Tag Archives: Réka Szemerkényi

A short pause in the battle between the Orbán government and CEU

It is possible that as a result of the four-day Easter holiday we will have a brief respite from the latest Hungarian drama. Today I will expand on previous posts regarding the Central European University controversy and the recall of Ambassador Réka Szemerkényi.

Let’s return first to the presidential signature on the controversial bill aimed at closing CEU. Few people had illusions about the integrity of János Áder, who after all started his political career as one of the founders of Fidesz and who subsequently occupied important positions in the party. He could, however, have salvaged the little reputation he had left by sending the bill back to parliament, which in turn could have returned it to him unchanged. Instead, the word from the president’s office was that Áder’s legal staff saw nothing in the law that would be incompatible with international law or that could be considered unconstitutional. Perhaps his legal staff had blinders on. Scores of constitutional lawyers, conservative as well as liberal, shared their opinions with Áder about the unconstitutionality of the law. László Sólyom, the former president who was chief justice of the constitutional court for eight years, said yesterday in a lecture that a second-year law student ought to be able to tell that the law that was put in front of Áder is “unequivocally unconstitutional.” As he ironically put it, “the students of Bibó College wrote a very poor brief.”

In the meantime it seems that the firm stand of the United States coupled with the massive demonstrations at home forced Viktor Orbán to reexamine his original game plan. 24.hu learned from reliable sources that a “serious debate” has taken place in the last couple of days in Fidesz circles. Apparently, at the moment they are still clinging to their initial response that they will not repeal or withdraw the law but instead will offer some kind of compromise. László Palkovics’s rather confused offer of an arrangement by which Central European University could offer degrees in a licensing agreement with Közép-Európai Egyetem is still on the table. But the university has already indicated that this arrangement is unacceptable. I should add that, two weeks into this drama, the Hungarian government still has not found time to get in touch with the administration of CEU directly.

I have the feeling that the Orbán government was not prepared for the resolute, self-confident stance of the university and its president, Michael Ignatieff. Hungary’s present leaders are accustomed to cowed subjects who barely dare to open their mouths. But here is a group of independent people who stand up for their rights. President Michael Ignatieff, after returning to Budapest from abroad, pointed out today that they have absolutely no idea where the government stands as far as its relationship to CEU is concerned. A week ago Zoltán Balog who is, after all, in charge of education, announced that the government’s goal is the removal of the university from Hungary, but now László Palkovics, Balog’s undersecretary, claims that the government wants CEU to stay. A week ago the minister accused CEU of fraud; now the undersecretary assures them that the university functioned legally. Ignatieff called upon the Hungarian government “to develop at last a uniform position.” He also sent a message to the government “to call us by our name. This is not a Soros University but Central European University.” As far as Palkovics’s “solution” is concerned, Ignatieff, “without wanting to be sarcastic or insulting,” considers “Undersecretary Palkovics’s sentences incomprehensible.”

Michael Ignatieff, president of Central European University

In the meantime, the government has been intimidating students and faculty at other Hungarian universities, telling them that they cannot participate in any demonstrations on behalf of CEU or do anything in general to support the CEU cause. Such threats were delivered at the University of Debrecen, the University of Kaposvár, and Corvinus University in Budapest. The Hungarian Helsinki Commission countered this government action in a press release in which it called attention to provisions in the Hungarian labor law that would protect both students and faculty from any recrimination as a result of their activities on behalf of CEU.

Today Romnet.hu, a website dealing with Roma affairs, reported that a CEU graduate, who I assume is Roma, was sacked from a state-owned company. He was told that the firm had received instructions from above that they don’t want to employ people who earned their degrees from CEU. The CEU graduate’s boss apparently expressed his regret and promised to help find another job for him through his personal contacts in the private sector.

Then there is Márton Gulyás, about whom I have written nothing so far. He is a young, rather brash activist who has been under the skin of the authorities for some time because of his “unorthodox” methods of protesting. He already had one scrape with the law when, screwdriver in hand, he arrived at the National Election Commission and removed the plate bearing its name. He received a one-year suspended sentence for this act. This time he was caught trying to throw a can of orange-colored paint against the wall of the building housing the president’s office. His attempt was failed, but he was arrested and kept in jail for three days. Thousands demonstrated for his release, and today he and another young man who was arrested in his own apartment after the demonstration was over had their day in court. Gulyás was sentenced to 300 hours of physical work at some public project. His companion received 200 hours. They will appeal the sentences.

And now, switching gears, let me return to Ambassador Réka Szemerkényi’s recall from Washington. Attila Ara-Kovács, currently foreign policy adviser of Demokratikus Koalíció, writes weekly posts on foreign affairs in his blog, “Diplomatic Note.” His latest post is “The fall of the ambassador.” Ara-Kovács has contacts in diplomatic circles who provide him with information that is usually accurate. According to him, the U.S. State Department had learned about the anti-CEU bill before it was made public. Curiously, this information allegedly reached Washington from Moscow. If this is true, says Ara-Kovács, the rumors about Russian involvement might have been accurate. A State Department official contacted Szemerkényi, who didn’t seem to know anything about the proposed bill. When the American diplomat summarized its contents, Szemerkényi apparently assured him that her government would never enact such a law. She reminded the bearer of the news that there are just too many conspiracy theories floating around, and the Orbán government’s opponents are apt to conjure up untrue stories. She promised, however, to provide more information once she gets the word from Budapest.

It wasn’t easy to get confirmation from the foreign ministry, and Szemerkényi had to use her contacts in Fidesz. Eventually she received the full text of the bill and ample advice on how to “sell” this piece of legislation to the U.S. government. Szemerkényi, instead of quietly following instructions, sent word back to Budapest that, in her opinion, the United States would never accept such a law. It is an illusion to think that just because Trump doesn’t particularly like George Soros his administration would take this lying down. She added that such a step might risk future good relations between the two countries. According to Ara-Kovács, a few hours after the Hungarian government received Szemerkényi’s message the decision was made to recall her. Viktor Orbán doesn’t joke around when someone dares to say “no” to him.

April 13, 2017

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

Hungary, as a partner of Iran, is now in the nuclear business

As is customary in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, the Hungarian public learned that Iran and Hungary are on the verge of signing an agreement to expand nuclear cooperation from The Tehran Times, the English-language voice of the Islamic Revolution. The short notice announcing the arrival of Deputy Foreign Minister Zsolt Semjén said that “following the lifting of international sanctions on Iran, Tehran has strived to fully utilize economic and scientific opportunities, including the pursuit of peaceful nuclear activities.” The paper, quoting the English-language Russian publication Sputnik, noted that last week President Hassan Rouhani and Vladimir Putin “decided to sign a memorandum on the development of peaceful nuclear cooperation.” Amerikai Magyar Népszava believes that Putin “blackmailed” Orbán into participating in a nuclear deal with Iran. I’m not sure that Viktor Orbán needed too much prodding. I suspect that the prospect of partnering with Iran in a project to build small nuclear reactors to sell in Africa and Asia boosted the ego of Hungary’s prime minister.

Since having closer economic relations with Iran fits in with Orbán’s “Eastern Opening,” his state visit to Tehran in late November 2015, where the two partners signed a number of bilateral agreements, wasn’t considered extraordinary. What was more telling was a Reuters report from Budapest on February 18, 2016 that Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, had proposed a project to design and develop a small, 25 megawatt nuclear reactor. It would be followed a second project to develop a reactor perhaps as large as 100 megawatts. This proposal was well received by the Hungarian government. As Népszabadság put it, the reactor was offered on a “Persian rug.” It may have been a coincidence, but Salehi’s offer coincided with Viktor Orbán’s visit to Moscow. In any case, Russia is extremely active in the development of Iranian nuclear energy. In the coming years eight power plants will be built with Russian help.

In the months following the Iranian proposal there were frequent visits back and forth between Budapest and Tehran. László Kövér, president of the Hungarian parliament, spent almost a whole week in Tehran in November 2016, where he was warmly received. President Hassan Rouhani, after meeting with Kövér, said that Iran’s “expansive capabilities in the area of technical and engineering services and the implementation of infrastructure projects as well as Hungary’s competence in the field of industry and agriculture have created proper bases for the expansion of Tehran-Budapest ties.” Kövér assured the Iranians that “Budapest was prepared to cooperate with Tehran in the fight against terrorism.”

On February 8 the English-language section of the Hungarian government’s website announced that “several agreements had already been concluded at the first session of the Hungarian-Iranian Joint Economic Committee,” one of which was that “Eximbank has established an 85 million euro credit line to facilitate cooperation between Hungarian and Iranian businesses, and to finance export-import transactions and the founding of joint ventures.” The Hungarian media didn’t pick up this news item, but the Iranian press, including the Iranian Financial Tribune, reported it.

These were the preliminaries to the news on April 5, 2017, which stunned a lot of people in Hungary, that Iran and Hungary plan to sign an agreement on April 8 to expand nuclear cooperation between the two countries. As is clear from the diplomatic traffic between Hungary and Iran, at least since November 2015, this news shouldn’t have surprised anyone–and most likely didn’t outside of Hungary. But in Hungary there were no follow-up reports about this nuclear deal after February 18, 2016, when Ali Akbar Salehi made his initial offer. In fact, the Hungarian media was completely unaware of Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén’s presence in Tehran until two days after Iran’s Financial Tribune reported it. According to the Iranian paper, Semjén arrived with a delegation of five ministers and about 100 businessmen. Semjén apparently assured the Iranians of Hungary’s “profound respect for President Rouhani’s policies” and stressed that Hungary has “always been against sanctions, as [it] tried to hold talks with Iran even before JCPOA’s conclusion.” Semjén is referring here to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action negotiated by China, France, Germany, the European Union, Iran, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén and Vice President Hossein Ali Amiri

Once it sank in that Hungary and Iran are indeed in the “nuclear business,” the independent media was up in arms. Népszava found the idea “absurd.” After all, it was only in 2016 that sanctions against Iran because of its alleged development of nuclear weapons were lifted. It is also an absurdity that the Orbán government, which is so keen on Christian virtues, decided to do business with Iran, number six on the list of Muslim countries with anti-Christian legislation on the books. 24.hu found the timing most unfortunate: “Quite a week for Hungary’s turning away from the West. On Tuesday Parliament votes on amendments that make the functioning of the largest and best American university in Central Europe impossible. On Saturday Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén will sign an agreement on cooperation in the field of nuclear energy.” Zsolt Kerner of 24.hu predicted that this agreement with Iran will further tarnish Hungary’s not so “shiny relations” with the United States.

LMP, Hungary’s green party, was naturally outraged. The co-chair of LMP, Bernadett Szél, has been battling against the expansion of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant ever since it was first proposed. The party published the following statement: “The Hungarian public learned today that Hungary will sign an agreement on nuclear cooperation with Iran. With Iran, a country about which we cannot exclude the possibility that it is developing nuclear weapons. In addition, it is a well-known fact that Iran is a major sponsor of terrorism.”

More than two months before this news broke, on February 1, 2017, George Lázár wrote an article which appeared in The Hungarian Free Press. Lázár spotted a photo taken at the Hungarian Embassy in Washington where Ambassador Réka Szemerkényi can be seen in the company of Republican Representative Marsha Blackburn and her husband. Marsha Blackburn is apparently quite close to Ivanka Trump, and Lázár suspects that Szemerkényi’s courting of Blackburn was an attempt to get closer to the White House in order to wangle an invitation for Viktor Orbán. However, says Lázár, Blackburn was known to be a strong critic of President Obama’s nuclear deal. She released a statement in 2015 which said in part: “Iranians were chanting ‘Down with America’ and ‘Death to Israel’ as they celebrated Al-Quds day. How can we possibly trust them to act in good faith?” Lázár pointed out that “Prime Minister Orbán is not only a casual friend of Iran but also supports nuclear cooperation with them.” His conclusion was that perhaps Szemerkényi didn’t do her homework before she picked Marsha Blackburn as an emissary between Orbán’s Hungary and the Trump White House.

We know by now that President Michael Ignatieff of Central European University did get to the White House by contacting Fiona Hill, who recently joined the National Security Council as deputy assistant to the president and senior director for European and Russian Affairs. In addition to being the author of an excellent book on Putin, she has written extensively on energy issues. We already know that Mr. Ignatieff has been assured that the U.S. State Department is sending people to Budapest next week. While they are at it, they might inquire about Hungary’s growing friendship with Iran as well.

April 7, 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

A more fitting celebration of the 60th anniversary of ’56 in Washington

About a week ago I included a sentence about the reception Réka Szemerkényi, Hungarian Ambassador in Washington, was giving for the sixtieth anniversary of the outbreak of the October Revolution. I reported that to the best of my knowledge a number of important American officials serving in the White House, Congress, and State Department had declined the invitation over concerns about the alarming political developments in Hungary. In addition to their general concerns, they may well have also noticed the systematic falsification of Hungarian history, which includes the events of the ’56 uprising as well. Mária Schmidt, Viktor Orbán’s court historian who had already perverted the history of the Hungarian Holocaust, rewrote the history of the revolution for the anniversary. The result is a monstrosity that bears no resemblance to reality.

This assault on the revolution prompted a group of people in Washington to organize a gathering to celebrate the real events of sixty years ago. They chose not to celebrate with those who claim that executed Imre Nagy “died nicely but wasn’t a hero.” Yes, this is a direct quotation from the chief organizer of the anniversary, Mária Schmidt. Thomas Melia (who as deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, had extensive dealings with Hungary), former Hungarian Ambassador to Washington András Simonyi, and Professor Charles Gati of Johns Hopkins University organized the event that took place last night. About forty people attended, including Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s national security adviser; Charles Kupchan, currently special assistant to the president and senior director for European affairs at the National Security Council; Damian Murphy, senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs and her husband, Robert Kagan, well-known author, columnist and foreign policy commentator; Hoyt Yee, deputy assistant secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs; André Goodfriend, chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Budapest between August 2015 and January 2016;  Jackson Diehl, deputy editorial page editor of the Washington Post, who writes many of the paper’s editorials on foreign affairs; and Pál Maléter, Jr. son of the minister of defense in the last Nagy government who was reburied along with Imre Nagy on June 16, 1989. Anthony Blinken, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, couldn’t make it but sent his greetings.

Professor Gati briefly retold the story of the revolution, which is admittedly complex because the intellectual unrest that preceded it began as a factional struggle in the communist party between the Stalinists and the reformers but quickly led to a coalition government in which four parties were represented. This coalition government, which naturally included the communist party, decided to leave the Warsaw Pact. Gati emphasized that the revolution was “profoundly democratic—demanding freedom of the press and checks and balances (called ‘socialist legality’ )—and profoundly pro-Europe. These demands were at the top of the list presented by the students.”

One of the few pictures of members of the Nagy government: Zoltán Tildy, Imre Nagy, and Pál Maléter

One of the few pictures of members of the Nagy government: Zoltán Tildy, Imre Nagy, and Pál Maléter

Of course, we know that the Orbán regime’s narrative is very different: the revolution was transformed into an anti-communist crusade led by right-wing representatives of the pre-1945 period. Those intellectuals who were disillusioned communists were removed from the historical narrative prepared for the anniversary celebrations, as were social democrats and liberals. As if they never existed. They simply don’t fit into Orbán’s worldview.

Professor Gati then moved on to the situation in Hungary today and brought up the speeches of Péter Boross and László Kövér. “This Monday, the speaker of the Hungarian parliament blamed the United States not Moscow for crushing the revolution while another high official spoke of the heinous deeds of U.S. imperialism,” adding “I’m not making this up.” And, Gati continued: “Even in Washington, where Hungarian officials work hard to mislead us by praising transatlantic relations, on Sunday they somehow forgot to read Vice President Joe Biden’s message to their invited guests; I guess their feelings were hurt that they didn’t hear from President Obama.”

Gati told his personal story as a refugee after the revolution. “I came here penniless and was treated fantastically by everyone: the International Rescue Committee, Indiana University, and various employees of Columbia University, Johns Hopkins University, even the State Department.” He recalled that the quota for Hungarians (4,400) was quickly filled but that within days Congress was authorized to allow another 40,000 Hungarian refugees to come. He contrasted this behavior with the situation today. In Hungary they build a razor wire fence to keep refugees out and even in the United States some people contemplate building walls. “My hope is that the old spirit of generosity will guide us again someday soon. There is another Hungary there that deserves our attention and support,” he concluded. I think that every Hungarian refugee should join Charles Gati in remembering the generosity of Austrians, Germans, Brits, Swedes, Swiss, Canadians, Australians, and Americans in those days and feel profoundly sad at the behavior of the Hungarian government, which incited ordinary Hungarians against the refugees.

I should add that Anita Kőműves, a young journalist who used to work for Népszabadság, happened to be in Washington and was invited to speak. The applause that followed her words honored those journalists who paid for their bravery with their livelihood because Viktor Orbán doesn’t believe in a free press, one of the very first demands of the Hungarian students in 1956.

October 28, 2016

Valiant efforts to sell Viktor Orbán’s version of 1956

Let me start with a brief summary of some events that will take place in Budapest and Washington on the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary of the outbreak of the Hungarian revolution of 1956. I’m certain that Viktor Orbán can never forgive fate that he was not the prime minister of Hungary on the fiftieth anniversary of that important event in the history of the international communist movement. After all, a fiftieth anniversary carries a great deal more weight than a sixtieth. Ten years later, Orbán is trying to compensate for that missed opportunity. Mind you, he was certainly not inactive on October 23, 2006, when he orchestrated a demonstration that eventually became a large-scale struggle between the inexperienced and ill-equipped police force and the rabble that had been egged on by Fidesz politicians for weeks. They had a second revolution in mind.

Now he is basking in glory, as if he and his kind had a legitimate right to speak about those days. The Orbán government has spent an inordinate amount of money both at home and abroad on the celebrations, but as far as I can see the results are meager. One of the Hungarian papers triumphantly announced that Hungary will have a very important visitor for the anniversary in the person of Polish President Andrzej Duda, who will appear alongside Orbán as he delivers his speech in front of the parliament building. The article made it clear that Duda will be the only foreign visitor in Budapest on that day. A rather interesting situation. Is it possible that the Hungarian government didn’t invite any foreign dignitaries for fear of being rebuffed and therefore settled for a show of Polish-Hungarian friendship that has an important message to convey to the rest of the world today? In any case, given the hype surrounding this not so significant anniversary, the absence of foreign visitors is glaring.

The Washington events are not faring any better as far as I know. The Hungarian government originally wanted to organize a conference on the significance of the 1956 revolution at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, but the Center refused to hold the event. Of course, it is hard to know what the management of the Center had in mind when it declined the request of the Hungarian government. There are a couple of possibilities. One is that the participants were mostly members of the government instead of scholars. The second complaint of the Center might have been the lopsidedness of political views of the participants presented to them. Well-known scholars of 1956 were most likely left out on ideological grounds. At the end, the conference had to be moved to the National Defense University, where it was held on August 12.

The theme of the conference was “1956: The Freedom Fight that Changed the Cold War—Geopolitics and Defense Policy.”  Donald Yamamoto, senior vice president of the National Defense University, and Réka Szemerkényi, ambassador of Hungary, welcomed the audience. The keynote speaker was István Simicskó, minister of defense. In connection with Simicskó it is perhaps worth remembering that he was the only member of parliament who voted “no” to Hungary’s joining the European Union in 2003.

Finlay Lewis, a journalist from CQ Now and CQ Roll Call, was the moderator of the morning session, during which Brigadier General Peter B. Zwack from the Institute for National Strategic Studies and the National Defense University, László Borhi, a historian from Indiana University, and Áron Máthé, vice chairman of the Committee of National Remembrance, Budapest discussed “Cold War Geopolitics and the Broader Context to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.” Peter Zwack’s only connection to Hungary is that he is the son of Péter Zwack of Unicum fame. He doesn’t speak Hungarian. László Borhi has written several books on U.S.-Hungarian diplomatic relations, but apparently he is far too close to Mária Schmidt. Áron Máthé is a fairly young historian who so far has published one book about a court case against a number of Arrow Cross men in 1967, which has nothing to do with 1956.

After a coffee break an hour was devoted to “the memory of the 1956 revolution and freedom fight,” during which “Time Capsule 1956—Revolt in Hungary” was screened and Imre Tóth, a member of the revolutionary government of 1956, spoke briefly. I didn’t manage to find anything about Imre Tóth’s precise role in 1956, but I heard from a friend that he might have been an employee of the ministry of foreign affairs, which was in utter chaos during October-November 1956.

After lunch were four more speeches, including one by Tamás Magyarics from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Magyarics’s specialty is U.S.-Hungarian relations.

On the same day the ribbon cutting ceremony of the “1956 Hungarian Freedom Fighters Exhibit” took place at the Pentagon. Present were U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense James J. Townsend, Ambassador Colleen Bell, Defense Minister István Simicskó, and Ambassador Réka Szemerkényi. Ambassador Bell delivered this short speech:

Good afternoon. It is my pleasure to be here today at such a special event. Ambassador Szemerkényi, Minister Simicskó, special guests and friends of Hungary, I am honored to be here.

As many of you may know, I serve as the U.S. Ambassador to Hungary and I have the honor of representing the United States and President Obama in Budapest. During the past two years, I have grown to love the Hungarian people and their devotion to freedom. I have had the pleasure of getting to know Minister Simicskó and greatly appreciate all he and the Hungarian Defense Forces do to make Europe a more free and democratic continent. Thank you for your contributions to NATO, as well as all of the other bilateral and multilateral exercises you participate in on a continual basis. The Hungarian military has deployed – and currently remains deployed – in Afghanistan, Iraq, Africa, the Balkans, and the Baltics. Even if our countries don’t always see eye to eye on all issues, our troops still stand shoulder to shoulder. Hungarian forces’ contributions to democracy and freedom help to make the world a freer place in which to live.

As friends and allies, the United States and Hungary share a faith in democracy. We share a common heritage, cherishing our rights not as subjects or vassals, not as dependents or followers, but as citizens.  We are citizens bound together by our love of liberty, and our willingness to serve.

That is why we are here today – to honor those very brave men and women who sixty years ago attempted to throw off the yoke of communism. Today, in a free Hungary, in the United States, and in many other places around the world, we honor their memory and sacrifices.

Thank you so much for joining us here today. Köszönöm szépen.

Finally, a controversial bronze statue depicting a young boy, a “Budapest Lad/Pesti srác,” will be unveiled on October 16 in Washington.

"The Budapest Lad" in Washington I guess they don't dare to show the rest

“The Budapest Lad” in Washington

The Budapest version of the statue "Pesti srác

The Budapest version of the statue “Pesti srác”

I must say that the Budapest version is a great deal better from an artistic point of view, but as the photo of the model for the statue demonstrates, these kids couldn’t possibly have known what the revolution was all about.

pesti-srac3I really should devote a post to the interpretations of the Hungarian Revolution put forth by Fidesz over the years. Initially, the party viewed the event as a “bourgeois democratic revolution.” But then the Fidesz leadership found their real idols, about 200-300 street fighters who were mostly working class youngsters and whose leaders as time went by became far-right spokesmen for those revolutionary times. They claimed that the real heroes and leaders came from their ranks, as opposed to those anti-Stalinist communists who were responsible, in the final analysis, for the outbreak of an armed revolt. Members of Fidesz have never been admirers of Imre Nagy. As Orbán said years ago, “Imre Nagy is not our hero.” For a while, they even contemplated removing his bust from a site near the parliament building.

These young street fighters did have a role to play in forcing the Nagy government to transform itself into a coalition government of sorts. But had the revolution been successful and had it ushered in a period of consolidation, these unruly groups would most likely have been quietly disarmed and eliminated. For Orbán and Fidesz, however, these kids and their intransigent leaders are the embodiment of 1956.

Of course, there will be speakers from Hungary at the unveiling: Miklós Seszták, minister of national development, Zsolt Németh, chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Hungarian parliament, and János Horváth, former doyen of parliament. Horváth was born in 1921 and left Hungary in 1956 for the United States. In 1992 he was the Republican candidate for Indiana’s 10th congressional district, which was a fairly hopeless undertaking against the Democrat Andrew Jacobs, Jr., who held the seat between 1983 and 1997.

Colleen Bell will also give a speech, which is somewhat strange since, to the best of my knowledge, Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, and Thomas Melia, USAID’s assistant administrator for Europe and Eurasia, declined invitations to the reception organized by Ambassador Réka Szemerkényi. Keep in mind that both of them have been and still are heavily involved in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy vis-à-vis Hungary. Their refusal to attend is not a good sign.

It matters not how many billions the Orbán government is ready to spend on this sixtieth anniversary extravaganza as long as the whole democratic world is watching what’s going on in Hungary with horror. As long as foreign observers and politicians look upon Viktor Orbán as an ally of Vladimir Putin and someone who wants to destroy the European Union. No amount of paint or bronze can cover the grime that has accumulated in Hungary in the last six years.

October 14, 2016

Viktor Orbán’s lobbying efforts in Washington: The latest recruit is Jeff Duncan of the Tea Party

Yesterday I mentioned that the Orbán government’s answer to the State Department’s latest salvo was a renewed lobbying effort in Washington. Let me recap first.

Back in May I wrote about Connie Mack’s new job as a well-paid lobbyist for the Hungarian government. At that time the former politician turned lobbyist managed to convince Representative Dana Rohrabacher of California, the chairman of one of the subcommittees of the House’s Foreign Relations Committee, to hold a full-fledged hearing on the Hungarian situation. Rohrabacher is perhaps the only member of the U.S. Congress who is an unabashed supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Rohrabacher, whose knowledge of Hungary was pretty much what Connie Mack had told him, was helped along by the recently arrived Hungarian ambassador, Réka Szemerkényi, who naturally painted a rosy picture of the democratic paradise called Hungary. Those who were invited to report on the true state of affairs under Viktor Orbán’s governance were not given much credence by the aggressive Rohrabacher. The whole thing was a farce. The Democratic members of the subcommittee were poorly prepared and had no chance against the loud, antagonistic Rohrabacher.

This time Connie Mack couldn’t get a full-fledged hearing on how badly the United States is treating the Hungarian government. He had to settle for a brief encounter between Representative Jeff Duncan of South Carolina and Assistant Undersecretary Victoria Nuland, who happened to be a witness at a hearing on Syria. Their exchange of words became the following headline in Magyar Idők: “U.S. Congress: Nuland must take back statements on our homeland.” Of course, that sounds as if a congressional resolution was adopted to force Victoria Nuland to change U.S. policy toward Hungary.

duncan

Just to give you an idea of Nuland’s position in the State Department hierarchy, as assistant undersecretary of state for Europe and Eurasia she is responsible for thirty countries all told, from Albania to the United Kingdom, and therefore she is not directly involved in formulating U.S.-Hungarian policy on a day-to-day basis. Under her there are several deputy assistant undersecretaries who take care of smaller areas. So, when she was confronted by Jeff Duncan about Colleen Bell’s speech, it is not surprising that she was unfamiliar with the final text, although she was fully aware of the general thrust of the message that was delivered by the U.S. ambassador in Budapest. After all, the “non paper” that was presented to the Hungarian government a year ago was handed to Hungarian Foreign Minister Szijjártó in Washington by Nuland herself. And, just as Ambassador Bell repeated several times, there was nothing in her speech that the Orbán government didn’t know before.

While discussing the Syrian civil war Duncan began talking about the European migration crisis, and from there it was just a small step to end up in Hungary. Duncan wanted to know: “Why did the ambassador of the United States decide to provoke an attack against Hungary which is a western democracy and a NATO ally?” Nuland, while stressing that she was not familiar with the details of the speech, assured Duncan that the speech “confirmed the support of the United States to a Hungary which will be increasingly democratic.” On the other hand, Washington has misgivings about the Hungarian government’s handling of corruption and its treatment of the media.

Duncan repeated the Orbán government’s argument on sovereignty and undue interference in Hungary’s domestic affairs. Given Duncan’s fiercely anti-immigrant position in this country, he was especially eager to learn whether Colleen Bell had said anything disapprovingly about Viktor Orbán’s fence. As we know, she didn’t. Nuland, however, wasn’t cowed and explained to Duncan that the U.S. government supports a common European policy concerning the migrant crisis and that it is not particularly happy about fences being built at the borders of individual nation states. As for American misgivings, Nuland told Duncan that the United States in the last fifty years has been a steadfast supporter of a democratic and stable Europe. When a country is turning away from democracy and does nothing against corruption, “we will continue to speak about our misgivings.” This was the extent of the exchange, which was jubilantly presented to the Hungarian public by the right-wing press as a victory for Hungary. One new government-sponsored internet site called Duncan’s words to Nuland “a punch in the stomach.”

Finally, a few words on Jeff Duncan. Before he was elected to Congress in 2010 he was a member of the South Carolina House of Representatives between 2002 and 2010. According to his official biography, “during his tenure in the South Carolina House of Representatives, Jeff was known as one of the most conservative House Members, earning recognition as a ‘Taxpayer’s Hero.'” In Congress he serves on three different House committees, including the Foreign Affairs Committee. He was also appointed by former Speaker John Boehner to the Executive Committee of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. (Poor Tom Lantos! If he just knew who is serving on a human rights commission named after him.) In addition, he is a member of both the Republican Study Committee and the Tea Party Caucus, but lately over the budget issue he completely split from mainstream Republicans. He advocates an “all-of-the-above” strategy for border enforcement, including physical fencing, greater use of surveillance technology, and increased manpower. He opposes amnesty for illegal immigrants already in the country.

Duncan’s interpretation of the recent church shooting that killed nine people in Charleston is telling. In his opinion, the man who obviously attacked the church for racial reasons is only mentally ill. He thinks that “right-wing domestic terrorism is but the figment of the liberal imagination.” This is the kind of person Connie Mack manages to recruit to the cause of Viktor Orbán’s regime.