because we are rational human beings and we are always ready to work for a good cause.” It is better, he continued, to be on the up and up because Hungarians are irritated by slyness, trickery, and diplomatic cunning. They are accustomed to straightforward talk. (He presumably said this with a straight face.)

Viktor Orbán’s reference to the military term “field of operation” captured the imagination of László Földi, a former intelligence officer during the Kádár regime as well as for a while after 1990, who announced that in secret service parlance “field of operation” means that every instrument in the intelligence service can be used to undermine the stability of a country. The Americans’ goal, as Orbán sees it, is the removal of his government.

Meanwhile the staff of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade who were brought in by Péter Szijjártó are solidly anti-American. They consider the diplomats who served under János Martonyi to be “American agents” because of their alleged trans-atlantic sentiments. So I don’t foresee any improvement in American-Hungarian relations in the near future, unless the economic and political troubles of Putin’s Russia become so crippling that Orbán will have to change his foreign policy orientation. But given the ever shriller condemnations and accusations, it will be difficult to change course.