Tag Archives: Paks

Full-court press against the Orbán government

Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó compared the European Union to an old gent with halting steps, but lately the old man has quickened his stride. At least as far as Brussels’ relation with Hungary is concerned. Patience seems to have run out with Hungary’s maverick prime minister, Viktor Orbán. One after the other, officials of the EU and the Council of Europe have called on the Hungarian government to explain its past unlawful or at least legally questionable moves.

First came, on November 19, the official announcement that “the European Commission decided to launch an infringement procedure against Hungary concerning the implementation of the Paks II nuclear power plant project.” The reaction of the Hungarian government was predictable. János Lázár, instead of talking about the actual case–the lack of an open tender, which is an EU requirement–talked about the EU allegedly prohibiting Hungary from signing bilateral commercial agreements with so-called third countries. For details see my post titled “Infringement procedure against Hungary on account of the Paks nuclear power plant.” Hungary has two months to give a satisfactory answer. If the answer is not satisfactory, the case will go to the European Court of Justice.

Four days later, on November 23, it was announced that “the European Commission has opened an in-depth state aid investigation into Hungary’s plans to provide financing for the construction of two new nuclear reactors in Paks.” The question is “whether a private investor would have financed the project on similar terms or whether Hungary’s investment constitutes state aid.” Margrethe Vestager, commissioner in charge of competition policy, and her staff think that “this investment may not be on market terms, as Hungary argues.”

Two days after the announcement of the second in-depth investigation, on November 25, Chancellor Angela Merkel delivered a speech in the Bundestag in which she talked about solidarity as “the acid test” for the maintenance of the borderless Schengen area. She stressed that “a distribution of refugees according to economic strength and other conditions … and the readiness for a permanent distribution mechanism … will determine whether the Schengen area will hold in the long term.” The speech was interpreted as a sharp warning aimed at the new EU members. Hungary’s immediate reaction was that Hungary couldn’t possibly take any refugees because its economic situation wouldn’t allow such generosity. The government spokesman talked about 15,000 possible “migrants,” who in time would bring other family members. Within a few years Hungary would be stranded with close to 200,000 Syrians, Iraqis, and Afghans.

On November 27 Nils Muižnieks, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, after spending three days in Hungary, issued a statement about Hungary’s response to the current refugee crisis and came to the conclusion that “Hungary has not lived up to this challenge.” He complained about the “accelerated asylum procedure lacking essential safeguards.” Under this new procedure “asylum-seekers have seen their claim processed in less than a day and sent back to Serbia directly from the Röszke transit zone.” Muižnieks also noted that the crisis measures Hungary introduced are still in effect although hardly any refugees are in Hungary. After detailing all the reproachable and outright illegal pieces of legislation and practices, he called on the Hungarian government “to refrain from using xenophobic rhetoric linking migrants to social problems or security risks.”

By that time Szijjártó became convinced that “a mysterious conspiracy is unfolding against Hungary.” According to the foreign minister, “it is evident that some people would like see an opaque and confused situation in Hungary.”

On the very same day it was reported that the European Commission had given the green light to a citizens’ initiative launched by the European Humanist Federation (EHF) to strip Hungary of its voting rights in the European Union. What is a citizens’ initiative? According to the official explanation, “a European citizen’s initiative is an invitation to the European Commission to propose legislation on matters where the EU has competence to legislate. A citizens’ initiative has to be backed by at least one million EU citizens, coming from at least 7 out of the 28 member states. A minimum number of signatories is required in each of those 7 member states.” A list of these minimum numbers can be found online. In Hungary’s case only 15,750 valid signatures are needed.

Call of the European Humanist Federation for a citizens' initiative on their website

Call of the European Humanist Federation for a citizens’ initiative

The European Humanist Federation launched its initiative called “Wake up Europe!” on October 2. Its official website outlines the reasons for the initiative. Nine individuals from eight countries charge Viktor Orbán’s government with “anti-democratic and xenophobic measures that openly violate the basic principles of the rule of law.” In response, “a committee of EU citizens has launched an ECI to call on the European Commission to trigger Article 7 of TEU and bring the Hungarian issue to the Council.”

The Commission approved this citizens’ initiative on a day when Tibor Navracsics, the commissioner representing Hungary, happened to be away. Navracsics “in a strongly-worded letter criticized the decision to hold the meeting in his absence as well as the substance of the initiative.” He claimed that this was “a sensitive political issue” which could result in consequences reaching “far beyond the aim of the initiative.” Szijjártó considered the acceptance of the citizens’ initiative by the Commission to be a case of “revenge by Brussels” for “the successful migration policy of Hungary.”

The most fanciful explanation for the launch of the citizens’ initiative in the first place came from Magyar Idők. The editorial board of this pro-government paper is convinced that, once again, it is George Soros who is behind this attack on Hungary and Viktor Orbán. The explanation, according to Magyar Idők, is simple. Since the European Humanist Federation’s affiliated partners all share Soros’s concept of an Open Society, the EHF must be a front organization for Soros. Moreover, since the Commission accepted the EHF’s citizens’ initiative, “IN ADDITION TO THE CIVIC GROUPS THE EU COMMISSIONERS ARE ALSO IN SOROS’S POCKET.” Yes, in boldface caps. Magyar Idők accuses the commissioners of purposely picking a date when Navracsics would not be present.

Yes, it seems that the whole world is against the poor, innocent Orbán government. But pulling the strings is one man who has the power to move twenty-seven commissioners and their staff to make a concerted attack not just against Hungary but against the very idea of the “nation state.” I don’t know how effective such simple-minded explanations are, but I guess they might resonate with some people, especially since Soros’s name is associated with Jewishness and financial speculation, notions that are anathema to the far right.

Well, George Soros may not be pulling the strings in Brussels, but Viktor Orbán definitely is in Budapest. And through his mouthpieces he’s sounding more and more like Jobbik (and as a result is siphoning off Jobbik supporters).

Viktor Orbán’s system is already   in ruins

In the last few weeks several analyses have appeared predicting a change of government, perhaps even before 2018 when under normal circumstances the next regularly scheduled national election would be held. A year ago most commentators foresaw a very long period dominated by Viktor Orbán, who is after all only 51 years old. They pointed out the weakness of the opposition and the practically impenetrable edifice the regime managed to create. But things seem to be changing. There is a strong feeling among certain political observers that the Orbán government’s current problems can no longer be remedied by ad hoc measures aimed at turning public sentiment back toward Fidesz and its regime. Something fundamental went wrong. Observers suggest that there may be a direct connection between the Simicska-Orbán falling-out and signs of the impending collapse of the regime.

The most interesting analysis of the current political situation comes from Attila Ágh, a professor of political science, who is certain that “the fall of Orbán is nearing.” His approaching political demise would explain “the hasty and self-damaging decisions by his associates and advisers in which it is not difficult to discern the hysterical signs of an aging dictator’s last days.” A transition phase has begun. The question is how long this period will last. “What will happen before Orbán fails not only in people’s souls but also in politics?”

The Simicska-Orbán system

According to Ágh, the “Orbán regime already collapsed on April 7, 2014, a day after the victory achieved by the complicated system of subtle fraud, and since then we have been seeing only the regime’s last agony.” On that day Viktor Orbán and Lajos Simicska ended their quarter-century cooperation, which was the most important pillar of the whole Orbán system. Ágh is convinced that “the system was built by Simicska, in which the authoritarian world of the economy, the media, and politics fit snugly, with engineering precision.” Orbán, by throwing the engineer overboard, “smashed the system that had worked relatively well during the four years of the second Orbán government.” According to this interpretation, with which I sympathize, without Simicska the system cannot be maintained.

A much young Viktor Orbán and Lajos Simicska on their only picture together

A much younger Viktor Orbán and Lajos Simicska on their only picture together

Many political observers write off Simicska’s quarrel with Orbán as simple greed. According to this scenario, Orbán no longer wanted to cut Simicska into his business deals. Simicska was not going to get a piece of the action in building Paks II’s two new nuclear reactors and he was sore. I have never shared this view. I am convinced that Lajos Simicska’s anti-Russian sentiments are genuine. But Ágh takes another speculative step. He argues that Simicska “did not want to follow Orbán in further building the still half-finished dictatorship. Not only the billions of Közgép fell out with Orbán; the two men parted ways somewhere at the dividing line between managed democracy and hard-core autocracy.” Admittedly, a brave claim, but one that I don’t think is far-fetched.

In the rest of his article Ágh outlines possible ways the Orbán regime’s agony might end. He finds a palace revolution against “the dear leader” unlikely. Insiders are “timid and helpless” since they are no longer accustomed to independent thinking and action. The outcome that Ágh considers most likely is an implosion, “chaos as a result of an internecine war of the Fidesz overlords,” which may last for a long time because in an autocracy there is no real “second man.”

All in all, in Ágh’s opinion, Viktor Orbán “is writing his own obituary day after day.” The opposition should help him “shorten his sufferings” because this is best not only for the country but also for the prime minister. In this way “future historians can compile a shorter list of his sins in the chronicles of the twenty-first century.”

Oh, yes, talking about history. Another commentator, Péter Techet, also mulled over Orbán’s place in history books. He has been in power long enough that scholars will spend considerable time debating his historical role. Techet thinks that only four Hungarian politicians of the last century have been recognized outside of the country as important political figures: Miklós Horthy, Ferenc Szálasi, Mátyás Rákosi, and János Kádár. Although he doesn’t want to compare Orbán to either Szálasi or Rákosi, he asks: “What can Orbán be proud of? Nothing.” And then one by one Techet describes Viktor Orbán’s political failures.

Promises, promises

Although in the last few months the Fidesz leadership has been desperately trying “to buy” the love of wayward voters, my feeling is that the references to gigantic road construction projects, billions for every city in the next couple of years are empty rhetoric. I have the distinct impression that the country’s coffers are not exactly bulging. I wouldn’t be at all surprised, after reading about an interview with László L. Simon, the undersecretary in the prime minister’s office in charge of cultural matters, if the ambitious plan to create a “museum quarter” in Városliget, one of the few green spaces on the Pest side of the capital, is shelved. Apparently, Viktor Orbán doesn’t like the buildings world-famous architects designed. My hunch is that this is just an excuse to postpone or scrap the project.

The European Union may finally be playing hardball with Hungary. The fact that, from day one, the European Commission refused to give any money for the M4 highway project, considering it unnecessary, might portend closer scrutiny of Hungarian proposals. Just today Orbán promised 50 billion forints to the city of Eger, including a four-lane highway. He also told the people of Sümeg that there will be enough money to complete the reconstruction of the Sümeg Castle. None of these projects can materialize without major financial help from the European Union. And if, for one reason or other, the money flow from Brussels stops or slows considerably, Viktor Orbán’s efforts to regain the trust of Hungarian voters will most likely be in vain.

Leaving the sinking ship?

In his article Attila Ágh wrote about “rats leaving the sinking ship” as one of the possible scenarios in the final stages of the Orbán government’s agony. Is it possible that the CEO of the company in charge of the Paks II project is one of the first of these “rats”? It was in 2012 that Sándor Nagy was appointed to head the company that handled the Hungarian side of the project. But today, late in the afternoon, 444.hu reported that Nagy had left Hungary and since April 7 has been working in the London office of WANO (World Association of Nuclear Operators). His disappearance was sudden and unexplained. People familiar with the company and with Sándor Nagy’s role in it are baffled. Will we ever find out the reason? Unlikely. Unless one day we learn that the whole project has been abandoned.

Viktor Orbán and the European Energy Union

After Jean-Claude Juncker was elected president of the European Commission he proposed an ambitious program for 2015. He defined ten priorities around which he wants to build closer cooperation among the member states. One of these was “a resilient Energy Union with a forward-looking climate change policy.” According to Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič and Commissioner 
Miguel Arias Cañete,

The Energy Union means making energy more secure, affordable and sustainable. It will allow a free flow of energy across borders and a secure supply in every EU country, for every citizen. New technologies and renewed infrastructure will cut household bills and create new jobs and skills, as companies expand exports and boost growth. It will lead to a sustainable, low carbon and environmentally friendly economy, putting Europe at the forefront of renewable energy production and the fight against global warming.

Šefčovič voiced his disapproval of the separate negotiations between Russia and Hungary by saying that “ideally the commission should be part of the negotiating team.” One of the key elements of the Energy Union is that member states’ energy deals with non-EU countries should be approved by the European Commission. Viktor Orbán’s reaction was immediate and predictably negative. At a press conference on February 18 he said that he “will have a major problem [with Brussels],” adding that he is “expecting an escalating conflict.” Any kind of European Energy Union is unacceptable to Hungary because it infringes on the country’s sovereignty. At the same press conference he talked about his insistence on making energy a “nonprofit” commodity, an idea no other country supports.

It seems that the European Commission was not impressed with Orbán’s threat of an escalating conflict. On February 27 the Commission approved the proposals of the Department of Energy that had as their goal a common energy market for the 28 member states. The idea is to provide energy security that is sustainable, competitive and affordable for all citizens of the EU. The Commission would like to create a situation in which each country would have at least three different sources of energy. Brussels also wants greater transparency when it comes to energy deals with non-member states. That means the EU overseeing Orbán’s negotiations with the Russians and energy prices in general. Juncker also declared that the EU will require, “if necessary by legal means,” the separation of the ownership of the infrastructure from the energy providers. At present the Hungarian energy situation is a far cry from the desired aims of the European Union.

On March 19-20 leaders of the 28 member states gathered to discuss, among other things, the creation of a single European Energy Union, the one Viktor Orbán vehemently opposed a month ago. The European Council broadly approved the proposals set forth by the Commission, although admittedly they left some of the more problematic details out of the final communiqué issued after the summit. Specifically, the demand that

ensuring full compliance with EU law of all agreements related to the buying of gas from external suppliers, notably by reinforcing transparency of such agreements and compatibility with EU energy security provisions. As regards commercial gas supply contracts, the confidentiality of commercially sensitive information needs to be guaranteed

Experts on energy matters think that “the Commission didn’t need a ringing endorsement of its Energy Union proposals from the European Council at this stage. All it required was a gentle nod from the heads of state and a quiet signal to get back to work. Tonight they received a green light to proceed.”

That gentle nod also came from the earlier blustery Viktor Orbán. In his press conference for Hungarian reporters he said nothing about his demand for energy’s non-profit status. He said only that “for Hungary the most important consideration is the price of energy.” According to him, this concern “received considerable weight” in the final document. This “considerable weight” was the following sentence: it “will provide affordable energy to households and industry.” As for the sticky question of energy deals with non-member states, Orbán found it comforting that he will “only have to inform Brussels if such a contract is signed.” There is no question of approval or demand, he continued, because “this would be unacceptable for Hungary.” But it doesn’t matter how Orbán tries to explain himself away, the fact is that the European Energy Union will force Hungary, just like all other member countries, to follow the rules and regulations of the Union. Hungarian sovereignty, which is so important for Orbán, will be further curtailed.

Viktor Orbán was less popular than one of his colleagues in the background

Viktor Orbán was less popular than one of his colleagues in the background

He briefly talked about Paks and Euratom’s veto of the Russian fuel supply. Here he made a statement that deserves some scrutiny. The Hungarian government thought that their contract was “acceptable, but it left itself room for maneuver.” Many commentators interpret this sentence as an admission that the Orbán government knew all along that signing a contract which includes a provision that the Russian-built power plant will also receive Russian fuel rods is illegal, but that they might be able to argue that if the Finns can have this arrangement in their Fennoveima plant Hungary should be allowed the same in the case of Paks.

But there is a crucial difference. Fennoveima received the nod before August 14, 2014, when a new law was introduced that mandated the diversification of the fuel supply and included other provisions on diversification. Didn’t the Hungarian government notice the change in the legislation or did they just hope that the question of the source of the fuel supply would come up only years later and that perhaps nothing would happen until the plant was practically built? Hard to know.

In any case, on the issue of Paks Orbán managed to get himself in a bind. Yes, for the time being Paks is stalled, blocked, if you prefer. And by Friday the government spokesman was no longer so sure about suing The Financial Times, as originally planned. Dropping the whole issue would be a wise decision although, I must admit, lately Viktor Orbán seems to be incapable of wise decisions.

Euratom, the European Commission, and Paks

Last night an article appeared in The Financial Times, written by Andrew Byrne in Budapest and Christian Oliver in Brussels. The reporters had heard earlier that the European Atomic Energy Community or Euratom, which must approve all nuclear supply contracts signed by EU member states, had serious reservations about the contract signed by Russia and Hungary and would most likely withhold approval of the plant’s fuel supply. By yesterday they learned that Euratom had definitely “refused to approve Hungary’s plans to import nuclear fuel exclusively from Russia.” Hungary appealed the decision without success and, according to “three people close to the talks, the European Commission has now thrown its weight behind Euratom’s rejection of the contract.” In brief, that part of the contract that gave Rosatom the exclusive right to supply Paks2 with nuclear fuel for the next twenty years must be renegotiated. As a result, for the time being at least, the Paks project is stalled.

András Giró-Szász, one of the many government spokesmen, argued that the information obtained by The Financial Times was inaccurate. He especially objected to the sentence in the article that read: “The EU has blocked Hungary’s €12bn nuclear deal with Russia.” Nobody “blocked” anything. Initially the Hungarian government talked about demanding a retraction from the newspaper. By the next morning, however, Zoltán Kovács, another government spin doctor, gave up on the idea, especially since The Financial Times had no intention of changing a story that had been verified by three independent sources.

The Hungarian charge might have been based on an erroneous translation of the verb “to block.” Although one of the word’s meanings is “to stop,” it can also mean “to obstruct” or “to impede.” In the latter sense The Financial Times correctly described the situation that developed as a result of Euratom’s decision, sanctioned by the European Commission. As the FT text continued, “The result is to block the whole Paks II expansion. To revive it, Hungary would need to negotiate a new fuel contract or pursue legal action against the commission.” So, the deal is not dead but it must be renegotiated. I might add that in Hungarian “blokkolni” (to block) means only to stop.

Another reason for the confusion, in addition to semantics, is Hungarian secretiveness. 444.hu learned that the Hungarian government insisted on secrecy in its negotiations with Euratom. Therefore, neither the head of Euratom nor the European Commission can say anything about the details of the situation that developed in connection with the Russian contract.

euratom

Since the Hungarian government has already lost its battle with Euratom and the Commission, the matter of the nuclear fuel supply must be renegotiated with Rosatom. János Lázár, in an interview on Kossuth Rádió this morning, referred to extensive discussions with “the members of the Russian negotiating team.” There has been some talk about getting nuclear fuel from other suppliers. Westinghouse has been mentioned several times as a possible source, even by János Lázár himself. However, Benedek Jávor, Hungarian MEP of the Greens, got in touch with Westinghouse and the firm denied in writing that there have been any talks between them and the Hungarian government.

What can the Hungarian government do under the circumstances? It could abandon the whole project. The Russians might be quite happy with such a decision since the Russian economy is in serious trouble and the Russian state might not have the resources to lend such a large sum to Hungary even if the project would be beneficial to Rosatom.

The other possibility is to renegotiate the deal and to convince Russia to allow other suppliers to participate in selling nuclear fuel to Paks2. But that might not be too attractive to the Russian partners. The revenues Rosatom receives from selling fuel to nuclear power plants all over the world are an important contributor to the Russian economy, especially now that the price of natural gas and oil is falling. The Russian government might be willing to finance, through its loan to Hungary, a Russian company, but it doesn’t sound like good business from the Russian point of view to finance nuclear rods supplied by, let’s say, Westinghouse or Siemens. Or at least this is what Miklós Hegedűs, an economist specializing in energy matters, said in an interview on HírTV this morning. Finally, the Hungarians can fight the decision of Euratom and the European Commission. Such a move would delay the completion of the project, probably for years. I myself don’t think that Viktor Orbán would venture into such a losing battle.

What we must also keep in mind is that the question of the nuclear fuel supply is not the only one that the European Commission is interested in. Another concern is the Russian loan itself. Is it a form of “state aid,” which is forbidden by EU law? Will it give Paks2 an undue advantage that will distort the Hungarian energy market? If the European Commission decides that this the case, the whole project will have to be scrapped. Still another concern is that the Russians received the job of expanding the nuclear power plant without any competition whatsoever. If the Commission finds the lack of competition a stumbling block, the fate of the project will be sealed.

At the moment, the appropriate cabinets of the European Commission are investigating whether an in-depth investigation of these aspects of the Russian-Hungarian agreement is warranted. Their decision will undoubtedly be influenced by political considerations. How much does the EU worry about Russian influence within the European Union and the role Hungary might play in Vladimir Putin’s power game? If they consider Russia a serious threat to European security, the Commission might be less understanding and forgiving than it has been in the past five years. Until now Viktor Orbán has been lucky, but it is possible that the Brussels bureaucrats will scrutinize Hungary’s blatant disregard of EU laws and its common democratic values more closely now, given Russia’s perceived threat to Europe.

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.”

Hungary and Europe through Russian eyes

Today let’s look at some Russian responses to Viktor Orbán’s policies as well as Russian analyses of U.S.-Hungarian and U.S.-EU relations. It was about a month ago that Vladimir Putin profusely praised Orbán’s Hungary as Russia’s best friend and ally in Europe. A few days ago Hungary again came up on a Russian State Television program called “Bремя покажет” (Time will tell) when a political scientist, Yuri Solozobov, an associate of the National Strategy Institute of the Russian Federation, explained to his audience that, instead of employing sanctions against the European Union, Russia should use some of its member countries to loosen the unity of the Union. After all, Russia already has allies in Eastern Europe: Hungary and Serbia. If there is no consensus regarding sanctions against Russia, the entire anti-Russian policy of the West will collapse. The video below is a three-minute segment on Hungary with English subtitles.

Solozobov is not the only Russian political scientist who contemplates using Hungary as a tool in Russian diplomacy. Pravda interviewed two other political analysts in the aftermath of Viktor Orbán’s announcement that “a new era has started when the United States not only interferes but takes an active part in internal politics in central European countries,” adding that this was “due to the Russia-Ukraine conflict, and the free trade talks under way between the European Union and the U.S.” Finalizing the free trade agreement, officially called the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), has been dragging on for a very long time and the issues are too complex to discuss here, but promoters claim that it would promote economic growth. Opponents in Europe insist that it would benefit only American corporations and would cause harm to the environment by adopting less stringent measures than those currently in force in Europe. Just the other day farmers and trade unions demonstrated in Brussels against the treaty.

The first political scientist to comment on Hungary’s economic and political dependence on the United States and the European Union was Vladimir Bruter, an expert from the International Institute of Humanitarian and Political Studies. He has written several studies for an English-language publication available online called Russia in Global Affairs, a quarterly produced with the participation of the American journal Foreign Affairs. In Bruter’s estimation Hungary depends on the U.S. both economically and politically, and the U.S. “has effective tools to create a conflict within a country that may result in [the] overthrow of power at the U.S.’s bidding.” Bruter is against the adoption of the free trade agreement because in his opinion it will merely serve U.S. interests. If adopted, “the actual independence of the European economy will simply cease to exist.” And this is especially dangerous for small countries like Hungary. American policy is “unacceptable for Central Europe.”

The other analyst who was questioned on Hungary was Aleksey Drynochkin, lead research scientist at the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He stressed that American political pressure on Hungary has been relentless. First, there were the accusations of a lack of democracy, now it is “corruption.” Surely, this is a cover story just as Viktor Orbán said. Drynochkin agrees with Orbán: the demonstrations are also the work of the United States. And he foresees the possibility that “some technical regulations on [the] operation of nuclear stations within the European Union may be toughened,” presumably undermining the enlargement of the Paks nuclear power plant by the Russian firm Rossatom.

As for the free trade agreement, according to Drynochkin “in terms of a bare economic theory, this project is likely to have no problems.” But there is a political aspect to it, and  it “is possible that [the] Americans are pursuing their own goal–to completely finish off Europe,” I guess economically. But what the U.S. would achieve by “finishing off Europe” remains a mystery. In his opinion, in political terms the European Union will be less and less independent and “will be more and more the conductor of some foreign actions and intentions.” What Drynochkin and other Russian analysts fail to see is that it was Russian aggression against Ukraine that brought the European Union and the United States closer together. Moreover, it is possible that Vladimir Putin’s belligerence will be the catalyst for a speedier adoption of the EU-U.S. free trade agreement.

But Russian strategists are correct: trying to undermine the cohesion of the European Union is a great deal less costly and risky than settling for a long trade war and a series of sanctions. Trying to torpedo the free-trade agreement is also in Russia’s interest. But why does Hungary support the Russian position in these matters? What does Hungary gain from standing by Russia? I find the Hungarian government’s position hard to explain.

And why does the editorial board of Magyar Nemzet believe it necessary to turn up the volume, accusing the United States of creating a Hungarian Maidan in Budapest? The title itself is outrageous: “Kievan scenario with Western producer?” Or why does Zsolt Bayer, a friend of Viktor Orbán and the owner of the #5 Fidesz membership card, write about “the many American scoundrels (gazember)” who are responsible for the Maidan uprising?  He says that the Americans achieved what they wanted. They will privatize the gas pipelines and will take over the rich land of the country. In brief, they will exploit Ukraine.

Hungary has a bad track record when it comes to picking sides in conflicts. And such governmental decisions have always come at a high cost to the country. “This time is different,” governments say, but it’s almost never different.

Hungary as a “field of operation”

Paranoia seems to have swept through the Hungarian government. Fidesz politicians are convinced that the United States wants to remove Viktor Orbán and cause his government’s fall. All this is to be achieved by means of the “phony” charge of corruption.

Recently a journalist working for Hetek, a publication of Hitgyülekezet (Assembly of Faith), managed to induce some high-ranking members of the government to speak about the general mood in Fidesz circles. The very fact that these people spoke, even about sensitive topics, to a reporter of a liberal paper points to tactical shifts that must have occurred within the party.

Their argument runs along the following lines. Until now the Obama administration paid little attention to the region, but this past summer the decision was made to “create a defensive curtain” in Central Europe between Russia and the West. The pretext is the alleged fight against corruption. The Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania are the targets. Fidesz politicians point to recent Slovak demonstrations against corruption which were “publicly supported” by the U.S. ambassador in Bratislava. Or, they claim, the Americans practically forced the Romanian government to take seriously the widespread corruption in the country. They are certain that the resignation of Petr Nečas, the former Czech prime minister, “under very strange circumstances” was also the work of the CIA.

In its fight against the targeted Central European governments Washington relies heavily on NGOs and investigative journalists specializing in unveiling corruption cases. George Soros’s name must always be invoked in such conspiracy theories. And indeed, Átlátszó.hu, sponsored in part by the Soros Foundation, was specifically mentioned as a tool of American political designs.

To these Fidesz politicians’ way of thinking, all of troubles recently encountered by the government are due solely to American interference. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that the government itself has given plenty of reason for public disenchantment. In fact, the first demonstrations were organized only against the internet tax. Admittedly, over the course of weeks new demands were added, and by now the demonstrators want to get rid of Viktor Orbán’s whole regime.

The Fidesz politicians who expressed an opinion think, I am sure incorrectly, that the Americans have no real evidence against Ildikó Vida and, if they do, they received it illegally. Vida got into the picture only because of the new “cold war” that broke out between the United States and Russia. Hungarian corruption is only an excuse for putting pressure on the Hungarian government because of its Russian policy and Paks.  As for Hungary’s “democracy deficit” and American misgivings about Orbán’s “illiberal state,” Fidesz politicians said that if the United States does not accept Orbán’s system of government as “democratic” and if they want Fidesz to return to the status quo ante, this is a hopeless demand. “Not one Hungarian right-wing politician would lend his name to such ‘retrogression.'”

The latest American “enemy” of the Orbán government is the State Department’s Sarah Sewall, Undersecretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, who a week ago gave a speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in which she said that “we [recently] denied visas to six Hungarian officials and their cronies due to their corruption. This action also bolstered public concern, and on November 9th, the streets of Budapest filled with 10,000 protesters who called for the resignation of corrupt public officials.” As soon as Hungarian officials discovered the text of that speech, André Goodfriend, the U.S. chargé in Budapest, was once again called into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

I think it would be a mistake to characterize the American fight against corruption simply as a smokescreen for exerting political pressure on foreign governments. Sewall in that speech explains the potentially dangerous political ramifications of corruption.

Corruption alienates and angers citizens, which can cause them to lose faith in the state, or, worse, fuel insurgencies and violent extremism…. Ukraine …provides [an] illustration of how corruption can both increase instability risks and cripple the state’s ability to respond to those risks. The Maidan Movement was driven in part by resentment of a kleptocratic regime parading around in democratic trappings.

All this makes sense to me, and what Sewall says about Ukraine is to some extent also true about Hungary. But the Fidesz leadership sees no merit in the American argument. In fact, today both Viktor Orbán and Péter Szijjártó used very strong words to accuse the United States of interfering in Hungary’s internal affairs.

"We can't pay as much in taxes as you steal"

“We can’t pay as much in taxes as you steal”

Viktor Orbán sent a message from Belgrade. The prime minister does not know why the United States put aside 100 million dollars for “the preparation of an action plan against two dozen Central- and East-European countries in order to put pressure on their governments.” The United States declared Hungary to be a “field of operation,” along with others. Referring to Sewall’s speech, he expressed his dissatisfaction that he has to learn about such plans from a public lecture. “If someone wants to work together with Hungary or with any Central-European government for a good cause, we are open. We don’t have to be pressured, there is no need to spend money behind our backs, there is no necessity of organizing anything against us because we are rational human beings and we are always ready to work for a good cause.” It is better, he continued, to be on the up and up because Hungarians are irritated by slyness, trickery, and diplomatic cunning. They are accustomed to straightforward talk. (He presumably said this with a straight face.)

Viktor Orbán’s reference to the military term “field of operation” captured the imagination of László Földi, a former intelligence officer during the Kádár regime as well as for a while after 1990, who announced that in secret service parlance “field of operation” means that every instrument in the intelligence service can be used to undermine the stability of a country. The Americans’ goal, as Orbán sees it, is the removal of his government.

Meanwhile the staff of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade who were brought in by Péter Szijjártó are solidly anti-American. They consider the diplomats who served under János Martonyi to be “American agents” because of their alleged trans-atlantic sentiments. So I don’t foresee any improvement in American-Hungarian relations in the near future, unless the economic and political troubles of Putin’s Russia become so crippling that Orbán will have to change his foreign policy orientation. But given the ever shriller condemnations and accusations, it will be difficult to change course.