Tag Archives: U.S.-Hungarian relations

What was behind Péter Szijjártó’s trip to Washington?

Today I am returning to foreign policy issues, specifically to U.S.-Hungarian relations and the Ukrainian question. I have written several times about the Hungarian response to the Ukrainian education act, which was so radical and intransigent that it led to vetoing a planned meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Joint Commission. Moreover, Hungary was ready to block Ukraine’s integration into NATO unless Kiev withdraws Article 7 of the education act that affects the use of minority languages.

A month later I reported that Péter Szijjártó at last had an opportunity to meet Wess Mitchell, the new Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, in Washington, D.C. Their January 16 meeting seemed quite casual; it was held in the Hungarian Embassy, not in the State Department. An official photo was taken, but there was no press conference. Given that Szijjártó said absolutely nothing about their meeting, I concluded that “it was not a success” and that “the anticipated breakthrough [in U.S.-Hungarian relations] didn’t materialize.” But today I can offer a somewhat different take on what this meeting was most likely all about.

At the beginning of December, Rex Tillerson was on a European tour. First, he visited NATO headquarters in Brussels, where he emphasized that “Russia’s aggression in Ukraine remains the biggest threat to European security.” From Brussels he flew to Vienna to join a meeting of foreign ministers. He conducted talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, during which he reiterated that the Russian treatment of Ukraine is unacceptable to the United States. Tillerson also held discussions with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin about the possible deployment of a UN peacekeeping mission in eastern Ukraine.

It’s easy to extrapolate from Tillerson’s message during his meetings in Brussels and Vienna that Hungary’s threat to block Ukraine’s participation in negotiations with NATO officials would be unacceptable to the United States. Hungary’s hard-line position against Ukraine, which urgently needs assistance and support, came at a very bad time. By now I’m convinced that the Mitchell-Szijjártó talks were not so much about U.S.-Hungarian relations as about Hungary’s opposition to Ukraine’s association with NATO.

If I’m correct, Szijjártó’s silence after the meeting was understandable. During the meeting Wess Mitchell most likely offered his services as a mediator between the parties, trying to bring about a compromise solution to a relatively minor bilateral issue for the sake of important geopolitical considerations. It is not clear what Szijjártó wanted in exchange for an agreement with the Ukrainians. What we do know is that Pavlo Klimkin and Péter Szijjártó met Wess Mitchell in Paris on January 24, where Klimkin promised “real consultation with the Hungarian community in Subcarpathian Ukraine.” Szijjártó, for his part, demanded “legal guarantees” that would ensure an understanding between the Ukrainian government and the Hungarian community.

Péter Szijjártó, Wess Mitchell, and Pavlo Klimkin in Paris

Magyar Idők summarized the Hungarian government’s position after the meeting in Paris. (1) The Ukrainian government should consult with the representatives of the Hungarian community. (2) The Hungarian minority cannot be deprived of its earlier acquired rights. (3) The solution should be advantageous to the Hungarians in Ukraine. (4) To find a resolution of the conflict is in the interest of the Americans. The Hungarian position, at least as far as Szijjártó’s statements after the meeting were concerned, was still rigid. “The consultation with the Hungarians can be productive only if the Ukrainian government abrogates parts of the law that deals with minorities.”

A week later, on February 1, the Ukrainian ministry of education and science announced that the Ukrainian government accepts the recommendations of the Venice Commission and is ready to postpone the implementation of the law until 2023. Oddly enough, Education Minister Liliya Hrynevych made this announcement during her meeting with the Romanian Ambassador to Ukraine. Romania and Ukraine have been having bilateral negotiations on the minority language issue for some time. The draft protocol is ready to be signed. It seems, however, that the Ukrainians are not yet ready to sit down with the Hungarians. As a point of interest, the Venice Commission’s recommendations don’t include a suggestion to postpone the education act until 2023.

Liliya Hrynevych’s statement was interpreted in Budapest as an answer to the Hungarian demands. Media reports suggested that now that the Ukrainian government has made the first move, “the ball is in the court” of the representatives of the Hungarian community in Subcarpathian Ukraine. The official organization of that community, the Kárpátaljai Magyar Kulturális Szövetség (KMKSZ), and László Brenzovics, the only Hungarian member of the Ukrainian parliament, are somewhat hopeful. They view the announcement as a first step toward a satisfactory solution. The optimism of Brenzovics, who, by the way, accompanied Szijjártó to Paris, is based on the fact that, although Ukraine denies it, their decision to retreat from their original stance is due to “international pressure.”

Brenzovics’s statement to Válasz, a Hungarian internet site, led me to believe that he is not an easy man to negotiate with. For example, instead of concentrating on the education act as it impacts the Hungarian community, he complained about the Ukrainian government’s discrimination against the Russian language as opposed to the official languages spoken within the European Union. He demands special treatment for Hungarian because it is “not related to Ukrainian, unlike Polish or Russian.” He conveniently forgot about Romanian.

In early December Hungary asked for permanent observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to be sent to Hungarian inhabited areas of Ukraine, which was certainly an overreach. But Lamberto Zannier, high commissioner of OSCE, did meet Brenzovics in Kiev. So far, no OSCE office has opened in Uzhhorod/Ungvár and I don’t think that one will any time soon. According to the latest information, however, OSCE is involved in the negotiations between the local Hungarian community and Kiev. So, perhaps as a result of pressure on both sides from the United States and OSCE’s presence at the negotiations between Kiev and KMKSZ, some common ground may be found. Whatever it is, it won’t bear any resemblance to the original Hungarian demand of a total abrogation of the article on minority languages.

February 6, 2018

Foreign Minister Szijjártó goes to Washington, and silence follows

Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó just returned from a three-day visit to Washington where he was to meet Wess Mitchell, the new assistant secretary of state in charge of European and Eurasian Affairs. Mitchell is the successor to Victoria Nuland, whom Magyar Idők called, less than a week ago, the “gravedigger of Hungary.”

Mitchell’s appointment was finalized only in October 2017, but the Hungarian government began assessing its possible chances with Mitchell as soon as his name emerged as a potential assistant secretary. The government’s reaction was mixed. On the one hand, it was pleased that Mitchell, before accepting the State Department post, had been the president of the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), the American think tank that concentrates exclusively on East-Central Europe. Therefore he should be more familiar with the region and hence with Hungarian affairs. However, Index noted at the time that “one of the main research fields of [CEPA] is Russian propaganda, disinformation and the fight against it, which is not a priority for the Hungarian government.” I would call this a gross understatement. In fact, the Hungarian government does a superb job of misinforming the public and gives free rein to Russian disinformation on the pages of the newspapers and internet sites it supports.

Whatever misgivings Viktor Orbán and his foreign policy experts originally had, they eventually decided that Mitchell’s appointment “could mean the beginning of a new chapter in Hungarian-American political relations.” Under the previous administration Hungary “had to face several instances of undue criticism and lack of understanding.” The Hungarian Foreign Ministry hoped that, with the appointment of Mitchell, “now is the best opportunity” to establish close diplomatic relations.

Szijjártó arrived in Washington on January 15 to conduct two days of negotiations, which began on January 16 with a conversation with Assistant Secretary Wess Mitchell, followed by meetings with two White House officials –Jason Greenblatt, assistant to the president and special representative for international negotiations, and Fiona Hill, special assistant to the president and senior director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council. Greenblatt, prior to his Washington job, was chief legal officer to Donald Trump and The Trump Organization. Hill is a highly regarded Russia expert from the Brookings Institution, who most likely is critical of the Orbán government’s Russia policy and Viktor Orbán’s personal relations with Vladimir Putin.

Szijjártó anticipated that his encounter with Mitchell would “take the form of a long discussion.” One of the topics, I’m sure, was the U.S. State Department’s  “funding opportunity” for support of “objective media in Hungary.” Szijjártó noted that “the Hungarian government views this plan as interference in Hungary’s domestic affairs.”

No one has any idea how long the conversation between Mitchell and Szijjártó lasted because, since his meetings with the assistant secretary and the two White House officials, Szijjártó has said nothing about the encounters. Not one word. Certain Hungarian news outlets reported earlier that Szijjártó, in addition to having discussions on U.S.-Hungarian relations, was supposed to prepare Viktor Orbán’s visit to the United States in February. As Klub Rádió’s “Tények, Vélemények” (Facts, Opinions) put it, “the Hungarian prime minister is planning to attend the National Prayer Breakfast.” This annual event, which is held at the Washington Hilton, is a gathering of 3,000-3,500 invited guests from 100 countries. Therefore, it is immaterial what Viktor Orbán “is planning.” The question is whether he has an invitation or not. By the way, this event is not organized by the White House. The president is just one of the invitees.

The only record so far of the meeting between Szijjártó and Mitchell is a photograph taken of the two men shaking hands, but it doesn’t look as if they were standing in the State Department. Klub Rádió’s guess is that the photo was taken at the Hungarian Embassy, a rather strange arrangement if true.

In any event, Szijjártó’s silence indicates to me that wherever this important meeting took place, it was not a success, that the anticipated breakthrough didn’t materialize. The usual explanation for the still icy relations between the two countries is that the holdover diplomats from the Obama administration continue to run the show in the State Department. The hope in Budapest is that soon enough Donald Trump’s people will be in charge and that they will appreciate the American president’s kindred soul in Europe. But Orbán’s diplomats are overlooking a major stumbling block: the worrisomely close relationship between Putin’s Russia and Orbán’s Hungary, which, given the climate in the United States, is not the best recommendation for closer ties with the Orbán regime.

MTI /EPA/ Photo: Georgi Licovszki

On the very day of Szijjártó’s negotiations in the United States, Magyar Idők ran an article on its front page with the following headline: “Lavrov: America is not doing any favor to the world.” Lavrov, according to the article, accused the United States of using illegitimate means to maintain its waning supremacy in a multi-polar world. Not the best way of endearing oneself to the United States, claimed the commentator from Népszava. This editorial, I’m afraid, is a bit naïve. Diplomats of the State Department don’t need the Hungarian government’s propaganda machinery to be aware of the state of Russian-Hungarian relations. They are fully cognizant of them and find them troubling. Mátyás Eörsi, former undersecretary of foreign affairs and former leader of the ALDE-Pace Group in the Council of Europe, wrote an excellent opinion piece in HVG about the Orbán administration’s total incomprehension of the futility of trying to build a close relationship with the United States under the present circumstances.

I agree. Orbán will have to choose: either Putin’s Russia or the United States. There is no middle ground now. I also suspect that as the investigation of Russian involvement in the U.S. election process unfolds, more suspicion will be focused on Hungary as a client state and Viktor Orbán as a Trojan horse. These are not the best recommendations in Washington today or in the foreseeable future.

In recent days the Orbán government welcomed a letter written on January 11 by ten extremely conservative members of Congress addressed to Secretary of State Tillerson, urging him “to strengthen the strategic cooperation between the United States and Hungary,” claiming common threats from an unnamed source. They suggest “high-level meetings between the leaders of [the] two countries in order to build mutual trust.” The leader of the group, Andy Harris, must have received word from Connie Mack III, Orbán’s lobbyist in Washington, that one of Viktor Orbán’s greatest desires is to be invited to the Oval Office. At this point we don’t even know whether he will be one of the 3,000-3,500 invitees at the National Prayer Breakfast on February 8.

January 19, 2018

A Hungarian reassessment of Donald Trump

The Orbán government, as we know, was initially delighted over Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States. Viktor Orbán expected a favorable change in U.S.-Hungarian relations, especially since the Hungarian prime minister was the only European leader to express a preference for Donald Trump over Hilary Clinton during the election campaign. A reciprocal sign of goodwill on the part of Trump was presumed, not just by the Hungarian administration but by the public as well. The prime minister undoubtedly expected an early invitation to the White House in addition to friendlier gestures from the U.S. State Department. None of these expectations has materialized. On the contrary, Viktor Orbán’s attack on Central European University was sharply denounced by the State Department. At the same time U.S.-Russian relations, instead of getting better, have soured. By now there’s a Cold-War-like chill in the relationship between the two countries.

In the last few weeks we have seen signs that the Orbán government is in the process of reassessing its opinion of the American president, who lost his first rounds against the Washington establishment and might already have been mortally wounded under the barrage of revelations about his and his family’s questionable conduct. Thus, I assume, the journalists of the government media received permission to use stronger language against the American president which, given their pro-Russian views, comes naturally to them.

Leading the way is István Lovas, who used to be Magyar Nemzet’s Brussels correspondent at the time the paper was the main mouthpiece of Fidesz. Lovas, after 20 years of living in Canada, the United States, and Germany where he worked for Radio Free Europe, returned to Hungary. He began writing for right-wing papers, like the now defunct Pesti Hírlap, Magyar Demokrata, Magyar Hírlap, and Magyar Idők. He is also a regular participant in a political roundtable program alongside Zsolt Bayer on the far-right Echo TV, now owned by Lőrinc Mészáros. His expertise is foreign policy. In addition, he maintains a blog.

Lovas published two articles on Trump today, one in Magyar Hírlap and the other in Magyar Idők. The first deals with “The collapse of Trump” and the other with the forthcoming economic sanctions against “dishonest” China. In addition, Magyar Idők added an editorial on the “economic saber rattling” of the United States. So, the honeymoon, if there ever was one, is over.

In Lovas’s assessment, the last remnants of Trump’s “pretense of power” evaporated when he signed the sanctions against Russia, Iran, and North Korea. It was a cowardly and unconstitutional act, in Lovas’s opinion. His performance as president has been disgraceful, and all those who believed his campaign promises about his plans for good relations with Russia are greatly disappointed. Trump is universally despised—at one point Lovas calls him a cockchafer’s grub—and therefore, in Lovas’s opinion, “it is not worth meeting this man.” I guess this is a message to Viktor Orbán: “Don’t be too disappointed that you haven’t been invited to Washington to meet the failed president. It’s not worth the bother.”

Lovas’s other article, on America’s possible trade war with China, is not an original piece but a summary of an article originally published in Deutsche Wirtschafts Nachrichten. Lovas, who spent more than a week in China recently, is impressed with the super-modern world the Chinese created in the last few decades and therefore is worried about American plans that might result in a full-fledged trade war between the two countries.

The third article, “Trumps attacks on many fronts,” by Attila Mártonffy, deals with U.S. sanctions against Russia, China, and Iran which in turn hurt the economic interests of the European Union. The author calls the American moves “saber rattling.”

All in all, after relative media silence, the open criticism of Donald Trump has begun. Knowing the practices of the Hungarian government media, the articles that appear in Magyar Idők and Magyar Hírlap will a few days later be followed by pieces on all the lesser right-wing internet sites. We can expect article after article reassessing the role of Donald Trump as “the leader of the free world.”

Meanwhile, it might be educational to take a look at a by-now admittedly dated study (the material was collected from February 16 to May 8 and the report published in late June) by the Pew Research Center. It focuses on the opinions of people living in 37 countries about Donald Trump and the United States. We are lucky because Hungary was one of the 10 European countries included in the survey.

Overall, confidence in the U.S. president to do the right thing in world affairs dropped sharply (from 64% to 22%) after Trump became president. This is true in Hungary as well. Hungarian trust in the presidency in the closing years of Obama’s second term was 58%, but by the time of the survey it was only 29%. I should add that there are only two countries of the 37 included in the survey where confidence in Trump was greater than it was in Obama: Israel (from 49% to 56%) and Russia (from 11% to 56%). Disappointment among Russians must be great nowadays.

When the researchers wanted to pinpoint the effect of the change in U.S. administration on public opinion in the countries studied some interesting results surfaced. Ten European countries were included in the survey: Hungary, Poland, Greece, Italy, France, United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and Sweden. In most of these countries there was a sizable drop in people’s favorable views of the United States after Trump moved into the White House. For example, this drop was 28 percentage points in Spain and 26 percentage points in the Netherlands. Hungary and Greece were the only two exceptions. In Hungary’s case there was a +1 move (62% to 63%) and in Greece a +5 change after Trump was elected.

Confidence in Trump as president is low everywhere in Europe. For example, 92% of Spaniards have no confidence in him, but even other European countries, including Greece and Italy, expressed very strong anti-Trump sentiments. Poland and Hungary are the last two countries on the list, each with only a 57% disapproval rate. In its opinion of the U.S.-Mexican wall, Hungary is at the bottom of the list, with a 49% disapproval rate, which may not sound like much of an endorsement until we compare it to the other European countries. The European median is 86%. Another telling figure is Hungarians’ strong approval of restrictions on entry to the United States from majority-Muslim countries. Hungary heads the list with 70% as opposed to the European median of 36%.

At the time Hungarians were also a great deal less critical of Donald Trump’s qualifications for the presidency. The European figures are devastating, but in Hungary more people believe he is qualified for the job (39%) than in any other European country. This is also true when it comes to questions about his personal traits, like his alleged arrogance and intolerance. Hungary is always at the end of the list, often together with Poland, in being the least critical. It is also telling that while overwhelming majority of Spaniards, French, Swedes, Dutch, and Germans consider Trump to be very dangerous as far as the world is concerned (76%-69%), only 42% of Hungarians do.

An intriguing situation. Within the European context Hungarians are less inclined to be harsh in their assessment of Donald Trump’s presidency. At least this was the case a few months ago. It will be fascinating to watch what happens in the coming months, especially if government media criticism of Trump’s policies becomes more widespread.

August 4, 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

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