Tag Archives: Ukraine

Russian disinformation in the pro-government Hungarian media

About two months ago I read a fascinating article published by Political Capital, a political science think tank, on Russian conspiracy theories and disinformation that circulate worldwide. On the whole the Russian effort is not very successful because few reputable conservative or liberal newspapers are willing to spread its propaganda. Not so the Hungarian pro-government newspapers, which often take Russian “news stories” at face value.

I have written several times about the Hungarian public’s gullibility when it comes to these theories. But it is one thing for an uneducated Aunt Mary or Uncle Joe to believe fanciful fabrications and quite another for pro-government newspapers to help spread the disinformation originating in Russia. In May of this year an English-language study titled Fog of Falsehood: Russian Strategy of Deception and the Conflict in Ukraine, edited by Katri Pynnöniemi and András Rácz, was published. One chapter, written by András Rácz, was devoted to Hungary. Naturally, the author concentrates on Hungarian reporting on Ukraine, but it is also a good source on the overall reporting practices of the official news agency, MTI, as well as publications like Index, Origo, Magyar Nemzet, and Magyar Idők. Since the study is in English and available online, there is no need to say much about it here, except that because MTI often relies on Russian sources, the news Hungarians receive on Ukraine goes through a kind of Russian filter. Since the Hungarian media is centralized and the Orbán government usually takes a pro-Russian position when it comes to foreign affairs, it should come as no surprise that papers that are in essence mouthpieces of the government will often regurgitate the pro-Russian attitudes of the politicians.

disinformation

Political Capital studied five pieces of disinformation circulated by the Kremlin. The first was in connection with the Maidan revolution of 2013-2014, which Vladimir Putin described as a far-right provocation. It was spread far and wide that the CIA organized the “Ukrainian putsch” in order to remove Putin from his position. The pro-government Hungarian media followed suit. From the very beginning Kossuth Rádió called the revolutionaries “terrorists.” One political scientist in the pay of the Hungarian government claimed that it was Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state, who dictated the names of the new Ukrainian cabinet to the U.S. Ambassador in Kiev. In Magyar Hírlap a right-wing economist took it for granted that the United States was behind the revolt.

The situation was the same when it came to the death of 298 people on the Malaysian Airline plane that was shot down, as it turned out later, by Russian or Russian-supported forces in July 2014. The Russians came up with all sorts of conspiracy theories to divert attention away from their own responsibility for the disaster. At that time Zsolt Bayer claimed that “even a child of average intelligence can figure out in three minutes that Putin is the one in this equation who had the least interest in the downing of the Malaysian plane.” One of the Orbán government’s so-called security experts, Georg Spöttle, claimed that “there was something on the plane” before it crashed. He based this supposition on a theory put forth by a pro-Russian internet site: that Dutch security forces had planted a bomb on the aircraft.

The pro-government Hungarian media also accepted Russian disinformation in connection with the assassination of Boris Nemtsov, circulated to deflect any suspicion of Putin’s complicity in the murder. The Russians offered several theories. One claimed that radical Islamists were behind the murder. The head of the Russian investigation committee was looking for extreme right-wing elements. Interfax talked about opposition business circles being behind Nemtsov’s death. The Hungarian right-wing media got the message. Gyula T. Máté, son of Gyula Thürmer, chairman of the Hungarian Communist Party, explained why Putin couldn’t possibly be involved in the murder and pointed instead to Ukraine. Zsolt Bayer embellished this story by adding that Nemtsov’s Ukrainian girlfriend had had an abortion and introducing a jealous lover.

The Hungarian pro-government media also picked up a story from the Kremlin-funded Sputnik, according to which two of the suspects of the terrorist attacks in Brussels were actually Belarussian citizens. Behind this bit of disinformation was a Russian-Belarusian spat over Belarus’s too friendly attitude toward the West at the time. Nonetheless, the official MTVA hirado.hu decided to run this bogus story, which was picked up from a historian who read about the brothers in Syrian and Tunisian internet sources. Magyar Idők also devoted a short article to the story, which in this case came straight from Pravda.ru.

Finally, there was the Russian attempt to blame the United States and George Soros for WikiLeaks’ release of the Panama Papers, which was considered to be a personal attack on Vladimir Putin. The Russian president himself in a question/answer marathon blamed the United States for the release of the Panama Papers, saying that “they will keep doing this anyway, and the nearer the elections, the more such stories will be planted.” The pro-government Hungarian media jumped on the bandwagon. Quoting Dmitriy Peskov, the spokesman for the Kremlin, Magyar Idők reported that American officials had apologized to Vladimir Putin for the release of the papers even before they were actually made available online.

These are just a few examples of Russian disinformation being spread by the Hungarian pro-government media. I’m sure that I could come up with many more if I spent a few days combing through the appropriate sources. The lesson? The Hungarian government has closely allied itself to Putin’s Russia. Orbán and his friends use a number of formerly pro-Soviet/pro-Russian journalists who studied in the Soviet Union or whose fathers spent years in Russia. They are fluent in the language and follow the Russian media closely. People of pro-Russian sentiment can be found on the left too, but after Orbán changed from being an avid Russian antagonist to an enthusiastic pro-Russian these left-wingers moved over to the Orbán camp. Thus, Gyula Thürmer, the arch-communist, by 2014 was supporting Fidesz, and his son, Gyula T. Máté, has a regular column in Magyar Hírlap. Strange things can happen in Orbán’s Hungary.

August 27, 2016

A CANDID INTERVIEW WITH HUNGARIAN FOREIGN MINISTER PÉTER SZIJJÁRTÓ.    PART II

Yesterday I covered only about half of the lengthy interview Péter Szijjártó gave to Index a couple of days ago. I talked about Viktor Orbán’s foreign advisers who are attached to the prime minister’s office and described U.S.-Hungarian relations, with special emphasis on Szijjártó’s relationship with Ambassador Colleen Bell and Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland. It is now time to move on to the Hungarian perception of Russia’s diplomatic and military plans. In addition, Szijjártó described at some length his ministry’s active support of even opposition politicians seeking political or business opportunities abroad. This claim came as news to many of us.

If we take Szijjártó’s comments on Russia at face value, the Orbán government has complete trust in Vladimir Putin. The conversation on Russian-Hungarian relations began with the reporter recalling recent statements about possible military threats from the east as well as the south. Does Szijjártó hesitate “to say that this eastern threat means Russia,” the reporter asked. The answer boiled down to the following. The Hungarian foreign minister “doesn’t think that Russia would decide on any threatening act against any of the NATO countries.” Therefore, the fears of the Poles and the inhabitants of the Baltic countries are based only on intangibles like past experience or geography. They look upon Russia as a “threat to their sheer survival.” Hungary’s situation is different: “we don’t consider Russia an existential threat,” he repeated several times. Therefore, he doesn’t think that “NATO soldiers should come to Hungary to defend us from Russia.”

How fast some people forget. It is true that Hungary, unlike Poland or the Baltic states, didn’t encounter Russian encroachment until 1849, but Hungarian aversion toward the Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union has been strong in the last two centuries. The Russian occupation of Hungary after World War II, which lasted almost 50 years, seems to have faded from Hungarian consciousness, and pro-Russian editorials have been abundant in the pro-government, right-wing media. The absence of fear of a Russian military threat can be at least partially explained by the fact that Hungary is no longer a direct neighbor of Russia. As Semjén Zsolt, deputy prime minister, said rather crassly at the time of the Ukrainian crisis in 2014, “It is a good thing to have something between us and Russia.” But, of course, the main reason for the current cozy relationship between Russia and Hungary is Viktor Orbán’s admiration of Vladimir Putin and his, I believe mistaken, notion that Hungary can act as a bridge between Russia and the European Union.

Although Orbán often quite loudly proclaims his opposition to the economic sanctions against Russia, time and again Hungary obediently votes with the rest of the EU countries to extend the sanctions. This was also the case at the end of June when the next six months’ extension was approved. So, not surprisingly, Szijjártó tried to camouflage Hungarian action by first saying that “the approval was reached at the level of deputy permanent representatives only and that it had to be accepted without any discussion because that was the expectation.” Soon enough, however, it became clear that the approval of the extension of the sanctions didn’t go exactly the way Szijjártó first described it. It turned out that there was in fact discussion “and at the beginning there were a few of us who were opposed to it, but the opposition melted away and at the end everybody accepted it.”

One segment in particular from this lengthy interview caused quite a stir in liberal circles. The conversation took an odd turn after a question about instructions the foreign ministry gives to Fidesz politicians when they go to Russia. The journalists were especially interested in Antal Rogán’s trip to Russia in May 2013. It was a secret trip to Moscow to discuss ways in which the Hungarian government could accumulate foreign currency reserves in Russian rubles because of the unstable position of the dollar. This trip created a scandal in Hungary. I wrote about it in “Viktor Orbán’s Russian roulette.”

Szijjártó, who at that point had nothing to do with the foreign ministry, couldn’t enlighten the journalist on this particular event, but he offered juicy information on all the assistance his ministry gives to politicians, and not just those who belong to Fidesz. He continued: “Perhaps it is surprising, but the Demokratikus Koalíció indicated that Ferenc Gyurcsány was going to China. It was the most natural thing for me to ask the Department of Chinese Affairs to put together some preparatory material for the former prime minister.”

Eorsi Matyas

That kind of information shouldn’t prompt an extended discussion in an interview, but in Hungary such simple and customary courtesy astounds everybody because it is so unexpected from the boorish lot that leads the country today. Once Szijjártó saw the astonishment on the faces of the journalists, he decided to tell more about the government’s generosity toward its political opponents. “But I can also tell you some breaking news! Recently I had a visit from Mátyás Eörsi, who lives in Warsaw and works as deputy-secretary general of an international organization called Community of Democracies. This organization has 18 members, among them Hungary, and Eörsi would like to run for the post of secretary-general, but he needs the nomination of his government. He asked me whether such a nomination would be possible, and I said: of course. I visited the prime minister and told him that this was a good idea. He said that [Eörsi’s] merits at the time of the regime change deserve respect even if we have since disagreed on many things.” It was at this point that Szijjártó learned that Mátyás Eörsi is actually a member of the Demokratikus Koalíció.

First, a few words about the Community of Democracies, which was established in 2000 at the initiative of Polish Foreign Minister Bronisław Geremek and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Its purpose is to bring together governments, civil society, and the private sector in support of democratic rules and to strengthen democratic norms and institutions around the world. As for Mátyás Eörsi, his political career is studded with important positions domestically as well as internationally. The English-language Wikipedia has a shorter and the Hungarian version a longer description of his political importance ever since 1990. Given Eörsi’s solidly anti-Fidesz political activities, his endorsement by the Orbán government is indeed a great surprise.

Eörsi, prior to the appearance of the Szijjártó interview, published an announcement of his nomination by the government on Facebook. Ever since, a fierce debate has been going on both in the media and among people on Facebook about Eörsi’s decision to seek the nomination from the Orbán government. There are those who find Eörsi’s move unacceptable. Among these is Christopher Adam, editor of Hungarian Free Press, and Tamás Bauer, formerly an SZDSZ member of parliament and nowadays a member of DK. Christopher Adam is worried that if he actually becomes the secretary-general of this organization he might not be able to publicly condemn Fidesz’s pro-Russian and anti-EU policies freely. Tamás Bauer argues about the inappropriateness of Eörsi’s decision because, while in democratic countries it is perfectly natural for a government to nominate for an international position someone holding different views, in this case we are dealing with a government that has completely destroyed democracy. Eörsi’s decision, Bauer continues, gives the false impression that Hungary is still a democracy. Thus endorsement is in the interest of Fidesz but not of Hungary. This is what Eörsi doesn’t understand, Bauer concludes. Zsolt Zsebesi in gepnarancs.hu called on Eörsi “not to be Orbán’s useful idiot.”

On the other side, Judit N. Kósa of Népszabadság expressed her dismay that the Hungarian political situation is so distorted that Eörsi had to explain why he turned to Szijjártó for a nomination. She expressed her hope that this is not just a trick from the Orbán government but that they truly mean that even an opposition politician can represent Hungary in the Community of Democracies.

Finally, today Ferenc Gyurcsány himself stood by Eörsi, also on Facebook. He assured Eörsi of his support but admitted that he doesn’t understand the government’s motives. “We shouldn’t doubt our colleague’s obvious decency…. It is not Eörsi who should explain the reasons for his action but Viktor Orbán. He should be the one who ought to explain to his own why he supports one of the symbolic representatives of the liberals, one of the leaders of DK for such an important position.” He added that Orbán may know that under the present circumstances it is unlikely that the board of the Community of Democracies will vote for a Hungarian secretary general because that would be considered an endorsement of Orbán’s regime. His final sentence was: “I would be glad if I were wrong . . .”

August 4, 2016

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

Orbán’s Hungary under attack by its enemies, and they are many

While Viktor Orbán is battling the European Union and defending the country against the invading conquerors from Africa and the Middle East, the rest of the gang is not idle either.

János Lázár and enemies all around

Once upon a time, naturally before Viktor Orbán began work on the “renewal” of Hungary, there was a cabinet post to oversee the Hungarian intelligence network. Usually, the occupant of that post was a minister without portfolio. Now, however, like so many other matters, it is supervised by János Lázár, the all-powerful minister of the prime minister’s office. Orbán’s “chancellery,” as the prime minister’s office is often called, is a huge organization. The number of people employed in this particular office is close to 1,400. Of this number almost 650 people work for intelligence and information (i.e., propaganda).

On June 23 the parliamentary committee on national security, chaired by Zsolt Molnár (MSZP), asked Lázár to report on the current situation. It began as a routine affair, most likely prompted by the arrival of thousands of refugees at Hungary’s southern border. But as time went by, the hearing turned into something that I can only describe as an accusatory tirade against Hungary’s neighbors and indirectly against the United States. Naturally, the “internal enemy,” the opposition, is also charged with actively ruining their own country’s future.

The countries who were accused of anti-Hungarian policies are Ukraine, Romania, and Croatia. The Ukrainian government is guilty of impeding the Hungarian government’s efforts to assist the Hungarian minorities living in Ukraine. Lázár indicated that this attitude of the Ukrainian authorities keeps the Hungarian intelligence service busy. He also admitted that, as a result, diplomatic relations between the two countries are somewhat rocky.

enemies

In Romania, the government conducts an outright anti-Hungarian policy “under the guise of transparency and justice.” For some background, you might want to read my post on recent Hungarian-Romanian relations and the active Romanian Anticorruption Directorate (Direcţia Naţională Anticorupţie/DNA). Only recently Prime Minister Victor Ponta himself was accused of corruption by the DNA. In fact, Ponta just announced that for reasons of ill health he will retire for a couple of months and his deputy will take over the reins of government. Hundreds if not thousands of cases are pending, so the couple of Hungarian politicians accused of corruption cannot be interpreted as a deliberate attack on ethnic Hungarians or an unfriendly gesture toward Hungary.

But Lázár didn’t stop there. He, in fact, practically accused the United States of being behind the Romanians’ anti-Hungarian policies when he said that “at the moment we cannot ascertain whether these actions have anything to do with the close cooperation between the United States and the Romanian government.” I guess the hundreds of intelligence officers attached to the prime minister’s office are now madly trying to find out whether it is Washington that is encouraging the Romanians “to destabilize the financial foundations of the Hungarian historic churches [in Romania] and to limit the freedom of religion there.” The evil United States was also mentioned as being behind the bad German press.

Croatia is no friend either. Its government is bent on “discrediting the whole Hungarian business elite” through the MOL-INA affair. This is a long story about which I wrote at least twice, once in 2012 and again in 2013. Zsolt Hernádi, CEO of MOL, is being accused of bribery in connection with MOL’s purchase and management of the Croatian oil refinery, INA. Through a clever legal maneuver Hernádi has so far successfully avoided appearing before the Croatian authorities. But he cannot leave the territory of Hungary because he is still on Interpol’s wanted list.

Lázár further claimed that they have “unambiguous information” that certain business groups “intentionally boycott the completion of the pipelines coming from Romania and Croatia.”

All in all, incredible charges against Hungary’s neighbors from the second most powerful politician in Budapest.

György Matolcsy found an enemy in The Economist

It is not only governments that want to discredit and ruin Hungary. For example, the editors of The Economist decided to bury the economic achievements of the Hungarian government, as Matolcsy complained in a letter-to-the-editor. Here we learn that Matolcsy, who is a regular reader of the magazine, found the weekly tables presenting macroeconomic and financial market developments in certain countries and regions extremely helpful. He was, however, surprised to see that, “contrary to your former practice, since your 25 April issue the macroeconomic indicators related to Hungary have been omitted.”

After devoting a long paragraph to the spectacular achievements of his unorthodox economic policies Matolcsy comes to the point:

The omission of the data is detrimental to perceptions about the Hungarian economy. Moreover, its timing gives the impression as if The Economist was keen on presenting those data to its readers that confirmed the problems of the Hungarian economy, which indeed did exist in the past, while it would rather hide the data demonstrating the successes achieved in recent years. The deletion of information related to Hungary hinders readers with a general interest in economic developments from making an educated assessment, while it reduces the opportunity of investors with a presence in Hungary or considering future investments in the country to monitor the most important developments in the Hungarian economy in one of the world’s most widely read economic weeklies.

In brief, Matolcsy is certain that even the editors of The Economist are conspiring against Hungary by refusing to share the good economic news coming from the country. Surely, it is madness but, I’m afraid, quite typical. Otherwise, I just learned from György Bolgár’s column in 168 Óra, which functions as a kind of Hungarian “fact check,” that Hungary was replaced by the Philippines on the list of 42 countries, but only in the print edition. Online, Hungary is still there. Bolgár noted that Portugal, whose territory is practically the same as that of Hungary, is not listed either, although its economy is larger than Hungary’s. But, Bolgár added ironically, “they don’t have a Matolcsy who would indignantly complain.”

Freedom House is also an enemy of Hungary

Complaining at every instance about perceived unfair criticism is part of the central directive coming straight from Viktor Orbán, who repeatedly instructs Hungarian ambassadors to raise their voices every time Hungary is “unfairly” criticized. And the fact is that, as far Hungary’s current political regime is concerned, all criticism is unfair. For example, the latest Freedom House report, which degraded Hungary to a “semi-consolidated democracy” from “consolidated democracy.” What does that mean? Where does that put Hungary among the former socialist countries? Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and the Baltic states are consolidated democracies. As of 2014 Hungary joined Romania, Bulgaria, and Serbia as a semi-consolidated democracy.

A day after the report became public, the ministry of justice published an announcement titled “Freedom House paints a false picture of Hungarian democracy.” The arguments that are supposed to show that Freedom House’s criticisms are unfounded are weak. For example, on the electoral system’s failings, the ministry of justice can say only that “last year’s elections prove that our electoral system works well and reflects voters’ will.” What they neglect to say is that with less than 50% of the votes Fidesz managed to have a two-thirds majority in parliament. The only answer to the criticism of the justice system is that Freedom House should take a look at the European Union’s Justice Scoreboard, which “showcases the quality, independence and efficiency of the justice system.”

Freedom House is also wrong when it accuses the Hungarian government of not supporting disadvantaged social groups when in fact the government’s “main tools of these efforts are triggering economic growth, stopping inflation, creating jobs and public catering for children.” Clearly, this is no answer to the absolute neglect of the poorest segment of society. Otherwise, “the Government of Hungary is ready and open to all discussions concerning democracy and human rights, and accordingly to contribute to the development of a true picture of the country.”

One must admit that the present leaders of the country are unbeatable when it comes to misleading unsuspecting and trusting foreigners. Luckily, their numbers are diminishing.

Hungary’s latest lobbying effort: Connie Mack IV and Dana Rohrabacher

When I read last fall that Századvég, Fidesz’s favorite think tank, won a 1.4 billion forint contract to conduct lobbying activities in Washington, I was baffled. What expertise do the political analysts of Századvég have that would enable them to be successful lobbyists in the U.S. capital?  None. But obviously I don’t understand how these things work. Századvég got this huge amount of money to find someone with Washington connections to do the actual lobbying.

Of course, the Orbán government didn’t need Századvég to find the right man for the job. In fact, I suspect that Századvég had mighty little to do with this latest Hungarian attempt to influence American political opinion. It was most likely not Századvég who tapped Connie Mack IV, a former Republican congressman from Florida, to be Hungary’s new lobbyist but Arthur Finkelstein, a prominent Republican consultant with whom Fidesz has had a long-standing relationship and who was at one point Mack’s campaign manager. But since Századvég is suspected of being a kind of money laundering arm of Fidesz, a chunk of that 1.4 billion will most likely eventually end up in Fidesz coffers, if it hasn’t already.

Mack’s congressional career ended in January 2013 when, after eight years in the House of Representatives, he ran for the Senate and was badly defeated by the incumbent Democratic senator, Bill Nelson. He decided to try his hand at lobbying instead. Former politicians are ideal lobbyists because of their extensive ties with members of Congress.

In March, Századvég organized a conference on the country’s foreign policy where Connie Mack was one of the speakers. To the astonishment of a reporter from 444.hu, Mack insisted that Hungary’s reputation is actually quite good in Washington. Many American politicians acknowledge the achievements of the Orbán government. His job, it would appear, is to convince even more politicians that Hungary is a stalwart ally of the U.S. and that the Hungarian government is worthy of praise.

Connie Mack IV at the conference organized by Századvég / MTI, Photo by Zsolt Szigetvári

Connie Mack IV at the conference organized by Századvég / MTI, Photo by Zsolt Szigetvári

Mack, it seems, has been working pretty hard to improve Hungary’s image, and he’s even managed to show something for his money. On May 19 a hearing will be held on “The Future of U.S-Hungary Relations.” It is being organized by the Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats, a subcommittee of the Committee on Foreign Affairs. The chairman of this subcommittee is Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican congressman from California, who is considered to be the only defender of the Kremlin in Congress. According to a New York Times article, the congressman “speaks up for Moscow with pride” and is somewhat sore that he “hasn’t gotten so much as a thank you” from Moscow. In his ideological career Dana Rohrabacher has gone from being a free market anarchist to a a cold warrior who played a leading role in the formulation of the Reagan Doctrine and, now, to a Putin apologist. He finds the annexation of Crimea legitimate because the people of Crimea spoke and they have the right of self-determination. Recently, he voted against a $1 billion loan guarantee to support the new government of Ukraine and abstained on the vote to condemn Russia for violating Ukraine’s sovereignty. In a way, Rohrabacher is an obvious choice to press Hungary’s case since Viktor Orbán is considered to be Vladimir Putin’s Trojan horse in the European Union. How successful the openly pro-Russian congressman will be in today’s political climate in Washington is another question.

According to the invitation to the open hearing, there will be four “witnesses,” two who will most likely speak on behalf of the Hungarian government and two who will criticize it.

Frank Koszorus, Jr, president of the American Hungarian Federation, and Maximilian Teleki, president of Hungarian American Coalition, will undoubtedly extol the Orbán government while András Simonyi, former Hungarian ambassador to the United States who is currently with Johns Hopkins University’s SAIS, and Tad Stahnke, vice president for research and analysis of Human Rights First, will point to the darker side of the Orbán regime.

Koszorus’s relations with the current government have been very close, especially recently, since the government is in the process of making a national hero out of his late father for his alleged role in “saving the Jews of Budapest.” Max Teleki has been a bit more critical of the Orbán government lately than he was earlier. He is not alone in right-of-center circles in and out of Hungary. See his interview in The Budapest Beacon.

András Simonyi is considered to be an accomplished debater, and I’m sure that he will eloquently represent the other side. As for Stahnke, he works for Human Rights First, which last August published the best report ever on human rights violations in Hungary. I wrote about this excellent publication under the title ‘”We’re not nazis, but …: Human Rights First report on Hungary and Greece.” There are few people in the United States who are as familiar with the Hungarian domestic situation as he is.

I suspect that Rohrabacher’s attempt to whitewash Orbán’s domestic record and his double game with Putin will not succeed. He represents a view that is shared by mighty few American politicians, so I doubt that his advocacy of the Orbán regime will make an appreciable difference among those who matter. Connie Mack will have to come up with something better.

The man behind the Russian-Hungarian rapprochement: Ernő Keskeny

A few days ago a fascinating article appeared about the diplomatic impasse in which Viktor Orbán finds himself. It was written by Szabolcs Panyi of Index. Most of the information the journalist received seems to have come from disgruntled diplomats who either have already lost their jobs or fear that they will in the near future.

Earlier I wrote about the massive firings that took place last year. The first round of pink slips were handed out after the arrival of Tibor Navracsics as interim minister of foreign afffairs. The second, when Péter Szijjártó became the new minister.

It is customary to make personnel changes when there is a change of government, and therefore it was not at all surprising that in 2010, after the formation of the second Orbán government, the newly-appointed minister, János Martonyi, got rid of many of the top diplomats of the earlier socialist-liberal governments. The cleanup was thorough, more thorough than is usual in Hungary.  So, the diplomats who today are complaining about the direction of Hungarian diplomacy are not socialist or liberal leftovers. On the contrary, they are people who wholeheartedly supported the Orbán government’s foreign policy. At least until recently.

Panyi’s article covers many topics, each of which deserves deeper analysis. Today I am focusing on what–or, more accurately, who–is responsible for the present state of Russian-Hungarian relations. In the opinion of the more seasoned diplomats, “the lack of knowledge of Russia in the government is astonishing.” The Russia experts in the ministry were systematically excluded from any decision-making. The prime minister made decisions on the basis of personal contacts. One key player was Ernő Keskeny, today Hungarian ambassador to Kiev.

Anyone who wants to go beyond the bare bones biographical data about Keskeny available on the website of the Hungarian government should visit the Russian-language website Regnum. Apparently this news portal employs a fair number of former secret service experts who presumably are quite familiar with Keskeny. He is described as something of a country bumpkin “without diplomatic education or foreign diplomatic gloss” who comes “from the bottom of Hungarian society.” His education began in a vocational school. Later he studied in a pedagogical institute in Nyíregyháza. Eventually he received a university degree from ELTE, as Regnum notes, “in absentia.” Years later he received his Ph.D. in Russian Studies, also at ELTE. Apparently, it was Foreign Minister Géza Jeszenszky who helped him get a job in the ministry (1990-1994). By 1995 he became head of the Hungarian consulate in St. Petersburg. During the first Orbán administration he was ambassador to Moscow.

Keskeny is known as a rabid Russophile and as someone who knows Vladimir Putin quite well, most likely from the years he spent in St. Petersburg in the 1990s. Apparently, he was the one who arranged the first meeting between Putin and Orbán in November 2009, and ever since he has been promoting close relations between the two countries. He is described by Regnum as not too smart but a “reliable workhorse” who looks “more like a bandit than a diplomat.” Keskeny seems to be the chief adviser to Viktor Orbán on Russia.

Ernő Keskeny, standing in the background on the left, Moscow, December 2014

Ernő Keskeny, standing in the background on the left, Moscow, December 2014

Between 2010 and 2014, when he was in the Foreign Ministry, he was head of the department dealing with Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Later he was also named to be ministerial councillor in charge of the Commonwealth of Free Nations. Keskeny was known in the ministry as an unwavering supporter of a pro-Russian policy. As early as 2010 he tried to convince Martonyi to turn toward Russia, but at that time Martonyi could still prevent such a diplomatic move. As time went on, however, Keskeny gained more and more influence. As one of Index‘s sources put it, “everything concerning Russia went through Ernő Keskeny without any transparency or control.”

And now we come to the most frightening aspect of Keskeny’s role in Russian-Ukrainian-Hungarian relations. In November 2014 he was named ambassador to Kiev. One really wonders what message this is meant to send to the Ukrainian government. Keskeny’s devotion to Mother Russia is well known. Why did Orbán post him to Kiev? As one of Index‘s informers put it, sending Keskeny to Kiev is like sending him to Siberia. He will not be able to move an inch there. No one will talk to him. He will be totally useless in the Ukrainian capital. What worries people in the foreign ministry is that sending Keskeny to Kiev is “a gesture toward Russia.” Another source who is less antagonistic toward Keskeny thinks that he was sent there because he is “a hard worker” and the post in Kiev is not an easy one, a hypothesis that agrees with Regnum‘s description of the man.

Index learned who some of the more important pro-Russian people are in the ministry: Csaba Balogh, deputy undersecretary in charge of the Eastern Opening; János Balla, the new ambassador to Moscow; and Péter Györkös, ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary, permanent representative of Hungary to the Council of the European Union. Today there are still approximately one hundred graduates of the Moscow Diplomatic Academy who work in the Hungarian foreign ministry. Not all are pro-Russian, of course. But the ministry faithfully carries out Viktor Orbán’s pro-Russian policy.

Index‘s sources believe that by now Orbán realizes that his policies have led to isolation, but I would disagree. Today in the presence of the visiting Turkish prime minister he was still clinging to his ideas for a Turkish-Macedonian-Serbian pipeline.

Viktor Orbán’s dangerous games

Foreign press coverage was uniformly negative following Vladimir Putin’s visit to Budapest. The Hungarian prime minister’s role in giving the Russian aggressor a platform was widely condemned, and not just in the media. Yesterday I described the Polish reaction to Viktor Orbán’s friendship with Putin and his admiration of the “illiberal democracy” of Russia. Orbán’s answer to these criticisms is always the same: he is a pragmatic politician whose only concern is Hungary’s national interests. Moreover, national interests for him means purely economic interests. Hence the complete reorganization of the foreign ministry, which was transformed into a ministry of foreign trade. He steadfastly maintains that his dalliance with Putin’s Russia has absolutely nothing to do with politics. Or at least this is what he wants the western world to believe.

Pragmatism for Orbán also means the total disregard of any principles of morality. One can lie through one’s teeth about small matters or weighty issues in the pursuit of desired ends–power being the overarching end. He has no qualms.

What are his plans? On two different occasions he talked about his relations with the European Union and Russia. First, right after the Putin visit, the “background conversations” with Hungarian journalists who are responsible for covering foreign affairs and, second, an interview that appeared today in the Russian newspaper Kommersant. Both belie Orbán’s contention that his interests in Russia are purely economic.

For me it is not at all clear why Orbán decided to share his thoughts on his foreign policy agenda with about fifteen journalists, including those from opposition papers. Whatever the reason, he was expansive and covered a variety of issues, starting with the European Union. He pointed to the chasm that exists between Poland and the Baltic states on the one side and the rest of Europe on the other when it comes to their policies toward Russia and the United States. He made no secret of his disapproval of any attempt to exclude Russia from “European cooperation.” He accused these countries of using the notion of a “value-based foreign policy” to achieve this goal.

What does Orbán mean by a “value-based foreign policy”? To put it in the simplest terms, for Orbán it means a foreign policy that is based on democratic values. The United States, for example, allegedly conducts such a foreign policy but, as Orbán put it at this meeting, the veneer of democracy covers up the true beneficiaries of such American efforts– businessmen.

Orbán seems to be convinced that “there are no Russian interests that would threaten the Hungarian ones.” Reading this sentence today, when I see the headline that Vladimir Putin just announced that “no one should have the illusion that [other countries] can gain military superiority over Russia, put any kind of pressure on it,” I shudder at the shortsightedness of Hungary’s prime minister. The British Defense Secretary, Michael Fallon, rang the alarm bell: Russia is “a real and present danger” to the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, all of which are NATO members. But I guess if the prime minister of Hungary looks upon his country as an island in the middle of Europe and not part of the European Union, then he can sit back and have no worries about possible Russian military expansion. First Ukraine and perhaps the Baltic states. What comes next? Poland, Slovakia, Romania, with the exception of Hungary? I don’t want to exaggerate the danger, but I think that Russian aggression is real and can be stopped only by an absolutely united European Union backed, at least in principle, by the military might of the United States.

Viktor Orbán, in an interview in Kommersant, which was recorded before his visit to Warsaw, was effusive about Russia. We have to keep in mind that a chat with Hungarian journalists behind closed doors is a different cup of tea from an interview with a Russian newspaper. The article summarized Orbán’s position as “fundamentally different from the common European position.”

Orban

Orbán’s position on sanctions is no secret. He is against them. But he revealed in this interview that his policy toward Germany has also changed. While before Angela Merkel’s visit to Budapest we heard over and over that Germany is Hungary’s closest ally, benefactor, and example, we find out now that Angela Merkel is the greatest obstacle to better understanding between Russia and Europe. As he said in this interview, “as long as the Germans want to keep sanctions against Russia, the situation is unlikely to change. Whether Hungary agrees or not.”

We know from Orbán’s conversations with the journalists that Poland and the Baltic states are the bad boys. If it depended on the rest of the countries of the EU, there would be some kind of understanding with Russia. In this interview he went even further. There is not only a split in Europe over the Russian-Ukrainian crisis, but “there are those who believe that Russia should be isolated economically. They claim that there must be a clear choice between Russia and European unity.” Keep in mind that Orbán is talking to a Russian audience against his allies on behalf of Russia. And continuing down this path, he said that when the European Union “decides on the issue of cooperation with Russia … we will not be deciding the fate of Russia but the future of Europe itself.” Well, that can mean only one thing. Orbán predicts that Russia will be the winner of this dangerous game. If the EU does not agree to cooperate with Russia, Europe’s fate will be sealed. Moreover, he said, he does not want to live “in a Europe that conducts a new Cold War with Russia.” Any thoughts about the best place for him to emigrate?

In his opinion Europeans should take advantage of the “fantastic economic opportunities” Russia offers. Such a partnership would be mutually beneficial; then “we will have a fantastic future.” What practical steps does Orbán suggest the leaders of the European Union take to achieve such a bright future? They “should support the Russian initiative that offers economic cooperation and free trade between the EU and the Eurasian Union.” In brief, he would suggest a total turnabout in the Russia policy of the United States and the European Union.

There were many more topics covered for which I have neither time nor space here. I’ll limit myself to his gripe about the West and his fondness for the East. He complained about the EU’s attitude toward Hungary, which he characterized as “pressure mixed with antipathy.” By contrast, he hailed “the respect with which President Putin treats us.” And he expressed his admiration of the Russian leader. When he was prime minister between 1998 and 2002 he “watched the situation in Russia with great sympathy…. [he] saw the changes that occurred in 2000 when President Putin came to power. A leader who could restore faith in the future of his people.”

So, tell me, are we talking only about economic relations between Putin’s Russia and Orbán’s Hungary, as he and his spokesmen try to convince the world? Certainly not. Eduard Hellvig, who was just appointed head of the Romanian foreign intelligence service, published an article a few days ago in which he warned of “the threat to the EU” because of the rapprochement between Russia and Hungary. Let me quote a couple of sentences from this article:

The Russian-Hungarian partnership not only threatens the Romanian-Hungarian strategic partnership, which becomes increasingly vacuous due to the nationalist hostility of Budapest, but also NATO and EU interests in the area. Therefore, I believe that Romania, caught in the vise of this poisoned Russian-Hungarian Entente, should take the leading role in defending democratic values and allied interests in the region.

Hellwig points out that Russia has an offensive military doctrine which threatens Eastern Europe, including his own country.

Lately, Orbán has been seen as a Trojan horse, “increasingly under the influence of Moscow.” I heard rumors that western diplomats were warned by their ministries to be careful around their Hungarian colleagues. Almost sixty years ago Hungarians fought to rid themselves of the influence of Moscow. Now the country freely accepts its influence, guided by a prime minister who values power over principles.