Tag Archives: Ukraine

What was behind Péter Szijjártó’s trip to Washington?

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

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

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

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

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

Péter Szijjártó, Wess Mitchell, and Pavlo Klimkin in Paris

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

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

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

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

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

February 6, 2018

Hungarians in praise of Vladimir Putin and his empire

It was only a few days ago that I devoted a post to Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó’s visit to Washington, where he met the new assistant secretary of state in charge of European and Eurasian Affairs, Wess Mitchell. It is hard to pass judgment on the meeting because both parties remained silent on the subject. One thing, however, is fairly certain: there are no definite plans for Viktor Orbán to travel to Washington and meet with President Trump. As Jenő Megyesy, an Orbán adviser on American affairs, put it, “such bilateral meetings are important only when there is some important topic or conflict on the horizon.” This is not the case today. This kind of talk indicates that there is no significant improvement in U.S.-Hungarian relations. One of the obstacles to closer links between the two countries is Russian-Hungarian relations.

Today I would like to call attention to two manifestations of the uncritical pro-Russian attitude propagated in the Hungarian administration and in the media. The first one comes straight from the Ministry of Defense. It is an article written by Lt. Colonel Endre Szénási, security and defense policy expert in the ministry’s Department of Defense Policy (Védelempolitikai Főosztály). The other was written by László Gy. Tóth, who is described in the media as “a political scientist close to the government.” He is an old hand in the trade. In 1997 he published a series of essays about “The heirs of Kádárism,” which I picked up by mistake and found to be utterly worthless.

Let’s start with a Hungarian military man’s assessment of the United States, Russia, NATO, and military matters in general. Before Szijjártó’s meeting with Wess Mitchell, the foreign minister pointed out that both in military and in economic matters relations between the United States and Hungary are excellent. Problems crop up only in political relations between the two countries. But do these two NATO allies see eye to eye on matters related to defense and their relationship to Russia when a chief analyst of the Ministry of Defense identifies with the interests of Vladimir Putin’s Russia? Because this is exactly what Szénási does. The article is actually about Michael Flynn’s “regrettable” departure from the White House, which may put an end to Donald Trump’s attempt at a rapprochement with Russia.

It is not Szénási’s erroneous analysis of American politics that deserves our attention but his statements on Russia and its role in world affairs. In his opinion, Russia is not an expansionist country. “It is only defending its own historical sphere of interest.” Russia is not “even aggressive since it didn’t force a change of regime in Georgia by military means. It didn’t bomb the Georgian ministry of defense, which in a classic war situation is the number one target. Unlike the United States it didn’t enforce regime change; it didn’t overthrow the government; it didn’t occupy Tbilisi.”

Russia wasn’t an aggressor in the Ukrainian case either. “Since 2014 it has occupied only that part of the Donets-Lugansk region which has a clear Russian identity. Moreover, the West mistakenly believes that the occupation of Crimea was an act of aggression. As far as Lt. Colonel Szénási is concerned, it is perfectly acceptable for Russia to militarily occupy territories of another country whose territorial integrity it had guaranteed earlier.

This article appeared originally in Terror & Elhárítás (Terror and interception), a periodical published by TEK (Terrorelhárítási Központ), often described as Viktor Orbán’s private army. It was subsequently discovered by András Domány, a well-known journalist and expert on Polish affairs. In his article in Élet és Irodalom, titled “Kormányzati tudomány” (Government science), he wonders whether the leadership of NATO or the Ukrainian government is aware of the appearance of this article and whether they will be satisfied with the explanation that this is just the private opinion of a government official. Because officially, Hungary is still one of the guarantors of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. 444 also picked up the story of Szénási’s lofty defense of Russia and added a few more quotations from other works by the security and defense expert.

Now, let’s move on to the article of our political scientist, László Gy. Tóth. Perhaps someone should translate the whole article because almost every sentence in it is an outrage. Here is one of the first sentences: “Judged by his activities to date, Vladimir Putin’s rational policies are of serious value.” After a sob story about Putin’s poverty-stricken childhood and his hard-working, deeply religious mother, Tóth goes on to praise him as the president of a country which is described as “a constitutional democracy that differs from the western variety because of the somewhat archaic and traditionalist value system of Russian society.” Putin guarantees human rights but “supports only those cultural trends that are not in conflict with traditional Russian values.”

As far as foreign affairs are concerned, “Russia is open to the world.” It attempts to be a partner with the EU and NATO. As Putin said, “We must try to configure a Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok.” This new Europe would be based on some kind of supranationalism, which means “a higher ranking cooperation of nationalisms.” I guess a united Europe under Vladimir Putin would be preferable to what we have now in Europe, which Viktor Orbán thoroughly detests.

The tension between the European Union and Russia is solely the fault of the United States. For decades American foreign policy strategists have been trying to isolate Russia by “generating conflict between the European Union and Russia. They have created an operetta-revolution in Belgrade, a revolution in Georgia in 2003, and a Ukrainian revolution in 2004. How? Through George Soros, various kinds of NGOs, and the CIA.

Yet “Putin is more and more accepted in Europe because it dawned on European politicians that today Russia has nothing to do with the former Soviet Union.” Russia today is, “in the good sense of the word, a nationalist, presidential, constitutional state that wants to base its future on traditionalist values. One must take cognizance of the fact that Russia is the leading military power of Europe and the only country in the world whose nuclear capabilities are not one bit smaller than those of the increasingly aggressive and unpredictable United States.”

In Tóth’s view, “in the newly created cold war, the Russian position is unequivocal and rational. If the United States acts in violation of previously concluded bilateral arms-control agreements, Russia will react immediately. This is a clear and rational standpoint that the Americans must accept.” Tóth adds: “Hungary was among the first countries to recognize that the Russian Empire has returned to the stage of the great powers.”

What can one say? It is hard to imagine that a member of Hungary’s armed forces and an official in the ministry of defense can spout off freely, expressing policies that are diametrically opposed to the official policies of Hungary. One must ask: What is the official policy of Hungary vis-à-vis Russia? Does anyone know for sure? Can its NATO allies trust the Hungarian military establishment when a long-time employee of the ministry and a member of the country’s military holds views like the ones that are expressed in his available writings? I have no idea, but I assume that the U.S. military attaché and his staff do read periodicals pertaining to military matters and have noted the appearance of articles like Szénási’s. Because I’m sure that anyone who took the trouble could find scores of articles similar in spirit to what is exhibited in Szénási’s pieces.

As for László Gy. Tóth, the so-called political scientist, one can hardly find words to describe the article’s sycophantic tone. Moreover, the article is sprinkled with old turns of phrase from the Rákosi and Kádár regimes. Phrases like “az Egyesült Államok kiszolgálói” (the hired hands of the United States) return in this article. One could perhaps argue that Tóth is just a political scientist, but such an article couldn’t appear in Magyar Idők without approval. This particular article might be stronger than some others that appear in the paper praising Russia and its leader, but Magyar Idők and Magyar Hírlap are both full of pro-Russian editorials. One must assume that the publication of these articles doesn’t bother the Orbán government at all; in fact, it endorses them.

January 23, 2018

Ghostly Ukrainian citizens on Hungarian pensions

On December 2 Hír TV’s “Célpont” (Target) focused on the mysterious population growth in certain sections of Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg County situated in northeastern Hungary, bordering on Slovakia, Ukraine, and Romania. According to the 2011 census, the population of the county is about 560,000. The county is one of the poorest in the country, and, thus not surprisingly, between 2001 and 2011 it lost almost 4% of its population, or about 23,000 people. But since 2013, when parliament passed the law on dual citizenship, the trend has dramatically reversed. In the last four to five years the county has gained 26,000 new inhabitants.

In certain villages close to the Ukrainian border, the official population has doubled or almost tripled, and the trend is gaining momentum. For the most part the new inhabitants live in these villages only in spirit, so to speak. They are registered with the appropriate authorities, but in fact they live on the other side of the border.

What is the reason for this phantom immigration? Back in 1962 the Soviet Union and Hungary reached a bilateral agreement concerning the mutual obligation of the two countries to provide pensions to people who for one reason or another change domicile. So, a Soviet citizen who worked all his life in a Soviet factory or office or on a collective farm could, upon retirement, move to Hungary and get his pension there, as provided for in the existing laws of Hungary, as long as the person forsakes his Soviet, by now Ukrainian, pension. That law has never been abrogated.

Under the present circumstances, the law is a windfall for Ukrainian-Hungarian dual citizens whose average pension in Ukraine is the equivalent of about 25,000 Ft while the average Hungarian pension is 75,000. Moreover, since it is difficult if not impossible to check the work history of the applicants, these new Hungarian citizens often provide false figures to the Hungarian authorities. Thus, in this particularly poor region of the country where pensions are very low, the Ukrainian-Hungarians can easily get two or three times higher pensions than the locals.

The deal is even more attractive if the Ukrainian pensioner remains in his home country, where 100,000 Ft is a considerable amount of money (10,600 hryvnia) since the average pension is less than 2,000 hryvnia. And indeed, most of the pensioners opt for that alternative. It may take some effort and money, but eventually it can be arranged with the help of corrupt officials and corrupt Hungarian citizens.

Magyar Nemzet and Hír TV’s “Célpont” concentrated on the village of Kispalád which, according to Magyar Nemzet, in 2010 had 536 inhabitants but by now has a population of 1,347. But Kispalád is not unique. Apparently there are about 30 villages in the region with a noticeable population growth–as we will see, on paper only.

Kispalád has only three streets: Fő utca, Új utca, and Újabb utca (Main Street, New Street, and Newer Street). The most “popular” of the three is Newer Street, where József Sankó lives. At his address he provides a “home” for 93 Ukrainians, as he consistently calls the phantom inhabitants, whom he hasn’t set eyes on in his life. The man claims that this arrangement was approved, even encouraged, by the mayor of the village, Mrs. Sándor Magyar, shortly before the national election of 2014. She assured the villagers that registering multiple Ukrainians was legal, citing the approval of the officials at the district’s police station. Part of the bargain was that these “ghost” inhabitants would vote for her at the municipal election. It is also possible that Attila Tilki, a Fidesz member of parliament, is also involved, or at least this is what the locals claim. Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg County has two electoral districts, and apparently the number of phantom inhabitants is considerably higher in his district than in the other. I should add that it is possible that these new pensioners are not even ethnic Hungarians. At least the locals always refer to them as “the Ukrainians,” and one man who actually settled in the village could barely speak Hungarian, although he has been living in Kispalád for at least two years.

József Sankó with 93 national consultations received by his “tenants”

Of course, bribing the inhabitants and possibly the officials costs the prospective Hungarian pensioners money. Some potential “landlords” actually advertise on the internet and list their fees at 40,000-50,000 Ft per person. Some people have amassed several million forints from their “tenants” this way.

As soon as the TV program was broadcast, Balázs Hidvéghi, communication director of Fidesz, called it nothing more than an attempt to “influence public opinion ahead of the electoral campaign.” He claimed that this whole endeavor is the work of Ferenc Gyurcsány, who “incites Hungarian against Hungarian by attacking the voting rights of Hungarians from beyond the borders.” Hidvéghi was certain that Hír TV and Gyurcsány’s party are in cahoots in service of DK’s campaign against the voting rights of dual citizens.

Pension fraud and electoral fraud are linked here. The ghost pensioners are registered to vote in Hungary, helping to assure Fidesz victory in the district, but, since most of them live in Ukraine, do they also cast ballots as non-resident dual citizens? I don’t know, but I suspect it could be pulled off pretty easily.

This is not the first time that Fidesz has been accused of electoral fraud. On April 4, 2014, two days before the national election, Gergely Karácsony and Gergely Bárándy reported that in 12 districts where a Fidesz victory was in doubt suspicious new inhabitants and voters had showed up. It is a well-known fact that the population of Hungary is steadily shrinking, but in these 12 districts the population grew by several thousand. One example was the Budapest district of Zugló, where Gergely Karácsony was running against Ferenc Papcsák (Fidesz). In the two months prior to the election 700 new adult inhabitants were registered in Zugló, while during that same time period Kemecse, population 22,000, in Szabolcs-Szatmár Bereg County, lost about the same number. It turned out that Kemecse’s mayor was the campaign manager of Ferenc Papcsák. The complaint by the two politicians was not only rejected, but they were forbidden by the National Election Office to talk about the matter in the absence of evidence. Something similar happened in Baja before a by-election in 2013. While Baja had been losing a few hundred people every year, in 2013 its population miraculously grew by 1,400 people. By the beginning of 2015 these mystery voters simply disappeared from the books.

Yesterday we learned that the police are investigating the Kispalád case. One should ask why they are only looking into Kispalád when, according to the report, there are at least 30 villages where local officials are most likely similarly involved in the fraudulent practice.

But beyond the 30 villages, why has the Fidesz government allowed this pension fraud to continue when, according to Bence Rétvári, undersecretary in the ministry of human resources, the arrangement costs 1.2 billion forints a year? We all know why, don’t we?

December 23, 2017

Hungary’s “geopolitical game”: Playing hardball with Ukraine

The Hungarian government has been flexing its diplomatic muscles ever since the Ukrainian government passed an education law that made Ukrainian the language of instruction from grade five on for all citizens. Students from other nationality groups, mainly Russian, Polish, Romanian, and Hungarian, will be able to learn only two or three subjects in their native languages.

That decision prompted a vehement reaction from the Orbán government, for which the “gathering of the nation across the borders” is an important political goal. For years, an incredible amount of money has been spent on Hungarian-inhabited regions of Ukraine, Romania, and Serbia in order to fortify the economic strength of Hungarian enterprises and alleviate the poverty of the inhabitants. In Ukraine, the number of Hungarians is small, perhaps 120,000, yet Hungarian diplomacy moved into high gear, reaching out to all international organizations that have anything to do with Ukraine to protest the law. The Orbán government also made it clear at the time that it would do everything in its power to prevent any kind of friendly intercourse between Ukraine and the European Union and NATO. Given Ukraine’s position as a victim of Russian aggression, one might question the wisdom of the Hungarian government’s stance over a relatively minor dispute, which could most likely be resolved through bilateral talks and a little good will on both sides.

Hungary’s first opportunity to isolate Ukraine came at the end of October when Hungary vetoed a planned December 6 meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Joint Commission, a decision-making body responsible for developing relations between NATO and Ukraine and directing cooperative activities between them. Sputnik reported the good tidings that “Hungary announced that it will block Ukraine’s aspirations to integrate into NATO.”

In 2008 Ukraine applied to join the NATO Membership Action Plan, which was shelved two years later when the pro-Russian Victor Yanukovych was elected president. Interest in renewing relations with NATO intensified after the Russian military intervention in Ukraine. Since October 2014 the Ukrainian government has made joining NATO a priority. President Petro Poroshenko wants to meet NATO requirements by 2020 and has promised to hold a referendum on joining the alliance.

Given western suspicion of Hungarian-Russian relations in general, it is not the smartest move on the part of Viktor Orbán to take such an anti-Ukrainian position. The United States is a strong supporter of Ukraine and is ready to take a stand on the Russian-Ukrainian issue. CNN reported a couple of months ago that 1,650 servicemen from 15 different countries, including many Americans, were participating in a military exercise in Ukraine which was planned to take place a few days before Russia was scheduled to launch its own massive military maneuvers, which “put the region on edge.”

It is in this tense diplomatic and military environment that Hungary decided to play the tough guy by turning away from Ukraine and by default standing by Russia. This development is especially disheartening when there seems to be growing agreement among the member states of NATO that Ukraine’s desire to join the alliance might be realized soon enough. Two days ago Jens Stoltenberg, secretary general of NATO, stressed that Ukraine must undertake reforms before its membership in the alliance can be considered. He added that “membership in NATO will make Ukraine strong.” So, unless I misread the signs, there is a general inclination to expand NATO by admitting Ukraine in the next few years.

U.S. Secretary State Rex Tillerson took a tough line on Russia today in a talk with the foreign ministers of the NATO member states, which naturally included Péter Szijjártó. In addition to blaming Russia for interfering in the U.S. election, he expressed his belief that “there is broad consensus among all the NATO members that there is no normalization of dialogue with Russia today.”

If that wasn’t enough of a warning to Péter Szijjártó, there was also the news that Germany and ten other NATO member states had expressed disagreement with Hungary’s actions of blocking “Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic initiatives.” Apparently, these countries don’t consider the language issue to be something that should put “the strategic interests of the Alliance in jeopardy.” The letter also called attention to the fact that division and disagreement in the alliance is a success for Russia, which should be avoided.

Szijjártó wasn’t impressed, and during one of the intermissions he gave a brief press conference in the course of which he reiterated that Hungary is not ready to negotiate with Ukraine. If membership in NATO is so important for Kiev, then the Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian parliament, should withdraw the education law. Hungary’s position is that Ukraine not only has violated its commitments to the European Union but also has failed to fulfill its NATO obligations. He declared that “Hungary is not prepared to sacrifice the interests of the Hungarian minority in Transcarpathia on the altar of any kind of geopolitical game.”

According to Magyar Nemzet, Hungary will suggest introducing sanctions against Ukraine at the EU-Ukraine Joint Commission on Friday, but since the qualified majority rule applies in that body, Hungary’s antagonistic move will most likely fail. The hope now is that in February, at the next meeting of defense ministers, a NATO-Ukraine Commission meeting can be scheduled. At the moment, however, Hungary is still playing hardball.

Orbán’s Hungary is getting itself into international deep water, with serious possible consequences. This is not a “geopolitical game,” as Szijjártó thinks. This is a deadly serious international affair in which Hungary has no business. As things stand, there is just too much suspicion of Hungary’s relations with Russia. It is possible that while the European Union is too weak to “discipline” the Orbán government, the United States through NATO will be less willing to overlook Orbán’s duplicity as far as his relationship with Russia is concerned.

December 6, 2017

Belligerency rarely works in diplomacy: Hungary and Ukraine

The Budapest Beacon published an article today in which Ben Novák called attention to a brief address by Michele Siders, acting deputy chief of mission and director of the Office of Resource Management at the U.S. Mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). It was a speech to welcome Lamberto Zannier, an Italian diplomat, as OSCE’s High Commissioner on National Minorities. In this speech there was one mysterious paragraph: “We support your comment regarding the need to respect confidentiality in the pursuit of quiet diplomacy. One participating State knowingly misrepresented your recent comments regarding education issues in Ukraine. We are concerned that this does not contribute to the Permanent Council’s goal of rebuilding trust. A statement from your office clarifying your findings on this issue would be helpful.”

What does Siders mean by rebuilding trust among the nations represented by OSCE? In 2016 German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier talked about the necessity of “rebuilding trust among participating States and maintaining efforts for achieving a political solution to the conflict in and around Ukraine.” In her speech Siders said that one of the member states had violated this effort.

Who is that guilty state? I’m afraid it is most likely Hungary, whose foreign minister, Péter Szijjártó, apparently “knowingly misrepresented” Zannier’s comments on the contentious Article 7 of the Ukrainian law on education. Szijjártó was attending OSCE’s Mediterranean Conference in Palermo in late October where, after talking to Zannier, he informed MTI by phone that so far OSCE had been “the most helpful international organization” of those whose assistance Hungary had solicited in connection with the Ukrainian education law, which the Hungarian government finds unacceptable. The statement released by the Hungarian Foreign Ministry indicated that Zannier would soon visit Ukraine, where he would most likely represent the Hungarian point of view on the language issue. Zoltán Kovács, undersecretary for public diplomacy and relations, went even further. In his blog, About Hungary, he stated that “OSCE is throwing its support behind Hungary in relation to Ukraine’s education law.”

But articles that appear on OSCE’s website show that OSCE is taking a much more balanced approach. The High Commissioner is paying attention to concerns expressed by the national minorities, but he “has also taken note of the Ukrainian government’s assessment that the low level of state language knowledge among school graduates … impedes their effective participation in public life.” OSCE apparently “constantly recommended” the adoption of balanced views that would preserve and promote the minorities’ language and identity and, at the same time, would foster the integration of society through the teaching and learning of the state language.

Zannier is trying to mediate between the two sides, but the Hungarian government is unwilling to engage in any dialogue with Ukraine. In the meantime, the other countries involved are already close to an understanding with the Ukrainian government.

Graduation at a Hungarian high school in Ukraine

Although Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin visited Budapest at the beginning of October, the talks with Szijjártó led nowhere. Magyar Nemzet reluctantly agreed to publish an opinion piece by Klimkin in which he asked for “considered dialogue.” He especially called attention to the exodus of young Hungarians from Ukraine because their lack of knowledge of Ukrainian prevents them from entering university. Therefore, they go to study in Hungary where at first they are welcome, but these students most likely will never return to the Subcarpathian region of Ukraine, and this in the long run is not in the interest of Hungary.

Meanwhile, the Hungarian government, this time fully supported by the opposition parties, unleashed irredentist sentiments in far-right circles. Lóránt Hegedűs, a Hungarian Reformed minister, organized a demonstration in front of the Ukrainian embassy in which he demanded “the right of self-determination of the Subcarpathian region.” The region is officially called Zakarpattia Oblast, where only about 12.1% of the population is Hungarian. The Hungarian foreign ministry dutifully informed the Ukrainian Embassy about the impending demonstration, in response to which the Ukrainians asked whether “Budapest is supporting separatism” of the region. Pavlo Klimkin, in a statement of objection, expressed his hope that Hungary will honor the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

The rigid Hungarian attitude has turned even some American conservatives against Budapest. Mike Gonzalez, senior fellow at the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, called on Viktor Orbán to “stop meddling in Ukrainian politics.” Gonzalez approves of Orbán’s policies on migrant issues and praises him for his vigorous defense of his nation’s sovereignty, but “he’s at his worst … when interfering in the self-determination of other sovereign nation-states around him.” According to Gonzalez,“Orbán is stirring up trouble with Ukraine and Romania.” What’s the issue? he asks. “You can put many different names on it—minority rights, multiculturalism, diversity—but some would say it borders on ‘irredentism.’” This article originally appeared in Daily Signal, a publication that is described by the Media Bias Fact Checker as strongly biased toward conservative causes.

I very much doubt that Mike Gonzalez is familiar enough with Hungarian affairs to talk about this issue with authority, but he put his finger on something that is not very far from reality. Tamás Bauer, a sharp-eyed observer of Hungarian politics, sees dual citizenship as “a partial revision” of the peace treaties. Since there is no possibility of territorial revision, Orbán has brought about a “population revision.” I may point out here that Zsolt Semjén, deputy prime minister in charge of national issues, just announced that the number of new citizens has reached one million. That means that about half of the Hungarians living beyond Hungary’s borders have been amalgamated into the Hungarian community.

English-language government publications talk about “cross-border Hungarians,” which is interesting by itself, but the Hungarian designation is even more suggestive. A few years ago the ministry of human resources published a list of designations that must be used and others that must be avoided. Hungarians must call their compatriots not “külföldi magyarok” but “külhoni magyarok.” The former is the mirror translation of the German ausländisch. “Külhoni,” according to the dictionary, means the same thing, except it sounds a bit old-fashioned to my ears. But then why do Hungarians now have to use “külhoni” instead of “külföldi”? I suspect the reason is that “hon” is a somewhat poetic word for “homeland.” Another related word is “otthon,” which means “at home.” Thus these Hungarians don’t live abroad but in a homeland that just happens to be across borders. I know that this distinction might be too subtle and perhaps many people don’t grasp its significance, but I consider it a sign of what’s going on in the Fidesz leaders’ minds.

November 16, 2017

Western worries about Russian disinformation just “fits of hysterics”

Two days ago the foreign ministers of the European Union met in Brussels with Federica Mogherini, the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, presiding. She asked the ministers to support her request to increase human and financial resources “to fight against disinformation and propaganda coming from abroad,” in particular from Russia. According to newspaper reports, “nobody inside the room was opposed to beefing up the task forces involved in such an undertaking.” This unanimity is quite a change from only a few months ago, when the European Council blocked a similar proposal.

The initiative for a joint European effort to combat Russian interference in the political processes of member states came from a Romanian member of the European Parliament, Siegfried Mureșan, who suggested in May that funds for that use be included in next year’s EU budget. It was high time to pay more attention to the problem. Russia has a small army of hackers and trolls. By contrast, the EU’s task force that concentrates on the eastern front has 15 employees and the one that focuses on the Western Balkans and the Arab-speaking world is even smaller than that.

For some time Russia has been active in Europe as well as in North America. For instance, Russian hackers got hold of nine gigabytes of e-mails from Macron’s campaign. Macron complained to Putin at their first meeting in May about Russia Today and Sputnik, financed by Russia’s defense ministry, which attacked Macron’s En Marche! Movement. But Russia’s cyber weapon against the West has proved to be very effective, and Putin has no intention of curbing his hackers’ activities.

Good examples of Russian manipulation can be seen in the Catalonian independence referendum and Brexit. Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis announced that his government had confirmed that a propaganda campaign intended to destabilize Spain came from Russia and Venezuela. They used Twitter, Facebook, and other internet sites to publicize the separatist cause and swing public opinion to support it.

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh identified 419 accounts operating from the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) that attempted to influence British politics. Russian hackers also spread anti-Islamic sentiments in Great Britain after the recent terrorist attacks. According to The Guardian, hundreds of paid bloggers work around the clock at IRA “to flood Russian internet forums, social networks and the comments sections of western publications—sowing disinformation, praising the country’s president, Vladimir Putin, and raging at the west.” On Monday Theresa May addressed the issue in a speech, saying that Russia’s actions were “threatening the international order on which we all depend.”

The latest complaint came today from the Netherlands. Kajsa Ollongren, minister of the interior, accused Russia of attempting to influence public opinion in the Netherlands by spreading fake news and misinformation. She stated that her country is being “monitored by Russia’s security services which constantly search for opportunities to undermine it in ways that are easy, anonymous, fast and cheap.” She came up with specific examples, one of which was using a group of Ukrainian émigrés with Russian sympathies to try to tilt Dutch public opinion towards a no vote in the referendum on the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement—which was, in fact, rejected in 2016.

Today Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, answered these accusations. “We are quite accustomed now that some of our partners in Europe and across the ocean apparently have no better things to do than blaming our media or branding them as foreign agents. Apparently, the explanation is that people in the capitals, from which such accusations come, be that Madrid or London, are facing numerous unresolved domestic problems. And, probably, get into such sensationalized fits of hysterics to draw the attention of their voters away from their inability to solve those problems,” reported Russia Today.

Hungary’s attitude to Russian internet propaganda shows the usual ambivalence. In May 2017 the European People’s Party held its conference in Malta, where the Fidesz members of the party voted with the majority in condemning “Russian disinformation undermining Western democracy.” Two months later, however, in Budapest, the Fidesz members of parliament rejected a proposal identical with the one Fidesz MEPs voted for. The opposition party LMP translated the text of the EPP statement into Hungarian and turned it in as their own proposal. The document didn’t even get to the floor. It died in committee.

At the November 13 meeting of EU foreign ministers, Szijjártó, along with all his colleagues, voted for the expansion of EU efforts to defend against the systematic cyberattacks on EU member countries. But this piece of information didn’t make it to the Hungarian media. Foreign Minister Szijjártó gave a quick press conference in the intermission, during which he assiduously avoided talking about Russian cyberattacks and concentrated instead on the migrant issue. He also complained bitterly about Ukrainian atrocities against Hungarian symbols in Berehove/Beregszász, where someone took off the Hungarian flag from town hall and put a dirty shirt on Sándor Petőfi’s statue. This anti-Hungarian incident is probably a response to Hungary’s recent treatment of Ukraine.

Hungary has been preoccupied with Ukraine ever since Kiev passed an education law stating that minority students will be able to learn all subjects in their own language in the first four grades but, starting with grade five, with the exception of one or two subjects, the language of instruction will be Ukrainian. Péter Szijjártó said that Hungary will veto all of Ukraine’s moves to strengthen its ties to the European Union. Hungary’s first opportunity to isolate Ukraine came at the end of October when Hungary vetoed a planned December 6 meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission. The NATO-Ukraine Commission is a decision-making body responsible for developing relations between NATO and Ukraine and directing cooperative activities between them. Sputnik reported the good tidings that “Hungary announced that it will block Ukraine’s aspirations to integrate into NATO.” In the meantime, Russian hackers and trolls are incredibly active in Ukraine. In Hungary one doesn’t have to worry about Russian fake news and disinformation because Hungarians are fed the same by their own government.

November 15, 2017

Hungary is on the warpath against Ukraine’s education law

Budapest is witnessing a new diplomatic upheaval because, at the urging of an outraged journalist of right-of-center political persuasion, the whole democratic opposition stood as one person to protest the newly enacted Ukrainian law on education. The Hungarian ministry of foreign affairs and trade didn’t seem to be that concerned with the law until it became evident that the democratic opposition was making hay out of it since it places restrictions on the use of minority languages in Ukraine.

The importance of the language issue in Ukraine shouldn’t be underestimated, given the size of the Russian minority. According to the World Population Review, only 77.8% of the total population of 45 million are Ukrainian, while 17% are Russian. In addition, there are some Hungarians, Poles, and Romanians, each with 0.3% of the population. The Hungarian population lives in the Zakarpattia Oblast, where there were 150,000 Hungarians in 2001. Since then, their number has most likely been reduced by emigration to Western Europe and, to some extent, to Hungary.

In 2012, during the administration of the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych, a new law on education was adopted which allowed minority groups to use their languages in schools in regions where they represented more than 10 percent of the population. While some people might have considered that law a liberal move that followed European principles by protecting the rights of minorities, others saw it as an appeasement policy toward Moscow. Protectors of the Ukrainian language called the new law a “time bomb against the Ukrainian language.”

The Hungarian regions of Ukraine can certainly attest to the truth of this prediction. During Soviet times, Russian was a compulsory language, and all Hungarians learned it more or less well. Nowadays, according to the vice president of Kárpátaljai Magyar Pedagógus Szövetség/KMPSZ (Hungarian Teachers’ Association of Sub-Carpathia), 90% of 20- to 30-year-olds don’t know Ukrainian, including the teachers. Last year Átlátszó Oktatás conducted an interview with the principal of a Hungarian high school, according to whom out of the graduating class of 49 maybe two can carry on a conversation in Ukrainian. So, when Ukrainian politicians talk about the handicap Hungarian students face when trying to make a career in a country whose official language is Ukrainian, they are stating the obvious.

Given the Orbán government’s keen interest in keeping the Hungarian communities in neighboring countries intact, it would be in Hungary’s interest to make sure that Hungarians learn Ukrainian and make their mark in their country of birth. But the Hungarian government, prompted by the opposition’s united attack on the Ukrainian education law, began its own diplomatic crusade, Szijjártó style. Although Russia also lambasted Kiev over the new education law, the angriest comments came from Budapest. According to the Hungarian foreign minister, Ukraine “stabbed Hungary in the back.” He promised to turn to the much maligned European Union and the United Nations to complain. Hungary considers the law “shameful and outrageous … which drastically restricts the access of minorities … to native language teaching in a manner that makes it practically impossible from the age of 10 and is incompatible with European values and regulations.” He also claimed that the law is unlawful even by the constitution of Ukraine.

In the Hungarian media the law is portrayed as forbidding educational institutions whose students are over the age of ten from using any language in the classroom other than Ukrainian. The law is somewhat vague, so, as Hungarian educators in Sub-Carpathia stress, a lot will depend on the implementation. The law as it reads now states that the language of instruction in the first four grades may be in a minority language. But starting in grade five, only two or more subjects can be taught in any of the languages of the European Union. This distinction excludes Russian but includes Hungarian, Polish, and Romanian. At the moment there are two colleges in Ukraine in which the language of instruction is either completely Hungarian or partially so. One is the Ferenc Rákóczi II Sub-Carpathian Hungarian College in Berehove/Beregszász and the other is the Hungarian section of the Uzhhorod National University. The former is entirely financed by the Hungarian government; the latter, partially so. Their fate is not at all clear.

Ferenc Rákóczi II Subcarpathian Hungarian College in Berehove/Beregszász

While the language issue is controversial, many aspects of the new education law are forward looking and, if properly implemented, would be better than the current Hungarian one. The U.S. Embassy in Kiev welcomed the new law, which sets funding for education at a minimum of 7 percent of the GDP. It also introduces 12-year compulsory education. Schools and teachers will have a great deal of autonomy as far as the curriculum is concerned. According to Ildikó Orosz, president of KMPSZ, it is too early to pass judgment on the law, which is still not known in its entirety. Since the law is primarily an answer to the Russian annexation of Crimea and Russian military interference in the Donbas region, there is a good possibility that in the Sub-Carpathian region implementation of the law will be a great deal less stringent than in the Russian-speaking eastern regions. This is especially likely because of Ukraine’s desire to eventually join the European Union.

Moderate voices suggest a different approach: negotiations to make sure that the law will satisfy both the Ukrainians and the Hungarian minority.  Szijjártó didn’t waste time. The Ukrainians noted that Hungary had already sent letters “to the OSCE secretary-general, the OSCE high commissioner on national minorities and the OSCE chairman-in-office as well as to the UN high commissioner for human rights and the EU commissioner for enlargement and European neighborhood policy.” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin stressed that members of national minorities should learn Ukrainian, but this argument “didn’t satisfy the Hungarian side.” Szijjártó “considered these explanations to be cynical and unjust.” The Hungarian government’s frantic rush for redress to these much despised international organizations and the European Union is especially amusing. Their reaction might not be as sympathetic as Péter Szijjártó hopes, especially if the law is not as onerous as it is being characterized.

September 12, 2017