Tag Archives: Péter Szijjártó

Liberated from Russia? What does Viktor Orbán have in mind?

Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó paid a visit to Bucharest on February 5, which the Romanian media described as “strange” and “extremely controversial.” These adjectives may not be an exaggeration since his Romanian counterpart, Teodor Meleșcanu, reluctantly received him only after Szijjártó’s persistent request for an audience. According to Romanian sources, Szijjártó was supposed to meet only Liviu Dragnea, president of the chamber of deputies, and Călin Popescu-Tăriceanu, speaker of the senate, in connection with the reopening of a Roman Catholic theological seminary in Targu Mureș/Marosvásárhely.

HotNews, an English-language internet site, also noted that President Klaus Iohannis did not receive Szijjártó, although a few days earlier he extended an invitation to the Polish foreign minister who was visiting Bucharest. The paper reminded its readers that Szijjártó was the “one who banned Hungarian diplomats from participating in Romania’s national day celebrations” last December. Despite these dismal accounts of the trip, by the time Szijjártó landed in Budapest the visit had morphed into a triumphant encounter of historic importance.

According to MTI, Hungary’s official news agency, the foreign ministers of the two countries signed an agreement that will ensure the receipt of large quantities of natural gas extracted from the Black Sea. Szijjártó added that “this is Hungary’s first opportunity in the past decade to buy large quantities of natural gas from a source other than Russia.”

They managed to squeeze out a faint smile

Two days later, however, Teodor Meleșcanu made it clear that “no agreement or other bilateral document has been signed regarding gas export from Romania to Hungary or about other new projects in the energy field.” During a breakfast meeting “issues known to the public were reviewed … with no new elements.” They simply had a friendly or not so friendly chat about a gas pipeline, one of the projects of the “Connecting Europe Facility” which, according to the European Commission’s Innovation and Networks Executive Agency (INEA), is “a key EU funding instrument to promote growth, jobs and competitiveness through targeted infrastructure investment at a European level.”

The project is an onshore “pipeline from Bulgaria to Austria via Romania and Hungary,” known as the BRHA project. The pipeline will extend approximately 1,318 km and will have a delivery capacity of between 6.1 and 52mcm/day, depending on the geographic location. Work on the project began in July 2016 and the first phase of the project must be finished by August 2020. Meleșcanu noted that “the plan states that the interconnection will be made … according to a prescribed schedule, which is a condition for funding, and non-compliance … leads to losing the funds,” which is 40% of the total cost. Each side must finish its work within the prescribed time. The project needs no Romanian-Hungarian negotiations. On the other hand, Hungary might have to explain to the European Union and to Austria why it refuses to extend the pipeline to Austria and why it is instead diverting part of the Romanian gas to Slovakia. Judging from Meleșcanu’s description of his conversation with Szijjártó, the subject of Hungary’s plans for the gas once it reaches Hungary was not discussed.

Meleșcanu’s correction of Szijjártó’s misleading information didn’t deter Viktor Orbán from boasting about an alleged breakthrough in Hungary’s energy supply, something that is a result of his astute policies and his foreign minister’s superb negotiating skills. Yesterday, during the press conference held after his meeting with Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic, he announced that three Hungarian companies had won a tender in Romania for gas delivery. “Within moments we will sign an agreement that will allow for the next 15 years the import of over 4 billion cubic meters of gas from Romania.” He declared that “the era of Russian gas monopoly will come to an end in Hungary … as we will be able to cover more than half of our imports from other, in this case, Romanian sources.” Orbán acts as if he didn’t know that “according to European regulation, we cannot speak of gas sources or infrastructures dedicated exclusively to a particular country,” as the Romanian Foreign Ministry explained. I’m afraid this is exactly what Viktor Orbán is doing.

The Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has since released an explanation that allegedly proves the correctness of the Hungarian interpretation of the arrangement with Romania. “The situation is terribly simple. At the auction for capacity booking held by Romanian and Hungarian pipeline operators, two Hungarian companies booked the Romanian-Hungarian interconnector’s total capacity after 2022 in the direction of the Romanian-Hungarian line. However, gas will be transported not only in this direction but also toward other countries. Therefore, the statement by the Romanian Minister of Foreign Affairs is meaningless.” My suspicion is that this will not be the end of the sparring between the Orbán government and the Romanians over the pipeline.

But that’s just one aspect of this affair. The other one is the jubilation over being free of dependence on Russia. Keep in mind that after only three months Hungary paid the first installment on the Russian loan, which was €78.2 million, and the first significant tender for the Paks project was won by a consortium of GE Hungary and Alstom Power Systems in competition with the Russian Silovie Mashini. Some people wonder what all this means. Is it a real diplomatic turn, just the usual peacock dance, or chaos in Hungarian foreign policy? At this juncture it is hard to tell, but it is possible that Orbán is contemplating a new strategy.

This morning I read an op-ed in The Washington Post in which the author used Jonathan Swift’s famous line that “falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it,” which led me to read his whole essay on “Political Lying.” There I found another passage that I found most appropriate to the subject of our story. “And my imagination this minute represents before me a certain great man famous for this talent, to the constant practice of which he owes his twenty years’ reputation of the most skillful head in England, for the management of nice affairs. The superiority of his genius consists in nothing else but an inexhaustible fund of political lies, which he plentifully distributes every minute he speaks, and by an unparalleled generosity forgets, and consequently contradicts, the next half hour. He never yet considered whether any proposition were true or false, but whether it were convenient for the present minute or company to affirm or deny it.”

February 10, 2018

What was behind Péter Szijjártó’s trip to Washington?

Today I am returning to foreign policy issues, specifically to U.S.-Hungarian relations and the Ukrainian question. I have written several times about the Hungarian response to the Ukrainian education act, which was so radical and intransigent that it led to vetoing a planned meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Joint Commission. Moreover, Hungary was ready to block Ukraine’s integration into NATO unless Kiev withdraws Article 7 of the education act that affects the use of minority languages.

A month later I reported that Péter Szijjártó at last had an opportunity to meet Wess Mitchell, the new Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, in Washington, D.C. Their January 16 meeting seemed quite casual; it was held in the Hungarian Embassy, not in the State Department. An official photo was taken, but there was no press conference. Given that Szijjártó said absolutely nothing about their meeting, I concluded that “it was not a success” and that “the anticipated breakthrough [in U.S.-Hungarian relations] didn’t materialize.” But today I can offer a somewhat different take on what this meeting was most likely all about.

At the beginning of December, Rex Tillerson was on a European tour. First, he visited NATO headquarters in Brussels, where he emphasized that “Russia’s aggression in Ukraine remains the biggest threat to European security.” From Brussels he flew to Vienna to join a meeting of foreign ministers. He conducted talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, during which he reiterated that the Russian treatment of Ukraine is unacceptable to the United States. Tillerson also held discussions with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin about the possible deployment of a UN peacekeeping mission in eastern Ukraine.

It’s easy to extrapolate from Tillerson’s message during his meetings in Brussels and Vienna that Hungary’s threat to block Ukraine’s participation in negotiations with NATO officials would be unacceptable to the United States. Hungary’s hard-line position against Ukraine, which urgently needs assistance and support, came at a very bad time. By now I’m convinced that the Mitchell-Szijjártó talks were not so much about U.S.-Hungarian relations as about Hungary’s opposition to Ukraine’s association with NATO.

If I’m correct, Szijjártó’s silence after the meeting was understandable. During the meeting Wess Mitchell most likely offered his services as a mediator between the parties, trying to bring about a compromise solution to a relatively minor bilateral issue for the sake of important geopolitical considerations. It is not clear what Szijjártó wanted in exchange for an agreement with the Ukrainians. What we do know is that Pavlo Klimkin and Péter Szijjártó met Wess Mitchell in Paris on January 24, where Klimkin promised “real consultation with the Hungarian community in Subcarpathian Ukraine.” Szijjártó, for his part, demanded “legal guarantees” that would ensure an understanding between the Ukrainian government and the Hungarian community.

Péter Szijjártó, Wess Mitchell, and Pavlo Klimkin in Paris

Magyar Idők summarized the Hungarian government’s position after the meeting in Paris. (1) The Ukrainian government should consult with the representatives of the Hungarian community. (2) The Hungarian minority cannot be deprived of its earlier acquired rights. (3) The solution should be advantageous to the Hungarians in Ukraine. (4) To find a resolution of the conflict is in the interest of the Americans. The Hungarian position, at least as far as Szijjártó’s statements after the meeting were concerned, was still rigid. “The consultation with the Hungarians can be productive only if the Ukrainian government abrogates parts of the law that deals with minorities.”

A week later, on February 1, the Ukrainian ministry of education and science announced that the Ukrainian government accepts the recommendations of the Venice Commission and is ready to postpone the implementation of the law until 2023. Oddly enough, Education Minister Liliya Hrynevych made this announcement during her meeting with the Romanian Ambassador to Ukraine. Romania and Ukraine have been having bilateral negotiations on the minority language issue for some time. The draft protocol is ready to be signed. It seems, however, that the Ukrainians are not yet ready to sit down with the Hungarians. As a point of interest, the Venice Commission’s recommendations don’t include a suggestion to postpone the education act until 2023.

Liliya Hrynevych’s statement was interpreted in Budapest as an answer to the Hungarian demands. Media reports suggested that now that the Ukrainian government has made the first move, “the ball is in the court” of the representatives of the Hungarian community in Subcarpathian Ukraine. The official organization of that community, the Kárpátaljai Magyar Kulturális Szövetség (KMKSZ), and László Brenzovics, the only Hungarian member of the Ukrainian parliament, are somewhat hopeful. They view the announcement as a first step toward a satisfactory solution. The optimism of Brenzovics, who, by the way, accompanied Szijjártó to Paris, is based on the fact that, although Ukraine denies it, their decision to retreat from their original stance is due to “international pressure.”

Brenzovics’s statement to Válasz, a Hungarian internet site, led me to believe that he is not an easy man to negotiate with. For example, instead of concentrating on the education act as it impacts the Hungarian community, he complained about the Ukrainian government’s discrimination against the Russian language as opposed to the official languages spoken within the European Union. He demands special treatment for Hungarian because it is “not related to Ukrainian, unlike Polish or Russian.” He conveniently forgot about Romanian.

In early December Hungary asked for permanent observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to be sent to Hungarian inhabited areas of Ukraine, which was certainly an overreach. But Lamberto Zannier, high commissioner of OSCE, did meet Brenzovics in Kiev. So far, no OSCE office has opened in Uzhhorod/Ungvár and I don’t think that one will any time soon. According to the latest information, however, OSCE is involved in the negotiations between the local Hungarian community and Kiev. So, perhaps as a result of pressure on both sides from the United States and OSCE’s presence at the negotiations between Kiev and KMKSZ, some common ground may be found. Whatever it is, it won’t bear any resemblance to the original Hungarian demand of a total abrogation of the article on minority languages.

February 6, 2018

Picking a fight with the United Nations

Viktor Orbán, at his regular biweekly radio interview two weeks ago, on January 19, without any prodding from the reporter, began talking about the United Nations’ migrant policy. He warned his audience that the UN is contemplating the introduction of programs that would “assist worldwide migration.” This is a danger that the Hungarian government must tackle, and therefore the national security cabinet will get together to discuss the matter, which is “contrary to the interests of Hungary.” He added that the United States had already sensed the dangers inherent in the plans underway at the United Nations and had announced its intention to boycott the discussions on the refugee and migrant crisis.

Ten days later the Hungarian media reported that the national security cabinet is in the process of discussing the matter. The public attacks by members of the Orbán government against the UN’s migration policies left little doubt that the cabinet would decide to follow the United States and boycott the negotiations of the UN’s Global Compact for Migration. Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó, for example, found Secretary-General António Guterres’s writings ahead of the actual negotiations “unacceptable.”

Szijjártó revealed in an interview on Magyar Rádió on January 28 that, unless there are significant changes to the document, he will suggest withdrawing from the negotiations. A few days later, on February 2, Reuters reported that the Hungarian foreign minister had announced that “Hungary could quit talks on a United Nations pact on migration because its pro-migration tone threatened Hungary’s security interests.” In fact, Szijjártó specifically stated that if the draft that is scheduled to be released on February 5 is “as pro-migrant as the declaration upon which it is based,” the Hungarian government will not take part in the negotiations.

The Hungarian flag at the UN

The declaration that Péter Szijjártó referenced is the “New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants” adopted by the General Assembly on September 19, 2016, which Hungary signed. Here are a few items in the declaration that the Orbán government put its name to: profound solidarity with, and support for, people who are forced to leave the place of their birth; shared responsibility and compassion; condemnation of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and intolerance toward refugees and migrants; invitation to the private sector and civil society to join the effort of solving the refugee problem; asking for effective strategies to ensure adequate protection and assistance for displaced persons. Should I continue? The Orbán government signed this declaration without a murmur. But now, most likely encouraged by the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the talks, Viktor Orbán realized that a similar action on the part of his government would reap domestic benefits from the solidly anti-migrant population. In the case of the United States, Donald Trump can at least say that it was the Obama administration that signed the 2016 declaration; the Orbán government doesn’t have that excuse.

The very first topic in Viktor Orbán’s Friday morning chat on Magyar Rádió yesterday was the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants and the forthcoming Global Compact on Refugees, indicating that the prime minister considers this question to be of the utmost importance. First, he said he wanted “to detach ourselves from the Americans.” He remembers the days when Hungary’s actions in the United Nations slavishly followed Moscow’s. Hungary’s decision is totally independent of the U.S. action, he claims. He has only Hungary’s interests in mind.

The reporter identified UN Secretary-General António Guterres as the former president of the Socialist International and therefore ab ovo suspect. In the conversation between Orbán and the reporter, a picture of Guterres emerged that bears little resemblance to reality. For instance, they agreed that if the Secretary-General’s views prevail, “even the right to border defense is at risk.”

Orbán found the idea of including NGOs in the work of handling migration especially odious. “God should save Hungary” from having civic organizations involved because “Hungary has had enough bad experiences with NGOs, pseudo-civic organizations bankrolled by Soros.” Viktor Orbán, it seems, suddenly discovered that the New York Declaration he signed is actually “a copy of the Soros Plan.”

The potential action directed against the UN Global Compact is a repeat of the charade Viktor Orbán specializes in. The stakes of signing the final document are minimal. Whatever is signed will not be a formal international agreement. As several Hungarian commentators noted, “it is not really more than an affirmation of the signatories’ adherence to universal human rights.”

What set Orbán off was a report of the secretary-general, published on January 11, titled “Making migration work for all.” Almost every point in this report is anathema to Orbán and like-minded anti-migration advocates. Guterres argues that worldwide migration has been a fact of life for some time and that it will be with us even more so in the future. Countries must therefore be ready to accept and integrate these people. He would like to see an “orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility of people … as part of a wider push to reduce inequality within and between States.” Over and above that, he contends that “migration powers economic growth, reduces inequalities, and connects diverse societies.” Therefore, “Member States should make a collective effort to expand and strengthen pathways for regular migration to match the realities of labor market needs, including anticipating future demographic trends and future demands for labor.”

Viktor Orbán, before he decided that whipping up Hungarian nationalism helps him stay in power, had advocated accepting two million immigrants in order to help ensure sustainable economic growth. As we know, the Hungarian birthrate has been very low ever since the 1970s. The result is a serious labor shortage. In the last eight years, the Orbán government has spent a considerable amount of money in an attempt to boost the birthrate. But even if, by some miracle, every woman under the age of 35 suddenly decided to have a baby, it would take at least 20 years before this baby boom would have an effect on the job market. And this miracle is not happening. All of the government’s efforts to facilitate the creation of larger families have been in vain. According to the latest statistics, under the Orbán government 50,000 fewer babies were born between January 1, 2010 and December 31, 2017 than were born during the Medgyessy-Gyurcsány-Bajnai administration between 2002 and 2009. Maintaining healthy population growth without immigration is not a realistic undertaking.

February 3, 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

Foreign Minister Szijjártó goes to Washington, and silence follows

Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó just returned from a three-day visit to Washington where he was to meet Wess Mitchell, the new assistant secretary of state in charge of European and Eurasian Affairs. Mitchell is the successor to Victoria Nuland, whom Magyar Idők called, less than a week ago, the “gravedigger of Hungary.”

Mitchell’s appointment was finalized only in October 2017, but the Hungarian government began assessing its possible chances with Mitchell as soon as his name emerged as a potential assistant secretary. The government’s reaction was mixed. On the one hand, it was pleased that Mitchell, before accepting the State Department post, had been the president of the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), the American think tank that concentrates exclusively on East-Central Europe. Therefore he should be more familiar with the region and hence with Hungarian affairs. However, Index noted at the time that “one of the main research fields of [CEPA] is Russian propaganda, disinformation and the fight against it, which is not a priority for the Hungarian government.” I would call this a gross understatement. In fact, the Hungarian government does a superb job of misinforming the public and gives free rein to Russian disinformation on the pages of the newspapers and internet sites it supports.

Whatever misgivings Viktor Orbán and his foreign policy experts originally had, they eventually decided that Mitchell’s appointment “could mean the beginning of a new chapter in Hungarian-American political relations.” Under the previous administration Hungary “had to face several instances of undue criticism and lack of understanding.” The Hungarian Foreign Ministry hoped that, with the appointment of Mitchell, “now is the best opportunity” to establish close diplomatic relations.

Szijjártó arrived in Washington on January 15 to conduct two days of negotiations, which began on January 16 with a conversation with Assistant Secretary Wess Mitchell, followed by meetings with two White House officials –Jason Greenblatt, assistant to the president and special representative for international negotiations, and Fiona Hill, special assistant to the president and senior director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council. Greenblatt, prior to his Washington job, was chief legal officer to Donald Trump and The Trump Organization. Hill is a highly regarded Russia expert from the Brookings Institution, who most likely is critical of the Orbán government’s Russia policy and Viktor Orbán’s personal relations with Vladimir Putin.

Szijjártó anticipated that his encounter with Mitchell would “take the form of a long discussion.” One of the topics, I’m sure, was the U.S. State Department’s  “funding opportunity” for support of “objective media in Hungary.” Szijjártó noted that “the Hungarian government views this plan as interference in Hungary’s domestic affairs.”

No one has any idea how long the conversation between Mitchell and Szijjártó lasted because, since his meetings with the assistant secretary and the two White House officials, Szijjártó has said nothing about the encounters. Not one word. Certain Hungarian news outlets reported earlier that Szijjártó, in addition to having discussions on U.S.-Hungarian relations, was supposed to prepare Viktor Orbán’s visit to the United States in February. As Klub Rádió’s “Tények, Vélemények” (Facts, Opinions) put it, “the Hungarian prime minister is planning to attend the National Prayer Breakfast.” This annual event, which is held at the Washington Hilton, is a gathering of 3,000-3,500 invited guests from 100 countries. Therefore, it is immaterial what Viktor Orbán “is planning.” The question is whether he has an invitation or not. By the way, this event is not organized by the White House. The president is just one of the invitees.

The only record so far of the meeting between Szijjártó and Mitchell is a photograph taken of the two men shaking hands, but it doesn’t look as if they were standing in the State Department. Klub Rádió’s guess is that the photo was taken at the Hungarian Embassy, a rather strange arrangement if true.

In any event, Szijjártó’s silence indicates to me that wherever this important meeting took place, it was not a success, that the anticipated breakthrough didn’t materialize. The usual explanation for the still icy relations between the two countries is that the holdover diplomats from the Obama administration continue to run the show in the State Department. The hope in Budapest is that soon enough Donald Trump’s people will be in charge and that they will appreciate the American president’s kindred soul in Europe. But Orbán’s diplomats are overlooking a major stumbling block: the worrisomely close relationship between Putin’s Russia and Orbán’s Hungary, which, given the climate in the United States, is not the best recommendation for closer ties with the Orbán regime.

MTI /EPA/ Photo: Georgi Licovszki

On the very day of Szijjártó’s negotiations in the United States, Magyar Idők ran an article on its front page with the following headline: “Lavrov: America is not doing any favor to the world.” Lavrov, according to the article, accused the United States of using illegitimate means to maintain its waning supremacy in a multi-polar world. Not the best way of endearing oneself to the United States, claimed the commentator from Népszava. This editorial, I’m afraid, is a bit naïve. Diplomats of the State Department don’t need the Hungarian government’s propaganda machinery to be aware of the state of Russian-Hungarian relations. They are fully cognizant of them and find them troubling. Mátyás Eörsi, former undersecretary of foreign affairs and former leader of the ALDE-Pace Group in the Council of Europe, wrote an excellent opinion piece in HVG about the Orbán administration’s total incomprehension of the futility of trying to build a close relationship with the United States under the present circumstances.

I agree. Orbán will have to choose: either Putin’s Russia or the United States. There is no middle ground now. I also suspect that as the investigation of Russian involvement in the U.S. election process unfolds, more suspicion will be focused on Hungary as a client state and Viktor Orbán as a Trojan horse. These are not the best recommendations in Washington today or in the foreseeable future.

In recent days the Orbán government welcomed a letter written on January 11 by ten extremely conservative members of Congress addressed to Secretary of State Tillerson, urging him “to strengthen the strategic cooperation between the United States and Hungary,” claiming common threats from an unnamed source. They suggest “high-level meetings between the leaders of [the] two countries in order to build mutual trust.” The leader of the group, Andy Harris, must have received word from Connie Mack III, Orbán’s lobbyist in Washington, that one of Viktor Orbán’s greatest desires is to be invited to the Oval Office. At this point we don’t even know whether he will be one of the 3,000-3,500 invitees at the National Prayer Breakfast on February 8.

January 19, 2018

Was Orbán’s bout with the EU a “points victory”? We will see tomorrow

Viktor Orbán, along with the other prime ministers of the European Union’s member states, is in Brussels at the moment, where among other things they are supposed to come to an understanding on the thorny issue of migration. The goal is naturally unity, a common understanding, a situation in which all member states share in the solution to the problems currently facing the European Union.

The greatest obstacle to reaching this goal is the refusal of three of the four Visegrád countries to accept one single refugee in case the need arises. These countries are the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland. The fourth country, Slovakia, would take a very limited number of asylum seekers.

The Visegrád Four countries have jointly come up with a plan of their own. Those countries that already have a number of immigrants from countries outside of the Union should accept most of the refugees while the Central Europeans would redeem their non-compliance with cash contributions. They came out with a figure today. They would pay 35 million euros in assistance to Italy. Hungary’s contribution would be nine million euros. This offer has not found too many enthusiastic supporters. In fact, most of the influential political leaders of the larger states deemed the Visegrád Four’s solution to be unacceptable.

The deep division within the EU became all too visible even before the opening of the summit. In October Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, introduced the idea of sending around a so-called Leaders’ Agenda prior to the summits. Its alleged purpose was to set out topics to be informally discussed. This time the topic was “Migration: way forward on the external and the internal dimension.” It is hard to tell what Tusk meant by this mysterious title, and I’m not surprised that some of Tusk’s critics considered the document badly written. The short letter was full of commonplace notions, like “secure external borders.” But what was strange and new in the document was that Tusk decided that “only Member States are able to tackle the migration crisis effectively” and that the European Commission’s approach to the migration crisis “has turned out to be ineffective.”

Eszter Zalan of Euobserver wrote that Tusk’s note on migration prompted “institutional hysteria” in Brussels. Eventually, the text had to be changed after serious concerns were raised at the meeting of EU foreign ministers on December 11. This was considered by some to be a “humiliating climb-down.” The revised note called for the EU institutions to work together. EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos called Tusk’s note “anti-European,” which might have been an overstatement, but even the official comments coming from the European Commission took umbrage at Tusk’s singular action. Its spokesman conveyed the Commission’s disagreement with Tusk’s criticism of its work.

It was not just the members of the European Council who were critical of Tusk’s move but also the political leaders of Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and even Greece, which has had to manage large numbers of refugees and migrants. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, for example, called Tusk’s comments “aimless, ill-timed, and pointless.” Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose reproofs are usually quite subdued, was openly critical, insisting that “solidarity for the management of borders” is not enough; responsibilities must be shared within the Union as well. Italy might have been pleased with the financial offer but nonetheless reiterated that “we will continue to insist that a commitment on the relocation of refugees is needed.”

The leaders of the Visegrád Four must have been elated when they received Tusk’s note, but the changes that had to be made should have signaled to them that they couldn’t expect an imminent victory for their position. Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó declared that Tusk had “spoken the truth” on mandatory quotas. He went even further in his criticism of the European Commission. “Some Brussels bureaucrats continue to organize and promote illegal migration, and Donald Tusk is now being attacked in a vile and sanctimonious manner by those who have been representing for years now the obviously misguided migration policy of the European Commission.”

The other side considered Tusk’s initiative to be an encroachment on the prerogatives of the European Council. As one unnamed EU diplomat said, “The European Council is not a legislative body.” In his opinion, Tusk couldn’t possibly mean to bypass the normal procedures of the European Union. Moreover, Tusk’s opinions bore a suspicious resemblance to the general argument put forth by the Visegrád Four, which could be a result of his national attachments.

Photo: Stephanie LeCocq / MTI-EPA

Viktor Orbán left Budapest in a combative mood with a backpack on his shoulder which, according to him, contained 2.3 million Hungarians’ rejection of the Soros Plan, which in Orbán’s domestic parlance means the plan of the European Commission. (I should add that no official results of the national consultation have yet been disclosed.) Today he seems to be flying high because his Facebook page is full of videos with English subtitles from Brussels, announcing all of the things he has been accomplishing.

Before the summit the Visegrád Four prime ministers, whose ranks included two new members, Andrej Babiš of the Czech Republic and Mateusz Morawiecki of Poland, met Jean-Claude Juncker of the European Commission and Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni of Italy. Juncker was especially open to the gesture of the four prime ministers and called the offer a sign of solidarity. Orbán was elated and declared that he was “deeply thankful to [Juncker], who was a good partner.” According to Andrew Byrne, Financial Times correspondent for Hungary, Romania, and the West Balkans, Orbán was overtaken by Juncker’s kindness. It’s no wonder that Orbán on one of his videos announced that “after the first bout we are doing well. It looks like a points victory today.”

We will see how the rest of the summit shapes up. After all, Tusk had to retreat, and there is a crucial dinner meeting tonight and another day of negotiations tomorrow.

December 14, 2017

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