Tag Archives: Péter Gottfried

A candid interview with Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó.    Part I

Members of the Orbán government rarely give interviews to news outlets that don’t belong to the government-controlled media empire. I can count on one hand Fidesz politicians who have dared to walk into these “lions’ dens.” In fact, I can think only of Nándor Csepreghy, deputy to János Lázár; Gergely Gulyás, deputy chairman of Fidesz and deputy speaker of parliament responsible for legislation; and Lajos Kósa, today the leader of the Fidesz delegation in parliament. It was therefore quite a surprise to see a lengthy interview with Péter Szijjártó published in Index yesterday. And even more of a surprise that the interview was refreshingly candid.

What can we learn from this interview that we didn’t know before? One cannot expect revelatory information about the general thrust of Hungarian foreign policy, but some until now unknown details emerged.

Let me start with the internal mechanism of decision-making in the Orbán government as far as foreign policy is concerned. At least according to Szijjártó. Three individuals are full-time advisers to Viktor Orbán on foreign policy. The man who is in charge of U.S.-Hungarian relations is Jenő Megyesy, formerly honorary consul in Denver, Colorado. Orbán met him in 2008 when he attended the Republican Convention and was obviously impressed with the man. Hungarians are convinced that Megyesy has an extensive political network in the U.S. and therefore is useful as an adviser. He has been employed by the prime minister’s office ever since 2010. He is the one Szijjártó turns to when it comes to matters concerning the United States.

szijjarto interview

The second adviser, Péter Gottfried, is an old-timer who has been involved in foreign trade and foreign policy ever since the late 1970s. He has served in high positions in all the post-1990 governments. According to Szijjártó, Gottfried deals exclusively with Europe.

The latest addition is József Czukor, a former intelligence officer, who started his career in 1988 at the Hungarian embassy in Bonn. He has also served all governments and has had friends on both sides of the aisle. In 2010 he was named ambassador to Germany, and in the fall he is moving into the prime minister’s office to be an overall foreign policy adviser to Orbán. From the interview Szijjártó seems to be less enthusiastic about Czukor than his boss is.

You may have noticed that there are no permanent advisers to Orbán who handle Russia and countries in the Far East. Szijjártó is, according to his own account, solely responsible for Russian-Hungarian relations. He relies on the advice of János Balla, Ernő Keskeny, and Zsolt Csutora. Balla, who has been a professional diplomat since 1982, is currently Hungarian ambassador to Russia. Keskeny is in Kiev. In February 2015 I wrote about Keskeny, whom I described as a “rabid Russophile” who allegedly was behind the Russian-Hungarian rapprochement. Subsequently, Keskeny was named ambassador to Ukraine, an appointment that the Ukrainian government couldn’t have welcomed given Keskeny’s well-known pro-Russian sympathies. Csutora began his career as an army officer in 1986 and then moved into the foreign ministry during the first Orbán government. Until recently he was ambassador to Azerbaijan.

What does Viktor Orbán consider to be the essence of Hungary’s foreign policy under his watch? When Orbán asked Szijjártó to be his foreign minister, he told him: “Péter, be a Hungarian foreign minister, and conduct a Hungarian foreign policy. That’s all he told me.” Of course, the journalists’ next question concerned the foreign policy of János Martonyi and Tibor Navracsics. Wasn’t theirs a Hungarian foreign policy? Szijjártó sidestepped that question and tried to explain that the style of foreign policy that Martonyi, for example, conducted wouldn’t work in today’s international climate. The harsher style he is using is the only one that is appropriate in the present circumstances.

As for his own less than diplomatic style, which shocks a lot of observers and analysts, Szijjártó has the perfect answer. He never starts a fight, but when someone attacks Hungary he must immediately counter it because, if there was no rapid response from Budapest, these unfair criticisms and insults would only multiply. At the probing of the interviewing journalists, Szijjártó guessed that he told off foreign politicians about 20 times during his tenure as foreign minister, although Index diligently collected 60 such instances. Szijjártó called in the ambassadors of Croatia, Romania, Austria, Greece, France, and the United States. Which countries’ leaders were given a piece of Szijjártó’s mind? Austria, the United States, Luxembourg, Greece, Germany, Croatia, Spain, France, Italy, Romania, the Netherlands, Serbia, and Sweden.

We found out who Szijjártó’s favorite ambassadors are: Iain Lindsay of the United Kingdom and Colleen Bell of the United States. I’m not surprised about Lindsay, who is an unusual sort of ambassador. On April 11, which is the day of poetry in Hungary, he recited an Attila József poem in very respectable Hungarian. As for Colleen Bell, Szijjártó has the highest opinion of her. According to him, “if Colleen Bell were not the ambassador of the United States in Hungary, political relations between [the two countries] would be much worse. She represents a very calm voice in the U.S. Embassy in Hungary and her presence has helped a lot in the somewhat improving relations between the two countries. Somewhat.”

When the journalists reminded the foreign minister that one finds the same American criticisms of the Orbán government in Bell’s public speeches that were present in André Goodfriend’s utterances, Szijjártó said: “Look, when I have a conversation with her it is a perfectly normal, honest and open talk. Such dialogue was impossible with her predecessors. She is a person who comes from the business world and is therefore pragmatic and approaches matters rationally and not emotionally.” Bell apparently occasionally does bring up these questions, but Szijjártó asked her “to bring concrete examples, not generalities because otherwise our talks will be no more than conversations between deaf people.”

In contrast to Szijjártó’s amiable relations with Colleen Bell is his strong dislike of Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, the highest ranking state department official Szijjártó has managed to meet. According to him, her criticisms were only vague generalizations. “I told Victoria Nuland after our second meeting that we should not meet again. Because there is no use further damaging our bilateral relations by her leveling unsubstantiated accusations [against Hungary] while I—how shall I say—more and more dynamically deny them because they are truly outrageous.”

From the interview I got the impression that the Hungarian government has no intention of fully investigating the corruption case the American company Bunge reported to the American authorities. I have written many articles about the case. Those of you who are unfamiliar with the story should read my last piece on the final outcome of the case. The upshot is that the prosecutors refused to investigate the case properly and brought charges only against the man who delivered the blackmail offer. They charged the messenger, not the person who sent him. The judge found him guilty, and that was, as far as the Hungarian government is concerned, the end of the matter. That the source of the blackmail offer was allegedly the director of Századvég, the same company I wrote about yesterday, was never pursued. The Orbán government refuses to move an inch on any of the corruption cases, which is perfectly understandable since corruption is at the heart of Orbán’s mafia state.

To be continued

August 3, 2016

Viktor Orbán, the economist and the foreign policy expert

The consensus in Hungary is that Viktor Orbán’s speech before the Hungarian diplomatic corps and representatives of the foreign embassies was more muddled than usual.

Contrary to what I thought yesterday, Orbán didn’t read his speech that lasted, by the way, almost an hour but spoke extemporaneously. Since he hardly ever dares to speak at such length without a written text, he has little practice in the art of spontaneous oration. That might be one reason for the confused nature of his message.

The second reason is, and I guess this is the real problem, that foreign policy, international relations, diplomacy are not strong suits of the Hungarian prime minister. Unfortunately, due to Viktor Orbán’s political omnipotence, Hungarian foreign policy is entirely within his purview. A mini foreign ministry was created inside the Office of the Prime Minister; Foreign Minister János Martonyi can either twiddle his thumbs or try to explain away Orbán’s alienating statements.

First, some general observations about the speech. Orbán looked less haggard than usual. Perhaps the reason for his healthier countenance was a four-day vacation in Croatia accompanied by his body guards. The newspaper report made no mention of his wife and children. What it did mention was that he insisted on having a room in which he could watch a Hungarian sports television station and MTV!

Viktor Orbán claimed that, before delivering the speech, he consulted with Péter Gottfried, an old hand at the Foreign Ministry who served almost all governments since the change of regime and currently foreign policy adviser to Orbán. Mind you, he was already in a high government position during the Kádár regime. Gottfried seems to have warned the prime minister to stay clear of certain subjects, but Orbán didn’t listen. Perhaps he should have.

I was somewhat surprised about Orbán’s repeated claim that those present, including he himself, were at one time or another “intellectuals,” “members of the intelligentsia.” The implication was that, due to his intellectual prowess, he is a better judge of the current economic and political situation in the world than (mercifully unnamed) others.

He also tried to be funny, but his sense of humor always has an edge to it. It often involves the degradation of someone else. In this case the butt of his jokes was János Martonyi. Right off the bat he announced that “the danger no longer exists that the foreign minister will give the prime minister’s speech [but] if some of the questions require his competence he should without any fear take part in this consultation.” Isn’t that generous of him!

At least this year he allowed the European Union flags to be displayed unlike last year / Népszabadság, Photo Simon Móricz

At least this year he allowed the European Union flags to be displayed, unlike last year Népszabadság, Photo Simon Móricz

The complete speech, unfortunately without his responses to the questions, is now available on the prime minister’s website. It is unfortunate because some of the juicier remarks about Russia, Germany, and the United States were delivered during the question-and-answer period.

In the body of the speech he spoke at length about the accomplishments of his government. Allegedly he dwelt on this subject only because he is supposed to follow tradition, but he is never shy when it comes to his alleged achievements. The list he offered to the ambassadors was the usual fare, complete with the usual lies.

We know that the national debt is not lower today than it was three years ago. We know that Hungary’s self-financing through the financial markets is more expensive than getting a loan from the IMF and the EU. We know that the IMF loan is not “dole.” We also know that the situation of the forex borrowers is not solved and that unemployment didn’t decrease.

After his lengthy introduction Orbán began talking about the financial and economic crisis of the European Union and pondered the nature of this long-lasting recession. The outstanding question, according to him, is whether this particular crisis is just one of those periodic crises characteristic of market economies or whether it is the beginning of a permanent and steady decline of the European Union. He didn’t give a specific answer to this question, but given Orbán’s earlier references to the decline of the West, we can be pretty confident that he considers the current economic situation in Europe the beginning of the end.

But if this is Orbán’s “Spenglerian” vision, the rest of the speech is pretty incomprehensible because he began talking about the necessity of a strong eurozone on which Hungary is economically dependent. Right now it is the sluggish eurozone that is holding Hungary back. In brief, Hungary’s poor economic performance in the last three years is due to the failures of those Brussels bureaucrats who don’t seem to understand that it is Viktor Orbán who has the key to success. They are stuck in the mud; they keep insisting on the same rules and regulations for everybody and they call this “predictability.”

Yes, we know that the unpredictability of Hungarian legislative moves over the last three years wreaked havoc on every facet of life in Hungary and that it especially did a lot of harm as far as foreign and domestic investments were concerned. Companies never knew what was coming next. One day levies on banks, the next day on telecommunication companies, the following day on utility companies, one can go on and on. But, claims Orbán, the crisis will never end without what he calls “selectivity.” You select your victims almost at random. According to Orbán, this unpredictable behavior is the secret of his success, without which the western nations will never in this stinking life (büdös életben) get out of this crisis.

He outlined another theory of his, again connected to his being an intellectual. The European Union made a mistake when it waited until 2004 to allow the ten central-eastern European nations to join the Union. If it had moved in 1995, it is possible that the EU could have completely avoided the financial crisis brought over the Atlantic from the United States. He put forth this theory based on the current situation. If we look around in the European Union, only those countries that joined the Union later show any economic growth. (He conveniently forgot about Hungary’s track record.)

And finally, he talked about his conflicts over sovereignty with the European Union. The media describe this conflict as a war of independence. Actually he likes this term, but he is not fighting against the European Union but is fighting for the maintenance of a correct balance between union and national rights. The EU cannot change the rules. Right now a stealth attempt at federalization is taking place. Of course, this is also nonsense because the founders of the European Union from the very beginning envisaged ever closer relations among the member states that might eventually result in a United States of Europe.

Out of this mumbo jumbo I tried to figure out what Orbán really wanted to say. Basically, he condemned both the methods and the economic principles that politicians and economic experts in the European Union apply. They are dead wrong in demanding predictability and traditional remedies. With these policies they retard the Hungarian economy and the economies of other Eastern European nations that are the engines of growth in Europe.

With this attitude the cold war between Hungary and the rest of Europe will not come to an end any time soon. Unless, of course, the Hungarian people become tired of their intellectual prime minister next April.