Tag Archives: Romania

Transylvania in focus

Today’s post will be devoted to three subjects, all of which are related in one way or the other to Transylvania. The topics range from beer to the coming national election to a fifth-grade Hungarian language and literature textbook for Hungarian students in Romania. Since I spent the last two hours comparing a textbook written for children living in Hungary with that written for Hungarian students studying in Romania, I will start with the textbooks.

The Romanian Hungarian literature textbook is available in its entirety on the internet. Internet access to the textbook from Hungary is restricted to the first 16 pages, but from the table of contents we have a fairly good idea of what fifth graders are expected to learn. The verdict coming from educators in Hungary is that the textbook published in Romania is far superior to the ones children in Hungary use.

According to László Arató, president of the Association of Teachers of Hungarian, it is refreshing to read the book published by the Romanian ministry of education, especially when it’s compared to the old-fashioned, stodgy Hungarian textbook from Budapest. From the very first page the authors stressed that they consider the children partners, which is in stark contrast to the book children currently use in Hungary. While the Romanian textbook is full of contemporary writers’ works, the Hungarian equivalent got stuck at Sándor Petőfi’s ”János vitéz.” The choice of this poem didn’t surprise me a bit because Rózsa Hoffmann, former undersecretary in charge of education responsible for the “reform” of Hungarian education, said at least five years ago that it was an absolute must that children study this poem. Those who are unfamiliar with the story don’t deserve to enter college. Fifty-six pages of the 203-page textbook are devoted to the literary analysis of this poem. I might add that in my copy of Petőfi’s complete poems “János vitéz” takes up 53 pages.

While the Romanian textbook is full of modern texts and daily encounters among people, teachers in Hungary are supposed to teach children about metaphors, Greek myths, and the Bible. There is also a section of excerpts from Hungarian writers who describe different regions of the country, with an emphasis on patriotism. One item sounded promising: Ferenc Molnár’s immortal The Boys from Pál Street. But, as it turned out, the book was covered in only five pages–just the structure and plot of the novel plus the names of the characters. The final item in the table of contents made quite an impression on me. I kept wondering how anyone can teach 10-year-olds about the “theory of literature.” In brief, I feel sorry for all those children who have to sit through this literature course and am especially sorry that they have to analyze “János vitéz” for weeks on end. I’m sure that fifth graders find this textbook deadly. No wonder that children don’t like to read.

Now let’s move on to a jollier subject: beer. Of course, not just any beer but the world famous “Igazi Csíki Sőr,” which I wrote about earlier. There was a trademark battle between a Dutch-Hungarian mini-brewery in Transylvania and the Romanian division of Heineken, the well-known Dutch brewery. For some inexplicable reason the Hungarian government decided to weigh in on the side of Igazi Csíki Sőr against Heineken. János Lázár and Zsolt Semjén traveled to Sânsimion/Csíkszentsimon to show their support. The government contemplated passing legislation that would discriminate against larger foreign-owned companies and promote the business interests of small Hungarian firms. And the government gave money to the company that produced the Igazi Csíki Sör. For a while patriotic beer drinkers boycotted Heineken and Igazi Csíki Sőr disappeared from the shelves as soon as it was put out. But these happy days for the owners of Igazi Csíki Sör didn’t last long. When the large breweries’ products are half the price of the beer from Csík, customer enthusiasm doesn’t last long. The mini-brewery decided that the government-favored beer will no longer be available in supermarkets. They will try their luck with direct distribution, providing home delivery to customers. I don’t know, but I have the feeling that this is the end of Igazi Csíki Sör. Market forces are simply too strong.

The last item is the intensive registration campaign the government has been conducting in the last month or so in the neighboring countries to entice ethnic Hungarians to vote in the 2018 national election. Those familiar with the details of the 2014 election know that Fidesz’s all-important two-thirds majority was achieved only because of the votes that came from Transylvania, Serbia, and Ukraine. Although Fidesz is way ahead of all the other parties in the polls today, Viktor Orbán leaves nothing to chance. In 2014 the government managed to register 193,793 voters in the neighboring countries, though only 128,712 of these were valid. A whopping 95.49% of them voted for Fidesz. Therefore, getting as many people registered as possible is of the utmost importance for Viktor Orbán and his party.

The government hopes that of the one million dual citizens at least 500,000 will vote in the election. The government had 332,000 registration requests by the time of the referendum on the migrant quota issue, in which dual citizens could vote. The intensive registration campaign since then has produced only meager results. In the last ten months the number of registrants has grown by only 18,000. The current figure is 350,000, with 148,000 from Romania, followed by Serbia with 40,000. Of course, it is possible that large numbers of people will register only in the last few weeks, but the goal is very ambitious.

Viktor Orbán himself sent letters to all dual citizens living abroad. In addition, the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (Romániai Magyar Demokrata Szövetség/RMDSZ or in Romanian Uniunea Democrată Maghiară din România/UDMR), the only serious Hungarian party in Romania, is actively involved in the campaign, especially since Viktor Orbán’s speech in Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad on July 22. The relationship between RMDSZ and Fidesz was not always amiable, but efforts to create a new ethnic political force to be used against RMDSZ failed. RMDSZ was the only Hungarian ethnic party left standing. Lately, RMDSZ and Fidesz have been working hand in hand for the reelection of Viktor Orbán.

August 12, 2017

Should Hungarian-speaking Roma students be educated in Hungarian schools in Slovakia and Romania?

Zoltán Balog, Viktor Orbán’s minister of human resources, is in the news again. Regular readers of Hungarian Spectrum know by now that Balog normally makes headlines when he says or does something that the public finds objectionable. Over the last seven years he has acquired the reputation of being a less than caring man which, given his pre-political life as an ordained Hungarian Reformed minister, is jarring to say the least.

After his last interview, with his ill-chosen words about the lack of CT and MRI machines in the National Cardiology Institute, several articles about the head of the Emberi Erőforrások Minisztériuma or, as he is often called, the “emberminiszter” (human minister) appeared. But lately one can hear people talking about the “embertelen miniszter” (inhuman minister).

The most interesting of these articles appeared in 168 Óra. The piece is based on several interviews with Balog’s old friends and acquaintances. The picture of the man that emerges is pretty devastating. An old friend, László Donáth, a Lutheran minister, told the reporter that Balog owes him only a bottle beer after they bet on who is going to win the 2002 election, but there will be a day of reckoning when he will have to stand before the Lord. It will not be easy, Donáth added. Apparently, Balog lost most of his friends in 2006 when, after some hesitation, he chose politics instead of the church. Balog’s father, also a minister, told him, “My son, you became a politician because you were not good enough as a minister.”

His former subordinates describe him as a man who craves praise and constantly brags about his awards and accomplishments. He doesn’t tolerate criticism. He is often harsh toward his subordinates and tries to make them scapegoats in order to cover up his own mistakes. As an unnamed former employee said, “I am truly sorry that I cannot say much good about such an intelligent and talented man.”

Apparently, Balog’s devotion to Viktor Orbán and what he represents is genuine. According to a former parishioner, “Zoltán truly believes that Viktor Orbán is doing a job given to him by God and as prime minister he will make Hungary prosper again.” Balog apparently needed someone he could follow while Orbán needed someone who would assist him in reducing the amount of money spent on social welfare, education, and health. That’s why all these disparate fields were put under one ministry.

According to people in the know, only once did Balog try to say no to Orbán. It was at the time when the Orbán government decided to submit a new law on the churches. Balog told Orbán that he can’t support the bill without some amendments. Otherwise he will resign. Apparently, Orbán responded: “OK, write your resignation and tomorrow morning put it on my desk. I will sign it.” Balog quickly changed his mind. Apparently, after this minor incident their friendship became very strong and, it seems, enduring despite the fact that Orbán knows as well as anyone that Balog’s administrative talents don’t match the enormous tasks of his mega-ministry. Thus, in 2014, Orbán installed one of the Christian Democratic hardliners, Bence Rétvári, to actually run the ministry. Balog was reduced to the role of “drum major.”

Balog’s ill-chosen words on the state of Hungarian healthcare were barely uttered when a week later he managed to call attention to himself again. He was one of the participants in the three-day Fidesz extravaganza in Tusnádfűrdő/Băile Tușnad. According to the official program, Balog was the keynote speaker at a lecture and discussion on the “Idea of the Reformation and the Future of Europe.” After his lecture he joined a discussion group on the state of Hungarian youth both in Hungary and in the neighboring countries. Among the many topics, the quality of Hungarian schools in Romania and Slovakia came up. Balog told the audience that in Slovakia many Hungarian families don’t send their children to Hungarian schools because too many Gypsies attend them. He added that “neither the Hungarian communities nor the government has decided yet whether the Hungarian-speaking Gypsies are a burden or a resource. We must decide what we consider to be a Hungarian school.”

Béla Kató, Hungarian Reformed bishop of the church’s Transylvanian district, and Zoltán Balog, Tusnádfrürdő/Băile Tușnad

The government media, although it reported on the panel discussion, neglected to include Balog’s comments on the Orbán government’s ambivalent feelings toward Hungarian-speaking Gypsies in Slovakia and Romania. I did a quick check to find out how many people we are talking about. In Slovakia, of the half a million Hungarian speakers, researchers estimate that 60,000 are Gypsies, that is, a little more than 10%. The Roma population of Romania is very large. We are talking about perhaps as many as three million people. About 80,000-90,000 of them are Hungarian speaking.

The Orbán government is in a quandary: should they embrace the Roma on the basis of the common language or simply take away the opportunity for Hungarian language instruction, forcing them to attend Romanian or Slovak schools instead? I gather from Balog’s remarks on the Slovak situation, where non-Roma families would rather send their children to Slovak schools because of the presence of too many Gypsies in the Hungarian ones, that the Orbán government is inclined to get rid of “the burden” Hungarian-speaking Gypsies impose on the government in Budapest. We can safely say that they are approaching the question along racial lines. I might also add that Balog is a firm believer in segregated education for Roma children in Hungary. It doesn’t matter how many experts tell him that segregation leads to sure failure, Balog remains unconvinced. I might add that the segregation Balog advocates is unconstitutional and forbidden by many international agreements which Hungary signed.

Today an article appeared in 24.hu reminding Zoltán Balog and his Fidesz friends of the events of March 20, 1990 in Marosvásárhely/Târgu Mureș where Hungarian demonstrators were attacked by members of the nationalist Vatra Românească but Hungarian-speaking Gypsies came to the rescue. First, the Hungarians didn’t know who they were, but then one of them yelled: “Ne féljetek magyarok, mert itt vannak a cigányok!” (Don’t be afraid, Hungarians, because the Gypsies are here). If the Orbán government closes Hungarian schools to Hungarian-speaking Roma students in Slovakia and Romania, soon enough there won’t be any Gypsies to ride to the rescue. They’ll speak Slovak and Romanian and feel no ties to Hungary.

July 25, 2017

The race to Trump’s White House: The Romanians are leading

On January 17 a blogger who calls himself “Nick Grabowszki” told his readers that Sorin Grindeanu, the new Romanian social democratic prime minister, and Liviu Dragnea, chairman of the Romanian Social Democratic Party (PSD), will attend Donald Trump’s inauguration in Washington. Our blogger’s story was muddled on the details of the invitation. He misleadingly came to the conclusion that while the Romanians will be two of the 120 invited guests, Orbán, who went all out to receive an invitation, came up empty handed. Grabowszki gleefully remarked that it looks as if the government propaganda about the beginning of a beautiful friendship was merely a pipe dream.

Anyone who knows anything about the protocol of U.S. presidential inaugurations is aware that, with the possible exception of the prime ministers of Mexico and Canada, all foreign countries are represented by their ambassadors. The 120 guests Nick Grabowski was talking about were American dignitaries like former presidents and their wives and other important political personages.

If Grabowski had read the Romanian press either in the original or in English translation, he could have found out how Grindeanu and Dragnea ended up at the inauguration. The invitation came from Elliott Broidy, a venture capitalist, Republican fundraiser, and philanthropist. He was a successful fundraiser for George W. Bush’s campaign and currently serves as vice-chairman of the Trump Victory Fund. The invitation covered three days of events, including a private breakfast with foreign officials at the Trump Hotel in Washington, the candlelight dinner the evening before the inauguration which both Donald Trump and Mike Pence attended, the inauguration itself, and a ball.

And indeed, the two Romanian politicians got the royal treatment. On the first day they met Michael Flynn, future national security adviser in the Trump administration, and Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Dragnea and Flynn apparently “discussed the excellent perspectives of the strategic partnership between Romania and the United States, and the fact that national security and stability are two key factors for the development and prosperity of a nation.” Naturally, the Romanian politicians stressed their country’s determination to spend at least 2% of GDP on defense. In turn, Flynn confirmed the United States’ special interest in Romania. The conversation with Royce was also described as pleasant, during which Dragnea assured the American politician that “Romania will continue to be a reliable pillar for transatlantic relations.”

During the candlelight dinner Dragnea had a chance to exchange a few words with Donald Trump, informing Trump that he “wanted to take the strategic partnership between Romania and the United States to a new level,” to which Trump’s answer was: “We will make it happen! Romania is important for us!”

Donald Trumps shaking hands with Liviu Dragnea

The Romanian politicians obviously started off on the right foot with the Trump administration, which is especially remarkable because they had been anything but enthusiastic about Donald Trump during the presidential campaign and had favored Hillary Clinton. Yet it seems that, unlike Viktor Orbán, they didn’t put all their eggs in one basket. Through Broidy they had a “friend” in the Trump camp, who, when it was important, lent a helping hand to Romania.

Orbán, on the other hand, publicly committed himself to Trump at the time when the Republican nominee’s chances were close to nil. So why didn’t Orbán receive a similar invitation from some Trump insider, especially since the Orbán government has a highly-paid lobbyist, Connie Mack, a former Republican congressman?

To that question there might be an easy answer. Mack is one of those old-fashioned Republicans who found Trump an unacceptable candidate for the presidency. He made no secret of his feelings. In a June interview with Larry King he expressed his low opinion in fairly strong words and admitted that he had no idea what he was going to do when confronted with the ballot on November 8. His disapproving description of Trump was “translated” by 444.hu as “a coward, a shame, a hypocritical fool, and a violent bastard.” Surely, Mack was not the man to curry favor with the Trump crowd.

It took a while for Mack to recover from the shock of the election, but by mid-December Magyar Idők triumphantly reported that, while in Budapest, he had announced that the Trump-Orbán telephone conversation was a very promising beginning, which will be followed by good U.S.-Hungarian relations. He added that “in Trump’s eyes, Viktor Orbán is an important leader not just in Hungary but also in Europe.” As if he has any idea about what Trump thinks. He added that “Donald Trump will bring a new kind of leadership mentality” to American politics. I’m sure Mack is right about that.

It is almost a cliché in Hungary that the Romanians are much better diplomats than the Hungarians. The proof? Their successes during the two world wars. Unlike Hungary, they managed to end up on the winning side. However, these successes are attributed to the slippery nature of Romanian politicians. They are untrustworthy allies who always manage to end up on top. Therefore, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the Hungarian right-wing press finds the two Romanians’ visit to Washington proof of Romanian duplicity.

Magyar Idők simply refuses to talk about the invitations because that would call attention to Viktor Orbán’s absence from events that Dragnea and Grindeanu attended. On the other hand, 888.hu in its typical fashion published a short article on the subject straight from Bucharest. The invitations are described as “purchased goods” to bolster Liviu Dragnea’s role in domestic politics. The reporter ignores all the information available on the source of the invitation and the description of what events the invitations covered. He describes Dragnea’s appearance at the candlelight dinner as accidental, as if he crashed the party, and intimates that he paid someone off to get in. The whole thing is a “seftelős” Romanian story. The Hungarian word “seftelő” comes from the Austrian-Bavarian “gescheft” and means somebody who is known to be a shady businessman. It is true that tickets cost between $25,000 and $1 million depending on the “package,” but my reading is that a certain number of tickets were assigned to important people on the team who could then dispose of them as they saw fit.

Attila Ara-Kovács, DK’s foreign policy spokesman, wrote an opinion piece on the Romanian politicians’ visit to Washington. Ara-Kovács, no friend of Trump, says that it is quite possible that in the future Dragnea and Grindeanu will be sorry that they were congratulating Trump on January 20, but the fact is that their appearance was in the interest of Romania. They don’t share Trump’s optimistic assessment of Putin, but Romania’s national interest dictates good relations with the incoming president. In contrast, there is Orbán, who unabashedly courted Trump for months and yet wasn’t able to secure an invitation.

Indeed, it is very possible that the two Romanian social democrats might not be so happy about their invitations if they find out that Heinz-Christian Strache, chairman of the Austrian Freedom party, also received an invitation. Trump’s national security adviser, the same Mike Flynn that Grindeanu and Dragnea encountered in Washington, had met Strache in December in New York. Considering Strache’s reputation as a neo-Nazi, the Trump team wanted to keep the meeting quiet, but Strache bragged about it on Facebook. According to Occupy Democracy, Strache also attended the inauguration. His invitation came from Representative Steve King of Iowa, who according to this anti-Tea Party site “is one of the worst congressmen to ever sit in the House of Representatives.” Strache’s invitation “speaks mountains to [Trump’s] willingness to welcome such hateful individuals [as Strache] with open arms.”

Another strange guest at the inauguration was Pauline Hanson of One Nation, a nationalist, right-wing populist party in Australia often accused of racism. The story is confused, but the ticket came from Republican congressman Adam Kinzinger, who claims he didn’t know the ticket would end up in the hands of One Nation because apparently it had been requested by the Australian Embassy. Whatever the case, Pauline Hanson tweeted a few days ago: “Would you believe it? I have been gifted tickets to the Presidential Inauguration Ceremony.”

Viktor Orbán, I’m afraid, will have to wait for a while to shake hands with President Trump, whom he so admires.

January 21, 2017

Fidesz censorship in Transylvania

Today I am venturing into an area about which I know relatively little: the situation of the Hungarian media in Transylvania. Keeping track of the media within the country’s borders is hard enough. I have little time to browse Hungarian news sites outside of the country. I’m not alone, it seems. The Transylvanian-born Gáspár Miklós Tamás, or, as he is known in Hungary, TGM, noted lately that Hungarian-Hungarians are neither interested in nor knowledgeable enough about local affairs to be able to follow the Transylvanian Hungarian media.

I’ve written several posts in the past about Viktor Orbán’s determination to have control over Hungarian political parties in the neighboring countries. As early as 2010 Fidesz refused to finance or even recognize parties that had in any way cooperated with the political majority. In Slovakia the successful Most-Híd party was not even accepted as a Hungarian party because its membership included Slovaks as well as Hungarians. Instead, the Orbán government poured money into the Party of the Hungarian Coalition, which since 2010 has never been represented in the Slovak parliament. Most-Híd, on the other hand, has been an active participant in Slovak politics and is currently a coalition partner in the third Fico government.

Something similar was going on in Transylvania as well. Ever since 1989 Romanian-Hungarian voters have been exclusively represented by the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania or RMDSZ. The Orbán government, however, was anything but satisfied with the party because RMDSZ off and on participated in Romanian coalition governments. Relations between the Budapest government and RMDSZ deteriorated to the point that Orbán opted to support a right-wing party in Romania called Magyar Polgári Párt (MPP). The hope was that MPP would be strengthened to the point that it could assume the leading role in Romanian-Hungarian politics. By 2014, however, when it became clear that MPP would not be able to compete successfully against RMDSZ, Orbán had to change tactics. Hungarian politicians were dispatched to patch up the political division between the two Transylvanian parties to ensure that Hungarians would have representation in the Romanian parliament. Viktor Orbán even went to Transylvania to campaign on behalf of RMDSZ. But although the Orbán government had to give up its original idea, it didn’t leave Romania empty-handed. In exchange for its support, it seems, the RMDSZ leadership had to agree to some major concessions.

With this lengthy introduction, we have arrived at the “compromise” between the party of Transylvanian Hungarians and the Budapest government. In return for the generous support Budapest is now providing to RMDSZ, Fidesz demands obedience and total ideological identification with the Orbán government’s far-right political orientation. RMDSZ until now had given money to publications that were somewhat critical of the Orbán government. No longer. Viktor Orbán demanded the cleansing of all “objectionable” publications.

The first victim was Erdélyi Riport published in Kolozsvár/Cluj. RMDSZ was financing the publication through a foundation which is apparently quite well endowed. The Erdélyi Riport had been in existence for 14 years, but the foundation recently informed the editors that due to a lack of money the publication “will be suspended for an indefinite period of time.”

An internet news site called maszol.ro has also run into difficulties with RMDSZ and its foundation. At the beginning of December the editors of maszol.ro, successor to Új Magyar Szó, refused to publish an article that criticized Péter Szijjártó’s “instructions” to Hungarian diplomats to boycott Romania’s national holiday. The author of the article was immediately fired. The same thing happened a few days ago to Hugó Ágoston, the editor responsible for maszol.ru‘s op-ed page. Ágoston, a well-respected journalist in Transylvania, believes that the reason for his dismissal was his “criticism of the Hungarian government’s anti-democratic policies, especially its poisonous hate campaign and its treatment of the media, in particular the elimination of Népszabadság.

Hugó Ágoston

Although the Hungarian media in Transylvania was never entirely independent since it always relied on RMDSZ for funding, for a long time there was an understanding that RMDSZ wouldn’t foist any ideology on the publications it financed. That changed over the last year or so when Orbán reached an “understanding” with RMDSZ. Ágoston in his letter to kettosmerce.blog emphasized the necessity of returning to the pluralism that existed before 2014. I’m sure that Ágoston doesn’t really believe that this is going to happen any time soon. The fired journalist’s farewell article can be read here.

TGM in his article rightly points out that the Orbán government’s meddling in the affairs of a foreign country is worrisome and legally questionable. The Romanian government also supports Hungarian publications, and therefore it might be troubling to Bucharest that “the Hungarian publications in Romania are being edited, censored, directed, or banned either from the private residence of Viktor Orbán or from the Prime Minister’s Office.” It is truly amazing that Orbán refuses to tolerate even the very small liberal community that exists in Transylvania where the overwhelming majority of Hungarians are loyal supporters of Fidesz. His goal is total control at home as well as abroad.

January 4, 2017

Donald Trump’s victory made Orbán “the man” in Europe

The study of Hungarian politics can take you to the most unexpected places. Here is, for example, a lengthy interview of Viktor Orbán by Gábor G. Fodor, Hungary’s modern Machiavelli and the recently appointed editor-in-chief of 888.hu, a fiercely pro-government tabloid. The title of the interview is shocking enough: “Ki a faszagyerek?—Orbán Viktor.” It sent me to a slang dictionary to be sure of the meaning of “faszagyerek.” Probably the closest translation would be “swinging dick,” but I wasn’t happy using that phrase in the title of this post. And so, from the slang dictionary I moved on to the American film industry, where I learned that a 2005 movie titled “The Man” is called in the Hungarian dubbed version “A faszagyerek.” Good enough. “The man” he is. G. Fodor must have loved the picture or its character because he has a whole series of “faszagyerekek”–for example, Zsolt Bayer, István Tarlós, and, of all people, Connie Mack. By the end of the interview, we learn from Orbán that his own “faszagyerek” is Öcsi Puskás. Who else?

Some Hungarian observers consider this interview to be as important as Orbán’s infamous “illiberal speech” in Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad on July 26, 2014. That speech made an incredible splash at the time. Western politicians and members of the media began to understand that Viktor Orbán is a man with dangerous ideas and intentions. I doubt that this interview will create the same worldwide sensation for the simple reason that by now the Hungarian prime minister is widely identified as the “pocket Putin.” So his plans to expel the few remaining NGOs from Hungary will not come as a surprise.

Because this is the main message of the interview. The outcome of the U.S. presidential election has emboldened Orbán. He is sure that his time has come and that his vision of Europe will prevail. He is planning to fight the old order with Trump behind him, cheering him on.

Trump’s name came up early in the interview, with Orbán introducing him into the conversation in connection with the “intellectual excitement” that exists in Fidesz, “which comes not from school learning but from character.” This, he said, establishes “some kind of kinship with the just elected American president” in whom “one can sense the mentality of the self-made man.” Just as “Fidesz is a self-made story.”

Using this spurious “self-made” analogy, Orbán found it easy to link the new United States and Hungary. The old European political elite, who no longer have answers to today’s challenges, look upon Trump as they look upon him, except that the United States is larger and therefore they consider Trump more dangerous.

Note Donald Trump’s picture on the wall of 888.hu’s editorial office

In the past Orbán always refrained from verbal attacks on the United States. He left that job to Péter Szijjártó and the journalists running the state media. But now, with the wind of a new era in Washington at his back, he openly complained about Democratic foreign policy not just toward Hungary but toward all Central European countries. American diplomats believe that in this region there are only two kinds of leaders: one kind is corrupt, the other is Putin’s man. Or perhaps both at the same time. Therefore, they have considered it their business to interfere. Their method has been “soft power, which is not just a theory but a devious action plan.” According to Orbán, this American “soft power” has been implemented through NGOs, foundations, civic organizations, and the media. The American government has believed, at least until now, that this “action plan” could be realized through George Soros.

First, a few words about “soft power,” which is not exactly a new concept. Joseph Nye of Harvard University coined it in 1990 and developed it further in a 2004 book, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. The idea behind “soft power” is that, instead of coercion, a smart government uses persuasion. “Soft power is the ability to shape the preferences of others through appeal and attraction…. The currency of soft power is culture, political values, and foreign policies.”

This is exactly what Orbán objects to when he criticizes the few civic organizations that act as defenders of human rights and democratic values. He is certain that the time has come to go against the Soros foundations with full force because Soros has “activated” himself against Trump’s plans to change the American political landscape. After all, it was only about a month ago that Politico reported that “George Soros and other rich liberals who spent tens of millions of dollars trying to elect Hillary Clinton are gathering in Washington for a three-day, closed-door meeting to retool the big-money left to fight back against Donald Trump.” After Trump is firmly ensconced in the White House, it will be safe to put an end to all those hated foundations in Hungary that day after day complain about the undemocratic nature of his regime.

During the discussion of Soros’s NGOs and their role as transmitters of American soft power Orbán brought up the Romanian elections in which, according to him, there were no anti-Hungarian voices because the Romanian socialists realized that it’s not the Hungarians who are the enemy but George Soros. “The winners campaigned against the Soros regime; the real opposition is not the small, inconsequential parties but the NGOs and foundations supported by Soros.”

I’m not familiar enough with Romanian affairs to pass judgment, but I am not aware of strong anti-American feelings in that country. On the contrary. However, I did find one article describing an interview that Victor Ponta, the former prime minister, gave to a publication called Stiri pe surse—Cele main oi stiri. There he explained why he had adopted an anti-Soros stance. His reasons seem to be identical to those of Viktor Orbán. Soros through his foundations produces “a certain type of people, pseudo-pseudo democrats for whom other countries’ interests are more important than the interests of Romania.” Doesn’t it sound familiar? How widespread this kind of thinking is among Romanian politicians I can’t say.

In Orbán’s opinion, all governments would do well to get rid of Soros’s foundations. “One can feel that already. They will find out where these monies are coming from, what kinds of connections exist with what kinds of secret service organizations, and what kinds of NGOs represent what kinds of interests.”

In addition to his plans for silencing the NGOs, Orbán sees other opportunities for next year. He is “convinced that 2017 will be the year of revolt, but it is another story whether the evil status quo politicians will repress these revolts or not. In Austria they managed to stop a successful march toward the radical right by rejecting Norbert Hofer as the future president of the country. But in Italy and the United States they couldn’t. Next year there will be elections in Germany, the Netherlands, and France. “A lot of things can happen.” Here Orbán clearly identifies his own party with far right parties: Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) of Frauke Petry, Front National (FN) of Marine Le Pen, and the Partij voor de Vrighelheid (PVV) of Geert Wilders. Orbán is keeping fingers crossed for these ultra-radical parties. I don’t know how often I have to repeat: Orbán’s Fidesz is a far-right radical party which is striving to turn Hungary into a one-party dictatorship.

December 17, 2016

Let’s have a new enemy: Romania

One can say all sorts of things about Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó, just not that he is the paragon of diplomatic virtue. Upon his arrival in Hungary’s foreign ministry, he not only got rid of Hungary’s seasoned diplomats but also used language rarely heard in the world of diplomacy. Szijjártó was groomed for his diplomatic career in the rough and tumble of Hungarian politics, Fidesz style. He tore into fellow foreign ministers, presidents, prime ministers, anyone who dared utter a word against Hungary. Actually, he was just following the instructions of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who at his very first meeting with the Hungarian ambassadors told them that they cannot let one “untrue” statement about the country go unanswered. Thus, like diplomats from banana republics, Hungarian ambassadors routinely write letters to the editor of major papers of the country where they serve. A rather distasteful habit.

It is hard to assess Hungary’s relations with her neighbors because they are so volatile. One month Szijjártó sends threatening letters to presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers of Croatia, Slovenia, and Austria and the next month we hear high praise for the same countries from Viktor Orbán. There are exceptions to the rule: Serbian-Hungarian relations seem to be consistently good and Romanian-Hungarian relations, consistently bad. Szijjártó’s latest move will not improve the situation with Romania.

Szijjártó forbade Hungarian diplomats serving abroad to attend the receptions Romanian embassies gave today on the country’s national holiday. It was on December 1, 1918 that the National Assembly of Transylvania and Hungary convened in Alba Iulia/Gyulafehérvár and decreed “the unification of those Romanians and of all the territories inhabited by them with Romania.” As the foreign ministry’s spokesman explained to HVG, “the Hungarian people have no reason to celebrate December 1.”

A contemporary depiction of the meeting of the Romanian National Assembly on December 1, 1918

A contemporary depiction of the meeting of the Romanian National Assembly on December 1, 1918

Thus no one represented official Hungary at the reception in Budapest where the Romanian ambassador greeted the visitors in both Romanian and Hungarian and where the national anthems of both countries were played. The concert that followed included pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach, Béla Bartók, and George Enescu. The ambassador’s speech, delivered in English, put special emphasis on the 1996 Hungarian-Romanian treaty on “mutual understanding, cooperation, and good neighborliness.” The English-French-language text of the treaty is available online, and its importance is detailed in a recent press release by the Romanian Foreign Ministry on the twentieth anniversary of its signing.

The Romanians’ response was surprisingly mild: “it is hard to understand such a decision because honoring the values and national symbols of a country certainly belongs to the basic precepts of the European Union and the Atlantic community.” As we have had to learn in the last six years or so, however, such “niceties” are not observed by the Hungarian government. Just as Viktor Orbán told the delegates of the Hungarian Diaspora Council on November 30, “political correctness, as a way of speaking, is the instrument of worldwide intellectual oppression,” which he naturally refuses to accept.

The pro-government media naturally greeted the Orbán government’s decision with elation. “At last we’re handling the Romanian national holiday as we should,” opined 888.hu. At last we have a foreign minister who behaves as he should. Leaders of the socialist-liberal governments behaved abominably, according to the news site. For example, on December 1, 2002 President Árpád Göncz, Prime Minister Péter Medgyessy, and Foreign Minister László Kovács were among the guests at the reception where they met Romania’s prime minister Adrian Nãstase and representatives of the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians, the major Hungarian party in Romania. Fidesz, which had lost the election only a few months before, raised hell. Fidesz sympathizers quickly organized a demonstration of about 500-600 people in front of the Kempinski Hotel where the reception was held. The party, by then in opposition, did everything in its power to create a scandal.

A few years of respite followed when we heard nothing about the treasonous Hungarian socialists and liberals attending the Romanian receptions on December 1. But then came 2010 when Róbert Alföldi, the director of the National Theater whom Viktor Orbán and his friends hated, made the mistake of renting one of the halls of the National Theater to the Romanian Cultural Institute for the event. The most clamorous critics were the politicians of Jobbik and the Christian Democrats, but Fidesz also chimed in, saying that “the leader of one of the most important national organizations should know that the loss of Transylvania for the majority of the nation means trauma with lasting effect” and therefore no state institution should facilitate the reception. Under pressure, Alföldi withdrew his verbal agreement with the Romanian Cultural Institute.

Kolozsvári Szalonna, which naturally is more familiar with Romanian-Hungarian affairs than I am, brings up past occasions when Hungarian patriots inside and outside of Romania were quite happy to celebrate together with Romanian politicians. For example, Jenő Szász, then mayor of Odorheiu Secuiesc / Székelyudvarhely and a great friend of László Kövér, happily celebrated the Romanian national holiday with President Traian Băsescu in 2006. Géza Szőcs, former undersecretary for cultural matters in the prime minister’s office, back in 1990 even made a speech in Alba Iulia praising the democratic nature of the declaration of the National Assembly of Transylvania.

So, why this strident move, which will only further erode the already tenuous ties between Romania and Hungary? The most likely reason is Viktor Orbán’s newly found self-assurance which, as far as I can see, has grown substantially since Donald Trump’s victory on November 8. In his speech to the representatives of the Hungarian diaspora he rehashed the points he had made in his speech to the same body the year before. This gave him an opportunity to tout the wisdom of his political views and emphasize his belief that time is on his side. The real proof is “the surprising result of the American presidential election and the expectation that this election ushers in a new era.” The American election “supports [his] earlier view that a major worldwide realignment is forthcoming.” With Trump at the helm “instead of liberal democracy we can return to a democracy whose essence is freedom.”

By now he sees himself as the premier politician of Central Europe who has brought considerable prestige to Hungary. “Central Europe hasn’t had so much influence on European affairs since the House of Árpád or perhaps since King Matthias.” Of course, he is talking about his own influence on the common policies of the Visegrád 4 countries.

Finally, I would like to call attention to Orbán’s comments in this speech on the Hungarian military. We all know that European countries will have to commit a larger percentage of their GDP to the NATO budget. In fact, Hungary has already promised an increase in defense spending. Perhaps I’m reading too much into the following couple of sentences, but they gave me a pause. First, he said that Hungarians settled in a very difficult spot and “our first question is always what kinds of dangers we will have to face next.” Then, a few lines later, he told his audience that the Hungarian army must be beefed up not because of some outside threat but because Hungary “mustn’t fall behind the striking powers of the armies in our region.” I don’t know whether these statements are significant or just the usual imprecise talk.

December 1, 2016

Viktor Orbán: “We have convinced NATO”

Viktor Orbán’s self-aggrandizing fabrications after international summits never cease to amaze me. He holds so-called press conferences, usually in Hungarian and frequently with a single reporter from M1 state TV, to explain his pivotal role in the negotiations. It is usually, he explains, at Hungary’s insistence or upon his own sage advice that the European Union, or in this case NATO, decides to pursue a certain course of action.

This time the claim is that NATO at his urging decided “to take an active part in the European Union’s efforts at solving the refugee crisis. … We managed to get NATO on our side … We stated that illegal migration must be stopped, the outside borders must be defended, uncontrolled influx carried not just civilian but military security risks.” After this grandiose announcement that gave the impression that soon enough NATO troops will be standing at the Serb-Hungarian border, he said that “first and foremost, certain NATO forces will be moved to the defense of the maritime borders.”

The fact is that NATO has had a presence in the Aegean Sea ever since February when at the request of Germany, Greece, and Turkey it joined other international efforts to deal with the crisis. NATO is also involved in stemming illegal trafficking and illegal migration. These roles were described in the “NATO Summit Guide,” released by NATO ahead of the summit. It was reported in April 2016 that “Barack Obama said he was willing to commit NATO assets to block the traffic in human beings and the people smugglers that we refer to as modern slavers.” In June The Financial Times reported that “NATO will take a more prominent role in handling the EU’s refugee crisis by expanding its presence across the Mediterranean, potentially helping to stem an increased flow of people from north Africa into Italy.” In brief, Hungary didn’t initiate anything. The decision to expand the operation has been in the works for months.

Only one Hungarian publication, 444.hu, noticed this latest untruth of Viktor Orbán.

A few hours ago Jens Stoltenberg, secretary-general of NATO, tweeted that four NATO battalions will be deployed in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. Polish, Romanian, and Bulgarian troops will also be used in this new NATO force. Note that neither Hungarian nor Slovak troops will take part in the mission. A U.S.-led battalion will be stationed in Poland. Germany will send 500 troops to Lithuania, and more soldiers will come from the Benelux countries, Norway, and France. Half a battalion, led by Great Britain, will be moved to Estonia. A full NATO battalion, led by Canada, will be sent to Latvia.

The most interesting development is the exchange of troops between Poland and Romania. A Polish brigade will be stationed in Romania, and the Romanians will send a brigade to Poland. It also seems that Bulgaria will send 400 people to Romania, and it is likely that Polish soldiers will be sent to Bulgaria. So, in a way, a kind of international force of former Soviet-dominated countries is taking shape.

Russian helicopters

Although Hungary is not sending any soldiers to regions bordering on Russia, the country will have a forty-member NATO control center (irányítási pont). Orbán is being careful to stay in the background as much as possible so as not to alienate the Russians. He did, however, specifically mention in the “press conference” that in his opinion the present military arrangement does not infringe on the “NATO-Russian agreement.”

Origo assumed that Orbán was talking about the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between NATO and Russia signed in 1997 which, according to the paper, includes a clause that prohibits the stationing of NATO troops in countries bordering on Russia. There are commentators, however, who insist that this reading of the agreement is based on a misinterpretation of the text, which has a clause stating that the prohibition is valid only “in the current and foreseeable security environment.” Those who argue that placing NATO troops in the Baltic states is perfectly legal point to “the changed security environment.”

By sending troops to Latvia and Lithuania, the NATO leadership accepted the latter interpretation. But here again Orbán invented a lofty role for himself when he said that “we persuaded NATO that no Russian interest will be violated.” Who are these persuasive “we”?

Although the analysts of the Heritage Institute, a conservative think tank, might argue that the prohibition against stationing NATO troops in countries neighboring Russia is nothing more than “a myth that has been perpetuated by the Kremlin’s propaganda machine,” the Russians see it differently. The Russian foreign ministry blasted NATO for concentrating “its efforts on deterring a non-existent threat from the east.” As had been agreed to earlier, NATO ambassadors will meet their Russian counterparts in Brussels where “Moscow will seek explanations for NATO’s plans.”

Orbán is misleading the Hungarian public about the country’s real standing in the international community and about his own role in shaping international policy. But when the government controls so much of the media it’s easy to tell tales.

July 10, 2016