Tag Archives: Russia

The Orbán media on the U.S. air strikes in Syria

The reaction of the Hungarian government and its media to the U.S. missile strikes against a Syrian air base manifests its pro-Russian bias and its disappointment in President Trump.

Magyar Hírlap published a lengthy article, “Act of War or a Clear Message?,” on the international reception of the American move in which the dominant theme was the rejoinders of Russian politicians. The article started with quotations from President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and ended with Russian Foreign Minister Spokeswoman Mariia Zacharova’s detailed description of the Russian position on the issue. In between, the paper summarized the attitudes of the more important countries in Europe and Asia.

In the Central and East European region, the article covered only Poland and Hungary. Poland approves the move because it considers “the United States the guarantor of world peace and order. There are times when one must react and when actual steps must be taken.” By contrast, this was one of the few times that Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó struck a pessimistic note. Although “a U.S.-Russian agreement on Syria is not only in the interest of Hungary and Europe but the whole world … we have never been farther from such an understanding.” Judging from this statement, the Orbán government must be deeply disappointed with the way in which the Trump administration’s Russia policy is evolving. As for the use of chemical warfare, Hungary naturally “condemns it and hopes that it will not be repeated.” Szijjártó, unlike most of the journalists writing for the government press, didn’t question the Syrian government’s likely role in the chemical attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun, resulting in the deaths of 87 people. Even Viktor Orbán said a few meaningless words that carefully avoided any judgment on the attack one way or the other. He simply stressed the need for security and order.

As for the government media, news from Russia dominated the reporting. 888.hu even has a man in Moscow who reported straight from the Russian capital. He attended the press conference of the spokesman for the ministry of defense, who gave details on the American attack which, according to him, was not effective. He also reported from the foreign ministry and described Russian naval movement on the Black Sea.

The bias in Magyar Idők’s reporting in Russia’s favor is evident even in simple news articles. For starters, the author talked about an “alleged chemical attack” when by today, when the article was published, there can be no question that such a chemical attack did in fact take place. The article used the verb “to accuse” in connection with Assad’s role in the attack instead of “to maintain” or “to assert.” After reporting on the so-called events, the paper turned to a U.S. expert who works for an institute attached to the Hungarian foreign ministry. He is known to sympathize with the politics and ideology of the Republican Party. He noted the “great changes that have taken place in the policies of the American president,” policies that run counter to Russian interests.

Of course, from our point of view, the most interesting articles are the opinion pieces that allow us to gauge the views of pro-government, right-wing members of the media. I will start with a journalist whose op-ed articles often appear in Magyar Idők, Levente Sitkei. The piece’s title is “Sirens.” Sitkei compares the accusation that Bashar el-Assad waged chemical war against his citizens to allegations that Saddam Hussein stockpiled weapons of mass destruction. Since the latter claim turned out to be untrue, the implication is that the charge against Assad is similarly untrue. “In those days, he [Saddam Hussein] was the bad boy who could hear at least twenty times a day that accusation about himself until [the Americans] toppled his statue and hanged him.” Bashar al-Assad will not end his life this way because “he is only a pawn, a minor character.”

Sitkei claims that a photo of an ISIS fighter crying over the fate of the children in Aleppo is accepted as truth by CNN viewers, but when the same man on Russia Today tramples on a cross, it is labelled Russian propaganda. “Syria is not a state but a wretched, blood-soaked stage … where every move is carefully calculated by experts of a far-away country.” We all know whom he is talking about. As far as the chemical attack is concerned, Sitkei has his doubts about the veracity of the event because it was reported by activists of a civic organization with headquarters in Great Britain. So, it might be nothing more than simple deception. It might never have happened. Or, if it did happen, it might have been done by a rebel group. “The usefulness is what matters, not the truth.” In brief, the western world, and Americans in particular, lie.

The second opinion piece, which also appeared in Magyar Idők, was written by László Szőcs, formerly the Washington correspondent of Népszabadság. He portrays the civil war in Syria as a “proxy war” in which “the Syrian people have only a minor role to play.” The key actors in this fight are the United States and Russia, “the two most important factors of world politics.” I doubt that too many military experts or political commentators would agree with Szőcs on this score.  His conclusion is that no peace can be achieved in Syria “without a reconciliation between Washington and Moscow.”

Mandiner, a site run by younger conservatives but read mostly by hard-core right-wingers, is not convinced by the American claim that the chemical attack was carried out by the Assad regime. They found a brief note on Facebook from Jakob Augstein, a well-known German journalist, in which he criticizes journalists who praise Trump for his attack on Syria while at the same time talk about “the possibility of the use of chemical weapons.” Either we are sure or we’re not.

In the independent Hungarian media there is silence for the most part. Of course, they reported the events and covered Russian as well as American reactions, but no one wanted to express an opinion on the matter.

The pro-government media is largely anti-American and pro-Russian while the government is sitting on the fence, advocating a Russian-American understanding which Orbán and Szijjártó no longer believe is possible. I suspect that Viktor Orbán is starting to suffer from buyer’s remorse. Yes, the candidate he (and Russia) backed became president of the United States, but it seems that no pro-Russian policy will be forthcoming from Washington.

April 8, 2017

Hungarian secret agent on the Russian threat

A real bombshell exploded yesterday when Index published both in English and in Hungarian a lengthy interview with Ferenc Katrein, who worked in the civilian counter-intelligence agency for 13 years. His highest position at the agency was “executive head of operations.” He dealt with such sensitive issues as the country’s defense against the Russian secret service. In 2013 he left the agency because he “no longer could identify with the leadership,” which was following the decidedly pro-Russian policies of the Orbán government.

Katrein considers the Russian threat in Europe very serious, “the highest level” in recent years. The Russians are putting a great deal of work into “aggravating the migration crisis and especially in using it for propaganda and gaining influence.” A few months ago Ferenc Gyurcsány estimated the number of Russian agents in Hungary to be somewhere between 600 and 800, which, according to Katrein, might not be an exaggeration. If one includes “the complete web of connections employed by Russian intelligence to serve Russian interests, including dark intelligence, this number looks … realistic.”

In general, Katrein complains about the passivity of the agency. He realized at the time of the 2006 disturbances that “we are a sleeping agency,” that the agency was overlooking threats from extremist elements. It took some time to become more or less proactive.

We know that Fidesz, while in opposition, had close relations with former agents who had been booted out of the service but who still had friends in the agency who were passing information about government members and others to Fidesz. It is quite possible that some of these agents were sympathetic to extremist groups that could serve the interests of Viktor Orbán.

Ferenc Katrein / Index / Photo: István Huszti

After the 2010 change of government, when the agency became subordinated to the ministry of interior headed by Sándor Pintér, a former police chief, “the philosophy of the police” triumphed over “the philosophy of the secret service. …Something has to happen, a crime, a murder for the mechanism to start.” A good example of this mindset was the agency’s unwillingness to interfere in the activities of the Hungarian National Front (Magyar Nemzet Arcvonal/MNA) and GRU, the Russian military secret service. You may recall that István Győrkös’s group was playing war games with officers attached to the Russian Embassy in Budapest. By the time officers of the agency were sent out to confront the head of MNA, it was too late. One of them was killed by Győrkös.

In Katrein’s opinion, cooperation between an extremist group and the Russian military secret service is something that must be reported to the government by the head of the agency. Moreover, such a piece of vital information must be sent to partner agencies in NATO because “everybody’s fighting its own far-right organizations in Europe.” Katrein expressed his hope that the information was sent to Hungary’s partners. I wouldn’t be at all certain about that.

In the interview Katrein said that Russia placed a large number of agents in the former Soviet satellites in the late 1980s because it was becoming clear that the socialist order’s days were numbered. But this generation of “deep cover agents is close to retirement, which means that the Russians are looking for opportunities to refresh the personnel.” Apparently the Hungarian residency bond program is such an opportunity. Thousands of Russians can be placed in Hungary this way.

Moreover, if one looks at the media or among the so-called advisers and national security experts, it is apparent that the Russians have already deeply penetrated that vital sector for propaganda purposes. The personnel of the Hungarian state television and radio wittingly or unwittingly work as Russian agents. The same is true of government mouthpieces like Magyar Idők, Pesti Srácok, and 888.hu. National security experts talk about the failure of the West, the uselessness of the European Union, and the sins of the United States. They portray the refugees marching toward Europe as a controlled invasion. Lately, these “experts” have begun attacking NATO while remaining silent about Russia. In fact, some of them even deny Russian interference in the U.S. election on the side of Donald Trump. These “experts” surely couldn’t spread their falsified information without the authorization and support of the Hungarian government. Katrein’s opinion of these people “who consider themselves experts while they panic and talk about war and invasion are not experts but something else.” He didn’t spell it out, but I will. They are likely Russian agents.

When the conversation turned to the relations of NATO’s partner agencies with their Hungarian counterparts, Katrein described the situation this way: “You are in the international bloodstream if you have joint issues with other agencies, not only in counter-espionage but in counter-terrorism as well. If these are there, you are in the club. If these are not there, you are on the periphery.”

Although Magyar Idők, at least in one of the editorials published after the interview, tried to portray the conversation with the former counter-intelligence officer as a condemnation of the national security services before 2010, Katrein’s main critique was reserved for the situation created as a result of the Orbán government’s so-called “Eastern Opening” and the pro-Russian course that followed. Prior to the merging of the military intelligence services into the Military National Security Service, Hungarian military intelligence was completely pro-NATO. Now, it is very heavily pro-Russian. This was the reason for Katrein’s resignation.

It seems that the Orbán government was unprepared for Katrein’s revelations. Although Viktor Orbán felt he had to say something, his comments were inadequate given the harsh criticism of his pro-Russian policies. The only thing he managed to mutter was that although Hungary is not the largest country on earth, it is situated in an important part of it. Both to the East and to the West there are countries for which Hungary is important. Hungary cannot be isolated. It can only be defended. And, Orbán continued, the country has been well defended ever since 2010.

Orbán left the job of discrediting Katrein to the hacks of his media empire, but the result was confusion. Since the appearance of the interview Magyar Idők has published four articles on the subject, the first of which, as I said, tried to portray the interview as a condemnation of the agency during the socialist-liberal governments before 2010. This feat was accomplished by leaving out all references to the current government’s pro-Russian policies, which agents slavishly follow. In this first article Katrein was portrayed as a hero. But then Magyar Idők realized that the damning interview can’t be handled this way, so it moved into attack mode. It claimed that Katrein didn’t leave the agency on his own volition but was fired. Moreover, “secret service experts” now claim that “well-known foreign groups want to influence the foreign policy of the government, its consistent policy toward migration, and its cooperation with the president of the United States.” Yes, those foreigners are trying to ruin the Hungarian government.

International relations, due mostly to the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, are in flux. We have no idea about the nature of U.S. foreign policy toward Russia in the coming months and years. As things stand now, it would be exceedingly risky for Trump to conduct the kind of pro-Russian policy he most likely originally envisaged. In any case, the Hungarian government is trying to get close to the top echelon of the Trump administration. Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó already got as far as Sebastian Gorka, the pride of the Hungarian right.

March 22, 2017

Russian support for far-right groups in Hungary?

A lengthy article by Andrew Higgins appeared in The New York Times a few days ago under the headline “Intent on Unsettling E.U., Russia Taps Foot Soldiers from the Fringe.” As the accompanying photo, showing supporters of Jobbik demonstrating in Budapest in 2014, indicates, the larger part of the piece is devoted to Russian support of the Hungarian far-right. It pays special attention to Jobbik and the Magyar Nemzeti Arcvonal (Hungarian National Front), which got a lot of negative press recently as a result of the murder of a police officer by the group’s leader, István Győrkös.

Most of the information in the article comes from a March 2015 study by Political Capital, a Hungarian think tank that has published a number of pamphlets on Hungarian extreme right-wing organizations and their relations with Russia. Political Capital’s English-language study “’I am Eurasian’: The Kremlin connections of the Hungarian far-right” is the joint effort of Attila Juhász, Lóránt Győri, Péter Krekó, and András Dezső. The first three authors are political scientists working for Political Capital. András Dezső is an investigative journalist for Index. He did most of the work unearthing Béla Kovács’s Russian ties.

The study on which The New York Times article is based is 53 pages long. It is useful because it covers topics not normally reported on anywhere else. For example, the Russian media’s views of Jobbik and Béla Kovács’s role as a possible Russian agent. For me, at least, this was new information. The copious footnotes, which include a fair amount of English-language material, are also helpful.

The major problem with the study is that it is already out of date. Over the past two years much of the Hungarian political scene has turned upside down. Jobbik is no longer the Jobbik it was in February-March 2015. Its emphasis on friendship with Iran and Russia has shifted somewhat, in line with the thinking of Jobbik supporters who still prefer the West to the East. Moreover, Gábor Vona, the party’s chairman, has opted to move away from extremism in the hope of being accepted as a moderate right-of-center party. Magyar Nemzet, often quoted in the study as a pro-Russian government mouthpiece, is now, as a result of the falling out between its owner and Viktor Orbán, independent and frequently critical of the government. In early 2015 Béla Kovács’s immunity case was still pending, but since then the European Parliament decided to lift his immunity. And, finally, even as Jobbik began drifting away from Russia, Fidesz more than filled the void. Although Fidesz has had close ties to Russia ever since 2011, it was somewhat constrained by the European Union. With the election of Donald Trump, however, it is now confident that it is on the winning side.

According to the Political Capital study, “Russian military intelligence officers, masquerading as diplomats, staged regular mock combat exercises using plastic guns with neo-Nazi activists.” They carried out these exercises even though Hungarian intelligence was ostensibly keeping an eye on Győrkös’s “network of extremists linked to and encouraged by Russia.”

The analysts of Political Capital admit that support for these fringe groups rarely pans out, but “reaching out to those on the margins costs little and sometimes hits pay dirt. That happened with Jobbik,” claims András Rácz, a Russian expert at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. I heartily disagree with Rácz. Jobbik didn’t become an important party because of Russian financial support. They “hit pay dirt” with their anti-Gypsy rhetoric in a country where over 80% of the population is strongly anti-Roma. Their anti-Semitism also added to their popularity in certain circles.

The other topic The New York Times article treats at some length is the case of Béla Kovács, who is “widely mocked as KGBela.” I have written many times about the Russian financing of Jobbik and the role Béla Kovács played in the relationship between Jobbik and the Kremlin. But I don’t think I reported that in June 2015 the European Parliament lifted his immunity, thereby allowing a Hungarian investigation of his case. As The New York Times article admits, “authorities in Hungary have so far shown little real interest in pursuing the matter.” Just as “the government has shown similar reluctance to probe too deeply into Russia’s links” to István Győrkös’s neo-Nazi activities. This reluctance is worrisome. But even more worrisome is that when Bernadett Szél of LMP proposed a parliamentary investigation into Russian interference in Hungarian affairs, the move was blocked by Fidesz.

I’m Béla Rabbit. And I’m the Russian bear.

The official Jobbik news site alfarhir.hu is no more pro-Russian than Magyar Idők or Magyar Hírlap. Any Russian “financial aid” given to Hungarian fringe groups or to Jobbik is by now a complete waste of money since the ruling party and the Hungarian government are fully committed to a pro-Russian foreign policy. Why throw away good money on fringe groups, especially on Jobbik, which at the moment is considered to be the chief enemy of the Orbán government? Russian money to “unsettle the E.U.” is going straight to the Hungarian government in the form of billions of euros for the Paks Nuclear Power Plant enlargement. The real threat is not Jobbik or the neo-Nazi fringe groups financed by Russia but Viktor Orbán, who is doing Vladimir Putin’s bidding.

December 28, 2016

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

Hungary quits the Open Government Partnership in a huff

Yesterday the Associated Press reported the Hungarian government’s decision to quit the Open Government Partnership (OGP), “a multilateral initiative that aims to secure concrete commitments from governments to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance.”

OGP was formally launched on September 20, 2011, when the eight founding governments (Brazil, Norway, the Philippines, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States) endorsed OGP’s Declaration and announced their countries’ action plans. Since 2011, 62 other countries joined, including Hungary, which signed its letter of intent on July 10, 2012. In this letter of intent the Orbán government declared that “it attached the utmost importance to cooperation with civil organizations.” It was the Ministry of Public Administration and Justice under Tibor Navracsics that represented the Hungarian government in this particular undertaking, which claimed at the time that “it supports the effective implementation of the OGP commitments.” It also promised “in person consultations with the civil organizations and experts regularly on a monthly basis.”

These were the promises, but according to the recollections of the participants, after the initial good working relations “the process started to slow down as the document reached the political level.” The final commitments were vague and greatly weakened. By 2014 it was clear that the Hungarian government’s “sole purpose with its membership was the opportunity to communicate its devotion to open government” to the international community.

Hungary is the second country whose government is not ready to abide by guidelines set by the Steering Committee of OGP and endorsed by them. The first country to leave OGP was Putin’s Russia, which had joined the organization in April 2012. A year later, on May 17, 2013, the Russian government informed the group of its decision to leave. Russia’s participation in this group was dubious from the very beginning, but there were other countries whose commitments to the ideals of OGP were also questionable. OGP acknowledged in February 2014 that Lithuania, Malta, and Turkey had failed to meet their commitments as members of the Open Government Partnership. Warnings were issued to these three states. In addition, the Steering Committee redefined standards for suspending members. “Two warnings in a row would trigger a discussion about continued membership of OGP countries” that create hostile environments for civil society.

By October 2014 new rules were in place that made suspension of membership practically automatic if any country limits the freedom of information; limits the activities of civic groups; favors civic groups attached in some way to the government; limits the freedom of expression and freedom of assembly; limits freedom of the press, independence of the media, or engages in the intimidation of media owners. 444.hu’s eagle-eyed reporters noted the OGP’s tightened rules for suspension, adding that they are tailor-made for Viktor Orbán’s Hungary.

The first victim of the new suspension rules was Azerbaijan. In March 2016 the Criteria and Standards Subcommittee recommended the move because “such constraints are evident in the laws on grants, non-governmental organizations, incarceration of NGO activists and journalists” that would precipitate “OGP’s response policy.” At that time, it was noted, “similar NGO complaints that the Hungarian government is restricting civil society remain under consideration.” In addition, Turkey was suspended in September 2016 because it had failed to deliver a National Action Plan since 2014.

Prior to this time the Orbán government had begun a war against Hungarian nongovernmental groups, financed mostly by the Norway Grants but also by the Soros Foundation. The government accused these NGOs of representing foreign interests and proceeded to raid their offices. At that point four leaders of NGOs decided to follow their colleagues in Azerbaijan and launch a formal complaint against the Orbán government. Fanny Hidvégi of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, Sándor Léderer of K-Monitor Watchdog for Public Funds, Miklós Ligeti of Transparency International Hungary, and Júlia Keserű of the Sunlight Foundation wrote a letter to the members of the OGP Steering Committee. The letter is available on the internet.

After considering the complaints submitted by Hungarian NGO leaders, OGP proposed several remedies that the Orbán government should adopt. It suggested the establishment of a Permanent Dialogues Mechanism (PDM) within sixty days that would ensure the participation of the relevant government agencies and interested civil society organizations. What must have especially irritated the Orbán government was that “all members of the public will be kept informed about all core aspects of the national OGP process—and especially know well in advance … about the key moments to provide inputs and discuss priorities.” OGP demanded five so-called Smart Recommendations that the Orbán government would never accept: monitoring of public disclosure practices of local government and state-owned enterprises; reviewing party and campaign financing regulations; revising the freedom of information regulations; revising regulations on classified information; and launching e-procurement. For easy access to this document, I am attaching it in full at the end of this post.

After reading these “recommendations” I’m not at all surprised that the Orbán government accepted the odium of withdrawal. A semi-autocratic, illiberal government of the kind that exists in Hungary today would never agree to such demands.

So, let’s see how the official government media explained the decision. Magyar Idők justified the Hungarian decision by citing OGP’s “one-sided criticism” of the Orbán government based on the unfair accusations of “civilians financed by George Soros.” These NGOs serve foreign interests and have been spreading false stories about the Hungarian government. Transparency International and TASZ, the Hungarian equivalent of the Civil Liberties Union, had complained to the organization about the Orbán government already in October 2012, shortly after Hungary joined OGP. In January 2013 K-Monitor allied with TASZ and TI in a new attack. And here was the latest one. It was high time to quit this unfair organization.

In the opinion of Szilárd Németh, deputy chairman of Fidesz, Hungary’s abandonment of the organization “actually sheds a very positive light on us because we do not want to participate in an organization where members carry on a conversation among themselves after which they single out somebody whom they are trying to keep at bay with one-sided reports, distortions of facts, with documents prepared by phony civil organizations mostly financed by George Soros.” It was a good decision, “a lovely gift for the time when they can get together again and they can nod against Hungary.” Németh is referring to the Open Government Global Summit, which is being held at this very moment in Paris.

The opposition’s interpretation of the move was predictable. They pointed out that the Orbán government no longer cares what the world thinks of it because surely, following in Russia’s footsteps, they are practically admitting that they are corrupt to the core. Zsolt Gréczy, DK’s spokesman, said that Hungary’s eventual suspension from the organization was inevitable. But the country’s withdrawal from the organization a day before the beginning of the Global Summit was unnecessary in that Hungary was not facing suspension at this time. The demands the organization made on the Orbán government, however, were more than the “proud Magyar” could stomach.

♦ ♦ ♦

December 8, 2016

The men behind Paks II: Günther Oettinger and Klaus Mangold

Today János Lázár triumphantly announced that all of the EU’s questions about the Russian- built and financed Paks II nuclear power plant have been satisfactorily resolved. Hungary is free to begin its mega-investment which, according to most experts, is an unnecessary undertaking which most likely will also be unprofitable.

Coincident with, and not totally disconnected from, this announcement is the political storm brewing in Brussels over the appointment of Günther Oettinger, commissioner for digital economy and society, to be the replacement for Kristalina Georgieva, who in the last two years was EU commissioner in charge of the European Union’s budget and who also served as one of the vice presidents of the commission.

Georgieva’s departure is considered to be a blow to the Juncker administration. She was enticed by the Bulgarian government to leave her job as vice president and corporate secretary of the World Bank. After two years in Brussels she is returning to Washington as the chief executive officer of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the International Development Association. Most people interpret her move as a criticism of the Juncker Commission’s way of doing business. According to politico.eu, “Juncker’s Commission will undeniably be weaker without Georgieva. But what makes her departure worse is that Juncker is compounding the loss by promoting Günther Oettinger to take her place.”

Oettinger has been in Brussels for a long time. Between 2010 and 2014 he was commissioner for energy. When Germany nominated him again in 2014, Jean-Claude Juncker gave him a lesser post as commissioner for digital economy.

Oettinger is known to be a man who says and does outrageous things. Back in 2000 he broke into the banned “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles” at a celebration of his German nationalist fraternity. A few weeks ago at a business conference he described a delegation of Chinese officials as having “their hair brushed from left to right with black shoe polish.” When talking about Merkel’s liberal social policy, he joked about “compulsory gay marriage.” First, Oettinger insisted that he had nothing to apologize for but, I guess under pressure from his government, he admitted that the words he used “have created bad feelings and may even have hurt people.” He is described as curt and comes across as “unintellectual and unserious—more likely to obsess over cars or football than trade deals or European Union directives.”

It was Günther Oettinger who as commissioner in charge of energy matters gave the preliminary go-ahead to the Paks project in December 2013. The incoming Juncker Commission, on the other hand, decided on a reexamination of the whole project. Although Oettinger was no longer officially responsible for energy, according to all available information he worked hard in the background to promote Orbán’s pet project.

The second player in today’s story is Klaus Mangold, a wealthy German businessman and a former member of the board of automaker Daimler. Mangold, who is sometimes referred to as “Mr. Russia” in the German press, runs an industry lobby for stronger economic ties with Russia and so has been lobbying against Western sanctions on Russia.

According to some sources, Mangold has had a long-standing interest in the Paks II project. In fact, he may well have been the person who initiated it, acting as an intermediary between Putin and Orbán. 444.hu found proof of Mangold and Orbán meeting in December 2012, “reviewing German-Hungarian and Hungarian-Russian economic relations, particularly questions of energy and its financing,” which would indicate that the meeting might have included a discussion of enlarging Paks with Russian help. So, argues 444.hu, negotiations about Paks began as early as December 2012. Subsequent talks between Russia and Hungary were conducted in secret. It was only in January 2014 that the Paks contract was signed.

Günther Oettinger may no longer be the commissioner in charge of energy matters, but he hasn’t given up his role as a secret backer of the Paks II project. Nowadays, he attends conferences in Budapest on digital economic matters and uses them as opportunities to discuss matters concerning Paks with Viktor Orbán. One of these trips took place on May 19, just before János Lázár’s trip to Brussels and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s visit to Budapest. This time Oettinger arrived on Klaus Mangold’s private jet. 444.hu learned that there was a dinner meeting attended by the two Germans and the Hungarian prime minister.

Klaus Mangold, Viktor Orbán, and Günther Oettinger

Klaus Mangold, Viktor Orbán, and Günther Oettinger in Budapest, May 19, 2016

That Oettinger flew to Budapest on Klaus Mangold’s private jet merited further investigation, but the reporters of 444.hu got nowhere with either the European Commission or Mangold’s office. A few days later Benedek Jávor, a member of the European Parliament (Group of the Greens/ European Free Alliance), wrote a post in which he expressed his disapproval of an EU commissioner lobbying for a project that is no longer in his portfolio. And there is another problem. Mangold is not a registered lobbyist, yet Oettinger met him despite EU guidelines forbidding meeting with unregistered lobbyists. Then, there is the question of the trip itself. Did Oettinger pay for it or was it a gift? According to EU rules, a commissioner cannot accept any gift over 150 euros.

So, Jávor began an investigation of his own. He wrote a letter to the European Commission:

According to an article published on 21 June 2016 in the Hungarian online magazine 444.hu, Commissioner Oettinger met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and German consultancy manager Klaus Mangold on his trip to Budapest, on 19 May 2016. During this meeting, the nuclear project Paks II was allegedly discussed.

Klaus Mangold currently leads a German consultancy firm, and used to be Chairman of the ‘Eastern Committee of the German Economy’. He is an important mediator between German firms and the Russian political scene. According to the Hungarian newspaper Figyelő, Mangold had already been a mediator in the previous 2013 Paks case. It has been reported that Commissioner Oettinger arrived in Budapest on Mr. Mangold’s private plane.

This meeting took place only a few days before Hungarian Minister János Lázár, of the Prime Minister’s office, came to Brussels to discuss the Paks II project.

We therefore ask the Commission the following:

  1. By what means did Commissioner Oettinger travel to Budapest?
  2. What information does it have about the content of this meeting?
  3. Has it investigated the possible use of state subsidies for the Paks nuclear project (SA.38454 (2015/C)(ex 2015/N)) and/or the infringement procedure in which the Commission objects that no public procurement preceded the Rosatom mandate discussed at this meeting?

Oettinger took his sweet time answering (on November 3, 2016):

  1. Due to the lack of commercial flights to arrive in time for the meeting with Prime Minister Orban, the Commissioner responsible for Digital Economy and Society joined Mr Mangold’s private plane.
  2. The Commission had been invited to a conference in Budapest about digitisation of industry and automated driving which was opened by Prime Minister Orban. Prime Minister Orban and the Commission met in order to prepare the conference and to discuss the setting up of national initiatives for the digitisation of industry (as outlined in the communication by the Commission of 19 April 2016(1)).
  3. The Paks II nuclear project was not discussed.

Two days ago the story was finally out in the open. Eszter Zalan of euobserver.com wrote an article inquiring whether Oettinger broke any ethics rule by traveling on a private plane of a German businessman with strong Kremlin ties. The article points out that on May 18 there was a choice of four commercial flights from Brussels to Budapest, and therefore Oettinger is simply not telling the truth.

In a way Oettinger’s flight with Mr. Russia is of secondary importance. What is much more worrisome is the visit of Oettinger and Mangold to Budapest in order to advise Viktor Orbán on how to handle a commission probe into the Paks project. But, as often happens, the use of the jet makes bigger waves than the less tangible accusation of foul play on the part of a pro-Russian lobbyist and a pro-Russian prime minister.

Oettinger, like so many people in such situations, keeps giving contradictory statements. By now his story has changed somewhat. In his latest version the Hungarian government paid for his plane ride. “We did not explicitly ask HU [Hungary] about their payment—neither for plane nor for hotel they also offered,” he said. He claims that “governments often offer transport & accommodation for missions of Commissioners when they invited for meeting, conference,” he tweeted, adding “I was invited to a dinner with a Prime Minister to discuss EU digital policies. It is my job to explain & discuss.”

The European People’s Party’s reaction to the Oettinger story is what it always is when one of their own is being questioned about a wrongdoing. Manfred Webber, who is the leader of the EPP group, told journalists that he had “complete confidence” in Oettinger. He called him a “very experienced commissioner” and said there was “no doubt at all whether Günther Oettinger is doing a good job.” The Socialists and the Democrats are naturally less charitable. They called on Oettinger “to clarify his unfortunate actions and unethical behavior.”

444.hu not undeservedly feels proud that one of its investigative pieces was picked up by the international media. And it is still on Oettinger’s case. Its reporters discovered that the EU commissioner paid a visit to Budapest during the past weekend and that he was planning to return to the Hungarian capital today. The occasion for Oettinger’s visit this past weekend was apparently a party given by the Strabag Construction Company. According to 444.hu, this trip was not recorded on the commissioner’s calendar. The occasion for his latest trip is another conference on digital cars and, again, he has a planned meeting with Viktor Orbán. Isn’t it amazing how the busy Hungarian prime minister has so much time for and interest in digital cars? All in all, Günther Oettinger’s activities in Hungary are highly suspicious, and they should be seriously investigated. However, most likely nothing will happen. Apparently he has the strong support of Chancellor Angela Merkel.

November 17, 2016

Russian disinformation in the pro-government Hungarian media

About two months ago I read a fascinating article published by Political Capital, a political science think tank, on Russian conspiracy theories and disinformation that circulate worldwide. On the whole the Russian effort is not very successful because few reputable conservative or liberal newspapers are willing to spread its propaganda. Not so the Hungarian pro-government newspapers, which often take Russian “news stories” at face value.

I have written several times about the Hungarian public’s gullibility when it comes to these theories. But it is one thing for an uneducated Aunt Mary or Uncle Joe to believe fanciful fabrications and quite another for pro-government newspapers to help spread the disinformation originating in Russia. In May of this year an English-language study titled Fog of Falsehood: Russian Strategy of Deception and the Conflict in Ukraine, edited by Katri Pynnöniemi and András Rácz, was published. One chapter, written by András Rácz, was devoted to Hungary. Naturally, the author concentrates on Hungarian reporting on Ukraine, but it is also a good source on the overall reporting practices of the official news agency, MTI, as well as publications like Index, Origo, Magyar Nemzet, and Magyar Idők. Since the study is in English and available online, there is no need to say much about it here, except that because MTI often relies on Russian sources, the news Hungarians receive on Ukraine goes through a kind of Russian filter. Since the Hungarian media is centralized and the Orbán government usually takes a pro-Russian position when it comes to foreign affairs, it should come as no surprise that papers that are in essence mouthpieces of the government will often regurgitate the pro-Russian attitudes of the politicians.

disinformation

Political Capital studied five pieces of disinformation circulated by the Kremlin. The first was in connection with the Maidan revolution of 2013-2014, which Vladimir Putin described as a far-right provocation. It was spread far and wide that the CIA organized the “Ukrainian putsch” in order to remove Putin from his position. The pro-government Hungarian media followed suit. From the very beginning Kossuth Rádió called the revolutionaries “terrorists.” One political scientist in the pay of the Hungarian government claimed that it was Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state, who dictated the names of the new Ukrainian cabinet to the U.S. Ambassador in Kiev. In Magyar Hírlap a right-wing economist took it for granted that the United States was behind the revolt.

The situation was the same when it came to the death of 298 people on the Malaysian Airline plane that was shot down, as it turned out later, by Russian or Russian-supported forces in July 2014. The Russians came up with all sorts of conspiracy theories to divert attention away from their own responsibility for the disaster. At that time Zsolt Bayer claimed that “even a child of average intelligence can figure out in three minutes that Putin is the one in this equation who had the least interest in the downing of the Malaysian plane.” One of the Orbán government’s so-called security experts, Georg Spöttle, claimed that “there was something on the plane” before it crashed. He based this supposition on a theory put forth by a pro-Russian internet site: that Dutch security forces had planted a bomb on the aircraft.

The pro-government Hungarian media also accepted Russian disinformation in connection with the assassination of Boris Nemtsov, circulated to deflect any suspicion of Putin’s complicity in the murder. The Russians offered several theories. One claimed that radical Islamists were behind the murder. The head of the Russian investigation committee was looking for extreme right-wing elements. Interfax talked about opposition business circles being behind Nemtsov’s death. The Hungarian right-wing media got the message. Gyula T. Máté, son of Gyula Thürmer, chairman of the Hungarian Communist Party, explained why Putin couldn’t possibly be involved in the murder and pointed instead to Ukraine. Zsolt Bayer embellished this story by adding that Nemtsov’s Ukrainian girlfriend had had an abortion and introducing a jealous lover.

The Hungarian pro-government media also picked up a story from the Kremlin-funded Sputnik, according to which two of the suspects of the terrorist attacks in Brussels were actually Belarussian citizens. Behind this bit of disinformation was a Russian-Belarusian spat over Belarus’s too friendly attitude toward the West at the time. Nonetheless, the official MTVA hirado.hu decided to run this bogus story, which was picked up from a historian who read about the brothers in Syrian and Tunisian internet sources. Magyar Idők also devoted a short article to the story, which in this case came straight from Pravda.ru.

Finally, there was the Russian attempt to blame the United States and George Soros for WikiLeaks’ release of the Panama Papers, which was considered to be a personal attack on Vladimir Putin. The Russian president himself in a question/answer marathon blamed the United States for the release of the Panama Papers, saying that “they will keep doing this anyway, and the nearer the elections, the more such stories will be planted.” The pro-government Hungarian media jumped on the bandwagon. Quoting Dmitriy Peskov, the spokesman for the Kremlin, Magyar Idők reported that American officials had apologized to Vladimir Putin for the release of the papers even before they were actually made available online.

These are just a few examples of Russian disinformation being spread by the Hungarian pro-government media. I’m sure that I could come up with many more if I spent a few days combing through the appropriate sources. The lesson? The Hungarian government has closely allied itself to Putin’s Russia. Orbán and his friends use a number of formerly pro-Soviet/pro-Russian journalists who studied in the Soviet Union or whose fathers spent years in Russia. They are fluent in the language and follow the Russian media closely. People of pro-Russian sentiment can be found on the left too, but after Orbán changed from being an avid Russian antagonist to an enthusiastic pro-Russian these left-wingers moved over to the Orbán camp. Thus, Gyula Thürmer, the arch-communist, by 2014 was supporting Fidesz, and his son, Gyula T. Máté, has a regular column in Magyar Hírlap. Strange things can happen in Orbán’s Hungary.

August 27, 2016