Tag Archives: NATO

The spies who were not; cheap gas that is not; negotiations that will not be

Today seems to be one of those days when it is hard to cover only one event because there are so many items of interest. Let’s start with the most bizarre: the story of an alleged Hungarian espionage ring working on behalf of the United States.

The “Empire” and its leaders

I dealt with the case in March 2016 when the story broke. One of the charges against the alleged leaders of a spy ring called “Birodalom” (Empire) was that they passed documents concerning Hungary’s defense plans to a NATO officer with the help of the U.S. Embassy. I don’t think I have to detail the absurdity of this charge. The other accusation was that in a conversation with a member of the visiting IMF delegation, they revealed details of Hungary’s negotiations for a loan. These alleged crimes took place in 2008, yet the two men were arrested only in December 2015.

Béla Butka and Norbert Maxin, as we learned today, spent eight months in jail, where detectives tried to compel them to acknowledge their guilt. The two men complain about their treatment in jail. Butka’s letters from his family arrived months late, and Maxin had to share his cell with a dangerous convicted murderer. Today, more than two years after their arrest, the two men were found innocent. The prosecutor is appealing the verdict.

Butka and Maxin are convinced that they were the victims of a politically motivated show trial (koncepciós eljárás), but they are unable to give a rational explanation of why they were arrested or to identify the persons behind the action. This is a wild guess on my part, but the dates might give us a clue.

U.S.-Hungarian relations have been rocky ever since Viktor Orbán assumed power in 2010, but after November 2014 they really deteriorated. For a short while there was some hope that with the arrival of Coleen Bell as the new U.S. ambassador relations would improve. But, just about the time of the arrest of Butka and Maxin, she delivered a strong speech on corruption and the lack of transparency. A barrage of attacks on Bell and the United States followed. I can easily imagine that the imprisonment of two men on trumped-up charges was an answer to Washington, intended to show that Hungary is an independent country that can send spies hired by the United States to jail.

The price of  natural gas

Now on to the government’s inflated natural gas price.

By 2013 Fidesz’s support had dwindled. Something had to be done. The party came up with an exceedingly successful remedy that had immediate results and contributed to a second two-thirds parliamentary majority in 2014: they lowered utility prices. From then on, the price of natural gas, for example, would be set by the government.

Szilárd Németh got the job of promoting this price cut to the public. His success at turning lower utility prices into votes for the government launched his spectacular career in Fidesz.

While many Hungarians believe that their utility prices are still the lowest in Europe, the price of natural gas on the open market has been falling in the last three years. Experts have been saying for some time that while the Hungarian government is getting gas for less and less money, its frozen official price is way too high.

Yesterday E.ON’s Hungarian unit offered a deal to Hungarian consumers. It claimed that households that are ready to abandon the state-owned utility company could save 13,000 forints ($51) annually on their gas bill. This announcement sent Németh into a frenzy. He accused the company of meddling in the election campaign on the side of the opposition. E.ON was cowed, and by today the company claimed that the announcement had been misleading. Such an apology by a large, powerful firm shows the extent of government intimidation of businesses operating in the country.

But the story doesn’t stop here. It just happened that Bertalan Tóth, the leader of MSZP’s parliamentary delegation, after years of litigation, managed to get the gas contracts from Magyar Földgáz-kereskedő (MFGK), which is in charge of natural gas purchases. On the basis of the receipts, Tóth came to the conclusion that the public hadn’t saved any money; in fact, consumers lost on the deal already in 2013 and 2014. If the price hadn’t been fixed, each household could have saved at least 70,000 forints between 2013 and 2017. Attila Holoda, who was assistant undersecretary in the second Orbán government, believes that the state could easily lower utility prices by 20% and still turn a profit. Well, if the opposition parties have any sense—which I often doubt—they should immediately start a campaign. Surely, a 20% reduction in utility prices could be understood by even the least politically astute citizen.

The Ukrainian-Hungarian negotiations

Let’s start at the end. The talks scheduled for today didn’t take place.

In mid-January Péter Szijjártó was in Washington where he met the new assistant secretary of state in charge of European and Eurasian affairs Wess Mitchell. About a week ago I reported that the conversation between Mitchell and Szijjártó most likely dealt with the strained Ukrainian-Hungarian relations as a result of Ukraine’s law on education and that Mitchell probably offered U.S. mediation between the two countries. Mitchell met Szijjártó and Pavlo Klimkin, Ukraine’s foreign minister, in Paris. Negotiations had to take place immediately because at stake was Ukrainian attendance at the meeting of NATO defense ministers on February 14-15.

On February 7 Undersecretary Levente Magyar, after his meeting with Vasil Bodnar in Uzhhorod/Ungvár, announced that “significant steps” had been taken toward the normalization of Ukrainian-Hungarian relations. After a three-hour meeting, he said that “this is the first time that there is a realistic chance” for success. He said that on February 14 representatives of the Hungarian community would meet with Lilia Hrynevych, Ukraine’s minister of education, in Uzhhorod.

Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced on February 12 that it agreed with the Hungarian side on ways to address the language issue in western Ukraine. On the same day, Levente Magyar, the Hungarian negotiator, also expressed optimism about the outcome of the negotiations, which would lift the ban on Ukraine’s attendance at the NATO meeting, a ban put in place by Hungary’s veto.

But Magyar’s boss, Péter Szijjártó, most likely on instructions from Viktor Orbán, declared at a quickly organized press conference that the veto will not be lifted because it is the only means Hungary has to defend the rights of the Hungarian minority in Subcarpathian Ukraine. Hungary cannot be blackmailed. I assume that what Szijjártó had in mind was that in the last few days both Jens Stoltenberg, secretary-general of NATO, and U.S. ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison urged the two countries to sit down at the meeting scheduled for today. Hungary just declared that the meeting has been cancelled.

Hírvonal, a Hungarian news aggregator

Finally, I want to put in a plug for hirvonal.hu, an excellent newsreader, about which I wrote once already in August 2016. For those of us who study Hungarian politics a good news aggregator is a must. Over the years, I have used three different sites, but even the best could be frustrating. From the very first, Hírvonal managed to come up with far more links than any of the others, and by now it is vastly superior to the others. It extracts news from 137 sites. Just yesterday I tested a new feature of the site, searching for my own name. In Hírvonal I found 14 links, while in the others there were none. In brief, it has some very good features that make life a great deal easier.

 February 14, 2018

Hungarians in praise of Vladimir Putin and his empire

It was only a few days ago that I devoted a post to Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó’s visit to Washington, where he met the new assistant secretary of state in charge of European and Eurasian Affairs, Wess Mitchell. It is hard to pass judgment on the meeting because both parties remained silent on the subject. One thing, however, is fairly certain: there are no definite plans for Viktor Orbán to travel to Washington and meet with President Trump. As Jenő Megyesy, an Orbán adviser on American affairs, put it, “such bilateral meetings are important only when there is some important topic or conflict on the horizon.” This is not the case today. This kind of talk indicates that there is no significant improvement in U.S.-Hungarian relations. One of the obstacles to closer links between the two countries is Russian-Hungarian relations.

Today I would like to call attention to two manifestations of the uncritical pro-Russian attitude propagated in the Hungarian administration and in the media. The first one comes straight from the Ministry of Defense. It is an article written by Lt. Colonel Endre Szénási, security and defense policy expert in the ministry’s Department of Defense Policy (Védelempolitikai Főosztály). The other was written by László Gy. Tóth, who is described in the media as “a political scientist close to the government.” He is an old hand in the trade. In 1997 he published a series of essays about “The heirs of Kádárism,” which I picked up by mistake and found to be utterly worthless.

Let’s start with a Hungarian military man’s assessment of the United States, Russia, NATO, and military matters in general. Before Szijjártó’s meeting with Wess Mitchell, the foreign minister pointed out that both in military and in economic matters relations between the United States and Hungary are excellent. Problems crop up only in political relations between the two countries. But do these two NATO allies see eye to eye on matters related to defense and their relationship to Russia when a chief analyst of the Ministry of Defense identifies with the interests of Vladimir Putin’s Russia? Because this is exactly what Szénási does. The article is actually about Michael Flynn’s “regrettable” departure from the White House, which may put an end to Donald Trump’s attempt at a rapprochement with Russia.

It is not Szénási’s erroneous analysis of American politics that deserves our attention but his statements on Russia and its role in world affairs. In his opinion, Russia is not an expansionist country. “It is only defending its own historical sphere of interest.” Russia is not “even aggressive since it didn’t force a change of regime in Georgia by military means. It didn’t bomb the Georgian ministry of defense, which in a classic war situation is the number one target. Unlike the United States it didn’t enforce regime change; it didn’t overthrow the government; it didn’t occupy Tbilisi.”

Russia wasn’t an aggressor in the Ukrainian case either. “Since 2014 it has occupied only that part of the Donets-Lugansk region which has a clear Russian identity. Moreover, the West mistakenly believes that the occupation of Crimea was an act of aggression. As far as Lt. Colonel Szénási is concerned, it is perfectly acceptable for Russia to militarily occupy territories of another country whose territorial integrity it had guaranteed earlier.

This article appeared originally in Terror & Elhárítás (Terror and interception), a periodical published by TEK (Terrorelhárítási Központ), often described as Viktor Orbán’s private army. It was subsequently discovered by András Domány, a well-known journalist and expert on Polish affairs. In his article in Élet és Irodalom, titled “Kormányzati tudomány” (Government science), he wonders whether the leadership of NATO or the Ukrainian government is aware of the appearance of this article and whether they will be satisfied with the explanation that this is just the private opinion of a government official. Because officially, Hungary is still one of the guarantors of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. 444 also picked up the story of Szénási’s lofty defense of Russia and added a few more quotations from other works by the security and defense expert.

Now, let’s move on to the article of our political scientist, László Gy. Tóth. Perhaps someone should translate the whole article because almost every sentence in it is an outrage. Here is one of the first sentences: “Judged by his activities to date, Vladimir Putin’s rational policies are of serious value.” After a sob story about Putin’s poverty-stricken childhood and his hard-working, deeply religious mother, Tóth goes on to praise him as the president of a country which is described as “a constitutional democracy that differs from the western variety because of the somewhat archaic and traditionalist value system of Russian society.” Putin guarantees human rights but “supports only those cultural trends that are not in conflict with traditional Russian values.”

As far as foreign affairs are concerned, “Russia is open to the world.” It attempts to be a partner with the EU and NATO. As Putin said, “We must try to configure a Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok.” This new Europe would be based on some kind of supranationalism, which means “a higher ranking cooperation of nationalisms.” I guess a united Europe under Vladimir Putin would be preferable to what we have now in Europe, which Viktor Orbán thoroughly detests.

The tension between the European Union and Russia is solely the fault of the United States. For decades American foreign policy strategists have been trying to isolate Russia by “generating conflict between the European Union and Russia. They have created an operetta-revolution in Belgrade, a revolution in Georgia in 2003, and a Ukrainian revolution in 2004. How? Through George Soros, various kinds of NGOs, and the CIA.

Yet “Putin is more and more accepted in Europe because it dawned on European politicians that today Russia has nothing to do with the former Soviet Union.” Russia today is, “in the good sense of the word, a nationalist, presidential, constitutional state that wants to base its future on traditionalist values. One must take cognizance of the fact that Russia is the leading military power of Europe and the only country in the world whose nuclear capabilities are not one bit smaller than those of the increasingly aggressive and unpredictable United States.”

In Tóth’s view, “in the newly created cold war, the Russian position is unequivocal and rational. If the United States acts in violation of previously concluded bilateral arms-control agreements, Russia will react immediately. This is a clear and rational standpoint that the Americans must accept.” Tóth adds: “Hungary was among the first countries to recognize that the Russian Empire has returned to the stage of the great powers.”

What can one say? It is hard to imagine that a member of Hungary’s armed forces and an official in the ministry of defense can spout off freely, expressing policies that are diametrically opposed to the official policies of Hungary. One must ask: What is the official policy of Hungary vis-à-vis Russia? Does anyone know for sure? Can its NATO allies trust the Hungarian military establishment when a long-time employee of the ministry and a member of the country’s military holds views like the ones that are expressed in his available writings? I have no idea, but I assume that the U.S. military attaché and his staff do read periodicals pertaining to military matters and have noted the appearance of articles like Szénási’s. Because I’m sure that anyone who took the trouble could find scores of articles similar in spirit to what is exhibited in Szénási’s pieces.

As for László Gy. Tóth, the so-called political scientist, one can hardly find words to describe the article’s sycophantic tone. Moreover, the article is sprinkled with old turns of phrase from the Rákosi and Kádár regimes. Phrases like “az Egyesült Államok kiszolgálói” (the hired hands of the United States) return in this article. One could perhaps argue that Tóth is just a political scientist, but such an article couldn’t appear in Magyar Idők without approval. This particular article might be stronger than some others that appear in the paper praising Russia and its leader, but Magyar Idők and Magyar Hírlap are both full of pro-Russian editorials. One must assume that the publication of these articles doesn’t bother the Orbán government at all; in fact, it endorses them.

January 23, 2018

Hungary’s “geopolitical game”: Playing hardball with Ukraine

The Hungarian government has been flexing its diplomatic muscles ever since the Ukrainian government passed an education law that made Ukrainian the language of instruction from grade five on for all citizens. Students from other nationality groups, mainly Russian, Polish, Romanian, and Hungarian, will be able to learn only two or three subjects in their native languages.

That decision prompted a vehement reaction from the Orbán government, for which the “gathering of the nation across the borders” is an important political goal. For years, an incredible amount of money has been spent on Hungarian-inhabited regions of Ukraine, Romania, and Serbia in order to fortify the economic strength of Hungarian enterprises and alleviate the poverty of the inhabitants. In Ukraine, the number of Hungarians is small, perhaps 120,000, yet Hungarian diplomacy moved into high gear, reaching out to all international organizations that have anything to do with Ukraine to protest the law. The Orbán government also made it clear at the time that it would do everything in its power to prevent any kind of friendly intercourse between Ukraine and the European Union and NATO. Given Ukraine’s position as a victim of Russian aggression, one might question the wisdom of the Hungarian government’s stance over a relatively minor dispute, which could most likely be resolved through bilateral talks and a little good will on both sides.

Hungary’s first opportunity to isolate Ukraine came at the end of October when Hungary vetoed a planned December 6 meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Joint Commission, a decision-making body responsible for developing relations between NATO and Ukraine and directing cooperative activities between them. Sputnik reported the good tidings that “Hungary announced that it will block Ukraine’s aspirations to integrate into NATO.”

In 2008 Ukraine applied to join the NATO Membership Action Plan, which was shelved two years later when the pro-Russian Victor Yanukovych was elected president. Interest in renewing relations with NATO intensified after the Russian military intervention in Ukraine. Since October 2014 the Ukrainian government has made joining NATO a priority. President Petro Poroshenko wants to meet NATO requirements by 2020 and has promised to hold a referendum on joining the alliance.

Given western suspicion of Hungarian-Russian relations in general, it is not the smartest move on the part of Viktor Orbán to take such an anti-Ukrainian position. The United States is a strong supporter of Ukraine and is ready to take a stand on the Russian-Ukrainian issue. CNN reported a couple of months ago that 1,650 servicemen from 15 different countries, including many Americans, were participating in a military exercise in Ukraine which was planned to take place a few days before Russia was scheduled to launch its own massive military maneuvers, which “put the region on edge.”

It is in this tense diplomatic and military environment that Hungary decided to play the tough guy by turning away from Ukraine and by default standing by Russia. This development is especially disheartening when there seems to be growing agreement among the member states of NATO that Ukraine’s desire to join the alliance might be realized soon enough. Two days ago Jens Stoltenberg, secretary general of NATO, stressed that Ukraine must undertake reforms before its membership in the alliance can be considered. He added that “membership in NATO will make Ukraine strong.” So, unless I misread the signs, there is a general inclination to expand NATO by admitting Ukraine in the next few years.

U.S. Secretary State Rex Tillerson took a tough line on Russia today in a talk with the foreign ministers of the NATO member states, which naturally included Péter Szijjártó. In addition to blaming Russia for interfering in the U.S. election, he expressed his belief that “there is broad consensus among all the NATO members that there is no normalization of dialogue with Russia today.”

If that wasn’t enough of a warning to Péter Szijjártó, there was also the news that Germany and ten other NATO member states had expressed disagreement with Hungary’s actions of blocking “Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic initiatives.” Apparently, these countries don’t consider the language issue to be something that should put “the strategic interests of the Alliance in jeopardy.” The letter also called attention to the fact that division and disagreement in the alliance is a success for Russia, which should be avoided.

Szijjártó wasn’t impressed, and during one of the intermissions he gave a brief press conference in the course of which he reiterated that Hungary is not ready to negotiate with Ukraine. If membership in NATO is so important for Kiev, then the Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian parliament, should withdraw the education law. Hungary’s position is that Ukraine not only has violated its commitments to the European Union but also has failed to fulfill its NATO obligations. He declared that “Hungary is not prepared to sacrifice the interests of the Hungarian minority in Transcarpathia on the altar of any kind of geopolitical game.”

According to Magyar Nemzet, Hungary will suggest introducing sanctions against Ukraine at the EU-Ukraine Joint Commission on Friday, but since the qualified majority rule applies in that body, Hungary’s antagonistic move will most likely fail. The hope now is that in February, at the next meeting of defense ministers, a NATO-Ukraine Commission meeting can be scheduled. At the moment, however, Hungary is still playing hardball.

Orbán’s Hungary is getting itself into international deep water, with serious possible consequences. This is not a “geopolitical game,” as Szijjártó thinks. This is a deadly serious international affair in which Hungary has no business. As things stand, there is just too much suspicion of Hungary’s relations with Russia. It is possible that while the European Union is too weak to “discipline” the Orbán government, the United States through NATO will be less willing to overlook Orbán’s duplicity as far as his relationship with Russia is concerned.

December 6, 2017

Western worries about Russian disinformation just “fits of hysterics”

Two days ago the foreign ministers of the European Union met in Brussels with Federica Mogherini, the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, presiding. She asked the ministers to support her request to increase human and financial resources “to fight against disinformation and propaganda coming from abroad,” in particular from Russia. According to newspaper reports, “nobody inside the room was opposed to beefing up the task forces involved in such an undertaking.” This unanimity is quite a change from only a few months ago, when the European Council blocked a similar proposal.

The initiative for a joint European effort to combat Russian interference in the political processes of member states came from a Romanian member of the European Parliament, Siegfried Mureșan, who suggested in May that funds for that use be included in next year’s EU budget. It was high time to pay more attention to the problem. Russia has a small army of hackers and trolls. By contrast, the EU’s task force that concentrates on the eastern front has 15 employees and the one that focuses on the Western Balkans and the Arab-speaking world is even smaller than that.

For some time Russia has been active in Europe as well as in North America. For instance, Russian hackers got hold of nine gigabytes of e-mails from Macron’s campaign. Macron complained to Putin at their first meeting in May about Russia Today and Sputnik, financed by Russia’s defense ministry, which attacked Macron’s En Marche! Movement. But Russia’s cyber weapon against the West has proved to be very effective, and Putin has no intention of curbing his hackers’ activities.

Good examples of Russian manipulation can be seen in the Catalonian independence referendum and Brexit. Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis announced that his government had confirmed that a propaganda campaign intended to destabilize Spain came from Russia and Venezuela. They used Twitter, Facebook, and other internet sites to publicize the separatist cause and swing public opinion to support it.

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh identified 419 accounts operating from the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) that attempted to influence British politics. Russian hackers also spread anti-Islamic sentiments in Great Britain after the recent terrorist attacks. According to The Guardian, hundreds of paid bloggers work around the clock at IRA “to flood Russian internet forums, social networks and the comments sections of western publications—sowing disinformation, praising the country’s president, Vladimir Putin, and raging at the west.” On Monday Theresa May addressed the issue in a speech, saying that Russia’s actions were “threatening the international order on which we all depend.”

The latest complaint came today from the Netherlands. Kajsa Ollongren, minister of the interior, accused Russia of attempting to influence public opinion in the Netherlands by spreading fake news and misinformation. She stated that her country is being “monitored by Russia’s security services which constantly search for opportunities to undermine it in ways that are easy, anonymous, fast and cheap.” She came up with specific examples, one of which was using a group of Ukrainian émigrés with Russian sympathies to try to tilt Dutch public opinion towards a no vote in the referendum on the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement—which was, in fact, rejected in 2016.

Today Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, answered these accusations. “We are quite accustomed now that some of our partners in Europe and across the ocean apparently have no better things to do than blaming our media or branding them as foreign agents. Apparently, the explanation is that people in the capitals, from which such accusations come, be that Madrid or London, are facing numerous unresolved domestic problems. And, probably, get into such sensationalized fits of hysterics to draw the attention of their voters away from their inability to solve those problems,” reported Russia Today.

Hungary’s attitude to Russian internet propaganda shows the usual ambivalence. In May 2017 the European People’s Party held its conference in Malta, where the Fidesz members of the party voted with the majority in condemning “Russian disinformation undermining Western democracy.” Two months later, however, in Budapest, the Fidesz members of parliament rejected a proposal identical with the one Fidesz MEPs voted for. The opposition party LMP translated the text of the EPP statement into Hungarian and turned it in as their own proposal. The document didn’t even get to the floor. It died in committee.

At the November 13 meeting of EU foreign ministers, Szijjártó, along with all his colleagues, voted for the expansion of EU efforts to defend against the systematic cyberattacks on EU member countries. But this piece of information didn’t make it to the Hungarian media. Foreign Minister Szijjártó gave a quick press conference in the intermission, during which he assiduously avoided talking about Russian cyberattacks and concentrated instead on the migrant issue. He also complained bitterly about Ukrainian atrocities against Hungarian symbols in Berehove/Beregszász, where someone took off the Hungarian flag from town hall and put a dirty shirt on Sándor Petőfi’s statue. This anti-Hungarian incident is probably a response to Hungary’s recent treatment of Ukraine.

Hungary has been preoccupied with Ukraine ever since Kiev passed an education law stating that minority students will be able to learn all subjects in their own language in the first four grades but, starting with grade five, with the exception of one or two subjects, the language of instruction will be Ukrainian. Péter Szijjártó said that Hungary will veto all of Ukraine’s moves to strengthen its ties to the European Union. Hungary’s first opportunity to isolate Ukraine came at the end of October when Hungary vetoed a planned December 6 meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission. The NATO-Ukraine Commission is a decision-making body responsible for developing relations between NATO and Ukraine and directing cooperative activities between them. Sputnik reported the good tidings that “Hungary announced that it will block Ukraine’s aspirations to integrate into NATO.” In the meantime, Russian hackers and trolls are incredibly active in Ukraine. In Hungary one doesn’t have to worry about Russian fake news and disinformation because Hungarians are fed the same by their own government.

November 15, 2017

Russian-Hungarian exchange of top security information

After a lot of suspense, the fate of Paks II, to be built by Rosatom and financed by the Russian government, has been settled. The European Commission threw in the towel. Admittedly, there is still a possibility that the Austrian government will take the case to the European Court of Justice as it did with Great Britain’s Hinkley Point Nuclear Power Plant. The British case is still pending, and a verdict against Hinkley Point might have some bearing on Paks II. But that is a long shot.

Although the specific points of the final agreement on Paks II are of great interest, here I would rather look at another, possibly nefarious instance of Russian-Hungarian relations: an agreement between Russia and Hungary “on the mutual protection of classified information.” News that this agreement would come into force on April 1 was announced on March 3, 2017 on the last pages of the Official Gazette. It was discovered by the staff of Magyar Nemzet. Interestingly, with the exception of very few media outlets, this agreement has been ignored.

What is even more surprising is that the agreement itself was signed in September 2016 without anyone noticing it. Bernadett Szél (LMP), for example, who is a member of the parliamentary committee on national security, had no inkling of the document’s existence. This is what happens when the opposition parties lack the resources to hire a research staff.

Of course, the agreement is not especially significant by itself because it only defines rules and regulations governing the transfer of secret information between the two countries. What is of considerable interest, however, is the extent of the working relationship between the Russian and Hungarian national security forces or, as the agreement states, “the competent authorities responsible for the implementation of [the] Agreement.” These “competent authorities” are the National Security Authority in Hungary and, in Russia, the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB), the successor to the KGB of Soviet times.

The agreement reveals that top secret documents change hands between Hungary and Russia which cannot be shared by a third party. How many such documents are we talking about? The agreement at one point states that “for the transfer of classified information carriers of considerable volumes of classified information, the authorized bodies shall, in accordance with the laws and other regulatory legal acts of their States, agree on the modalities of their transportation, itinerary and escorting method.” There are also detailed instructions about the destruction of certain secret documents, including the proviso that “classified information carriers marked Szigorúan titkos!/Совершенно секретно (Top secret) shall not be destroyed and shall be returned to the authorized body of the originating Party, when they are no longer deemed necessary.” All this indicates to me a close working relationship between the Russian FSB and the Hungarian NSA.

We don’t know, of course, what kinds of top secret documents are being exchanged by the Russian and Hungarian national security agencies. It is certainly not immaterial what kind of information the Hungarian partner passes on to the Russians, especially in view of Hungary’s membership in NATO and the European Union. In fact, Magyar Nemzet specifically asked the Ministry of Foreign Relations and Trade whether the Hungarian authorities gave information about the details of cooperation between Russian and Hungarian national security forces to the European Union and NATO. No answer has yet been received. Bernadett Szél told the paper that she was certain the Hungarians don’t pass any sensitive information on to the Russians and that the European Union and NATO are fully aware of all such exchanges between the two countries. I wish I were that confident that the Orbán government is playing by the book.

Tamás Szele in Huppa.hu is convinced that such an exchange of secret documents greatly favors Russia “because considering the weight and strength of the two organizations, it is hard to imagine the arrangement as one of cooperation between equal partners.” For Szele this means that “we have become unreliable diplomatic partners, surrogates of Russia with whom one cannot candidly negotiate or conclude secret agreements because everything that has been said or written will be in the Kremlin within an hour.” Let’s hope that Szele exaggerates, but as far as I know western diplomats are already worried about the trustworthiness of the Hungarian diplomatic corps. And as Attila Juhász of Political Capital, a political science think tank, said the other day, “the government seemed to have forgotten that Hungary is a member of the European Union and NATO. It replaced a friend with a foe, contemplating idly the growing use of Russian propaganda.”

Hungarian state media spread fake Russian news / Source: Budapest Beacon

There is another danger in this cozy Russian-Hungarian exchange of top secret information, which is the possibility that the Russians disseminate disinformation that may lead the Hungarian agents astray. Given our knowledge of Russian disinformation efforts in the United States and the European Union, I don’t think it is too far-fetched to assume such a possibility. The use of disinformation via the internet is one of Russia’s weapons in the destabilization of Europe.

The far-right Hungarian-language internet sites under Russian tutelage work hard to turn Hungarians against Western Europe and the United States in favor of Russia. This is bad enough. But the real problem is that the Hungarian government media outlets consistently join the chorus of pro-Russian far-right groups, which only reinforces the worst instincts of a large segment of the population. According to a recent study on the attitude of the Visegrád 4 countries toward Russia, “the Hungarian government disguises its pro-Russian stance behind a mask of pragmatism,” but there is reason to believe that the government media’s love affair with Russia is not against the wishes of the Orbán government. The Orbán government’s long-range economic and financial dependence on Russia in connection with the Paks II project further ties Hungary to Putin’s Russia, whose plans for Europe don’t bode well for Hungary either.

March 6, 2017

Viktor Orbán misunderstands Donald Trump

Unfortunately, Viktor Orbán’s speech delivered this morning at a conference organized by the Hungarian National Bank is still not available in its entirety. Nonetheless, I will try to cover it as fully as possible because of its importance.

First, a few words about the conference itself. György Matolcsy established the Lámfalussy Prize, to be awarded to someone in the field of economics and finance who has done outstanding, internationally recognized work. Alexandre (Sándor) Lámfalussy was a Hungarian-born Belgian economist and central banker, known as the father of the euro, who died in 2015. The first Lámfalussy Prize was given to Ewald Nowotny, chairman of the Austrian central bank, in 2014. A year later the prize was awarded to Benoît Coeuré, a member of the executive board of the European Central Bank. Last year it was the Bank for International Settlement with headquarters in Basel that was honored. These prizes are handed out at the Lámfalussy Lectures Conference.

It was on this occasion that Viktor Orbán shared his latest ideas on the state of the world. I consider this speech especially noteworthy because it was Orbán’s first major speech since the inauguration of Donald Trump as president of the United States.

If I had to point to the most frightening message of the speech, it is perhaps the following sentence: “Unipolar Europe must be transformed into a multipolar entity.” Add to that: “We have received authorization from the highest secular place that we are free to put ourselves at the head of the line. What a great thing, what freedom, and what a great gift.” To my mind the first sentence can mean only one thing: the end of the European Union and the return to a divided Europe of smaller and larger nation states. As for the meaning of the second sentence, it is hard to find words to describe my disgust. So, from here on Orbán with the backing of Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump will destroy Europe? Is this his plan? I’m afraid so.

In the speech he pretty well describes what he is expecting of the new constellation after the arrival of Trump in the White House. First of all, “the end of multilateral trade relations has arrived and the age of bilateral treaties has come.” As a result, “national interest will be at the forefront” of each bilateral negotiation. Each country will be able to follow its own ideas as far as economic policy is concerned. I found a quotation that is fitting in this context. “Isolation and egoism fell on that day of the Treaty of Rome.” Orbán’s ideas aim to bring back the Europe that existed before 1957.

One of his first suggestions is the immediate abandonment of the negotiations on the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Viktor Orbán will not have to wait long since all details about the TTIP were wiped from the White House website shortly after Trump was sworn in as president. Orbán’s idea is to replace TTIP “with something else,” without explaining what this something else will be. His reason for abandoning multilateral trade agreements in favor of bilateral ones is their unwieldiness. Moreover, it is hard to harmonize national interests within such a huge trade agreement.

I’m afraid, however, that Orbán doesn’t understand what the new American administration’s objection is to multilateral trade agreements. If one can believe Trump’s press secretary, his government “will pursue bilateral trade opportunities with allies around the globe.” What is the problem from the American perspective with multilateral agreements? The press secretary put it bluntly: “When you’re entering into these multi-lateral agreements you’re allowing any country, no matter of the size … to basically have the same stature of the US in the agreement.” Keep that in mind and good luck, Viktor Orbán.

Orbán’s criticisms of the European Union are well known, and it is not worth rehashing them here. There was, however, one criticism that deserves notice. He pointed out that none of the goals of the European Union that were promised at the time of Hungary’s negotiations with Brussels has materialized. He specifically mentioned “a Eurasian economic area all the way to Vladivostok.” Clearly, Orbán is still working on a possible Russian-European Union common market.

Another point Orbán made, which should be mentioned, is the EU’s security policy. He seems to be taking NATO’s collapse for granted because he reflected that “Europe would not have been able to defend itself without American help.” The creation of a common EU defense force “mostly depends on a German-French military agreement, which is easier said than done since it has no precedent.” I must admit that I don’t know what Orbán is talking about because post-war Franco-German cooperation is based on the Élysée Treaty, which was signed by Charles De Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer in 1963. This treaty contained a number of agreements, extending even to military integration.

If Donald Trump delivers what he has been promising for months, and he seems to be doing it at record speed, Viktor Orbán might not be such a happy man as he seems today. He may come to realize that “America First” means just that. Trump will treat other nations, especially smaller ones, accordingly. Then we will see what Orbán will have to say.

January 23, 2017

A CANDID INTERVIEW WITH HUNGARIAN FOREIGN MINISTER PÉTER SZIJJÁRTÓ.    PART II

Yesterday I covered only about half of the lengthy interview Péter Szijjártó gave to Index a couple of days ago. I talked about Viktor Orbán’s foreign advisers who are attached to the prime minister’s office and described U.S.-Hungarian relations, with special emphasis on Szijjártó’s relationship with Ambassador Colleen Bell and Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland. It is now time to move on to the Hungarian perception of Russia’s diplomatic and military plans. In addition, Szijjártó described at some length his ministry’s active support of even opposition politicians seeking political or business opportunities abroad. This claim came as news to many of us.

If we take Szijjártó’s comments on Russia at face value, the Orbán government has complete trust in Vladimir Putin. The conversation on Russian-Hungarian relations began with the reporter recalling recent statements about possible military threats from the east as well as the south. Does Szijjártó hesitate “to say that this eastern threat means Russia,” the reporter asked. The answer boiled down to the following. The Hungarian foreign minister “doesn’t think that Russia would decide on any threatening act against any of the NATO countries.” Therefore, the fears of the Poles and the inhabitants of the Baltic countries are based only on intangibles like past experience or geography. They look upon Russia as a “threat to their sheer survival.” Hungary’s situation is different: “we don’t consider Russia an existential threat,” he repeated several times. Therefore, he doesn’t think that “NATO soldiers should come to Hungary to defend us from Russia.”

How fast some people forget. It is true that Hungary, unlike Poland or the Baltic states, didn’t encounter Russian encroachment until 1849, but Hungarian aversion toward the Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union has been strong in the last two centuries. The Russian occupation of Hungary after World War II, which lasted almost 50 years, seems to have faded from Hungarian consciousness, and pro-Russian editorials have been abundant in the pro-government, right-wing media. The absence of fear of a Russian military threat can be at least partially explained by the fact that Hungary is no longer a direct neighbor of Russia. As Semjén Zsolt, deputy prime minister, said rather crassly at the time of the Ukrainian crisis in 2014, “It is a good thing to have something between us and Russia.” But, of course, the main reason for the current cozy relationship between Russia and Hungary is Viktor Orbán’s admiration of Vladimir Putin and his, I believe mistaken, notion that Hungary can act as a bridge between Russia and the European Union.

Although Orbán often quite loudly proclaims his opposition to the economic sanctions against Russia, time and again Hungary obediently votes with the rest of the EU countries to extend the sanctions. This was also the case at the end of June when the next six months’ extension was approved. So, not surprisingly, Szijjártó tried to camouflage Hungarian action by first saying that “the approval was reached at the level of deputy permanent representatives only and that it had to be accepted without any discussion because that was the expectation.” Soon enough, however, it became clear that the approval of the extension of the sanctions didn’t go exactly the way Szijjártó first described it. It turned out that there was in fact discussion “and at the beginning there were a few of us who were opposed to it, but the opposition melted away and at the end everybody accepted it.”

One segment in particular from this lengthy interview caused quite a stir in liberal circles. The conversation took an odd turn after a question about instructions the foreign ministry gives to Fidesz politicians when they go to Russia. The journalists were especially interested in Antal Rogán’s trip to Russia in May 2013. It was a secret trip to Moscow to discuss ways in which the Hungarian government could accumulate foreign currency reserves in Russian rubles because of the unstable position of the dollar. This trip created a scandal in Hungary. I wrote about it in “Viktor Orbán’s Russian roulette.”

Szijjártó, who at that point had nothing to do with the foreign ministry, couldn’t enlighten the journalist on this particular event, but he offered juicy information on all the assistance his ministry gives to politicians, and not just those who belong to Fidesz. He continued: “Perhaps it is surprising, but the Demokratikus Koalíció indicated that Ferenc Gyurcsány was going to China. It was the most natural thing for me to ask the Department of Chinese Affairs to put together some preparatory material for the former prime minister.”

Eorsi Matyas

That kind of information shouldn’t prompt an extended discussion in an interview, but in Hungary such simple and customary courtesy astounds everybody because it is so unexpected from the boorish lot that leads the country today. Once Szijjártó saw the astonishment on the faces of the journalists, he decided to tell more about the government’s generosity toward its political opponents. “But I can also tell you some breaking news! Recently I had a visit from Mátyás Eörsi, who lives in Warsaw and works as deputy-secretary general of an international organization called Community of Democracies. This organization has 18 members, among them Hungary, and Eörsi would like to run for the post of secretary-general, but he needs the nomination of his government. He asked me whether such a nomination would be possible, and I said: of course. I visited the prime minister and told him that this was a good idea. He said that [Eörsi’s] merits at the time of the regime change deserve respect even if we have since disagreed on many things.” It was at this point that Szijjártó learned that Mátyás Eörsi is actually a member of the Demokratikus Koalíció.

First, a few words about the Community of Democracies, which was established in 2000 at the initiative of Polish Foreign Minister Bronisław Geremek and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Its purpose is to bring together governments, civil society, and the private sector in support of democratic rules and to strengthen democratic norms and institutions around the world. As for Mátyás Eörsi, his political career is studded with important positions domestically as well as internationally. The English-language Wikipedia has a shorter and the Hungarian version a longer description of his political importance ever since 1990. Given Eörsi’s solidly anti-Fidesz political activities, his endorsement by the Orbán government is indeed a great surprise.

Eörsi, prior to the appearance of the Szijjártó interview, published an announcement of his nomination by the government on Facebook. Ever since, a fierce debate has been going on both in the media and among people on Facebook about Eörsi’s decision to seek the nomination from the Orbán government. There are those who find Eörsi’s move unacceptable. Among these is Christopher Adam, editor of Hungarian Free Press, and Tamás Bauer, formerly an SZDSZ member of parliament and nowadays a member of DK. Christopher Adam is worried that if he actually becomes the secretary-general of this organization he might not be able to publicly condemn Fidesz’s pro-Russian and anti-EU policies freely. Tamás Bauer argues about the inappropriateness of Eörsi’s decision because, while in democratic countries it is perfectly natural for a government to nominate for an international position someone holding different views, in this case we are dealing with a government that has completely destroyed democracy. Eörsi’s decision, Bauer continues, gives the false impression that Hungary is still a democracy. Thus endorsement is in the interest of Fidesz but not of Hungary. This is what Eörsi doesn’t understand, Bauer concludes. Zsolt Zsebesi in gepnarancs.hu called on Eörsi “not to be Orbán’s useful idiot.”

On the other side, Judit N. Kósa of Népszabadság expressed her dismay that the Hungarian political situation is so distorted that Eörsi had to explain why he turned to Szijjártó for a nomination. She expressed her hope that this is not just a trick from the Orbán government but that they truly mean that even an opposition politician can represent Hungary in the Community of Democracies.

Finally, today Ferenc Gyurcsány himself stood by Eörsi, also on Facebook. He assured Eörsi of his support but admitted that he doesn’t understand the government’s motives. “We shouldn’t doubt our colleague’s obvious decency…. It is not Eörsi who should explain the reasons for his action but Viktor Orbán. He should be the one who ought to explain to his own why he supports one of the symbolic representatives of the liberals, one of the leaders of DK for such an important position.” He added that Orbán may know that under the present circumstances it is unlikely that the board of the Community of Democracies will vote for a Hungarian secretary general because that would be considered an endorsement of Orbán’s regime. His final sentence was: “I would be glad if I were wrong . . .”

August 4, 2016