Tag Archives: U.S.-Hungarian relations

Hungarian secret agent on the Russian threat

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

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

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

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

Ferenc Katrein / Index / Photo: István Huszti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 22, 2017

The chairman of the Hungarian central bank discovered a U.S. plot to topple the Orbán government

The independent media outlets have a jolly good time every time György Matolcsy, the chairman of Hungary’s Central Bank, opens his mouth. Well, he spoke again today. By now even usually polite politicians have gotten to the point that they openly say that Matolcsy is not quite of sound mind and suggest that the chairman of the National Bank seek medical help.

So what happened to prompt such a response? The bank chairman delivered his report to parliament on the performance of the Hungarian National Bank in the last two years. As expected, he said that the institution under his direction had performed superbly. Under his excellent stewardship the bank’s monetary strategy added at least 1.5 percentage points to Hungary’s already respectable economic growth.

Not too many members of parliament were interested in Matolcsy’s self-praise. Only four or five MPs, just those who had to attend, were sitting in the huge chamber. I must say that those who were absent missed a great performance and a by and large incoherent speech about “a very grave shadow, a very dark shadow, a deep grey shadow” that darkened the otherwise sparklingly sunny Hungarian sky. This shadow was a treacherous ally’s attempt to topple the Orbán government with the help—you won’t believe it—of Hungary’s National Bank. But thanks to Matolcsy’s vigilance, the coup was averted.

I believe that for readers to truly appreciate Matolcsy’s muddled, rambling speech I must translate the relevant passages:

Here we should stop for a minute because there was a shadow on the year 2015, right at the beginning, in the first four months. That shadow had been visible already from August 2014 on. In 2015 one brokerage firm after another went belly up. First it was the deceitful Buda-Cash, then the deceitful Hungária Insurance Company, and finally the even more deceitful Quaestor failed; it failed because the central bank with its new methods of investigation found all the tricks this company had used in the last 10-15 years.

However, this shadow was actually good tidings. It was a good piece of news, something the whole country can be happy about, because we cleansed the Hungarian financial system by removing these robber barons. . . . But this good news was overshadowed by the fact that a large country which is a NATO ally via its embassy in Budapest began activities aimed at toppling the government and the central bank in the fall of 2014. . . . The central bank naturally would have found the deceitful brokerage firms, but it mattered when we found them: in January, February, and March. Why did we find them in January, February, and March?

Because some people wanted to use the Hungarian National Bank to create a bank panic in Hungary in April. And this bank panic actually occurred. It lasted for four hours in four different cities. We could say that this isn’t much. But it was shocking that some people, our allies and friends, wanted to use the Hungarian National Bank to topple the government by methods using the military and intelligence services.

This is a very grave shadow, a very dark shadow, a deep grey shadow. It has no different shades: it is just dark.

The few people in the chamber were stunned. It was immediately clear to everybody that Matolcsy was talking about the United States.

This muddle is full of unanswered questions. In what way did the United States want to influence either the brokerage firms or the central bank? Why was the so-called coup timed for April? How did Matolcsy manage to foil the Americans’ plans?

Source: 444.hu

The opposition politicians who had gathered to engage in the usual parliamentary debate after such a report were stunned. They were simply not prepared for such astonishing nonsense and concentrated instead on refuting the glowing report presented to them by the chairman of the central bank. János Volner of Jobbik pointed out that the bank did nothing until Quaestor actually went under although it had been known ever since April 2010 that Quaestor was misleading its customers. LMP’s Erzsébet Schmuck also questioned the success story reported by Matolcsy and commented on the unorthodox way the central bank operates nowadays. It was only Attila Mesterházy who had recovered enough from the shock to question Matolcsy’s accusations against the United States. He even managed to inquire whether the bank chairman had reported his knowledge of a foreign power’s meddling in Hungary’s internal affairs to the competent authorities. He called on the appropriate politicians to convene the parliamentary committee on national security to ask the Hungarian intelligence services to clarify the situation.

Well, I have a few questions of my own. My very first one would be whether Matolcsy shared the information he received about this alleged American plot with Viktor Orbán. I suspect he did and that, for one reason or another, Orbán decided that the so-called revelation was useful at this time. I wouldn’t be surprised if Orbán, banking on Donald Trump’s extremely low opinion of his predecessor’s “democracy export,” thinks that this kind of news, coming from the chairman of the Hungarian National Bank, will float in Donald Trump’s Washington.

The U.S. Embassy rarely gets engaged in arguments with the Hungarian government, but Matolcsy’s accusation was too much even for the normally calm American diplomats in Budapest. Both Népszava and Index wanted to know the U.S. reaction to Matolcsy’s garbled nonsense. The Embassy spokesman, Richard Damstra, released the following statement: “Hungary and the United States are partners and NATO allies. The United States didn’t attempt to overthrow the Hungarian government either in 2014 or at any other time and we can’t find it credible that any other NATO member state would attempt such a move.” Perhaps this will convince the Hungarian government that American diplomacy, at least for the time being, hasn’t changed all that much and that even the Trump State Department, such as it is, won’t believe that the Obama administration was planning to stage a coup in Hungary.

February 23, 2017

Viktor Orbán misunderstands Donald Trump

Unfortunately, Viktor Orbán’s speech delivered this morning at a conference organized by the Hungarian National Bank is still not available in its entirety. Nonetheless, I will try to cover it as fully as possible because of its importance.

First, a few words about the conference itself. György Matolcsy established the Lámfalussy Prize, to be awarded to someone in the field of economics and finance who has done outstanding, internationally recognized work. Alexandre (Sándor) Lámfalussy was a Hungarian-born Belgian economist and central banker, known as the father of the euro, who died in 2015. The first Lámfalussy Prize was given to Ewald Nowotny, chairman of the Austrian central bank, in 2014. A year later the prize was awarded to Benoît Coeuré, a member of the executive board of the European Central Bank. Last year it was the Bank for International Settlement with headquarters in Basel that was honored. These prizes are handed out at the Lámfalussy Lectures Conference.

It was on this occasion that Viktor Orbán shared his latest ideas on the state of the world. I consider this speech especially noteworthy because it was Orbán’s first major speech since the inauguration of Donald Trump as president of the United States.

If I had to point to the most frightening message of the speech, it is perhaps the following sentence: “Unipolar Europe must be transformed into a multipolar entity.” Add to that: “We have received authorization from the highest secular place that we are free to put ourselves at the head of the line. What a great thing, what freedom, and what a great gift.” To my mind the first sentence can mean only one thing: the end of the European Union and the return to a divided Europe of smaller and larger nation states. As for the meaning of the second sentence, it is hard to find words to describe my disgust. So, from here on Orbán with the backing of Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump will destroy Europe? Is this his plan? I’m afraid so.

In the speech he pretty well describes what he is expecting of the new constellation after the arrival of Trump in the White House. First of all, “the end of multilateral trade relations has arrived and the age of bilateral treaties has come.” As a result, “national interest will be at the forefront” of each bilateral negotiation. Each country will be able to follow its own ideas as far as economic policy is concerned. I found a quotation that is fitting in this context. “Isolation and egoism fell on that day of the Treaty of Rome.” Orbán’s ideas aim to bring back the Europe that existed before 1957.

One of his first suggestions is the immediate abandonment of the negotiations on the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Viktor Orbán will not have to wait long since all details about the TTIP were wiped from the White House website shortly after Trump was sworn in as president. Orbán’s idea is to replace TTIP “with something else,” without explaining what this something else will be. His reason for abandoning multilateral trade agreements in favor of bilateral ones is their unwieldiness. Moreover, it is hard to harmonize national interests within such a huge trade agreement.

I’m afraid, however, that Orbán doesn’t understand what the new American administration’s objection is to multilateral trade agreements. If one can believe Trump’s press secretary, his government “will pursue bilateral trade opportunities with allies around the globe.” What is the problem from the American perspective with multilateral agreements? The press secretary put it bluntly: “When you’re entering into these multi-lateral agreements you’re allowing any country, no matter of the size … to basically have the same stature of the US in the agreement.” Keep that in mind and good luck, Viktor Orbán.

Orbán’s criticisms of the European Union are well known, and it is not worth rehashing them here. There was, however, one criticism that deserves notice. He pointed out that none of the goals of the European Union that were promised at the time of Hungary’s negotiations with Brussels has materialized. He specifically mentioned “a Eurasian economic area all the way to Vladivostok.” Clearly, Orbán is still working on a possible Russian-European Union common market.

Another point Orbán made, which should be mentioned, is the EU’s security policy. He seems to be taking NATO’s collapse for granted because he reflected that “Europe would not have been able to defend itself without American help.” The creation of a common EU defense force “mostly depends on a German-French military agreement, which is easier said than done since it has no precedent.” I must admit that I don’t know what Orbán is talking about because post-war Franco-German cooperation is based on the Élysée Treaty, which was signed by Charles De Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer in 1963. This treaty contained a number of agreements, extending even to military integration.

If Donald Trump delivers what he has been promising for months, and he seems to be doing it at record speed, Viktor Orbán might not be such a happy man as he seems today. He may come to realize that “America First” means just that. Trump will treat other nations, especially smaller ones, accordingly. Then we will see what Orbán will have to say.

January 23, 2017

US Ambassador Colleen Bell’s farewell interview

What follows is an English translation of Ambassador Colleen Bell’s interview with index.hu’s Szabolcs Panyi and Gábor Miklósi. The translation was done by the staff of The Budapest Sentinel. I am grateful for their work and their permission to reprint it in Hungarian Spectrum.

Source: index.hu

“When we talk about civil organizations, we are talking about groups of Hungarians who love their country and joined together in order to improve the country in certain areas.  Or in order to give voice to certain matters, like the problem of corruption and the promotion of tolerance, or improving education.  They do not constitute a threat to Hungary, but are vital to a democracy  For this reason I would encourage the government to cooperate with these civil organizations in the matters they consider important.” 

The following is a translation of the interview with US Ambassador to Hungary Colleen Bradley Bell published in Hungarian by daily online index.hu on January 18, 2017.

Colleen Bell, the accredited Ambassador of the United States to Budapest, is leaving after two years and the election of Donald Trump as President.  She gave a farewell interview to Index.

First she reacts to criticism surrounding her appointment.  She thinks this was not personal.

  • Bell defends the civil organizations attacked by the Hungarian government.  She believes the government is overestimating George Soros’ role and that the billionaire has no influence over American foreign policy.
  • Bell thinks Jobbik will be handled the same way as now: there will be no contact with the far-right party.
  • She says there is a decrease in the independent Hungarian media and she misses Népszabadság, but cannot state that the newspaper was closed for political purposes.
  • She says it is conceivable she will run for public office in America and play a role in the Democratic Party finding its way again.

You’ve had a pretty exciting two years in Hungary but we’re not going to start with that.  Rather, you have never officially responded to the criticism and negative media reaction surrounding your appointment and Senate confirmation hearing in the United States.   We are curious how this affected you and your family, and whether looking back there was any criticism you found warranted.

I put that so far behind me that I haven’t really thought about this, to be honest.  Look, this is politics, and politics are brutal.  It is fierce, competitive, combative – that’s just the way politics works  You can see the same thing in the Senate hearings of the pending members of the Trump administration.  However, eventually I was unanimously approved by the Senate foreign relations committee, both on the part of Democrats and Republicans.  As I see it, criticism of me was a combination of political and economic interests and sexism.  But I repeat, if you enter the political arena, you have to suck it in and be very prepared.

And you were?

I’m tough.  A lot tougher than I look.  But I understood that these criticisms were not directed at my person, but were politically motivated.  It helped that for every criticism there were a hundred compliments from those people who worked with me, and that they had complete confidence in my abilities.  And the criticism afforded me a perfect opportunity to discuss with my children how the media works and how information spreads today, and the fact that there is an awful lot of invention, false information, and that there are certain powers that try to paint people’s successes as failures, or simply understate their accomplishments.

Did you not entertain any doubts?  Obviously, you had no diplomatic experience and had not dealt previously with foreign policy.  Do you not think there was some truth in some of the reservations relating to your person?

I did not doubt for a minute that I would be an effective American ambassador in Hungary.  Not for a minute.  I am perfectly aware of my abilities, as are those people who know me or even President Obama himself who nominated me for this task.  But I also know that I had to learn a lot and had to properly prepare, and that is precisely what I did.  We should also add that it is a tradition for the US president to choose ambassadors from the private sector to all parts of the world.  There is a memorial plaque to Benjamin Franklin here at the Budapest embassy: it was through political appointment that he became ambassador to France.

Some believe Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was expressly happy that the US president continuously sends female ambassadors to Budapest, because he thought that he could charm them with his politeness, hand-kissing and all the rest.

Well, that is really sexism if someone believes that, and completely ridiculous.  You cannot easily charm me, and I know the same applies to my predecessors, who historically have been women.  Anyone who claims this about us simply does not know us!

On those occasions when you met with Orbán, did you not sense that the head of government wanted to impress you, or that he did not regard you as an equal?

Prime Minister Orbán was respectful and cordial, and willingly shared his knowledge about Hungary.  He was extremely professional and supported my efforts here.

How many times did you meet officially?

I had numerous official meetings with the prime minister.  After my arrival we met together.  Later we had a long and substantive meeting at the American-Hungarian Business Council meeting.  Our discussion at 8:45 am on the morning after Brexit was memorable when the prime minister shared his thoughts and expectations for twenty-five minutes with regard to the extraordinary change taking place in the EU.

Have you met with Orbán since the US presidential elections in November?

Not with him, but I regularly sit down with representatives of the government, after the election as well.

We would have been interested in knowing Orbán’s opinion about Donald Trump’s pending presidency.

You know just as well as I do from the news that he is extraordinarily enthusiastic and excited by the opportunities offered by the next administration.

Do you think there is basis for his optimism?  You and your predecessors expressed condemnation of the government over problems regarding freedom of speech, rule of law, and democracy.  Will the Trump administration be more lenient?

I cannot speak about the policies of the future administration of the elected president, only that, in general, foreign policy tends to be extremely values-based and consistent.

I believe the next administration will continue the same road and will continue to promote trade, security, law enforcement.  Hungary is a reliable and important ally in the fight against international crime and terrorism.

You neglected to mention those areas raised in the previous question.  Do you believe those groups – civil organizations, civil rights defenders, organizations dealing with minority rights or media freedom  – who shared the values of the outgoing Obama administration should start to worry?

Freedom of expression, media freedom, human rights – these are universal, fundamental democratic values and cornerstones of our foreign policy.  At the same time I believe we will continue to promote policies committed to their maintenance and support.

Do you really believe this?


Several days ago the Fidesz deputy chairman, Szilárd Németh, announced that with Trump’s election arrived the international possibility of sweeping away civil organizations tied to George Soros.  I think this contradicts what you have just said.  The reason the Hungarian government is awaiting the Trump administration so is because it thinks it will allow them to do whatever it wants, including cracking down on civil organizations and independent media. 

I repeat that promoting the values mentioned is a central element of our foreign policy.  But what I can say about what I have read here in Hungary in recent weeks about the so-called threat to civil organizations, and about how they should be closed, is the following: When we talk about civil organizations, we are talking about groups of Hungarians who love their country and joined together in order to improve the country in certain areas.  Or in order to give voice to certain matters, like the problem of corruption and the promotion of tolerance, or improving education.  They do not constitute a threat to Hungary, but are vital to a democracy  For this reason I would encourage the government to cooperate with these civil organizations in the matters they consider important.

Have you spoken with Hungarian civil organizations and their leaders in recent weeks or months?

Yes, of course.

Did these Hungarian civil organizations feel threatened by their own government?  What was your impression?

As the American ambassador I met with a great many different people from every section of society, including civil organizations.  We had important and honest discussions about their priorities and affairs they deal with.  There were some who expressed their desire to be more respected.

And they said this so politely how wonderful it would be if they respected us more?  Or did they express themselves more forcefully?

I heard various opinions.  Some civil organizations feel that their work is recognized and respected.  Others not so much.

One of the main accusations on the part of Fidesz is that George Soros is supporting liberal political goals through these organizations, which in this way are quasi-foreign agents.

Civil organizations are fundamental to the operation of any democracy, as I mentioned earlier.  They need to feel that there is room for them to complete their work.  Who devotes their lives to serving a cause are driven by good intentions.  They are not foreign agents, they do not want to bring the government down, and they do not want to influence the outcome of elections.

In recent years, since my arrival, George Soros has received an important role in the news.  They accuse him of all sorts of nefarious doings.  But George Soros did many wonderful things for the Roma community, created scholarship opportunities, and did an incredible job supporting institutions like the Central-European University.  I told my various Hungarian governmental interlocutors again and again: they are overestimating George Soros’ ability to influence the policies of the United States or US elected officials. This is simply not the case. But then why do they portray him as such an important person?  Some tell me it may be because the government is using him to divert attention.  They attribute all evil which exists in Hungary to him and make an effigy, bogeyman out of George Soros.

Do you see signs of anti-semitism in attempts to create a public enemy out of Soros?

George Soros is a businessman, an entrepreneur.

And a Jew.

And a Jew.  But I have never really thought about that.  Obviously, it would be shameful on anyone’s part to condemn George Soros or his work based on this one fact.

You stated that Soros does not influence US foreign policy.  Not at all?

I can state what I sense, and I do not see Soros having any influence.  Let us not forget that I worked on the Obama campaign, and I was a member of the Democratic National Committee’s financial committee.  So I am saying this as someone who was active in business life, as well as in the campaign and the political and public sector as well, as as someone with a wide scope of information.

And what do you think when George Soros supposedly tries to interfere in Hungary’s internal politics, and when he works to create sentiment in favor of changing the government?

Are we really still talking about George Soros?!  I completely respect George Soros, so much so that I do not concern myself with what he may be working on.  As American ambassador I have rather preoccupied with matters of security, law enforcement, economics, and international diplomacy.  I read about him in the news and I see what they write about him.  But beyond this I have no opinion about what he is working on.

There is a certain Hungarian opposition party which the American embassy has never invited anywhere, and that is Jobbik.  What do you think about Gábor Vona’s attempts to repackage his party as a modern, conservative, moderate entity?  Can Jobbik expect a change in attitude in American diplomacy towards them?

We have practically no contact with Jobbik.  Historically Jobbik is fraught with discriminative, anti-semitic statements, and this is contrary to our interests which we represent here in Budapest through the American embassy.

So you do not see any change in the party’s direction, or you do not believe that this is a real change?

I have heard that they are trying to change their image.

So the embassy continues to consider them an undemocratic, obscene party?

At present there is no intention on the part of the embassy to expand our contact with them.

Is this something that may be re-evaluated in the future if Jobbik happens to better satisfy democratic values?

I don’t have a crystal ball.  All I can say is that there is no room for discriminative behavior, statements, or politics in modern society.  Regardless of party, I can only hope they move away from this and come to represent appropriate values.

Do you think Russia is interfering in the modern political life of Hungary, say through supporting Jobbik?

I do not think I possess sufficient information to comment on that.

But I suppose you are familiar with the espionage case of Jobbik politician Béla Kovács.

I read about it.

The campaign against civil organizations and George Soros directed by Russia might also be familiar.  Do you not see more similarities between the Russian regime and the Hungarian government?

I am not a Russian expert, but the events of the past few years, the annexation of the Crimean peninsula, and the greater challenge posed by aggressive Russian behavior – for example the directed disinformation campaign, and lastly the interference in the American election – gives cause for concern.

Did you ever get the feeling that the Russians wanted to interfere in Hungarian politics as well?

I cannot comment on that, and I have no evidence to suggest that.

Let’s talk about the media.  Since you arrived to Hungary in the spring of 2015, from TV2 and vs.hu to Népszabaság you have seen a fair number of examples of the demise of that part of media that is still independent. 

I have absolutely seen how the media market has decreased since my arrival.  You mentioned Népszabadság, which is but one example of this.  It is important that the Hungarian people have access to a broad scope of opinions and information in order for them to be informed citizens.

At the time of closing Népszabadság, the American embassy, in fact a State Department deputy undersecretary, expressed solidarity with the editorial staff.  We have just one question about this.  The Hungarian government and Fidesz politicians claim that Népszabadság was closed for purely economic reasons.  Do you agree?

I miss Népszabadság.  It was an important source of information for me day in and day out.  I’ve heard various opinions as to the reasons behind the paper’s closure.  Some believe the causes were political, others say it was economic.

But what do you think?

I think the decrease in independent media is a general trend we need to calculate with.  It is not my task to decide whether a concrete organ was closed for political or economic reasons.  But I value people’s opinions and the fact that they concerned themselves with the reasons behind the paper’s closure, and how this could potentially impact society.

So if we understand correctly, you are not willing to state that Népszabadság was closed for political reasons?

Look, I am a businesswoman and the American ambassador.  I do not have every fact, number and data in front me in order to make such a statement.  It would be irresponsible of me.

Source: index.hu

In recent years certain individuals on the side of the Hungarian government have accused American foreign policy of interfering in Hungary’s internal politics, and of supporting opposition parties, movements, and even that it wanted to bring down the Orbán government.  Many named deputy secretary Victoria Nuland as the mischief-maker.

This is simply not true. Hungary is a partner and ally of the United States.  We are bound together by NATO, OSCE, and the UN, and we have a close relationship through the European Union as well.  These organizations are all based on mutual values like democracy and freedom of expression and human rights.  Naturally, friends and partners can hold each other to account within these organizations.  Naturally, they are only free to do so in the spirit of respect and partnership.  On the other hand, it would be a mistake not to acknowledge any problems that exist.  In addition to George Soros, deputy secretary of state Victoria Nuland also figured more prominently in the news recently.  A number of allegations and negative statements were made about my colleagues, and there are those in the Hungarian government and media who blame her for friction in the US-Hungarian relationship.   But that is unfair.  Victoria Nuland  enthusiastically and competently applied herself to realizing President Obama’s foreign policy priorities in order that Europe might be united, free, and at peace.  Victoria Nuland honestly stated what she saw in the world and was open to honest answers and dialogue.  She is an extraordinarily talented and experienced diplomat, and it was an honor to work with her.

What are the three objectives whose achievement you are most proud of?

I am extraordinarily satisfied in terms of what I accomplished as American ambassador.  I focused on the three pillars of our cooperation – security, law enforcement, and trade and economic relations – and these worked very well.  This was a very awkward and sensitive period in this region with the migration crisis, the Ukrainian situation, with Brexit, and even with the attempted coup in Turkey.  But with regard to these three pillars, I found the Hungarian government to be a reliable partner. That was the “hard” side of my diplomatic work.   The softer side, meaning public diplomacy, was visiting all 19 counties, for example.  I spent a lot of time traveling by car in order to meet as many Hungarian people in every part of the country as possible.  On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the US National Park Service, I resolved to visit all ten national parks in Hungary.

I would like to say that I worked a double shift day, night and at weekends, and loved every minute of it, the happy and exciting, and even the awkward moments as well.

What would you have liked to continue working on if you could stay.  What are the other goals?

Actually, these objectives will continue after my departure.  For example, I started the women’s networking salon, where women working in different sectors and fields from the arts to business life to health-care could meet one another and share ideas and experiences with one another and exchange telephone numbers.  This will continue after me.  Apart from that, I was the first ambassador to take a Hungarian delegation to the Select USA Summit, which is a meeting of American investors.  Although I’m leaving my post here, on the next occasion a significantly larger Hungarian delegation will attend.  So this objective will continue without me.

The third is a personal goal I would have liked to have worked on, and that was the improvement of my knowledge of the Hungarian language.  This will continue, and there is plenty of room for improvement.  This is a wonderful language, if only it wasn’t so difficult!

Do you see areas where the situation became worse since you arrived?

I am an experienced problem solver.  If a situation is getting worse, I have a hard time turning off my brain and not trying to solve it.  I feel that in every difficult situation I did everything in the hope of a positive outcome.

You do not acknowledge failing at anything?

All right, now comes the failure!  One of my goals for myself was to learn before I left how to make pogácsa (Hungarian scones) and stuffed cabbage, which is my favorite.  I could eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner!  And a good gulyás (beef stew).  I only have a few days left to learn all of this, and I don’t think it will be enough.  So I will take this task along with me to New York where I arrive on Friday.

Do you have political plans for the future?  For example, would you run for political office in America?

I’ve dealt with politics all my adult life.  But as an elected official?  It is entirely conceivable.  The truth is that I thrive on fierce competition, and the political arena is full of challenges and unpredictability. I am a “political animal.”

Barack Obama wants to deal with the rebuilding of the Democratic Party in the future.  Do you see a role for yourself in this.  Are you going to help?

The Democratic Party is a solid, effective and strong political party.  Even if the election result was not favorable for it, this is an occasion to reflect and reconsider what you can do in the interest of performing better and addressing the people more effectively.  There will be a lot of discussion about this, and I suspect that I will also play a role in this.

January 20, 2017

Trump and Orbán on political correctness

Donald Trump’s adoption of the view that “political correctness” is the source of many of the ills of American political life is abundantly documented. For him and for commentators on the right, the term came to mean a tool by which “powerful forces determined to suppress inconvenient truths by policing language.” Trump’s attack on PC resonates in American society, as Karen Tumulty and Jenna Johnson pointed out in January in The Washington Post. A year before, in January 2015, according to a poll by Fairleigh Dickinson University, 68 percent of Americans agreed with the proposition that “a big problem this country has is being politically correct.”

Although Trump has never defined what he means by “political correctness,” one can get a fairly good sense of it by recalling some of his most notorious remarks during the long presidential campaign. Take, for instance, the exchange between Trump and Megyn Kelly at the seventh Republican presidential debate. When Kelly  reminded him that he had called women fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals, Trump’s answer was: “I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct. I’ve been challenged by so many people; I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time for it either.” In this case, Trump seems to assume that political correctness would constrain him from being openly gauche and boorish. At other times, he used political correctness as a sign of political bias or as the opposite of “common sense.”

In Hungary the term doesn’t have as long a history as in the United States, where debates over political correctness were taking place already in the 1980s and 1990s. Viktor Orbán was the one who popularized, and denounced, the concept.


A few days ago 444.hu put together a handy list of quotations from Orbán’s speeches over the years, to which I added a few of my own. Perhaps from the contexts in which the expression appears we will have a better understanding of what he himself means by political correctness.

The first references to political correctness can be found in Orbán’s speeches, interviews in 2012 when he announced that “in order to maintain the facade of political correctness we no longer talk about things that are essential to the very core of our civilization.” I assume he is referring here to such foundational beliefs as family values.

A year later he was more explicit. The context was the 2008 world economic crisis, which in his opinion resulted in “the long-term decline of Europe.” But because of political correctness “this question cannot be debated openly.” This is a very unusual definition of political correctness because what Orbán is saying in effect is: “I know that the long-term decline of the West is a fact. Although other people actually agree with me, political correctness prevents them from saying so.”

By 2014 Orbán equated “political correctness” with “the old political world,” which he hoped would soon be over. That old world is “a political system riddled with taboos, which deprives us of the opportunity for innovative and honest talk.” Here he goes so far as to equate political correctness with liberal democracy, which defines Europe and the Atlantic community.

In January 2015, early in the migrant crisis, he blamed “political correctness” for Europe’s inability to defend itself “against the cruel barbarism” coming from the outside. A few months later he freely admitted that he stands on the side of “political incorrectness.” In fact, he said he was speaking in the name of the whole nation. “The Hungarian people by nature are politically incorrect, i.e., they haven’t lost their sanity. They are not interested in bullshit [duma], they are interested in facts. They want results, not theories.” So, here we have an entirely new description of “political correctness.” It simply means the opposite of bullshitting, the opposite of idle chatter about ideologies and theories.

In May 2015, as the migrant crisis grew, “political correctness” became the scapegoat for the European Union’s, in his opinion, mistaken refugee policy. It is political correctness that “tries to convince people that there are no problems here, let’s open the gates wide and invite all who want to come.”

Two months later he accused western politicians of “coyly keeping under wraps police statistics, which prove that where a large number of illegal immigrants live the crime rate has risen dramatically.” In his view, “political correctness transformed the European Union into a kind of royal court where everybody must behave well. … Liberalism today no longer stands for freedom but for political correctness, which is antithetical to freedom.”

For someone who has been such ardent proponent of the fight against political correctness, it is no wonder that Donald Trump’s victory is an affirmation of the soundness of his own views. Originally Orbán’s support of Trump as a candidate rested on Trump’s vicious anti-immigration rhetoric, when within the European Union Orbán was being criticized for the fence he was building. Here is a man who thinks like him, a man of “common sense” who also wants to build a giant wall. He and many other Fidesz politicians, trying to explain away Orbán’s meddling in the presidential race, emphasized repeatedly that it was only Trump’s anti-immigrant policies that appealed to the prime minister. But after November 8 Orbán no longer had to hide his ideological affinity, over and above the migrant issue, with Donald Trump.

In his speech to the Hungarian Diaspora Council, about which I wrote yesterday, Orbán dwelt at length on political correctness, which is supposed to be “a voluntary restriction,” but which he didn’t experience as such. If he dared talk about the nation, he was labeled a nationalist; if he talked about “the dimensions of human existence and creation,” he was branded clerical, feudalistic, a man of the Middle Ages; if he talked about the family, he was typecast as a sexist and a homophobe.” He indicated that with Trump’s triumph “we can hope that we can escape from this spiritual oppression.” He expressed his belief that changes will take place in Europe similar to the transformation of American politics under President-elect Trump. What he has in mind, of course, is the coming ascendancy of parties whose worldviews are similar to his own. They would join him in his crusade against Brussels and would champion the idea of nation states. His opponents dearly hope that he is wrong and that his aspirations will remain unfulfilled.

December 2, 2016

Hungarians on foreign affairs and the U.S. election

I’m very pleased with Vasárnapi Hírek’s decision to commission Publicus Research Institute to conduct public opinion polls. Its latest, which was published today, deals with Hungarians’ views on foreign policy in general and the European Union, the United States, and Russia in particular. In addition, Publicus asked people their perceptions of specific world leaders. And, since the poll was conducted just after the U.S. presidential election, they were asked about their reactions to the outcome.

I guess I don’t have to dwell on the Orbán government’s systematic hate campaign against the present U.S. administration and Viktor Orbán’s clear preference for Donald Trump as the future president of the United States. Moreover, Orbán’s incessant verbal warfare with the European Union is legendary by now. Yet, as we will see, all this propaganda hasn’t really paid off. By and large, the majority of Hungarians are still western-oriented and consider themselves friends of the United States. It seems that the engaging personality and reassuring presence of Barack Obama touched the Hungarian public. He is now the most popular and most trusted foreign politician in the country. And Orbán’s battles with the European Union haven’t made much of an impact on Hungarian public opinion either. Few people think that Hungary should be on its own, with independent foreign policy objectives.

Let’s look first at how much trust Hungarians have in foreign leaders: Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel, Donald Trump, and as the odd “man” out, the European Union. Among foreign leaders, Barack Obama is the clear winner: 55% of adult Hungarians surveyed have trust in him, 24% don’t. Putin runs way behind with 34% fans and 47% skeptics. Angela Merkel is truly unpopular in Hungary (21%), which is undoubtedly due to her policies on migration.

Of course, there is a marked disparity between right-wing and left-wing voters when it comes to their perceptions of foreign leaders. Far more left-wingers place their trust in Obama and Merkel than the average (65% and 47%) while Fidesz-Jobbik voters prefer Putin (50%) over Barack Obama (28%). The same is true when it comes to the assessment of Trump. His overall support is only 21%, but 36% of right-wingers welcomed his election.

Source: NBC news

Source: NBC news

I left the European Union to last. Hungarian public opinion is evenly split (46% for and 44% against) when it comes to passing judgment on its trustworthiness. Yet, when respondents had to pick only one “great power” to which Hungary should adjust its foreign policy, the European Union was the clear winner (53%). There is a small minority that would like to strengthen transatlantic ties and designated the United States as the country with which Hungary should have the closest relations (11%). Russophiles are an equally small minority: 11% would like to have Hungary committed to a pro-Russian foreign policy.

A small minority (14%) still clings to a separate “Hungarian road,” which I interpret as an independent foreign policy, which can be done only if Hungary is ready to abandon the European Union. But if that is the case, I don’t quite know what to make of a graph showing that 54% of the respondents don’t see any danger with a “Hungarian foreign policy (Hungarian road).” Clearly, a “go it alone” policy would be extraordinarily dangerous to the security and independence of Hungary. It is, of course, possible that the respondents misunderstood the question and simply thought that Orbán’s “fighting for national interests in Brussels” is what “Hungarian foreign policy” means.

Otherwise, Hungarians feel extremely secure. They don’t think that the far-away United States has a threatening presence in Hungary (70%), they don’t worry about the European Union’s encroachment (67%), and they don’t think that the Russian expansionist moves and threat to the Baltic states have anything to do with Hungary (58%).

The rest of the poll was devoted to the U.S. presidential election. First of all, almost 30% of the respondents knew so little about American politics that they couldn’t express an opinion on whom they thought would be better for Hungary, Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. Those who had an opinion were evenly split: about 30% for Clinton, 30% for Trump. Of course, given Viktor Orbán’s clear preference for Trump, the majority of Fidesz voters (53%) considered Trump’s election a bonanza for Hungary and only 18% thought that a Clinton presidency would have been better for the country. Interestingly enough, Jobbik voters’ view of the U.S. election was more “liberal,” if I may use this word. A third of the Jobbik voters sampled, that is about twice the percentage of Fidesz voters, considered Clinton a better choice for Hungary; only 24% thought that Trump would be better. From the point of view of Clinton versus Trump as far as U.S.-Hungarian relations are concerned, left-wingers considered Clinton (68%) a far better choice than Trump (7%).

Finally, Publicus wanted to know the mood of Hungarians after the election. Given Hungarians’ insularity, 23% of the sample was simply “not interested” in the election and 17% had no clue what is going on in the United States. Of the remaining 60%, 24% are “rather happy” over Donald Trump’s victory and 36% are “rather unhappy” with the result. It seems that their reactions didn’t depend solely on whom they thought would be better for Hungary.

Finally, a footnote to Orbán’s high hopes for greatly improved relations between the United States and Hungary. The Hungarian media learned from the Polish press that Polish President Andrzej Duda and Donald Trump had a conversation on Wednesday night and “the presidents also reportedly invited each other to visit their countries.” Trump called Poland “an important ally.” The next day, at János Lázár’s “government info,” a question was addressed to the head of the prime minister’s office as to whether Trump had phoned Orbán. After all, Duda and Trump had already spoken. Apparently, Lázár expressed his bafflement over the very question: what would the significance of such a conversation be, he asked. HVG pointed out that considering that Viktor Orbán was the only European prime minister who had expressed support for Trump at the time when Trump’s candidacy was a long shot, one would have expected Trump to get in touch with his fan in Hungary. The journalist added that Orbán was the first European head of state to congratulate Trump and “since then he has been constantly talking about the arrival of democracy in the United States” with Trump’s victory. “Apparently all that effort was not enough for a telephone call,” the reporter announced with a certain glee.

November 19, 2016

Charles Gati on Hungarian foreign policy: It is hard to sell junk

Professor Charles Gati of the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University has just returned from a lecture tour in Central Europe and Italy.  After Bologna, Prague, and Berlin he visited Budapest where Gábor Horváth, foreign policy editor of Népszabadság, interviewed him.

♦ ♦ ♦

Gábor Horváth: There is quite a lot of chaos all over the world, but can one discover some system in it?

Charles Gati: For the time being there isn’t. A new order is in the making and it is not yet clear where all this will lead. One thing is sure: the United States will remain the dominant world power but with less influence than it had during the cold war. Europe as a unified political player has been considerably weakened. Russia can exert influence on the territories of the former Soviet Union but elsewhere less so, and China is incapable of coping with the problem of combining capitalism with an autocratic political system.

GH: During your Central European and Italian lecture tour you talked about international problems, from the barbarism of the Islamic State to the inertness of the United States and posed the question: what do they have in common? What is your conclusion?

CG: What they have in common is that, in comparison to earlier decades, the United States of President Obama has assumed less and less of its earlier role in world affairs. The United States has become weary of the role it played during the last six or seven decades, especially because at the beginning of the twenty-first century it made a lot of mistakes, even committed crimes. The other common feature is the rise of nationalism everywhere in the world against integrating developments. After 1945, especially in Europe, encouraging revolutionary changes occurred as a result of integration, but now because of its deficiencies a counterrevolutionary, nationalist, demagogic surge is taking place.

GH: Can one make a conjecture about the new world in the making?

CG: The most important characteristic of this new world, especially in Europe and America, is that the political, business, and educational elites slowly but surely have lost their earlier influence. The free-wheeling freedom of the internet is playing an enormous role in that development. Today, throughout the world the view prevails that everybody’s opinion is just as important as everybody else’s. That is, the value of knowledge, experience, and expertise has decreased. A further problem is that the discussions have moved beyond civilized boundaries. Certain anonymously published arguments–not to mention crude invectives—would have been unimaginable twenty years ago or would have appeared only rarely.


GH: Do those who criticize “political correctness” appeal to this phenomenon?

CG: Partly, and they use the conceit of the ignorant who think that freedom can be invoked for everything. Naturally, I am not an opponent of freedom, but I regret that on the side of knowledge, experience, and civilized behavior there is no normal way of combating demagoguery and malicious opinions. I also regret that the Lenin’s infamous saying, “Those who are not with us are against us,” is becoming more accepted. Anyone who is critical becomes an enemy.

GH: It is impressive that at the age of 80, while gradually retiring from teaching, you decided to enroll in a two-year course as a student of psychoanalysis. Does it help to understand the behavior of people and societies?

CG: That is a complicated topic but I would mention just one example. I find Sigmund Freud’s short masterpiece, Civilization and Its Discontents, very timely. In this book Freud discusses the necessity of defending civilization from the violent instincts that induce mankind to commit murder. My studies have given me an opportunity to get to know various clinical symptoms, which also emerge in politics. But analyses of individuals can be done only by those with a greater knowledge of the subject, and even they can do it only in private. Although several people have asked me to analyze the psyche of Vladimir Putin or Viktor Orbán from afar, I have declined.

GH: I will not ask you to do that. What can Hungary do to lessen the risk of this transitional period?

CG: We mustn’t forget the significant achievements of earlier decades. The present excessive criticisms of the European Union ignore the fact that after 1945 for seventy years—first in the western part of the continent—there was peace and prosperity. That was the result of integration, which is more important than the fact that the bureaucracy in Brussels makes occasional mistakes or acts beyond its power. We shouldn’t judge the European Union’s achievements by the stupid regulations concerning the size of a banana. The overestimation of the role of the nation states strikes me as historical amnesia. After all, we know from the history of Europe what kinds of catastrophic wars swept across the continent prior to the modern integrative efforts.

GH: You left for the United States sixty years ago, and looking back on your career you have succeeded. Today the Hungarian government, and with it many people, fear mass immigration. What explains this panic and what should the task of the government be?

CG: After 1956, 50,000 Hungarian refugees arrived in America. The reception was friendly and people were ready to help. I have only good memories. Others might remember differently; after all, the far-right press often talked about possible Hungarian or Soviet spies among the refugees. But there had been anti-Irish and, later, anti-Italian sentiment. And at the beginning of the twentieth century there was antagonism against the Jewish immigrants, who were accused of being influenced by communist ideology. A minority of people have always been afraid of “otherness.” So, I understand that when so many unfortunate refugees come from the Near East who are not white, not Christians or Jewish, it is easy to say that they don’t belong to Europe or America. There is some truth in that, but at the same time the teachings of Christianity and Judaism and the moral dictates of the irreligious oblige us to aid those in need. That’s why I was impressed by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s gesture, who went to the airport to welcome the Syrian refugees.

GH: The Hungarian government, together with the Russian, Iranian and Zimbabwean, hopes for Donald Trump’s electoral victory. Not the best company. Was it a wise move to commit ourselves?

CG: In the United States only a couple of officials in the State Department or perhaps a few sharp-eyed journalists have noticed that Viktor Orbán has lined up behind Trump. The real problem is the general state of the relationship and not whether the Hungarian prime minister prefers the Republicans. I find this approach incomprehensible. You may recall that Orbán also supported the candidacy of John McCain, who subsequently called him a neo-fascist dictator. It would be better not to get involved in American domestic politics because the Hungarian leadership, as well as the right-wing press, is super sensitive to any criticism coming from the European Union or America.

GH: According to some, the deterioration of U.S-Hungarian relations outright endangers the security of the country. Is there any chance that relations between the two countries would move away from the current low point?

CG: It is a great pity that not even such a talented diplomat as Ambassador Réka Szemerkényi, who received her degree from my university, can overcome the hurdles in the way of better relations. Not even the best businessman can successfully sell junk. We are talking about the quality of the goods, that is, the ever-weakening state of Hungarian democracy and the ever-expanding system of Russian-Hungarian relations. As long as there is no change in these two areas, I don’t see a chance for improved relations. As long as this is the case, it matters not who the ambassador is because the problem is basically a structural one.

October 5, 2016