Tag Archives: U.S. Romanian relations

The race to Trump’s White House: The Romanians are leading

On January 17 a blogger who calls himself “Nick Grabowszki” told his readers that Sorin Grindeanu, the new Romanian social democratic prime minister, and Liviu Dragnea, chairman of the Romanian Social Democratic Party (PSD), will attend Donald Trump’s inauguration in Washington. Our blogger’s story was muddled on the details of the invitation. He misleadingly came to the conclusion that while the Romanians will be two of the 120 invited guests, Orbán, who went all out to receive an invitation, came up empty handed. Grabowszki gleefully remarked that it looks as if the government propaganda about the beginning of a beautiful friendship was merely a pipe dream.

Anyone who knows anything about the protocol of U.S. presidential inaugurations is aware that, with the possible exception of the prime ministers of Mexico and Canada, all foreign countries are represented by their ambassadors. The 120 guests Nick Grabowski was talking about were American dignitaries like former presidents and their wives and other important political personages.

If Grabowski had read the Romanian press either in the original or in English translation, he could have found out how Grindeanu and Dragnea ended up at the inauguration. The invitation came from Elliott Broidy, a venture capitalist, Republican fundraiser, and philanthropist. He was a successful fundraiser for George W. Bush’s campaign and currently serves as vice-chairman of the Trump Victory Fund. The invitation covered three days of events, including a private breakfast with foreign officials at the Trump Hotel in Washington, the candlelight dinner the evening before the inauguration which both Donald Trump and Mike Pence attended, the inauguration itself, and a ball.

And indeed, the two Romanian politicians got the royal treatment. On the first day they met Michael Flynn, future national security adviser in the Trump administration, and Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Dragnea and Flynn apparently “discussed the excellent perspectives of the strategic partnership between Romania and the United States, and the fact that national security and stability are two key factors for the development and prosperity of a nation.” Naturally, the Romanian politicians stressed their country’s determination to spend at least 2% of GDP on defense. In turn, Flynn confirmed the United States’ special interest in Romania. The conversation with Royce was also described as pleasant, during which Dragnea assured the American politician that “Romania will continue to be a reliable pillar for transatlantic relations.”

During the candlelight dinner Dragnea had a chance to exchange a few words with Donald Trump, informing Trump that he “wanted to take the strategic partnership between Romania and the United States to a new level,” to which Trump’s answer was: “We will make it happen! Romania is important for us!”

Donald Trumps shaking hands with Liviu Dragnea

The Romanian politicians obviously started off on the right foot with the Trump administration, which is especially remarkable because they had been anything but enthusiastic about Donald Trump during the presidential campaign and had favored Hillary Clinton. Yet it seems that, unlike Viktor Orbán, they didn’t put all their eggs in one basket. Through Broidy they had a “friend” in the Trump camp, who, when it was important, lent a helping hand to Romania.

Orbán, on the other hand, publicly committed himself to Trump at the time when the Republican nominee’s chances were close to nil. So why didn’t Orbán receive a similar invitation from some Trump insider, especially since the Orbán government has a highly-paid lobbyist, Connie Mack, a former Republican congressman?

To that question there might be an easy answer. Mack is one of those old-fashioned Republicans who found Trump an unacceptable candidate for the presidency. He made no secret of his feelings. In a June interview with Larry King he expressed his low opinion in fairly strong words and admitted that he had no idea what he was going to do when confronted with the ballot on November 8. His disapproving description of Trump was “translated” by 444.hu as “a coward, a shame, a hypocritical fool, and a violent bastard.” Surely, Mack was not the man to curry favor with the Trump crowd.

It took a while for Mack to recover from the shock of the election, but by mid-December Magyar Idők triumphantly reported that, while in Budapest, he had announced that the Trump-Orbán telephone conversation was a very promising beginning, which will be followed by good U.S.-Hungarian relations. He added that “in Trump’s eyes, Viktor Orbán is an important leader not just in Hungary but also in Europe.” As if he has any idea about what Trump thinks. He added that “Donald Trump will bring a new kind of leadership mentality” to American politics. I’m sure Mack is right about that.

It is almost a cliché in Hungary that the Romanians are much better diplomats than the Hungarians. The proof? Their successes during the two world wars. Unlike Hungary, they managed to end up on the winning side. However, these successes are attributed to the slippery nature of Romanian politicians. They are untrustworthy allies who always manage to end up on top. Therefore, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the Hungarian right-wing press finds the two Romanians’ visit to Washington proof of Romanian duplicity.

Magyar Idők simply refuses to talk about the invitations because that would call attention to Viktor Orbán’s absence from events that Dragnea and Grindeanu attended. On the other hand, 888.hu in its typical fashion published a short article on the subject straight from Bucharest. The invitations are described as “purchased goods” to bolster Liviu Dragnea’s role in domestic politics. The reporter ignores all the information available on the source of the invitation and the description of what events the invitations covered. He describes Dragnea’s appearance at the candlelight dinner as accidental, as if he crashed the party, and intimates that he paid someone off to get in. The whole thing is a “seftelős” Romanian story. The Hungarian word “seftelő” comes from the Austrian-Bavarian “gescheft” and means somebody who is known to be a shady businessman. It is true that tickets cost between $25,000 and $1 million depending on the “package,” but my reading is that a certain number of tickets were assigned to important people on the team who could then dispose of them as they saw fit.

Attila Ara-Kovács, DK’s foreign policy spokesman, wrote an opinion piece on the Romanian politicians’ visit to Washington. Ara-Kovács, no friend of Trump, says that it is quite possible that in the future Dragnea and Grindeanu will be sorry that they were congratulating Trump on January 20, but the fact is that their appearance was in the interest of Romania. They don’t share Trump’s optimistic assessment of Putin, but Romania’s national interest dictates good relations with the incoming president. In contrast, there is Orbán, who unabashedly courted Trump for months and yet wasn’t able to secure an invitation.

Indeed, it is very possible that the two Romanian social democrats might not be so happy about their invitations if they find out that Heinz-Christian Strache, chairman of the Austrian Freedom party, also received an invitation. Trump’s national security adviser, the same Mike Flynn that Grindeanu and Dragnea encountered in Washington, had met Strache in December in New York. Considering Strache’s reputation as a neo-Nazi, the Trump team wanted to keep the meeting quiet, but Strache bragged about it on Facebook. According to Occupy Democracy, Strache also attended the inauguration. His invitation came from Representative Steve King of Iowa, who according to this anti-Tea Party site “is one of the worst congressmen to ever sit in the House of Representatives.” Strache’s invitation “speaks mountains to [Trump’s] willingness to welcome such hateful individuals [as Strache] with open arms.”

Another strange guest at the inauguration was Pauline Hanson of One Nation, a nationalist, right-wing populist party in Australia often accused of racism. The story is confused, but the ticket came from Republican congressman Adam Kinzinger, who claims he didn’t know the ticket would end up in the hands of One Nation because apparently it had been requested by the Australian Embassy. Whatever the case, Pauline Hanson tweeted a few days ago: “Would you believe it? I have been gifted tickets to the Presidential Inauguration Ceremony.”

Viktor Orbán, I’m afraid, will have to wait for a while to shake hands with President Trump, whom he so admires.

January 21, 2017

Hungarian spies are everywhere

As the minister of the prime minister’s office responsible for, among other things, Hungarian intelligence, János Lázár has very little sense of what should remain secret. I found the minutes of his speech at the meeting of the parliamentary committee on national security on June 23 shocking. He outlined several ongoing Hungarian intelligence projects, endangering not only the work of the Hungarian intelligence community but also the anonymity of its members.

So, what did we learn about Hungarian intelligence from Lázár? A lot. He began with Ukraine, a country that is in the cross hairs of the Hungarian government. It is here that the Orbán government is trying to stir up trouble. Lázár praised the work of the Hungarian military and civilian intelligence in Kiev both during and “after” the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Hungarian intelligence has also been busy in the Hungarian-inhabited parts of the Subcarpathian region of Ukraine. Reading this portion of Lázár’s speech, I gained the distinct impression that in this border region secret agents are busy feeding the Hungarian minority’s dissatisfaction. The Orbán government expects, perhaps even hopes for, a conflict between Ukrainians and Hungarians, which might give Hungary an opportunity to demand a “solution” to the problem. Only yesterday Magyar Közlöny (Official Gazette) reported that this year the Hungarian government has provided 116 million forints “for the training of civilian guards,” who are supposed to defend Hungarians against Ukrainian aggression. Lázár in his speech admitted that the Ukrainian government strenuously objects to the Hungarian government’s meddling in the country’s affairs. Indeed, the Orbán government treats Ukraine like a state from whose collapse Hungary might profit.

Hungarian intelligence is equally busy, according to Lázár, in Romania. What agents are trying to determine is the exact relationship between Romania and the United States because “we know that the U.S. is very much involved in Romanian domestic politics” but “we don’t yet quite understand the nature of this relationship.” I assume there are two aspects of U.S.-Romanian relations that worry the Orbán government: (1) the two countries’ coordinated anti-Russian policies and (2) a possible anti-Hungarian understanding between the two countries.

The third neighbor, Croatia, is also a country that is antagonistic toward Hungary. There the authorities try to discredit the country through attacks on Hungarian businessmen. What Lázár has in mind is the charge of bribery against Zsolt Hernádi, CEO of MOL, in connection with Ivo Sanader’s case, which ended in an eight-year prison sentence for the former prime minister. Since Croatia’s constitutional court only today overruled the verdict, Hernádi’s troubles are postponed, at least for a while.

As Lázár put it, “of the successor states of the former kingdom” present-day Hungary has unruffled relations only with Serbia and Slovakia. If we take this comment literally, then something must also be amiss in Austrian-Hungarian and Slovenian-Hungarian relations as well.

Lázár spent quite a bit of time on Hungary’s relations with the United States. “American-Hungarian relations, which have deteriorated significantly in the past few years and which at the moment cannot be said to be good,” make the work of the Hungarian intelligence community very difficult due to its former reliance on U.S. intelligence sources. Because the friction between the United States and Hungary developed as a result of Washington’s assessment of the domestic situation in Hungary, “the Information Office [the official name of the secret service] has to pay attention to accusations which through the western media are designed to discredit Hungary.”

spies

In plain English, Hungarian intelligence officers are following the activities of those people who in one way or the other pass information on to media outlets critical of the Orbán government. Lázár proudly announced that “several campaigns have taken place in the past few years against Hungary, which have been identified.” These foreign critics “unfortunately had their domestic allies, but the intelligence community could easily detect the channels through which incorrect and false information was transmitted.” Mind you, elsewhere in the speech Lázár called attention to the law that forbids intelligence officers from conducting any business at home.

The Hungarian intelligence service plays not only defense but offense as well. Lázár finished his coverage of the antagonistic media with this sentence: “It is no secret that the Information Office must take part in the work that will change the image of Hungary in the western world.” So, intelligence officers are being used to spread pro-Orbán propaganda abroad. The first fruits of this effort was athe German DGSAP report titled “Hungary in the Media, 2010-2014: Critical Reflections on Coverage in the Press and Media,” compiled with the active help of Klaus von Dohnanyi, the former socialist mayor of Berlin.

The European Union is also a target of Hungarian intelligence. In fact, Lázár instructed the Information Office to find out as much as possible about those groups who turn to Brussels for redress of the allegedly discriminatory practices of the Hungarian government. Lázár is very proud that they managed to learn who was responsible for some of the infringement procedures against Hungary. Thanks to Lázár, we now know that there are currently 65 infringement procedures in the works. Lázár finds the lobbying activities that take place in Brussels “shocking” because “they are conducted against Hungary and the work of the Hungarian legislature.” Unfortunately, the intelligence community has to take up this burden because, until recently, Hungary was unable to successfully represent its own interests in Brussels, unlike Slovakia, Romania or Poland.

The reason for Hungary’s poor performance in Brussels was the less than satisfactory work of Hungary’s Permanent Representation to the European Union, whose “most important task is to present and assert Hungarian interests and sectoral policies in the European Union.” Not long ago responsibility for this permanent mission in Brussels was moved from the foreign ministry to the office of the prime minister, under the supervision of János Lázár himself. Lázár commented on the move. “I will just mention, but I won’t give any details, that it was not by chance that the permanent representation and the information office are both under the same structural unit, the prime minister’s office.” Does this mean that the Hungarian permanent representation is filled with spies, or at least that there is cozy relation between the two bodies?

Two of the neighbors reacted sharply to Lázár’s revelations about Hungarian intelligence activities in their countries. The Hungarian ambassador to Ukraine was called into the Ukrainian foreign ministry where deputy foreign minister Natalia Halibarenko expressed her country’s worries about Hungary’s intentions. She said that conducting intelligence activities in her country without first informing the Ukrainian intelligence service was unacceptable. Nikolai Sungurovskii, the director of an important Ukrainian think tank, the Razumkov Center, expressed his opinion that Hungarian policies toward Ukraine pose a danger and that they may lead to a massive Hungarian separatist movement with possible Hungarian involvement. In fact, according to reports, the Hungarian government is prepared for a large Hungarian exodus from Ukraine.

Romanian-Hungarian relations have been rocky for a long time, but the presence of the former Romanian member of parliament, Attila Markó, in Hungary has exacerbated the situation. He is one of the many Romanian politicians who are being accused of corruption. I can’t pass judgment on his guilt or innocence, but I can say that Romanians have been taking corruption seriously lately and the number of arrests is very high. Markó escaped to Hungary, which irritates Bucharest to no end, especially since there is a European arrest warrant against him. The Romanian foreign minister asked Péter Szijjártó “to observe the European legislation in this field so that the procedure may be completed.” Hungary refused, and Romanian public opinion is up in arms. A Romanian politician who is not exactly a friend of Hungarians in the first place wrote an article on his blog in which he expressed his total amazement that Orbán has the temerity, after the Markó affair, to visit Romania this weekend. Indeed, Orbán is already in Transylvania. He posted the following picture of himself and his youngest daughter with this caption: “In Transylvania, at home.” I wonder what the Romanian reaction to this purposefully ambiguous caption will be.

Orban es Flora