Tag Archives: Netherlands

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

Hungary is waiting for an apology from the Netherlands

Gajus Scheltema, who has been the Netherland’s ambassador to Hungary since 2013, is now retiring from the diplomatic service. He has been a diplomat since 1978. Prior to his current post he served in Poland, Slovakia, Austria, Belgium, Romania, Jordan, Pakistan, and the United States. In brief, he is a seasoned diplomat. Therefore, his farewell interview in 168 Óra cannot be viewed as some horrible diplomatic faux pas. In fact, a careful reading of the interview reveals a man who is meticulous in his wording. What did Ambassador Scheltema say that so infuriated Viktor Orbán?

The interview itself is fairly lengthy, but there are only two sentences that set off the government. One came in the middle of his observation that the terrorists, as the losers in globalization, have turned toward extremism and fanatical religiosity because it gives them a feeling of security. “They create enemies along the same principles as the Hungarian government does.” The second sentence was embedded in a discussion about Hungarians’ inability to reach compromise, as opposed to the Dutch practice of constant negotiations. “Here, on the other hand, there can be only pro or con positions. Someone is either with us or against us. This is a classic Marxist viewpoint.”

The fact is that there were several other critical remarks, which most other governments would have found much more insulting than the two the Orbán government focused on. For example, this absolutely straightforward assertion that “We cannot finance corruption. We cannot keep alive a corrupt regime.” I cannot think of a more damning comment than that. Yet the Hungarian government didn’t find any reason to object to it.

Therefore, my suspicion is that this uproar over the Dutch ambassador’s interview is once again, as so often in the past, for domestic consumption. How many people read 168 Óra? Very few, and therefore only a small group of people will ever hear the ambassador’s harsh words about their corrupt government, which is kept alive by money coming from the European Union. And officially complaining about the ambassador’s calling the Orbán government corrupt would have meant disseminating an uncomfortable truth that the majority of the Hungarian public are also aware of. So, instead, the government picked on statements they thought would rile Hungarians against the European Union via the Dutch ambassador. Someone compared us to terrorists? Someone called us Marxists? It is unacceptable and we demand satisfaction.

Ambassador Gajus Scheltema

Péter Szijjártó’s initial reaction on Thursday, right after the interview was published, was quite mild. He simply said: “Let’s hope that the Dutch ambassador will leave soon.” A day later, however, he opted for a much stronger response. I suspect that Viktor Orbán, who had just arrived from his three-week vacation in Croatia, instructed Szijjártó to make a forceful move that would have reverberations internationally. Actually, Szijjártó doesn’t need much prodding when it comes to aggressiveness. In this case he announced that “relations at the level of ambassadors have been suspended indefinitely,” asserting that this move is “one of the most radical steps in diplomacy.” He announced that Hungary “won’t settle for an explanation behind closed doors.” They will be satisfied with nothing less than “a public apology.”

I must say that the Dutch foreign minister, Bert Koenders, didn’t show himself to be a nimble diplomat in this case. Perhaps he is unaccustomed to the Hungarian way of conducting diplomacy, but he crumbled instead of standing by his ambassador. In the course of a conversation with reporters he admitted that he was “embarrassed” because “it’s clear there is no link between terrorism and the actions of the Hungarian government.” At the end, he added that he couldn’t “imagine that this is what the ambassador wanted to say.”

The fact is that Scheltema said nothing of the sort. He wasn’t talking about a direct link between terrorism and Hungary. Rather, he pointed out that creating nonexistent enemies enables people to justify their own actions. The terrorists create enemies who are set on destroying them and who should therefore be punished. Similarly, the Hungarian government creates its own foes in order to justify its constant attacks on the European Union and clandestine international forces. The Orbán government needs these antagonists in order to prove to the populace that the country is in danger and that it is only the current regime that is fighting for their independence and well-being.

The Orbán government might have avoided a reference to the corrupt regime Ambassador Scheltema was talking about, but Egon Rónai of ATV didn’t miss the opportunity to quiz Péter Szijjártó on the subject. Members of the Orbán government are infamous for not wanting talk to the media, and there are certain outlets that are considered to be forbidden territory. One of these is KlubRádió, especially György Bolgár’s program “Let’s Talk It Over.” Another is HírTV, which is boycotted because its owner is Lajos Simicska, Viktor Orbán’s old friend turned enemy. ATV, although it is not considered to be a pro-government outlet, still manages to have some government officials as guests.

Yesterday Péter Szijjártó was being interviewed on “Egyenes beszéd” (Straight Talk). The interview was supposed to have been on Emmanuel Macron’s meeting with the Slavkov Three instead of the Visegrád Four. But then the controversy over the Dutch ambassador emerged. Egon Rónai asked Szijjártó about Scheltema’s labeling the Hungarian government corrupt. Szijjártó’s answer was priceless. He complained that foreign politicians accuse them of corruption, but when he asks these people to give particulars they cannot come up with anything. The accusation is ridiculous because a corrupt country cannot be economically successful. Hungary happens to be very successful, and therefore such allegations are baseless. When Rónai interjected and called attention to the incredible amount of convergence money coming to Hungary, Szijjártó’s reaction was to belittle the significance of these funds. However, as 444.hu pointed out, a new study just showed that without the convergence money the Hungarian economy would be 6% smaller and the level of investment two-thirds of the present level.

As for the unfinished business between the Netherlands and Hungary, the government made sure that no one forgets about it. Gyula Budai, who is currently undersecretary of the ministry of agriculture, gave a press conference at which he said that the Hungarian government is still waiting for the apology. It is a mystery to me what an agricultural undersecretary has to do with this diplomatic quarrel. Maybe no one else was in town this weekend.

Otherwise, the Hungarian foreign ministry is waiting to see whether its demand will be met. On Monday, “a decision will be made about the next step to be taken.” Prior to the final decision, Szijjártó will speak to the returning Hungarian ambassador and the Hungarian chargé will pay a visit to the Dutch foreign ministry.

The general sentiment in the Netherlands is that an apology will not be forthcoming. And then what? Interestingly, when a Russian official called the 1956 Revolution a counterrevolution ignited by the CIA, the Hungarian government said nothing. It also remained quiet when former Romanian president Traian Băsescu said that the real border between Romania and Hungary should be the Tisza River. But when it comes to one of the important countries in the European Union, Viktor Orbán behaves like a lion ready to pounce.

August 26, 2017