Tag Archives: Réka Szemerkényi

Carter Page in Budapest

It’s time to devote a post to Carter Page, one of the five foreign policy advisers on Donald Trump’s election campaign team. He recently had a lengthy encounter with the House Intelligence Committee, which was interested not only in his relations with Russian government officials but also in his trip to Budapest over the Labor Day weekend in 2016. Carter Page is the founder and managing partner of Global Energy Capital, a New York investment fund and consulting firm specializing in the Russian and Central Asian oil and gas business. Although from the transcript of his testimony he comes across as someone who can’t even cobble together a complete sentence, his academic credentials, including a Ph.D. from SOAS University of London, would suggest that he cannot be as dumb as he pretends to be.

The transcript that the House Intelligence Committee released, with very few redactions, is 208 pages long. Even the relatively minor topic of his trip to Budapest occupies 13 pages. Most journalistic analyses of Page’s testimony stress the confusion the so-called foreign policy expert managed to sow. Surely, the argument goes, Page had plenty of time to craft his muddled testimony carefully, because he had known, at least since June or July of this year, that the FBI was on his trail.

Why did Carter Page visit Budapest in September 2016? At the moment we cannot give a credible answer to this question, but it was not merely a pleasure trip. This is what we know about the events leading up to the trip. Hungarian Ambassador Réka Szemerkényi met Carter Page at the Republican National Convention, which was held in Cleveland, Ohio between July 18 and 20. They must have become friendly with one another because throughout Page’s grilling he called her by her first name. At the same event, Page also met another “foreign policy type,” perhaps from the Hungarian Embassy. Subsequently, e-mails were exchanged between them. Szemerkényi invited Page to go to Budapest in August or early September, when she was spending her vacation in Hungary.

Although Page maintained, at least at the beginning of the hearings, that he went to Hungary only to meet people who are interested in the use of geothermal energy, he had to admit by the end that he discussed foreign policy with Szemerkényi and the other unnamed official in Cleveland. Although Page’s testimony was most likely purposely vague and here and there incoherent, we learned that Page was not the only Trump adviser Szemerkényi kept in touch with. Page, who pretends not to remember names at all, didn’t recall the name of this person either, but I would venture to suggest it might have been J. D. Gordon, director of national security for the Trump campaign, who managed the National Security Advisory Committee under its chairman Senator Jeff Sessions. Gordon has had a long-standing relationship with Hungarian government figures and has been a frequent visitor to Budapest. In a recent interview he told Mandiner that over the years he had visited Hungary six times. One of the first occasions might have been in December 2013 when he delivered a lecture at a conference organized by the Antall József Knowledge Center (AJKC), a think tank with close ties to the Orbán government. He was such a hit at AJKC that he was invited two more times. The last occasion was in December 2016, after Donald Trump had been elected president of the United States.

Szemerkényi introduced Page to important people in the Hungarian government during that Labor Day weekend. Although Page testified that he met a lot of people in Budapest, he didn’t know who these people were. Hungarian names, he said, are long and complicated. I can understand his difficulties with Hungarian names, but he acted as if he had no idea what kinds of positions they occupied either. Obviously, he considered some to be more important than others. After his return to the United States, he kept in touch with the ambassador and one of the people he met in Budapest, “a scholar and an expert on foreign policy” who worked for the Hungarian government.

As to the question of whether Page met any Russians during his stay in Budapest, he gave the following answers: “Not that I can recall. There may—again, similar to—we went to a—you know, there was a hotel, and we had a coffee at a hotel, and there were a few people passing through there. But I have no recollection because it was totally immaterial and nothing serious was discussed. So—but I vaguely recall that, you know there may have been someone that we, you know…” I will let the readers decide whether Page met a Russian official in Budapest.

Now let’s turn to the Hungarian side of the story. Szabolcs Panyi of Index, who happens to be in the United States at the moment, made some inquiries and found at least one person who met with Page, as it turns out for about half an hour. Jenő Megyesy, a U.S.-Hungarian citizen, formerly a lawyer in Denver, now Viktor Orbán’s principal adviser, is the person who normally meets more important American visitors. Megyesy now claims that he was surprised by Page’s general ignorance of the fine points of the foreign policy issues of the region. Others who met him were also “disappointed” that such a man was one of Trump’s foreign policy advisers. Officials of the ministry of foreign affairs claim that nobody from the ministry had anything to do with Page. Therefore, I assume that Szemerkényi asked members of the prime minister’s office to meet Trump’s foreign policy adviser. That would make sense since Szemerkényi worked for Viktor Orbán and she was his choice for the Washington post. In fact, there was quite a bit of friction between Péter Szijjártó, the minister of foreign affairs, and Réka Szemerkényi.

Szabolcs Panyi believes that if Page pushed his pro-Russian line with Szemerkényi and Megyesy, he wouldn’t have been a hit with either of them because they are both “committed Atlantists.” I see it differently. If these people are committed at all, they are committed to Viktor Orbán. When Szemerkényi was appointed Hungarian ambassador to Washington, people familiar with their relationship said that Szemerkényi was totally devoted to Orbán and that Szemerkényi’s moving to Washington was almost as if Viktor Orbán himself were the occupant of the post. Of course, it is possible that since Viktor Orbán sacked her, her admiration for the man is a great deal less ardent.

The question remains whether Page met someone else in Budapest. For example, a Russian national residing in the Hungarian capital, perhaps a member of the Russian Embassy. The FBI, working together with secret service agents, might already have been following Page’s moves during that trip. If that is the case, we might eventually find out more about it. I disagree with one of Panyi’s informants who proposed that Page went to Budapest for a lark. There was a purpose to that trip, we just don’t know what it was and whether it was in any way nefarious.

November 13, 2017

Hungarian Roma dilemmas

I decided to return to yesterday’s discussion on the latest developments in the “Bogdán case” because I think it is a much more complex issue than meets the eye or my short summary of the recent events would suggest. Yesterday I didn’t go into the serious differences of opinion between László Bogdán and some Roma human rights activists over the right way to handle the “Roma problem.” In order to understand the situation in which Bogdán finds himself, it is necessary to hear the criticism they level against the mayor of Cserdi. And then there is Bogdán’s offer of Cserdi as a place where refugee families are welcome which, according to some interpreters, might be the reason for the Hungarian media’s suddenly discovering Bogdán’s run-in with the law in 2010.

Let’s start with the latter because it is easier to sort out. First, some background. Bogdán spent three weeks in the United States in March and April, where among other things he gave a talk about the situation of Roma women at the UN Commission on the Status of Women. How did this trip come about? First, in 2015 the Hungarian government made Bogdán Hungary’s ambassador charged with nurturing talented youngsters. Therefore we must assume that the Orbán government considers László Bogdán someone who can represent the country abroad. And indeed, it was Réka Szemerkényi, former Hungarian ambassador to Washington, and Ferenc Kumin, consul-general in New York, who organized his trip. As Bogdán explained to BaMa, a Baranya County news site, they arranged his program, which included trips to 17 American cities. Of course, the highlight of the trip was his speech at the UN where “as a representative of Hungary [he talked] about the Gypsy community in Hungary and his Cserdi initiative.” He reported from the United States to BaMa that he celebrated March 15 with George Pataki, former governor of New York, and was the guest of former U.S. ambassador Colleen Bell at a charity event.

George Lázár suggests in an article in The Hungarian Free Press that László Bogdán’s recent problems stem from his decision to sponsor a Syrian family’s stay in Cserdi. Lázár points out that Bogdán was the “darling” of the government, whose trip to the United States was organized by high officials of the Orbán government. But, he continues, “Everything changed when recently Mayor Bogdán announced that he would welcome refugee families to vacation in his village.” Suddenly, the media suspected that there was something not quite right with László Bogdán. George Lázár, this morning on Facebook, noted that it is hard to imagine that the Hungarian government was unaware of Bogdán’s conviction in 2014, and it cannot be a coincidence that PécsMa discovered this story just now. Did the Hungarian government know about Bogdán’s troubles with the law when, for example, in 2015 he was appointed “ambassador”? I don’t know. But the conviction became final in 2014, just a year before his appointment to the post. Whether the Hungarian government is behind this story surfacing now is hard to tell.

The other aspect of the controversy surrounding László Bogdán is his standing in the Roma community. Roma human rights activists—and independent experts on Roma issues—have serious objections to Bogdán’s ideas. Shortly after his return from the United States, an article appeared in 168 Óra written by András Balázs, an assistant professor of sociology, criticizing the speech Bogdán delivered at the United Nations. His talk at the UN was about the exploitation of Gypsy women by Gypsy men, who look upon them as baby machines. Early marriages and too many children, and thus by the age of 30 they are grandmothers and at the age of 40 they consider themselves to be old. Balázs asserted that Bogdán’s focus on violent Roma men is “internalized racism,” which only strengthens the prejudice of the majority population. Moreover, when the people of Cserdi gave away produce to needy people, he came up with the slogan “We didn’t steal them from you; we grew them for you.” His paternalistic leadership is not conducive to the development of local initiatives. Balázs also blames the media, whose darling “the ambitious mayor” became, while the true Roma human rights activists’ voices can barely be heard.

And that leads us to the fateful meeting between the leadership of the Roma Parliament and László Bogdán on September 25, where the first alleged assault on the mayor took place. The video is available on YouTube, included here. At the meeting there was a clash between two entirely different views. The chief aim of the human rights activists is to reduce the majority community’s prejudice. László Bogdán, by contrast, maintains that the prejudice against the Roma is not entirely unwarranted and that in order to minimize or eliminate prejudice the Gypsy community must change. They must become hard-working and responsible members of society. His opponents consider some of his ideas outright racist. During the two-hour meeting Bogdán received a lot of criticism from Roma leaders who don’t share his vision. Aladár Horváth, who is the president of the Roma Parliament, opened the meeting by comparing the Cserdi model to Jobbik’s Érpatak model, where a bizarre character, Mihály Zoltán Orosz, runs the show “with an iron fist.” As I wrote in a post about Érpatak, “law and order dominate” the village. After this less than complimentary introduction, Bogdán delivered a speech in which he praised the Cserdi model which, one must admit, works very well. In the question and answer period there were some sticky questions about his conviction, and several people compared Bogdán’s ideas on Roma issues to those of Jobbik. There were people who called him a Nazi. At the end, Jenő Zsigó, an important Roma human rights activist, rose and delivered a powerful speech.

Jenő Zsigó at the Roma Parliament meeting, September 25, 2017

Jenő Zsigó, unlike Bogdán, has a stellar background. He comes from a family of musicians, a group that was always considered to be the aristocracy of the Gypsy community. He received two diplomas from ELTE, one in education and the other in sociology. Both of his theses were related to questions about the Roma community. He has been especially active in propagating Roma art and folk music.

In his speech Zsigó compared Bogdán to Gábor Vona, the leader of Jobbik. He accused him of developing a “system of dependency,” a kind of “feudalistic system” where in Cserdi everything depends on him. When Bogdán says that “there is no need for human rights advocates,” he denies the rule of law. When Bogdán says that there is no need to break up the Gypsy ghettos, he is promoting segregation. The speech was an indictment of the things that the human rights advocates find reprehensible in Bogdán’s model.

Unfortunately, Bogdán had to leave, and therefore we don’t know what kinds of arguments he would have used in the face of Zsigó’s criticism. But he promised that, if invited, he would gladly return. I suspect that if Bogdán had had the opportunity, he would have said: “And how much have you managed to achieve with your human rights advocacy? Is there less prejudice today than 30 years ago? I at least can show a village that is thriving.” As a friend remarked to me: “Zsigó is an excellent civil rights and minority leader, who is very convincing. In turn, Bogdán is also an excellent man with real results. The question is which is better in improving the life of the Gypsy community. Both positions have their weaknesses. Zsigó’s fight for equality and tolerance meets head on with the majority’s pejorative opinion, while Bogdán’s talking about ‘good Gypsies’ (people of Cserdi) and ‘bad Gypsies’ (the overwhelming majority) only adds to the prevailing racism in Hungary.”

November 6, 2017

László Bogdán is still the Roma miracle worker of Cserdi

It was just a little over four years ago that I wrote a post on László Bogdán, “the Roma miracle worker of Cserdi,” a small village in Baranya County where about 75% of the inhabitants are Roma. Bogdán is a man of exceptional intelligence, although he has only an eighth-grade education. As a result of his talents and hard work he became the head of a department in a multinational company in Pécs, which was shuttered shortly after Bogdán left the firm. At this point he moved back to the village of his ancestors to become its mayor. Since then, Cserdi has become a showcase of what a small, mostly Gypsy village can achieve with proper leadership. Cserdi by now owns fair sized forests, which the residents themselves established; they have several greenhouses; and they sell their products in Pécs and elsewhere. They even had extra to give away to poor people in Budapest. Cserdi was riddled with petty crime before Bogdán became mayor. On average 200 cases a year. Today, Cserdi is practically crime-free. Unemployment used to be extraordinarily high, but nowadays anyone who wants to work can.

Not surprisingly, opposition politicians have been intrigued by Bogdán and Cserdi. In November 2013 Ferenc Gyurcsány, chairman of the Demokratikus Koalíció, went to see Bogdán and, if I recall properly, was ambivalent about Bogdán’s draconian methods of achieving discipline among the Gypsy workers. Bogdán behaves the way an old-fashioned, harsh father would within his own family. He has no compunctions about intruding into the private lives of the Cserdi folks. For example, when some families complained about insufficient wages, he collected their garbage cans to show all the beer cans and empty boxes of cigarettes for everyone to see.

Although some human rights activists have criticized Bogdán, people are still intrigued by his success. A few days ago László Botka, MSZP candidate for the premiership, accompanied by István Ujhelyi, paid a visit to Cserdi. Botka urged Bogdán “to work together for a fairer Hungary which we can all call home.” But Bogdán is a fiercely independent man. As he said in an interview in 2015, he doesn’t want to be “the harlot” of any party.

Bogdán has a very low opinion of the network of Roma self-governments that was set up after 1990. He calls the leaders practically illiterate crooks who pocket billions of euros given for Roma projects. If it depended on him, he would scrap the whole program. He considers Flórián Farkas, Orbán’s favorite Gypsy politician, the greatest enemy of the Hungarian Roma because not only has he embezzled millions but he exhibits all of the traits non-Gypsies associate with Roma culture.

Otherwise, many ideas of the Orbán regime appeal to him. First and foremost, the idea of a “work-based society.” In his opinion, his fellow Gypsies have gotten accustomed to sitting at home and receiving their monthly assistance. Gypsies have to relearn to work. He was apparently horrified listening to a speech by a liberal politician who advocated the notion of basic income. He got so upset that his “legs were shaking,” he was “all nerves.” He approves of the public works program, but not the way it works now. Communities spend the money they receive picking up cigarette butts from the streets instead of directing it to “productive work” and “commercial activities.”

Bogdán is extraordinarily articulate and has plenty of opportunity to express his ideas. Therefore it is relatively easy to piece together his ideas about the ideal way of solving the “Gypsy problem.” Since most Gypsies live in small villages, far away from larger towns and cities which they have difficulty reaching, work must be created locally. And given that these villages are in rural areas, their business activities should be centered on agriculture. The money the communities receive from the central budget should be used to pay decent wages for productive work on public properties, which should be repurposed as agricultural land. This is how he started his Cserdi project. Without any machinery the local Gypsies created a large tract of agricultural land where they planted potatoes. And today, he continues, they are in the process of establishing a small factory that would use their produce to manufacture their own brand of canned goods. He envisages the Cserdi company as one day becoming a large concern that would buy up produce from nearby villages and supply large supermarkets with their “Lasipe” product. Lasipe means “goodness” in Lovari, a Gypsy language spoken in Hungary, Austria, and Slovakia.

This all sounds wonderful, but for that, each Gypsy community would need a sizable amount of initial and continuing capital and, what is even more important, one would need hundreds and hundreds of László Bogdáns. Unfortunately, even if Bogdán were ready to work with the Orbán government, which I highly doubt, Viktor Orbán has no intention of investing much money into a large-scale restructuring of the Roma communities. He is only interested in Gypsy votes, which apparently are guaranteed by Flórián Farkas and his friends, who are running the show at the moment.

I should add that Bogdán’s local fame spread over the years, and he became well known outside of Hungary. He is very enterprising and has received a great deal of assistance from abroad. For example, he made contacts with German companies, which helped with certain projects in Cserdi. As a result, he has traveled extensively abroad. His latest trip was to the United States, apparently arranged by former Hungarian Ambassador Réka Szemerkényi and Consul-General of New York Ferenc Kumin. The highlight of his three-week visit was the speech he delivered to the UN Commission on the Status of Women, “a body dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women.” The topic of his speech was the serious problem of early marriage among the Roma, with girls becoming pregnant at the age of 12 and by the age of 30 being grandmothers. By 40 they are considered to be old women. He blamed Gypsy men for this state of affairs. He talked about his own insistence that the girls of Cserdi go to school and become educated. The trip to the United States obviously made an impression on him. “I could talk about Hungary as a Hungarian.” He was not distinguished as a Gypsy and therefore inferior.

Lately Bogdán has given a number of interviews that have made quite an impression on his audience. One especially remarkable interview was with Olga Kálmán on HírTV, in which he expressed his mixed feelings about the hate campaign conducted by the Orbán government. As a result, “My status, as a Gypsy, has been elevated somewhat. Now I belong to the third most hated group in this country. Ahead of me are George Soros and the migrants.” He also told Kálmán that as of now all young Gypsies in Cserdi attend high school. That announcement prompted an associate professor at the Budapest Technical University to write to Bogdán. Since her own daughter is studying abroad, she offered her empty room to the first Gypsy girl from Cserdi who is admitted to a college or university in Budapest. Yes, Bogdán can move people to do the right thing.

August 16, 2017

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