Tag Archives: Rex Tillerson

Hungary’s “geopolitical game”: Playing hardball with Ukraine

The Hungarian government has been flexing its diplomatic muscles ever since the Ukrainian government passed an education law that made Ukrainian the language of instruction from grade five on for all citizens. Students from other nationality groups, mainly Russian, Polish, Romanian, and Hungarian, will be able to learn only two or three subjects in their native languages.

That decision prompted a vehement reaction from the Orbán government, for which the “gathering of the nation across the borders” is an important political goal. For years, an incredible amount of money has been spent on Hungarian-inhabited regions of Ukraine, Romania, and Serbia in order to fortify the economic strength of Hungarian enterprises and alleviate the poverty of the inhabitants. In Ukraine, the number of Hungarians is small, perhaps 120,000, yet Hungarian diplomacy moved into high gear, reaching out to all international organizations that have anything to do with Ukraine to protest the law. The Orbán government also made it clear at the time that it would do everything in its power to prevent any kind of friendly intercourse between Ukraine and the European Union and NATO. Given Ukraine’s position as a victim of Russian aggression, one might question the wisdom of the Hungarian government’s stance over a relatively minor dispute, which could most likely be resolved through bilateral talks and a little good will on both sides.

Hungary’s first opportunity to isolate Ukraine came at the end of October when Hungary vetoed a planned December 6 meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Joint Commission, a decision-making body responsible for developing relations between NATO and Ukraine and directing cooperative activities between them. Sputnik reported the good tidings that “Hungary announced that it will block Ukraine’s aspirations to integrate into NATO.”

In 2008 Ukraine applied to join the NATO Membership Action Plan, which was shelved two years later when the pro-Russian Victor Yanukovych was elected president. Interest in renewing relations with NATO intensified after the Russian military intervention in Ukraine. Since October 2014 the Ukrainian government has made joining NATO a priority. President Petro Poroshenko wants to meet NATO requirements by 2020 and has promised to hold a referendum on joining the alliance.

Given western suspicion of Hungarian-Russian relations in general, it is not the smartest move on the part of Viktor Orbán to take such an anti-Ukrainian position. The United States is a strong supporter of Ukraine and is ready to take a stand on the Russian-Ukrainian issue. CNN reported a couple of months ago that 1,650 servicemen from 15 different countries, including many Americans, were participating in a military exercise in Ukraine which was planned to take place a few days before Russia was scheduled to launch its own massive military maneuvers, which “put the region on edge.”

It is in this tense diplomatic and military environment that Hungary decided to play the tough guy by turning away from Ukraine and by default standing by Russia. This development is especially disheartening when there seems to be growing agreement among the member states of NATO that Ukraine’s desire to join the alliance might be realized soon enough. Two days ago Jens Stoltenberg, secretary general of NATO, stressed that Ukraine must undertake reforms before its membership in the alliance can be considered. He added that “membership in NATO will make Ukraine strong.” So, unless I misread the signs, there is a general inclination to expand NATO by admitting Ukraine in the next few years.

U.S. Secretary State Rex Tillerson took a tough line on Russia today in a talk with the foreign ministers of the NATO member states, which naturally included Péter Szijjártó. In addition to blaming Russia for interfering in the U.S. election, he expressed his belief that “there is broad consensus among all the NATO members that there is no normalization of dialogue with Russia today.”

If that wasn’t enough of a warning to Péter Szijjártó, there was also the news that Germany and ten other NATO member states had expressed disagreement with Hungary’s actions of blocking “Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic initiatives.” Apparently, these countries don’t consider the language issue to be something that should put “the strategic interests of the Alliance in jeopardy.” The letter also called attention to the fact that division and disagreement in the alliance is a success for Russia, which should be avoided.

Szijjártó wasn’t impressed, and during one of the intermissions he gave a brief press conference in the course of which he reiterated that Hungary is not ready to negotiate with Ukraine. If membership in NATO is so important for Kiev, then the Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian parliament, should withdraw the education law. Hungary’s position is that Ukraine not only has violated its commitments to the European Union but also has failed to fulfill its NATO obligations. He declared that “Hungary is not prepared to sacrifice the interests of the Hungarian minority in Transcarpathia on the altar of any kind of geopolitical game.”

According to Magyar Nemzet, Hungary will suggest introducing sanctions against Ukraine at the EU-Ukraine Joint Commission on Friday, but since the qualified majority rule applies in that body, Hungary’s antagonistic move will most likely fail. The hope now is that in February, at the next meeting of defense ministers, a NATO-Ukraine Commission meeting can be scheduled. At the moment, however, Hungary is still playing hardball.

Orbán’s Hungary is getting itself into international deep water, with serious possible consequences. This is not a “geopolitical game,” as Szijjártó thinks. This is a deadly serious international affair in which Hungary has no business. As things stand, there is just too much suspicion of Hungary’s relations with Russia. It is possible that while the European Union is too weak to “discipline” the Orbán government, the United States through NATO will be less willing to overlook Orbán’s duplicity as far as his relationship with Russia is concerned.

December 6, 2017

Charlottesville from a Hungarian perspective

White supremacists, neo-Nazis, and Ku Klux Klan members rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia, yesterday afternoon “to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump” to “take our country back.” The event ended in tragedy: a full-fledged terrorist attack by a white supremacist. In the end three people were dead and 19 injured. This was the first terrorist attack on U.S. soil since Donald Trump became the 45th president of the United States, and ironically it was committed not by an Islamic extremist but by a man who is most likely an admirer of the president.

David Duke, the former KKK grand wizard who was one of the organizers, announced before the event that the neo-Nazi rally was the fulfillment of President Trump’s vision for the United States. Duke was an enthusiastic supporter of Trump as far back as the Republican primaries. In turn, Trump was reluctant to disavow him when asked to do so by the Anti-Defamation League. He claimed that he didn’t know enough about the group or David Duke. Just as he was unwilling to repudiate his white supremacist followers back in February 2016, he is equally averse now to name the real culprits of the terrorist attack. “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides. On many sides,” he added for emphasis. Most Americans found Trump’s statement, which “couldn’t distinguish between the instigators and the dead,” morally unacceptable. David Duke was also unhappy, but for a different reason. “I would recommend you take a good look in the mirror & remember it was White Americans who put you in the presidency, not radical leftists,” he tweeted.

Some commentators believe that it was Trump’s public show of admiration for Andrew Jackson that told white nationalists their time had come. The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website, considered it fitting that Trump was honoring Jackson, whom they call “a white supremacist extremist.” The group created a poster with a quotation from Bannon: “Like Andrew Jackson’s populism, we’re going to build an entirely new political movement.” Trump’s admiration for Jackson also lent credence to the position of Steve King (R-Iowa), a Tea Party conservative for whom America looks very much like the country from the days of the Founding Fathers. King does not welcome immigrants from Central and South America or the Middle East because “we can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” I should add that Steve King is a great admirer of Viktor Orbán and his regime. In March-April, when Orbán moved against Central European University and the NGOs, Steve King was elated. “Prime Minister Viktor Orbán leads the way again,” he tweeted. “Marxist billionaire Soros cannot be allowed to influence U.S. elections either.”

Given this background, it is perhaps more understandable why some leading Republicans and Democrats are demanding the immediate removal of Steve Bannon and his sidekick Sebastian Gorka from the White House. These critics call both of them “alt-right neo-fascists.” For example, Richard Painter, who was the chief White House ethics lawyer in the George W. Bush administration, said in an MSNBC panel discussion that “Breitbart News is a racist organization…. This is Breitbart News that you’re watching on the streets of Charlottesville.” For good measure he added that “Bannon needs to be fired, Sebastian Gorka and the rest of the fascists or we have to remove this president.” Democratic Congressman Ruben Gallego called Trump “an absolute racist” on a SiriusXM radio show. He recalled that Trump had refused to comment on the attack or show his support for the American Muslim community in Bloomington, Minnesota. Moreover, his adviser Sebastian Gorka suggested on MSNBC that the bombing may have been faked “by the left.” One ought not to be surprised, Gallego continued, because Trump has surrounded himself with racists like Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, and Stephen Miller.

So Sebastian Gorka is back in the news big time. Not that he has been quiet in the last few months, but at the beginning he was mostly defending himself against charges of being a member of the Vitézi Rend, a knightly order created by Miklós Horthy for heroes of World War I. I have written many articles on the subject, most of which appeared on Hungarian Spectrum. The Vitézi Rend wasn’t a fascist or Nazi organization per se, but after Hungary entered World War II the order ended up on the U.S. State Department’s blacklist of pro-Nazi institutions. On the other hand, given the anti-Semitic nature of the Horthy regime and the anti-Semitism of the governor himself, no Jews could be admitted to the order regardless of military valor. Gorka steadfastly denies his membership, but current leaders of the Vitézi Rend confirmed his participation in the group. We also know that Gorka was involved with an extreme-right group that made its appearance in 2006 during the long vigil of hundreds of people on the square in front of the parliamentary building. He was as well a regular contributor to the anti-Semitic Demokrata, a still existing periodical under the editorship of András Bencsik, a friend and colleague of Zsolt Bayer.

Otherwise, as the White House “pit bull,” Gorka was often on television touting the greatness of Donald Trump, who was apparently thrilled every time he heard Gorka expounding on Fox News. Gorka’s first serious “political comment,” however, didn’t turn out too well. He gave an interview to BBC radio in which he said, in connection with Trump’s threat to North Korea, that “You should listen to the president; the idea that Secretary Tillerson is going to discuss military matters is simply nonsensical.” This comment went too far, and Gorka was forced to backtrack. He claimed that his words were misconstrued and that he was merely saying that the media shouldn’t ask Tillerson questions about military matters.

Gorka survived the Tillerson misstep, but this time he might be in more trouble because a couple of days ago, in a radio interview with Breitbart News, he belittled the danger white supremacists pose. “It’s this constant, ‘Oh, it’s the white man. It’s the white supremacists. That’s the problem.’ No, it isn’t.” And a few hours later comes the Charlottesville tragedy. Unfortunately Charlottesville wasn’t an isolated incident. In the decade after 9/11 the number of right-wing extremist attacks averaged 337 per year, causing a total of 254 fatalities, while Muslim extremists were responsible for a total of 50 deaths in the United States during the same period.

Is Gorka a racist? We have no idea, but some of his words are supportive of a racist culture.

The same question can be asked about Viktor Orbán, and pretty much the same answer given. Orbán’s views on the purity of European culture, which is under siege by outsiders, can easily be interpreted in a racial sense. Viktor Orbán is a devilishly clever politician who can rarely be caught saying something truly inappropriate or something that could be interpreted as a racial slur or as anti-Semitic. On the other hand, there have been innumerable occasions when he uttered sentences that were ambiguous, which only those who are familiar with the cultural context in which they are uttered can properly decipher. It is relatively easy to find Orbán speeches in which he talked about Europeans as a distinct group whose culture must be defended. At one point he even talked about ethnic purity, which his staff found too offensive and removed from the transcript of the speech, only to be found out and forced to reinsert it.

Racism is rampant in Hungary. According to a 2014 poll, 59% of Hungarians wouldn’t consent to a black neighbor and by 2016 80% wouldn’t want to live next door to an Arab. In the United States, according to the Brookings Institute, in 1958 44 percent of American whites said they would move if a black family moved next door; 40 years later, in 1998, the figure was 1 percent. By refusing to disavow white supremacists, Trump and his White House advisers may be helping to turn the clock back to the 1950s.

August 13, 2017

Viktor Orbán is back: his views on migrants, NGOs, and the Trump administration

In the last two days Viktor Orbán gave a short speech and a longer interview. He delivered his speech at the swearing-in ceremony of the newly recruited “border hunters.” It was exclusively about the dangers migrants pose to Hungary and Hungarians. The interview was conducted by one the “approved” state radio reporters and ranged over many topics. I decided to focus on two: the Orbán government’s current attitude toward non-governmental organizations and the prime minister’s thoughts on the coming Trump administration.

The migrant question

A few days ago we had quite a discussion about the Hungarian penchant for viewing Hungary as the defender of the West, the protector of Christianity during the expansion of the Ottoman Empire. In the last few decades Hungarian historians have done a tremendous amount of work on Hungarian-Ottoman relations, and today we have a very different view of this whole period than we had even fifty years ago. First of all, scholars no longer believe the traditional story of Hungary as a bulwark of European civilization against the Porte. Yet the traditional interpretation of Hungary’s role prevails, and since the beginning of the refugee crisis it has been recounted repeatedly, largely because the Orbán government can use the historical parallel to its advantage.

It was therefore no surprise that Viktor Orbán’s address to the border hunters began with this theme: “you today swore to defend the borders of Hungary, the security of Hungarian homes. With this act you also defend Europe, just as has been customary around here in the last 500 years. To protect ourselves and also Europe: this has been the fate of the Hungarian nation for centuries,” he told his audience.

Although this is certainly not the first time that Viktor Orbán has announced that, as far as he is concerned, all those millions who in the last two years or even before arrived on the territory of the European Union are “illegal immigrants” who “cannot be allowed to settle in Europe,” this is perhaps the clearest indication that for him there is no such thing as a refugee crisis or, for that matter, refugees. No one can force any nation “for the sake of human rights to commit national suicide.” Among the new arrivals are terrorists, and “innocent people have lost their lives because of the weakness of their countries.” In brief, he blames western governments for terrorist acts committed on their soil. “They would have been better off if they had followed the Hungarian solution, which is workable and useful.” In brief, if it depended on Viktor Orbán, all foreigners would be sent back to where they came from.

The rest of the speech was nothing more than pious lies, so I’ll move on to the interview.

Transparency and non-governmental organizations

Let me start by reminding readers that, in the 2016 Global Competitiveness Index of the World Economic Forum, among 138 countries Hungary ranked ahead of only Madagascar and Venezuela in the category of government transparency. Yet Orbán in his interview this morning gave a lengthy lecture on “the right of every Hungarian citizen to know exactly of every public figure who he is, and who pays him.”

But first, let’s backtrack a bit. The initial brutal attack by Szilárd Németh against the NGO’s, in which he threatened to expel them from Hungary, was somewhat blunted a day later (yesterday) when János Lázár, head of the prime minister’s office, assured the Hungarian public that Németh had gotten a bit carried away. The government is only contemplating making these organizations’ finances more transparent, although he added that “the national side” must feel sympathy for Németh’s outburst because it is very annoying that these NGOs, with the help of foreigners, attack the Hungarian government. Németh was told to retract his statement, and for a few hours those who had worried about the very existence of these watchdogs over the activities of the Orbán government could be relieved.

This morning, however, Zoltán Kovács, one of the prime minister’s many communication directors, made an appearance on ATV’s “Start.” He attacked these organizations from another angle. He claimed that they have been assisting migrants and thereby helping terrorists to pour into Europe. If possible, that sounds like an even greater threat to me than Németh’s unconstitutional suggestions regarding the expulsion of NGOs.

So, let’s see what Orbán is planning to do. The reporter asked about “the work of civic organizations that promote globalization.”  Orbán indicated that he finds these NGOs to be stooges of the United States. During the Obama administration, he said, the United States actively tried to influence Hungarian domestic affairs. “Some of the methods used were most primitive,” he remarked.

He is hoping very much that in the future nothing like that will happen. His duty as a prime minister is “to defend the country” against these attempts, but all Hungarian citizens have the right to know everything about NGO’s, especially the ones that receive money from abroad. The people ought to know whether these organizations receive money as a gift with no strings attached or whether there are certain “expectations.” “And if not, why not?” So, what Orbán wants is “transparency.” This demand from Viktor Orbán, whose government is one of the most secretive in the whole world, is steeped in irony.

Viktor Orbán on the future Trump administration

Although initially Orbán tried to be cautious, repeating that it is still too early to say anything meaningful, he is hoping for “a change of culture” after the inauguration. This “change of culture” for Orbán means first and foremost that the Trump administration will not raise its voice in defense of democratic values. Earlier, Orbán didn’t dare to attack the NGOs across the board, and most likely he would have thought twice about doing so if Hillary Clinton had succeeded Obama. With Trump, he feels liberated. Whether he is right or not we will see.

What kind of an American administration does he expect? A much better one than its predecessor. The Obama administration was “globalist,” while Trump’s will have a national focus. It will be a “vagány” government. “Vagány” is one of those words that are hard to translate, but here are a few approximations: tough, brave, maverick, determined, and fearless. Trump’s men “will not beat around the bush, they will not complicate things.”

Orbán also has a very high opinion of the members of Trump’s cabinet because “they got to where they are not because of their connections. They are self-made men.” These people don’t ever talk about whom they know but only about what they did before entering politics. “They all have achieved something in their lives; especially, they made quite a few billions. This is what gives them self-confidence.” These people don’t need any political training. “They are not timid beginners. They have ideas.”

Most of us who are a bit more familiar with the past accomplishments of Trump’s cabinet members have a different assessment of their readiness, at least in most cases, to take over the running of the government. Orbán, just like Trump, is wrong in thinking that because someone was a successful businessman he will be, for example, an outstanding secretary of state. Put it this way, Rex Tillerson’s performance at his confirmation hearing yesterday only reinforced my doubts about his ability to run the State Department.

Orbán might also be disappointed with the incoming administration’s “new culture,” which he now believes to be a great asset in future U.S.-Hungarian relations. What if all those virtues of the tough, plain-talking, down-to-earth businessmen Orbán listed turn out to hinder better U.S.-Hungarian relations instead of promoting them? What if those resolute guys in the State Department decide that Viktor Orbán is an annoying fellow who has become too big for his britches? What if the strong anti-Russian sentiment of Secretary of Defense James Mattis prevails and the U.S. government gets suspicious of Vladimir Putin’s emissary in the European Union? Any of these things could easily happen.

January 13, 2017

The great hope of the Hungarian right: Rex Tillerson as secretary of state

The revelations first disclosed by The Washington Post about possible Russian interference in the 2016 election to help Donald Trump win the presidency were received in Hungarian far-right circles with mixed emotions. Naturally, they identify with the president-elect, who is being portrayed by their media as Superman and the savior of the world. At the same time they find the possibility of Trump’s gaining the presidency with foreign help embarrassing. They even dug up a former secret service official, József Horváth from the Kádár era, who has close ties to Fidesz politicians. He announced with great confidence that “it is unlikely that the Russians intervened for the sake of Donald Trump’s victory.” Horváth’s expertise dates to the 1970s and 1980s, so he knows next to nothing about cyberspace or hacking. Even his reasoning is ridiculous. In his opinion, the claim of interference cannot be true because “such a hacker attack must have immediate legal and diplomatic consequences.” In the United States espionage is taken very seriously, but nothing has happened since the discovery of the alleged cyber crime. This nonsense was taken at face value by Magyar Idők, the government’s semi-official mouthpiece.

It is, however, Magyar Hírlap, the newspaper in which ranting demagogues like Zsolt Bayer and István Lovas publish their opinion pieces, that leads the way in Trump hero worship. Readers of Hungarian Spectrum are only too familiar with Bayer, but they most likely know little about Lovas, whom a couple of years ago I described as “one of the most unsavory characters in the Hungarian right-wing media.” Between 1976 and 1990 he lived in Montreal, Los Angeles, and Munich, where he was on the staff of Radio Free Europe’s Hungarian section. After his return to Hungary, he began working for decidedly right-wing publications. Although he has Jewish ancestry, he is an anti-Semite who received the Palestinian State’s “Objectivity” prize in 2002.

What Lovas cannot understand is how the CIA, which in 40 days will be under the thumb of Trump, dared to put forth a lie without any evidence of Russian support of Trump’s candidacy. The story is nothing more than “a long tale from the neoliberal/left-liberal Washington Post which regularly belches out fake news.” Moreover, Trump doesn’t care about the useless American intelligence reports and is ready to go against the “ruling elite,” which hoped that Trump would choose Mitt Romney, “one of the passengers on the irrational Russophobe hysteria train.” Romney is described by Lovas as someone close to the American defense industry who, if appointed secretary of state, would work hand in hand with the neocons already in the State Department.

But, thank God, Trump was brave and is rumored to have picked Rex Tillerson, an oil magnate and president of Exxon-Mobil “who has a good relationship with Russian President Putin.” Other less enthusiastic commentators describe the relationship between the two men as one of dependency. That is, Tillerson depended on his friendship with Putin to get oil deals done in Russia. Tillerson is described by politico.hu as the head of one of those Western companies who “were bowing and scraping before a man who had just shocked the world by violating international law” with the invasion of Crimea and who subsequently lobbied Washington to lift economic sanctions against Russia.

Rex Tillerson and Vladimir Putin are on very friendly terms

In connection with the nomination of Tillerson, Lovas attacks John McCain, The Washington Post’s “beloved Republican” who “called Orbán a fascist dictator” and who in an interview on Fox News called Putin “an aggressive character and a murderer.” McCain is “the mainstay of the genocidal U.S. policy in the Middle East.” Lovas wouldn’t be true to himself if he didn’t drag Israel into the discussion of Tillerson’s nomination. He cites an opinion piece titled “Thumbing Nose at Alleged Kremlin Debt, Trump Picks Putin’s Pal as Secretary of State” which appeared in Haaretz, adding that Jerusalem is bound to be disappointed by the choice of Tillerson.

A likely pro-Russian foreign policy naturally delights Lovas, although he sadly notes that the neocon John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, might become Tillerson’s deputy. “On our side” is also James Mattis, who is not really keen on the Russian president, “but we, supporters of Trump, are ready for compromise and we are satisfied with the fact that our sworn enemies feel that they are lying bleeding on the battlefield.” The sworn enemies of Hungary are, of course, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and the whole Democratic leadership. In his final sentence Lovas foresees the Democrats and Republicans like McCain one day standing before the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Perhaps the most bizarre analysis of Donald Trump’s alleged decision to nominate Rex Tillerson comes from Viktor Attila Vincze, who writes for Magyar Idők and other right-wing publications. The article, whose title “Is Donald Trump ready to be America’s Gorbachev because of China?” took my breath away, appeared in 888.hu. What on earth is this man talking about? When I hear Gorbachev’s name, my first thought is the collapse of the Soviet Empire, which Vladimir Putin hasn’t been able to accept to this day. Let’s hope that Trump’s presidency wouldn’t have such grave consequences for the United States as Gorbachev’s term did for the Soviet Union. But no, Vincze views Gorbachev as the far-sighted politician who decided to end the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Trump could end the unipolar world order with a diplomatic opening toward Russia “and toward other states” and perhaps, just like Gorbachev, he could end the war in Afghanistan. I assume Vincze would include Hungary among the “other states.”

If Trump wants to confront China, he has to change U.S. diplomacy toward Russia. Tillerson’s nomination “is the first significant step in this direction.” Vincze quite openly talks about Tillerson’s frustration over the sanctions that prevented Exxon-Mobil’s $500 billion deal with the Russian state company Rosneft. Obviously, Vincze doesn’t see any conflict of interest between Tillerson’s business dealings and his future role as secretary of state. Vincze hopes that Tillerson’s presence may result not just in the normalization of the relationship between Russia and the United States but also in a close friendship between the two countries. In this new world, Russia and the United States would be partners. This would put an end to the far too cozy relationship between China and Russia.

As you can see, the Hungarian right is very keen on close cooperation between Russia and the United States, and its spokesmen are counting on Donald Trump. The first sign that their hopes may be realized is Tillerson’s rumored nomination. If, however, the Washington Post is not just belching out another piece of fake news, this nomination is in danger of being blocked on the Hill, which may prompt Trump to go a different direction. That would sorely disappoint the Hungarian far right.

December 12, 2016