Tag Archives: Ukrainian education law

The spies who were not; cheap gas that is not; negotiations that will not be

Today seems to be one of those days when it is hard to cover only one event because there are so many items of interest. Let’s start with the most bizarre: the story of an alleged Hungarian espionage ring working on behalf of the United States.

The “Empire” and its leaders

I dealt with the case in March 2016 when the story broke. One of the charges against the alleged leaders of a spy ring called “Birodalom” (Empire) was that they passed documents concerning Hungary’s defense plans to a NATO officer with the help of the U.S. Embassy. I don’t think I have to detail the absurdity of this charge. The other accusation was that in a conversation with a member of the visiting IMF delegation, they revealed details of Hungary’s negotiations for a loan. These alleged crimes took place in 2008, yet the two men were arrested only in December 2015.

Béla Butka and Norbert Maxin, as we learned today, spent eight months in jail, where detectives tried to compel them to acknowledge their guilt. The two men complain about their treatment in jail. Butka’s letters from his family arrived months late, and Maxin had to share his cell with a dangerous convicted murderer. Today, more than two years after their arrest, the two men were found innocent. The prosecutor is appealing the verdict.

Butka and Maxin are convinced that they were the victims of a politically motivated show trial (koncepciós eljárás), but they are unable to give a rational explanation of why they were arrested or to identify the persons behind the action. This is a wild guess on my part, but the dates might give us a clue.

U.S.-Hungarian relations have been rocky ever since Viktor Orbán assumed power in 2010, but after November 2014 they really deteriorated. For a short while there was some hope that with the arrival of Coleen Bell as the new U.S. ambassador relations would improve. But, just about the time of the arrest of Butka and Maxin, she delivered a strong speech on corruption and the lack of transparency. A barrage of attacks on Bell and the United States followed. I can easily imagine that the imprisonment of two men on trumped-up charges was an answer to Washington, intended to show that Hungary is an independent country that can send spies hired by the United States to jail.

The price of  natural gas

Now on to the government’s inflated natural gas price.

By 2013 Fidesz’s support had dwindled. Something had to be done. The party came up with an exceedingly successful remedy that had immediate results and contributed to a second two-thirds parliamentary majority in 2014: they lowered utility prices. From then on, the price of natural gas, for example, would be set by the government.

Szilárd Németh got the job of promoting this price cut to the public. His success at turning lower utility prices into votes for the government launched his spectacular career in Fidesz.

While many Hungarians believe that their utility prices are still the lowest in Europe, the price of natural gas on the open market has been falling in the last three years. Experts have been saying for some time that while the Hungarian government is getting gas for less and less money, its frozen official price is way too high.

Yesterday E.ON’s Hungarian unit offered a deal to Hungarian consumers. It claimed that households that are ready to abandon the state-owned utility company could save 13,000 forints ($51) annually on their gas bill. This announcement sent Németh into a frenzy. He accused the company of meddling in the election campaign on the side of the opposition. E.ON was cowed, and by today the company claimed that the announcement had been misleading. Such an apology by a large, powerful firm shows the extent of government intimidation of businesses operating in the country.

But the story doesn’t stop here. It just happened that Bertalan Tóth, the leader of MSZP’s parliamentary delegation, after years of litigation, managed to get the gas contracts from Magyar Földgáz-kereskedő (MFGK), which is in charge of natural gas purchases. On the basis of the receipts, Tóth came to the conclusion that the public hadn’t saved any money; in fact, consumers lost on the deal already in 2013 and 2014. If the price hadn’t been fixed, each household could have saved at least 70,000 forints between 2013 and 2017. Attila Holoda, who was assistant undersecretary in the second Orbán government, believes that the state could easily lower utility prices by 20% and still turn a profit. Well, if the opposition parties have any sense—which I often doubt—they should immediately start a campaign. Surely, a 20% reduction in utility prices could be understood by even the least politically astute citizen.

The Ukrainian-Hungarian negotiations

Let’s start at the end. The talks scheduled for today didn’t take place.

In mid-January Péter Szijjártó was in Washington where he met the new assistant secretary of state in charge of European and Eurasian affairs Wess Mitchell. About a week ago I reported that the conversation between Mitchell and Szijjártó most likely dealt with the strained Ukrainian-Hungarian relations as a result of Ukraine’s law on education and that Mitchell probably offered U.S. mediation between the two countries. Mitchell met Szijjártó and Pavlo Klimkin, Ukraine’s foreign minister, in Paris. Negotiations had to take place immediately because at stake was Ukrainian attendance at the meeting of NATO defense ministers on February 14-15.

On February 7 Undersecretary Levente Magyar, after his meeting with Vasil Bodnar in Uzhhorod/Ungvár, announced that “significant steps” had been taken toward the normalization of Ukrainian-Hungarian relations. After a three-hour meeting, he said that “this is the first time that there is a realistic chance” for success. He said that on February 14 representatives of the Hungarian community would meet with Lilia Hrynevych, Ukraine’s minister of education, in Uzhhorod.

Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced on February 12 that it agreed with the Hungarian side on ways to address the language issue in western Ukraine. On the same day, Levente Magyar, the Hungarian negotiator, also expressed optimism about the outcome of the negotiations, which would lift the ban on Ukraine’s attendance at the NATO meeting, a ban put in place by Hungary’s veto.

But Magyar’s boss, Péter Szijjártó, most likely on instructions from Viktor Orbán, declared at a quickly organized press conference that the veto will not be lifted because it is the only means Hungary has to defend the rights of the Hungarian minority in Subcarpathian Ukraine. Hungary cannot be blackmailed. I assume that what Szijjártó had in mind was that in the last few days both Jens Stoltenberg, secretary-general of NATO, and U.S. ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison urged the two countries to sit down at the meeting scheduled for today. Hungary just declared that the meeting has been cancelled.

Hírvonal, a Hungarian news aggregator

Finally, I want to put in a plug for hirvonal.hu, an excellent newsreader, about which I wrote once already in August 2016. For those of us who study Hungarian politics a good news aggregator is a must. Over the years, I have used three different sites, but even the best could be frustrating. From the very first, Hírvonal managed to come up with far more links than any of the others, and by now it is vastly superior to the others. It extracts news from 137 sites. Just yesterday I tested a new feature of the site, searching for my own name. In Hírvonal I found 14 links, while in the others there were none. In brief, it has some very good features that make life a great deal easier.

 February 14, 2018

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