Tag Archives: U.S.-Hungarian relations

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

A short pause in the battle between the Orbán government and CEU

It is possible that as a result of the four-day Easter holiday we will have a brief respite from the latest Hungarian drama. Today I will expand on previous posts regarding the Central European University controversy and the recall of Ambassador Réka Szemerkényi.

Let’s return first to the presidential signature on the controversial bill aimed at closing CEU. Few people had illusions about the integrity of János Áder, who after all started his political career as one of the founders of Fidesz and who subsequently occupied important positions in the party. He could, however, have salvaged the little reputation he had left by sending the bill back to parliament, which in turn could have returned it to him unchanged. Instead, the word from the president’s office was that Áder’s legal staff saw nothing in the law that would be incompatible with international law or that could be considered unconstitutional. Perhaps his legal staff had blinders on. Scores of constitutional lawyers, conservative as well as liberal, shared their opinions with Áder about the unconstitutionality of the law. László Sólyom, the former president who was chief justice of the constitutional court for eight years, said yesterday in a lecture that a second-year law student ought to be able to tell that the law that was put in front of Áder is “unequivocally unconstitutional.” As he ironically put it, “the students of Bibó College wrote a very poor brief.”

In the meantime it seems that the firm stand of the United States coupled with the massive demonstrations at home forced Viktor Orbán to reexamine his original game plan. 24.hu learned from reliable sources that a “serious debate” has taken place in the last couple of days in Fidesz circles. Apparently, at the moment they are still clinging to their initial response that they will not repeal or withdraw the law but instead will offer some kind of compromise. László Palkovics’s rather confused offer of an arrangement by which Central European University could offer degrees in a licensing agreement with Közép-Európai Egyetem is still on the table. But the university has already indicated that this arrangement is unacceptable. I should add that, two weeks into this drama, the Hungarian government still has not found time to get in touch with the administration of CEU directly.

I have the feeling that the Orbán government was not prepared for the resolute, self-confident stance of the university and its president, Michael Ignatieff. Hungary’s present leaders are accustomed to cowed subjects who barely dare to open their mouths. But here is a group of independent people who stand up for their rights. President Michael Ignatieff, after returning to Budapest from abroad, pointed out today that they have absolutely no idea where the government stands as far as its relationship to CEU is concerned. A week ago Zoltán Balog who is, after all, in charge of education, announced that the government’s goal is the removal of the university from Hungary, but now László Palkovics, Balog’s undersecretary, claims that the government wants CEU to stay. A week ago the minister accused CEU of fraud; now the undersecretary assures them that the university functioned legally. Ignatieff called upon the Hungarian government “to develop at last a uniform position.” He also sent a message to the government “to call us by our name. This is not a Soros University but Central European University.” As far as Palkovics’s “solution” is concerned, Ignatieff, “without wanting to be sarcastic or insulting,” considers “Undersecretary Palkovics’s sentences incomprehensible.”

Michael Ignatieff, president of Central European University

In the meantime, the government has been intimidating students and faculty at other Hungarian universities, telling them that they cannot participate in any demonstrations on behalf of CEU or do anything in general to support the CEU cause. Such threats were delivered at the University of Debrecen, the University of Kaposvár, and Corvinus University in Budapest. The Hungarian Helsinki Commission countered this government action in a press release in which it called attention to provisions in the Hungarian labor law that would protect both students and faculty from any recrimination as a result of their activities on behalf of CEU.

Today Romnet.hu, a website dealing with Roma affairs, reported that a CEU graduate, who I assume is Roma, was sacked from a state-owned company. He was told that the firm had received instructions from above that they don’t want to employ people who earned their degrees from CEU. The CEU graduate’s boss apparently expressed his regret and promised to help find another job for him through his personal contacts in the private sector.

Then there is Márton Gulyás, about whom I have written nothing so far. He is a young, rather brash activist who has been under the skin of the authorities for some time because of his “unorthodox” methods of protesting. He already had one scrape with the law when, screwdriver in hand, he arrived at the National Election Commission and removed the plate bearing its name. He received a one-year suspended sentence for this act. This time he was caught trying to throw a can of orange-colored paint against the wall of the building housing the president’s office. His attempt was failed, but he was arrested and kept in jail for three days. Thousands demonstrated for his release, and today he and another young man who was arrested in his own apartment after the demonstration was over had their day in court. Gulyás was sentenced to 300 hours of physical work at some public project. His companion received 200 hours. They will appeal the sentences.

And now, switching gears, let me return to Ambassador Réka Szemerkényi’s recall from Washington. Attila Ara-Kovács, currently foreign policy adviser of Demokratikus Koalíció, writes weekly posts on foreign affairs in his blog, “Diplomatic Note.” His latest post is “The fall of the ambassador.” Ara-Kovács has contacts in diplomatic circles who provide him with information that is usually accurate. According to him, the U.S. State Department had learned about the anti-CEU bill before it was made public. Curiously, this information allegedly reached Washington from Moscow. If this is true, says Ara-Kovács, the rumors about Russian involvement might have been accurate. A State Department official contacted Szemerkényi, who didn’t seem to know anything about the proposed bill. When the American diplomat summarized its contents, Szemerkényi apparently assured him that her government would never enact such a law. She reminded the bearer of the news that there are just too many conspiracy theories floating around, and the Orbán government’s opponents are apt to conjure up untrue stories. She promised, however, to provide more information once she gets the word from Budapest.

It wasn’t easy to get confirmation from the foreign ministry, and Szemerkényi had to use her contacts in Fidesz. Eventually she received the full text of the bill and ample advice on how to “sell” this piece of legislation to the U.S. government. Szemerkényi, instead of quietly following instructions, sent word back to Budapest that, in her opinion, the United States would never accept such a law. It is an illusion to think that just because Trump doesn’t particularly like George Soros his administration would take this lying down. She added that such a step might risk future good relations between the two countries. According to Ara-Kovács, a few hours after the Hungarian government received Szemerkényi’s message the decision was made to recall her. Viktor Orbán doesn’t joke around when someone dares to say “no” to him.

April 13, 2017

Viktor Orbán’s regime under fire at home and abroad

It is difficult nowadays to write a post about the Hungarian political scene since it is almost impossible to predict what may happen in the next few minutes on the streets of Budapest, which are again filled with demonstrators.

One thing I have been pondering today in view of the latest U.S.-Hungarian clash over the Central European University (CEU) is the Orbán regime’s total ignorance of the workings of the U.S. government. Throughout the presidential campaign, interest in the Clinton/Trump duel was just as intense in Hungary as anywhere else in Europe. Yet day after day it was apparent that a great many journalists as well as politically engaged citizens were unfamiliar with even the most basic principles of the U.S. electoral law. I found this depressing. But when politicians who are supposed to make decisions affecting U.S.-Hungarian relations are ignorant of how U.S. diplomacy functions, we are in real trouble. And unfortunately, this is increasingly the case.

In the last three years the whole Hungarian diplomatic corps was decimated, and their places were filled with party loyalists who had no diplomatic experience. But even those who in the past 20 years were in important diplomatic positions and who are considered to be Atlantists, i.e. working for better U.S.-Hungarian relations, can come up with mind-boggling idiocies. The latest example comes from Zsolt Németh, undersecretary of the foreign ministry between 1998 and 2002 and again between 2010 and 2014. Commenting on Hoyt Brian Yee’s message to the Hungarian government, he said that Yee’s report on the U.S. government’s support for CEU is “only an opinion and in any case we are talking only about a deputy assistant secretary. Moreover, as far as I know, he has held this position for the last few years, so we ought to wait for the answer of the present American administration as to whether we can sign an agreement that would make CEU’s continued work possible.” What dilettantism and what arrogance, said Zsolt Kerner of 24.hu. The Orbán government assumed (and of course hoped) that the American response still reflected the thinking of the Obama administration. But a few hours after Németh’s comment Mark C. Toner, spokesperson of the State Department, confirmed Yee’s message. The most important sentence of Toner’s lengthy answer to a journalistic question was: “We’re urging the Government of Hungary to suspend implementation of the law.” The message cannot be clearer. The simplistic view of the Orbán government that, for Hungary, “Democratic rule is bad, Republican rule is good” was once again proved wrong. How could Viktor Orbán have forgotten his bad luck with George W. Bush after 9/11 when his insensitivity or perhaps planned insult got him into deep trouble with the Republican administration for the rest of his term?

Viktor Orbán has been a great deal more successful in his dealings with the European Union. For years he has been hoodwinking the hapless “bureaucrats.” But the “Stop Brussels” campaign and the farcical questionnaire of the so-called National Consultation helped them see the light. At last the College under the chairmanship of First Vice-President Frans Timmermans decided “to take stock of the issues at hand, in an objective, facts-based and law-based manner” concerning “the compatibility of certain actions of the Hungarian authorities with EU law and with our shared values.” Timmermans outlined the issues the European Commission and Parliament considered troubling. Heading the list was the fate of Central European University, but right after that came the announcement that “the Commission … decided that it will prepare and make public its own response to the Hungarian Government’s ‘Stop Brussels’ consultation.”

The current European Commission

Moreover, Timmermans accused Hungary of not abiding by Article 2 of the Lisbon Treaty, which reads: “The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.” The sins of the Orbán government are numerous: its attack on CEU and the NGOs, lack of transparency of funding, asylum questions, disregard of human dignity and freedom, and a lack of respect for human rights, tolerance, and solidarity. Of course, we have heard all this before, but what’s different this time is that Timmermans announced that they will complete the legal assessment of the Hungarian situation as soon as possible and “the College will consider next steps on any legal concerns by the end of the month.” In the European Union, where everything takes months if not years, the Hungarian issue seems to have priority. The EU’s criticisms didn’t go unnoticed in Poland. Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski, in an interview with MTI, the Hungarian news agency, labeled Timmermans’ announcement “blackmail.” Péter Szijjártó called it a “pathetic accusation.”

I left to the end a development that I find extremely important. Viktor Orbán’s whole political system relies on a three-pronged parliamentary structure. Fidesz is the “center power” with two opposition groups on its flanks: Jobbik on the right and assorted smaller parties on the left, where the right and left have diametrically opposed ideologies. This was the situation in Hungary between the two world wars, which ensured the government party’s supremacy from 1920 to 1944. The genius of this arrangement is that these two poles, due to their ideological incompatibility, are unlikely to unite against the middle.

But in the CEU case Jobbik opted to join ranks with the left. In Hungary 25% of parliamentary members can demand a review of a law by the Constitutional Court, even if it has already been signed by the president. LMP decided to invoke this procedure to trigger a Court review of the new anti-CEU law. To reach the 25% threshold LMP needed to muster 50 votes. If only LMP (5), MSZP (28), and all the independents (11) were to vote for the initiative, they would come up short. But Jobbik decided to add its 24 votes. Demokratikus Koalíció (4), whose members sit with the independents, opted not to join the others because DK doesn’t consider the Fidesz-majority Constitutional Court a legitimate body. Thus, 64 members of parliament joined together in an action against Fidesz. Of course, the Jobbik spokesman emphasized that the decision was made only to save the rule of law in Hungary, and he kept repeating that this doesn’t mean an endorsement of George Soros or his university. But the fact remains that Jobbik decided to join the rest of the opposition. (At the time of the vote on the law on higher education they simply didn’t vote.) This Jobbik decision may have significant consequences.

As I write this, tens of thousands are demonstrating in Budapest, all over the city. The cause is no longer just CEU and the NGOs but democracy and a free Hungary.

April 12, 2017

Viktor Orbán’s plans foiled: The U.S. government won’t negotiate

Today Viktor Orbán named Kristóf Altusz, deputy undersecretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, to be the prime minister’s representative at the forthcoming “diplomatic negotiations” concerning the status of the “international universities” in Hungary. Considering that, among the international universities, only CEU’s status is being attacked, that would leave Altusz with a single task: to conduct “diplomatic negotiations” with the government of the United States. There is, however, a serious hitch here. Almost simultaneously with the announcement of Altusz’s new job, Hoyt Brian Yee, deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. State Department, announced in Budapest that any negotiations that might take place in the future will have to be between the Hungarian government and the administration of Central European University. The U.S. government is not going to negotiate with the Hungarian government over the fate of CEU.

Assistant Secretary Yee was generous with his time and gave interviews to Index, Magyar Nemzet, and Magyar Idők. The first two are already available online, but I assume Magyar Idők is still contemplating how to package Yee’s messages for its faithful readers. Yee’s first message was that the Trump administration “fully supports” the university, which the Orbán government might not have expected. The second was equally important. He told Index that “although [he] can’t speak on behalf of the Hungarian government, [he] thinks, on the basis of his conversations, that they understand what is at stake.”

Yee’s claim that the university is “the success story of the partnership between Hungary and the United States” was a somewhat more subtle reference to the importance of the issue. Equally pointed was his claim that Budapest was chosen as the venue for CEU because, at the time of the founding of the university (1992), there was great hope that “this city might be the leader of the whole region’s development and that Hungary as a democratic, prosperous, successful country will be the model for others.” For many years that was actually the case, and now “the challenge is to keep this dynamic alive or, in other words, the city, the country should stand up for democracy, the rule of law, fundamental freedoms, including freedom of education.” The message here: the demonstrations are performing a vital task in defense of the future of Hungary.

While government officials behind closed doors are contemplating how to get out of a sticky situation, Fidesz’s radical right has been hard at work. István Lovas, whose favorite pastime is reading Sputnik News from cover to cover, charged that George Soros is trying to make sure that Viktor Orbán’s name will be on the list of dictators. He quoted Sputnik News: “the representatives of the [Hungarian] government believe that his fund receives money for ‘serving the interests of global capitalists’ which contradicts with [sic] Hungary’s national interests.” Lovas also quoted the Daily Caller, which claims that “leaked documents” from Soros’s Open Society Foundations reveal how Soros works “to defeat populist candidates and movements in Europe.” Naturally, Soros uses “a network of nonprofits and partner organizations across Europe to try and affect the outcomes in foreign countries.” And, in a longer piece written for Magyar Hírlap, Lovas tore into Donald Trump, who, he said, committed a war crime by ordering an airstrike after the use of chemical weapons by Syrian forces. That piece of writing inspired a short note by Zsolt Bayer, the viciously anti-Semitic friend of Viktor Orbán who only recently received a high state decoration. He republished Lovas’s article, to which he added:

We are republishing here an important article by my friend István because, after reading it, it becomes clear why the U.S. State Department is sending thunderous warnings to the Hungarian government on account of CEU.

Why? Because in the U.S. State Department the old guard still serves, and there (also) Soros is the boss.

Let’s hope this will change very soon.

We can also point out that very soon we will also be on the streets to protect what is important and sacred for us. And we will be very angry. So, for a while you can rant and rave, you can try to tear the parliament apart, the ministries, the Fidesz headquarters, the president’s office, you can attack the policemen, assault journalists—for a while.

But then no longer.

Then you will experience what it feels like to be persecuted and threatened.

I’m telling you we are very angry. Is it clear?

Keep in mind that up to this point the demonstrations have been peaceful, and let’s hope they will remain so. But no one can guarantee that the protesters will remain patient and disciplined, especially in light of the government propaganda against their efforts, especially the cruder type that was the brainchild of Árpád Habony, Viktor Orbán’s mysterious adviser. They come out with “fake news” that even Donald Trump’s favorite rags would be proud of. For example, they said that George Soros personally paid for airline tickets for people all over the world to attend the rally in Budapest. And the propaganda tabloid 888.hu came up with headlines like “Soros’s men employ anarchists.” People, especially those who were among the 80,000 who demonstrated on Sunday, do get annoyed when they think the Hungarian government and its media take them for fools.

In closing, I would like to call attention to an article written by Péter Pető, formerly deputy editor-in-chief of Népszabadság and now managing editor of 24.hu. The piece was written after a few hundred demonstrators spontaneously gathered in front of Sándor Palace, the office of the president, after János Áder signed the bill into law. They threw white tulips that had been growing in front of the building at the police. The title was “Rebels with white tulips send a message to Orbán: Anything can happen.” Indeed. Anything can happen.

April 11, 2017

A frustrated Viktor Orbán dismisses his ambassador to Washington

On the very same day that the Hungarian parliament passed a bill that would effectively close Central European University, ATV reported that Réka Szemerkényi, Hungarian ambassador to the United States, will be leaving her post within a couple of months. She is being recalled. A few hours later the Foreign Ministry confirmed the report.

The news created quite a stir because the consensus in government circles as well as among analysts was that Szemerkényi was practically an alter ego of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Orbán’s trust in Szemerkényi’s judgment and expertise was boundless, claimed several people in the know. Observers asserted that having Szemerkényi in the Hungarian Embassy was like having Viktor Orbán himself in Washington.

So, what went wrong? According to the well-informed Ildikó Csuhaj, “there was someone in the government” who didn’t find Szemerkényi’s performance in Washington satisfactory. Given the modus operandi of the Orbán government, that someone must have been the prime minister himself who, it seems, expected miracles from his trusted foreign policy and security expert. Among other things, he expected an early invitation to the White House, something that doesn’t seem possible anytime soon. Péter Szijjártó, who visited Washington on March 22-23, also had difficulty meeting anyone of importance in the State Department. Szemerkényi is being accused of not using the diplomatic channels at her disposal to explain the Hungarian government’s position on two important issues: its unyielding attitude towards and treatment of the refugees and its unprecedented attack on an American university.

Poor Réka Szemerkényi. She was sent to Washington with an impossible mission: not just to ease the growing tension between the two countries but to convince the U.S. government that its dim view of Viktor Orbán’s illiberal state has no foundation. Hungary is in fact a blossoming democracy. She was supposed to convince the Americans that the footage they saw on television day in and day out of Hungary’s harsh treatment of refugees was just a mirage. Moreover, the anti-American and pro-Russian rhetoric of Orbán and his press shouldn’t be taken seriously. It is just idle talk or is simply misunderstood.

Szemerkényi did her best, but it is practically impossible to sell inferior or outright rotten produce, and that was all she could offer. She did convince a few Republicans who for one reason or other sympathize with Orbán’s policies, including his pro-Russian stance, but most congressmen and senators were not ready to support Hungary’s cause. As ambassador she received a few invitations for interviews, but most of her time was spent responding to negative reports by U.S. publications. For example, she wrote letters on behalf of Hungary to The Hill, Washington Times, Washington Post, Diplomacy and Trade, Politico, and The York Review of Books where she engaged in a fairly lengthy exchange with Professor Jan-Werner Müller of Princeton University over what she considered to be his “rather distorted picture of Hungary.” She valiantly defended Fidesz as a “center right [party] encompassing views from liberal-conservatives to traditionalists.” She accused him of using “selective quotes,” which will not hide the fact that the Hungarian government’s commitment to traditional European values is well within the mainstream of European politics. Even from this one response we can appreciate the difficulties she faced in defending the indefensible.

In a lengthy interview with an American publication, she explained the problems she was facing in Washington: “A lot of very profound changes in Hungary that took place since 2010 or 2011 were so difficult to understand from far away” and perhaps between 2010 and 2014 the embassy didn’t do a good job of explaining these changes. She found that unfortunate because she “very much believe[s] in the importance and power of the transatlantic relationship.” She is convinced that “the European and transatlantic ties are the most important roots for [her] country.” Yet, she added, “we have a very complex recent past” which is difficult to understand from the outside. One can sense her frustration at the impossibility of her task.

I also suspect that Szemerkényi, who once wrote a glowing essay about János Martonyi as a model foreign minister, doesn’t think highly of Péter Szijjártó the novice. After all, Szemerkényi has almost 30 years of experience, first serving in the Ministry of Defense (1990-1994) and then as undersecretary in charge of foreign policy and national security in the prime minister’s office between 1998 and 2002.

Szemerkényi also gave interviews to Hungarian media outlets: Inforadio, a right-of-center mostly news station, and Figyelő, a respectable financial paper which was acquired by Mária Schmidt recently. (I should mention that the valuable archives of Figyelő has been removed from the internet. New owners of government media outlets learn from each other quickly. This is what happened in the case of Népszabadság until a court order restored the archives.)

In her first interview with Figyelő in December 2015 she stressed the importance of transatlantic ties. Atlantism is not a sub-field of Hungarian foreign policy, alongside the eastern opening. It is the foundation of Hungary’s foreign relations. Or, at least this is what Szemerkényi would like to believe. In the rest of the interview she talked about the efforts she had been making to gather support in the U.S. capital. For instance, once a month the embassy holds a meeting called Budapest Salon—Open Embassy where she invites analysts and congressional advisers. She did notice some “thawing,” but “it wouldn’t be a realistic goal that we agree about everything.”

In her February 9, 2017 interview with Figyelő one can sense that Szemerkényi was under pressure from Budapest to secure a White House invitation for Viktor Orbán. The very first question addressed to her was on the prospects of “building a good relationship with the Trump administration.” I’m sure that Donald Trump’s victory was as much of a surprise to Szemerkényi as it was to everybody else, but she claimed that the embassy had made preparations for both eventualities. And she was eager to reassure people that they were “extremely successful” on that score. She claimed that Hungary is way ahead of other countries in the region in acquiring contacts with the new set of people in the Trump administration. In fact, others come to the Hungarian embassy for advice and contacts. She bragged about her meetings with Jeff Sessions, Mike Pence, Wilbur Ross, Ben Carson, and John Kelly’s and James Mattis’s teams. She personally talked with Rex Tillerson. The Hungarian embassy organized a celebratory brunch called Salute to Freedom after the inauguration, which was attended by high officials of the new administration. Most important, she met President Trump at least three times. For example, “at a smaller conference and ball that took place in Mar-a-Lago, President Trump greeted me as an old acquaintance.” She announced that they are working on “the coordination of the actual meeting” between Trump and Orbán but added that, as far as timing is concerned, the Hungarians must be realistic. The president of a superpower has many other urgent obligations. Well, it seems that Viktor Orbán was not ready to wait.

The Mar-a-Lago encounter between the Trumps and Réka Szemerkényi

And now let’s see what one of her right-wing critics, István Lovas, who just moved from Magyar Hírlap to Magyar Idők as the “foreign policy expert,” had to say about Szemerkényi’s days in Washington. Lovas doesn’t have a heavy work load at Magyar Idők. He writes only one article a week, which leaves him plenty of time to search online for “fake news” coming from Russia Today and Sputnik, which he publishes on his own blog. He is quite capable of posting two dozen short notices with links to Russian or pro-Russian publications in a day. Naturally, he is also a great fan of Donald Trump and finds Szemerkényi’s less than successful efforts the ambassador’s personal failure, due in part to her Atlantist inclinations. Lovas accuses her of being anti-Russian, an accusation that is not without merit judging from several articles she wrote between 2008 and 2011 in Válasz.

Lovas is convinced that Szemerkényi grossly exaggerated her relations with President Trump as well as with other high-ranking members of the new administration. All of her meetings with these people were casual encounters. It is very possible that Donald Trump didn’t even know who Szemerkényi was when he exchanged a few words with her. Her only recorded meeting with the president occurred after the embassy paid several thousand dollars to the American Red Cross in order to get an invitation to the conference and ball held at Mar-a-Lago. In Lovas’s opinion, Szemerkényi’s extreme Atlantism and her harsh anti-Russian views are good enough reason to recall her.

And behold, three days later Szemerkényi was sacked. Of course, I don’t believe that Lovas’s outrageous blog post was the reason for her dismissal. Rather, I suspect that Lovas already knew that something was brewing in the prime minister’s office and the foreign ministry.

Apparently, a deputy of Péter Szijjártó, László Szabó, will replace Réka Szemerkényi. Szabó has no diplomatic experience to speak of. He finished medical school but after a few years gave up his profession and became a businessman working for pharmaceutical companies like Eli Lilly and Teva. He did spend two years at Eli Lilly headquarters in Indianapolis, but he knows next to nothing about Washington. How could Szabó possibly be more successful than Szemerkényi has been with her vast experience in diplomacy and her familiarity with the Washington scene? After the CEU scandal the new Hungarian ambassador’s job will be even harder than before. Sending an inexperienced man to replace Szemerkényi is utter madness in my opinion.

April 9, 2017

Central European University in Viktor Orbán’s crosshairs

It was on February 11 that I wrote a post titled “Viktor Orbán’s next target: Central European University in Budapest.” What prompted my post was an article “Can the Soros-School Stay?” that appeared in Figyelő, a once respectable financial paper acquired by Mária Schmidt, Viktor Orbán’s adviser on matters of history. This opening salvo was followed by at least four articles in Magyar Idők, the semi-official paper of the Orbán government, all aimed at discrediting the university. It seemed that the government had decided that the time was ripe to do what it had been contemplating for quite a while: get rid of CEU once and for all. I ended my post with these words: “What happens to CEU may depend, at least in part, on how successful Donald Trump is at implementing his plans at home and abroad. If he moves American democracy toward an illiberal state and if his followers keep bashing Soros, most likely Viktor Orbán will feel free to banish CEU from Hungary. But if he fails because of internal opposition and foreign resistance, perhaps these attacks will subside. Let’s hope so.”

Obviously, Viktor Orbán thinks that Donald Trump is doing splendidly and that his own move against George Soros, who after all supported Hillary Clinton, and Soros’s Budapest university is not only timely but has every promise of success. Well, Trump isn’t doing so splendidly, and bashing Soros wouldn’t do much to move the needle on his 35% approval rating. But, as the Hungarian government has formulated its proposed legislation against CEU, that’s really not the problem. What the Orbán government is demanding for the continued existence of CEU cannot be satisfied. Washington has nothing to do with a university accredited in the State of New York.

I don’t know, of course, what was in Orbán’s head when, in the middle of the night, the amendments to the Law on Higher Education were posted on the website of the Hungarian Parliament. I assume he hoped, at the very least, that there would be no response from a more sympathetic United States government. But he was wrong. The U.S. Embassy in Budapest released a strongly worded statement:

The United States is very concerned about the legislation proposed by the Hungarian Government yesterday that would severely impact the operations of the Central European University in Budapest…. The University is an important success story in the U.S.-Hungarian relationship, and it enjoys strong bipartisan support in the U.S. Government. The United States opposes any effort to compromise the operations or independence of the University.

Such a statement cannot be issued without the approval of the State Department.

I should add that if the Hungarian government wants to negotiate with the U.S., it will have to negotiate not with the Secretary of Education but with the governor of New York, Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat. Moreover, George Pataki, the former Republican governor of the state, is on the board of trustees of CEU. All in all, Orbán will have a hard time realizing his plans.

Large crowd at Michael Ignatieff’s press conference

This afternoon Michal Ignatieff gave a press conference which was attended by hundreds, including diplomats of the U.S., Canadian, German, Swedish, Dutch, and Romanian embassies. I am personally grateful to the Romanians, the only country from the region, for standing up for the academic freedom of a U.S.-Hungarian university.

Ignatieff, who is a very measured man, was visibly angry. He announced that Viktor Orbán is mistaken if he thinks that there will be a Trump-Orbán summit about the fate of CEU because he will be the one who will negotiate about the future of his university. He added that earlier the university’s administration demanded only the withdrawal of the amendments but now, after the Hungarian state violated their trust, they expect a new bilateral agreement that will guarantee the independence of the university. Earlier, in an interview he revealed that the university “plans to show [the Hungarian government] over the next week or so that messing with us comes with costs.” The university administration also announced that it is contemplating legal action against Origo, the latest acquisition of the government’s propaganda machine, because of the internet site’s falsification of facts in connection with the operation of CEU.

As far as the Hungarian government is concerned, the usual double talk reigns. László Palkovics, undersecretary in charge of education, whose rapid-fire explanations are hard to follow, tried to convince his audience at a press conference this morning that the amendments to the law on higher education have nothing to do with CEU. It is just one of the 28 foreign universities that operate in Hungary. It apparently took about 20 questions from journalists before he admitted that CEU is the only institution among the 28 that has no campus abroad and thus cannot operate in the future.

Szilárd Németh, one of Viktor Orbán’s deputies in Fidesz, usually gets the nastiest messages to deliver. In this case, he was surprised that this whole case caused such an altercation. It is just a routine affair: there are many universities that don’t function as working universities abroad, and this is considered to be fraud by Hungarian law. He sanctimoniously announced that “all educational enterprises must obey the laws of the country.” What he forgot to add was that this law hasn’t been enacted yet. He announced that this is “not a Soros problem” yet said that “all of those [in the Hungarian parliament] who rose to defend the Soros university made it clear that they actually serve the interests of George Soros.”

The university had important defenders. The slavishly servile Batthyány Circle of Professors, as usual, was silent at a time when they should be defending the integrity of academic freedom. On the other hand, László Lovász, president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, stood by CEU and even offered himself as a possible middleman in future negotiations between the government and the university. He declared that “CEU is a very significant research center and international educational institution. It is good that it is situated in Budapest.”

Even a Fidesz-supported deputy mayor of District XV in Budapest, Zoltán Balázs, spoke out in defense of the university. But he is not a run-of-the-mill Fidesz politician. He happens to be a professor of political science at Corvinus University who also taught off and on at CEU. Balázs is a true conservative. Earlier he was often a guest in political discussion groups at ATV. He wasn’t my favorite, not so much because of his conservative ideas but rather because of his mannered and stilted style. But this time I was pleased that he sat down and wrote an article that was published in HVG titled “CEU and the freedom of conscience.” In it, he pointed out that “there is no sane person who wouldn’t consider the quality of American universities in general to be the standard anywhere in the world.” He added that “the University is one of Hungary’s doors to the world.” At the end of the article Balázs shared his disappointment with the Hungarian government, writing: “I have given up all hope” that the current political climate will change for the better.

As far as the European Union is concerned, Frans Timmermans did bring up the issue at today’s meeting of the European Commission. Tibor Navracsics, commissioner for education, culture, youth and sport, is studying the matter. I wrote to him to remind him of his academic past. I urge all of you to write to him as well. His e-mail address is cab-navracsics-contact@ec.europa.eu

March 29, 2017

Hungarian secret agent on the Russian threat

A real bombshell exploded yesterday when Index published both in English and in Hungarian a lengthy interview with Ferenc Katrein, who worked in the civilian counter-intelligence agency for 13 years. His highest position at the agency was “executive head of operations.” He dealt with such sensitive issues as the country’s defense against the Russian secret service. In 2013 he left the agency because he “no longer could identify with the leadership,” which was following the decidedly pro-Russian policies of the Orbán government.

Katrein considers the Russian threat in Europe very serious, “the highest level” in recent years. The Russians are putting a great deal of work into “aggravating the migration crisis and especially in using it for propaganda and gaining influence.” A few months ago Ferenc Gyurcsány estimated the number of Russian agents in Hungary to be somewhere between 600 and 800, which, according to Katrein, might not be an exaggeration. If one includes “the complete web of connections employed by Russian intelligence to serve Russian interests, including dark intelligence, this number looks … realistic.”

In general, Katrein complains about the passivity of the agency. He realized at the time of the 2006 disturbances that “we are a sleeping agency,” that the agency was overlooking threats from extremist elements. It took some time to become more or less proactive.

We know that Fidesz, while in opposition, had close relations with former agents who had been booted out of the service but who still had friends in the agency who were passing information about government members and others to Fidesz. It is quite possible that some of these agents were sympathetic to extremist groups that could serve the interests of Viktor Orbán.

Ferenc Katrein / Index / Photo: István Huszti

After the 2010 change of government, when the agency became subordinated to the ministry of interior headed by Sándor Pintér, a former police chief, “the philosophy of the police” triumphed over “the philosophy of the secret service. …Something has to happen, a crime, a murder for the mechanism to start.” A good example of this mindset was the agency’s unwillingness to interfere in the activities of the Hungarian National Front (Magyar Nemzet Arcvonal/MNA) and GRU, the Russian military secret service. You may recall that István Győrkös’s group was playing war games with officers attached to the Russian Embassy in Budapest. By the time officers of the agency were sent out to confront the head of MNA, it was too late. One of them was killed by Győrkös.

In Katrein’s opinion, cooperation between an extremist group and the Russian military secret service is something that must be reported to the government by the head of the agency. Moreover, such a piece of vital information must be sent to partner agencies in NATO because “everybody’s fighting its own far-right organizations in Europe.” Katrein expressed his hope that the information was sent to Hungary’s partners. I wouldn’t be at all certain about that.

In the interview Katrein said that Russia placed a large number of agents in the former Soviet satellites in the late 1980s because it was becoming clear that the socialist order’s days were numbered. But this generation of “deep cover agents is close to retirement, which means that the Russians are looking for opportunities to refresh the personnel.” Apparently the Hungarian residency bond program is such an opportunity. Thousands of Russians can be placed in Hungary this way.

Moreover, if one looks at the media or among the so-called advisers and national security experts, it is apparent that the Russians have already deeply penetrated that vital sector for propaganda purposes. The personnel of the Hungarian state television and radio wittingly or unwittingly work as Russian agents. The same is true of government mouthpieces like Magyar Idők, Pesti Srácok, and 888.hu. National security experts talk about the failure of the West, the uselessness of the European Union, and the sins of the United States. They portray the refugees marching toward Europe as a controlled invasion. Lately, these “experts” have begun attacking NATO while remaining silent about Russia. In fact, some of them even deny Russian interference in the U.S. election on the side of Donald Trump. These “experts” surely couldn’t spread their falsified information without the authorization and support of the Hungarian government. Katrein’s opinion of these people “who consider themselves experts while they panic and talk about war and invasion are not experts but something else.” He didn’t spell it out, but I will. They are likely Russian agents.

When the conversation turned to the relations of NATO’s partner agencies with their Hungarian counterparts, Katrein described the situation this way: “You are in the international bloodstream if you have joint issues with other agencies, not only in counter-espionage but in counter-terrorism as well. If these are there, you are in the club. If these are not there, you are on the periphery.”

Although Magyar Idők, at least in one of the editorials published after the interview, tried to portray the conversation with the former counter-intelligence officer as a condemnation of the national security services before 2010, Katrein’s main critique was reserved for the situation created as a result of the Orbán government’s so-called “Eastern Opening” and the pro-Russian course that followed. Prior to the merging of the military intelligence services into the Military National Security Service, Hungarian military intelligence was completely pro-NATO. Now, it is very heavily pro-Russian. This was the reason for Katrein’s resignation.

It seems that the Orbán government was unprepared for Katrein’s revelations. Although Viktor Orbán felt he had to say something, his comments were inadequate given the harsh criticism of his pro-Russian policies. The only thing he managed to mutter was that although Hungary is not the largest country on earth, it is situated in an important part of it. Both to the East and to the West there are countries for which Hungary is important. Hungary cannot be isolated. It can only be defended. And, Orbán continued, the country has been well defended ever since 2010.

Orbán left the job of discrediting Katrein to the hacks of his media empire, but the result was confusion. Since the appearance of the interview Magyar Idők has published four articles on the subject, the first of which, as I said, tried to portray the interview as a condemnation of the agency during the socialist-liberal governments before 2010. This feat was accomplished by leaving out all references to the current government’s pro-Russian policies, which agents slavishly follow. In this first article Katrein was portrayed as a hero. But then Magyar Idők realized that the damning interview can’t be handled this way, so it moved into attack mode. It claimed that Katrein didn’t leave the agency on his own volition but was fired. Moreover, “secret service experts” now claim that “well-known foreign groups want to influence the foreign policy of the government, its consistent policy toward migration, and its cooperation with the president of the United States.” Yes, those foreigners are trying to ruin the Hungarian government.

International relations, due mostly to the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, are in flux. We have no idea about the nature of U.S. foreign policy toward Russia in the coming months and years. As things stand now, it would be exceedingly risky for Trump to conduct the kind of pro-Russian policy he most likely originally envisaged. In any case, the Hungarian government is trying to get close to the top echelon of the Trump administration. Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó already got as far as Sebastian Gorka, the pride of the Hungarian right.

March 22, 2017