Tag Archives: U.S.-Hungarian relations

A candid interview with Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó.    Part I

Members of the Orbán government rarely give interviews to news outlets that don’t belong to the government-controlled media empire. I can count on one hand Fidesz politicians who have dared to walk into these “lions’ dens.” In fact, I can think only of Nándor Csepreghy, deputy to János Lázár; Gergely Gulyás, deputy chairman of Fidesz and deputy speaker of parliament responsible for legislation; and Lajos Kósa, today the leader of the Fidesz delegation in parliament. It was therefore quite a surprise to see a lengthy interview with Péter Szijjártó published in Index yesterday. And even more of a surprise that the interview was refreshingly candid.

What can we learn from this interview that we didn’t know before? One cannot expect revelatory information about the general thrust of Hungarian foreign policy, but some until now unknown details emerged.

Let me start with the internal mechanism of decision-making in the Orbán government as far as foreign policy is concerned. At least according to Szijjártó. Three individuals are full-time advisers to Viktor Orbán on foreign policy. The man who is in charge of U.S.-Hungarian relations is Jenő Megyesy, formerly honorary consul in Denver, Colorado. Orbán met him in 2008 when he attended the Republican Convention and was obviously impressed with the man. Hungarians are convinced that Megyesy has an extensive political network in the U.S. and therefore is useful as an adviser. He has been employed by the prime minister’s office ever since 2010. He is the one Szijjártó turns to when it comes to matters concerning the United States.

szijjarto interview

The second adviser, Péter Gottfried, is an old-timer who has been involved in foreign trade and foreign policy ever since the late 1970s. He has served in high positions in all the post-1990 governments. According to Szijjártó, Gottfried deals exclusively with Europe.

The latest addition is József Czukor, a former intelligence officer, who started his career in 1988 at the Hungarian embassy in Bonn. He has also served all governments and has had friends on both sides of the aisle. In 2010 he was named ambassador to Germany, and in the fall he is moving into the prime minister’s office to be an overall foreign policy adviser to Orbán. From the interview Szijjártó seems to be less enthusiastic about Czukor than his boss is.

You may have noticed that there are no permanent advisers to Orbán who handle Russia and countries in the Far East. Szijjártó is, according to his own account, solely responsible for Russian-Hungarian relations. He relies on the advice of János Balla, Ernő Keskeny, and Zsolt Csutora. Balla, who has been a professional diplomat since 1982, is currently Hungarian ambassador to Russia. Keskeny is in Kiev. In February 2015 I wrote about Keskeny, whom I described as a “rabid Russophile” who allegedly was behind the Russian-Hungarian rapprochement. Subsequently, Keskeny was named ambassador to Ukraine, an appointment that the Ukrainian government couldn’t have welcomed given Keskeny’s well-known pro-Russian sympathies. Csutora began his career as an army officer in 1986 and then moved into the foreign ministry during the first Orbán government. Until recently he was ambassador to Azerbaijan.

What does Viktor Orbán consider to be the essence of Hungary’s foreign policy under his watch? When Orbán asked Szijjártó to be his foreign minister, he told him: “Péter, be a Hungarian foreign minister, and conduct a Hungarian foreign policy. That’s all he told me.” Of course, the journalists’ next question concerned the foreign policy of János Martonyi and Tibor Navracsics. Wasn’t theirs a Hungarian foreign policy? Szijjártó sidestepped that question and tried to explain that the style of foreign policy that Martonyi, for example, conducted wouldn’t work in today’s international climate. The harsher style he is using is the only one that is appropriate in the present circumstances.

As for his own less than diplomatic style, which shocks a lot of observers and analysts, Szijjártó has the perfect answer. He never starts a fight, but when someone attacks Hungary he must immediately counter it because, if there was no rapid response from Budapest, these unfair criticisms and insults would only multiply. At the probing of the interviewing journalists, Szijjártó guessed that he told off foreign politicians about 20 times during his tenure as foreign minister, although Index diligently collected 60 such instances. Szijjártó called in the ambassadors of Croatia, Romania, Austria, Greece, France, and the United States. Which countries’ leaders were given a piece of Szijjártó’s mind? Austria, the United States, Luxembourg, Greece, Germany, Croatia, Spain, France, Italy, Romania, the Netherlands, Serbia, and Sweden.

We found out who Szijjártó’s favorite ambassadors are: Iain Lindsay of the United Kingdom and Colleen Bell of the United States. I’m not surprised about Lindsay, who is an unusual sort of ambassador. On April 11, which is the day of poetry in Hungary, he recited an Attila József poem in very respectable Hungarian. As for Colleen Bell, Szijjártó has the highest opinion of her. According to him, “if Colleen Bell were not the ambassador of the United States in Hungary, political relations between [the two countries] would be much worse. She represents a very calm voice in the U.S. Embassy in Hungary and her presence has helped a lot in the somewhat improving relations between the two countries. Somewhat.”

When the journalists reminded the foreign minister that one finds the same American criticisms of the Orbán government in Bell’s public speeches that were present in André Goodfriend’s utterances, Szijjártó said: “Look, when I have a conversation with her it is a perfectly normal, honest and open talk. Such dialogue was impossible with her predecessors. She is a person who comes from the business world and is therefore pragmatic and approaches matters rationally and not emotionally.” Bell apparently occasionally does bring up these questions, but Szijjártó asked her “to bring concrete examples, not generalities because otherwise our talks will be no more than conversations between deaf people.”

In contrast to Szijjártó’s amiable relations with Colleen Bell is his strong dislike of Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, the highest ranking state department official Szijjártó has managed to meet. According to him, her criticisms were only vague generalizations. “I told Victoria Nuland after our second meeting that we should not meet again. Because there is no use further damaging our bilateral relations by her leveling unsubstantiated accusations [against Hungary] while I—how shall I say—more and more dynamically deny them because they are truly outrageous.”

From the interview I got the impression that the Hungarian government has no intention of fully investigating the corruption case the American company Bunge reported to the American authorities. I have written many articles about the case. Those of you who are unfamiliar with the story should read my last piece on the final outcome of the case. The upshot is that the prosecutors refused to investigate the case properly and brought charges only against the man who delivered the blackmail offer. They charged the messenger, not the person who sent him. The judge found him guilty, and that was, as far as the Hungarian government is concerned, the end of the matter. That the source of the blackmail offer was allegedly the director of Századvég, the same company I wrote about yesterday, was never pursued. The Orbán government refuses to move an inch on any of the corruption cases, which is perfectly understandable since corruption is at the heart of Orbán’s mafia state.

To be continued

August 3, 2016

Meeting of great minds: Orbán welcomes Trump as savior of Europe

Hungarian commentators found Viktor Orbán’s endorsement of Donald Trump baffling. One of them, Szabolcs Panyi of Index, suggested that Viktor Orbán simply misspoke during his speech at Tusnádfűrdő/Băile Tușnad on July 23.

No one could have been so foolish, Panyi argued, as to endorse a presidential candidate who had just announced that he as president would disregard NATO’s Article 5, which is the cornerstone of the North Atlantic Alliance. Article 5 provides that an armed attack against one or more of the members of the alliance in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all. As far as Trump is concerned, those countries who don’t pull their weight in the alliance will be left in the lurch, among them Hungary with its measly defense budget of 0.7% (instead of at least 2%) of the GDP.

Then there is the story of likely Russian involvement in the release of damaging documents from the National Democratic Committee via WikiLeaks just a day before the opening of the Democratic Convention. It is a well-known fact that Trump is a great admirer of Vladimir Putin, whom he considers a strong leader who is “rebuilding Russia” and who “does his work well.” At one point Trump went as far as to say that, even if Putin hired people to kill his critics and opponents, “at least he’s a leader,” not like George W. Bush. Trump’s admiration of Putin has been amply returned. On several occasions the Russian president expressed his approval of Trump, and the Russian propaganda machinery is full of praise for Trump’s foreign policy ideas. His stance on NATO was especially well received.

The western media is full of stories that the Russians, by illegal means, are trying to tip the scale in Trump’s favor in the election campaign. (And, of course, today Trump egged the Russians on.) So, the endorsement of Trump by Viktor Orbán, who has been accused of being the Trojan horse of Russian designs on the European Union, is most unfortunate indeed.

For all of the above reasons Szabolcs Panyi believed that what Orbán said was not what he meant. Panyi came to that conclusion after seeing the video of the speech, where he discovered that Orbán had no written text in front of him and was trying to find an item among his notes. Panyi figured that the prime minister, in addition to talking about Trump’s ideas on terrorism, national security, and immigration, wanted to say more, but he couldn’t find his notes. Thus, his thoughts on Trump were truncated and misunderstood.

Viktor Orbán didn’t leave Panyi in doubt for long. Yesterday during the joint press conference with Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern he made himself crystal clear. Yes, he is supporting Trump wholeheartedly because he convinced that his election is in the interest of Hungary.

Reuters / Photo: László Balogh

Reuters / Photo: László Balogh

Orbán’s endorsement of Trump created quite a stir in the international media, and his comments yesterday were quoted in major newspapers worldwide. In the translation of Reuters, “the Democrats’ foreign policy is bad for Europe, and deadly for Hungary.” On the other hand, “the migration and foreign policy advocated by the Republican candidate, Mr. Trump, is good for Europe and vital for Hungary.” Actually, the original Hungarian, as recorded by Népszabadság, is even stronger: Republican foreign policy is good for Europe “and it means life for Hungary” while the Democrats’ foreign policy ideas “mean death for Hungary.” As far as Orbán is concerned, for Hungary “migration is not a solution but a problem … not medicine but a poison.”

Rumor has it that, over and above policy differences, Orbán holds a grudge against Hillary Clinton for her open criticism of his politics in the summer of 2011 during her visit to Budapest, which was followed by a letter written in December of the same year. As we know by now, Orbán neither forgets nor forgives. In fact, he is vengeful. It is enough to think of the fate of Gábor Iványi, head of the Methodist Brotherhood, or, for that matter, Ferenc Gyurcsány, whom he managed to discredit just because he lost a debate to him. Of course, in the case of the future president of the United States, Orbán is no position to play God, but he can embrace Donald Trump and verbally attack the despised Hillary Clinton.

Bill Clinton is not exactly a favorite either because the former president made a few nasty remarks about politicians who, like the Hungarian prime minister, “said he liked authoritarian capitalism, just saying ‘I don’t ever want to have to leave power’ – usually those guys want to stay forever and make money.” In addition, there is Orbán’s bogeyman, George Soros, who has a good relationship with the Clintons and just gave 25 million dollars to the Clinton campaign. All in all, there is every reason for Viktor Orbán to dislike Hillary Clinton.

There’s no question that Trump and Orbán have a lot in common. For instance, the same kind of crazy talk when it comes to protecting their countries against unwanted migrants. Yesterday, for example, Orbán announced that “Hungary does not need a single migrant” despite the country’s incredible labor shortage, while Trump talks about closing the door of the United States to all Muslims and, of course, building a “big, beautiful” wall along the Mexican border.

The consensus in Fidesz circles is that U.S.-Hungarian relations are already so bad that Orbán doesn’t risk much by endorsing Donald Trump. If Trump loses and Clinton wins, nothing will change. On the other hand, if Trump is the winner, he might remember kindly the only sitting European prime minister who openly and proudly endorsed a man who many of his colleagues deem unfit for and unworthy of the post of president of the United States.

July 27, 2016

U.S. Undersecretary Sarah Sewall in Hungary

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

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

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

Undersecretary Sarah Sewall / Magyar Nemzet / Photo: Attila Béres

Undersecretary Sarah Sewall / Magyar Nemzet / Photo: Attila Béres

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 June 2, 2016

In Viktor Orbán’s world is foreign policy the handmaiden of propaganda?

The storm created by János Lázár’s comments about American designs on Europe and George Soros’s vital role in shaping U.S. foreign policy hasn’t subsided. One commentator after another is trying to figure out what this frontal attack against the United States. and particularly against the Democratic Party, is all about. Viktor Orbán’s radio interview this morning further stoked the fire because, echoing earlier remarks by his foreign minister and chief-of-staff, Orbán accused George Soros of masterminding the anti-Hungarian policies of the current U.S. government. In a way, the Orbán government is injecting itself into the presidential campaign, indicating that Hungary’s interests are aligned with the opponent of Hillary Clinton who, we can by now be all but certain, will be Donald Trump.

Viktor Orbán didn’t say anything new over and above what Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó and János Lázár, head of the prime minister’s office, said on Wednesday and Thursday. The difference was that Viktor Orbán himself repeated all the nonsense we heard earlier from his underlings. He made no effort to backpedal. Although the complete transcript of his interview is still not available, the few sentences most newspapers quote are indicative of the prime minister’s thoughts on the subject of “the American plans inspired by [George] Soros.” We learn from Orbán that “George Soros is behind the leaders of the Democratic party and although the mouth is that of Clinton, the idea belongs to George Soros.” Soros’s “clandestine power” (háttérhatalom or, in German, Hintergrundmacht) is far greater than Hungary’s domestic opposition

Of course, one’s first reaction is that the man is mad or, as the foreign policy expert of Gábor Fodor’s Magyar Liberális Party, István Szent-Iványi, suggested, the members of the Orbán government demonstrate signs of paranoia or suffer persecutory delusions. Surely, these utterances cannot be taken at face value. It is ridiculous even to spend time and energy pointing out their absurdity. And yet, whatever we think of Szijjártó, Lázár, and Orbán, we can be sure that they are not that mad. Therefore, Szent-Iványi’s final verdict–that “they lost their critical faculties, which poses a great danger to the country”–is off target.

I myself am guilty of lamenting the negative reaction of foreign leaders to Hungary as a result of these incredible statements by politicians in important governmental positions. It is hard to fathom that the prime minister of a middle-sized European country would spin these bizarre, utterly unbelievable tales. I often ask my friends: “Are they not ashamed of themselves?” A very pragmatic American friend usually answers after such outbursts: “No, try to understand. They don’t care.”

A friend from Hungary goes further. Not only do they not care, but all this is nothing but propaganda for domestic consumption. Right now they have only one goal: a valid referendum that would prove that the Hungarian electorate overwhelmingly rejects the resettlement of any refugees on the territory of Hungary. So, to further the cause, time to dredge up Orbán’s bogeyman again. The brain or brains behind Fidesz propaganda, perhaps Árpád Habony, may have come up with the idea of personalizing this attack against Hungary. George Soros represents the antithesis of Hungarian Christian/national values. He’s a financial speculator who moves money around instead of doing honest work that produces tangible products. He is a Jew with Hungarian ties who funds enemies of the Hungarian government. He is a liberal with an international reach. His Open Society Foundations “work to build vibrant and tolerant democracies whose governments are accountable to their citizens.”

propaganda

All in all, linking Soros’s name with some wild theory of a hidden, antagonistic power might ring true with a large segment of the Hungarian electorate. According to a poll conducted by Political Capital, a think tank, 42% of Hungarians believe that it is not the Hungarian government that in effect conducts the affairs of state but that “somebody in the background is pulling the strings.” As long as the Soros story resonates, Viktor Orbán could care less whether the world thinks he is mad or whether Hungarian-U.S. relations suffer as a consequence. He doesn’t care whether, if Hillary Clinton becomes the next U.S. president, she and her husband might remember his comments. Someone suggested to me that in fact Orbán turns up the volume in order to create even greater noise, calling attention to himself.

György Balavány, who before 2010 worked for the then pro-Fidesz opposition paper, Magyar Nemzet, wrote an editorial in which he said, “I don’t know whether the prime minister believes what he says. If he does it is really worrisome, but it is an even bigger worry if the people believe all the nonsense he spreads around.” It seems that Orbán’s advisers are convinced that Hungarians will believe him, that this strategy will achieve the desired result. And that is the only thing that matters at the moment.

May 20, 2016

László Kövér, the voice of Fidesz’s inner thoughts

It was shortly after Fidesz’s loss in the elections of 2002 that the American-Hungarian Coalition invited some members of the Hungarian parliament for a two-week visit to Washington. The idea was for these MPs to gain exposure to American democracy in action. The American-Hungarian Coalition, which at this point was the only organization allegedly representing Hungarians living in the United States, was a decidedly conservative body and therefore in Hungarian politics usually sided with the right: the Antall government between 1990-1994 and Fidesz between 1998 and 2002.

The Coalition’s bias became patently obvious when it turned out that only Fidesz MPs were selected to visit the U.S. The others obviously didn’t deserve such a trip. László Kövér, who by the way doesn’t know any English, was one of the Fidesz MPs who was chosen. I’m afraid that the money spent on him was a total waste. He doesn’t understand anything about democracy, and today he has a burning hatred of the United States.

I said earlier that Kövér is one of those people who doesn’t know when to shut up. After his unfortunate remarks at the Fidesz Congress, he made his rounds of radio stations and tried to explain what he actually meant. So, when Pesti Srácok approached him for an interview, he couldn’t resist. In response to this interview, a friend of mine said that he hasn’t seen “such concentrated stupidity, lack of information, and simple ignorance put together based on visceral anti-Americanism and the misconceptions of the far right.”

Of course, one of the topics that was covered was the refugee issue. Kövér sees two villains here: Germany and the United States. In his view, the German government wants to satisfy the needs of German business, but its real aim is to enlarge the voting base of the left. Don’t ask me why Angela Merkel would want to add voters to her Christian Democratic Party’s strongest opposition, the social democrats. Logic obviously is not Kövér’s strong suit. As for his knowledge of the employment of earlier immigrants to Germany, he talks about the prospect of having only 10% of the newcomers gainfully employed while the other 90% will be living on welfare payments. And after this piece of nonsense, Kövér embarks on another one. In his opinion, the “essence of the left’s ideology is permanent liberation.” The left suggests to one group after the other that they are oppressed and therefore need protection. Kövér “doesn’t want to offend the Muslim migrants, but in the eyes of the European left there is really no difference between them and transsexuals.”

uncle sam2

Well, we could say that Kövér cannot be taken seriously and therefore it is not worth spending time on his ridiculous statements. But the situation is not that simple. These thoughts have been cropping up in Viktor Orbán’s speeches as well. He talked several times about the advantage the German socialists see in admitting refugees who then will vote for them as soon as they become citizens.

In Kövér’s view, which I’m sure Viktor Orbán shares, politicians in responsible positions have lost their minds, except naturally for Fidesz politicians. “One’s stomach turns, and one has difficulty breathing. One chokes on the stupidities of European politics, from the mediocrity and the dishonesty of its representatives. One feels that there is no hope because we are sitting in a boat where everybody around us is an idiot or at least they pretend to be.”

Taking his cue from the far right, Kövér considers the United States to be the greatest villain in the refugee drama. Apparently, the real problem with the U.S. is that “it needs ever newer enemies, conflicts, phony rows in order to keep its military machinery in motion.” In a way, the situation during the Cold War was less dangerous, according to Kövér. Then “at least we knew who was on whose side.” But today “do we know the goals of each side in the war against the Islamic State?”

The countries of Central Europe are only pawns in this game, but luckily they are beginning to define and defend their own interests. “Everything started with the history of Cain and Abel, and the role of Cain is filled by those who possess the greatest power.” Kövér was slow to discover that the real enemy is the United States. It surprised him, but by now he knows that with the collapse of the Soviet Union America remained without an enemy and therefore looked for new ones: the Russian mafia and Osama Bin Laden, the chief evil (főgonosz). Eventually, after some confusion, they managed to take aim at Russia and to provoke a conflict with Ukraine, which by the way divided Europe. And then came faceless corruption as a target.

I find it shocking that Kövér equates Osama bin Laden with the Russian mafia or corruption. Moreover, the word “főgonosz” carries the connotation that this man’s wickedness was exaggerated by the United States for political reasons. As for the division of Europe as the result of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, Kövér here seems to be admitting that Hungary is secretly on Russia’s side because on the surface there seems to be unity among the European countries.

Kövér doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry when Ambassador Colleen Bell urges the Hungarian government to follow the Romanian example and investigate and bring to justice corrupt politicians when she got her cushy job only because she collected money for Obama’s presidential campaign. “So, let’s forget about the fairy tales.” I guess this means that Colleen Bell is as corrupt as any of those whom the U.S. government would like to bring to justice in Romania or Hungary.

In Kövér’s opinion, the standards of political discourse have sunk so low that “one has no appetite to react to the statements of even the American ambassador.” Obviously, Kövér is not very sensitive to what Péter Szijjártó, János Lázár, Lajos Kósa, Antal Rogán, or, for that matter, Viktor Orbán talk about. It’s enough to read, for example, Viktor Orbán’s accusations against West European politicians who purposely want to ruin European civilization.

Kövér’s speeches and interviews are useful for anyone looking for insight into the true nature of the Orbán regime and Fidesz. He is not the odd man out but one who speaks most openly about matters others try to either hide or tone down. We can learn from him more than some people think. Indeed, this far-right drivel is part and parcel of Fidesz’s worldview.

Colleen Bell on corruption; Fidesz on Colleen Bell

It is not easy to be the U.S. ambassador to Hungary, especially not since 2010. The Orbán government is outright antagonistic toward the United States, and some of the cabinet members make no secret of their “irritation” at the American ambassador’s critical remarks when, in their opinion, she has no right to meddle in Hungary’s internal affairs. On the other side, the anti-Orbán forces are dissatisfied with her because, in their opinion, she is not critical enough of Orbán’s illiberal democracy. The current ambassador, Colleen Bell, is trying to satisfy both sides by praising the military cooperation between the two countries while criticizing some other aspects of Hungarian political life.

In the last week or so we could witness the predicament in which Bell finds herself. On December 2 she visited the Pápa military base where she agreed to a fairly lengthy interview with one of the reporters of M1, the government’s main propaganda channel. Although the interview was aired only on December 5, Magyar Idők triumphantly announced on the 3rd that, according to Bell, “Hungary is a sovereign nation that has the right to defend its borders.” What Magyar Idők neglected to report was that Bell at the same time stressed the necessity of a common European solution to the migrant crisis and said that the asylum seekers are not terrorists. In fact, they are the ones who are escaping from the people who are committing terrorist atrocities in Iraq and Syria.

When the interview was broadcast, the few Hungarians who actually watch M1 could see an antagonistic reporter accusing the United States of double standards and wanting to know Ambassador Bell’s opinion of the”American-Hungarian billionaire’s involvement with the migrants.” The interview was, as far as I can judge, favorably received by the government and much less so by the opposition, where the opinion was that Bell was not forceful enough even in her defense of the human rights of the asylum seekers and far too effusive about military cooperation.

A few days later, on December 9 and 10, the Hungarian branch of Transparency International organized a two-day conference on corruption. The occasion was Anti-Corruption Day, which has been observed on December 9 ever since 2003 when in Merida, Mexico the United Nations Convention against Corruption was signed. Colleen Bell was one of the principal speakers.

I don’t think that I have to say much about the United States’ commitment to fighting corruption. After all, last fall the sticking point in U.S.-Hungarian relations was precisely the widespread corruption in Hungary and the Hungarian government’s reluctance to tackle it. So, it was expected that the U.S. ambassador would say something important on the subject and that in her speech there would be a fair amount of criticism of the Hungarian government’s attitude toward corruption. U.S. diplomats are keenly aware of the systemic corruption that ensnares the whole government, starting with the prime minister and his family.

Colleen Bell pretty well repeated the negative ramifications of corruption that she had outlined in her much-criticized speech in October. In addition, she spoke of problems specific to Hungary. Here are a couple of examples: “America’s commercial relationship with Hungary is healthy and bilateral trade is on the rise, but I’m told by some American business executives that perceptions of corruption in Hungary impact the investment climate and directly affect American businesses, and as a result, our trade. When public procurement decisions are made on the basis of favoritism instead of on the basis of merit, our companies will often just stay home. American businesses should not be asked to compete in a public tender against a company owned by the relatives of decision-makers. That is why this practice is banned in many countries.”

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The ambassador also had something to say about transparency which, as we know, is in short supply in Orbán’s Hungary. “Administrations, too, can increase transparency by allowing citizens open access to information that affects their lives, and that enables them to make informed and educated decisions about policies made in their name. For example, the United States applauds the recent Capital Court of Appeals decision requiring documentation regarding the Paks contracts.” And finally, she stressed that “prosecutors [should be] empowered to investigate and prosecute officials suspected of crimes of corruption.”

It was expected that János Lázár in his Thursday press conference (“government info”) would strike back. Indeed, we didn’t have to wait for long. He hit below the belt. After explaining that the new law on public procurement is fair and the Hungarian government will not discriminate against any U.S. firm in favor of relatives of public officials, he added that “we don’t guarantee an advantage to anybody because we are not in America where somebody can become an ambassador just because he/she supports a party.” This ad hominem attack on Bell was not only boorish, it was also a blatant lie as far as the Hungarian situation is concerned. By now the great majority of ambassadorial posts are given to strong supporters of Fidesz who frequently have no diplomatic experience. Moreover, very often they are handpicked by Viktor Orbán himself.

Some key members of the government were also present at the conference. They tried to convince the audience, without much success, that the law on public procurement which allows government officials’ relatives to compete in government tenders is the strictest in all of Europe. When Péter Polt, the chief prosecutor, tried to convince people that the number of anti-corruption cases is growing, people in the audience snickered. Sándor Pintér, minister of the interior, and László Trócsányi, minister of justice, also rose in defense of the government.

Magyar Idők reported on the conference as a government mouthpiece ought to. The headline reads: “The new law on public procurement helps the struggle against corruption.” In this article even Colleen Bell’s remarks sounded positive, although at the end of the article there was one sentence that said that “the ambassador in connection with transparency mentioned among other things the importance of making the documents related to Paks public.”

Meanwhile the wholesale expropriation of the nation’s wealth continues, including the agricultural land currently in the hands of the state.

Viktor Orbán’s lobbying efforts in Washington: The latest recruit is Jeff Duncan of the Tea Party

Yesterday I mentioned that the Orbán government’s answer to the State Department’s latest salvo was a renewed lobbying effort in Washington. Let me recap first.

Back in May I wrote about Connie Mack’s new job as a well-paid lobbyist for the Hungarian government. At that time the former politician turned lobbyist managed to convince Representative Dana Rohrabacher of California, the chairman of one of the subcommittees of the House’s Foreign Relations Committee, to hold a full-fledged hearing on the Hungarian situation. Rohrabacher is perhaps the only member of the U.S. Congress who is an unabashed supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Rohrabacher, whose knowledge of Hungary was pretty much what Connie Mack had told him, was helped along by the recently arrived Hungarian ambassador, Réka Szemerkényi, who naturally painted a rosy picture of the democratic paradise called Hungary. Those who were invited to report on the true state of affairs under Viktor Orbán’s governance were not given much credence by the aggressive Rohrabacher. The whole thing was a farce. The Democratic members of the subcommittee were poorly prepared and had no chance against the loud, antagonistic Rohrabacher.

This time Connie Mack couldn’t get a full-fledged hearing on how badly the United States is treating the Hungarian government. He had to settle for a brief encounter between Representative Jeff Duncan of South Carolina and Assistant Undersecretary Victoria Nuland, who happened to be a witness at a hearing on Syria. Their exchange of words became the following headline in Magyar Idők: “U.S. Congress: Nuland must take back statements on our homeland.” Of course, that sounds as if a congressional resolution was adopted to force Victoria Nuland to change U.S. policy toward Hungary.

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Just to give you an idea of Nuland’s position in the State Department hierarchy, as assistant undersecretary of state for Europe and Eurasia she is responsible for thirty countries all told, from Albania to the United Kingdom, and therefore she is not directly involved in formulating U.S.-Hungarian policy on a day-to-day basis. Under her there are several deputy assistant undersecretaries who take care of smaller areas. So, when she was confronted by Jeff Duncan about Colleen Bell’s speech, it is not surprising that she was unfamiliar with the final text, although she was fully aware of the general thrust of the message that was delivered by the U.S. ambassador in Budapest. After all, the “non paper” that was presented to the Hungarian government a year ago was handed to Hungarian Foreign Minister Szijjártó in Washington by Nuland herself. And, just as Ambassador Bell repeated several times, there was nothing in her speech that the Orbán government didn’t know before.

While discussing the Syrian civil war Duncan began talking about the European migration crisis, and from there it was just a small step to end up in Hungary. Duncan wanted to know: “Why did the ambassador of the United States decide to provoke an attack against Hungary which is a western democracy and a NATO ally?” Nuland, while stressing that she was not familiar with the details of the speech, assured Duncan that the speech “confirmed the support of the United States to a Hungary which will be increasingly democratic.” On the other hand, Washington has misgivings about the Hungarian government’s handling of corruption and its treatment of the media.

Duncan repeated the Orbán government’s argument on sovereignty and undue interference in Hungary’s domestic affairs. Given Duncan’s fiercely anti-immigrant position in this country, he was especially eager to learn whether Colleen Bell had said anything disapprovingly about Viktor Orbán’s fence. As we know, she didn’t. Nuland, however, wasn’t cowed and explained to Duncan that the U.S. government supports a common European policy concerning the migrant crisis and that it is not particularly happy about fences being built at the borders of individual nation states. As for American misgivings, Nuland told Duncan that the United States in the last fifty years has been a steadfast supporter of a democratic and stable Europe. When a country is turning away from democracy and does nothing against corruption, “we will continue to speak about our misgivings.” This was the extent of the exchange, which was jubilantly presented to the Hungarian public by the right-wing press as a victory for Hungary. One new government-sponsored internet site called Duncan’s words to Nuland “a punch in the stomach.”

Finally, a few words on Jeff Duncan. Before he was elected to Congress in 2010 he was a member of the South Carolina House of Representatives between 2002 and 2010. According to his official biography, “during his tenure in the South Carolina House of Representatives, Jeff was known as one of the most conservative House Members, earning recognition as a ‘Taxpayer’s Hero.'” In Congress he serves on three different House committees, including the Foreign Affairs Committee. He was also appointed by former Speaker John Boehner to the Executive Committee of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. (Poor Tom Lantos! If he just knew who is serving on a human rights commission named after him.) In addition, he is a member of both the Republican Study Committee and the Tea Party Caucus, but lately over the budget issue he completely split from mainstream Republicans. He advocates an “all-of-the-above” strategy for border enforcement, including physical fencing, greater use of surveillance technology, and increased manpower. He opposes amnesty for illegal immigrants already in the country.

Duncan’s interpretation of the recent church shooting that killed nine people in Charleston is telling. In his opinion, the man who obviously attacked the church for racial reasons is only mentally ill. He thinks that “right-wing domestic terrorism is but the figment of the liberal imagination.” This is the kind of person Connie Mack manages to recruit to the cause of Viktor Orbán’s regime.