Tag Archives: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

Charles Gati: “Even the most talented diplomat cannot sell junk”

This is a translation of an interview with Charles Gati, senior research professor of European and Eurasian Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, which originally appeared in Magyar Narancs on April 20, 2017 under the title “You cannot circumvent the elite.” The English translation was published by The Budapest Sentinel on April 24.

Hoyt Brian Yee, Deputy State Secretary at the United States Department of State, was recently in Budapest to meet with the Hungarian government. While here he also raised the issue of Central European University (CEU), and confirmed to the press that Fiona Hill, Donald Trump’s advisor responsible for Russian and European affairs, also supports the CEU matter. Is the university remaining also important to Trump?

What I know is that the State Department agreed with the White House, and that in the White House the National Security Council, which deals with matters of foreign policy and security, supported advocating for the university to a great extent. Of course, this does not mean that the president personally requested this — it’s good if an American president devotes half an hour a year to Hungary. He wouldn’t have time for any more. Hungary’s significance in American politics today is minimal.

What changes have taken place to the State Department since the new president took office?

There are fifty or sixty positions at the State Department filled by political appointees. They have started assuming their positions. However, there is no change in those officials who deal with Hungary in the European department. One or two might be transferred. These experts continue their work independent of the person of the president or party. Deputy Secretary Yee is such an official and counts as the most important operative person in this field. He holds the same position now as at the time of Obama.

The Hungarian government recently recalled Réka Szemerkényi who represented our country to Washington the past two years. What is your view of the ambassador’s work?

Even the most talented diplomat cannot sell junk. An ambassador can stand on her head and it would be of no significance since the experts here know precisely what the situation is in Hungary, how close the Hungarian government is to Putin, how much it tries to undermine the European Union, and how little it contributes to the cost of NATO. I see lobbying the same way: it may be that, of the 535 congressmen, one or two manage to issue a statement. The vast sums of money spent on this by the Hungarian government is actually a complete waste.

What do you think explains the fact that in recent weeks the American president has acted in a manner diametrically opposed to what he promised during the campaign?

The most important question these days is really how long Trump’s political somersault will last. There have been as many changes in a week as Orbán — an ultraliberal in his youth — in a decade. Moreover, among the fresh changes are a number that pertain to Hungary. Trump wooed Putin during the campaign, mentioning him as a potential friend of America. And yet he incurred the anger of the Russian leadership by ordering the bombing of the Syrian airport. One of the most important statements of the campaign was that America would move its embassy from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem. These days we don’t hear anything about this. There was also talk that Hillary Clinton should be imprisoned. But these days he has to be more concerned that it is his people who will end up behind bars. A few days was enough to persuade himself that NATO is not a thing of the past. All of this indicates that the president is starting to move in the direction of the traditional foreign policy of the Republican Party. But in the Republican Party there are two truly important directions. The one is the conservative line near to Wall Street, which back in the day was more or less represented by George W. Bush. The other is the national line, whose nationalist rhetoric Trump made his own during the campaign. Although a nationalist direction won him the election, one senses more and more a Wall Street mentality in his politics. This is especially important from a foreign policy point of view since the direction opposes the politics of isolationism, which was one of the main program points on the side of the nationalists.

What could have caused the change? Did Trump realize that governance is more complicated than he thought? Or was he worried about getting into trouble after it turns out that many of his confidantes conspired with Russian leadership?

The majority of the people around him represent Wall Street: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and all the economic people. On the other side is the representative of the national side, Steve Bannon, who is more and more marginalized in the government. Trump did not understand politics when he assumed the presidency. In certain economic questions he was an absolute beginner, and he has woken up to this fact. The best example of this was when he said about the restructuring of the health-care system he “didn’t know that it was so complicated.” An unprepared and naive president assumed power in America, and now we are seeing a certain willingness to revise certain things.

But don’t these changes alienate him from those who voted for him?

It could easily be the case that sooner or later things go wrong with his electoral base. But it is not yet clear where this is leading, or what group of voters he is trying to win over.

In September 2012 Obama said he would interfere in Syria in the event chemical weapons were used. However, when he should have done so the following year, he stepped back instead. The Obama government explained this by saying that instead of a military attack it was using diplomatic means to persuade the Assad regime to give up chemical weapons. The chemical attack at the beginning of April indicates that the Syrian government retained these kinds of weapons. How does this reflect on Obama’s foreign policy?

In actuality this was the worst episode of Obama’s foreign policy. But when Trump went against his own promises, on the one hand he wanted to prove that he could fix the mistakes of his predecessor, and on the other demonstrate that the photos of destruction and the murdered children touched his soul. However, it is difficult to say whether any conclusions can be drawn from this regarding the foreign policy of the next months or years. The experts are now saying that this was a one-time strike and that we should not calculate with another intervention.

I cannot argue with this, but I have to say that I was personally affected when Trump responded in a human manner to the Syrian events. After all, children died, and it also turned out that Assad lied when he said he had given up all his chemical weapons. In my eyes, this increased Trump’s stature as a person, even if this action did not make him greater politically.

But is some sort of Middle East strategy starting to emerge from his actions? Not long ago he spoke about how he would like to repair US relations with the Gulf countries, and he provided support by telephone to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and supposedly distanced himself from moving the embassy to Jerusalem at the request of King Abdullah II of Jordan. All of this suggests that he is trying to contain Iran’s regional efforts, in alliance with the region’s Sunni leaders 

It is also difficult for me to say anything about the Middle East. A boastful, unprepared man assumed the White House who is incapable of delivering on what he promised. He campaigned on a promise to immediately terminate the Iran nuclear agreement, but he hasn’t done anything. He also said that he would take care of the Islamic State in a few days, but he had to wake up to the fact that this affair is much more complicated than he thought.

Construction of the wall planned for the Mexican border hasn’t started either.

Nevertheless, there are alarming developments here as the authorities are separating families. It is possible to hear a number of stories about parents whose children were born in the United States having no choice but to leave the country without them. This is the insensitive practice that is consistent with his promises. True, immigration policy did not become as cruel as many foretold during the campaign.

Today’s Trump believes China is no longer manipulating the yuan . . .

For now that is the most important change. After he met with President Xi Jinping, he said he understood why he doesn’t do more against North Korea, and he sees that this is a serious question. So there is some hope that relations with the world’s second-largest economy, which of course is still a dictatorship, will improve. This would be extremely important, because the world at this moment is perhaps more dangerous than at the time of the Cold War, and Chinese-American cooperation, which hopefully one day probably after Putin, Russia will also join, is our best hope for world peace in the coming years.

Is there no place for Europe in this constellation?

So long as the European Union is on the defensive and is this divided, it can only play a side role in matters of great strategy.

Who has the greatest influence over Donald Trump?

In many questions his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is the standard, but I would say that in foreign policy it is rather his National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster whose opinion counts. He thinks differently on many issues than the resigned Michael Flynn. McMaster is an old and respected member of the Washington national security elite.

This means that the current change in direction can be attributed to chance? If Flynn had not been compromised by his Russian connections, then would we be seeing a completely different American foreign policy?

These are not by chance. The decision to name such a serious and knowledgable person as McMaster in Flynn’s place was deliberate. The situation is that it is not possible to circumvent the Washington elite. Politics is a profession practiced by qualified people. It is not possible to charge in from New York’s Trump Tower and say we are reordering the world. The president also realized that power is limited. But it is important that the national side has not found sufficient support. Trump may have won the election but he received three million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton. His support is altogether 40 percent, which is far lower that of his predecessor during the first couple of months. The institutions are not giving in. A West Coast court was able to veto the ban on people arriving from Muslim-majority countries because even those sympathizing with Republicans clearly stated that the ban is unconstitutional. Congress rejected the law overwriting the health insurance system. The American press also uniformly condemns the Trump government. So American political culture is asserting itself, and the system of checks and balances is working well. Trump reacts to opposition by searching for more serious answers to the problems at hand.

The Guardian recently wrote that the Democratic Party is worsening its future chances by trying to drive out politicians practicing Bernie Sanders’ politics. The newspaper believes James Thompson of Kansas could have won a seat in Congress, but that the party did not even try to support his campaign, and this is why he failed.

I do not agree with this. In the state of Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff has a good chance of winning in an early election where so far Republicans have been the favorite. He, on the other hand, received a lot of support from the party. It is not as though the Democrats are that clever, but they benefit from Trump’s weakness even if there isn’t a fresh, new face behind which to line up party supporters. Sanders had a lot of followers. My oldest grandson also supported him, but my feeling is that he is a socialist. It is not possible to win an election in America with a social democratic program.

April 27, 2017

George Soros before the European Parliament and the Hungarian government’s reaction

Every time George Soros makes a public statement, which he does frequently, the Hungarian political right launches a frenzied attack against him. Interestingly, the Hungarian media didn’t spend much time on an article that appeared in The New York Review of Books (April 9, 2016). In it he explained that European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans had invited an open debate on the refugee crisis, to which he was responding in his article. The solution, according to Soros, is “at least €30 billion ($34 billion) a year [which] will be needed for the EU to carry out a comprehensive plan.” He suggested that “Europe has the financial and economic capacity to raise €30 billion a year, [which] is less than one-quarter of one percent of the EU’s combined annual GDP of €14.9 trillion, and less than one-half of one percent of total spending by its twenty-eight member governments.”

Soros, however, realized that some members would vehemently object, especially Germany. So, instead, he offered all sorts of financial arrangements that would yield the necessary money without triggering the opposition of Germany and others. The task is urgent because “the refugee crisis poses an existential threat to Europe.”

On June 30 Soros delivered a speech to the European Parliament in Brussels, which was a revised version of the ideas he had spelled out in his New York Review of Books article. The result of the British referendum had a shocking effect on Soros who, upon hearing of the calamitous vote for Brexit, was certain that the disintegration of the European Union was “practically inevitable.” And since, in his opinion, “the refugee crisis … played a crucial role” in the British decision, the EU must act in one way or the other to raise money to solve the crisis and at the same time save the European Union.

I believe he is wrong in thinking that the refugee crisis per se had a substantial influence on the outcome of the referendum. In fact, a quick poll conducted after June 23 showed that “the question of sovereignty was the determining factor for the majority that voted for exit from the European Union.” Unlimited immigration from EU countries was also an important consideration.

George Soros in the European Parliament. Left of him Péter Niedermüller, DK EP MP

George Soros in the European Parliament. To his left, Péter Niedermüller, DK EP MP / Photo: European Parliament

But Soros’s linkage of the refugee crisis and Brexit strengthened his argument that the refugee crisis must be solved as soon as possible. In his fairly lengthy speech he talked about the necessity of “profound restructuring” and “fundamental reform of the EU.” He lashed out at “the orthodoxy of the German policymakers,” specifically Angela Merkel, who “ignored the pull factor” created by her initial acceptance of the refugees. Soros also severely criticized her for “her ill-fated deal with Erdoğan” and for her “imposed quotas that many member states opposed and [that] required refugees to take up residence in countries where they were not welcome.”

One would think that Viktor Orbán would have been happy to find an ally in George Soros, but it seems that there is nothing Soros can say or do that would please the Hungarian governing coalition. In fact, they launched a new campaign against him after he addressed the European Parliament. The reason for the government outcry was three sentences he uttered in the course of outlining ways in which the EU could raise the requisite €30 billion yearly. He said,“Finally, I come to the legacy expenditures that have crippled the EU budget. Two items stand out: cohesion policy, with 32% of expenditures, and agriculture with 38%. These will need to be sharply reduced in the next budget cycle starting in 2021.”

The first Hungarian politician to respond to Soros’s suggestion was György Hölvényi, KDNP member of the European People’s Party, followed by György Schöpflin, Fidesz EP member, who accused Soros of trying to make money on his financial advice to the European Union. Magyar Hírlap announced the news of Soros’s speech with this headline: “There are already signs of Soros’s latest speculations.” Naturally, János Lázár also had a few words to say about Soros’s speech in Brussels. He described him as someone who “presents himself as the voluntary savior of Europe” and who “wants to implement wholesale immigration.” Soros has no mandate from the European voters to offer any kinds of proposals, and it is not at all clear who invited him to the European Parliament. An editorial in Magyar Idők portrayed Soros as an emissary of the Clintons: “the face of Washington shows a striking similarity to that of George Soros.” The author added that if Hillary Clinton wins the election, this unfortunate situation will remain in place. Soros’s disapproval of compulsory quotas was dismissed as nothing more than a queen’s gambit.

The spokesman of Fidesz-KDNP on the issue was István Hollik, a member of parliament who was practically unknown until recently. He expressed the governing party’s strong objections to all of Soros’s suggestions, especially cutting back the cohesion funds and the agricultural subsidies “in the interest of the immigrants.” Fidesz-KDNP “expressly calls on the European Union to reject the proposals of the financial Forex speculator.” Naturally, Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó also commented on Soros’s “totally astonishing ideas.”

None of the Hungarian politicians, or for that matter commentators, spent any time on Soros’s other suggestions, some of which merit consideration. They were fixated on the two items–cohesion funds and agricultural subsidies–that would really hurt the Hungarian government and its coterie of oligarchs. Can you imagine the plight of those who are the beneficiaries of the money pouring in from the European Union? And what will happen to the new landed gentry who purchased agricultural property for the express purpose of getting free money for every hectare from Brussels? Indeed, that would be a calamity.

And then there was the reaction of László Csizmadia, president of Civil Összefogás Fórum (CÖF), a phony NGO most likely financed by the government. In his scenario Hillary Clinton sent her number one scout to the European Union to test her future policies and their reception. Behind global capitalism there is “the financial hidden power,” without which no one can overthrow a political system. Soros has been banned in many countries, and Csizmadia knows that “some kind of Hungarian measure is under consideration that would be similar to a ban.” I do hope that Csizmadia’s information is only a figment of his imagination.

July 5, 2016

Jan-Werner Mueller: An Interview with Kriszta Bombera

Jan-Werner Mueller is a professor of political science at Princeton University and the author of several books. He began his university studies at the Free University, Berlin, followed by University College, London, St. Antony’s College, Oxford, and Princeton University. To fully appreciate the depth of his scholarly works I recommend taking a look at his official biography. In addition to his strictly scholarly work Professor Mueller writes commentaries on current affairs, which can be found in The Guardian, London Review of Books, Foreign Affairs, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Die Zeit, and Südeutsche Zeitung.

His interest in Hungary has been reinforced by family connections. Through marriage he has relatives in Hungary, and he visits the country at least once a year. He spent a longer period of time in Budapest when he was a visiting fellow at the Collegium Budapest Institute of Advanced Study. Unfortunately, the building the institute occupied was taken away from them by the Orbán government. They found shelter at the University of Central Europe.

Kriszta Bombera is currently a producer, anchor, and correspondent at ATV. In the last twelve months she has served as the foreign correspondent of the station in the United States. Prior to her job at ATV she worked for MTV (2007-2011), Hungary’s state television.

* * *

BK: Last Wednesday the European Parliament accepted a resolution condemning the Hungarian consultation on immigration. The resolution also asks the Commission to assess the situation of democracy and rule of law and to report back in September. Does this mean that maybe even the new rule of law mechanism of 2014 will be applied?

JWM: It is now up to the Commission to decide whether they want to take this anywhere. It’s not the first time the Parliament called on the Commission, you may recall the Tavares report in 2013, and there is always some leeway of what the Commission will do with a proposal. The big difference between 2013 and now is that we have a new Commission with two central players, Juncker and Timmermans who have, to put it mildly, a “record” with the Hungarian Prime Minister and who have also made it clear in the past that they are willing to do whatever they think it takes to protect democracy and the rule of law in Europe. But the Commission is not the only player on the scene. Last December the European Council – namely the member states’ governments – made it clear that they are very sceptical about the new framework which the Commission had put in place in March 2014. They believe the framework exceeds the powers of the Commission currently has according to the Treaties. This is still debated between the Council and the Commission. It is a deep-seated problem that we don’t have one central actor who is tasked with carrying out the protection of democracy and the rule of law. So it is not guaranteed that the conduct of the Parliament will necessarily result in something very strong but it is more likely with the Commission we have in place now than in 2013.

BK: What do you think the outcome may be of the struggle between the several EU institutions?

Jan-Werner Mueller

Jan-Werner Mueller

JWM: I think it will very much depend on whether at least some of the member states are more willing to be seen as openly criticizing the Hungarian government. Not only the Commission but another thing has also changed since 2013. Viktor Orbán has at least on two occasions employed a language that even people on the outside can clearly understand. Today there is no need to get into complicated stories about the Constitutional Court, the National Judiciary Office, the ombudsman or data protection to describe the intentions of the Hungarian government. For at least some observers, it will always seem plausible to say that these things are relative and that there are always two sides to the story. But the Hungarian Prime Minister’s talk of illiberal democracy last summer and his reckless talk now on the death penalty is the kind of language that people on the outside can clearly understand. Now it is more likely that at least some members of a foreign policy establishment or some political parties in other European countries might find it easier to put more pressure on their own governments sitting in the European Council to investigate how this can happen in the European Union: a Union that is committed to values of diversity, human rights or pluralism, which are codified in Article Two of the European Treaty. So from the point of view of the Hungarian government I think these have been strategic mistakes. They have made themselves more vulnerable to be attacked now that they have made it clear to the outside world that the government of Hungary is committed to values clearly in conflict with what the EU stands for.

Kriszta Bombera

Kriszta Bombera

BK: One might say they have not made themselves that vulnerable. The EPP, after all, is not going to expel Fidesz. The Christian Democrats did not even vote for the final, very strongly worded resolution. Do you think it might have been better to embrace the EPP’s version of the resolution instead of that of the Liberals and the Social Democrats? Wouldn’t it have meant more politically if criticism comes from the party family that Fidesz belongs to? Even if the criticism is somewhat softer than, for example, that of the Liberals. After all, not even the Christian Democrats were beating around the bush about the consultation on migration or about death penalty. But since the EPP’s version of the resolution did not pass the Hungarian government can say, again, that it is a victim of party politics as usual, of the attacks of the liberal left. They said the same about the Tavares report.

JWM: The EPP is a large and fairly dysfunctional political family. It partly became so large in the course of the 1990’s because people like Helmuth Kohl decided that – as he put it back then – they did not create Europe to leave it to the Socialists. So they expanded the EPP, essentially went around Europe and convinced anyone who said they hate Communists that they belong to the Christian Democrats then. So the EPP is a diverse party. There are, of course, lots of people in it who have some sympathy Viktor Orbán’s politics. They see it as a genuinely conservative, genuinely Christian voice. But there are many others who react very badly to the kind of nationalism that Orbán exhibits or to his argument for a debate on the death penalty in Hungary.

They remember what Europe was initially built for, that initially it was meant to be a project that keeps strong nationalism and strong nation states in check on the basis of the experience of the Second World War. A number of EPP members retain that sensibility, and they are committed to a common European morality. We, of course, do not know exactly who voted for what last Wednesday but I think lots of people in the EPPP are fed up with Orbán whose actions and words are, if nothing else, morally dangerous and it is also a huge distraction from Europe’s real problems. They are no longer quite willing to believe the story that Orbán always used to tell his fellow Christian Democrats, namely that he was the last bastion that kept Jobbik at check. They now realize that Jobbik and Fidesz are much closer in terms of rhetoric than they initially thought. So we should not simply say that the EPP clearly stands behind Orbán. Certain individuals like Manfred Weber have not really changed much but many others within the party would actually be willing to go along with harsher sanctions if it came to them.

BK: Hungarian opposition politicians have started stating that Fidesz lost its last ally within the European Parliament. Others who dismiss this argue that there will be always need for such a large fraction as the one Fidesz has within the EPP. Do you think this consideration will indeed always override other concerns about Hungary?

JWM: It is certainly a serious concern, you might say it is a tragic structural problem in Europe today. What can look like more democracy on the European level – when the European Parliament gets more powers – might lead to less democracy within the member states. The European parties, in this case the EPP, might indeed be willing to close its eyes to what is happening in an undemocratic way at the national level so it can retain the loyalty of a relatively big group like Fidesz. This is what happened in 2014 when Joseph Daul the then leader of the EPP in the European Parliament went to Hero’s Square in Budapest to campaign for Viktor Orbán, whom he called a good friend. This was in a sense a tragic outcome, since a very problematic development on the national level was tolerated only to make sure that the EPP remained the largest fraction in the European Parliament. But that was 2014. Now, in 2015, the EPP can be more confident that it will remain the largest fraction for a number of years to come. So, again, I would not be so sure that the entire fraction will stand behind Orbán indefinitely.

BK: The draft resolution of the European People’s Party also included that the Hungarian Prime Minister should set an example in popularizing EU values.” But why should he? There are numerous other heads of government who are doing everything but popularizing the EU. What are the significant differences between voices of dissent? For example between Orbán, Cameron or Tsipras?

JWM: I think one of the most serious problems in the EU today is that far too many politicians, parties but also social movements are lumped together under the category of being anti-European. This is a failure of political judgement (though some politicians do this quite intentionally to discredit certain political actors.) This could have very severe costs in the long run. Let us first take the paradigmatic example of the UK’s so-called euroskeptics who just want to get out of the EU. They are clearly anti-European in the sense that they don’t like the EU as it currently is. But the EU allows countries to leave the Union. I label these people a “disloyal but legitimate” opposition. There is a clause in the Lisbon Treaty that says if a country wants to get out – that is fine. Those who want to leave may leave, without causing damage to the values of the union and of those who stay within.

Let us examine those who criticize some specific current EU policies, for example those meant to rescue the eurozone. Those critics should be called a “legitimate and loyal” opposition because the EU is not about one particular policy. It should be perfectly possible to speak up against austerity or other policies without being labeled an “anti-European.” So Tsipras, for instance, or the Podemos movement in Spain are not anti-European. Chancellor Merkel very easily puts this label on very diverse groups or individuals, she famously has said ” if the euro fails, Europe fails,” as if criticism of her policies meant becoming an anti-European. IN any democracy, a legitimate opposition has an important role to play.

In the last category one may find those who are trying to undermine the EU in terms of its values both from the inside and from the outside. This is the “illegitimate and disloyal” opposition. In this category one can find , at least on certain occasions, the Hungarian government on the inside and Russia on the outside. Of course, Hungary does not want to officially leave the EU but it is undermining the moral core of the EU. This is truly anti-European, unlike what people like Tsipras are doing but similar to what Putin often tries to do. Putin would be much happier in a world without the European Union.

BK: Hungary, Greece and Great Britain: those are the very same three countries that the German and the French Ministers of Economy mentioned in an article in which they argued for a new regime in the European Union. There would be an inner circle for members of the eurozone and for those who believe in the values and policies of the EU and there should be another, looser circle for those who are presently struggling for more national sovereignty. Do you think it may be feasible? How should we imagine such a “layered” Union?

JWM: It is perfectly imaginable, differentiated integration is already a reality. Some countries already have opt-outs, they don’t have to go along with everything, in particular with the euro. We are already faced with a somewhat fragmented European Union and it is possible that this trend continues. But it may be more difficult to manage and could become dysfunctional. All the existing problems with democracy in the EU would be getting even more difficult. Who decides what for whom? How to identify who is responsible for what? There might have to be two parliaments but it is already very difficult to manage even one. The hopes of those who wanted Europe to use its weight, including its moral weight on the global stage will have to be buried, too, because Europe will not speak with a unified voice. It is not a very attractive vision, I think.

BK: Let me come back a bit to Hungary and to the EU rule of law mechanism of the Commission from last year. The resolution of the Liberals last Wednesday suggested that there is a “possibility of an already existing systemic threat to the rule of law in Hungary” and they argued for the first steps of the mechanism to be put into effect. But, as you previously pointed out, the mechanism has not been accepted by various member states, including Hungary. You had proposed the European Union another system before, the so-called Copenhagen Commission, which would be a brand new institution to guard democracy and the rule of law within the EU. But why would that be better than the existing tools? And, after all, do you agree that there may be a systemic threat to the rule of law in Hungary?

JWM: Let me start with the second question. The possibility of a threat has been there for years in Hungary. Democracy does not have to be already undermined or demolished in a country to be able to diagnose that there is a threat. There has to be a clear pattern, though, which we saw, for instance, in 2013 in Hungary. The Fourth Amendment to the Fundamental Law, the back and forth with the EU about it, then the Fifth Amendment, all were essentially attempts by the Hungarian government to see how far they can push certain ideas and then in response to criticism pull back to some degree. I think already at that point it was entirely legitimate to speak of a threat. One did not have to prove that “illiberal democracy” had already become entrenched..

Partly based on the experience with Austria in 2000 the EU was careful to have a two-stage process, when it comes to dealing with threats to fundamental EU values. In the first stage they only state there may be a threat. It does not mean that anything terrible has happened yet, it should be a relatively low threshold to cross. But in the second step, an actual breach of fundamental values has to be proven and then a Member State should lose its voting rights in the European Council.

Today Orbán’s talk of putting the death penalty back on the agenda – whatever that means – is also a threat. Of course, even to say this much is stigmatizing one country, since a member state is singled out as having a problem. But that is inevitable and the European Treaty allows for this. The objection that a member state was “singled out” by this process is not valid. This has nothing to do with prejudice or discrimination; if there is clear evidence, then a guilty party has to be singled out..

How could this be done in a more impartial way? The European Commission is officially the guardian of the treaties, and is officially an impartial actor on the European scene. So, in the eyes of many observers, it remains the best contender for taking on this task. But the European Commission may become more politicized. There are many proposals to make it more political, for example last year the election process for the President of the European Commission was an instance of this. This might result one day in people recognizing that the Commission has become a Christian Democrat or a Socialist Commission, that is, a partisan, political body – not in secret, but on purpose, to allow citizens to see their choices reflected in what a kind of EU government undertakes. In that case, the Commission will no longer appear as an impartial, non-partisan actor. For the case of that scenario I propose that we should create a new institution which could be called Copenhagen Commission in memory of the Copenhagen criteria for accession to the EU, which famously included democracy and the rule of law. This Commission would be tasked to monitor the member states and raise the alarm when something is going seriously wrong. A major condition would be the authority to act independently, without the member states effectively having an immediate veto.

There is another thing that should be contemplated in the EU, the possible expulsion of a member state, for which the European Treaty does not allow now. A country can leave voluntarily, its voting rights can be taken away in the European Council but if we imagine an absolute horror scenario, let us say one day a military dictatorship arises in a member state, the Union could not really take the ultimate step of expelling that country.

So quite apart from any particular discussion that we have been having about Hungary or Romania in the last couple of years I think it is a structural deficit that the Treaty now only allows us to isolate ourselves from a particular member state, to put it in a kind of quarantine. But there is no effective mechanism for intervening in that member state.

From the point of view of a member state’s population this is a real disappointment. If, for example in Hungary, people thought they entered the EU to have a safety mechanism, a kind of insurance scheme to be helped in the case of illiberal, undemocratic politics, they were wrong. If they hoped they locked themselves into a number of supranational guarantees that their country could not go back to even authoritarian measures, that sort of assurance isn’t really in place.

It is worth at least to have a discussion about the possibility of expelling a member state entirely instead of spending all this time on a Grexit or a Brexit or expelling Greece from the eurozone. These are serious matters but again, ultimately just questions of policy, not questions of values and how we want to live together in Europe as a whole. I think that discussion has been sorely missing from our deliberations so far.

BK: You are widely known not only for your proposal of the Copenhagen Commission but also as a scholar of populism. Prime Minister Orbán seems to be taking very sharp ideological turns recently. One might think his turns are even hard for his supporters to take. For example, recently he said he will defend Christian Hungary from multiculturalism. Some days later, welcoming Arab bankers to the country he said Hungary is an open country, a friend of Islam.. How can one do this without serious risks? And what should the Hungarian Prime Minister learn from the recent failures of Turkish President Erdoğan?

JWM: A populist is not somebody who simply repeats what people are supposedly saying. There is a distinction between a populist and a demagogue. It is the latter who says what he or she thinks is the popular opinion. Conversely, what a populist says is that he or his party are the only ones that morally represent the real, the pure people. As Orbán said most famously in 2002 after losing the election, “the nation cannot be in opposition,” from which it follows that Fidesz is the nation, or rather, the only legitimate representative of the nation. Similarly, Erdoğan said last year, “we are the people.” And to his critics he said, “who are you?” The exclusive claim to represent is decicive for populism and it may have little to do with what people think or believe. So I think Orbán’s double talk is more an example of a cynical double game. On the one hand he employs a popular rhetoric domestically but internationally or in negotiations with others he says something quite different.

To answer your question about Erdoğan, I think that Orbán had a better – but therefore also more dangerous – populist strategy. Unlike Erdoğan, he quickly put populism into the Constitution. From his point of view he did it “the right way around.” He first changed the constitution, he codified his understanding of the Hungarian nation, of Hungarian history and now, were he to lose power, the constitution would still be there. It’s a very big question what will happen to this partisan “Fundamental Law” in the future, and how a more democratic, inclusive constitutional settlement could be achieved.

Erdoğan, however, made himself president first and only his next step would have been a new constitution, had he been more successful in the recent election. That constitution would have been in line with his political beliefs but also more importantly with his particular vision of what a proper Turk and what a proper Turkish nation is. Today his position is much more difficult because he does not have the backup of an “Erdoğan constitution” which would mirror his views on what a proper Turk is like, his views of Islam morality, his vision of Turkish history. So Orbán had a proper strategy in entrenching populism institutionally.

Still, Orbán has a structural dilemma now. He faces a contender, Jobbik, that will always have the advantage of being the one big party that have never been in government, thus, has never shown to be corrupt in certain ways. But Orbán, the longer he stays in power the more scandals and problems he will face. Populists will always blame former elites or foreign actors for all problems. But the longer they are in office, the less credible this blame-game becomes.

Jean-Claude Juncker: “The dictator is coming”

More than a million people have looked at the YouTube clip of the by now infamous scene where Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, greets Viktor Orbán with “The dictator is coming” and raises his right hand in a quasi-Nazi salute. The news spread like wildfire. I found well over fifty articles in the Hungarian media describing this 26-second video. I’ve seen an unusually large number of references to it in American papers, in addition to the usual German and Austrian avalanche of Hungarian news items. Those commentators who are critical of the Orbán government found it hilarious, while the two pro-government organs, Napi Gazdaság and Magyar Hírlap, decided to remain quiet on the subject. Orbán’s press secretary explained that there is nothing new in this exchange. Juncker always greets Orbán this way and, in return, Orbán calls Juncker Grand Duke. How jolly.

A commentator from the right Dávid Lakner didn’t find the scene at all funny. Instead, it struck him as embarrassing, especially at a time that more and more people view the European Union itself as a joke. Lakner called Juncker “an imprudent clown.” He suspects that the president was inebriated. (Juncker has been accused of heavy drinking by some of his critics.) On the other hand, journalists of Luxembourger Wort, who ought to know Juncker very well, were not not shocked, nor did they accuse him of drunkenness. They simply noted that “Juncker lived up to his reputation for straight talking … when he hailed Hungarian Premier Viktor Orbán as ‘dictator’ on his arrival at an EU summit in Riga.”

I have also have objections to Juncker’s joking mood, but on very different grounds from Lakner’s. Hungary’s sinking into a one-man dictatorship is no laughing matter. It is not a joke. It is a deadly serious business. Merriment over what Orbán is doing in Hungary is an inappropriate reaction from the president of the European Union.

And this brings me to an op/ed piece by Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman in yesterday’s New York Times titled “The New Dictators Rule By Velvet Fist.” Their short article is based on an earlier longer study, “How Modern Dictators Survive,” prepared for the Centre of Economic Policy Research in London. Their argument is that modern dictatorship no longer needs to have totalitarian systems and tyrants like Stalin, Hitler or Mao. Instead, “in recent decades, a new brand of authoritarian government has evolved that is better adapted to an era of global media, economic interdependence and information technology.” These new dictators achieve a high level of control over society by stifling opposition and eliminating checks and balances–and they achieve this without any violence at all.

Among “these illiberal leaders” we find Viktor Orbán alongside of Alberto K. Fujimori of Peru, Vladimir Putin of Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey, Mahatir Mohamad of Malasyia, and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. What illustrious company! But at least the others are not being financed by European democracies the way Viktor Orbán’s dictatorship is being subsidized by the EU. I wonder how the taxpayers of Western European countries would feel if they fully realized to what end Viktor Orbán is using their hard-earned money. I doubt that they would find it a joking matter.

According to Guriev and Treisman, “the West needs to address its own role in enabling these autocrats.” This is certainly true about the European Union vis-à-vis Hungary. But the authors also talk about lobbying efforts on behalf of these dictators. We know from earlier posts what an incredible amount of money is being spent by the Orbán government on foreign propaganda just in the United States. The four-year contract Connie Mack and Századvég signed was for $5 million.

The authors suggest, and I fully agree with them, that “lobbying for dictators should be considered a serious breach of business ethics.” Although Representative Dana Rohrabacher, speaking to Kriszta Bombera of ATV, denied that he was coached by the Hungarian government through Connie Mack and said that holding the hearing was his own idea, the director of Századvég made no secret of Connie Mack’s usefulness as a top lobbyist in Washington in getting a hearing on U.S.-Hungarian relations during which the chairman and his Republican colleagues defended the Orbán government with full force. “It was a breakthrough,” said Kristóf Szalay-Bobrovniczky of Századvég.

And finally, let me talk about other enablers, specifically the two Hungarian-American associations whose leaders claim that for years they have been tirelessly promoting better understanding between the two countries. They are the Hungarian American Coalition and the American Hungarian Federation. Although they claim to be politically neutral, in fact they are conservative lobbying groups which support right-wing Hungarian governments. I know from personal experience that the Coalition at least moves into high gear only when a right-wing government is in power. After Fidesz lost the election in 2002, the Coalition paid for a group of Fidesz members of parliament to spend two or three weeks in Washington to learn something about American democracy. When I asked why only Fidesz politicians were invited, I was told that the socialists were simply not interested in spending time in Washington. I found the explanation improbable. So I wrote to Ildikó Lendvai, who was the whip of the socialist parliamentary delegation at the time, and it turned out that the socialists had never received any such invitation. That should give you some sense of the true nature of these organizations.

I was therefore somewhat surprised when I heard that the presidents of these two organizations decided not to attend Rohrabacher’s hearing. I thought that perhaps they realized that something was very wrong in Orbán’s Hungary. Perhaps they decided that they would no longer stand by the Hungarian dictator with a velvet fist. I was hoping that the statement Maximilian Teleki, president of the Coalition, released on May 22 would explain his reasons for not participating in the hearing. Instead, we learned only about the dangers of Jobbik and the great achievements of the Orbán government, which in 2010 “faced a Greece-like economic and financial crisis” and which by now has achieved “a respectable economic growth.” As for Jobbik’s anti-Roma and anti-Semitic propaganda, the only thing Teleki could say is that “the Hungarian government has taken a zero-tolerance policy,” adding that much still remains to be done.

Maximilian Teleki with April H. Foley, former U.S. ambassador to Hungary ad a great supporter of Viktor Orbán

Maximilian Teleki with April H. Foley, former U.S. ambassador to Hungary and a great supporter of Viktor Orbán

In his opinion, the United States “has done little to assist Hungary in developing a long-term [energy] strategy and implementing an effective action plan.” He mentioned “Russia’s aim of reestablishing Cold War-era borders and spheres of influence in the region” but had nothing to say about the close Russian-Hungarian relations and Paks II. What should the United States do to improve the “bilateral relationship” between the two countries? The U.S. should offer more opportunities for Hungarian decision makers to visit the United States; more U.S. officials and decision-makers should obtain first-hand experience by visiting Hungary frequently; and the U.S. should “make possible meetings at the highest political levels: it has been more than 10 years since Hungary’s Prime Minister was received in the White House.” And yes, the United State should support educational and cultural programs sponsored by NGOs. In brief, the dictator with a velvet fist should be rewarded for degrading Hungarian democracy into a modern-style dictatorship.

Francis Fukuyama on Viktor Orbán’s Hungary

I cannot promise that this will be my last post on Viktor Orbán’s  infamous speech and its reverberations. As so many people have already said, in that speech delivered in Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad, Romania, Orbán may have crossed the Rubicon. Until now only his critics called him a wannabe dictator, but now he himself made clear that in the last four years he has been creating an illiberal state in Hungary. For good measure, he repeated the adjective four times. For foreign consumption the official English translation of the speech tried to avoid the term. The translator used the word “illiberal” only once. Surely by that time the staff of the Prime Minister’s Office must have realized that Orbán had gone too far and tried to minimize the damage.

Even the subdued English translation, however, couldn’t paper over the dire import of the speech. The message the speech conveyed was frightening in and of itself, but given the tense situation in Ukraine Orbán’s words sounded even more ominous. Perhaps it was he who shot himself in the foot and not the European Union which decided to punish Russia with economic sanctions, as he claimed in his customary Friday morning interview.

I have been collecting every important article pertaining to Orbán’s ideas about the future of Hungary under his leadership. Most of them are in English or German and therefore easily accessible. Here I would like to summarize an important interview with Francis Fukuyama, the well-known political scientist. The interview appeared today in Magyar Narancs.

First a few words about Francis Fukuyama, who is currently the Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow at the Institute for International Studies and a resident at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law at Stanford University. Prior to 2000 he was a professor and director of the International Development program at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

The Hungarian edition of Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man

The Hungarian edition of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man

While I was perusing Fukuyama’s biography I was struck by his varied interests and expertise. He received his B.A. in classics from Cornell University. He went on to do graduate work in comparative literature at Yale University, during which time he spent six months in Paris where he studied under Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. It was only after his stint at Yale that he finally decided on political science, in which he received his Ph.D. at Harvard.

His first book, The End of History and the Last Man (1992), made him famous overnight. What did he mean by that title? With the collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire, he argued that the struggle between ideologies was largely over, and he predicted the triumph of liberalism.

Fukuyama is interested in Hungarian political developments. A few days after the Orbán speech, he wrote a tweet expressing his dismay over Viktor Orbán’s ideas on the illiberal state. He said: “Hard to believe that a European leader would openly call for illiberal democracy as Viktor Orbán has done.”

I guess it was this tweet that prompted the editors of Magyar Narancs to approach Fukuyama for an interview. So, for those of you who don’t know Hungarian here is a loosely translated summary of the interview.

* * *

The first question was about how seriously we have to take Viktor Orbán’s words. Did he simply use them as a rhetorical device or is the situation more serious than that?

Fukuyama was inclined to consider the message of the speech as more than rhetoric. These were not empty words. Here is a European political leader who openly admits that he became an admirer of authoritarian states. These words will sooner or later have consequences. Such a case is unprecedented. He violates the consensus in the western meaning of the word that is the essence of good governance.

The journalist of Magyar Narancs wanted to know what Fukuyama thinks of Hungary’s place on a scale between democracy and dictatorship. The answer shows that Fukuyama follows the events in Hungary. In his opinion, the concept of  illiberal democracy describes pretty well everything that is happening in Hungary today. We can talk about democracy in the sense that a large majority of the Hungarian people voted for Orbán’s government, but at the same time democracy means a great deal more than an election won with a large majority. In normal circumstances the rule of law, the system of checks and balances, the guarantee of  minority rights are part and parcel of democracy. Orbán and his friends destroyed all that. What Fukuyama is most worried about is that this kind of thinking is spreading in Europe. But other European leaders who entertain similar ideas are quiet about their thoughts on the subject. Orbán was the only one who openly trumpeted his own illiberal system.

The conversation then turned to the weaknesses of the left both in Hungary and in the United States. Fukuyama expressed his surprise that the 2008 economic crisis electrified the right, in the United States the Tea Party, instead of the left as one would have expected.

After this brief detour the conversation returned to Orbán’s fascination with the East, countries like China, India, Turkey, Russia, and even Kazakhstan. Fukuyama admitted that it doesn’t matter how hard he tries to find an answer to the efficacy of such an orientation for Hungary, he cannot come up with anything. Hungary’s aim should be convergence towards countries like Germany, the Netherlands or Scandinavia. But Russia and Kazakhstan? Yes, these countries have immense energy reserves, but otherwise what keeps these countries together is sheer corruption. It is most likely the case that Orbán is guided by short-term interests, but “that game cannot be won without serious consequences.”

Fukuyama was then asked what he thinks of China’s prospects. Everybody, he replied, wants an “opening” toward that country. In his view, China already has serious economic and political problems. What keeps the regime going is economic development, but that accelerated growth cannot be maintained in the long run.

The next topic was whether a welfare state can exist without democracy. Fukuyama brought up the example of Singapore as an authoritarian regime that is economically very successful. But he pointed out that in Singapore the president can stay in office for only two five-year terms, and politicians obey the law mostly as a result of the inherited British common law system of justice. Clearly, although Fukuyama did not mention it, he is aware of Viktor Orbán’s plans for staying in power for a very long time, if necessary by the ruse of becoming president following the example of Putin and Erdoğan.

The next question was a really pessimistic one: Could Hungary end up being an outright dictatorship? Fukuyama did not answer this question directly. Instead he talked about the weaknesses in the European Union’s structure that fail to give Brussels any effective instrument to deal with a politician like Viktor Orbán. He noted, however, that Angela Merkel and the European People’s Party have shielded Orbán in the past because of the party’s selfish interests. Perhaps now, after this speech, they will wake up and, instead of playing party politics, will rethink their policies toward Hungary.

Another question concerned the role of the United States in the resurgence of illiberalism. Fukuyama replied that the reaction to 9/11–the invasion of Iraq–was a huge mistake and caused a loss of American prestige. And the economic crisis gave the opponents of democracy an opportunity to show the U.S. and Europe as failed economic and political systems. These mistakes can be corrected. “But the damage done to the image of the United States as a strong democratic model will be more difficult to restore.”

Finally, there had to be a question on Fukuyama’s famous book, The End of History. In that book he proclaimed the final victory of democracy. Is he still that sanguine about its prospects? His answer was that if one looked around the world in the 1970s and 1980s there were no more than 35-40 democratic countries. Today they number 110-120. Yes, there is China and Russia, but democratic institutions are resilient. The autocratic models of China or Russia don’t offer long-term sustainable models.

* * *

Hungarians always complain that foreigners know so little about their country. There are many who keep telling us that Hungary is too insignificant and that the influential countries pay little or no attention to it. But this is no longer the case. First of all, people are increasingly interested in what’s going on in Hungary because they have awakened to the fact that something went very wrong in that country. Second, we shouldn’t think that Hungary is insignificant in international affairs. No, its geopolitical position can make the country an important player, as the present situation amply demonstrates. There is a war going on next door in Ukraine and while the EU stands by Ukraine, Viktor Orbán is trying to weaken its resolve. The small Hungarian minority seems to concern the Hungarian government more than the Russian encroachment on a neighboring state. Just yesterday Tibor Navracsics raised his voice in defense of the Hungarian minority.

It is hard to tell what the next step of the European Union will be, but I am sure that, just as Fukuyama predicted, Orbán’s speech will have serious consequences.

Viktor Orbán and Recep Tayyip Erdogan are the best of friends

Surprise! Yesterday late afternoon when most likely Viktor Orbán and his entourage, numbering some 120 government officials and businessmen, had already boarded the plane to Istanbul, the prime minister’s press department announced his trip to Turkey. The schedule was crowded. That same evening Orbán opened the Hungarian House, a cultural center, and a Hungarian trading center, both in Istanbul. And he still had energy to deliver a speech before Hungarian and Turkish businessmen about the great prospects that Turkish-Hungarian economic relations offered to both countries.

According to the prime minister’s website, Orbán’s speech was delivered in front of about 200 people, which leads me to believe that the Turks were in the minority at the event. However, those present could learn that “foreign capital is arriving in Hungary at an exceptionally fast pace” and that the Orbán government “had already laid the foundations of a successful Hungarian economy of the future.” When I hear such brazen lies from Viktor Orbán, I really wonder whether perhaps his ambitious plans for expanding Hungary’s horizons toward the business world outside of the European Union falter in part because of such claims that lack any foundation whatsoever. Surely, the businessmen who attend these gatherings are well informed on economic and financial matters, and therefore they must know that it is simply not true that foreign capital is pouring into Hungary. In fact, exactly the opposite is the case. The same must be true about the business friendliness of the Hungarian government when all foreign financial papers are full of stories about the incredible governmental attacks on the banking sector and multinational firms operating in Hungary.

This morning he gave another speech entitled “Hungary and Europe in a Changing World” at the Marmara University in Istanbul, where he also received an honorary doctorate for his work on Turkish-Hungarian relations and for his efforts on behalf of Turkey’s quest for membership in the European Union. Here he expounded on his ideas about the future of the European Union which in his view will be successful only if it expands and includes Turkey and the Balkans. At the same time, member countries should have more say in conducting their own economic policy. He also claimed that the European Union’s “relations with Russia must be reevaluated.” Gépnarancs.hu reminded his readers that Gábor Vona was also a guest of the University only a month ago. He didn’t get an honorary degree, however, only a plaque from the dean of the university for his efforts at  reviving Turkish-Hungarian traditions.)

I mentioned only a couple of days ago that Péter Szijjártó, who by the way accompanied Viktor Orbán to Turkey, expressed his hope that the Israelis would take advantage of Hungary’s enormous gas storage facilities. It seems that  negotiations with Turkey to the same end were already under way. Magyar Földgáztároló Zrt. (Hungarian Gas Storage Corp.) and the Turkish Naturgaz signed a letter of intent. A similar agreement was signed between Eximbank, a Hungarian export-import bank, and the Industrial Development Bank of Turkey (TSKB). The Hungarians emphasized that the storage of Turkish gas in Hungary wouldn’t need any further work on infrastructure because the pipeline between Turkey and Hungary already exists.

Today the Hungarian delegation moved on to Ankara where Orbán met Abdullah Gül, the president of Turkey. I do hope that he was well prepped and didn’t praise Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whom he obviously greatly admires. The night before at the opening of Magyar Ház he said: “Thirteen years ago, when I last came to Turkey, there was a different prime minister in the country and different politics. Now 13 years later, I can see huge differences, not only in technical terms, but also developments with roads and bridges, as well as high-speed train projects, buildings, and also the people who believe in their strength.” It is a known fact that Gül’s relations with Erdogan are anything but friendly, mostly because of Erdogan’s authoritarian rule. Only recently Gül hinted that he was prepared to challenge Erdogan, who is contemplating a run for the presidency next year. Erdogan has been prime minister of Turkey since 2003 and under rules adopted by his own party is barred from seeking a fourth term as prime minister. Therefore he has his eye on the presidency.

The joint press conference held by Erdogan and Orbán reflected their mutual admiration. These two are soul mates.

Hungary received a gift from Erdogan: Hungarians no longer need a visa to visit Turkey. In turn, Hungary made it as easy as possible for visiting Turkish businessmen, artists, and athletes to stay in Hungary for extended periods of time. In return, Erdogan promised that the Visegrád countries will be the most important trading partners of Turkey.

A telling picture. Viktor Orbán and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara. MTI/AP Burhan Ozbilici

A telling picture. Viktor Orbán and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara
MTI/AP Burhan Ozbilici

Orbán naturally emphasized Hungary’s support for Turkey’s integration into the European Union. He expressed his firm belief that Turkish citizens shouldn’t be required to have visas to travel in countries of the European Union. Such a gesture wouldn’t be a “gift but a sign of appreciation of the fantastic Turkish economic accomplishments.” Again, he went over the top when he announced that without Turkey’s presence in the European Union “it will be impossible to turn around the current economic tendencies” in Europe. Turkey’s message to Hungary is that “one’s own road is always the best road” to success. Finally, the Hungarian government will give 150 scholarships to Turkish students who wish to study in Hungary. One can certainly admire Orbán’s generosity when he vetoed all efforts at giving scholarships to Hungarian students. They can get only student loans.

Members of the two governments conducted the first meeting of the joint council of strategic cooperation just established between Turkey and Hungary.

MTVA, Orbán’s new organ in charge of funneling news to the Hungarian state television and radio, and TRT, the Turkish public radio and television, also signed an agreement. Another was signed by MTI and the Turkish Anadolu Agency. One should note that for the second year in a row Turkey jailed more journalists than any other country (with Iran and China close behind) according to an annual report released by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. Forty journalists are currently in jail in Turkey. In Hungary, at least, no journalist has yet been incarcerated.