Tag Archives: Sarah Sewall

U.S. Undersecretary Sarah Sewall in Hungary

Sarah Sewall, U.S. undersecretary for civilian security, democracy, and human rights, paid a visit to Hungary at the end of May. As one of the Hungarian papers noted, she was the highest-ranking U.S. diplomat to visit Hungary since the summer of 2011, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a quick trip to Hungary.

Before Sewall was appointed to this post in February 2014, she taught at the Kennedy School and at the Naval War College. She served as deputy assistant secretary in the Department of Defense during the Clinton administration. She is a graduate of Harvard College and as a Rhodes scholar got her Ph.D. at Oxford.

Sewall’s name should be familiar to those who follow U.S.-Hungarian relations because, for about a week at the end of 2014, Hungarian papers gave her extensive coverage. The reason was a speech she delivered at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In it she announced that the U.S. government had set aside $100 million to combat corruption in Central and East European countries because “corruption alienates and angers citizens, which can cause them to lose faith in the state, or, worse, fuel insurgencies and violent extremism.” Therefore, helping these countries fight corruption is in the interest of the United States. The Hungarian reaction to her speech was antagonistic. Viktor Orbán interpreted the U.S. “action plan” as a hostile act by which the United States had declared Hungary to be a “field of operation.”

Undersecretary Sarah Sewall / Magyar Nemzet / Photo: Attila Béres

Undersecretary Sarah Sewall / Magyar Nemzet / Photo: Attila Béres

Sewall’s visit to Hungary was a first for the undersecretary. She met with government officials, opposition leaders, journalists, and judges. She delivered a speech at the Magyar Újságírók Országos Szövetsége (MÚOSZ), which was described by the English-language government propaganda publication Hungary Today as thinly-veiled criticism of the Hungarian government. Magyar Idők sent a journalist to the event, but his summary of the speech was brief and greatly toned down.

Since the speech is available online, it is not necessary to summarize it at length, but here are a few snippets. Sewall emphasized that democracy must be defended “not only against threats from without, but also inevitable pressures from within.” Or, “we have seen how demagogues can exploit difficult moments for political gain by playing to our worst human impulses and targeting the constitutional rights and institutions designed to limit the power of those impulses.” Or, “We all know that, at times, democratic majorities can stray from democratic values. By upholding individual rights, however, democracies protect the few from the abuse of the many, and empower them to challenge majority views that conflict with democratic values.” Or, “as undemocratic forces seek to consolidate power and escape accountability, they often target independent media and other checks and balances.” Or, “They also use corruption to corrode the rule of law and buy off opponents. Or they push through significant changes to laws and the constitution with little or no consultation with citizens and opposition parties.” Surely, anyone who’s familiar with the situation in Hungary will recognize that Sewall was talking about the Orbán government throughout her speech.

Ádám Csillag, the man who without any compensation records all important events staged in defense of Hungarian democracy, also videotaped the speech.

Of course, I quoted only a handful of sentences from Sewall’s speech, but the undersecretary covered issues like free elections, free media, checks and balances, and the need for an independent judiciary. She fielded questions concerning the independence of the Constitutional Court and the electoral law, which cannot be a guarantee of fair elections. Her staff had prepared her well because she even knew that “a Hungarian television station reported that government officials had ‘instructed’ senior managers on which politicians to interview and which topics to cover.” She was talking about the head of HírTV.

We also know quite a bit about what transpired between László Trócsányi, minister of justice, and Sarah Sewall. Magyar Idők summarized the ministry’s side of the story, from which we learn that, in addition to Trócsányi, Gergely Prőhle was also present. Prőhle is one of those diplomats who was dismissed during the summer of 2014 when, during Tibor Navracsics’s brief tenure as foreign minister, the administration got rid of close to 200 diplomats from the ministry and replaced them with political loyalists. Prőhle, as far as I know, for months didn’t know what his fate would be, but eventually Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources, created a post for him. He is now deputy undersecretary responsible for international and European Union affairs. What that means in a ministry dealing with education, healthcare, sports, and Roma affairs I wouldn’t know. It seems, however, that whenever the Orbán government wants to produce “a moderate face” for foreign consumption, they drag out Prőhle.

Even from Magyar Idők’s summary it is clear that Sewall brought up uncomfortable questions about the state of constitutional guarantees. Trócsányi assured her that all disputed questions had been settled during the second Orbán government and even Hungary’s “European partners” consider the case closed. The minister gave a lecture to Sewall on the new Hungarian constitution and the institutions that safeguard basic rights. As for questions concerning the freedom of the media, Hungary settled all those issues with the European Council and the Council of Europe. The last sentence of the communiqué stated that “the two sides agreed that Hungarian-American relations are very extensive and they are solid foundations for further cooperation which both sides find important. There was also consensus about the necessity of a dialogue in the spirit of alliances.”

Sewall’s own report on the meeting wasn’t that upbeat. She described the meeting to Magyar Nemzet as “an honest and occasionally tough talk.” Both sides had an opportunity to explain their positions, but “there are many points where the Hungarian and the American positions differ.” After probing for specifics, Sewall brought up the legal changes introduced in the last few years. She also expressed her dismay over the conspiracy theories the Hungarian government concocts. She specifically objected to János Lázár’s accusation that President Barack Obama wants to flood Europe with Muslim immigrants.

I often comment on the inordinate number of articles that can appear on Hungarian-language internet sites in response to certain events. Literally hundreds in a day or two. On Sarah Sewall’s hard-hitting speech, however, I found only a handful. Few reporters showed up at her speech in the headquarters of the Hungarian Journalists’ Association. To my great surprise, HVG  didn’t send anyone to cover the story. The short article they published was based on reports by Origo and Népszabadság. As for the parties, Fidesz reprinted the ministry of justice’s communiqué but MSZP didn’t consider Sewall’s visit important enough to mention. The only party that issued a statement of its own was the Demokratikus Koalicíó (DK). Attila Ara-Kovács, head of DK’s foreign affairs cabinet, gave it a witty title: “The United States sent a message that Orbán would also understand.” It is a takeoff on the latest mega-poster of the government that encourages Hungarians to vote in the forthcoming referendum on “compulsory quotas.” The poster reads: “Let’s send a message to Brussels so they would understand.”

A footnote to this story. Right beside Ambassador Bell was an invited guest: János Martonyi, former foreign minister of Viktor Orbán. I would love to know why American diplomats feel compelled to invite him to all functions in which there is an American presence. Why do they think that he, unlike other members of present and past administrations of Viktor Orbán, is a perfect democrat? All told, this man served under Viktor Orbán for eight years and served him loyally. I have never heard him express any misgivings about the direction in which Viktor Orbán was taking the country. He defended him at every turn. Yet, regardless of whether Republicans or Democrats run the United States there is János Martonyi, everybody’s favorite. If I just knew why.

 June 2, 2016

Hungary as a “field of operation”

Paranoia seems to have swept through the Hungarian government. Fidesz politicians are convinced that the United States wants to remove Viktor Orbán and cause his government’s fall. All this is to be achieved by means of the “phony” charge of corruption.

Recently a journalist working for Hetek, a publication of Hitgyülekezet (Assembly of Faith), managed to induce some high-ranking members of the government to speak about the general mood in Fidesz circles. The very fact that these people spoke, even about sensitive topics, to a reporter of a liberal paper points to tactical shifts that must have occurred within the party.

Their argument runs along the following lines. Until now the Obama administration paid little attention to the region, but this past summer the decision was made to “create a defensive curtain” in Central Europe between Russia and the West. The pretext is the alleged fight against corruption. The Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania are the targets. Fidesz politicians point to recent Slovak demonstrations against corruption which were “publicly supported” by the U.S. ambassador in Bratislava. Or, they claim, the Americans practically forced the Romanian government to take seriously the widespread corruption in the country. They are certain that the resignation of Petr Nečas, the former Czech prime minister, “under very strange circumstances” was also the work of the CIA.

In its fight against the targeted Central European governments Washington relies heavily on NGOs and investigative journalists specializing in unveiling corruption cases. George Soros’s name must always be invoked in such conspiracy theories. And indeed, Átlátszó.hu, sponsored in part by the Soros Foundation, was specifically mentioned as a tool of American political designs.

To these Fidesz politicians’ way of thinking, all of troubles recently encountered by the government are due solely to American interference. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that the government itself has given plenty of reason for public disenchantment. In fact, the first demonstrations were organized only against the internet tax. Admittedly, over the course of weeks new demands were added, and by now the demonstrators want to get rid of Viktor Orbán’s whole regime.

The Fidesz politicians who expressed an opinion think, I am sure incorrectly, that the Americans have no real evidence against Ildikó Vida and, if they do, they received it illegally. Vida got into the picture only because of the new “cold war” that broke out between the United States and Russia. Hungarian corruption is only an excuse for putting pressure on the Hungarian government because of its Russian policy and Paks.  As for Hungary’s “democracy deficit” and American misgivings about Orbán’s “illiberal state,” Fidesz politicians said that if the United States does not accept Orbán’s system of government as “democratic” and if they want Fidesz to return to the status quo ante, this is a hopeless demand. “Not one Hungarian right-wing politician would lend his name to such ‘retrogression.'”

The latest American “enemy” of the Orbán government is the State Department’s Sarah Sewall, Undersecretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, who a week ago gave a speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in which she said that “we [recently] denied visas to six Hungarian officials and their cronies due to their corruption. This action also bolstered public concern, and on November 9th, the streets of Budapest filled with 10,000 protesters who called for the resignation of corrupt public officials.” As soon as Hungarian officials discovered the text of that speech, André Goodfriend, the U.S. chargé in Budapest, was once again called into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

I think it would be a mistake to characterize the American fight against corruption simply as a smokescreen for exerting political pressure on foreign governments. Sewall in that speech explains the potentially dangerous political ramifications of corruption.

Corruption alienates and angers citizens, which can cause them to lose faith in the state, or, worse, fuel insurgencies and violent extremism…. Ukraine …provides [an] illustration of how corruption can both increase instability risks and cripple the state’s ability to respond to those risks. The Maidan Movement was driven in part by resentment of a kleptocratic regime parading around in democratic trappings.

All this makes sense to me, and what Sewall says about Ukraine is to some extent also true about Hungary. But the Fidesz leadership sees no merit in the American argument. In fact, today both Viktor Orbán and Péter Szijjártó used very strong words to accuse the United States of interfering in Hungary’s internal affairs.

"We can't pay as much in taxes as you steal"

“We can’t pay as much in taxes as you steal”

Viktor Orbán sent a message from Belgrade. The prime minister does not know why the United States put aside 100 million dollars for “the preparation of an action plan against two dozen Central- and East-European countries in order to put pressure on their governments.” The United States declared Hungary to be a “field of operation,” along with others. Referring to Sewall’s speech, he expressed his dissatisfaction that he has to learn about such plans from a public lecture. “If someone wants to work together with Hungary or with any Central-European government for a good cause, we are open. We don’t have to be pressured, there is no need to spend money behind our backs, there is no necessity of organizing anything against us because we are rational human beings and we are always ready to work for a good cause.” It is better, he continued, to be on the up and up because Hungarians are irritated by slyness, trickery, and diplomatic cunning. They are accustomed to straightforward talk. (He presumably said this with a straight face.)

Viktor Orbán’s reference to the military term “field of operation” captured the imagination of László Földi, a former intelligence officer during the Kádár regime as well as for a while after 1990, who announced that in secret service parlance “field of operation” means that every instrument in the intelligence service can be used to undermine the stability of a country. The Americans’ goal, as Orbán sees it, is the removal of his government.

Meanwhile the staff of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade who were brought in by Péter Szijjártó are solidly anti-American. They consider the diplomats who served under János Martonyi to be “American agents” because of their alleged trans-atlantic sentiments. So I don’t foresee any improvement in American-Hungarian relations in the near future, unless the economic and political troubles of Putin’s Russia become so crippling that Orbán will have to change his foreign policy orientation. But given the ever shriller condemnations and accusations, it will be difficult to change course.