Tag Archives: Lithuania

Viktor Orbán: “We have convinced NATO”

Viktor Orbán’s self-aggrandizing fabrications after international summits never cease to amaze me. He holds so-called press conferences, usually in Hungarian and frequently with a single reporter from M1 state TV, to explain his pivotal role in the negotiations. It is usually, he explains, at Hungary’s insistence or upon his own sage advice that the European Union, or in this case NATO, decides to pursue a certain course of action.

This time the claim is that NATO at his urging decided “to take an active part in the European Union’s efforts at solving the refugee crisis. … We managed to get NATO on our side … We stated that illegal migration must be stopped, the outside borders must be defended, uncontrolled influx carried not just civilian but military security risks.” After this grandiose announcement that gave the impression that soon enough NATO troops will be standing at the Serb-Hungarian border, he said that “first and foremost, certain NATO forces will be moved to the defense of the maritime borders.”

The fact is that NATO has had a presence in the Aegean Sea ever since February when at the request of Germany, Greece, and Turkey it joined other international efforts to deal with the crisis. NATO is also involved in stemming illegal trafficking and illegal migration. These roles were described in the “NATO Summit Guide,” released by NATO ahead of the summit. It was reported in April 2016 that “Barack Obama said he was willing to commit NATO assets to block the traffic in human beings and the people smugglers that we refer to as modern slavers.” In June The Financial Times reported that “NATO will take a more prominent role in handling the EU’s refugee crisis by expanding its presence across the Mediterranean, potentially helping to stem an increased flow of people from north Africa into Italy.” In brief, Hungary didn’t initiate anything. The decision to expand the operation has been in the works for months.

Only one Hungarian publication, 444.hu, noticed this latest untruth of Viktor Orbán.

A few hours ago Jens Stoltenberg, secretary-general of NATO, tweeted that four NATO battalions will be deployed in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. Polish, Romanian, and Bulgarian troops will also be used in this new NATO force. Note that neither Hungarian nor Slovak troops will take part in the mission. A U.S.-led battalion will be stationed in Poland. Germany will send 500 troops to Lithuania, and more soldiers will come from the Benelux countries, Norway, and France. Half a battalion, led by Great Britain, will be moved to Estonia. A full NATO battalion, led by Canada, will be sent to Latvia.

The most interesting development is the exchange of troops between Poland and Romania. A Polish brigade will be stationed in Romania, and the Romanians will send a brigade to Poland. It also seems that Bulgaria will send 400 people to Romania, and it is likely that Polish soldiers will be sent to Bulgaria. So, in a way, a kind of international force of former Soviet-dominated countries is taking shape.

Russian helicopters

Although Hungary is not sending any soldiers to regions bordering on Russia, the country will have a forty-member NATO control center (irányítási pont). Orbán is being careful to stay in the background as much as possible so as not to alienate the Russians. He did, however, specifically mention in the “press conference” that in his opinion the present military arrangement does not infringe on the “NATO-Russian agreement.”

Origo assumed that Orbán was talking about the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between NATO and Russia signed in 1997 which, according to the paper, includes a clause that prohibits the stationing of NATO troops in countries bordering on Russia. There are commentators, however, who insist that this reading of the agreement is based on a misinterpretation of the text, which has a clause stating that the prohibition is valid only “in the current and foreseeable security environment.” Those who argue that placing NATO troops in the Baltic states is perfectly legal point to “the changed security environment.”

By sending troops to Latvia and Lithuania, the NATO leadership accepted the latter interpretation. But here again Orbán invented a lofty role for himself when he said that “we persuaded NATO that no Russian interest will be violated.” Who are these persuasive “we”?

Although the analysts of the Heritage Institute, a conservative think tank, might argue that the prohibition against stationing NATO troops in countries neighboring Russia is nothing more than “a myth that has been perpetuated by the Kremlin’s propaganda machine,” the Russians see it differently. The Russian foreign ministry blasted NATO for concentrating “its efforts on deterring a non-existent threat from the east.” As had been agreed to earlier, NATO ambassadors will meet their Russian counterparts in Brussels where “Moscow will seek explanations for NATO’s plans.”

Orbán is misleading the Hungarian public about the country’s real standing in the international community and about his own role in shaping international policy. But when the government controls so much of the media it’s easy to tell tales.

July 10, 2016

Viktor Orbán crashed the party: the hosts were not pleased

A few days ago some Hungarian newspaper reporters discovered that, according to an international Russian-language site called Birzhevoi Lider, Viktor Orbán turned up uninvited–and unwelcome–in Vilnius last Sunday on the last day of a joint NATO exercise called “Iron Sword 2014.”

The story was more than media gossip. The press secretary of Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitè confirmed that Orbán had not been invited to sit in the grandstand for the military parade marking the end of an almost two-week-long military exercise against a possible attack on Lithuania from the East. Moreover, the president had no intention of meeting him. According to the article, an unannounced visit by a leading politician on such an occasion is considered to be an affront to the host country. The journalists of Birzhevoi Lider asked Laurynas Kasčiūnas, a political scientist who apparently is normally not at all critical of Orbán, for a comment. Even he was taken aback by Orbán’s brazen behavior. He pointed out that we all know why Orbán is now so eager to show his loyalty to his NATO allies, but “the European community no longer falls for Orbán’s gimmicks because Europeans have not forgotten that it is Hungary which supports Putin in Europe and that it was Budapest that stopped supplying gas to Ukraine.”

Source Magyar Nemzet / Photo Andrinus Ufartas/ MTI-EPA

Source Magyar Nemzet / Photo Andrinus Ufartas/ MTI-EPA

NATO began preparing for the defense of the Baltic States as early as 2010, right after Russia invaded Georgia. In the wake of the Russian annexation of Crimea, NATO decided to have a larger presence in the area. The first American paratroopers arrived in April and since then an international NATO battalion has been assembled in Lithuania. This task force includes 140 members of Hungary’s 5th István Bocskai Infantry Brigade.

It is a well-known fact that the leading politicians of Poland and the Baltic states have had serious differences of opinion with Viktor Orbán over his pro-Russian stand. Lithuanians were especially vocal in their condemnation of the Hungarian prime minister. You may recall Orbán’s opposition to the EU sanctions against Russia when he described the decision as a grave mistake, “shooting oneself in the foot.” In response, the Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevčius quipped that “it was better to shoot oneself in the foot than to let oneself be shot in the head.”

The president of Lithuania, Dalia Grybauskaitè, called the Iron Lady at home, is said to be ready to fight the Russians gun in hand if necessary. She is no friend of Putin, whom she described as someone who “uses nationality as a pretext to conquer territory with military means. That’s exactly what Stalin and Hitler did.” She is also a confirmed believer in the European Union. After all, she served as commissioner of education and culture in the first Barroso Commission and later as commissioner for financial programming and the budget. She has been president of Lithuania since 2009. She ran as an independent but with conservative support. “She wants to put permanent boots on the ground in the Baltics to ward off any potential threat from their Soviet-era master.” And the Lithuanian people seem to be equally determined. Her willingness to take up arms has encouraged others to follow suit. There has been a sharp rise in paramilitary recruits. During the weekend civilians receive military training. Students, businessmen, civil servants, journalists, and even politicians have joined the government-sponsored Lithuania Riflemen’s Union. These people are determined. So, for Orbán to make an uninvited appearance there was a serious diplomatic faux pas.

Almost all of the above information comes from English-language sources. Hungarian reporting on the military contingent in Lithuania is practically nonexistent. On November 4 Válasz ran a brief, fairly meaningless article on the military exercises in which soldiers from nine NATO member states are participating. In it Bálint Ablonczy showed off his Google skills, explaining who Silvestras Žukauskas was and noting that the large military center close to the city of Pabrade, near the Belarus border, bears this general’s name. I guess it was safer to talk about Žukauskas’s role in the 1918-1919 Soviet-Lithuanian war than to say something meaningful about Hungary’s participation in these NATO exercises.

Otherwise, nothing. Except we learned from Csaba Hende, minister of defense, after his return from Vilnius that the small Hungarian contingent did fantastically well. Among the troops of the nine participating states the Hungarians were first “according to all indicators.” It is hard to know what kinds of “indicators” Hende is talking about. We don’t even know whether there was such a ranking. Sorry to be so skeptical, but for a long time now government statements have not been credible. Lacking outside verification, we cannot distinguish fact from fiction–and perhaps government officials can’t either.

Viktor Orbán and the gathering storm clouds in the East

Meetings of the heads of EU member states usually last much longer than anticipated. At eight in the evening participants were still discussing who will replace Herman Van Rompuy as European Council president and Catherine Ashton as foreign policy chief.  They finally determined that the former post will be filled by Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk and the latter by Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini.

It seems, however, that the decision on further sanctions against Russia will be postponed for at least a week, although a draft of such sanctions dated August 27 exists which says that the bloc “stands ready to consider further steps” against Russia due to the “reported participation of Russian armed forces in operations on Ukrainian soil.” Petro Poroshenko, who was present at the discussions about his country, indicated that further sanctions are likely. The EU only wants to wait on implementation to see how Russia reacts to his attempt to revive a “peace plan” next week.

If Vladimir Putin’s threatening remarks are any indication, further sanctions and an increased Western military presence in Eastern Europe are indeed likely. Putin told the press that “Russia’s partners … should understand it’s best not to mess with us,” adding: “I think no one is thinking of unleashing a large-scale conflict with Russia. I want to remind you Russia is one of the leading nuclear powers.” Nuclear threat or not, the number of NATO troops in Poland and Romania has doubled already, and NATO is planning to send an additional 1,ooo troops to the region. And Britain and six other states are planning to create a new joint expeditionary force of at least 10,000 personnel to bolster NATO’s power.

map2

Meanwhile a rather frightening map was published by the Russian weekly Expert that showed the sphere of influence Russia is attempting to create. The green line indicates the reach of Soviet dominance, the red the current situation, and the orange Russian hopes for an expanded sphere of influence. That would include Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia.

Observers of Russia and its plans might be also interested in reading a statement by Kazakhstan’s 74-year-old dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev. Let me quote it verbatim from Kazakhstan’s official English-language website Tengri News.

If the rules set forth in the agreement are not followed, Kazakhstan has a right to withdraw from the Eurasian Economic Union. I have said this before and I am saying this again. Kazakhstan will not be part of organizations that pose a threat to our independence. Our independence is our dearest treasure, which our grandfathers fought for. First of all, we will never surrender it to someone, and secondly, we will do our best to protect it.

Of course, he added that nothing of the sort can possibly happen because “there are three representatives from each country [Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan] and three Vice-Prime Ministers. They also make their decisions together.”

Putin’s response to Nazarbayev’s statement called Kazakhstan’s future independence into question. Yesterday he said that Kazakhstan, although large, is only one-tenth the size of Russia. He also explained that Nazarbayev “created a state on territory where no state had ever existed. The Kazakhs had never had statehood. Nazarbayev created it. In this sense, he is a unique person for the former Soviet space and for Kazakhstan too.” But, Putin continued, underscoring his expansionist intentions, Kazakhstan is better off in the “big Russian world.”

Meanwhile Viktor Orbán, as his wont, gave a press conference upon his arrival in Brussels. Interestingly enough, he is usually driven to these meetings in his own Volkswagen minibus, an odd choice for such occasions. According to normal protocol, the hosts provide vehicles for visiting dignitaries, but for one reason or another Orbán insists on his own bus. One must wonder how this vehicle gets to Brussels. Is it driven or transported there ahead of time? Or, perhaps he has several identical vehicles?

It is also hard to know whether only Hungarian reporters are interested in what the prime minister has to say or whether journalists from other countries are also present. I suspect that only Hungarian reporters attend these events. On one of the pictures taken at the press conference I could see the mikes of only MTV and HírTV.

In Orbán’s opinion, today’s meeting was organized only for “the review and correction of the current political situation.”  The discussion centers around whether “the sanctions have reached their desired goals” but for that “we should know what the desired goals are.” He is convinced that sanctions will not work. Sanctions until now have not been successful and it would be self-deception to think that more of the same would end the conflict.

Finally, I would like to say a few words about the Conference of Western Balkan States that took place in Berlin on August 28, 2014. Participating were representatives of the European Union, Germany, Austria, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, and the Republic of Macedonia. It was called together by Chancellor Angela Merkel, who also chaired the meeting.

The idea for the conference came in response to the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I. The intention was to show commitment to the process of future enlargement of the European Union as well as to shore up relations with Serbia as a strategic partner of the EU, especially in light of the problems in Ukraine.

Serbia has, since the second half of the nineteenth century, been a close friend and ally of Russia. Its negotiations with the European Union for membership have been going on for a long time, but Serbia’s chances have been strengthened by what is going on in Ukraine. Because, as Adelina Marini of euinside.eu points out, “if Serbia becomes part of the EU, Russia will lose its influence in the Balkans or, at least, it will be significantly limited.”

However, Serbia apparently wants to have its cake and eat it too. Although it desperately wants to join the European Union, it also wants to keep its special relationship with Russia. Brussels is unlikely to accept such a “special status” for Serbia. But if Russia becomes a real threat to Europe, Serbia’s membership in the EU might help block the spread of Russian influence.

Diplomacy in Europe and especially in Eastern Europe and the Balkans is a much more complicated enterprise than it was a few years back when these countries did not have to worry about the Russian bear. Orbán’s idea that diplomacy can be pretty much replaced by foreign trade is patently wrong. The current situation is complex, negotiations are difficult, and a bad outcome would be very dangerous for Europe. And even as storm clouds are gathering in the East, Hungarian diplomacy is being guided by Péter Szijjártó, who is totally unfit for the job.

European Police College in Budapest? Not likely at the moment

While Fidesz was trying to discredit its political opponents in a tiny electoral district of a small town in Hungary, another struggle was taking place in Strasbourg over Hungary’s right to be the new site of the European Police College or CEPOL. Most likely few people have ever heard of the institution, which is currently situated in Bramshill in the United Kingdom. The UK a few months ago decided not to continue to host the college, and thus the European Commission and the Union’s other institutions had to come up with another location in one of the member countries. While they were at it, the Commission made the recommendation that CEPOL and Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency with its headquarters in The Hague, should be merged. Europol has a big, modern building, and combining the two institutions would be more cost effective. It seems that many people in the European Parliament and elsewhere in other European institutions are not too keen on the idea of the merger, believing that the college should be a professional training ground and fearing that it might be politicized by this fusion.

European Police College, Bramshill, United Kingdom

European Police College, Bramshill, United Kingdom

And now enters Lithuania, whose prime minister and right-wing political leadership have a soft spot for Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. In December 2012, for example, when the Hungarian government was under considerable pressure from Brussels because of its less than democratic tendencies, the Lithuanian parliament issued a proclamation “defending” Hungary. The Hungarians were naturally most grateful and thanked the Lithuanian people and their politicians for their brave act.

What does Lithuania have to do with the fate of CEPOL? A lot. Lithuania currently holds the presidency of the European Union. You may recall that when Hungary had the post for six months in 2011 the ministerial councils of the member states held their regular meetings in Gödöllő in the former summer palace of the Hungarian royal couple. It is Vilnius that now chairs these meetings, and on October 7 when the council of the ministers of the interior met they agreed to the Lithuanian proposal that the new headquarters of CEPOL should be in Budapest.

It turned out that seven countries had submitted proposals, but Hungary was the only country from the relative newcomers. And there is an attempt in the European Union to distribute European institutions in such a manner that eventually there would be no great differences between the long-time members and the newcomers.

For a while the Hungarian government felt pretty certain that the deal was sealed. CEPOL will be in Hungary from 2014 on. But then came all sorts of unforeseen complications, the least of which, as it turned out, was Rui Tavares’s objection to the location as long as the Hungarian government leaves the European Parliament’s report on the country’s democratic inefficiencies unanswered. In Hungary an awful lot of time and energy was wasted on Tavares’s objection. On October 14, Máté Kocsis in parliament called attention to the “communist” Comrade Tavares’s machinations in the hope of preventing CEPOL headquarters from being located in Budapest. And while he was at it, he accused the Hungarian socialist members of the European parliament of treasonous behavior because he “suspected” that they were the real instigators. Of course, that was followed by some tit for tat from MSZP, which decided to sue Kocsis.

All that was just a lot of useless noise because two days later MTI reported that “nobody stood by Tavares” at the hearings of Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE), one of the standing committees of the European Parliament. The report also added that even Kinga Göncz, one of the MSZP members of parliament, argued for the Budapest location. Magyar Nemzet was graphic. Their article, based on the MTI report, announced that “Tavares’s spectacular failure was something else!” But the problem with all this boasting about the great Hungarian victory at the hearing is that the issue didn’t hinge on Tavares’s objections. The situation is much more serious than that.

If one has the patience to listen to the forty-minute video of the hearing, it becomes clear that the procedure Lithuania adopted is most likely flawed. Moreover, despite what Kinga Gál (Fidesz) claimed at the hearing, the European Parliament has veto power over the decision. So does the European Commission. And it is clear that both the representatives of the Commission and the parliamentary rapporteur of the European Parliament are against moving CEPOL to Budapest.

The Commission still prefers the merger of CEPOL and Europol in The Hague, and the parliamentary rapporteur, the Spanish Agustin Diaz de Mera Garcia Consuegra, a member of the European People’s Party, expressed his opinion that the procedure adopted by Lithuania is unconstitutional and therefore most likely void. The European Parliament was not consulted as it should have been. Lithuania misread the constitution or misconstrued it  The whole affair is “pathetic,” he announced.

Another EPP member, the French Veronique Mathieu Houillon, who will be the rapporteur of the question, suggested taking a look at all seven applications which up till now the European parliamentary members didn’t have an opportunity to review. The next meeting is tentatively scheduled for November 26 when perhaps a decision will be made.

So, that is the true story of the hearing of LIBE on Thursday. No great victory, at best a setback. Moreover, it is a distinct possibility that Budapest, after all, will not get CEPOL because neither the European Commission nor the representatives of the European Parliament are keen on the Budapest location. Also, keep in mind that both people who suggested reviewing the whole procedure are members of the conservative European People’s Party. Hungary will be the site of CEPOL only if both the Commission and the Parliament endorse its bid. From the tone of the discussion I wouldn’t be too optimistic if I were Viktor Orbán.

I also wonder how much damage Lithuania did to its own reputation and to the Hungarian cause in bypassing EU rules to support its ideological friend, Orbán’s Hungary. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that Hungary asked Lithuania’s help in mending its relations with Armenia. It seems that the Lithuanians were ready to assist, but their efforts ended in a large embarrassment for both Lithuania and Hungary. There may also have been close cooperation between the two countries in the case of CEPOL’s headquarters. Given the tone of the hearings, such cooperation (if it existed) wasn’t a good idea.