Tag Archives: Syria

Orbán’s latest foray into world affairs: the Iranian-Hungarian nuclear deal

A couple of months ago I reported that Iran and Hungary were on the verge of signing an agreement to expand nuclear cooperation. The lack of transparency of the Orbán government is such that the Hungarian public learns about deals between Budapest and countries like Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, etc. from foreign sources. This was also the case with the Iranian-Hungarian “declaration of intent” regarding nuclear cooperation that was signed by the two countries on April 8 in Tehran.

Cozy relations between Iran and Hungary began with a visit of Viktor Orbán to Tehran in late November 2015 and continued in February 2016 with negotiations on a joint project to develop a small, 25 megawatt nuclear reactor. In November László Kövér, president of the Hungarian parliament, spent a whole week in Iran where he praised Iran’s “expansive capabilities in the area of technical and engineering services” and promised Hungary’s support of Iran’s fight against terrorism. In order “to facilitate cooperation between Hungarian and Iranian businesses and to finance export-import transactions and the founding of joint ventures,” Hungary’s Eximbank extended an 85 million euro line of credit to Iran.

The news that Zsolt Semjén, deputy prime minister, had signed such an agreement stunned the government-critical media as well as the opposition. After all, it was only in January 2016 that sanctions against Iran, because of its alleged development of nuclear weapons, were lifted. It also seemed to be out of character for the Orbán government, which is so keen on Christian virtues, to do business with Iran, number six on the list of Muslim countries with anti-Christian laws on the books. Moreover, if the Orbán government expects better treatment at the hand of the Trump White House, making a nuclear deal with Iran is not the best way to curry favor. It is a well-known fact that Donald Trump eyes the Iranian regime with even greater suspicion than his predecessor did and until very recently was ready to scrap the Iranian nuclear deal of 2015 altogether.

The timing of the signing was also unfortunate. The agreement between Iran and Hungary took place on the very same day, April 8, that Russia notified the United States that it was suspending a communication hotline between Moscow and the Pentagon following a U.S. air strike on the Shayrat airfield. Iran and Syria are close strategic allies, and Iran has provided significant support for the government in the Syrian civil war. At the time of the signing of the Iranian-Hungarian agreement, Iran was considering the deployment of ground forces “to counter U.S. intervention in Syria.” Iran and the United States are also on a collision course in Yemen. Only a couple of months earlier, in February, Trump said that “nothing is off the table” in dealing with Iran. In addition, at about the same time, the U.S. Treasury Department announced sanctions on 13 people and 12 entities under the U.S. Iran sanctions authority. As Csaba Káncz, whose articles on foreign affairs appear regularly on Privatbankar.hu, said, the Hungarian “government poked its nose into the mid-eastern powder-keg,” which is not the wisest move in these fluid circumstances. In any case, if Viktor Orbán seriously wants to develop good relations with the Trump administration, the road to that goal is certainly not through Tehran.

A month later, on May 6, Zsolt Semjén showed up in Belgrade, where he met Iran’s ambassador to Budapest, Gholamali Rajabi Yazdi. Of course, Hungarians learned about this meeting from an Iranian source, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA). Why these two men had to meet in Belgrade is a puzzle in and of itself. Otherwise, IRNA’s description of the topics discussed sounded innocent enough. “Semjén called for the enhancement of cooperation between the Iranian and Hungarian cities of Tehran and Budapest, Shiraz and Pécs, and Yazd and Jászberény.” As for increased economic and commercial cooperation between the two countries, he expressed his hope that stronger banking relations between Hungary and Iran would bolster trade between them.

Zsolt Semjén with the Iranian ambassador in Belgrade / IRNA

Meanwhile, Bernadett Szél (LMP), a tenacious opponent of nuclear energy and the construction of the Paks II Nuclear Power Plant, demanded the release of the agreement’s text on nuclear cooperation signed in April. Since it is only a “declaration of intent,” little can be learned about specifics from the text, but the emphasis is on education, training and research, and the free flow of information between the parties. There is, however, mention of “joint investment projects” related to nuclear energy. It is also likely that the Orbán government wants to use EU funds for some of these joint projects because the “declaration of intent” states that “the Parties shall endeavor to use the funds set up by the European Union for nuclear safety cooperation between the European Union and Iran within the framework of this Declaration of Intent.”

What truly worries people who are distrustful of Iran’s intention is that the “declaration of intent,” although it talks only about the peaceful use of nuclear power, doesn’t contain any guarantee that Iran will actually use whatever information it receives from the Hungarians for peaceful purposes. There is no bilateral monitoring or international mechanism mentioned in the document. The likely scenario is that Iranian nuclear experts and students will come to Hungary to work together on the development of the 25-watt mini-reactor. And then, critics ask, what will happen to the nuclear waste produced in the process? LMP politicians find the “the deal extremely risky.” Moreover, they don’t quite understand why Hungary has to get involved in any kind of cooperation with Iran “in the field of nuclear energy.”

Meanwhile, Iranian-U.S. relations are going from bad to worse. A few days ago the U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly to advance a bill that would impose new sanctions on Iran over its ballistic missile development, arms transfers, support for Islamist militant groups, and human rights violations. To become law, the measure must pass the Republican-led House of Representatives and be signed by Donald Trump which, I think, can be taken for granted. I should also mention that Iran, perhaps not without reason, considers Trump’s response to the twin terrorist attacks in Tehran “repugnant.” Trump said that “we grieve and pray for the innocent victims of the terrorist attacks in Iran, and for the Iranian people who are going through such challenging times.” However, he added, “we underscore that states that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote.”

Given the Trump administration’s support for Saudi Arabia and Israel and its antagonism toward Iran, it is indeed difficult to figure out what Viktor Orbán has in mind when he signs nuclear deals, however innocent the “declaration of intent” may sound, with the Iran of the ayatollahs. Has he already decided that pursuing a U.S.-friendly policy, even with Trump in power, is a fool’s errand?

June 11, 2017

Charles Gati: “Even the most talented diplomat cannot sell junk”

This is a translation of an interview with Charles Gati, senior research professor of European and Eurasian Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, which originally appeared in Magyar Narancs on April 20, 2017 under the title “You cannot circumvent the elite.” The English translation was published by The Budapest Sentinel on April 24.

Hoyt Brian Yee, Deputy State Secretary at the United States Department of State, was recently in Budapest to meet with the Hungarian government. While here he also raised the issue of Central European University (CEU), and confirmed to the press that Fiona Hill, Donald Trump’s advisor responsible for Russian and European affairs, also supports the CEU matter. Is the university remaining also important to Trump?

What I know is that the State Department agreed with the White House, and that in the White House the National Security Council, which deals with matters of foreign policy and security, supported advocating for the university to a great extent. Of course, this does not mean that the president personally requested this — it’s good if an American president devotes half an hour a year to Hungary. He wouldn’t have time for any more. Hungary’s significance in American politics today is minimal.

What changes have taken place to the State Department since the new president took office?

There are fifty or sixty positions at the State Department filled by political appointees. They have started assuming their positions. However, there is no change in those officials who deal with Hungary in the European department. One or two might be transferred. These experts continue their work independent of the person of the president or party. Deputy Secretary Yee is such an official and counts as the most important operative person in this field. He holds the same position now as at the time of Obama.

The Hungarian government recently recalled Réka Szemerkényi who represented our country to Washington the past two years. What is your view of the ambassador’s work?

Even the most talented diplomat cannot sell junk. An ambassador can stand on her head and it would be of no significance since the experts here know precisely what the situation is in Hungary, how close the Hungarian government is to Putin, how much it tries to undermine the European Union, and how little it contributes to the cost of NATO. I see lobbying the same way: it may be that, of the 535 congressmen, one or two manage to issue a statement. The vast sums of money spent on this by the Hungarian government is actually a complete waste.

What do you think explains the fact that in recent weeks the American president has acted in a manner diametrically opposed to what he promised during the campaign?

The most important question these days is really how long Trump’s political somersault will last. There have been as many changes in a week as Orbán — an ultraliberal in his youth — in a decade. Moreover, among the fresh changes are a number that pertain to Hungary. Trump wooed Putin during the campaign, mentioning him as a potential friend of America. And yet he incurred the anger of the Russian leadership by ordering the bombing of the Syrian airport. One of the most important statements of the campaign was that America would move its embassy from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem. These days we don’t hear anything about this. There was also talk that Hillary Clinton should be imprisoned. But these days he has to be more concerned that it is his people who will end up behind bars. A few days was enough to persuade himself that NATO is not a thing of the past. All of this indicates that the president is starting to move in the direction of the traditional foreign policy of the Republican Party. But in the Republican Party there are two truly important directions. The one is the conservative line near to Wall Street, which back in the day was more or less represented by George W. Bush. The other is the national line, whose nationalist rhetoric Trump made his own during the campaign. Although a nationalist direction won him the election, one senses more and more a Wall Street mentality in his politics. This is especially important from a foreign policy point of view since the direction opposes the politics of isolationism, which was one of the main program points on the side of the nationalists.

What could have caused the change? Did Trump realize that governance is more complicated than he thought? Or was he worried about getting into trouble after it turns out that many of his confidantes conspired with Russian leadership?

The majority of the people around him represent Wall Street: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and all the economic people. On the other side is the representative of the national side, Steve Bannon, who is more and more marginalized in the government. Trump did not understand politics when he assumed the presidency. In certain economic questions he was an absolute beginner, and he has woken up to this fact. The best example of this was when he said about the restructuring of the health-care system he “didn’t know that it was so complicated.” An unprepared and naive president assumed power in America, and now we are seeing a certain willingness to revise certain things.

But don’t these changes alienate him from those who voted for him?

It could easily be the case that sooner or later things go wrong with his electoral base. But it is not yet clear where this is leading, or what group of voters he is trying to win over.

In September 2012 Obama said he would interfere in Syria in the event chemical weapons were used. However, when he should have done so the following year, he stepped back instead. The Obama government explained this by saying that instead of a military attack it was using diplomatic means to persuade the Assad regime to give up chemical weapons. The chemical attack at the beginning of April indicates that the Syrian government retained these kinds of weapons. How does this reflect on Obama’s foreign policy?

In actuality this was the worst episode of Obama’s foreign policy. But when Trump went against his own promises, on the one hand he wanted to prove that he could fix the mistakes of his predecessor, and on the other demonstrate that the photos of destruction and the murdered children touched his soul. However, it is difficult to say whether any conclusions can be drawn from this regarding the foreign policy of the next months or years. The experts are now saying that this was a one-time strike and that we should not calculate with another intervention.

I cannot argue with this, but I have to say that I was personally affected when Trump responded in a human manner to the Syrian events. After all, children died, and it also turned out that Assad lied when he said he had given up all his chemical weapons. In my eyes, this increased Trump’s stature as a person, even if this action did not make him greater politically.

But is some sort of Middle East strategy starting to emerge from his actions? Not long ago he spoke about how he would like to repair US relations with the Gulf countries, and he provided support by telephone to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and supposedly distanced himself from moving the embassy to Jerusalem at the request of King Abdullah II of Jordan. All of this suggests that he is trying to contain Iran’s regional efforts, in alliance with the region’s Sunni leaders 

It is also difficult for me to say anything about the Middle East. A boastful, unprepared man assumed the White House who is incapable of delivering on what he promised. He campaigned on a promise to immediately terminate the Iran nuclear agreement, but he hasn’t done anything. He also said that he would take care of the Islamic State in a few days, but he had to wake up to the fact that this affair is much more complicated than he thought.

Construction of the wall planned for the Mexican border hasn’t started either.

Nevertheless, there are alarming developments here as the authorities are separating families. It is possible to hear a number of stories about parents whose children were born in the United States having no choice but to leave the country without them. This is the insensitive practice that is consistent with his promises. True, immigration policy did not become as cruel as many foretold during the campaign.

Today’s Trump believes China is no longer manipulating the yuan . . .

For now that is the most important change. After he met with President Xi Jinping, he said he understood why he doesn’t do more against North Korea, and he sees that this is a serious question. So there is some hope that relations with the world’s second-largest economy, which of course is still a dictatorship, will improve. This would be extremely important, because the world at this moment is perhaps more dangerous than at the time of the Cold War, and Chinese-American cooperation, which hopefully one day probably after Putin, Russia will also join, is our best hope for world peace in the coming years.

Is there no place for Europe in this constellation?

So long as the European Union is on the defensive and is this divided, it can only play a side role in matters of great strategy.

Who has the greatest influence over Donald Trump?

In many questions his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is the standard, but I would say that in foreign policy it is rather his National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster whose opinion counts. He thinks differently on many issues than the resigned Michael Flynn. McMaster is an old and respected member of the Washington national security elite.

This means that the current change in direction can be attributed to chance? If Flynn had not been compromised by his Russian connections, then would we be seeing a completely different American foreign policy?

These are not by chance. The decision to name such a serious and knowledgable person as McMaster in Flynn’s place was deliberate. The situation is that it is not possible to circumvent the Washington elite. Politics is a profession practiced by qualified people. It is not possible to charge in from New York’s Trump Tower and say we are reordering the world. The president also realized that power is limited. But it is important that the national side has not found sufficient support. Trump may have won the election but he received three million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton. His support is altogether 40 percent, which is far lower that of his predecessor during the first couple of months. The institutions are not giving in. A West Coast court was able to veto the ban on people arriving from Muslim-majority countries because even those sympathizing with Republicans clearly stated that the ban is unconstitutional. Congress rejected the law overwriting the health insurance system. The American press also uniformly condemns the Trump government. So American political culture is asserting itself, and the system of checks and balances is working well. Trump reacts to opposition by searching for more serious answers to the problems at hand.

The Guardian recently wrote that the Democratic Party is worsening its future chances by trying to drive out politicians practicing Bernie Sanders’ politics. The newspaper believes James Thompson of Kansas could have won a seat in Congress, but that the party did not even try to support his campaign, and this is why he failed.

I do not agree with this. In the state of Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff has a good chance of winning in an early election where so far Republicans have been the favorite. He, on the other hand, received a lot of support from the party. It is not as though the Democrats are that clever, but they benefit from Trump’s weakness even if there isn’t a fresh, new face behind which to line up party supporters. Sanders had a lot of followers. My oldest grandson also supported him, but my feeling is that he is a socialist. It is not possible to win an election in America with a social democratic program.

April 27, 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

Hungarian fantasies about a radical Roma community allied to Islamic extremists

A friend sent me dictionary.com’s “Word of the Day,” which she found amusing. It is “kakistocracy,” meaning “government by the worst persons; a form of government in which the worst persons are in power.” The first two syllables don’t have anything to do with the Hungarian word with which we are familiar but with the Greek word “kakistos,” which means “worst.” This word couldn’t have arrived on a better day since I had just decided to write about the Orbán government’s illustrious minister of justice, László Trócsányi, and his faux pas at a conference on the dangers of extremism and their possible remedies.

And while I am on the subject of words, C. György Kálmán, a literary historian and lover of language, also wrote today about another “misunderstood” statement by a government official. The official happened to be the same Trócsányi, who said the wrong thing at the wrong time. Linguistic carelessness has been plaguing Hungarian political life ever since 1990, Kálmán suggested. It would be time to learn to speak more precisely.

So, what was Trócsányi’s faux pas? On October 19 Nikolaj Nielsen of euobserver.com reported on a conference in Brussels at which “Hungary’s minister of justice Laszlo Trocsanyi … said there is a risk Roma could end up in Syria as foreign fighters alongside jihadist or other radical groups.” It turned out that Trócsányi didn’t say what Nielsen attributed to him but, given the context in which his two-minute contribution was uttered, one could infer such a meaning from his words.

Let’s see what Trócsányi actually said. He emphasized that, unlike in Western European countries, in Hungary there are no would-be terrorists who are ready to go to Syria and fight on the side of ISIS. However, Hungary is a “transit country” through which radical Muslims would travel to catch a plane to Istanbul on their way to Syria. And he continued:

I would like to call attention to another aspect of the problem which we haven’t talked about up to now. Radicalism can reach other groups as well. In Europe there are 10-12 million Roma. During Hungary’s presidency we paid a lot of attention to Roma strategy. We believe that this is a very important task. [We are dealing with] a community of 12 million in Europe who lag behind [leszakadt] and whose integration is very important because they can be the victims of radicalization. I would really hope that the European Commission would pay special attention to the Roma integration program.

Trócsányi didn’t conjure up the image of Roma going to Syria to fight, but he made the mistake of indicating that they may join extremist groups. And because the whole conference was about Islamic radicalism, it was easy to draw the conclusion that Trócsányi envisages a time when European Roma might join jihadists to fight against the infidel.

László Trócsányi / Photo Zoltán Gergely Kelemen, MTI

László Trócsányi / Photo Zoltán Gergely Kelemen, MTI

Trócsányi also spoke to MTI, the Hungarian news agency, right after the meeting. What did he consider to be the most important topics of the conference? “There was a discussion about foreign nationals who fight alongside the Islamic State. We touched on online recruiting activities on behalf of the Islamic State.” It was right after these discussions that Trócsányi rose and talked about the radicalization of the Roma. It’s no wonder that Nielsen drew the conclusion that, in Trócsányi’s mind, there was a danger that European Roma would join the jihad fighters in Syria.

The reporter’s impression was further reinforced when he talked to the spokesman for the office of Hungary’s permanent representative in Brussels. The reporter was obviously so struck by what he heard that he wanted confirmation of Trócsányi’s message. When Nielsen asked the spokesman why Roman Catholic Roma would choose to fight alongside radical jihadist groups in Syria, the spokesman said “it is because they are a deprived people and they are usually more exposed to radical views.” The spokesman added that the minister’s position “was just a hypothesis” that “had not been fully explored.” So, the spokesman reinforced the reporter’s initial inkling of a connection between the two topics.

Realizing the adverse reaction abroad as well as at home to Trócsányi’s linking the Roma community to Islamic extremism, both the government and the party have been trying to minimize the effects of Trócsányi’s ad hoc, unnecessary introduction of the topic. They called Nielsen’s description of his remarks an outright lie. A reporter for the pro-government Válasz offered perhaps the most imaginative interpretation of Trócsányi’s statement. “Trócsányi might have been thinking that one day a Malcolm X type of character will be born in the Roma community who could take them along the road of radicalization. However, luckily there is no sign of such a development, and such a supposition is not at all timely. Let’s not talk of the devil, especially when government officials should know that, whatever they say, our foreign adversaries will misinterpret them.”

The explanation of the spokesman at the Hungarian permanent representative’s office in Brussels, however, indicates to me that the topic is not new in government circles. The idea didn’t just pop into Trócsányi’s head. The linkage of Hungary’s Roma population to the current refugee crisis began in May when Trócsányi in an interview with Inforádió explained that the reason for Hungary’s refusal to accept any “economic migrants” is that the country is burdened by the integration of 800,000 Gypsies. The Roma theme also emerged in early September in Viktor Orbán’s speech to the ambassadors, where out of the blue he came up with a reference to Hungary’s Roma population. Hungary’s historical lot is to live together with hundreds of thousands of Gypsies. “Someone sometime decided that it would be that way … but Hungary doesn’t ask other countries in Europe to take Hungarian Gypsies.”

As for Hungarian Gypsies sympathizing with Muslim extremists, let me tell a funny story. Somewhere near Nagymágocs, not terribly far from the Serbian border, a group of public workers, mostly Roma, noticed that a few people were hiding in a cornfield. They got scared: these people must be migrants. One of the public workers reported their presence to the police, who told them to get on their bicycles and pedal as fast as they can. Halfway home they encountered a policeman who wanted to arrest one of the Roma in the group, thinking he was a migrant. Meanwhile it turned out that the other “suspicious” group, whose members were bopping in and out of the cornfield, were not migrants either: they were surveyors. So much for the burgeoning friendship between the Roma and Muslim extremists.

Indeed, “kakistocracy” is at work. C. György Kálmán’s suggestion to government officials to improve their language skills is not enough. One needs some brainpower as well, and that seems to be lacking in most of Viktor Orbán’s underlings.

Viktor Orbán and Péter Szijjártó at the United Nations

Viktor Orbán didn’t skip his Friday morning radio interview despite the fact that it was only a few hours earlier that he stepped off the airplane that brought him back from a trip to New York and Washington. A large part of the interview was a rehash of his well-known opposition to the immigration of people from an alien culture, but the careful listener could detect an admission of failure in convincing the world about the correctness of his position. It turned out that the only European country that supported Orbán’s proposal for worldwide compulsory quotas for the asylum seekers was Malta. It had been clear since the Brussels summit that this idea was dead in the water, and Orbán’s promoting it in New York was a waste of time.

We do know that Viktor Orbán met Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, president of Egypt, who is one of the favorite politicians of the Hungarian prime minister. During el-Sisi’s state visit to Budapest during the summer Orbán praised him as the savior of Egypt and compared him to Admiral Miklós Horthy, also a military man, who saved his country in a time of peril. According to a government press release, Orbán will make an official state visit to Cairo soon. Otherwise, we know that he met Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, and Annette Lantos, widow of the late Congressman Tom Lantos. The meeting with Lauder was scheduled on the very day that in Hungary the two officials responsible for the sale of the Sukoró property on which Lauder and other businessmen were planning to erect a casino and hotel complex received tough jail sentences in a rigged trial. I wonder whether Lauder was aware of the verdict at the time of the conversation.

We know more about Péter Szijjártó’s schedule. He had an opportunity to talk to Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson and Jeffrey D. Feltman, under-secretary-general for political affairs. Otherwise he had meetings with assorted foreign ministers of marginally important countries: Gilbert Saboya of Andorra, Taieb Beccouche of Tunisia, Erlan Abdyldaev of Kyrgysztan, and Charles Koffi Diby of the Ivory Coast. In addition, he met with Peter M. Boehm, associate deputy minister of foreign affairs of Canada, who was misidentified by the Hungarian foreign ministry as the foreign minister of the country.

Szijjártó’s conversation with Deputy-Secretary-General Jan Eliasson was, it seems, mostly a comparison of the immigrants currently arriving in Europe and the Hungarians who illegally crossed into Austria and to a lesser extent Yugoslavia. I assume that the comparison was made by Eliasson and was then hotly debated by Péter Szijjártó. As Népszabadság‘s sarcastically commented, “Hungarian immigrants are different from any other immigrants.”

Péter Szijjártó with Deputy-General Secretary Jan Eliasson / MTI/UN/Eskinder Debebe

Péter Szijjártó with Deputy-General Secretary Jan Eliasson / MTI/UN Photo: Eskinder Debebe

Viktor Orbán delivered a short speech at a meeting organized specifically for a discussion of the refugee crisis where, in addition to his suggestion for world quotas, he warned the world against anti-Muslim sentiment. One can only marvel at this man’s brazenness. He has the gall to stand up and utter such words when ever since January he has done nothing but incite his people against the Muslim “invaders” who in his opinion as of this morning “more closely resemble members of an army than asylum seekers.” But he knows no shame.

Péter Szijjártó also delivered a speech in English at the open discussion of the United Nation’s Security Council. The message of his speech was that without Russia no international problems can be solved. He stated that the transatlantic community–the European Union and the United States–must rethink their relations to Russia. The Syrian civil war cannot be solved without Moscow’s participation. In order to further emphasize Hungary’s excellent relations with Russia, Szijjártó began his speech in Russian as a gesture to the Russians who are chairing the Security Council this month. Here we are in the middle of a serious conflict between Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama over Putin’s involvement in Syria, and Hungary, a member of NATO, openly sides with Russia.

In earlier posts I talked about the uncivilized manner in which Szijjártó talks to other politicians. The language being used by this young, inexperienced man is unheard of in diplomacy. But he does it at the command of the prime minister. You may recall that as early as 2010 Viktor Orbán told Hungarian diplomats who gathered for “instructions” from the prime minister in Budapest that they will have to counter every time there is any criticism of Hungary. This year he made himself even clearer. The stronger the criticism the harsher the response of Hungarian diplomats must be.

In light of Orbán’s stated policy of lashing out with harsh rebukes at critics of Hungary, the following exchange in today’s interview was, for those of us who have developed a warped sense of humor in order to survive this regime, amusing. The reporter asked Orbán whether his suggestion of worldwide quotas was intended to force the developed countries to reveal their true feelings about accepting refugees. Orbán piously answered: “This would be an impolite formulation, we are not supposed to speak like that at international meetings, we choose a different approach.” But since he was no longer at an international meeting, he immediately launched into a tirade against the prime minister of Croatia.

After giving a false picture of the excellent relationship between Croatia and Hungary during their 800-year common destiny, he admitted that “‘what is happening today” is injurious to both. Until now he hasn’t said anything to the Croatian prime minister, but now he must say something that might not be diplomatic or polite. He has to be forthright because “our own people will pay the price” for what the Croatian prime minister is doing. “We cannot look upon the words of the Croatian prime minister as the voice of the Croatian people. The Croatian prime minister and his party are part of the Socialist Internationale. The parties of the Socialist Internationale support immigration … Their leaders follow the instructions of the Socialist Internationale…. Therefore, I ask Hungarians to keep in mind when they hear the Croatian prime minister that they aren’t hearing the voice of the Croatian people but the emissary of the Socialist Internationale whose job it is to attack Hungary.”

By now neighboring countries’ politicians have been insulted by Szijjártó, and today Orbán joined the fray by hurling insults at the Croatian prime minister. Where will all this lead? Unfortunately, the Hungarian people will pay dearly for Orbán’s irresponsible foreign policy. Even if Orbán disappeared today, it would take years to undo the damage both at home and abroad.

“El Camino de Balkan”: In the footsteps of the refugees from Greece to Hungary

Twelve days ago atlatszo.hu announced that a Hungarian journalist, who initially didn’t reveal his name, decided to go to Greece and from there join refugees traveling north to the Serb-Hungarian border. He published his experiences in daily installments in atlatszo.hu. They were titled El Camino de Balkan, a take-off on El Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage route to the shrine of the apostle St. James the Great in the Cathedral of Santiago.

He went to Idomeni, the last Greek village, only about two kilometers from the Macedonian town of Gevgalija on the bank of the Vardar River. This is the favorite spot for refugees to begin their journey from Greece northward.

Of course, by that time the refugees had traveled thousands of miles from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Their last stop in Turkey was Izmir, a large city in the westernmost point of Anatolia. From there they sailed to Mitilini (Lesbos) or Kos and then edged their way to Athens, Thessaloniki, and Idomeni, where our man joined a group of refugees.

Greece to Hungary

He didn’t have to wait long. After walking about six kilometers he encountered the first group, about twenty Afghans whose final destination is Germany. They had left Kabul, Herat, Mazar i Sharif a month ago and traveled through Iran, Turkey, and Lesbos. They had just arrived from Saloniki by bus. According to the owner of a local pub, twenty busloads of refugees arrive daily in Idomeni. That is at least 1,000 people. Small shopkeepers sell their wares: hamburgers, soft drinks, ice cream. On a small field there are at least 300 refugees and a policeman, who tries to keep order by dividing them into smaller groups that then cross to Macedonia.

After sitting in the dust for about an hour our journalist encountered two Syrian brothers from Homs, who seemed to be terribly worried about the Hungarian part of the trip. “Everything will be decided there,” they said. They are heading to Norway, where allegedly the rest of the family is already. Eventually, they began their short walk to Gevgelija, the first Macedonian town from which one can reach Belgrade by train.

By the time our journalist, surrounded by Syrians, arrived at the Gevgelija railroad station, the whole place was full of refugees. Every shady spot was already occupied, but some volunteers of the Red Cross tried to help the ailing members of the group. They also distribute food and water twice a day. Apparently, the situation is much better organized now than it was a month and a half ago, when “chases took place among the bushes and the corn fields” and many of the refugees got hurt. Now the authorities organize the crossing themselves.

It was a long wait for the refugees to receive a piece of paper that allows them to stay in Macedonia for 72 hours. Eventually the train to Skopje, which carried only refugees, arrived, and all hell broke loose. There were more people than places and the adults, leaving their children behind, stormed the train. But don’t fret. They knew what they were doing. Once inside the train they lifted their children into the carriage through the windows.

Given how limited space was on the train, our journalist thought he shouldn’t take the place of a real refugee and decided to go by bus to Skopje. As it turned out, the bus was also full of refugees except that these were the better-off ones who could afford to pay their way. Here his companion was Aden from Iraq, with a master’s degree in robotics. Aden didn’t even know where he should go and asked the journalist’s advice, who suggested Norway because “surely there they need engineers.”

At each border crossing the police organized the smooth movement of masses of refugees. Some of them received the Macedonian handwritten piece of paper which makes them legal for 72 hours, some didn’t. It didn’t matter. They all got on trains or buses and moved closer and closer to the border they feared most: the Hungarian.

Our journalist, after reaching Skopje by bus, hired a taxi. Its driver took him to Tabanovce and pointed toward a forest, the customary path into Serbia. Soon enough another taxi arrived which brought seven Syrians. They were well-dressed men and women who received the same directions from their driver as he had. So, they began walking together, but a Macedonian policeman discovered that our journalist wasn’t a refugee and refused to allow him to cross illegally. As a result he had to walk 14 kilometers to the Serbian town of Preshevo. It was 35 degrees, with no shade. After about 8 km a group of Afghans, who until then had been hiding in the ditch next to the road, joined him. They spoke no English; they just kept repeating “asyl… asyl.”

Preshevo is an important station in this Balkan journey. The Serbian authorities are waiting for the crowd. Behind the railroad station is an area whose official name is “place for a single stop,” but everybody just calls it the “kamp.” Here the Serbian police hand out 72-hour passes, this time for Serbia. Again, the wait is extremely long because these passes are handwritten, just as in Macedonia. The crowd is so large that “the whole thing looks absolutely hopeless,” but unfortunately if a poor refugee wants to travel free on a “refugee train” from Preshevo through Belgrade to Subotica/Szabadka, he must have one of these pieces of paper.

Of course, the well-off refugees can save themselves days of waiting for this piece of paper. Our journalist, who worked for years in the Balkans, knows Serbian, and he learned from one of the policemen that “many avoid Preshevo altogether and take a taxi all the way to the Hungarian border. It is only a question of money.” Surely, the well-dressed Syrians our journalist encountered close to Preshevo were not standing in line for that piece of paper.

The situation in Belgrade is somewhat similar to that in Budapest. Two parks near the railroad station are full of refugees. Buses going to cities close to the Hungarian border are booked for days. In the Serbian capital our journalist sensed growing apprehension about the refugee issue. The reason: the fence the Hungarian government is erecting along the border.

The next stop was Kanjiža/Kanizsa, a small town in the Vojvodia, where 85% of the people are Hungarian-speaking. Three buses arrived at the same time from Subotica/Szabadka, all full of refugees. The main square was full of them, but by the next morning the square was empty because the refugees start their final journey at night. According to a town council member who is in charge of the refugees in Kanizsa, only the better-off Iraqis and Syrians end up there. The poorer Afghans wait in Subotica in a large camp set up for them. But still at least 1,000 people go through this town of 9,000 inhabitants daily.

You may have noted that up to this point there was not a word about the smugglers who are allegedly responsible for the onslaught of economic migrants, who lure innocent and ignorant people to begin their perilous journey only to strip them of their last pennies. Instead, we heard about willing Greek, Macedonian, and Serbian policemen who facilitate the refugees’ movement from country to country. This is not the case, however, on the Hungarian-Serbian border, and our journalist had the misfortune of encountering one of these smugglers during the last leg of his journey.

This last stretch meant a journey on foot from Kanizsa to Martonos, where he made half the trip by car thanks to a Hungarian Gypsy. Originally the driver offered him a ride believing that he was picking up a refugee, but when our journalist answered him in Hungarian he got excited: “Oh, my brother, you are Hungarian? Then I’ll take you free of charge.”

From Martonos the refugee route follows an embankment, which eventually goes to Szeged and beyond. Here our journalist encountered a group along the Tisza River of about eighty, led by a bearded Arab who was very suspicious of him, especially when he heard that he is a Hungarian journalist. “Not a good pedigree around here.” Half of the people were Kurds from Iraq and other half, Syrians.  The terrain was rough. It was a heavily wooded area, plus they had to cross a canal which was luckily dry, but the embankment was very steep and there were a lot of children in the group. There was a second canal, which is apparently the actual border between the two countries with an even steeper embankment. The leader of the group made them run as fast as they could through heavy brush only to stop and wait. The journalist found this all rather mysterious.

Eventually he figured out what was going on. The bearded Arab, who was about 35 years old, was the chief here, assisted by four younger guys. They were the ones who walked ahead of the crowd, and all four of them carried knives. At sundown these five washed their hands, face, and feet, and rinsed their mouths. The others watched in silence. Eventually two or three groups joined them, and it became clear that all these people were “paying customers.” A final mad rush and one of the young smugglers came to him, saying “Hungary, go!” They all ended up in Gyálarét, in the outskirts of Szeged.

* * *

Since then our journalist has revealed his real identity. He is György Kakuk, author of a book on Kosovo, where he spent a year during the NATO attacks on Yugoslavia. He worked as a foreign news editor at Magyar Televízió and Magyar Rádió. After retiring from journalism, he was a diplomat with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, mostly in Balkan countries. A few years ago he decided to enter politics and joined the Demokratikus Koalíció, where he is one of the foreign policy advisers to Ferenc Gyurcsány. He is also on DK’s ten-member executive board.

Yesterday Gellért Rajcsányi, one of the young editors of the conservative Mandiner, wrote a glowing report about the series of articles, which he read with amazement. He considered El Camino de Balkan “the report of the year.” At that time he didn’t know who the author of the report was. Since Rajcsányi is not exactly an admirer of Ferenc Gyurcsány, to put it mildly, I wonder what he would have thought of this fascinating story if knew the real identity of the author. I can only hope that he wouldn’t have changed his opinion.