Tag Archives: M. André Goodfriend

A one-year-old American non-paper surfaces

For almost eight months there was hardly any news about U.S.-Hungarian relations in the Hungarian media, with the exception of stories about NATO troop deployment in Eastern Europe and a U.S.-Hungarian military maneuver that went off without a hitch. In military matters at least, all seems to be well between Washington and Budapest.

In political terms, the stormy relations of the fall of 2014 have quieted down considerably. At least on the surface. The new U.S. ambassador, Colleen Bell, has shown no inclination to roil the waters of U.S.-Hungarian relations despite Viktor Orbán’s occasional anti-American comments in connection with the alleged responsibility of the United States for the refugee crisis.

The prime minister’s more subtle criticism contrasts with the shrill anti-Americanism of the pro-government media. In earlier days it was Magyar Nemzet that led the way in this respect, but since Lajos Simicska and Viktor Orbán decided that their collaboration of a quarter of a century is over and the remaining staff of the paper no longer has to adopt a slavishly pro-government orientation, not only has Magyar Nemzet become a very much better paper but it has also abandoned its pro-Russian and anti-American slant.

There are still some government strongholds, however, especially the newly renamed Magyar Idők and Pesti Srácok. Here and there even Válasz and Mandiner come out with decidedly anti-American editorials, mostly in connection with the refugee crisis, which is usually portrayed as the direct consequence of U.S. meddling in the Middle East and North Africa.

After almost a year of relative calm Mandiner managed to get hold of a so-called non-paper prepared by the State Department, dated October 21, 2014. András Stumpf, the new star reporter of Mandiner, didn’t research his story thoroughly enough because otherwise he would have discovered that this non-paper was most likely handed to Péter Szijjártó himself during his meeting with Viktoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs. At least the dates match. So, all the talk that has appeared in the last few days in the Hungarian media about Chargé D’Affaires André Goodfriend’s “demands” handed to one of the diplomats in the Hungarian foreign ministry is a lot of nonsense. The “suggestions” or “demands,” as the pro-government media calls them, don’t contain any new revelations. It has been no secret what the United States thinks of the Orbán government’s anti-democratic policies. It also seems that, although a whole year has gone by, the Hungarian government hasn’t responded to any of the points made in the non-paper. Viktor Orbán has no intention of changing his undemocratic ways.

These two pictures accompanied a Romanian-language article published on October 27, 2014 Source: dcnews.ro

These two pictures accompanied a Romanian-language article published on 10/27/2014, a few days after the meeting between Victoria Nuland and Péter Szijjártó
Source: dcnews.ro

Stumpf indicates in his introduction to the document that they “learned about the existence of the document from a Washington source,” which was then confirmed by someone in Budapest. Most likely the Americans had had enough of the deafening silence from Budapest and decided to make the document, handed to Szijjártó a year ago, public.

There is nothing wrong about publishing such a document. In fact, I personally wish there were more such diplomatic revelations, but Stumpf’s or the editor’s decision to write a strongly anti-American headline is unfortunate. It reads: “This is how America would make the Orbán government its bitch” (Így csicskáztatná Amerika az Orbán-kormányt). The message is that because of the Orbán government’s steadfast refusal to oblige, the United States didn’t succeed in its attempt to curtail the country’s sovereignty.

Magyar Idők went even further. In its interpretation, the United States’ problem is that Hungary’s prime minister happens to be Viktor Orbán. Magyar Idők names André Goodfriend as the author and deliverer of the non-paper in question. In the view of the paper, Goodfriend was not at all concerned with the alleged corruption of Hungarian government officials because this non-paper didn’t deal with it. Written in the middle of the “corruption crisis,” the absence of the topic is telling. Ottó Gajdics, the editor-in-chief of the paper, also wrote an editorial. He pretty well denied the existence of any corruption in Hungary and accused the United States of being worried about “corruption only when no American interests prevail in a country.”

Válasz also chimed in, heralding the wonderful news that the Orbán government didn’t fall last October and November, although many people believed that it would because of strong U.S. pressure on the Orbán government. In the author’s opinion, the United States “got caught” (lebukott) with the publication of the non-paper.  It never occurred to him that officials in the U.S. State Department might have wanted to make the document public.

János Lázár, who is naturally a diligent reader of Magyar Idők and other pro-government papers, is convinced that this list came from an ordinary chargé d’affaires, whom he called “insolent.” According to Lázár, Goodfriend while he was in Hungary “used his time to poke his nose into the affairs of Hungary.” His spokesman, András Giró Szász, added that “André Goodfriend is always welcome in Hungary but only as a tourist.” Lázár is either ignorant of diplomatic protocol or, more likely, wants to minimize the weight of this non-paper.

Meanwhile, Népszabadság tried to set the record straight by pointing out that on October 22 Péter Szijjártó was in Washington and had a meeting with Victoria Nuland. It is a mistake to name André Goodfriend as the culprit. The non-paper was most likely handed to Szijjártó by Nuland herself.

The debate continues. This time between Zsolt Gréczy, spokesman for the Demokratikus Koalíció, and András Stumpf, the Mandiner reporter. Gréczy raised objections to the title of Stumpf’s article. In DK’s opinion, “it is difficult to criticize the contents of those 27 points the non-paper raises, which are exactly those that the Hungarian democratic opposition demands week after week.” Unlike me, Gréczy believes that the non-paper was made public by the Hungarian government. With its release it intended to incite anti-American feelings. He called on the government to cease and desist. Stumpf answered with ad hominem attacks on Gréczy. Otherwise, he denied the charge that the document came from the government.

And finally, here is the infamous non-paper:

Civil society:

– End harassment and intimidation of independent civil society, including by ceasing investigations, audits, and raids of organizations receiving European Economic Area-Norway grant funds and Swiss funds, returning seized documents and IT-equipment (and other seized property) to reided and audited organizations, and immediately reinstating suspended tax licenses.

– Publish online all information of KEHI audits and government investigations of NGOs in order to make it available to the public.

– Publicly promote civil society, human rights, checks and balances, and unrestricted space for political opposition.

– Allow civil society to operate freely and independently.

– Broaden incentives for private and corporate donations to NGOs.

– Require meaningful input from an inclusive sprectrum of civil society and the business community in public policy development and implementation, including on human rights, equality, and transparency in government.

– Ensure unbiased and transparent functioning of National Cooperation Fund with nonpartisan board and clear guidelines for grants and evaluations.

Inclusiveness – give opposition and other non-Fidesz loyalists a role in public policy (enhances checks and balances):

– Require oversight bodies to be made up of independent subject matter experts rather than political nominees, and that a certain number of slots be reserved for appointment by opposition.

– Constitutional Court appointment process should revert to pre-2010 ad hoc committee requiring agreement of two-thirds of the parties.

– Implement clearly defined and transparent procedures requiring issues of public interest to be addressed through meaningful consultation and input from all relevant experts and stakeholders.

– Legislative process: Build in hearings, debates, meaningful consultations with subject experts and civil society, and opportunities for amendments.

– Pass law that ensures long-term economic commitments and other matters of public interest are decided with transparency, substantive public input, and realistic opportunity and sufficient time for open debate and feedback.

Media:

– Rescind advertising tax, which is discriminatory and market-distorting.

– Require that state advertising budget be distributed evenly across major media outlets rather than to outlets aligned with the government party.

– Require all-party representation on media council and shorten terms.

– Amend legislation on criminal penalties for libel, including to rescind all criminal penalties for defamation and make it a civil matter.

– Remove media council’s ability to levy fines and penalties for unbalanced coverage, which gives media council excessive control over content.

– Remove regulations that allow state broadcasters to run campaigneads but oblige commercial media to run ads for free.

– Incentivize diversity in ownership and pluralism of views in media.

– De-consolidate management and funding of public media and shield public media outlets from political pressure on content, to encourage independence.

– Ensure the political independence of the media council.

Elections:

– Implement all OSCE/ODIHR election recommendation, including: Amend law to ensure election commissions enjoy broad political consensus.

– Put in place safeguards to ensure a clear separation between the state and party. „Campaign finance”.

– Courts and administrative rules

– Rescind law that civil servants can be dismissed without justification.

– Strictly enforce prohibitions of political pressupure of influence on judges.

Constitution:

– Reinstate the right of Constitutional Court to rule on substantive constitutionality of proposed amendments to the Fundamental Law.

– Reinstate the right of Constitutional Court to use jurisprudence from 1990-2011 as case law.

– Move appropriate matters from cardinal laws into regular statutes.

Fidesz charge: The U.S. wants to topple the Hungarian government

Napi Gazdaság, which will soon appear under a new name, Magyar Idők (Hungarian Times), continues where the Magyar Nemzet of old left off before the outbreak of the Orbán-Simicska war. In fact, Napi Gazdaság today is an even more extremist paper than Magyar Nemzet ever was because those who decided to leave Nemzet and form a new team are the most hard-core, loyal media servants of the Orbán regime.

Those who would like to get a balanced picture of what’s going on in Hungary and abroad shouldn’t bother to read Napi Gazdaság. On the other hand, in the last few months Magyar Nemzet has become a much more balanced publication where one can increasingly find opinions that would never have been tolerated earlier. A good example of this new attitude is Magyar Nemzet‘s willingness to publish Mária M. Kovács’s rebuttal of Gábor Ujváry’s piece on Bálint Hóman.

Such a thing couldn’t possibly happen in Napi Gazdaság, which is continuing the strongly anti-American editorial policy that was the hallmark of the Magyar Nemzet of earlier days. The latest example of the pro-Fidesz newspaper’s anti-American bias is an especially outrageous editorial written by Imre Czirják. Czirják abandoned Simicska’s HírTV and became one of the two deputy editors-in-chief of Napi Gazdaság. If you find the ideas expressed in this editorial so absurd that you think they must be the product of a madman’s overly fertile imagination, I hate to disappoint you. The kernel of this bizarre story comes straight from the highest echelon of the Fidesz leadership, from the owner of Fidesz membership card #1, László Kövér, president of the Hungarian Parliament, who is the closest and oldest friend of Viktor Orbán.

A month ago László Kövér gave an interview to Pesti srácok (Scamps of Pest), an internet news site catering to the right wing of Fidesz, which is practically indistinguishable from Jobbik. The conversation was supposed to be about the refugee crisis, and in this connection the reporter disapprovingly recalled that Tímea Szabó, co-chair of the small opposition party Párbeszéd Magyarországért (PM) and a member of parliament, held up a sign to the refugees saying “Welcome to Hungary.” Then came Kövér’s non sequitur: “In the last hundred years or so internationally trained agents have been showing up from time to time in Hungarian politics. These people work in Hungary because here they are not restricted by linguistic difficulties. This is how it was already with Ernő Gerő and Co., and also after 1990. Barcelona or Belgium, Afghanistan or Africa–it matters not. They do their job whether it is here or there. And they do what their keepers tell them to do.” Clearly, Kövér was accusing Tímea Szabó of being the agent of a foreign power.

A quick look at Tímea Szabó’s biography explains Kövér’s rant. Szabó studied at Harvard and later was involved in a research program under the aegis of the Harvard Law School. She headed a research team commissioned by the United Nations to study strategies for the prevention of military conflict. In the summer of 2001 she spent three months in Pakistan, and after 9/11 she did research on the Afghan conflict and the subsequent rebuilding of the country. She subsequently went to Afghanistan as a member of a UN team and then as a representative of CARE International. Altogether she spent two years in Afghanistan. She returned to Hungary in 2003 and a year later joined LMP. (In 2013 PM split off from LMP.)

Tímea Szabó, the secret U.S. .agent

Tímea Szabó, a member of parliament accused of being an agent of the U.S.

Although Imre Czirják’s editorial is titled “Miss Afghanistan,” it is not really about Tímea Szabó. She is merely someone whose past plays into yet another tale of alleged espionage, which fuels the paranoia of Fidesz leaders. Just think of all those stories about an international conspiracy led by western politicians bent on removing Viktor Orbán from power. In government circles and in the right-wing media it is widely believed that foreign powers are financing the opposition parties. They have been especially suspicious of Gordon Bajnai’s financial backers from the United States. And here is where Tímea Szabó’s past comes in handy. Czirják finds it most suspicious that on the united opposition’s party list Szabó’s position was high enough to ensure that she would become a member of parliament. She also represented her party at the farewell party given for M. André Goodfriend, the chargé d’affaires of the United States, before his departure from Budapest. She must be guilty of something, thinks Czirják.

The United States, with the help of Hungarian agents, is hard at work. The question is “what is the real goal of Goodfriend and company and their allies” because up to now Goodfriend’s “unprecedented media campaign achieved only Jobbik’s spectacular rise.” What kind of a strategy are they contemplating now that they have strengthened Jobbik and weakened Fidesz? Are they planning to use Jobbik to their own advantage? It wouldn’t be the first time in Hungarian politics that two parties coming from opposite ends of the political spectrum, for example “the communist MSZP and the anti-communist SZDSZ, found common ground with the effective assistance of George Soros.” Czirják suggests that Tímea Szabó, the alleged American agent, is being used to approach Jobbik for an alliance between the neo-Nazis and the so-called democratic opposition under American tutelage.

In Czirják’s opinion there are already signs of a closer collaboration between the two sides. Szabó told Jobbik’s leader in no uncertain terms that it was unacceptable for one of Jobbik’s MEPs to spit into the empty shoes on the bank of the Danube that had been placed there in memory of the Jews who were shot and thrown into the river in 1944. Czirják admits that Vona didn’t answer her directly, but a few days later he sent the culprit to the embankment “to atone for his sin.” When Szabó later asked Vona what he thinks about his party’s racist attitude toward the Roma, or about the paramilitary Hungarian Guard, again the Jobbik party chief didn’t respond, but soon enough he announced his plans to change the party’s image by abandoning its extremist stance. So, Czirják indicates, an alliance is being forged between the extreme left and the extreme right under the watchful eye of the United States in order to ruin Fidesz and Viktor Orbán. Even if we strip the story of its more fanciful details, the United States is being accused of supporting (up to this point indirectly and perhaps in the future directly) a neo-Nazi party.

Let’s return briefly to László Kövér, who in the interview with Pesti Srácok also made the United States responsible for the immigration crisis in Hungary. It all started with the war in Iraq and the Arab Spring, for which the United States is responsible.

Although André Goodfriend’s “unprecedented media campaign” coincided with the growth of Jobbik, it was not responsible for it. Fidesz’s precipitous losses were due primarily to bad governance and an accumulating dissatisfaction with the whole Orbán regime. Many former Fidesz voters left for Jobbik or, for that matter, for MSZP and DK, while the number of undecided voters grew substantially. Admittedly, the Ipsos chart of Jobbik’s fortunes in the last couple of months shows a drop in support for the party (from 18% to 15%). But, again, Goodfriend’s departure can’t be causally linked to this decline. Most likely Vona’s new, more accommodative strategy didn’t appeal to the extreme elements in the party. Moreover, Fidesz ratcheted up its nationalistic, anti-immigrant rhetoric.

In any case, the current Hungarian government’s attitude toward the the United States is not the kind upon which a strong friendship can be built. It is not enough to send an ambassador to Washington who sounds reasonable and moderate when the most important party leaders in Fidesz accuse the United States of using agents to topple the Hungarian government. Or when Fidesz leaders accuse the United States of aiding and abetting a neo-Nazi party.

What can we learn about U.S.-Hungarian relations from János Lázár?

A huge sigh of relief. Viktor Orbán’s speech in Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad is not worth reporting on. Normally he tests out his latest vision for Hungary on this occasion, but this time there was nothing new in the speech. Although he shares the view of the Hungarian far-right that the current migration of masses of people from the Middle East and Africa resulted from the United States’ invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan and its support of the Arab Spring and although his speech was full of ire against the migrants and those who are using Hungary as an entry point to the European Union, he refused to connect the present European situation to U.S. foreign policy after 9/11. It was a cautious speech and therefore rather dull.

Since I don’t have to waste time on the speech, I can return to yesterday’s topic, János Lázár’s outline of Hungary’s foreign intelligence, which deserves further scrutiny. In the first place, yesterday I couldn’t cover the very lengthy Q&A session, which is an integral part of the whole and without which the picture of the Orbán government’s thinking on foreign affairs is incomplete. Second, yesterday I simply summarized the main points of the testimony without analyzing them. And third, the questions posed by two members of the opposition are excellent examples of political incompetence and even subservience. They show how easy it is for Viktor Orbán to proceed unchecked.

Taking a larger view of the whole speech, including the Q&A period, one is struck by the almost total neglect of Russia, as Professor Charles Gáti in his comment to yesterday’s post rightly pointed out. By contrast, Lázár was preoccupied with the United States. Judging from his references to the U.S., relations between Hungary and the United States are much worse than one would suspect. After all, at the end of January the new U.S. ambassador, Colleen Bell, arrived in Hungary and at the same time a new Hungarian ambassador replaced the rather ineffectual György Szapáry in Washington. The Hungarian government expressed great hope that relations would improve as a result of these changes at the head of the missions.

Well, the differences of opinion between the two countries are not as visible as they were in the stormy autumn months during the tenure of André Goodfriend as chargé d’affaires. Colleen Bell has been smiling a lot. But judging from Lázár’s testimony, relations are frosty. In fact, Lázár used the occasion to send a message to the United States. The Americans must understand, he warned, that Hungary will not tolerate any interference in the country’s internal affairs. There are some countries where the U.S. ambassador acts like a conductor and legislators play the music accordingly. He was most likely thinking of Romania. Well, Hungary is not one of these countries. Lázár admits that this is not “a friendly message,” but this is how it is. He also pointed out that the extensive personnel changes at the foreign ministry were intended “to break personal connections going back thirty years, which worked very well when it came to foreign interests but less so when it involved Hungarian interests.” His message: “this world is coming to an end now.”

Hungarian suspicion of the United States was manifest in the discussion of the alleged harassment of the Hungarian minority in Romania. A careful reading of these passages indicates that the Orbán government suspects that the United States actually encourages the Romanian authorities to act against ethnic Hungarians and against the two main Hungarian denominations: the Catholic and Hungarian Reformed churches.

U.S.-Hungarian relations also came up when Lázár answered a question from Ádám Mirkóczki (Jobbik) about the United States’ intention to send heavy armaments to East-Central Europe and to establish military bases in the region. Mirkóczki wanted to know whether Hungarian intelligence looked into the effect of such an American move on Russian policy. Lázár adopted the well-known Hungarian position of sitting on the fence when it comes to the conflict between Russia and the West, but he added something significant. In a sarcastic tone, he pointed out that “the United States has not favored us with special attention concerning military cooperation with us…. The close cooperation between the United States and Poland and between Romania and the United States is well known. We didn’t get such serious offers or requests. However, we continually weigh the pros and cons of heavy armaments appearing in Central Europe and try to decide how much the presence of such armaments worsens or improves the situation.” When this answer was given, the Hungarian government was most likely already engaged in negotiations over a heavy armament shipment to Hungary.

The national security committee has seven members, three of whom are from opposition parties: the chairman, Zsolt Molnár (MSZP), Bernadett Szél (LMP), and Ádám Mirkóczky (Jobbik). I already summarized Mirkóczky’s question, which was one of the more intelligent ones. After all, Jobbik is a pro-Russian party, and his question had relevance to Jobbik’s views on Russian-U.S. relations.

Bernadett Szél and Zsolt Molnár

Bernadett Szél and Zsolt Molnár

Unfortunately, the performances of Szél and Molnár were less than sterling. Initially, Szél came up with three not very important questions, mostly on issues of domestic importance, that had nothing to do with the topics covered. Lázár’s lengthy answers took up an inordinate amount of time that would have been better spent on questions that actually had something to do with his prepared remarks. But then, as an afterthought, Szél asked a question that showed the affinity between LMP and Lázár when it comes to free trade. LMP is an anti-globalist party with strong anti-capitalist overtones. In addition, they are no friends of the United States. So they are dead set against the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a proposed free trade agreement between the European Union and the United States. In addition, LMP styles itself as a green party, so it decries the use of chemicals in the production of food as well as any methods of handling food that may be harmful to “the Hungarian people.” She wanted to know “how can the Hungarian government, on the one hand, speak loudly about national sovereignty and, on the other, take part in a game that is obviously against the welfare of the Hungarian people.” From Lázár’s answer we learned that there are differences of opinion within Fidesz on the subject of TTIP and that Lázár’s opinion is actually very close to Szél’s.

Then came Chairman Zsolt Molnár (MSZP), who is suspected of being a bit too close to Fidesz. Molnár, like Szél, strayed from the topic at hand and kept talking about capital punishment. He wanted to have an assurance that the question is no longer on the table. But even here the two men found common ground. The Orbán government at the moment is fighting with the European Court of Human Rights over life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The court considers “actual life-imprisonment” inhumane. The Hungarian government thinks it is necessary. Molnár also likes the idea of locking up people for good. Molnár and Lázár also agreed that Hungary’s sending a small contingent to Kurdistan will increase the threat of terrorist attacks on the country. His tentative question on the usefulness of the fence to be built on the Serbian-Hungarian border was answered with the same propaganda one can read everywhere on billboards and was accepted at face value.

Is it any wonder that people hoping for a change in the country don’t trust the current leaders of the democratic opposition?

The chief of the Hungarian tax office resigns

Today’s been a busy day in Hungarian politics. In the last week or so it was hard to find timely topics, perhaps because Viktor Orbán was on a secret vacation on Croatia’s Mljet Island. He went to the same spot last year, traveling alone and amusing himself by watching football games. But now there is so much news that I don’t know where to start. After some hesitation I decided to write about Ildikó Vida’s departure from the Nemzeti Adó- és Vámhivatal (NAV/National Tax and Customs Office).

Vida was the president of NAV, which turned out to be a hub of government corruption. More than a year ago one of NAV’s employees went public with folders full of documents implicating NAV’s top leadership in tax fraud. I wrote about the case at least twice in November-December 2013: “Tax fraud scandal in Hungary” and “The plight of a Hungarian whistleblower.”

It was not only this brave employee of NAV who noticed that something was amiss in the tax office. Certain American companies also realized that their competitors could undersell them with the effective help of NAV, which “overlooked” their games with value added tax claims. The American businessmen went to the U.S. Embassy to complain. After ascertaining the accuracy of their reports, the U.S. embassy was instructed to call the Hungarian government’s attention to the widespread corruption in NAV as well as in other government and pro-Fidesz institutions. The Hungarian government, despite numerous American complaints, did nothing. It was at that point, in October 2014, that Napi Gazdaság, then owned by Századvég, a political think tank with close ties to Fidesz, revealed that the Americans had informed the Hungarian government that six officials and/or businessmen suspected of corruption had been put on a blacklist of sorts: they were barred from entering the United States. Six of them decided to remain silent, but Ildikó Vida, head of NAV, openly admitted that she was one of them.

NAV

U.S.-American relations hit an all-time low when the Hungarian government demonstrated its unwillingness to cooperate with the Americans in ferreting out corruption. The Hungarians claimed that they couldn’t investigate unless the Americans revealed the seven names, which they knew full well the U.S. authorities were forbidden by law from doing. Viktor Orbán himself got involved when he “instructed” Ildikó Vida to sue André Goodfriend, the U.S. chargé d’affaires in Budapest, threatening to fire her if she didn’t.

But it seems that, despite the belligerence of the Hungarian government, behind the scenes the Állami Számvevőszék (State Accounting Office) quietly began an investigation. They found “serious deficiencies.” That happened in March, and with their revelation the guessing game began. Would Ildikó Vida step down? And if so, when? Well, the guessing game is over. We learned today that Vida gave notice on May 20 and that today was her last day on the job.

She is not going out with a whimper, as her farewell letter to the employees of NAV attests. She talks about “five years of constant struggle” against “ideas entertained by the government concerning the organization and the personnel of NAV.” As usual, the government didn’t bother to discuss these plans with the management. In her opinion, these government plans “endanger the budgetary interests and the functioning of the organization. These were the circumstances that resulted–despite the prime minister’s request to the contrary–in my resignation.” Since in the last two months the government didn’t get around to appointing a new NAV chief, Vida asked one of the deputy chairmen, Árpád Varga, to take over her job as of tomorrow.

The secret of her departure was kept pretty well, except that János Lázár, who doesn’t always know when to keep his mouth shut, two weeks ago talked about a reorganization of NAV for which one needs new leadership. More importantly, from Lázár one learned that the government has far-reaching plans for NAV. These plans are still in a preparatory stage: the government doesn’t know in what ways they will change the method of tax collection; they don’t know what kind of organization will adjudicate tax disputes between taxpayers and NAV–the ministry, an independent organization, or an entirely new office. Everything is up in the air.

But this is how things go in the Orbán government on every level. A month ago Lázár, at a forum for architects, admitted that “the state is in dreadful shape. It is too large. It’s immovable and weighed down.” Confusion reigns on every level of the bureaucracy, mostly because for Orbán loyalty is more important than expertise. They got rid of everybody who served in the administration in the eight years prior to 2010. I suspect that by now Viktor Orbán himself realizes that something must be done and that’s why Lázár announced that far-reaching personnel changes are expected to take place sometime in the fall. Many assistant undersecretaries can say goodbye to their cushy jobs.

We most likely will never know whether Viktor Orbán really entreated Vida to stay, but it is unlikely given the administration’s determination to reorganize NAV. Moreover, Ildikó Vida is a close friend of Lajos Simicska. She followed him as chairman of the tax office after Simicska resigned in August 1999. Given the acrimonious relations between Simicska and Orbán, I suspect that Vida’s days were numbered irrespective of her troubles at NAV. The list of recently sacked friends of Simicska is getting longer and longer.

U.S.-Hungarian rapprochement? I doubt it

Ever since the arrival of Colleen Bell, the new U.S. ambassador to Hungary, and the departure of M. André Goodfriend from Budapest, hopes have been high in government circles that U.S.-Hungarian relations will be on the mend. The general impression is that the United States has realized that Viktor Orbán is here to stay and the Americans better make peace with him. Orbán himself is convinced of this, and therefore it is unlikely that he is planning to change his policy toward the United States. The new ambassador’s considerable charm only supports this interpretation. Lots of smiles, lots of appearances, lots of flattering remarks about the greatness of Hungarian culture and the beauty of the country.

Viktor Orbán figures that the United States, for lack of a better alternative, is forced to cooperate with him. Of course, he tries to sweeten the bitter pill by leaking information about alleged business offers for American companies, from Sikorsky helicopters to Westinghouse’s participation in the Paks project. The government even suggested that they would be willing to join anti-ISIS forces in Iraq and Syria. How serious that offer was is questionable. The government pulled back on it because of “the opposition parties’ objections.” But since when has Fidesz ever cared about the opinion of the opposition parties? Meanwhile, the courting of the new ambassador began, which Népszabadság described as a “charm offensive.”

Colleen Bell in Budapest

Colleen Bell in Budapest

In any case, the government is optimistic while domestic critics of the government are deeply worried. They believe the government’s propaganda about the greatly improved relations between the United States and Hungary, which they interpret as the American abandonment of Hungarian democracy. They are certain that Goodfriend’s departure was the first step toward U.S.-Hungarian rapprochement, which will be followed by, if not a a full-blown friendship, American tolerance of Orbán’s anti-democratic policies.

Hungarian comments on articles about U.S.-Hungarian relations accuse Washington of trading Hungarian democracy for business interests. They compare Colleen Bell to her predecessor, whom they considered a clueless woman who was charmed off her feet by the cunning Viktor Orbán. Orbán, who already met Bell at a private party, will meet her officially on the 17th. I’m sure that the U.S. ambassador will be gracious, and I predict the anti-Orbán forces will interpret her words as a sign that the United States is caving in to Viktor Orbán. As they usually say: “You see, he always wins. Western politicians are easily fooled. They are naive.”

Most likely I’m among the few who are much more cautious when passing judgment on the current state of affairs between Washington and Budapest. Clearly, it is to the advantage of the Hungarian government to give the impression that the only reason for the strained relations between the two countries was the way Goodfriend handled his job. But as Thomas Melia, deputy assistant secretary of state, reiterated when he visited Budapest a few days ago, Goodfriend was simply following the policies of the State Department, to everybody’s satisfaction. And although Bell may smile a lot more often than Goodfriend did, Bell herself, between friendly gestures, also delivers Washington’s message. She announced that she will follow Goodfriend’s practice of meeting a wide variety of people, including the opposition leaders. She made it clear that in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, Hungary’s place should be with the West and not Russia. She talked about the rule of law, independent democratic institutions, checks and balances, free elections, and an active civil society.

There are signs, as we learned from Gábor Horváth’s editorial in Népszabadág, that the Orbán government is retreating on several fronts. László Szabó, undersecretary of the ministry of foreign relations and trade, told Melia that Hungary wants to diversify its energy supply and stressed Hungary’s commitment to the territorial integrity of Ukraine. A few weeks ago another undersecretary of the ministry, István Mikola, categorically announced that Hungary will veto the transatlantic free trade agreement. But the Orbán government changed its mind and most likely will sign the agreement, in whatever form it is eventually passed.

The question is whether American officials can be convinced that the Hungarian promises are credible or whether they will be remain suspicious that the present moves are just part of the same old peacock dance. I think that by now very few American or European politicians believe that Viktor Orbán will change, and therefore I doubt that throwing a few bones to state department officials will convince the Obama administration to radically alter its attitude toward Viktor Orbán’s illiberal state.

Attila Ara-Kovács, DK’s foreign policy expert, wrote a few days ago that the Orbán regime is “a closed system” in which foreign policy is an integral part of the whole. In his opinion, no fundamental change in foreign policy orientation is possible because otherwise the whole system would collapse. I’m inclined to agree with Ara-Kovács and therefore find Zsolt Németh’s hopes for a drastic reorientation of foreign policy illusory. Zsolt Németh, one of the founders of Fidesz who served Viktor Orbán as undersecretary of foreign affairs between 1998 and 2002 and again between 2010 and 2014, as an insider is unable to see that the disagreement between Washington and Budapest is not the result of “a misunderstanding” that can be ironed out. No, the differences are fundamental, and Viktor Orbán will never follow Németh’s suggestions for the very reasons Ara-Kovács outlined in his opinion piece.

Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs, will visit Budapest at the end of March. She was described by one of the Hungarian internet sites as “Orbán’s American bogey.” We’ll see how successful one of the undersecretaries of the Hungarian ministry of foreign affairs and trade will be in convincing Nuland, who is known as a tough cookie.

As for the Hungarian government’s overwhelmingly positive assessment of Colleen Bell, just today I saw the first signs of disapproval from Zsolt Bayer, the notorious journalist working for Magyar Hírlap. Colleen Bell asked for suggestions from Hungarians about the best way to learn about Hungary and Hungarians. According to Bayer, there was an excellent opportunity to learn something about the country but Bell missed it. On February 25 Hungary remembers the “victims of communism,” and for that day the House of Terror invited her to take a look at the exhibit. She would have had the opportunity to receive a guided tour of “one of the best museums in Europe.” But the ambassador didn’t even respond to the invitation.

That was bad enough, but she committed an unforgivable sin. On the very day of the victims of communism, she paid a visit to the Holocaust Museum where, with the top leaders of the museum, “she discussed the timely questions and fields of possible cooperation” between the United States and the Holocaust Museum. “On that day the ambassador shouldn’t have gone there. There are thousands and thousands of reasons for that, but let’s not talk about them now.” Bayer expressed his hope that Bell will visit the House of Terror next year on that day “in order to learn something about an era about which she knows nothing.”

There’s plenty of time for history lessons. For now, Bell has enough on her plate representing American interests and not becoming a victim herself, of the charm offensive.

American rapprochement with Viktor Orbán’s Hungary?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Viktor Orbán goes to Kiev, M. André Goodfriend returns to Washington

Viktor Orbán has been a very busy man lately, especially when it comes to playing on the international stage. Angela Merkel visited Budapest last week; this week Orbán had talks with the prime minister of Georgia, and today he traveled to Kiev for a brief visit with Petro Poroshenko. Orbán’s Ukrainian visit is widely seen as an attempt to counterbalance the much criticized Putin visit next Tuesday. Today much of his regularly scheduled morning interview was devoted to Russian and Ukrainian affairs.

There is still no verbatim transcript of the interview, but I took notes when I listened to it and read several summaries that appeared in Hungarian newspapers and on the government’s website. Some of his comments on the Russian-Ukrainian conflict were platitudes about the dangers of war so close to home. Surely, Hungary is much more exposed than France or Germany, whose heads of state tried to broker an agreement with Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Orbán, who remains opposed to further sanctions, tried to put the best spin on the “fragile peace” that is still better than war.

When it came to Russian-Hungarian relations, Orbán treaded lightly and felt compelled to refer to Hungarian leeriness when it comes to relations with Russia. Mind you, the reference was fleeting. He said that “for many Hungarians this is an emotional issue.” One would have thought that either he would have stopped there or would have explained Hungarian reservations by talking about the role of the Russians in the 1848-1849 war of independence and, naturally, about the Russian suppression of the 1956 Hungarian revolution. But no, he said instead that “we lost a war against them,” referring to World War II. A most unfortunate remark since winning the war against the Soviet Union in this case would have meant victory for Nazi Germany. Magyar Nemzet might be moving in the right direction as far as honest journalism is concerned, but it decided to omit this sentence.

In his opinion, emotions cannot play a role in Hungary’s relations with Russia. He himself never had any doubts about Vladimir Putin’s  visit. It was he who invited Putin, and he is glad that Putin accepted his invitation. The Russian president is always welcome in the Hungarian capital.

It is becoming apparent to me that Viktor Orbán imagines today’s Europe as similar to the way it was between the two world wars. The simultaneous collapse of the large, powerful empires of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia allowed the formation of small nation states in the region of East-Central Europe. With the revival of Germany and Russia, these states found themselves squeezed between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Orbán keeps talking about the “two large powers,” Russia and Germany, on whom Hungary depends for its well being. But this is an outdated view. Today there is a European Union to which Hungary belongs. Hungary also joined NATO. Hungary is definitely committed to the West and her security lies on this side. Balancing between two world powers is no longer possible, and therefore I’m convinced that Orbán’s “brilliant” strategy will be a failure.

Orbán’s diplomatic balancing act leads me to another topic, the departure of M. André Goodfriend from Budapest. The announcement was a surprise because the United States government had explicitly stated that Goodfriend would remain in Budapest even after the arrival of Colleen Bell, the new U.S. ambassador. The chargé represented U.S. policies and worked closely with the State Department. It was a message to Budapest that no great changes in U.S.-Hungarian relations should be expected with the arrival of the new ambassador. But then came the bombshell that after all Goodfriend is leaving “for strictly family reasons.” Hungarians suspect that this explanation was fabricated, that some kind of a deal was reached between Washington and Budapest for which the U.S. government sacrificed Goodfriend.

Well, I’m one of those people who don’t believe this conspiracy theory. First of all, the one longer speech that Colleen Bell delivered to date in no way indicated a softening of the American attitude toward the Hungarian government. The speech was delivered before businessmen, and therefore she concentrated on economic issues. She brought up a point about which foreign businessmen complain: the unpredictability of Hungarian economic policy. Second, I see no sign of any softening of Orbán’s attitude either on the Russian issue or on the question of corruption. As for the attacks on nongovernmental organizations, the verbal abuse continues. If there was a deal, it was one that the Hungarian side is not honoring. And I refuse to believe that American diplomats are so naive as to strike a deal before the other side takes concrete steps to mend its ways. So, I’m inclined to accept the Embassy’s version that Mr. Goodfriend has some very urgent family business that can be taken care of only in the United States.

Goodfriend3

André Goodfriend’s departure is greeted with great sadness in liberal circles in Hungary. Many looked upon him as a valued friend of Hungary and were extremely grateful to him. On Facebook there are thousands of posts in which Hungarian citizens thank him for being the defender of Hungarian democracy. I heard a story about one gesture that exemplifies the kind of gratitude Hungarians felt. It was Christmas Eve and André Goodfriend went to a flower shop to buy a bouquet. When he wanted to pay, the owner of the flower shop wouldn’t accept his money, saying that it is she who owes him instead of the other way around.

Perhaps the most moving manifestation of the affection felt for André Goodfriend in Hungary is a video sent by Kreatív Ellenállás (Creative Opposition), a Facebook group, to which the creators added a popular song entitled “André j’aime” composed by János Bródy, played by the Illés Ensemble and sung by Zsuzsa Koncz. These people are legends in Hungarian popular music, mainly because their songs were highly critical of the Kádár regime.

Finally, Mr. Goodfriend was a regular reader of Hungarian Spectrum and a few times even engaged in our discussions. We will miss him, and I’m sure I can speak on behalf of our readership in wishing him the very best in his future endeavors.