Tag Archives: Jenő Megyesy

Carter Page in Budapest

It’s time to devote a post to Carter Page, one of the five foreign policy advisers on Donald Trump’s election campaign team. He recently had a lengthy encounter with the House Intelligence Committee, which was interested not only in his relations with Russian government officials but also in his trip to Budapest over the Labor Day weekend in 2016. Carter Page is the founder and managing partner of Global Energy Capital, a New York investment fund and consulting firm specializing in the Russian and Central Asian oil and gas business. Although from the transcript of his testimony he comes across as someone who can’t even cobble together a complete sentence, his academic credentials, including a Ph.D. from SOAS University of London, would suggest that he cannot be as dumb as he pretends to be.

The transcript that the House Intelligence Committee released, with very few redactions, is 208 pages long. Even the relatively minor topic of his trip to Budapest occupies 13 pages. Most journalistic analyses of Page’s testimony stress the confusion the so-called foreign policy expert managed to sow. Surely, the argument goes, Page had plenty of time to craft his muddled testimony carefully, because he had known, at least since June or July of this year, that the FBI was on his trail.

Why did Carter Page visit Budapest in September 2016? At the moment we cannot give a credible answer to this question, but it was not merely a pleasure trip. This is what we know about the events leading up to the trip. Hungarian Ambassador Réka Szemerkényi met Carter Page at the Republican National Convention, which was held in Cleveland, Ohio between July 18 and 20. They must have become friendly with one another because throughout Page’s grilling he called her by her first name. At the same event, Page also met another “foreign policy type,” perhaps from the Hungarian Embassy. Subsequently, e-mails were exchanged between them. Szemerkényi invited Page to go to Budapest in August or early September, when she was spending her vacation in Hungary.

Although Page maintained, at least at the beginning of the hearings, that he went to Hungary only to meet people who are interested in the use of geothermal energy, he had to admit by the end that he discussed foreign policy with Szemerkényi and the other unnamed official in Cleveland. Although Page’s testimony was most likely purposely vague and here and there incoherent, we learned that Page was not the only Trump adviser Szemerkényi kept in touch with. Page, who pretends not to remember names at all, didn’t recall the name of this person either, but I would venture to suggest it might have been J. D. Gordon, director of national security for the Trump campaign, who managed the National Security Advisory Committee under its chairman Senator Jeff Sessions. Gordon has had a long-standing relationship with Hungarian government figures and has been a frequent visitor to Budapest. In a recent interview he told Mandiner that over the years he had visited Hungary six times. One of the first occasions might have been in December 2013 when he delivered a lecture at a conference organized by the Antall József Knowledge Center (AJKC), a think tank with close ties to the Orbán government. He was such a hit at AJKC that he was invited two more times. The last occasion was in December 2016, after Donald Trump had been elected president of the United States.

Szemerkényi introduced Page to important people in the Hungarian government during that Labor Day weekend. Although Page testified that he met a lot of people in Budapest, he didn’t know who these people were. Hungarian names, he said, are long and complicated. I can understand his difficulties with Hungarian names, but he acted as if he had no idea what kinds of positions they occupied either. Obviously, he considered some to be more important than others. After his return to the United States, he kept in touch with the ambassador and one of the people he met in Budapest, “a scholar and an expert on foreign policy” who worked for the Hungarian government.

As to the question of whether Page met any Russians during his stay in Budapest, he gave the following answers: “Not that I can recall. There may—again, similar to—we went to a—you know, there was a hotel, and we had a coffee at a hotel, and there were a few people passing through there. But I have no recollection because it was totally immaterial and nothing serious was discussed. So—but I vaguely recall that, you know there may have been someone that we, you know…” I will let the readers decide whether Page met a Russian official in Budapest.

Now let’s turn to the Hungarian side of the story. Szabolcs Panyi of Index, who happens to be in the United States at the moment, made some inquiries and found at least one person who met with Page, as it turns out for about half an hour. Jenő Megyesy, a U.S.-Hungarian citizen, formerly a lawyer in Denver, now Viktor Orbán’s principal adviser, is the person who normally meets more important American visitors. Megyesy now claims that he was surprised by Page’s general ignorance of the fine points of the foreign policy issues of the region. Others who met him were also “disappointed” that such a man was one of Trump’s foreign policy advisers. Officials of the ministry of foreign affairs claim that nobody from the ministry had anything to do with Page. Therefore, I assume that Szemerkényi asked members of the prime minister’s office to meet Trump’s foreign policy adviser. That would make sense since Szemerkényi worked for Viktor Orbán and she was his choice for the Washington post. In fact, there was quite a bit of friction between Péter Szijjártó, the minister of foreign affairs, and Réka Szemerkényi.

Szabolcs Panyi believes that if Page pushed his pro-Russian line with Szemerkényi and Megyesy, he wouldn’t have been a hit with either of them because they are both “committed Atlantists.” I see it differently. If these people are committed at all, they are committed to Viktor Orbán. When Szemerkényi was appointed Hungarian ambassador to Washington, people familiar with their relationship said that Szemerkényi was totally devoted to Orbán and that Szemerkényi’s moving to Washington was almost as if Viktor Orbán himself were the occupant of the post. Of course, it is possible that since Viktor Orbán sacked her, her admiration for the man is a great deal less ardent.

The question remains whether Page met someone else in Budapest. For example, a Russian national residing in the Hungarian capital, perhaps a member of the Russian Embassy. The FBI, working together with secret service agents, might already have been following Page’s moves during that trip. If that is the case, we might eventually find out more about it. I disagree with one of Panyi’s informants who proposed that Page went to Budapest for a lark. There was a purpose to that trip, we just don’t know what it was and whether it was in any way nefarious.

November 13, 2017

A candid interview with Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó.    Part I

Members of the Orbán government rarely give interviews to news outlets that don’t belong to the government-controlled media empire. I can count on one hand Fidesz politicians who have dared to walk into these “lions’ dens.” In fact, I can think only of Nándor Csepreghy, deputy to János Lázár; Gergely Gulyás, deputy chairman of Fidesz and deputy speaker of parliament responsible for legislation; and Lajos Kósa, today the leader of the Fidesz delegation in parliament. It was therefore quite a surprise to see a lengthy interview with Péter Szijjártó published in Index yesterday. And even more of a surprise that the interview was refreshingly candid.

What can we learn from this interview that we didn’t know before? One cannot expect revelatory information about the general thrust of Hungarian foreign policy, but some until now unknown details emerged.

Let me start with the internal mechanism of decision-making in the Orbán government as far as foreign policy is concerned. At least according to Szijjártó. Three individuals are full-time advisers to Viktor Orbán on foreign policy. The man who is in charge of U.S.-Hungarian relations is Jenő Megyesy, formerly honorary consul in Denver, Colorado. Orbán met him in 2008 when he attended the Republican Convention and was obviously impressed with the man. Hungarians are convinced that Megyesy has an extensive political network in the U.S. and therefore is useful as an adviser. He has been employed by the prime minister’s office ever since 2010. He is the one Szijjártó turns to when it comes to matters concerning the United States.

szijjarto interview

The second adviser, Péter Gottfried, is an old-timer who has been involved in foreign trade and foreign policy ever since the late 1970s. He has served in high positions in all the post-1990 governments. According to Szijjártó, Gottfried deals exclusively with Europe.

The latest addition is József Czukor, a former intelligence officer, who started his career in 1988 at the Hungarian embassy in Bonn. He has also served all governments and has had friends on both sides of the aisle. In 2010 he was named ambassador to Germany, and in the fall he is moving into the prime minister’s office to be an overall foreign policy adviser to Orbán. From the interview Szijjártó seems to be less enthusiastic about Czukor than his boss is.

You may have noticed that there are no permanent advisers to Orbán who handle Russia and countries in the Far East. Szijjártó is, according to his own account, solely responsible for Russian-Hungarian relations. He relies on the advice of János Balla, Ernő Keskeny, and Zsolt Csutora. Balla, who has been a professional diplomat since 1982, is currently Hungarian ambassador to Russia. Keskeny is in Kiev. In February 2015 I wrote about Keskeny, whom I described as a “rabid Russophile” who allegedly was behind the Russian-Hungarian rapprochement. Subsequently, Keskeny was named ambassador to Ukraine, an appointment that the Ukrainian government couldn’t have welcomed given Keskeny’s well-known pro-Russian sympathies. Csutora began his career as an army officer in 1986 and then moved into the foreign ministry during the first Orbán government. Until recently he was ambassador to Azerbaijan.

What does Viktor Orbán consider to be the essence of Hungary’s foreign policy under his watch? When Orbán asked Szijjártó to be his foreign minister, he told him: “Péter, be a Hungarian foreign minister, and conduct a Hungarian foreign policy. That’s all he told me.” Of course, the journalists’ next question concerned the foreign policy of János Martonyi and Tibor Navracsics. Wasn’t theirs a Hungarian foreign policy? Szijjártó sidestepped that question and tried to explain that the style of foreign policy that Martonyi, for example, conducted wouldn’t work in today’s international climate. The harsher style he is using is the only one that is appropriate in the present circumstances.

As for his own less than diplomatic style, which shocks a lot of observers and analysts, Szijjártó has the perfect answer. He never starts a fight, but when someone attacks Hungary he must immediately counter it because, if there was no rapid response from Budapest, these unfair criticisms and insults would only multiply. At the probing of the interviewing journalists, Szijjártó guessed that he told off foreign politicians about 20 times during his tenure as foreign minister, although Index diligently collected 60 such instances. Szijjártó called in the ambassadors of Croatia, Romania, Austria, Greece, France, and the United States. Which countries’ leaders were given a piece of Szijjártó’s mind? Austria, the United States, Luxembourg, Greece, Germany, Croatia, Spain, France, Italy, Romania, the Netherlands, Serbia, and Sweden.

We found out who Szijjártó’s favorite ambassadors are: Iain Lindsay of the United Kingdom and Colleen Bell of the United States. I’m not surprised about Lindsay, who is an unusual sort of ambassador. On April 11, which is the day of poetry in Hungary, he recited an Attila József poem in very respectable Hungarian. As for Colleen Bell, Szijjártó has the highest opinion of her. According to him, “if Colleen Bell were not the ambassador of the United States in Hungary, political relations between [the two countries] would be much worse. She represents a very calm voice in the U.S. Embassy in Hungary and her presence has helped a lot in the somewhat improving relations between the two countries. Somewhat.”

When the journalists reminded the foreign minister that one finds the same American criticisms of the Orbán government in Bell’s public speeches that were present in André Goodfriend’s utterances, Szijjártó said: “Look, when I have a conversation with her it is a perfectly normal, honest and open talk. Such dialogue was impossible with her predecessors. She is a person who comes from the business world and is therefore pragmatic and approaches matters rationally and not emotionally.” Bell apparently occasionally does bring up these questions, but Szijjártó asked her “to bring concrete examples, not generalities because otherwise our talks will be no more than conversations between deaf people.”

In contrast to Szijjártó’s amiable relations with Colleen Bell is his strong dislike of Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, the highest ranking state department official Szijjártó has managed to meet. According to him, her criticisms were only vague generalizations. “I told Victoria Nuland after our second meeting that we should not meet again. Because there is no use further damaging our bilateral relations by her leveling unsubstantiated accusations [against Hungary] while I—how shall I say—more and more dynamically deny them because they are truly outrageous.”

From the interview I got the impression that the Hungarian government has no intention of fully investigating the corruption case the American company Bunge reported to the American authorities. I have written many articles about the case. Those of you who are unfamiliar with the story should read my last piece on the final outcome of the case. The upshot is that the prosecutors refused to investigate the case properly and brought charges only against the man who delivered the blackmail offer. They charged the messenger, not the person who sent him. The judge found him guilty, and that was, as far as the Hungarian government is concerned, the end of the matter. That the source of the blackmail offer was allegedly the director of Századvég, the same company I wrote about yesterday, was never pursued. The Orbán government refuses to move an inch on any of the corruption cases, which is perfectly understandable since corruption is at the heart of Orbán’s mafia state.

To be continued

August 3, 2016