Tag Archives: Russian Orthodox Church

The strangest encounter: Vladimir Putin in Budapest

I believe that in the past I’ve called attention to the troubling fact that the Hungarian public more often than not learns from foreign sources what its own government is up to. This is definitely the case when it comes to Russian-Hungarian relations. The other country that comes to mind is Iran, and I suspect that in both cases there are some weighty reasons for the secrecy.

We have known for some time that Russian President Putin, a black belt judo champion and honorary chairman of the International Judo Federation, was planning to attend the World Judo Championship held in Budapest on August 28, but it was only from a statement issued by the Kremlin that we learned a few hours before Putin’s arrival that it was “at the invitation of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán [that] the head of the Russian state will visit Budapest.” It looks as if, for one reason or another, Orbán didn’t want to publicize the fact that the World Judo Championship was, at least in part, an excuse for the Russian president to make his second visit to Budapest this year. Since 2010 this is Putin’s seventh visit to Hungary. As Péter Krekó, director of Political Capital, noted, Putin visits only dictatorships like Belarus and Kazakhstan that often.

While Putin was in Hungary the Senate of the University of Debrecen bestowed upon him the title of Civis Honoris Causa. Because of Putin’s busy schedule, the honorary degree was handed to him in Budapest. The university awards this degree to individuals for outstanding public and/or artistic achievement. Individuals who contribute in some way to the reputation or the financial well-being of the university are also eligible. Putin allegedly received the award because “both the Hungarian government and the Russian Federation intend to assign an important role to the University of Debrecen in the Paks2 project.” There is apparently an arrangement with Rosatom that the university will create a center to train Hungarian engineers in atomic technology.

The University of Debrecen gave the first such honorary doctorate in 2012 to George Habsburg, the grandson of Charles IV, the last Hungarian king. In 2016 the recipient was Rudolf Schuster, the former president of Slovakia. A couple of days ago László Majtényi, head of the legal think tank EKINT, sarcastically inquired when the university will bestow its fourth Civis Honoris Causa to Recep Erdoğan.

Viktor Orbán and Vladimir Putin at the World Judo Championship

Some time ago the Hungarian government promised 3.5 billion forints for the restoration of Russian orthodox churches. This pleased Putin to no end, but little work has been done on the buildings. A few days prior to Putin’s arrival the government decided to expedite matters by buying the old orthodox church in Tokaj from the municipality for 313 million forints. After this purchase the Hungarian Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church will be able to begin restoration work on the building. The money for the restoration also comes from the Hungarian government.

Political scientists who got together yesterday to discuss Russian-Hungarian relations pretty much agree on what Russia’s foreign policy aims are and how it uses Hungary to achieve its goals: weakening of the European Union and NATO, achieving acceptance of the annexation of Crimea, and ending sanctions against Russia. But when it comes to the question of Hungarian policy toward Russia, the analysts are stymied, mostly because the Orbán government doesn’t communicate in a transparent manner on the subject. They noted that the relationship between Putin and Orbán seems to be close and friendly, although others are convinced that the great friendship between the two leaders doesn’t really exist and that perhaps there is even friction between the two men.

Szabolcs Vörös of Válasz is one of those journalists well versed in foreign affairs who finds this visit worrisome. He called attention to the fact that no statement was released about the visit on the government website. The only notice on the visit was released on August 28 at 2:00 p.m. by MTI, the Hungarian wire service. It quoted the press secretary of the prime minister, who announced that “after the successful Aquatic World Championships another sports event will begin in the Hungarian capital…. The prime minister on the day of the opening and on the following days will have discussions with sports and state leaders, for example with Marius Vizer, the president of the International Judo Federation; with Vladimir Putin, the honorary president of the International Judo Federation and president of Russia; with Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee; and with Kaltma Battulga, the head of the Mongolian Judo Association and president of Mongolia.” Well, if that release isn’t strange I don’t know what is.

There’s no question that the Hungarian government was trying to minimize the visit as much as possible. I am not sure why, but this statement was truly bizarre. Mentioning Putin only after the president of the International Judo Federation and placing his position in the Federation ahead of his political status borders on the ludicrous. The Russian government refused to be a partner in this minimizing game and said that in fact it was the Hungarian government that invited the Russian president to Budapest.

Vörös also noted that the total cost of the Paks project was supposed to be about 12 billion euros, 80% of which, 10 billion euros, would have been covered by the Russian loan. In February, however, during Putin’s last visit, at the joint press conference the Russian president announced that Russia is willing to lend 100% of the cost of the project, “but then we must change certain parts of the contract.” It looks as if these changes have been made because Putin yesterday was talking about a Russian loan of 12 billion euros. Putin has been very eager to get the project underway as soon as possible and has been putting pressure on the Hungarian government, or to be more precise on Viktor Orbán. Some people fear that Putin is in possession of compromising information on Viktor Orbán, which the Hungarian politician certainly doesn’t want to become public knowledge. One thing is sure. Orbán, who before 2010 was a rabid anti-Russian politician, suddenly became a close friend of Vladimir Putin.

Aside from the nagging question of compromising information on Orbán, there is another problem. We know next to nothing about the details of the deal. Who knows what these changes in the contract entail? Why did the two men have to meet, especially since their meeting was extremely short? Why did they arrange this whole charade? We have no idea. In any case, if we can believe Péter Szijjártó, work on the Paks project will begin in January.

August 29, 2017

An American LGBT hate group will enjoy the hospitality of the Orbán government

This is not the first time that I’m writing about the World Congress of Families. Through its annual gatherings, each year in a different country, WCF, as it is known in the United States, promotes Christian right-wing family values internationally. WCF was designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center an anti-LGBT hate group in February 2014 based on its involvement in the 2013 Russian LGBT propaganda law.

My earlier piece focused on its congress three years ago. The congress was scheduled to be held in Moscow in the fall of 2014, but then came the annexation of Crimea and several U.S. organizations pulled out of the project. Nonetheless, the congress proceeded as planned. Several leaders of right-wing European parties attended and were among the speakers, people like Aymeric Chauprade (National Front) and Heinz-Christian Strache (FPÖ). Hungary was represented by Gergely Prőhle, who was one of the speakers at the gathering. The journalist for Cink.hu who wrote an article about this far-right gathering was told by the ministry that the Hungarian government doesn’t care who took part in the conference; Prőhle was there to represent the government’s family policy. I should add that the congress issued a manifesto lambasting liberal Europe and calling for a ban on “homosexual propaganda.”

WCF is again in the news, this time for its impending gathering in Budapest between May 25 and May 28. Átlátszó published a lengthy article about the Orbán government’s sponsorship of this year’s conference. I was already stunned in 2014 because I thought that the Hungarian government’s official representation at such a conference was inappropriate. Now, in 2017, the Orbán government is actually organizing and financially supporting the affair. According to the official site, the chief organizer of the event is Katalin Novák, undersecretary for family, youth, and international affairs.

The event’s site explains that “the values of accepting life, undertaking to give birth to and raise children, and families based on the marriage of a man and a woman have been compromised in the past decades but need to be restored in order to implement a sustainable future.” WCF’s goal is the spread of the idea of the “natural family” as opposed to households where children are cared for by single parents or grandparents or are brought up in same-sex marriages. The group is well known for its anti-LGBT propaganda. Its influence is especially strong in Africa, where several countries’ anti-LGBT legislation resulted from WCF’s lobbying efforts. Most notably, it helped inspire harsh anti-LGBT laws in Nigeria and Uganda.

Just last year the director of the National Organization for Marriage, Brian Brown, was elected president of WCF, which was seen as “a logical trajectory for Brown, one of the best-known anti-LGBT activists in the United States.” According to the announcement of his appointment by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Brown over the past few years has gradually refocused his opposition to marriage equality on international work, especially after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality. Brown’s ideas find fertile soil in Hungarian government circles. SPLC gave a good summary of Brown’s ideas and checkered career at the time of his appointment as president of WCF.

Brian Brown, president of WCF / Source: AP Images

WCF’s platform is bad enough. But perhaps even more worrisome is its close cooperation with Russian nationalists, serving Russia’s geopolitical agenda. In fact, the World Congress of Families has its roots in Moscow. In 1995 the leader of an Illinois-based group, the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society, was invited to Russia by two professors at Lomonosov Moscow State University. The three men agreed that unfavorable demographic trends were the result of feminism and homosexuality. So, they came up with the idea of “pro-family” conferences in Europe and Russia and agreed to share their ideas with American evangelical thinkers.

WCF has had its greatest influence in Russia. It has deep ties to the Russian Orthodox Church and the Putin regime. Apparently, WCF has nothing but praise for Vladimir Putin and his policies. One its leaders wrote that Putin “is the one defending laws and morality consistent with the freedom in the U.S. Constitution.” Another leader called Putin “a power player who cares more about Russia’s national interests … than … that mythical force known as world opinion.”

Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBT civil rights advocacy group and lobbying organization in the United States, put together a comprehensive history of WCF, in which a chapter is devoted to Eastern Europe. In the region it was Poland that was most eager to welcome WCF. The Polish government hosted WCF’s annual gathering in 2007, during the brief tenure of Jarosław Kaczyński as prime minister of Poland. The group made its first excursion into Serbia in 2013, where WCF leaders attended an anti-LGBT rally which led to the cancellation of the Belgrade Pride Parade. A year later they organized a regional conference in Kiev. In 2014 a WCF partner, Alliance Defending Freedom, submitted an amicus brief to the Constitutional Court of Slovakia supporting the proposed referendum on a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union between one man and one woman. They are also active in Albania, Latvia, Romania, and the Czech Republic. In Hungary there was no need to lobby for a restriction of the meaning of marriage because the Orbán government incorporated it into the new constitution.

Looking through the very thorough history of WCF by the Human Rights Campaign, I found only two countries outside of Russia–namely, Poland and Hungary–where the organization has received official support. Suggestions by the independent media in Hungary that WCF is actually a homophobic hate organization were swept aside by Zoltán Balog, who is obviously a great supporter of the organization. According to Balog, “all sorts of nonsense has been published about ‘who’s who’ among the participants.” The Hungarian government certainly would not participate in any event that spreads hatred of LGBT people. He proudly announced that at the end of May Budapest will be the capital of families.

Hungary has its own conference on the family, the Budapest Demographic Forum—Families in Focus, which held its first gathering in June 2015. This year the Budapest Demographic Forum will hold its second conference in conjunction with WCF’s annual gathering. The Forum’s keynote speaker will be Viktor Orbán himself. A former Spanish minister of interior and the Croatian and Polish ministers responsible for family affairs will attend. Thus, an allegedly scientific gathering on demographics is subsumed into a four-day WCF extravaganza. Further and further down a very slippery slope.

May 11, 2017

Fidesz at a far-right conference in Moscow

It was only today that Cink.hu, a Hungarian internet portal, reported on an extreme right-wing gathering in Moscow on September 10-11 where the Hungarian government was represented by Gergely Prőhle, undersecretary in the Ministry of Human Resources. I myself learned about this event earlier from the excellent German-language blog on Hungarian affairs, PusztarangerThe story is quite complicated, so let’s start at the beginning.

The World Congress of Families that sponsored the Moscow conference is an American based organization that opposes same-sex marriage, pornography, and abortion. Because of its militant anti-gay stand, especially its involvement with the 2013 Russian LGBT propaganda law opposing LGBT rights internationally, WCF was designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an anti-LGBT hate group. The Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBT civil rights advocacy group and political lobbying organization in the United States, called WCF “one of the most influential groups in America promoting and coordinating the exportation  of anti-LGBT bigotry, ideology, and legislation abroad.” HRC claimed that their international conferences gather “the most fringe activists engaged in anti-LGBT extremism.”

WCF has organized annual congresses ever since 1997 when it was established. This year the eighth congress was scheduled to be held in Moscow on September 10-11. This particular congress was to carry the title: World Congress of Families VIII: “Every Child a Gift: Large families–The Future of Humanity.” But then came the annexation of Crimea by Russia. Three Russians–Vladimir Yakunin, Yelena Mizulina, and Aleksey Pushkov–who were involved with the conference were among those sanctioned by the United States and Australia right after the annexation. Under these circumstances WCF, which normally has very good relations with the Russian government and the Russian right, tried to make itself invisible. After all, other groups, such as Concerned Women for America, pulled out of the project, saying that they “don’t want to appear to be giving aid and comfort to Vladimir Putin.” So WCF’s name was removed from the program. They decided to call it “International Forum: Large Family and Future of Humanity.” Although the organizing committee still listed two prominent leaders of WCF, they hid their affiliations.

Sharing organizational tasks with WCF were the Russian Orthodox Church, the Vladimir Yakunin Center of National Glory, the St. Andrew the First-Called Foundation, and Konstantin Malofeev’s Saint Basil the Great Charitable Foundation. Both Yakunin and Malofeev are among the oligarchs sanctioned by the United States and the European Union. According to Anton Shekhovtsov’s blog, Malofeev has high-level connections with EU-based far right parties and was deeply involved in unleashing the Ukrainian crisis. Apparently a meeting between leaders of far-right parties in Europe and Russian right-wingers, including Malofeev, took place in Vienna in June. Their goal was to “rescue Europe from liberalism and the gay lobby.” Among the participants were Aymeric Chauprade (National Front, France), Heinz-Christian Strache, and Johann Gudenus (FPÖ, Austria). I wouldn’t surprised if Béla Kovács of Jobbik, whom Fidesz accused of spying for the Russians, were also present. Chauprade was at the congress in Moscow and had a large role to play in the proceedings. So was the Austrian FPÖ’s Johann Gudenus. The conference ended with the issuance of a proclamation that blasts liberal social policies in Western countries and calls for Russian-style “homosexual propaganda” bans to be enacted throughout the world.

Enter Gergely Prőhle, who is no stranger to the readers of Hungarian Spectrum. He had a distinguished diplomatic career: he was ambassador to Germany and Switzerland and in the second Orbán administration served as assistant undersecretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In comparison to some of the others, Prőhle seemed moderate–at least until I read an op/ed piece of his in Heti Válasz about the controversial monument to the German occupation of Hungary in 1944. I devoted a whole post to that opinion piece in which Prőhle showed his less attractive side.

Prőhle was one of three hundred employees of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who got the boot from the interim minister, Tibor Navracsics. For a while it looked as if his government career was over. But then he received an offer from Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources, to become an undersecretary in charge of international and European Union affairs. (One would think that “international” includes the European Union, but this government’s naming habits are rather peculiar.)

It was in this new capacity that Prőhle was dispatched to Moscow to represent the Hungarian government at this illustrious conclave. It is hard to tell whether the bright lights in the ministry were aware of WCF’s involvement in the congress. It is also unclear whether they knew that the French and Austrian far-right parties would be taking center stage at the gathering. In the final analysis, however, even if they were uninformed, ignorance is no excuse. If nothing else,  Zoltán Balog and Gergely Prőhle were careless and negligent. Of course, it is also possible, perhaps even likely, that members of the government felt that good relations with Russia were of paramount importance to Hungary and therefore they should not turn down an invitation coming from Moscow.

Gergely Prőhle at a conference organized by far-right groups in Moscow, September 10-11, 2014

Gergely Prőhle at a far-right conference in Moscow, September 10-11, 2014

One thing is sure. Official Hungary did not boast about Prőhle’s presence at the Moscow conference. MTI made no mention of the conference, and neither the journalist at Cink.hu nor I found anything about the event on the ministry’s website. However, Cink.hu discovered on the Russian Orthodox Church’s website that Gergely Prőhle was among the speakers at the conference, along with Aymeric Chauprade, a member of the European Parliament, and Johann Gudenus (FPÖ), a member of the Austrian parliament. Gudenus delivered his speech in Russian because, according to his German-language entry on Wikipedia, he “regularly attended summer courses at the Lononosov University of Moscow and received a Russian Certificate from the Education Ministry of the Russian Federation.”

Cink.hu put a number of questions to the ministry and got some meaningless answers. They denied that the oligarchs had anything to do with the conference; it was organized by the Russian government and the Russian Orthodox Church. When Cink.hu inquired about the gathering that was studded with extreme right groups, the answer was that “it is possible that they were also there but Gergely Prőhle represented the family policy of the Hungarian government.” The ministry proudly announced that Prőhle spoke “between Russia’s Chief Rabbi and the Russian Chief Mufti.” Well, in that case everything must be okay.

It’s too bad that the journalist failed to inquire about the manifesto the congress issued that lambasted liberal Europe and called for a ban on “homosexual propaganda.” It would be interesting to know whether Prőhle, the man in charge of European affairs, signed this document on behalf of Hungary.