Tag Archives: Sergey Lavrov

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

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

Hungary is looking for a new source of funding for Paks-2

This morning one of the very first articles I read about Sergey Lavrov’s visit to Budapest, in Népszabadság, had the following headline: “Good Hungarian-Russian relations don’t depend on the extension of Paks.” The Russian foreign minister uttered these words at the joint press conference he and Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó gave after their meeting. My first thought was that something had gone very wrong with Viktor Orbán’s pet project, the extension of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant, to be built by Rosatom and financed by a state-owned Russian bank. The Paks project has been severely criticized by both the Hungarian opposition and the European Commission.

Sergey Lavrov, unlike his Hungarian counterpart, is an exceedingly skilled diplomat who chooses his words carefully. I therefore suspected that something is going on which the Hungarian government had decided not to divulge. This wouldn’t be the first time that we learn from Russian sources details of Russo-Hungarian relations that Budapest decided to keep secret. As the day went by, I became increasingly suspicious because other Russian sources, for example reports on Lavrov’s visit by TASS, the Russian news agency, emphasized the issue of Paks. Rosatom’s contract to build Paks-2, as the project is called, is obviously important to Russia. As Lavrov said, “we consider this project to be a strategic one [and] we are convinced that this project will contribute to strengthening Hungary’s energy security, creation of new jobs, and development of the Hungarian economy in general.” Szijjártó assured the Russians that “the Hungarian side is committed to the implementation of this project in compliance with the plan.”

It was pretty clear even before Lavrov’s arrival that conversations would focus mostly on trade and economic cooperation. In anticipation of his meeting with Lavrov, Szijjártó said that because of the economic sanctions against Russia, trade between the two countries has slowed, and therefore Hungary is seeking direct investment opportunities in Russia. In passing, he also mentioned seeking better relations between Russia and the European Union, which is in Hungary’s interest. According to Russian sources, one of Lavrov’s missions in Hungary was to get Hungarian support in lifting the EU’s economic sanctions against Russia.

Source: TASS / Photo: Alexander Schorbak

Source: TASS / Photo: Alexander Schorbak

Lavrov gave an exclusive interview to Magyar Nemzet in which he expressed his hope that “the Hungarian government, which in the past more than once declared its commitment to the [Paks] project, will be able to give satisfactory answers to Brussels’ questions.” Indeed, János Lázár will make a trip to Brussels in a couple of days to discuss the project once again. He is optimistic that the EU will reach an accommodation with Hungary. He announced that he is expecting “a significant step forward” as a result of his conversation with Margarete Vestager, European Commissioner for Competition, whose main objection is that Rosatom received the job to build Paks-2 without a competitive bidding process.

My suspicion of this morning was strengthened this afternoon when, after days of inexplicable silence on the part of the Hungarian media, Népszabadság reported that a few days ago János Lázár said in parliament, in answer to a question of Bernadett Szél (LMP) regarding the Paks project: “Hungary’s money market’s position has greatly improved lately and therefore Hungary is ready and able in the near future to replace the [Russian] loan with capital obtained on the open financial market. Therefore we might be able to finance the project under more favorable conditions.” How this critical announcement was missed by the Hungarian media is simply beyond me.

Since the Hungarian government argued at the time it signed the loan agreement with Russia that the country couldn’t possibly obtain such a large 30-year loan from private sources, Lázár’s announcement is baffling. Moreover, private banks are disinclined to lend money for nuclear power plants because their construction usually takes twice as long as anticipated and costs twice as much. Therefore, it is unlikely that Hungary would receive such a loan from non-Russian sources, especially for a project built by Rosatom.

What lies behind this change of plans? One possibility is that Vnesheconombank simply doesn’t have enough money to finance such a huge project. Last year the Russian government had to sink 19 billion euros into the bank, which was struggling after financing the Sochi Olympics. The other possibility is that the Hungarian government thinks that getting non-Russian funding would appease Brussels, which then would drop its objection to the project. Benedek Jávor (PM EP), who as a member of a Green party is deeply critical of the Paks project, has an explanation for why the EU rejects Russian funding, which unfortunately is not at all clear from the Népszabadság article. His theory is that the European Commission finds the interest rates stipulated in the Russian contract unacceptable (probably a form of state subsidy). If the project were to be funded by non-Russian private sources, this objection would be eliminated, but the project would cost a great deal more.

If the first version is correct, Russia is reneging on its promise to finance the construction of Paks-2, which was presumably the most advantageous part of the deal Hungary had with Russia. Now, if the project is still on but Hungary has to go to the private market in search of funding, Russia gets what it wants without having to make financial concessions. That is, Rosatom will build Paks-2 and the Russian state won’t have to provide favorable financing. The money for the project will flow from western investors into Rosatom’s coffers. This sounds to me like a win for Russia, a loss for Hungary.

May 25, 2016

Hungary through American eyes

American diplomats have been employing novel ways of communication. For example, yesterday Daniel Fried gave a press conference by telephone from Washington to a small number of Hungarian journalists about the American position on economic sanctions against Russia. Daniel Fried is the State Department’s coordinator for sanctions policy.

Fried is a senior diplomat with vast experience in Eastern Europe. He served as political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in Soviet times; he headed the Polish desk during the regime change in the late 1980s. After Poland emerged as one of the democracies of the region, he was political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw. Later he served as assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs and special assistant to the president and senior director for European and Eurasian affairs at the National Security Council. So, why does Daniel Fried think that he has to give a long-distant press conference for Hungarian journalists? Surely, because Washington wants the Hungarian public to know the American position on Russian aggression against Ukraine. And it also wants to share its opinion of the current state of Russian-Hungarian relations.

Ambassador Daniel Fried

Ambassador Daniel Fried

Up to this point we have two independent versions of the telephone interview: one from Népszabadság and the other from VilággazdaságI can’t imagine that MTI was not invited, but for the time being there is no MTI report on the event.

The main message was that sanctions will be applied as long as Moscow does not fulfill all twelve points of the Minsk Agreement. A good summary of these twelve points can be found on the BBC website. Russian regular troops are still on Ukrainian soil and “the Russian aggression continues.” The United States wants a political solution to the crisis and is ready to cooperate with Russia in many areas, but Russia must respect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine. With its aggression against Ukraine Russia “seriously endangers the European security system that came into being after the 1989-1990 East European events.” If Russian aggression continues, the United States and the European Union are ready to introduce new sanctions.

Fried then turned to specifically Hungarian issues. Hungary and its prime minister should know from Hungarian history what it is like when a country is left alone unprotected in the event of outside aggression. Therefore Hungary ought to realize the importance of the steps that are being taken in this case. Viktor Orbán first claimed that “the European Union shot itself in the foot when it introduced sanctions against Russia” and later at the NATO summit in Wales he declared that “we are hawks when it comes to military security but doves in economic terms.” Fried said that “we all want to be on good terms with Russia, to improve our relations, but this is not the right time for friendship.” Fried cited Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s claim that sanctions only deepen the Ukrainian crisis. “The Russians say all sorts of things, many of them are simply not true. After all, they deny that their soldiers are in the territory of Ukraine.”

During the press conference it became clear that talks took place between the Hungarian and the U.S. governments concerning the sanctions. It seems that the U.S. listened to Hungary’s objections but was not impressed.  The sanctions hurt not only Hungarian businesses but businesses of all nations, including those of the United States. The European Union made a brave decision which Hungary supported.

The message was that one cannot play the kind of game Viktor Orbán is playing at the moment. On the one hand, he is a supporter of the common cause against Russia, but when it comes to sanctions he tries to make special deals with Moscow. For instance, Sándor Fazekas, the Hungarian agriculture minister, visited Moscow on September 8 where he had talks with Nikolay Fyedorov, his Russian counterpart. There Fazekas agreed with Fyedorov that “the sanctions don’t offer a solution to the Ukrainian crisis, which should be settled through negotiations.”

And according to leaked documents, we know that Vladimir Putin told Petro Poroshenko during one of their telephone conversations that he “through bilateral contacts can influence some European countries to form ‘a blocking minority’ in the European Council.” The countries he has in mind are Slovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Cyprus. I guess Daniel Fried wanted to make sure that Hungarians understand that Washington fully supports the application of sanctions and that the large majority of the EU countries are also on board.

While we are talking about U.S.-Hungarian relations, I ought to mention that U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D), who is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, and Senator John McCain (R) introduced a resolution in recognition of the International Day of Democracy on September 15. Accompanying the introduction of the resolution Senator Carden’s press release talked at length about the sad state of democracy in Hungary where “there is an unprecedented global crackdown on civil society organizations seeking to express their voice and exercise their rights. Earlier this week, Hungarian authorities raided the offices of two NGOs in Budapest in what appears to be part of a tightening squeeze on civil society. Such actions not only undermine democracy but chill investigative reporting on corruption and good governance. Now, more than ever, is the time for the international community to push back on threats to civil society and protect efforts by these organizations to build strong democratic institutions.”

In addition, on September 18 Deputy Chief of the United States Mission to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Kate Byrnes delivered the following speech to the Permanent Council in Vienna:

Three months ago, on June 19, the United States addressed the Permanent Council regarding an apparent campaign of intimidation directed toward civil society and independent media in Hungary. I regret that I must speak to the Council again on this topic.

As we said in June, just one day after the April 6 elections, the Hungarian government accused organizations that conduct legitimate work in human rights, transparency, and gender equality of serving “foreign interests.” Shortly afterwards, the Prime Minister’s Office alleged that NGOs that monitor and evaluate grant proposals for the EEA-Norway NGO fund were tied to an opposition party. On September 8, Hungary’s National Bureau of Investigation initiated a series of police raids on two NGOs responsible for the EEA-Norway NGO grant program in Hungary. With no prior warning, and in a show of intimidation, over 30 officers entered the NGOs’ facilities and seized the organizations’ documents and computers.

These police raids appear to be aimed at suppressing critical voices and restricting the space for civil society to operate freely. The United States again reminds Hungary of its OSCE commitments to human rights and fundamental freedoms, democracy, and the rule of law.

Mr. Chair, we raise these issues to express our concern about actions that appear inconsistent with OSCE principles, and also to encourage dialogue. We intend to continue to encourage the government of Hungary to observe its commitments and allow NGOs to operate without further harassment, interference, or intimidation. The United States believes that such respect for its commitments will help Hungary to become a more prosperous, robust and inclusive democracy.

Finally, here is something from former President Bill Clinton, who appeared on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. “There’s the authoritarian capitalism model which is Russia and in a different way China, and it has some appeal. Like the Hungarian Prime Minister – they owe a lot to America; he just said he liked authoritarian capitalism, just saying “I don’t ever want to have to leave power” – usually those guys want to stay forever and make money. And there’s the democracy model …”

Hungary is in the news, no doubt. It would be better if it weren’t.