Tag Archives: Péter Szijjártó

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

Belligerency rarely works in diplomacy: Hungary and Ukraine

The Budapest Beacon published an article today in which Ben Novák called attention to a brief address by Michele Siders, acting deputy chief of mission and director of the Office of Resource Management at the U.S. Mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). It was a speech to welcome Lamberto Zannier, an Italian diplomat, as OSCE’s High Commissioner on National Minorities. In this speech there was one mysterious paragraph: “We support your comment regarding the need to respect confidentiality in the pursuit of quiet diplomacy. One participating State knowingly misrepresented your recent comments regarding education issues in Ukraine. We are concerned that this does not contribute to the Permanent Council’s goal of rebuilding trust. A statement from your office clarifying your findings on this issue would be helpful.”

What does Siders mean by rebuilding trust among the nations represented by OSCE? In 2016 German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier talked about the necessity of “rebuilding trust among participating States and maintaining efforts for achieving a political solution to the conflict in and around Ukraine.” In her speech Siders said that one of the member states had violated this effort.

Who is that guilty state? I’m afraid it is most likely Hungary, whose foreign minister, Péter Szijjártó, apparently “knowingly misrepresented” Zannier’s comments on the contentious Article 7 of the Ukrainian law on education. Szijjártó was attending OSCE’s Mediterranean Conference in Palermo in late October where, after talking to Zannier, he informed MTI by phone that so far OSCE had been “the most helpful international organization” of those whose assistance Hungary had solicited in connection with the Ukrainian education law, which the Hungarian government finds unacceptable. The statement released by the Hungarian Foreign Ministry indicated that Zannier would soon visit Ukraine, where he would most likely represent the Hungarian point of view on the language issue. Zoltán Kovács, undersecretary for public diplomacy and relations, went even further. In his blog, About Hungary, he stated that “OSCE is throwing its support behind Hungary in relation to Ukraine’s education law.”

But articles that appear on OSCE’s website show that OSCE is taking a much more balanced approach. The High Commissioner is paying attention to concerns expressed by the national minorities, but he “has also taken note of the Ukrainian government’s assessment that the low level of state language knowledge among school graduates … impedes their effective participation in public life.” OSCE apparently “constantly recommended” the adoption of balanced views that would preserve and promote the minorities’ language and identity and, at the same time, would foster the integration of society through the teaching and learning of the state language.

Zannier is trying to mediate between the two sides, but the Hungarian government is unwilling to engage in any dialogue with Ukraine. In the meantime, the other countries involved are already close to an understanding with the Ukrainian government.

Graduation at a Hungarian high school in Ukraine

Although Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin visited Budapest at the beginning of October, the talks with Szijjártó led nowhere. Magyar Nemzet reluctantly agreed to publish an opinion piece by Klimkin in which he asked for “considered dialogue.” He especially called attention to the exodus of young Hungarians from Ukraine because their lack of knowledge of Ukrainian prevents them from entering university. Therefore, they go to study in Hungary where at first they are welcome, but these students most likely will never return to the Subcarpathian region of Ukraine, and this in the long run is not in the interest of Hungary.

Meanwhile, the Hungarian government, this time fully supported by the opposition parties, unleashed irredentist sentiments in far-right circles. Lóránt Hegedűs, a Hungarian Reformed minister, organized a demonstration in front of the Ukrainian embassy in which he demanded “the right of self-determination of the Subcarpathian region.” The region is officially called Zakarpattia Oblast, where only about 12.1% of the population is Hungarian. The Hungarian foreign ministry dutifully informed the Ukrainian Embassy about the impending demonstration, in response to which the Ukrainians asked whether “Budapest is supporting separatism” of the region. Pavlo Klimkin, in a statement of objection, expressed his hope that Hungary will honor the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

The rigid Hungarian attitude has turned even some American conservatives against Budapest. Mike Gonzalez, senior fellow at the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, called on Viktor Orbán to “stop meddling in Ukrainian politics.” Gonzalez approves of Orbán’s policies on migrant issues and praises him for his vigorous defense of his nation’s sovereignty, but “he’s at his worst … when interfering in the self-determination of other sovereign nation-states around him.” According to Gonzalez,“Orbán is stirring up trouble with Ukraine and Romania.” What’s the issue? he asks. “You can put many different names on it—minority rights, multiculturalism, diversity—but some would say it borders on ‘irredentism.’” This article originally appeared in Daily Signal, a publication that is described by the Media Bias Fact Checker as strongly biased toward conservative causes.

I very much doubt that Mike Gonzalez is familiar enough with Hungarian affairs to talk about this issue with authority, but he put his finger on something that is not very far from reality. Tamás Bauer, a sharp-eyed observer of Hungarian politics, sees dual citizenship as “a partial revision” of the peace treaties. Since there is no possibility of territorial revision, Orbán has brought about a “population revision.” I may point out here that Zsolt Semjén, deputy prime minister in charge of national issues, just announced that the number of new citizens has reached one million. That means that about half of the Hungarians living beyond Hungary’s borders have been amalgamated into the Hungarian community.

English-language government publications talk about “cross-border Hungarians,” which is interesting by itself, but the Hungarian designation is even more suggestive. A few years ago the ministry of human resources published a list of designations that must be used and others that must be avoided. Hungarians must call their compatriots not “külföldi magyarok” but “külhoni magyarok.” The former is the mirror translation of the German ausländisch. “Külhoni,” according to the dictionary, means the same thing, except it sounds a bit old-fashioned to my ears. But then why do Hungarians now have to use “külhoni” instead of “külföldi”? I suspect the reason is that “hon” is a somewhat poetic word for “homeland.” Another related word is “otthon,” which means “at home.” Thus these Hungarians don’t live abroad but in a homeland that just happens to be across borders. I know that this distinction might be too subtle and perhaps many people don’t grasp its significance, but I consider it a sign of what’s going on in the Fidesz leaders’ minds.

November 16, 2017

Western worries about Russian disinformation just “fits of hysterics”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 15, 2017

Hungary leads the way in defense of persecuted Christians

Yesterday Viktor Orbán delivered a speech at the International Consultation on Christian Persecution, organized by the Hungarian government and held in Budapest between October 11 and 13. We know that the prime minister considered this speech to be of great importance because it was made available in its entirety, in both Hungarian and English, on his website within hours. Such speed normally attests to Orbán’s belief that the content of a message is particularly significant.

I must say that I have to strain my imagination to see the political implications in this address, but Zoltán Lakner, whom I consider a sharp-eyed commentator, sees this talk as a new stage in the Hungarian government’s assault on the European Union. Others, like Tibor Pethő in a Magyar Nemzet editorial titled “Crusade” (Keresztes háború), views the Christian Democratic András Aradszki’s reference to the rosary as a weapon against the Satanic George Soros as an introduction to Viktor Orbán’s speech, in which he said that Hungary will take the lead in the defense of the Christians of Europe and the world. He is not the only one who is convinced that Aradszki’s remarks in the Hungarian parliament were inspired, if not dictated, by the highest authority of the land.

In the last few months high-level politicians and government officials have taken up the cause of Christianity, the most persecuted religion. As Viktor Orbán put it, “215 million Christians in 108 countries around the world are suffering some form of persecution.” These figures are being repeated practically everywhere. I encountered one site where the claim was made that even in Mexico Christians are suffering “a high persecution level” from “organized corruption.” From remarks by Hungarian church officials and Christian Democratic politicians I learned, to my great surprise, that Hungary is also one of those countries where the persecution of Christians takes place.

According to Viktor Orbán, Christian persecution in Europe “operates with sophisticated methods of an intellectual nature.” Admittedly, it cannot be compared to the sufferings of Christian communities elsewhere, but greater dangers are lurking for European Christians, which many people don’t want to notice. He recalled the watchman in the Book of Ezekiel who, neglecting to warn people of the danger, was held accountable for the blood spilled by the enemy. Surely, Orbán sees himself as the watchman bearing news of the coming danger to the “indifferent, apathetic silence of a Europe which denies its Christian roots.” But there will be a price for this neglect of European interests. The present immigration policy will result in the transformation of Europe’s Christian identity.

Hungary is a small country without many relatives, but it has something other richer and bigger countries don’t have, Orbán claims. Many larger countries may have well-intentioned politicians, but they are not strong enough because “they work in coalition governments; they are at the mercy of media industries.” Hungary, by contrast, is a “stable country” whose current government has won two-third majorities in two consequent elections and, what is also important, “the public’s general attitude is robust.” Therefore, “fate and God have compelled Hungary to take the initiative.” I puzzled over the meaning of Orbán’s reference to the “robust attitude” of Hungarians and, since it didn’t make much sense to me, I turned to the original Hungarian text where I found that the prime minister was talking about the “healthy attitude” of the population. What are the characteristics of this healthy attitude? What about those who, unlike Hungarians, don’t have a healthy attitude? It is a good topic for a debate.

These are the main points of Orbán’s speech. Hungarian assistance in Iraq, which he briefly described at the end of his speech, needs no elaboration. I already wrote about it a couple of weeks ago in a post titled “Two New Hungarian citizens: Part of assistance to persecuted Christians.”

So, let’s see what the other shining lights of the Fidesz world had to say. After all, the conference lasted three days and those days had to be filled somehow. As a result, there were many, many speeches on the subject of Christian persecution.

One of the first men to greet the participants was András Veres, bishop of Győr, who currently serves as president of the Conference of Hungarian Catholic Bishops. He was the one who, in his sermon on the August 20 national holiday, felt compelled to talk disapprovingly about increased government support for the in-vitro fertilization program. His words created quite a storm. After some hesitation, the government stood by its position. Details of the controversy can be found in my August 25 post. At the conference he admitted that the persecution of European Christians still means only mocking them, “but all bloody persecutions” began like that. The reason that Hungarians understand the plight of Middle Eastern Christians better than Western Europeans do is because “there is persecution of Christians in Hungary today.” You can imagine what some bloggers had to say to that when the government is pouring money into the churches–well, at least into the government-approved churches; it financially “persecutes” the others.

Zoltán Balog, head of the ministry of human resources who himself is a Protestant minister and who, over the years, has acquired the reputation of formulating high-flown ideas that usually fall flat, decided that “the conservation of Christian values, worldview, and culture also means the conservation of democracy.” I assume that for most people this assertion makes no historical sense whatsoever. Balog, presumably following Viktor Orbán’s lead, sees in Hungary’s assistance to the Christians of the Middle East “an opportunity to reform the foundations of European Christianity.” Well, that’s quite an ambitious undertaking. It seems that Hungary is not only defending Christian Europe but also wants to reshape it.

Péter Szijjártó was more modest. He only wants to make Budapest “the engine of the fight against the persecution of Christians.” We learned from him that “work is a Christian value,” as if working hard was alien to other cultures. He also had the temerity to say, after the government propaganda against migrants and lately against George Soros, that “a good Christian cannot be against anyone.”

Zsolt Semjén and Zoltán Balog at the press conference / MTI / Photo: Attila Kovács

Zsolt Semjén didn’t disappoint either. He gave a press conference after the “consultation” was over. He argued that Islamists who commit anti-Christian genocide should be brought before the International Court of Justice. He also said that the persecution of Christians in Europe is of “the light variety,” which is “not without its dangers because what’s going on in Europe is the conscious destruction and apostasy of Christianity.”

I’m pretty sure that Semjén was not happy with a question he got about the 1,000 Coptic Christian families from Egypt and Iraq the Hungarian government allegedly generously settled and gave Hungarian citizenship to during 2014 and 2015. Both Zoltán Balog and Péter Szijjártó insisted at the time on these people’s presence in Hungary, but the problem was that the leaders of the already existing, though small Coptic community had never heard of them. Or, rather they knew about “a few businessmen who have permission to live in Hungary but who don’t live in the country on a permanent basis. They come and go in Europe and the world.” The government couldn’t give a coherent explanation for the invisible Coptic Christians. After all, 1,000 families should mean about 4,000 people. I devoted a whole post to the story at the time. Now Semjén insists that the government cannot say anything about these 1,000 Coptic families because their lives are in danger. I guess that’s one way for a good Christian to avoid the issue.

October 13, 2017

Hungary is on the warpath against Ukraine’s education law

Budapest is witnessing a new diplomatic upheaval because, at the urging of an outraged journalist of right-of-center political persuasion, the whole democratic opposition stood as one person to protest the newly enacted Ukrainian law on education. The Hungarian ministry of foreign affairs and trade didn’t seem to be that concerned with the law until it became evident that the democratic opposition was making hay out of it since it places restrictions on the use of minority languages in Ukraine.

The importance of the language issue in Ukraine shouldn’t be underestimated, given the size of the Russian minority. According to the World Population Review, only 77.8% of the total population of 45 million are Ukrainian, while 17% are Russian. In addition, there are some Hungarians, Poles, and Romanians, each with 0.3% of the population. The Hungarian population lives in the Zakarpattia Oblast, where there were 150,000 Hungarians in 2001. Since then, their number has most likely been reduced by emigration to Western Europe and, to some extent, to Hungary.

In 2012, during the administration of the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych, a new law on education was adopted which allowed minority groups to use their languages in schools in regions where they represented more than 10 percent of the population. While some people might have considered that law a liberal move that followed European principles by protecting the rights of minorities, others saw it as an appeasement policy toward Moscow. Protectors of the Ukrainian language called the new law a “time bomb against the Ukrainian language.”

The Hungarian regions of Ukraine can certainly attest to the truth of this prediction. During Soviet times, Russian was a compulsory language, and all Hungarians learned it more or less well. Nowadays, according to the vice president of Kárpátaljai Magyar Pedagógus Szövetség/KMPSZ (Hungarian Teachers’ Association of Sub-Carpathia), 90% of 20- to 30-year-olds don’t know Ukrainian, including the teachers. Last year Átlátszó Oktatás conducted an interview with the principal of a Hungarian high school, according to whom out of the graduating class of 49 maybe two can carry on a conversation in Ukrainian. So, when Ukrainian politicians talk about the handicap Hungarian students face when trying to make a career in a country whose official language is Ukrainian, they are stating the obvious.

Given the Orbán government’s keen interest in keeping the Hungarian communities in neighboring countries intact, it would be in Hungary’s interest to make sure that Hungarians learn Ukrainian and make their mark in their country of birth. But the Hungarian government, prompted by the opposition’s united attack on the Ukrainian education law, began its own diplomatic crusade, Szijjártó style. Although Russia also lambasted Kiev over the new education law, the angriest comments came from Budapest. According to the Hungarian foreign minister, Ukraine “stabbed Hungary in the back.” He promised to turn to the much maligned European Union and the United Nations to complain. Hungary considers the law “shameful and outrageous … which drastically restricts the access of minorities … to native language teaching in a manner that makes it practically impossible from the age of 10 and is incompatible with European values and regulations.” He also claimed that the law is unlawful even by the constitution of Ukraine.

In the Hungarian media the law is portrayed as forbidding educational institutions whose students are over the age of ten from using any language in the classroom other than Ukrainian. The law is somewhat vague, so, as Hungarian educators in Sub-Carpathia stress, a lot will depend on the implementation. The law as it reads now states that the language of instruction in the first four grades may be in a minority language. But starting in grade five, only two or more subjects can be taught in any of the languages of the European Union. This distinction excludes Russian but includes Hungarian, Polish, and Romanian. At the moment there are two colleges in Ukraine in which the language of instruction is either completely Hungarian or partially so. One is the Ferenc Rákóczi II Sub-Carpathian Hungarian College in Berehove/Beregszász and the other is the Hungarian section of the Uzhhorod National University. The former is entirely financed by the Hungarian government; the latter, partially so. Their fate is not at all clear.

Ferenc Rákóczi II Subcarpathian Hungarian College in Berehove/Beregszász

While the language issue is controversial, many aspects of the new education law are forward looking and, if properly implemented, would be better than the current Hungarian one. The U.S. Embassy in Kiev welcomed the new law, which sets funding for education at a minimum of 7 percent of the GDP. It also introduces 12-year compulsory education. Schools and teachers will have a great deal of autonomy as far as the curriculum is concerned. According to Ildikó Orosz, president of KMPSZ, it is too early to pass judgment on the law, which is still not known in its entirety. Since the law is primarily an answer to the Russian annexation of Crimea and Russian military interference in the Donbas region, there is a good possibility that in the Sub-Carpathian region implementation of the law will be a great deal less stringent than in the Russian-speaking eastern regions. This is especially likely because of Ukraine’s desire to eventually join the European Union.

Moderate voices suggest a different approach: negotiations to make sure that the law will satisfy both the Ukrainians and the Hungarian minority.  Szijjártó didn’t waste time. The Ukrainians noted that Hungary had already sent letters “to the OSCE secretary-general, the OSCE high commissioner on national minorities and the OSCE chairman-in-office as well as to the UN high commissioner for human rights and the EU commissioner for enlargement and European neighborhood policy.” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin stressed that members of national minorities should learn Ukrainian, but this argument “didn’t satisfy the Hungarian side.” Szijjártó “considered these explanations to be cynical and unjust.” The Hungarian government’s frantic rush for redress to these much despised international organizations and the European Union is especially amusing. Their reaction might not be as sympathetic as Péter Szijjártó hopes, especially if the law is not as onerous as it is being characterized.

September 12, 2017

Another peacock dance: Orbán’s reversal on the verdict of the European Court of Justice

Yesterday I dealt with the exchange of letters between Jean-Claude Junker and Viktor Orbán concerning Orbán’s demand for EU reimbursement of half the cost of the fence the Hungarian government erected along the Serbian-Hungarian border. The Hungarian demand raised eyebrows in Europe and elsewhere, so Hungary was again in the international news.

The other reason for the preoccupation of the international media with Hungary was the long-awaited verdict of the European Court of Justice on the legality of the EU decision on the relocation of 120,000 asylum seekers. Slovakia and Hungary claimed that the decision-making process was illegal. Two days ago, on September 6, the Union’s top court dismissed the complaints of the two countries, dealing a blow to Viktor Orbán.

Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico immediately reacted to the verdict, saying that “we fully respect the verdict of the European Court of Justice,” adding, however, that his government’s view on the relocation plan “has not changed at all.” Viktor Orbán, on the other hand, remained silent. In his place, Péter Szijjártó, minister of foreign affairs and trade, and László Trócsányi, minister of justice, gave a joint press conference, where the foreign minister vented. He called the ruling “outrageous and irresponsible.” In his opinion, the verdict endangers the security and future of Europe and is contrary to the interest of the countries of the Union, including Hungary. “Politics raped the European law and European values,” he claimed. He announced that “the real battle begins only now,” and he promised that the Hungarian government “will use all the remedies available at its disposal” to prevent similar central decision-making for Hungary.

Trócsányi was no less belligerent when he announced that the Hungarian government will start a new legal debate. Since he liked the phrase “the real battle begins only now,” he repeated it. He didn’t go so far as to accuse his fellow judges of acting politically, but he charged that they were preoccupied with the case’s formal aspects and neglected its contextual qualities. The case was thrown out in its entirety, but Trócsányi still praised the excellent legal work of his team. The legal arguments presented to the court were outstanding, and therefore he was quite surprised by the outcome. Trócsányi also indicated that Hungary will not have to take the 1,294 migrants because the case was only about the legality of the decision-making process.

Péter Szijjártó and László Trócsányi / MTI-MTVA / Photo Szilárd Koszticsek

In brief, it looked as if the Orbán government was prepared to go against the ruling and suffer the consequences. A day later, on September 7, this impression was reinforced by János Lázár at his regular “government info” press conference where he interpreted the decision of the European Court of Justice as an opportunity for the European Commission to allow “Brussels” to meddle in Hungary’s internal affairs. “We will use every legal instrument to preserve the independence of the country.” Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources, also chimed in and, in an interview with Deutschlandfunk, repeated Szijjártó’s accusation of a politically motivated and irresponsible decision on the part of the European Court of Justice. Everybody suspected, including naturally Viktor Orbán, that Slovakia and Hungary would lose the case, and therefore the word probably came down from above some time ago about what the proper reaction to the verdict should be.

After two days of criticism of the court and its verdict, Viktor Orbán came out with an entirely different approach to the question. In his Friday morning “interview” on Magyar Rádió he said: “Hungary is a member of the European Union. The affairs of the Union, its internal power relations are settled by the Treaty, so contracts have to be respected. Consequently, one must take cognizance of the verdicts of the courts. Hungarian is a sophisticated, refined language and therefore it does matter with what kind of word we react to a verdict, especially when we are functioning in a hostile Europe. I decided to use the word “tudomásul venni” which I took over from Slovak Prime Minister Fico.” Unfortunately, I don’t know what Slovak word Fico used when talking about his reaction to the verdict. English translations of Fico’s press conference use the verb “to respect” which, unfortunately, is not the equivalent of “tudomásul venni,” which might be better translated as “to take cognizance of.” However, I’m sure that some readers of Hungarian Spectrum will provide us with the the Slovak word that Fico used as well as with the best translation of the Slovak equivalent of “tudomásul venni.” Then we will be able to see whether Orbán and Fico are talking about the same thing or not.

Orbán’s interview was long, during the course of which he said many uncomplimentary things about the European Union, but at the end he came up with some startling statements. The interviewer reminded him that the politicians of the European Union consider the Polish refusal to abide by a court verdict as preparation for the country’s exit from the Union. If Orbán keeps talking about his “fight,” this communication may lead to the interpretation that Hungary is also planning to leave the Union behind. Here is Orbán’s answer: “Communication is interesting and in politics is often important, but it does not replace reality…. Hungarian reality is that the Hungarian people decided after a referendum to join the European Union. That decision was a correct one. No political decision can overwrite that decision. A popular referendum was held, and therefore no government action can reverse that determination. It was the Hungarian people’s choice, and that’s right and well.”

Although Szijjártó, who is in Tallin at the moment, expressed his trust in the unity of the Visegrád Four, there are signs that Slovakia and the Czech Republic are not ready to sacrifice themselves for Poland and Hungary. The weak link, I believe, is Slovakia. I heard an interview with Pál Csáky, a Slovak member of the European Parliament, who surprised me to no end with his condemnation of the Orbán government’s attitude toward the European Union. The reason for my surprise was that Csáky was Fidesz’s favorite among Hungarian ethnic politicians in Slovakia back in 2010. Lots of money was poured into Csáky’s party, the Magyar Koalíció Pártja (MKP), against Béla Bugár of Híd/Most. Despite the funding, MKP didn’t even manage to get enough votes to become a parliamentary party. Csáky at this point resigned. Today he made it clear that Slovakia will not follow Orbán’s suicidal strategy. Slovakia is all for the European Union.

There is another reason that Orbán may have changed his mind. The spokesman of the European People’s Party delivered a message to Viktor Orbán: don’t go against the ruling of the court because this verdict gives an opportunity to heal the wounds caused by the recent conflict between the member states. “The unanimous opinion of the party is that Slovakia and Hungary comply with the rules.”

Otherwise, Jean-Claude Juncker is ready to have a chat with Viktor Orbán, but his spokesman reminded his audience as well as Viktor Orbán that the position of the European Commission is explained in Juncker’s letter to Orbán. It is available for everybody to read and, in any case, the Commission is not in habit of verbal ping pong. Given Juncker’s firmness as expressed in his letter, I would not advise Orbán to continue to press his case.

September 8, 2017

Ambassador Scheltema: “We mustn’t keep a corrupt regime alive”

Below is a translation of the controversial interview Gajus Scheltema, Dutch ambassador to Hungary, gave to Ágnes Lampé of the Hungarian weekly, 168 Óra. The translation was done by Aron Penczu of Great Britain, who kindly offered his help as the occasional translator of Hungarian texts that merit special attention. He deserves our thanks for all his work.

♦ ♦ ♦

Are you packing?

My life’s composed of arrivals and goodbyes. The former are a joy, the latter always sadden me a little.

You were not sad while writing the book.

Of course not. It’s how I gave thanks for my years here – I did the same at my previous posts.

How did you choose your interview subjects?

Rather than individuals I was looking for stories and apt places. The latter became your iconic Andrássy Street, which admirably symbolises Hungary’s rich history. I was able to attach a number of stories to it – like a Christmas tree with its glittering ornaments. I knew for instance that the Ferenc Hopp museum is on Andrássy Street, and I like its director, Györgyi Fajcsák, very much. I asked her to tell the story of where the Hungarians are from. The Dutch don’t have roots in this way – it matters less to us – but for Hungarians it’s very important.

The Turkish Institute is also on Andrássy Street, and I thought a specialist might initiate me into Hungarian-Turkish relations, since a kind of love-hate relationship has evolved between the two peoples. Finally I talked to Professor István Vásáry, formerly an ambassador to Turkey. By the end many different tales had emerged: we spoke of the Jews living on Andrássy Street until 1944, and the unusual fate of the aristocracy relocated from here in 1945.

The stories really are colourful, but the photographs are black and white.

This way there’s a contrast. Besides, in Hungary everything’s black and white.

What do you mean?

People are either on one side of an issue or another, there’s no intermediate position, that’s how it is in politics too. In Holland we’re always looking for compromise: a little bit of this, a little bit of that. The governing coalition comprises four-five parties, and each gives a little. The negotiations may take months but we find a compromise in the end. Here however only the pro and contra positions are possible – everyone’s either with us or against us. It’s a classically Marxist viewpoint.

Which evidently doesn’t appeal to you.

I wasn’t raised that way. And as a diplomat I certainly don’t think that way, I’m always seeking compromise, not someone to fight. Here by contrast everyone’s always looking for the enemy. Which dovetails with people’s historical experiences too. They’ve grown used to becoming enemies as soon as they disagree with those in power.

Is that why the campaign against migration and György Soros works here?

George Soros can be condemned for many things – it’s enough to mention his speculative deals. At the same time he deserves respect for investing enormous sums in democracy and building up civil society. That’s why for every foreigner the Hungarian government’s extraordinarily intensive and aggressive attack on him is, to put it mildly, strange.

The message is clear.

Yes, it’s easy to link it to migration, which itself is an exceptionally complex problem, there’s no black and white answer to it.

Do you have an answer?

First we need to distinguish refugees from economic migrants. But here the government considers everyone a migrant, and no one a refugee. We’re not speaking the same language. In addition, in Hungary there are no migrants, it’s a homogenous population. In the Netherlands, primarily because of our colonial past, there are many immigrants, we’re an open society, we accept new arrivals. It doesn’t matter if they’re Hungarian or Indonesian. Absurdly, the Hungarian government’s campaign works because when the danger is far away, it seems much larger.

Ambassador Gajus Scheltema with his book commemorating his stay in Hungary

The danger isn’t so distant: terrorist attacks have occurred in several countries in the European community, the other day it was in Barcelona that a fanatic drove into pedestrians.

Such attacks can happen anywhere – most are in the Middle East. Should we bomb the Middle East now? Here’s a group whose members are the losers in globalisation, so they’ve turned to extremism, to fanatical religiosity, because this gives them security. They create enemies on the same principles as the Hungarian government.

In April, after János Lázár spoke at a Hungarian Business Leaders Forum conference, Eric Fournier, the French Ambassador in Budapest, held up a ‘Let’s Stop Brussels!’ sign and asked: “What’s this? You’re using Hungarian taxpayer money to stop the capital of France’s neighbour?” And you reacted by saying that Hungary had welcomed more immigrants with residency bonds than it would have to according to the EU settlement quota.

Because it’s true.

You also added: the government poster sent the message that Hungary doesn’t want to be part of common EU solutions and prefers to be left out.

That’s a fact too. It’s a two-way street. It can’t be that some countries merely profit from EU money without a willingness to contribute and help with the challenges we face. The ‘Let’s Stop Brussels!’ signs are strange to the French and other ambassadors because they attack an organisation which was created, among other reasons, precisely to help your country. Moreover it wasn’t even Brussels but the European Council – that is, the member states – that decided on the issue of accommodating 1,300 refugees. This is all cheap propaganda. And most Hungarians know it.

Why do you think that?

The polls say unequivocally that Hungarians think positively about the EU.

As is also the case about Fidesz, which organised the anti-EU campaign: Orbán’s party is miles ahead.

Perhaps because for the moment there’s no suitable alternative. Someone who doesn’t want to vote for Fidesz can’t easily vote for anyone else.

In a 2014 interview you said that one of your goals is to embed Hungary further into the European Union. It seems you haven’t been able to do much.

On the contrary. We are in continuous discussions with the government, we work to convince its members. We devote a lot to spreading our viewpoint by supporting cultural events and through the media. We work to strengthen civil organisations, even those which are critical of the government. But that’s not why we do it – but rather because they do great work, regardless of what they think of the government.

The Hungarian Parliament recently passed a law that requires affected organisations to register themselves if their support from abroad totals at least 7.2 million forints. Meanwhile they’re constantly accused of being Soros-hirelings.

Indeed, I told some leaders of the civil organisations under assault: acknowledge proudly that the Dutch government supports you. And if the Hungarian government implies that some foreign background power or György Soros stands behind them with opaque financial manoeuvres, simply answer that this isn’t the case. We believe seriously in the same values as them, and we know that they fear for minorities, for the freedom of the press, and for a good number of other democratic issues.

You gave your last interview to the now-defunct Népszabadság.

Indeed, the opportunities grow ever narrower, ownerships change. What’s even more disquieting is that there isn’t a quality press even in the opposition, particularly in the field of investigative journalism. I’m always surprised by the absence of investigative journalism which is deep-reaching, which seeks out the essence of things and the underlying truths, in Hungary. If for instance a Dutch reporter writes about migration, he undoubtedly visits camps, talks to migrants, policemen, town mayors, and looks for data. Many Hungarian journalists I’ve met wrote underprepared, superficial stories. I know that politics has reached deep into the press, and it’s evident too that money is an important factor. But I still believed that with the disappearance of Népszabadság the other opposition papers would strengthen their position.

The state is blocking the opposition media’s income streams one by one – they’re fighting for survival.

It’s sad. Meanwhile the money-stuffed organs degenerate professionally.

In the aforementioned Népszabadság interview you were asked about the American travel ban scandal. One of the corruption-investigating American companies was led by a Dutch director who apparently asked for diplomatic help. This is how you put it: “If Dutch taxpayers hear that one of the supported European states’ governments is corrupt, they can feel with perfect legitimacy that they don’t want to finance it.”

The argument over what happens with our money is indeed growing ever fiercer. We can’t finance corruption, and we can’t keep a corrupt regime alive. At the same time we need to continue supporting underdeveloped areas – that’s solidarity. Economically Hungary still lags behind Western Europe, so we need to help. But in such a way that both the Hungarians and the Dutch are satisfied. We need to make the system much more transparent, accountable, and monitored. At the moment the money goes to local governments which can do whatever they want with it: that must be changed.

That won’t be easy. It hasn’t been managed yet.

Let me cite two examples – one from Holland, one from Great Britain. Migration and anti-Brussels sentiment are the two chief hobby-horses of extreme rightist Geert Wilders. He says: we don’t want to give taxpayers’ money to corrupt countries. He hasn’t named any, but it’s possible to guess who he’s referring to. And in the UK Brexit triggered an argument about who the Brits pay tax to and why. The problem wasn’t with immigrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan or India working there, but with the Poles, the Bulgarians, the Central-Eastern Europeans.

At times like this Péter Szijjártó says: we spend our money as we want, no one can interfere with Hungary’s internal affairs.

Dutch taxpayers’ money isn’t an internal affair – as no European taxpayer’s is.

When the other day the Austrian chancellor, referring to Hungary, said that the Union’s community of values “must not be confused with a cash machine,” Péter Szijjártó claimed the chancellor “is working to settle immigrants and execute the Soros-plan,” and Hungary will protect itself.

The Hungarian politicians in Brussels aren’t nearly so aggressive. Anger breaks out of them like this at home, when they’re speaking to their own voters. During my personal encounters with Péter Szijjártó we’ve always talked amicably. That too shows you needn’t take everything politicians say seriously.

It hadn’t even occurred to me.

Good.

Who do you keep in contact with from the Hungarian government?

I meet relatively regularly with ministers, though it’s true, some of them are unapproachable to me.

For instance?

Mr. Varga [Minister of National Economy] is totally unreachable. But I conferred frequently with Péter Szijjártó, Zoltán Balog, László Trócsányi. To put it diplomatically: I’ve known countries where it’s easier to meet with decision-makers. The Prime Minister previously held annual meetings for ambassadors but has not for a few years. Clearly it’s no longer important to him.

Have you met him outside of it?

No. He didn’t want it, it’s his decision.

As a diplomat, what do you think of the scandal around the Csíki beer trademark and the compromise reached between Heineken Romania and the Csíki Beer Factory. At the time Dutch deputy ambassador Elzo Molenberg said: “What’s happening here isn’t a legal step but something else.” What else?

They created a political issue from a simple economic issue. But since Heineken became the main sponsor of the Ferencváros football team, the issue has been closed completely.

As is your four year-long assignment to Hungary.

I’ll miss the country. Especially the nature, the countryside. I travelled every weekend, tried to uncover Hungary’s hidden parts. I walked Petőfi’s path – the Great Hungarian Plain [Alföld] is my favourite, especially Kiskunság. I am a Kiskunság guy.

What do you like about it?

As an ornithologist I’m impressed by the fact that the world’s largest bustard population lives there. The territory’s wildlife is spectacular – truly unique and varied.

Given that you’ve lived in several countries, Kiskunság is an unusual choice for one of the world’s best places.

I know, but I still like it a great deal. I hope I don’t offend anyone in saying that after many excursions I may know the country better today than many Hungarians.

August 31, 2017