Tag Archives: Péter Szijjártó

A frustrated Viktor Orbán dismisses his ambassador to Washington

On the very same day that the Hungarian parliament passed a bill that would effectively close Central European University, ATV reported that Réka Szemerkényi, Hungarian ambassador to the United States, will be leaving her post within a couple of months. She is being recalled. A few hours later the Foreign Ministry confirmed the report.

The news created quite a stir because the consensus in government circles as well as among analysts was that Szemerkényi was practically an alter ego of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Orbán’s trust in Szemerkényi’s judgment and expertise was boundless, claimed several people in the know. Observers asserted that having Szemerkényi in the Hungarian Embassy was like having Viktor Orbán himself in Washington.

So, what went wrong? According to the well-informed Ildikó Csuhaj, “there was someone in the government” who didn’t find Szemerkényi’s performance in Washington satisfactory. Given the modus operandi of the Orbán government, that someone must have been the prime minister himself who, it seems, expected miracles from his trusted foreign policy and security expert. Among other things, he expected an early invitation to the White House, something that doesn’t seem possible anytime soon. Péter Szijjártó, who visited Washington on March 22-23, also had difficulty meeting anyone of importance in the State Department. Szemerkényi is being accused of not using the diplomatic channels at her disposal to explain the Hungarian government’s position on two important issues: its unyielding attitude towards and treatment of the refugees and its unprecedented attack on an American university.

Poor Réka Szemerkényi. She was sent to Washington with an impossible mission: not just to ease the growing tension between the two countries but to convince the U.S. government that its dim view of Viktor Orbán’s illiberal state has no foundation. Hungary is in fact a blossoming democracy. She was supposed to convince the Americans that the footage they saw on television day in and day out of Hungary’s harsh treatment of refugees was just a mirage. Moreover, the anti-American and pro-Russian rhetoric of Orbán and his press shouldn’t be taken seriously. It is just idle talk or is simply misunderstood.

Szemerkényi did her best, but it is practically impossible to sell inferior or outright rotten produce, and that was all she could offer. She did convince a few Republicans who for one reason or other sympathize with Orbán’s policies, including his pro-Russian stance, but most congressmen and senators were not ready to support Hungary’s cause. As ambassador she received a few invitations for interviews, but most of her time was spent responding to negative reports by U.S. publications. For example, she wrote letters on behalf of Hungary to The Hill, Washington Times, Washington Post, Diplomacy and Trade, Politico, and The York Review of Books where she engaged in a fairly lengthy exchange with Professor Jan-Werner Müller of Princeton University over what she considered to be his “rather distorted picture of Hungary.” She valiantly defended Fidesz as a “center right [party] encompassing views from liberal-conservatives to traditionalists.” She accused him of using “selective quotes,” which will not hide the fact that the Hungarian government’s commitment to traditional European values is well within the mainstream of European politics. Even from this one response we can appreciate the difficulties she faced in defending the indefensible.

In a lengthy interview with an American publication, she explained the problems she was facing in Washington: “A lot of very profound changes in Hungary that took place since 2010 or 2011 were so difficult to understand from far away” and perhaps between 2010 and 2014 the embassy didn’t do a good job of explaining these changes. She found that unfortunate because she “very much believe[s] in the importance and power of the transatlantic relationship.” She is convinced that “the European and transatlantic ties are the most important roots for [her] country.” Yet, she added, “we have a very complex recent past” which is difficult to understand from the outside. One can sense her frustration at the impossibility of her task.

I also suspect that Szemerkényi, who once wrote a glowing essay about János Martonyi as a model foreign minister, doesn’t think highly of Péter Szijjártó the novice. After all, Szemerkényi has almost 30 years of experience, first serving in the Ministry of Defense (1990-1994) and then as undersecretary in charge of foreign policy and national security in the prime minister’s office between 1998 and 2002.

Szemerkényi also gave interviews to Hungarian media outlets: Inforadio, a right-of-center mostly news station, and Figyelő, a respectable financial paper which was acquired by Mária Schmidt recently. (I should mention that the valuable archives of Figyelő has been removed from the internet. New owners of government media outlets learn from each other quickly. This is what happened in the case of Népszabadság until a court order restored the archives.)

In her first interview with Figyelő in December 2015 she stressed the importance of transatlantic ties. Atlantism is not a sub-field of Hungarian foreign policy, alongside the eastern opening. It is the foundation of Hungary’s foreign relations. Or, at least this is what Szemerkényi would like to believe. In the rest of the interview she talked about the efforts she had been making to gather support in the U.S. capital. For instance, once a month the embassy holds a meeting called Budapest Salon—Open Embassy where she invites analysts and congressional advisers. She did notice some “thawing,” but “it wouldn’t be a realistic goal that we agree about everything.”

In her February 9, 2017 interview with Figyelő one can sense that Szemerkényi was under pressure from Budapest to secure a White House invitation for Viktor Orbán. The very first question addressed to her was on the prospects of “building a good relationship with the Trump administration.” I’m sure that Donald Trump’s victory was as much of a surprise to Szemerkényi as it was to everybody else, but she claimed that the embassy had made preparations for both eventualities. And she was eager to reassure people that they were “extremely successful” on that score. She claimed that Hungary is way ahead of other countries in the region in acquiring contacts with the new set of people in the Trump administration. In fact, others come to the Hungarian embassy for advice and contacts. She bragged about her meetings with Jeff Sessions, Mike Pence, Wilbur Ross, Ben Carson, and John Kelly’s and James Mattis’s teams. She personally talked with Rex Tillerson. The Hungarian embassy organized a celebratory brunch called Salute to Freedom after the inauguration, which was attended by high officials of the new administration. Most important, she met President Trump at least three times. For example, “at a smaller conference and ball that took place in Mar-a-Lago, President Trump greeted me as an old acquaintance.” She announced that they are working on “the coordination of the actual meeting” between Trump and Orbán but added that, as far as timing is concerned, the Hungarians must be realistic. The president of a superpower has many other urgent obligations. Well, it seems that Viktor Orbán was not ready to wait.

The Mar-a-Lago encounter between the Trumps and Réka Szemerkényi

And now let’s see what one of her right-wing critics, István Lovas, who just moved from Magyar Hírlap to Magyar Idők as the “foreign policy expert,” had to say about Szemerkényi’s days in Washington. Lovas doesn’t have a heavy work load at Magyar Idők. He writes only one article a week, which leaves him plenty of time to search online for “fake news” coming from Russia Today and Sputnik, which he publishes on his own blog. He is quite capable of posting two dozen short notices with links to Russian or pro-Russian publications in a day. Naturally, he is also a great fan of Donald Trump and finds Szemerkényi’s less than successful efforts the ambassador’s personal failure, due in part to her Atlantist inclinations. Lovas accuses her of being anti-Russian, an accusation that is not without merit judging from several articles she wrote between 2008 and 2011 in Válasz.

Lovas is convinced that Szemerkényi grossly exaggerated her relations with President Trump as well as with other high-ranking members of the new administration. All of her meetings with these people were casual encounters. It is very possible that Donald Trump didn’t even know who Szemerkényi was when he exchanged a few words with her. Her only recorded meeting with the president occurred after the embassy paid several thousand dollars to the American Red Cross in order to get an invitation to the conference and ball held at Mar-a-Lago. In Lovas’s opinion, Szemerkényi’s extreme Atlantism and her harsh anti-Russian views are good enough reason to recall her.

And behold, three days later Szemerkényi was sacked. Of course, I don’t believe that Lovas’s outrageous blog post was the reason for her dismissal. Rather, I suspect that Lovas already knew that something was brewing in the prime minister’s office and the foreign ministry.

Apparently, a deputy of Péter Szijjártó, László Szabó, will replace Réka Szemerkényi. Szabó has no diplomatic experience to speak of. He finished medical school but after a few years gave up his profession and became a businessman working for pharmaceutical companies like Eli Lilly and Teva. He did spend two years at Eli Lilly headquarters in Indianapolis, but he knows next to nothing about Washington. How could Szabó possibly be more successful than Szemerkényi has been with her vast experience in diplomacy and her familiarity with the Washington scene? After the CEU scandal the new Hungarian ambassador’s job will be even harder than before. Sending an inexperienced man to replace Szemerkényi is utter madness in my opinion.

April 9, 2017

The Orbán media on the U.S. air strikes in Syria

The reaction of the Hungarian government and its media to the U.S. missile strikes against a Syrian air base manifests its pro-Russian bias and its disappointment in President Trump.

Magyar Hírlap published a lengthy article, “Act of War or a Clear Message?,” on the international reception of the American move in which the dominant theme was the rejoinders of Russian politicians. The article started with quotations from President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and ended with Russian Foreign Minister Spokeswoman Mariia Zacharova’s detailed description of the Russian position on the issue. In between, the paper summarized the attitudes of the more important countries in Europe and Asia.

In the Central and East European region, the article covered only Poland and Hungary. Poland approves the move because it considers “the United States the guarantor of world peace and order. There are times when one must react and when actual steps must be taken.” By contrast, this was one of the few times that Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó struck a pessimistic note. Although “a U.S.-Russian agreement on Syria is not only in the interest of Hungary and Europe but the whole world … we have never been farther from such an understanding.” Judging from this statement, the Orbán government must be deeply disappointed with the way in which the Trump administration’s Russia policy is evolving. As for the use of chemical warfare, Hungary naturally “condemns it and hopes that it will not be repeated.” Szijjártó, unlike most of the journalists writing for the government press, didn’t question the Syrian government’s likely role in the chemical attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun, resulting in the deaths of 87 people. Even Viktor Orbán said a few meaningless words that carefully avoided any judgment on the attack one way or the other. He simply stressed the need for security and order.

As for the government media, news from Russia dominated the reporting. 888.hu even has a man in Moscow who reported straight from the Russian capital. He attended the press conference of the spokesman for the ministry of defense, who gave details on the American attack which, according to him, was not effective. He also reported from the foreign ministry and described Russian naval movement on the Black Sea.

The bias in Magyar Idők’s reporting in Russia’s favor is evident even in simple news articles. For starters, the author talked about an “alleged chemical attack” when by today, when the article was published, there can be no question that such a chemical attack did in fact take place. The article used the verb “to accuse” in connection with Assad’s role in the attack instead of “to maintain” or “to assert.” After reporting on the so-called events, the paper turned to a U.S. expert who works for an institute attached to the Hungarian foreign ministry. He is known to sympathize with the politics and ideology of the Republican Party. He noted the “great changes that have taken place in the policies of the American president,” policies that run counter to Russian interests.

Of course, from our point of view, the most interesting articles are the opinion pieces that allow us to gauge the views of pro-government, right-wing members of the media. I will start with a journalist whose op-ed articles often appear in Magyar Idők, Levente Sitkei. The piece’s title is “Sirens.” Sitkei compares the accusation that Bashar el-Assad waged chemical war against his citizens to allegations that Saddam Hussein stockpiled weapons of mass destruction. Since the latter claim turned out to be untrue, the implication is that the charge against Assad is similarly untrue. “In those days, he [Saddam Hussein] was the bad boy who could hear at least twenty times a day that accusation about himself until [the Americans] toppled his statue and hanged him.” Bashar al-Assad will not end his life this way because “he is only a pawn, a minor character.”

Sitkei claims that a photo of an ISIS fighter crying over the fate of the children in Aleppo is accepted as truth by CNN viewers, but when the same man on Russia Today tramples on a cross, it is labelled Russian propaganda. “Syria is not a state but a wretched, blood-soaked stage … where every move is carefully calculated by experts of a far-away country.” We all know whom he is talking about. As far as the chemical attack is concerned, Sitkei has his doubts about the veracity of the event because it was reported by activists of a civic organization with headquarters in Great Britain. So, it might be nothing more than simple deception. It might never have happened. Or, if it did happen, it might have been done by a rebel group. “The usefulness is what matters, not the truth.” In brief, the western world, and Americans in particular, lie.

The second opinion piece, which also appeared in Magyar Idők, was written by László Szőcs, formerly the Washington correspondent of Népszabadság. He portrays the civil war in Syria as a “proxy war” in which “the Syrian people have only a minor role to play.” The key actors in this fight are the United States and Russia, “the two most important factors of world politics.” I doubt that too many military experts or political commentators would agree with Szőcs on this score.  His conclusion is that no peace can be achieved in Syria “without a reconciliation between Washington and Moscow.”

Mandiner, a site run by younger conservatives but read mostly by hard-core right-wingers, is not convinced by the American claim that the chemical attack was carried out by the Assad regime. They found a brief note on Facebook from Jakob Augstein, a well-known German journalist, in which he criticizes journalists who praise Trump for his attack on Syria while at the same time talk about “the possibility of the use of chemical weapons.” Either we are sure or we’re not.

In the independent Hungarian media there is silence for the most part. Of course, they reported the events and covered Russian as well as American reactions, but no one wanted to express an opinion on the matter.

The pro-government media is largely anti-American and pro-Russian while the government is sitting on the fence, advocating a Russian-American understanding which Orbán and Szijjártó no longer believe is possible. I suspect that Viktor Orbán is starting to suffer from buyer’s remorse. Yes, the candidate he (and Russia) backed became president of the United States, but it seems that no pro-Russian policy will be forthcoming from Washington.

April 8, 2017

Attack on Central European University is part of an ideological struggle

In the last couple of days I have received several telephone calls from journalists. They wanted me to offer reasons for the attacks against George Soros, Central European University (which he founded), and the handful of non-governmental organizations that receive a few thousand dollars from him. Journalists who are less familiar with the Hungary of Viktor Orbán find the whole thing baffling, if not downright incomprehensible. What nonsense, one of them told me, to endow Soros with the power to move millions of refugees half the length of the continent in order to infiltrate the European Union and thereby change its ethnic composition. This is madness, he said.

As usual, ever since the news broke that the very existence of the Central European University is in jeopardy, all sorts of fanciful explanations for the government’s action have surfaced. One that gained some traction came from Lajos Bokros, chairman of the Modern Magyarország Mozgalom party. According to him, Vladimir Putin expressly demanded the shuttering of Central European University (CEU). Apparently, this theory circulated widely in the Russian media, which is where Bokros picked it up. Putin noticed that in the Russian, Ukrainian, and Georgian administrations there are just too many graduates of CEU, which seems to specialize in educating free thinkers and opposition leaders.

I for one doubt that such a conversation between Putin and Orbán took place, but I think we can safely assume that Viktor Orbán finds Vladimir Putin’s template attractive. The Russian president’s harsh measures against NGOs resonate with the Hungarian prime minister. Let’s face it, the Helsinki Commission, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, and Transparency International are thorns in his side. He has every reason to be angry: they keep winning cases against the Hungarian government and are therefore considered to be enemies of the present political system. How much easier the life of the Orbán government would be if all these organizations simply disappeared.

The only reason the Hungarian prime minister didn’t move against them with full force until now was his fear that the United States would put roadblocks in his way just as it did in December 2015 when several high-level U.S. diplomats descended on Budapest. They told Orbán that there would be serious consequences if he went through with his plan to erect a statue honoring the anti-Semitic Minister of Education Bálint Hóman. He caved. And most likely viewed the encounter as one of greatest humiliations of his political life.

When it comes to CEU, the reason for the government’s antipathy toward it is not as direct as in the case of the NGOs, but I’m sure it has been an irritant all along. First of all, in only 25 years this university has come to be regarded as one of the leading institutions of higher learning in Europe, whereas none of the other Hungarian universities managed to crack the top 500 on the World University Rankings’ list. This fact alone must rankle the Hungarian government. Moreover, CEU has an endowment of $888 million, making it one of the wealthiest universities in Europe. This means that, unlike the teaching staff at the other Hungarian universities, the 300 faculty members who come from more than 30 countries are very well paid.

CEU’s prestige in the region and even beyond aroused jealousy in certain Hungarian academic circles. They began to look upon the university’s faculty and students as a bunch of privileged snobs. The very fact that the language of instruction is English annoys some people to no end. András Bencsik, editor of the far-right Magyar Demokrata and a strong supporter of Fidesz, expressed his irritation by pointing out that, after all, the official language of the country is Hungarian. (Other countries, such as the Netherlands and Denmark, whose languages are spoken by too few people had the good sense to use English as the language of instruction in their universities.) Orbán, who recently announced that he wants to see only Hungarians in Hungary, would naturally recoil from the idea of a multi-ethnic, multi-language group of teachers and students using English as the language of instruction. What right-wing critics of the university don’t want to realize is that, in large measure, it is the language of instruction that made CEU’s entry into the top tier of European universities possible.

Another reason for Orbán’s dislike of CEU is that it is a private university in whose internal affairs the Hungarian state cannot easily meddle. Moreover, Fidesz politicians are certain, and not without reason, that the great majority of the students and faculty do not sympathize with the present Hungarian government. In fact, Fidesz and KDNP politicians expressed their belief that CEU is a university whose graduates are their enemies. As Péter Harrach (KDNP) said about the massive Sunday demonstration, “an international crowd demonstrated for a university that serves international goals. It has become obvious that [the university] is part of an ideological and political struggle and that it is the officer training school of an army that fights a hard fight in Hungarian society. This is the gist of it.”

Demonstration in front of the parliament building, April 4, 2017

And so, however despicable it may be, the Orbán regime’s hatred of George Soros and the people who believe in an open, pluralistic society is both rational and understandable. The antipathy is not new. Orbán has been harboring these feelings for a very long time, but only in the last couple of years was the international climate conducive to a frontal attack on George Soros. The refugee crisis offered Orbán an opening, especially since Soros was outspoken on the subject. Soros’s larger presence in Europe gave Orbán the opportunity to turn up the volume on his condemnation of Soros, who is meddling in the internal affairs of Hungary by helping his enemies. And, of course, Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States further emboldened the Hungarian prime minister, who was an early and ardent supporter.

People who are critics of the Orbán government are stunned. In a few hours parliament passed the amendments to the law on higher education, which make the existence of CEU in Hungary impossible. Although Fidesz spokesmen keep insisting that this was just a small administrative adjustment, this is not the case. CEU is supposed to fulfill two obligations. One is to establish a brand new university practically overnight in the United States. The other is that a bilateral treaty must be signed between Washington and Budapest, without which the university cannot accept any students after January 1, 2018. Neither demand can be met.

The insistence on a bilateral treaty prompted Hungarian opposition politicians and commentators to conjecture that the attack against CEU was manufactured for the sole purpose of forcing direct contact between the Trump administration and the Orbán government. These same people recall that Péter Szijjártó failed to meet anyone of importance at the State Department. That might be true, but he did manage to speak with two people who are very close to the president–Sebastian Gorka, Trump’s deputy assistant, and Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s former lawyer and now U.S. special representative for international negotiations.

Orbán certainly didn’t endear himself to the U.S. State Department with this move. Its spokesperson announced on March 31 that “the United States is concerned about legislation proposed by the Government of Hungary … that imposes new, targeted, and onerous regulatory requirements on foreign universities.” The United States urged the government of Hungary “to avoid taking any legislative action that would compromise CEU’s operations or independence.” After the passage of the amendments, the U.S. embassy in Hungary issued another statement today, saying that “the United States is disappointed by the accelerated passage of legislation targeting Central European University, despite the serious concerns raised by the United States.”

It is possible that the Hungarian government is dissatisfied with the Trump administration’s relative neglect of Viktor Orbán, who so far has not received any special treatment as a reward for his support. Just today we heard that Réka Szemerkényi, the Hungarian ambassador in Washington, will be recalled soon. 24.hu learned from diplomatic sources that the Hungarian government is dissatisfied with Szemerkényi’s performance because she didn’t manage to convince the State Department of the legitimate and non-discriminatory nature of the legislation regarding Central European University. We don’t yet have confirmation of these reports. When ATV’s journalist asked Viktor Orbán whether it is true that Szemerkényi will be recalled, he answered: “I don’t handle entanglements with women” (nőügyekkel nem foglalkozom). The crudity of the man never ceases to amaze me.

P.S. While I was writing this post, thousands of people were demonstrating in front of the parliament building.

April 4, 2017

The Rome Declaration: “A Ray of Hope” according to Magyar Idők

On March 3 the prime ministers of the four Visegrád countries–the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia–held a summit in Warsaw. There they agreed on a common platform to present at the forthcoming meeting in Rome celebrating the sixtieth anniversary of the birth of the European Union. Magyar Nemzet got hold of the draft document, which showed that these four former socialist countries are against any further political integration and are supporters of a “Europe of nation states.” Yet they agreed that the European Union is their best guarantee in the face of current world problems. The leaders of the four countries hoped that their ideas would be incorporated into the declaration to be issued in Rome.

The Rome Declaration is an upbeat document in which emphasis is placed on “unity” because “standing together is our best chance to influence [global dynamics] and to defend our common interests and values.” As far as the V-4’s proposals were concerned, the Declaration did mention the necessity for secure external borders, but it also included a reference to “responsible and sustainable migration policy, respecting international norms,” which doesn’t exactly correspond to the ideas of the V-4 leaders. There was a passage about the preservation of “our cultural heritage and [the promotion] of cultural diversity.” Cultural diversity is not something the more nationalistic Central Europeans are willing to embrace. The declaration also talked about “a more competitive and integrated defense industry” and “the strengthening of [the European Union’s] common security, also in cooperation and complementarity with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.” Finally, as a nod to the V-4 nations’ concerns, the document included the following sentence: “We will allow for the necessary room for maneuver at the various levels to strengthen Europe’s innovation and growth potential.”

Poland was not satisfied with the text, and until the last minute it looked as if Prime Minister Beata Szydło might not sign the document if “the declaration does not include the issues which are priorities for Poland,” as she announced a few days before the opening of the summit. These are: “The unity of the European Union, defence of a tight NATO cooperation, strengthening the role of national governments and the rules of the common market which cannot divide but unite – these are the four priorities which have to be included in the declaration.” Even though not all four of her demands were incorporated in the document, by the end Poland’s ruling PiS party thought the better of it. All 27 heads of state who were present signed the document. Szydło was smart to follow Orbán’s strategy: play to the domestic crowd yet be quite malleable at EU summits. Apparently on March 20, when the final text was being hammered out, the two Polish participants were “very constructive.”

So were the Hungarians, although Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó, on the very day that his prime minister was signing the Rome Declaration, argued for the Hungarian position on the refugee question and indicated that “the struggle with Brussels will continue.” He reminded his audience that the Hungarian government “will not forget that the vice president of the European Commission wanted to have a debate with Hungary and Poland about European values.” Brussels is making a mistake when “it wants to conquer the member states and allow illegal migrants to settle.” Finally, he proudly announced that “Hungary has always contributed its share to the success of Christian Europe.”

In Rome Orbán was not as bellicose as his youthful foreign minister, but his statements were still antithetical to the key provisions of the Rome Declaration. He made two points pertaining to the Declaration: (1) we can count only on ourselves if we want a country free from danger and (2) Europe’s problems can be fixed only if each nation provides for the safety and well-being of itself. Although he obviously did not subscribe to the basic philosophy of the Declaration, he had to justify his support of it somehow. And so he said that the final document was a far cry from earlier drafts and that “many of the Hungarian suggestions are now reflected in the text.” This is his normal reaction when, despite his blustering, he signs all the documents put in front of him.

Although on the surface the Orbán government’s view of the European Union seems not to have changed at all, I see signs of a possible shift in Hungarian foreign policy. I base my opinion on an editorial that appeared in Magyar Idők. From an editorial in an American, British, German, or French paper we certainly couldn’t draw any conclusions about their governments’ policies, but we can safely say that nothing appears in Magyar Idők that is not cleared ahead of time with the appropriate government official. We learned that from the current head of HírTV, who recalled that regular instructions had come from above on topics to be covered when the station was an instrument of the government.

So the editorial by Zoltán Kottász that appeared in today’s issue of Magyar Idők, titled “A Ray of Hope from Rome,” may well be significant in trying to figure out the government’s foreign policy. For weeks we could read nothing in this paper but praise of Russia, condemnation of Angela Merkel and her migrant policy, and antagonistic attacks on the European Union. And now “a ray of hope.” According to the author, the European Union is the best of all possible structures for keeping peace in Europe.

And he continued. The European Union in the last 60 years has proved that it is an effective instrument and, as a result of cooperation, the standard of living in Europe has been steadily improving. There were occasional difficulties, but “despite the various problems, disagreements, and divisions, common sense prevailed.” Europe needs closer cooperation than at any time before. There are problems in the Balkans, “Turkey is moving away from us, and China and Russia have gained power and strength that put an end to the unipolar world order with consequences no one can predict. Therefore, Europe must be self-sufficient in all respects to be able stand on its own feet.”

I could scarcely believe my eyes. Is this the beginning of a new era in the foreign policy of Viktor Orbán or just an aberration? Did the Orbán government realize that the Eastern Opening was a bust and the friendship with Putin’s Russia might not be beneficial to Hungary under the present circumstances? Perhaps it has dawned on Viktor Orbán that Trump’s presidency might actually be a threat to the European Union of which, after all, Hungary is still a part.

One could of course argue that one shouldn’t put a lot of faith in an editorial, even if it appeared in Magyar Idők. But there are other signs of possible change in the offing. At a conference over the weekend the director of the pro-government think tank Nézőpont opined that, despite the unanimous approval of the Declaration of Rome, there is no reason to celebrate because of the crisis engulfing the European Union. Szabolcs Takács, undersecretary in charge of European affairs in the Prime Minister’s Office, disagreed. There is every reason for celebration because the joint declaration allows for the reformulation of the values of European integration.

Thus, there are signs of a possible shift in Hungarian foreign policy, but we will have to wait to see whether there is any follow-through. We can, however, be pretty sure of one thing. From here on, the Merkel bashing will stop because the Hungarian government is fearful of a new German government with Martin Schulz as chancellor. In fact, Zoltán Kottász in his editorial sees such an event as the first step toward the disintegration of the European Union.

March 27, 2017

“Visa shopping” in Moscow: The case of Szilárd Kiss

A young man phoned György Bolgár’s popular call-in show, “Let’s Talk It Over,” on Klub Rádió this afternoon. He was agitated over the latest public row within the ranks of the fractured opposition. “Don’t they realize that we are in big trouble? Don’t they realize that if they don’t unite, Viktor Orbán will be the ruler of this country for life just like Putin and Erdogan? It’s all very nice that LMP’s Bernadett Szél managed to get some documents out of the government, but what does she achieve with that? These politicians should try to figure out how to get rid of a dictator.”

It was only a little later that I realized that the caller was talking about documents that Szél has been trying to get from the ministry of foreign affairs and trade for almost two years. The documents were the result of an investigation into the wholesaling of Schengen visas to thousands of Russians without any vetting by a man officially employed by the Hungarian government.

When I read the details of this latest government scandal, my first reaction was: “But this is not a new story.” Two years ago I wrote two posts on the villain of this story, Szilárd Kiss, agricultural attaché in the Hungarian Embassy in Moscow, who was able to extract thousands of visas from the Hungarian consulate in the Russian capital for his friends, business partners, and even prostitutes. At the time that I wrote my first post on Kiss, he was being held in pre-trial detention for defrauding a credit union in Hungary. He had been in trouble with the law in Russia earlier.

A lot was known about Kiss already in 2015. We knew that he moved to Russia in 1990, hoping to establish himself as a successful businessman dealing with agricultural products. He was especially keen on exporting Hungarian wine to Russia, but somehow all his business ventures failed. Meanwhile he developed a wide network of Russian businessmen and high-ranking politicians through his Russian wife or girlfriend of long standing, Yelena Tsvetkova.

After 2010, with the arrival of Viktor Orbán as prime minister, Kiss thought his time had come. After all, Orbán was keen on establishing strong political and economic ties with Russia. Through his influential Hungarian friends, like Csaba Tarsoly, the CEO of the Quaestor brokerage firm that a few years later went under, Kiss was introduced to Péter Szijjártó, the current foreign minister who was then an undersecretary in the prime minister’s office. Szijjártó was impressed and sent Kiss on to Sándor Fazekas, minister of agriculture, who without further ado appointed him agricultural attaché in Moscow.

In 2014, however, the Hungarian ambassador was about to dismiss Kiss because he had failed to pass the vetting process by the national security office. During the investigation it became evident that Kiss had connections to the Russia mafia and perhaps even to the Russian secret service. In addition, it was discovered that Kiss had been involved in a profitable “visa business” on the side. It was known already in 2015 that he had secured Schengen visas for at least 2,500 people without the standard vetting. In 2015 Index learned that Hungarian consulates had, in total, issued more than two million visas since January 2008. The Russian share was staggeringly high: 400,000. That is, every fifth visa had been issued to a Russian citizen.

We knew all that two years ago, yet the Hungarian media and public act as if this revelation is brand new. I sympathize with the caller who said that politicians could spend their time more profitably than fighting for the release of documents. It took two solid years to get the documents, which only confirmed everything that Index had reported two years ago. Of course, it is good to have the proof as well as more details, which “give a frightening picture of what was going on in Moscow.”

Source: Index / Graphics: Szarvas

As a result of the newly available documents we know that half of all Schengen visas issued in 2013 were requested by Monte Tokaj Kft, Szilárd Kiss’s company. We are talking about 4,000 visas, not 2,500 as we thought in 2015. Moreover, these visas were issued to “Russian citizens with ill-defined financial backgrounds and professions” and “without any apparent documented control.” The Hungarian authorities were not even aware of the addresses of these people, their requests were granted within hours, 50% of the applicants had no references, and they didn’t even have to visit the embassy for a personal interview. What Kiss and his accomplices were doing was what we call “visa shopping.” I should add that it is likely that none of these people spent even as much as a full day in Hungary.

Without the consuls’ cooperation Kiss couldn’t have conducted this visa racket. It looks to me as if they tried to defend themselves by claiming “dishonest influence peddling, pressure, or even threats” against them. Are they talking about pressure and threats from Russian mafia bosses? Perhaps, but the internal investigation doesn’t address this topic.

What is also interesting about this case—something we already knew in 2015—is that although the foreign ministry asked the ministry of agriculture to get rid of Kiss, he was not fired outright. Fazekas worked out an arrangement that allowed Kiss to remain with the ministry. He was asked to resign from his diplomatic post, thereby avoiding the stigma of dismissal. In compensation, Kiss was appointed “commissioner of eastern economic relations.” Why the change? Perhaps because the new appointment was based on a contractual agreement for which one didn’t need national security clearance. Kiss thus remained a public servant until January 2015, when he was arrested because of his role in defrauding a credit union.

By now Kiss is free again, awaiting trial. The last time his name showed up in the media was when he was spotted using a car with a diplomatic plate.

The foreign ministry now claims that they filed a complaint with the police regarding the case. If that happened at all, it must have occurred only recently, under pressure from a court order for the release of the report of the internal investigation that took place four years ago, in 2013.

Although it’s good that we know more about the case than we did two years ago, I’m sure the story will be forgotten within days just it was in 2015. In fact, I would be surprised if there were a police investigation at all. Kiss’s visa racket will be at best a footnote in a history book.

The Hungarian government has every reason to downplay this case. Although Szijjártó claims he never worked with Kiss, he can be seen cutting the ribbon at the opening of the visa center in Moscow with Yelena Tsvetkova, wife/girlfriend of Szilárd Kiss, partial owner of the company. It is also unlikely that the Hungarian government would be too keen to investigate the deal Fazekas made on behalf of his friend Szilárd Kiss in the ministry of agriculture.

So yes, we now know more lurid details of the visa scandal, but given the present government’s stranglehold on the police and the prosecutor’s office nothing will ever come of it. I agree with the caller to “Let’s Talk It Over.” Opposition politicians should slowly turn the job of investigative journalism over to the professionals and instead focus on the daunting task of becoming an unbeatable political juggernaut.

February 8, 2017

Orbán: “one of the greatest virtues is to know where one’s place is”

Anyone who has the patience to sit through 40 minutes of a bad English translation of the joint press conference given by Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orbán can’t help noticing that the two politicians were not in the best of moods. Two years ago, during Putin’s last visit, Orbán was glowing. This time he was somber and so was Putin. Commentators who claim that the whole trip was nothing more than an opportunity for Putin to show that he is welcome in a country belonging to the European Union and for Orbán to demonstrate that he has an important ally were most likely wrong. Something happened during the negotiations between the two leaders that was disturbing, especially for Viktor Orbán.

But first, let’s see what issues the Russian partner wanted to discuss during Putin’s visit to Budapest. According to a summary issued by the Russian foreign ministry, from the Russian point of view the financing and construction of the Paks II Nuclear Power Plant extension had absolute priority. Rebuilding the old Soviet-made metro trains on the M3 line came next in importance, a project that is already underway. In addition, it looks as if Russia is eyeing the project of reconstructing the M3 line in lieu of the €120 million Hungary owes Russia as a result of the bankruptcy of the jointly owned MALÉV. Moscow also wants Hungary to show more interest in cultural matters pertaining to Russia. The ministry’s communiqué noted with satisfaction that there is a revival of interest in the Russian language. As for bilateral economic cooperation between the two countries, the document was vague.

Péter Szijjártó while in Moscow assured Sergey Lavrov of Hungary’s plans to promote Russian culture in Hungary. He announced that Leo Tolstoy will soon have a statue and a street named after him in Budapest. He revealed that the Hungarian government will spend a considerable amount of money on the restoration of three Orthodox churches in the country. As for Hungarian investments, Szijjártó specifically mentioned Hungarian technological investments in the field of agriculture and construction. In addition, he brought up a few projects allegedly under construction and financed by the Hungarian Eximbank.

Not mentioned among the items Hungary is offering to Russia was a memorial that was just unveiled in Esztergom. Even though if Orbán had a free hand he would gladly remove the Soviet memorial on Szabadság tér (Freedom Square), his government accepted a statue, “The Angel of Peace,” done by a Russia sculptor, Vladimir Surovtsev. The statue was erected in Esztergom because it was in the outskirts of that city that, during World War I, a huge camp for prisoners of war was set up. More than 60,000 soldiers–Russians, Serbs, and Italians–spent years there, at first in miserable conditions. Cholera took many lives. To erect a memorial to commemorate the dead and the sufferers is certainly appropriate. What is less logical is that the Russian NGO responsible for the project insisted on including a reference to the soldiers of the Red Army who died in and around Esztergom during 1944-1945. In any event, Vladimir N. Sergeev, Russia’s ambassador in Budapest, said at the ceremony: “It is symbolic that the unveiling of the statue takes place at the time of the Russian president’s visit to Hungary. This shows how important and how strong our cooperation is.”

Perhaps, but it may not have been on display during the meeting between Putin and Orbán, especially when they were discussing Paks II. That the financing of the nuclear power plant was on the agenda was most likely a fact that Viktor Orbán was not eager to share with the public. But his Russian friend practically forced him to reveal it. It was not a friendly gesture.

Let me describe the circumstances in which the incident took place. A journalist from the by-now completely servile Origo asked Viktor Orbán whether the question of financing Paks II was discussed during the conversation. The reason for his question was the Hungarian government’s repeated assertion that by now Hungary could, unlike back in 2014, finance the project on the open market at a lower interest rate than Hungary is currently paying on the Russian loan. János Lázár, head of the prime minister’s office, in fact indicated that the government was ready to renegotiate the deal. As it stands now, in the first seven years the interest rate on the loan is 4.50%, for the second seven years it is 4.80%, and in the last seven years it is 4.95%. According to Népszava’s calculation, the interest on the loan is approximately 300 billion forints a year, or one percent of Hungary’s GDP.

Orbán flatly denied that the question of financing (or refinancing) had come up. However, about one minute later when Putin took over from Orbán, he announced that he had “informed the prime minister that Russia is ready to finance not only 80% but even 100% of the project.” So, he contradicted Orbán, practically calling his host a liar. It seems that the Hungarian request or demand to renegotiate the loan was discussed and rejected. Instead, Putin offered him an even larger loan by way of compensation.

Perhaps here I should bring up a baffling statement that Orbán made. When he was asked by the reporter from MTV’s M1 about the two countries’ cooperation in the international arena, Orbán’s answer was: “Russia and Hungary move in different dimensions when it comes to geopolitical, military, and diplomatic questions. To my mind, one of the greatest virtues is to know where one’s place is.” Is it possible that this rather bitter observation had something to do with Orbán’s less than pleasant conversation with Putin? Did he realize that there is no way out of Putin’s deadly embrace? Perhaps.

Of course, it is possible that Orbán, who is not the kind of man who readily admits that he made a mistake, will just go on merrily forging even closer relations with Russia. On the other hand, he may realize that he is not in a position to be a successful mediator between Russia and the rest of the western world.

As usual, it is hard to tell where Orbán stands only a day or two after his meeting with Putin. He was one of those EU leaders who “pledged the need for unity and for Europe to stand on its own two feet” at the European Council summit in Valletta, Malta yesterday even though before his arrival he announced that the U.S. has the right to decide its own border control policy and that “he is puzzled at the ‘neurotic European reactions’ over the travel ban.” Nonetheless, behind closed doors he joined the others who were united in their condemnation of Donald Trumps’ comments and attitudes toward the European Union. François Hollande was one of the most vocal critics of Trump at the meeting and, when asked what he thought of EU leaders who are leaning toward Trump, he said that “those who want to forge bilateral ties with the U.S. … must understand that there is no future with Trump if it is not a common position.” Orbán should understand that, having lost his battle with Putin over the financing of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant. We will see how he decides.

February 4, 2017

Donald Trump’s Russia policy must be a disappointment to Viktor Orbán

I’m beginning to feel sorry for Viktor Orbán, who tries so hard to make the right diplomatic move at the right time but, despite his best efforts, finds himself making missteps. He can expect even more such aborted diplomatic moves now that the United States has a totally unpredictable president. Orbán’s latest effort was an obvious attempt to further strengthen Russian-Hungarian relations in the conviction that this move would have President Trump’s blessing and backing. It looks as if Viktor Orbán didn’t factor in the total unpredictability of the Trump administration’s policies.

Viktor Orbán expected that his favorite candidate, Donald Trump, would conduct a pro-Russian foreign policy and would keep his nose out of the affairs of other countries. Also, he would no longer demand adherence to democratic norms. Consequently, Orbán renewed his attack on non-governmental organizations operating in Hungary, especially those that receive money from George Soros’s Open Society Foundation. After all, Orbán figured, Trump dislikes the billionaire financier because he generously supported Hillary Clinton. As for diplomatic matters, Orbán was certain that he would receive Trump’s support for an even closer relationship with Putin’s Russia.

So, how did Orbán prepare for this new era of international relations? He decided to have a trial run ahead of the scheduled visit of Vladimir Putin, sending Péter Szijjártó to Moscow with a message that indicated a more openly supportive Hungarian policy toward Russia.

The many reports that appeared in both Hungarian and foreign papers on the meeting in Budapest between Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orbán all agree that the much touted “summit” ended with a fairly meaningless press conference dealing mostly with trade relations and including a few announcements about the Russian gas supply and the financing of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant’s extension. To learn more about what most likely transpired between Putin and Orbán behind closed doors, we should focus on the Moscow trip of the much more talkative Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó on January 23 and 24. He was equally chatty after his negotiations with members of the Russian delegation in Budapest.

First of all, Szijjártó’s servility was, even by his own standards, extreme. He oozed praise and talked at length about the personal pleasure he felt at being able to meet Sergei Lavrov again. The normally dour Russian foreign minister seems to have such a close relationship with Szijjártó that in Budapest, the night before the “summit,” Lavrov was a guest at Szijjártó’s private residence.

A bit over the top

After the Lavrov-Szijjártó meeting in Moscow, Szijjártó expressed the views of the Hungarian government: “If the EU and Russia cannot agree on the conditions of a pragmatic and close cooperation, then the Union will seriously lag behind in the international economic and political competition.” He called attention to the fact that historically Central Europe has always been the victim of conflicts between East and West and therefore “it is in Hungary’s interest that the new U.S. administration and Russia establish as soon as possible a pragmatic and close cooperation based on mutual trust.” Politicians in the European Union label everybody whose ideas aren’t mainstream a “Putinist” or a “Trumpist.” But Hungary “wants to break away from such insultingly simplistic and harmful approaches and to realize that it is in Europe’s interest to normalize its relationship with Russia.” This must have been music to Sergei Lavrov’s ears.

A few days later, this time in Budapest, Szijjártó continued his efforts with members of the Putin delegation and announced Hungary’s eagerness for a close relationship between the European Union and Russia. He falsely claimed that by now “the western world” also wants to have a rapprochement with Russia. He exaggerated Hungary’s financial loss as a result of the sanctions and announced that “our position on this matter” will be guided by Hungarian interests. Both Szijjártó and Orbán, as we will soon see, act as if Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its active participation in the disturbances in Eastern Ukraine simply didn’t exist. It looks as if, in the view of the Orbán government, the “western world” should just forget about Putin’s transgression of Russia’s treaty obligations and its settling of territorial disputes by force.

In comparison to Szijjártó, Viktor Orbán was outright reticent. What was most telling was not what he said but what he didn’t. After thanking Putin “for visiting us,” he immediately moved to the “center of the talks,” which were economic issues, specifically the absolutely perfect economic relations between the two countries in recent years. It was only at this point that he gingerly moved to politics. “One of the reasons we should especially value the results of economic cooperation is that we have achieved them in a difficult international environment. We have all seen the development of strongly anti-Russian sentiment in the western half of the continent, and anti-Russian politics has become the fashion.” Fashion? Anti-Russian sentiment out of the blue? Clearly, the Orbán government would love to forget about the whole Ukrainian issue, which seems to me a highly irresponsible position considering that Ukraine is Hungary’s neighbor.

Then he moved on, somewhat obliquely, to the question of sanctions. “Hungary maintains its position that problems of a non-economic nature cannot be addressed with economic measures,” an opinion that is clearly wrong. For example, sanctions against Iran were instrumental in getting Iran to the negotiating table. Or, if these sanctions are as ineffectual as Orbán has often claimed, why is Putin so eager to have them lifted? Orbán added that “it is difficult to imagine Hungary being successful if we do not develop open, strong, and fruitful economic and trade cooperation with the major players in the global economy.”

Putin’s introductory words were equally bland, dealing mostly with economic and cultural relations between the two countries. He spent only one sentence on territories in which Russia has a military presence. He ended his short address with these words: “We discussed the Eastern-Ukrainian and Syrian situations, and we determined that we must unite our forces against terrorism.”

From Putin’s answer to a Russian journalist’s question, however, one has some idea of what Putin must have said to Orbán on the Ukrainian situation. In Putin’s opinion, the Ukrainians provoked the latest military action in the eastern provinces of the country because the Ukrainian government badly needs money, which it hopes to get from the European Union and the United States. Thus, the Ukrainians try to picture themselves as the victims of Russian aggression. Orbán’s response to this fabrication was not exactly courageous. He muttered something about fulfilling the Minsk II Agreement, which will provide peace in Europe. At the same time he felt it necessary to mention that the Minsk Agreement has a clause guaranteeing minority rights, which also affects the Hungarian minority. He expressed his dissatisfaction with the Hungarian minority’s current situation in Ukraine.

The Hungarian assumption underlying Viktor Orbán’s hopes for closer Russian-Hungarian relations was that Donald Trump would conduct a pro-Russian foreign policy, which he has long advocated. But after the chaotic first two weeks of the new administration, there has been an unexpected turn. The Trump administration, counter to all expectations, is taking a hard stand on Russian aggression against Ukraine. The newly appointed U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, delivered a tough speech yesterday in which she condemned Russia’s unacceptable behavior. She said that the United States would like to have better relations with Russia, but “the dire situation in eastern Ukraine is one that demands clear and strong condemnation of Russian actions.” Moreover, in the speech she also said that “the United States continues to condemn and call for an immediate end to the Russian occupation of Crimea. The United States considers Crimea to be part of Ukraine.” She added that “our Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns control over the peninsula to Ukraine.”

Although Haley’s remarks were not all that different from speeches delivered by Samantha Power, the Obama administration’s ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, the Russian ambassador to the UN, felt that “there is a change in tone” with the arrival of the new administration. He claimed that he wasn’t particularly surprised by Haley’s speech, something I find difficult to believe, even though in the last couple of weeks the Russians have also come to the conclusion that one never knows what to expect from this new White House.

What an irony of fate. On the very same day that Viktor Orbán and his foreign minister are laying out their great plans for an entirely different international climate as far as Russia and Europe is concerned, the U.S. ambassador to the UN reinforces the United States’ resolve to keep the sanctions in place as long as it takes. This should put an end to the daydreams of Viktor Orbán and Péter Szijjártó.

February 3, 2017