Tag Archives: Russia

Hungarians in praise of Vladimir Putin and his empire

It was only a few days ago that I devoted a post to Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó’s visit to Washington, where he met the new assistant secretary of state in charge of European and Eurasian Affairs, Wess Mitchell. It is hard to pass judgment on the meeting because both parties remained silent on the subject. One thing, however, is fairly certain: there are no definite plans for Viktor Orbán to travel to Washington and meet with President Trump. As Jenő Megyesy, an Orbán adviser on American affairs, put it, “such bilateral meetings are important only when there is some important topic or conflict on the horizon.” This is not the case today. This kind of talk indicates that there is no significant improvement in U.S.-Hungarian relations. One of the obstacles to closer links between the two countries is Russian-Hungarian relations.

Today I would like to call attention to two manifestations of the uncritical pro-Russian attitude propagated in the Hungarian administration and in the media. The first one comes straight from the Ministry of Defense. It is an article written by Lt. Colonel Endre Szénási, security and defense policy expert in the ministry’s Department of Defense Policy (Védelempolitikai Főosztály). The other was written by László Gy. Tóth, who is described in the media as “a political scientist close to the government.” He is an old hand in the trade. In 1997 he published a series of essays about “The heirs of Kádárism,” which I picked up by mistake and found to be utterly worthless.

Let’s start with a Hungarian military man’s assessment of the United States, Russia, NATO, and military matters in general. Before Szijjártó’s meeting with Wess Mitchell, the foreign minister pointed out that both in military and in economic matters relations between the United States and Hungary are excellent. Problems crop up only in political relations between the two countries. But do these two NATO allies see eye to eye on matters related to defense and their relationship to Russia when a chief analyst of the Ministry of Defense identifies with the interests of Vladimir Putin’s Russia? Because this is exactly what Szénási does. The article is actually about Michael Flynn’s “regrettable” departure from the White House, which may put an end to Donald Trump’s attempt at a rapprochement with Russia.

It is not Szénási’s erroneous analysis of American politics that deserves our attention but his statements on Russia and its role in world affairs. In his opinion, Russia is not an expansionist country. “It is only defending its own historical sphere of interest.” Russia is not “even aggressive since it didn’t force a change of regime in Georgia by military means. It didn’t bomb the Georgian ministry of defense, which in a classic war situation is the number one target. Unlike the United States it didn’t enforce regime change; it didn’t overthrow the government; it didn’t occupy Tbilisi.”

Russia wasn’t an aggressor in the Ukrainian case either. “Since 2014 it has occupied only that part of the Donets-Lugansk region which has a clear Russian identity. Moreover, the West mistakenly believes that the occupation of Crimea was an act of aggression. As far as Lt. Colonel Szénási is concerned, it is perfectly acceptable for Russia to militarily occupy territories of another country whose territorial integrity it had guaranteed earlier.

This article appeared originally in Terror & Elhárítás (Terror and interception), a periodical published by TEK (Terrorelhárítási Központ), often described as Viktor Orbán’s private army. It was subsequently discovered by András Domány, a well-known journalist and expert on Polish affairs. In his article in Élet és Irodalom, titled “Kormányzati tudomány” (Government science), he wonders whether the leadership of NATO or the Ukrainian government is aware of the appearance of this article and whether they will be satisfied with the explanation that this is just the private opinion of a government official. Because officially, Hungary is still one of the guarantors of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. 444 also picked up the story of Szénási’s lofty defense of Russia and added a few more quotations from other works by the security and defense expert.

Now, let’s move on to the article of our political scientist, László Gy. Tóth. Perhaps someone should translate the whole article because almost every sentence in it is an outrage. Here is one of the first sentences: “Judged by his activities to date, Vladimir Putin’s rational policies are of serious value.” After a sob story about Putin’s poverty-stricken childhood and his hard-working, deeply religious mother, Tóth goes on to praise him as the president of a country which is described as “a constitutional democracy that differs from the western variety because of the somewhat archaic and traditionalist value system of Russian society.” Putin guarantees human rights but “supports only those cultural trends that are not in conflict with traditional Russian values.”

As far as foreign affairs are concerned, “Russia is open to the world.” It attempts to be a partner with the EU and NATO. As Putin said, “We must try to configure a Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok.” This new Europe would be based on some kind of supranationalism, which means “a higher ranking cooperation of nationalisms.” I guess a united Europe under Vladimir Putin would be preferable to what we have now in Europe, which Viktor Orbán thoroughly detests.

The tension between the European Union and Russia is solely the fault of the United States. For decades American foreign policy strategists have been trying to isolate Russia by “generating conflict between the European Union and Russia. They have created an operetta-revolution in Belgrade, a revolution in Georgia in 2003, and a Ukrainian revolution in 2004. How? Through George Soros, various kinds of NGOs, and the CIA.

Yet “Putin is more and more accepted in Europe because it dawned on European politicians that today Russia has nothing to do with the former Soviet Union.” Russia today is, “in the good sense of the word, a nationalist, presidential, constitutional state that wants to base its future on traditionalist values. One must take cognizance of the fact that Russia is the leading military power of Europe and the only country in the world whose nuclear capabilities are not one bit smaller than those of the increasingly aggressive and unpredictable United States.”

In Tóth’s view, “in the newly created cold war, the Russian position is unequivocal and rational. If the United States acts in violation of previously concluded bilateral arms-control agreements, Russia will react immediately. This is a clear and rational standpoint that the Americans must accept.” Tóth adds: “Hungary was among the first countries to recognize that the Russian Empire has returned to the stage of the great powers.”

What can one say? It is hard to imagine that a member of Hungary’s armed forces and an official in the ministry of defense can spout off freely, expressing policies that are diametrically opposed to the official policies of Hungary. One must ask: What is the official policy of Hungary vis-à-vis Russia? Does anyone know for sure? Can its NATO allies trust the Hungarian military establishment when a long-time employee of the ministry and a member of the country’s military holds views like the ones that are expressed in his available writings? I have no idea, but I assume that the U.S. military attaché and his staff do read periodicals pertaining to military matters and have noted the appearance of articles like Szénási’s. Because I’m sure that anyone who took the trouble could find scores of articles similar in spirit to what is exhibited in Szénási’s pieces.

As for László Gy. Tóth, the so-called political scientist, one can hardly find words to describe the article’s sycophantic tone. Moreover, the article is sprinkled with old turns of phrase from the Rákosi and Kádár regimes. Phrases like “az Egyesült Államok kiszolgálói” (the hired hands of the United States) return in this article. One could perhaps argue that Tóth is just a political scientist, but such an article couldn’t appear in Magyar Idők without approval. This particular article might be stronger than some others that appear in the paper praising Russia and its leader, but Magyar Idők and Magyar Hírlap are both full of pro-Russian editorials. One must assume that the publication of these articles doesn’t bother the Orbán government at all; in fact, it endorses them.

January 23, 2018

Morawiecki’s pilgrimage to Budapest: It might have been in vain

Viktor Orbán was evidently pleased with his administration’s impressive show of diplomatic prowess when he boasted two days ago that “This is a strong beginning to the year; in two days two prime ministers of the European Union visited Budapest.” He announced this during the press conference that he and Leo Varadkar, Taoiseach of Ireland, held on Thursday. Varadkar’s was only a quick working visit. By contrast, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki was received the day before with great fanfare, which included the appearance of a colorful “huszár bandérium.”

The trip to Budapest was the first official visit of the newly appointed Polish prime minister. In addition to acknowledging the historical friendship between the two countries and to reinforcing the ideological ties that bind Kaczyński’s Poland and Orbán’s Hungary, the trip was intended to serve pragmatic interests. Under normal circumstances, Hungary has to play second fiddle to the much larger and stronger Poland, but today it is Poland that badly needs the goodwill and benevolence of Hungary. The reason is that Frans Timmermans, vice president of the European Commission, announced on December 20, 2017 that “it is with a heavy heart that we’ve decided to trigger article 7 point 1 [of the EU Treaty], but the facts leave us no choice.” The expectation in Poland is that Viktor Orbán would veto the implementation of article 7 against Poland if and when such an eventuality actually takes place. In fact, Euobserver took the Hungarian veto for granted, which might be premature because that threat didn’t come from Viktor Orbán but from Zsolt Semjén, who is prone to hyperbole. While journalists in Brussels looked upon the new Polish prime minister’s visit to Hungary as a snub, Polish commentators saw the trip very differently. The consensus is that Morawiecki traveled to Budapest to receive assurance from Viktor Orbán that the expected veto would be forthcoming. Polish diplomatic moves in the next months will depend on such assurances.

There were hussars but no promise of a veto / MTI / Photo: Tamás Kovács

Polish commentaries reported that the Poles were expecting Viktor Orbán to say it out loud, right there, during the press conference that “he would not allow the EU to punish” Poland. But the word everybody was waiting for was not forthcoming, as the pro-government, conservative Rzeczpospolita pointed out. What follows in this article is a long list of Orbán’s sins, among them his pro-Russian policies and his demand for autonomy for the Hungarian minority in Ukraine during the Russian aggression against that country. The conclusion is that Hungary is a difficult and perhaps even unreliable ally. For the Poles, Viktor Orbán’s Facebook note, “Poland has not yet perished, So long as we still live,” didn’t mean much because these words are merely a line from the Polish national anthem, not a promise to stand by Poland.

Hungarians also noticed the absence of any mention of Article 7 in the hour-long press conference because surely, said Szabolcs Vörös of Válasz, it is hard to imagine that the matter wasn’t brought up during the conversation between the two men. Orbán mostly talked about Eastern Europe as the engine of the European economy, strong and economically successful member nations, and migration, which will spark serious debates in 2018. As for Morawiecki, his comments were even less enlightening. According to him, the two countries see eye to eye on current issues in Europe, member nations must be united on the question of Brexit, and, naturally, Poland has the same opinion on migration as Hungary does.

That wasn’t much, but what was really surprising was that no journalist who attended the press conference directed a question to either man on the crucial topic of Article 7, Poland’s current headache. But then a Polish paper, Gazeta Wiadomosci, revealed that the Polish journalists who accompanied Morawiecki to Budapest had agreed ahead of time to inquire about Article 7, but when it came time for the two questions they were allowed to ask of the two prime ministers their inquiries turned out to be trivial. The same was true of the Hungarian journalists. The paper came to the conclusion that “there was censorship in Budapest.”

It is true that Orbán subsequently gave a lengthy interview to Poland’s public television station in which he assured his audience that “Hungary stands by Poland,” whatever that means. Yet there are signs that the Poles don’t really trust Hungary as an ally. The spokeswoman of the liberal Nowoczesna, a liberal party, said in a radio interview: “I was just stunned; our diplomacy hasn’t changed at all. We entrust our security to Hungary, who sides with Russia. It is sad that we had to go to Hungary for Orbán’s veto, which at the end we didn’t get.”

The most detailed analysis of current Polish-Hungarian relations appeared in Független Hírügynökség. The article is simply signed as “Sikorsky,” although I suspect the author is Hungarian, someone who seems to be thoroughly familiar with Polish as well as Slovak and Czech affairs. In his opinion, the Czechs and Slovaks believed that Morawiecki’s trip to Budapest was first and foremost “a message to Brussels” that Hungary stands squarely behind Poland, and that was most likely the expectation of the Polish government as well. The new government spokesman, Michał Dworczyk, told the Polish Press Agency (PAP) that the dispute between Warsaw and Brussels will be “among the most important items on the agenda.” In fact, he pretty well admitted that it was the real purpose of the meeting. The Polish prime minister wanted to have assurances of a solid alliance before he faced the European Commission.

After Orbán’s silence, several commentaries appeared in the Visegrád countries, among them one in the Slovak Pravda, in which Ivan Drábek reminded people that the leaders of PiS haven’t forgotten Orbán’s duplicity when, instead of keeping his promise to Poland to block the reelection of Donald Tusk, he actually supported Tusk’s appointment as president of the European Council. The Polish Gazeta Wyborcza’s editorial also considers Hungary an unreliable ally. According to the author, Poland needs an ally that would be a reliable partner in the long run against both Russia and Germany. A Hungarian commentator in Népszava in a different context talked about Morawiecki and Orbán as two fantasts. Such a designation might be true of the Poles, who dream of being a great power between Russia and Germany, but it is certainly not true of Orbán, who is an unsentimental pragmatist. If he decides that it is not in his interest to support Poland, he will abandon the country without a second thought. He might already have done so.

January 6, 2018

Russian influence on the Hungarian “government-organized media”

In the last few months I have noticed a growing interest in the spread of “fake news” in the government-sponsored media, which Péter Krekó of Political Capital calls “government-organized media.” This is an important topic, given the government’s power over these media outlets and the amount of money it spends to keep them alive. It is a well-known fact that all regional papers are in the hands of pro-Fidesz oligarchs and that their content is provided from the center. Excellent graphs in an article published by Átlátszó at the end of November show the preponderance of government media. Through its daily and weekly papers, internet sites, and radio and television networks, Fidesz-government propaganda reaches 8.7 million people, whereas critical voices get to only 3.1 million. The only media surface where there is more or less parity is the internet, where 50% of the sites are government critical as opposed to 37% pro-Fidesz sites.

It would take a great deal more study of the “government-organized media” before one could give a full picture of how it is structured and what its end-goal is in spreading fake news. An incredible number of news items and opinion pieces appear in solidly Fidesz publications, such as Magyar Idők, Magyar Hírlap, and Demokrata, in which real and fake news are intertwined. The fake news items originate mainly in Russia and the United States.

Russian news and propaganda comes via English-language channels like Russia Today and Sputnik. The former is already available in Hungary for subscribers to a UPC package that includes CNN, BBC, and now RT. But since few people in Hungary speak English and, as László Seres claims, the “Eastern Opening” is not popular, most Hungarians are not being subjected to Russian propaganda directly. Instead, it is right-wing Hungarian journalists who rely on the news provided by these Russian propaganda sources and spread it, primarily through Magyar Idők and Magyar Hírlap.

A few months ago the rumor circulated that RT will start a Hungarian-language TV network, but this was just talk. Péter Krekó is right: to establish such a network would be a total waste of money since the Hungarian government is serving up Russian propaganda quite willingly. As for Seres’s claim that the majority of Hungarians are against the “Eastern Opening,” this might be true, but there is a large minority that is passionately pro-Russian and admires Vladimir Putin to no end. The other day both Magyar Hírlap and Mandiner, an online news site, published opinion pieces expressing their disgust at the European Union’s criticism of the Russian authorities’ decision to bar opposition leader Alexei Navalny from running in next year’s presidential election. The comments that followed these articles showed a great deal of sympathy for Putin and the Russia he has built. This pro-Russian crowd is still a minority, but, with the help of the Hungarian government-sponsored media, pro-Russian sentiment is growing.

Pro-government Hungarian media outlets also rely on internet news sites that practically specialize in fake news and conspiracy theories. Infowars is one of these, which is quoted often enough in Magyar Hírlap and Magyar Idők. Media Bias/Fact Check, which styles itself as “the most comprehensive media bias resource,” describes Infowars as “extreme right.” It is considered to be “a questionable source [that] exhibits one or more of the following: extreme bias, overt propaganda, poor or no sourcing to credible information and/or is fake news.” Infowars uses material from Russian propaganda news sites and from conspiracy websites such as Zero Hedge.

One can also find references in the Fidesz media to Your News Wire, which is described by Media Bias/Fact Check as belonging to the “conspiracy-pseudoscience category,” which may publish unverifiable information that is not always supported by evidence. Another source that crops up in Magyar Hírlap and Magyar Idők is Daily Caller, which is “moderately to strongly biased toward conservative causes through story selection and/or political affiliation.” Daily Caller uses strongly loaded words in an attempt to influence, and they publish misleading reports or omit reporting of information that may damage conservative causes. All in all, the foreign news that reaches the readers of government papers, whether it comes from Russia or the United States, is strongly biased at best and fabricated at worst.

Let me give an illustration from an opinion piece written by István Lovas, in which I read the incredible news that “American military forces that are staying illegally in Syria enable ISIS terrorists to participate in military exercises at their military base near Al-Tanf.” The news reached Hungary thanks to the good offices of Russia Today. This astonishing news was reported by Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff of the armed forces of Russia and first deputy defense minister. The Russians have proof: satellite sighting and intelligence reports. I found only one article, on a right-wing internet site called Strategic Culture Foundation, that carried the news today. The problem is that their source was the same Russia Today that was also the source for Lovas. Strategic Culture took the alleged news seriously and created quite a story around it, accusing Donald Trump of a dirty double game.

Finally, there are some western journalists who spread pro-Russian propaganda. Botond Bőtös of Átlátszó wrote an article recently about F. William Engdahl, an American writer based in Germany. As Wikipedia puts it, “he identifies himself as an economic researcher, historian and freelance journalist.” Engdahl’s propaganda, via Hungarian intermediaries, reached Hungary as well. There might be a connection between his old preoccupation with “George Soros and his financial network” and Viktor Orbán’s propaganda campaign against Soros.

All in all, the Hungarian government media serves Russian propaganda well, thanks to a number of domestic and foreign pro-Russian propagandists busily spreading the word.

December 30, 2017

That’s one way to win an election–Eliminate the opposition

Two months ago, on October 7, I wrote a lengthy post about “another attempt to silence Jobbik.” In that article I explained in great detail the manner in which the Állami Számvevőszék (State Accounting Office/ÁSZ) normally audits political parties and that 2017 is the year that the most recent audits would take place, with ÁSZ checking the books for 2015-2016. The deadline for submitting the paperwork was October 3. However, on September 28, Jobbik was informed that ÁSZ is also interested in the financial affairs of the party during the first six months of 2017. This was an unheard-of demand in the 27-year history of ÁSZ. Jobbik was told that the auditors would arrive the next day, a Friday, although Jobbik informed them that the office would be not open that day. Jobbik asked for a postponement until October 2. The request was not granted, although the date was before the October 3 deadline. All attempts to file the documentation failed. The documents couldn’t be sent electronically, and when Jobbik officials hand-delivered them, ÁSZ refused to accept them. There were numerous signs indicating that the whole scenario had been carefully orchestrated from above. The head of ÁSZ is a former Fidesz member of parliament. His appointment on July 5, 2010 was one of the first to signal that all allegedly independent organs will be led by former Fidesz politicians.

At that time it was only LMP that came to Jobbik’s rescue. The party issued a statement deploring “the campaign against representative democracy,” and it also announced that it will ask TASZ, Hungary’s Civil Liberties Union, to provide legal aid to Jobbik. I don’t know whether anything came of TASZ’s legal assistance because I haven’t seen any public discussion of the case in the last two months.

Fidesz’s gift to Jobbik was delivered yesterday, the day when good children are supposed to get presents from Santa Claus. I wouldn’t be surprised if this whole rotten affair was cynically planned this way. Viktor Orbán and his loyal criminals are capable of such a sick “joke.”

The billboard responsible for the present predicament of Jobbik

Jobbik was fined 331 million forints, and it will be docked another 331 million from the funds that the party is supposed to get from the budget this year. That amounts to over $2.4 million. The reason? Jobbik is charged with acquiring surfaces for its billboards below “market price,” which is the price either Fidesz or Viktor Orbán decided was the market price. In a true market economy, the price of goods is arrived at through negotiations between seller and buyer. That’s the first problem. The second problem is that ÁSZ didn’t look at the actual documentation on the basis of which it arrived at its verdict.

Jobbik has no 331 million forints in its bank account, and therefore it claims that under these circumstances it simply cannot compete fairly or perhaps not at all in the election campaign that will be officially launched very soon. Even if Jobbik asked for backing from its supporters, the money it received would go straight to ÁSZ. The government’s goal is clear: to cripple Jobbik, which at the moment is the largest opposition party. If Viktor Orbán manages to get rid of Jobbik, he will have to face only the highly fractured left-of-center parties, which are still negotiating about how to face Fidesz in the coming election. Although at the moment these parties have no intention of cooperating with Jobbik, Viktor Orbán is likely still worried about the possibility that such a collaboration might materialize, which could be a serious threat to his electoral chances. If Fidesz gets rid of Jobbik, however, it can kill two birds with one stone. The party removes a serious rival while abroad it can explain that Fidesz, which is a “conservative,” “right-of-center” party, managed to eliminate a far-right and dangerous group. Few people are aware of the fact that by now Fidesz is farther to the right than Jobbik and, what is more important, that Jobbik poses less of a threat to Hungarian democracy than the governing party, with all the political, economic, and military might at its disposal.

Jobbik’s internet newspaper, Alfahír, made an emotional appeal to the citizens of the country. First, the party turned to those liberal and leftist voters who consider Jobbik a far-right, racist, Nazi party. The author of the article claims that he understands their feelings because he himself felt the same kind of antagonism toward Soros and his supporters. But once he saw what the government did to Central European University and asked himself who the next victim will be, he changed his mind. What will happen if all opposing views are silenced? The author repeated this message for former Fidesz voters who, he states, surely didn’t vote in 2010 or 2014 for a one-party system.

The left-of-center parties more or less lined up in their condemnation of Fidesz’s attempt to annihilate Jobbik. Viktor Szigetvári of Együtt even filed charges against Fidesz, targeting its own advertising budget during the 2010 and 2014 election campaigns. The only exception seems to be Momentum, which will stand by Jobbik only if it receives answers to several questions. Momentum’s first concern seems to be the person of Béla Kovács. The case against him for alleged espionage has been in limbo for four years. Somewhat suspiciously, it was a couple of days ago that at last the prosecutors decided to charge him with espionage. Momentum inquired why Jobbik didn’t investigate Kovács’s case in the last four years. Momentum’s leaders also want to know whether Jobbik received any money from Russia through Béla Kovács. Finally, how did Jobbik have enough money to lease and later purchase several thousand billboard spaces? While the first two questions are legitimate, with the question about the billboards Momentum is essentially siding with Fidesz.

Two prominent lawyers offered their opinions about what Jobbik can do under the circumstances. Jobbik’s room to maneuver is small. There is no opportunity to appeal the verdict. András Schiffer looks at the government’s attack on Jobbik as “the beginning of the end of the multi-party system in Hungary.” The government was able to use this “trick” because the law on party financing, written 28 years ago, is most likely unconstitutional. “Nowhere [in the law] are there any procedural safeguards or the possibility of redress when the validation of fundamental rights and one of the elements of democratic governance is violated.” According to Schiffer, one possibility is for Jobbik to immediately turn to the constitutional court for an opinion. The other is for all opposition parliamentary delegations, in a joint action, to do the same. György Magyar, who by the way recently served as Lajos Simicska’s lawyer, suggests a slightly different route. Jobbik should ask for a suspension of enforcement from the courts, which in turn could go to the constitutional court.

Otherwise, after temporary gloom in Jobbik circles, by tonight Vona regained his composure and made a fiery announcement on Hír TV. The party will try to collect money, and he doesn’t preclude the possibility of asking Jobbik’s supporters to go out on the streets. He sees “a storm of indignation” in all walks of life, not just among the party faithful. In his opinion, there are only two possibilities: either Orbán wins, and that’s the end of democracy in Hungary, or Jobbik “in alliance with people” who want to remove the government from power “will sweep this government away.” He then directly addressed Viktor Orbán: “Listen Viktor, you corrupt dictator. If you think that I or we are afraid of you, you are wrong. I am not afraid of you, and Jobbik is not afraid of Fidesz, and I see that the people are not afraid either. You’re the one who should be afraid. You thought that 2017 would be the year of insurgence, but you were wrong. 2018 will be the year of rebellion that will drive you away and will make you accountable. Be prepared!”

Jobbik has a large following, and the government’s dirty trick might backfire. It might turn out to be dangerous to the health of Fidesz and Viktor Orbán.

December 7, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 6, 2017

Western worries about Russian disinformation just “fits of hysterics”

Two days ago the foreign ministers of the European Union met in Brussels with Federica Mogherini, the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, presiding. She asked the ministers to support her request to increase human and financial resources “to fight against disinformation and propaganda coming from abroad,” in particular from Russia. According to newspaper reports, “nobody inside the room was opposed to beefing up the task forces involved in such an undertaking.” This unanimity is quite a change from only a few months ago, when the European Council blocked a similar proposal.

The initiative for a joint European effort to combat Russian interference in the political processes of member states came from a Romanian member of the European Parliament, Siegfried Mureșan, who suggested in May that funds for that use be included in next year’s EU budget. It was high time to pay more attention to the problem. Russia has a small army of hackers and trolls. By contrast, the EU’s task force that concentrates on the eastern front has 15 employees and the one that focuses on the Western Balkans and the Arab-speaking world is even smaller than that.

For some time Russia has been active in Europe as well as in North America. For instance, Russian hackers got hold of nine gigabytes of e-mails from Macron’s campaign. Macron complained to Putin at their first meeting in May about Russia Today and Sputnik, financed by Russia’s defense ministry, which attacked Macron’s En Marche! Movement. But Russia’s cyber weapon against the West has proved to be very effective, and Putin has no intention of curbing his hackers’ activities.

Good examples of Russian manipulation can be seen in the Catalonian independence referendum and Brexit. Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis announced that his government had confirmed that a propaganda campaign intended to destabilize Spain came from Russia and Venezuela. They used Twitter, Facebook, and other internet sites to publicize the separatist cause and swing public opinion to support it.

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh identified 419 accounts operating from the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) that attempted to influence British politics. Russian hackers also spread anti-Islamic sentiments in Great Britain after the recent terrorist attacks. According to The Guardian, hundreds of paid bloggers work around the clock at IRA “to flood Russian internet forums, social networks and the comments sections of western publications—sowing disinformation, praising the country’s president, Vladimir Putin, and raging at the west.” On Monday Theresa May addressed the issue in a speech, saying that Russia’s actions were “threatening the international order on which we all depend.”

The latest complaint came today from the Netherlands. Kajsa Ollongren, minister of the interior, accused Russia of attempting to influence public opinion in the Netherlands by spreading fake news and misinformation. She stated that her country is being “monitored by Russia’s security services which constantly search for opportunities to undermine it in ways that are easy, anonymous, fast and cheap.” She came up with specific examples, one of which was using a group of Ukrainian émigrés with Russian sympathies to try to tilt Dutch public opinion towards a no vote in the referendum on the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement—which was, in fact, rejected in 2016.

Today Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, answered these accusations. “We are quite accustomed now that some of our partners in Europe and across the ocean apparently have no better things to do than blaming our media or branding them as foreign agents. Apparently, the explanation is that people in the capitals, from which such accusations come, be that Madrid or London, are facing numerous unresolved domestic problems. And, probably, get into such sensationalized fits of hysterics to draw the attention of their voters away from their inability to solve those problems,” reported Russia Today.

Hungary’s attitude to Russian internet propaganda shows the usual ambivalence. In May 2017 the European People’s Party held its conference in Malta, where the Fidesz members of the party voted with the majority in condemning “Russian disinformation undermining Western democracy.” Two months later, however, in Budapest, the Fidesz members of parliament rejected a proposal identical with the one Fidesz MEPs voted for. The opposition party LMP translated the text of the EPP statement into Hungarian and turned it in as their own proposal. The document didn’t even get to the floor. It died in committee.

At the November 13 meeting of EU foreign ministers, Szijjártó, along with all his colleagues, voted for the expansion of EU efforts to defend against the systematic cyberattacks on EU member countries. But this piece of information didn’t make it to the Hungarian media. Foreign Minister Szijjártó gave a quick press conference in the intermission, during which he assiduously avoided talking about Russian cyberattacks and concentrated instead on the migrant issue. He also complained bitterly about Ukrainian atrocities against Hungarian symbols in Berehove/Beregszász, where someone took off the Hungarian flag from town hall and put a dirty shirt on Sándor Petőfi’s statue. This anti-Hungarian incident is probably a response to Hungary’s recent treatment of Ukraine.

Hungary has been preoccupied with Ukraine ever since Kiev passed an education law stating that minority students will be able to learn all subjects in their own language in the first four grades but, starting with grade five, with the exception of one or two subjects, the language of instruction will be Ukrainian. Péter Szijjártó said that Hungary will veto all of Ukraine’s moves to strengthen its ties to the European Union. Hungary’s first opportunity to isolate Ukraine came at the end of October when Hungary vetoed a planned December 6 meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission. The NATO-Ukraine Commission is a decision-making body responsible for developing relations between NATO and Ukraine and directing cooperative activities between them. Sputnik reported the good tidings that “Hungary announced that it will block Ukraine’s aspirations to integrate into NATO.” In the meantime, Russian hackers and trolls are incredibly active in Ukraine. In Hungary one doesn’t have to worry about Russian fake news and disinformation because Hungarians are fed the same by their own government.

November 15, 2017

From football to fear: Recent opinion polls in Hungary

Today is devoted to polls. Please don’t worry, the post will not be full of numbers. I will concentrate on the big picture.

My first topic is Hungarians’ feelings for football. I think that talking about football today is especially timely because, as 444.hu’s sportswriter put it yesterday, the Swiss team “walked all over the Hungarians,” whose game was apparently full of “glaring mistakes.” It was only during halftime that the Swiss didn’t score a goal, as he put it sarcastically. Hungarian football is apparently not worth watching, and there is a point when even nationalism isn’t enough to keep interest alive. Just as there comes a time when the lure of a better life outside of the country cannot keep an awful lot of Hungarians at home.

Ever since 2010 an incredible amount of money has been spent on sports and sports facilities in general, but naturally  Viktor Orbán’s favorite sport, football, received the most. 24.hu calculated the amount of money spent between 2011 and 2017 on five sports– football, handball, basketball, water polo, and hockey–from just the so-called TAO offerings. Large companies, in lieu of taxes, can donate money to support one of these five sports, but given Orbán’s penchant for football, half of the 415 billion forints of TAO money went to football clubs. And then there are all those football stadiums, 32 of which will be built by 2020 and will cost 215 billion forints. Yet all that money didn’t improve the quality of Hungarian football, and consequently there are mighty few Hungarian fans at games.

Given the enormous outlays for football, does it serve any useful purpose? We know that the quality of play hasn’t improved and that the number of fans who show up in these new stadiums is small. Republikon Intézet conducted a poll to find out how people feel about Hungarian football. The pollsters asked two questions: (1) How true is the following statement: “I follow Hungarian football and I’m proud of it” and (2) Do you think it is worth investing in sports facilities in Hungary? The result most likely greatly saddened Viktor Orbán: the people are not grateful. Even Fidesz voters are not that proud. More than half of them are decidedly not proud, and they don’t follow the games at all. Only 22% are enthusiastic. And if that is the word from the Fidesz voters, you can imagine what the left-liberals think: 73% of them want nothing to do with the sport. Two-thirds of the Jobbik voters are also left cold by Hungarian football.

When it comes to the stadium-building mania of the prime minister, the figures are not at all encouraging. It seems that Viktor Orbán was able to convince 37% of Fidesz voters that investing in sports facilities is worthwhile, but 27% of them think it’s a waste of money. The majority of Jobbik and socialist-liberal voters disapprove of the incredible spending on stadiums and other sports facilities. What’s amazing is that Orbán, who is normally very sensitive to public opinion, seems to be utterly oblivious to the unpopularity of spending taxpayer money on his personal hobby.

Another poll that aroused my interest was conducted by Medián. The goal was to measure the extent of endangerment Hungarians feel when it comes to the perceived threat from the “migrants,” George Soros, “NGOs financed by foreigners,” the European Union, Russia, and the United States. Respondents were able to choose among five possibilities, ranging from “no threat at all” to “very big threat.” I’m sure that no one will be surprised to hear that 49% of Hungarians absolutely dread the migrants, while only 6% are not afraid of them at all. George Soros is greatly feared by 32% of the respondents. Even the mild-mannered members of NGOs are greatly feared by 17% and somewhat feared by an additional 20% of the population. The amazing finding is how successful the Orbán government has been in convincing Hungarians that Putin’s Russia poses no danger to Hungary. This is especially surprising given the recent Russian annexation of Crimea and Russian military aid to the rebels in the Donbass region of Ukraine. Only 9% of respondents consider Putin’s Russia a serious threat, the same percentage that consider the United States a serious threat.

444.hu, which commissioned the poll from Medián, rightly points out that “the government propaganda is working perfectly because people are afraid of exactly those things Fidesz wants them to be afraid of.” Perhaps the most telling proof of the success of the propaganda campaign is a pair of questions. One is about the threat to Hungary from the European Union and a second, from “Brussels.” Since the European Union is popular among Hungarians and because the Orbán government didn’t want to be too blatantly antagonistic to the EU in its anti-EU campaigns, they used “Brussels” instead of the European Union in their propaganda campaigns. And behold, 37% of the respondents are afraid or very afraid of “Brussels,” while only 25% fear the European Union. This is how effective propaganda is.

As for those feared NGOs, László Földi, one of the three “security experts” used by the state and Fidesz media to frighten the population to death, is ready to do them in. Földi, I’m convinced, is not quite of sound mind. He is a former intelligence officer from the secret service apparatus of the Kádár regime who spreads his outlandish views not just on the refugee question but on Hungary’s security in general. In Földi’s view, the world is full of spies, internal as well as foreign, who are trying to undermine the present government of the country.

Well, a few days ago Földi was the guest of Echo TV, which was purchased recently by Lőrinc Mészáros. Mind you, the change of ownership from Gábor Széles to Mészáros made no difference. The station has been a hub of far-right journalists and commentators all along. The conversation was about Islam in Hungary. In passing, Földi talked about the “migrants” and those civilians who try to help them, specifically the Helsinki Committee and Migration Aid. Földi came out with the following absolutely mind-boggling statement: “We are at war and these people are collaborators, war criminals, traitors, and so on. This is a very different conceptual system. A human trafficker in war is not a human trafficker but in effect a saboteur who has no legal status. In brief, they can be freely liquidated. This is what the code of war says: we don’t take spies or saboteurs to court but we immediately eliminate them.” He is an adviser to István Tarlós, mayor of Budapest. Enough said.

October 8, 2017