Tag Archives: Ukrainian-Hungarian relations

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

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 finally spoke against Vladimir Putin; Kim Scheppele’s “Hungary, An Election in Question, Part 1”

Over the next five days, in addition to my regular daily posts, I will republish Professor Kim Scheppele’s five-part series on the pitfalls of the new election law that makes free and fair elections in Hungary doubtful. The article, entitled “Hungary, An Election in Question,” originally appeared on Paul Krugman’s blog on February 28, 2014 in The New York Times.

The reason that I asked Professor Scheppele to allow me to publish her article on Hungarian Spectrum is because, although we always knew that the newly enacted law was slanted in favor of the current government party, news coming from Budapest of late indicates that the situation is worse than we ever imagined. The opposition’s advertising options have been greatly restricted. And it seems that even the few posters the opposition candidates managed to put up are systematically being torn down. Budapest and other cities are full of posters of so-called civic groups campaigning for the government while the opposition has virtually no advertising presence. So, the more people read Professor Scheppele’s analysis of the new Hungarian  electoral law the better.

And now back to the Hungarian government’s attitude toward Ukraine. It was only yesterday at noon that Viktor Orbán said anything substantive about the Ukrainian crisis. In his statement he kept his concerns narrow and provincial, presumably not wanting to criticize his newly acquired friend, Vladimir Putin. His only concern seemed to be the safety of the Hungarian minority in Subcarpathia. He sent them a message: “you can count on us.” He added that “Hungary is not part of the conflict.” Well, in a narrow sense, perhaps not, but the conflict directly involves the European Union and Hungary’s neighbor, whose territorial integrity has been challenged.

Today the prime minister decided to elaborate on his position, crafting it to be more in line with EU thinking, a wise move since on Thursday he will attend an EU summit in Brussels. He will “represent the standpoint that the European Union will have to respond to the Russian military moves,” a response that has to be “immediate, unambiguous, and integrative.” He further elaborated on the theme when he announced that “the only alternative to war is negotiation. We want negotiations and not military conflict. We want peace, not blood.” Hungary wants a democratic Ukraine. Again, he stressed that “in the whole Ukrainian crisis the most important consideration for Hungary is the safety of Hungarians in Hungary and in Subcarpathia.” Note that he didn’t mention anything about the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

While Viktor Orbán talked to the media in Budapest, Vladimir Putin gave a press conference just outside of Moscow in Novo-Ogaryovo. It was a long and fairly rambling talk in which he announced that he had given up, at least for the time being, plans for the annexation of the Crimea. However, although he knows about and even condemns Yanukovych’s thievery, he still considers him to be the legitimate head of Ukraine and therefore refuses to recognize the interim government formed a few days ago.

Hungary is after all a neighbor of Ukraine

Hungary is after all a neighbor of Ukraine

Mid-afternoon the prime minister’s office released the “Statement of the Prime Ministers of the Visegrád Countries on Ukraine.” If we compare the text of this joint statement of the Polish, Czech, Slovak, and Hungarian prime ministers to Orbán’s words, we see that the joint statement is a great deal stronger. Let me quote a few sentences from this document.

The Prime Ministers of the Visegrád Countries are deeply concerned about the recent violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and the fact that the Russian parliament has authorized military action on Ukrainian soil against the wishes of the Ukrainian Government…. We condemn all action threatening the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine and call on Russia to decrease the tensions immediately through dialogue, in full respect of Ukrainian and international law and in line with the provisions of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum.

The Visegrád Countries believe that the recent military actions by Russia are not only in violation of international law, but also create a dangerous new reality in Europe. The Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia are appalled to witness a military intervention in 21st century Europe akin to their own experiences in 1956, 1968 and 1981….

The European Union and NATO should demonstrate solidarity with and assist Ukraine in this difficult moment and stand united in the face of this dangerous development threatening European peace and security.

A few hours later Zsolt Németh, undersecretary in the Hungarian Foreign Ministry, spoke to Aleksandr Tolkach, Russian ambassador to Hungary. Németh called on Russia to move its troops back inside the Russian naval base in Sebastopol. Németh repeated that Hungary insists on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and considers Russian behavior contrary to international law. So, it seems that Viktor Orbán eventually had to conform to the position held by the United States and the European Union. It must have been a bitter pill to swallow.

* * *

Hungary: An Election in Question, Part 1

Professor Kim Scheppele, Princeton University

Hungary’s parliamentary elections will be held on 6 April. And it is already clear who will win. Unless something truly surprising occurs, the governing party Fidesz is headed to victory. The only uncertainty is whether it will again win two-thirds of the parliamentary seats, a result that would continue to allow it to change the constitution at will.

Fidesz won the last elections in 2010 fair and square. But this time the election is unlikely to be judged so favorably. The whole election framework – the laws, the institutions and even the new electorate – favors Fidesz because the governing party has used its four years in office with its two-thirds majority in the parliament to redesign every aspect of the electoral system to its advantage.

Fidesz also overwhelmingly dominates the offline media and has closed off almost all avenues through which opposition parties can reach the electorate. New decrees from local Fidesz-affiliated officials around the country and misleading instructions from election officials are creating last-minute campaign obstacles that put the opposition even more on the wrong foot.

Under the new election framework, the allied opposition parties cannot win a parliamentary majority, even if they gain more votes than the governing party. Simultaneously, the changes also make it nearly inevitable that the governing party will keep its two-thirds parliamentary majority even if it gets less than half of the overall vote.

Róbert László of the Political Capital think tank in Budapest shows how Fidesz can win a two-thirds majority with less than half of the party-list vote. His model also predicts that a united center-left opposition would need about 6% more votes than Fidesz to win a simple majority in the parliament.

Central European University Professor Gábor Tóka estimates that, under the new system, a united center-left opposition might get 8% fewer parliamentary seats than Fidesz if both got an equal share of the votes.

Political Capital’s “mandate calculator” permits everyone to try out different models and different assumptions. We tried it here in Princeton and, depending on the assumptions one makes about the nature and shape of the opposition, Fidesz could get its two-thirds majority in parliament pretty easily with only 48% of the vote if the other parties perform as polls indicate they would if the election were held now. If the foreign votes split 85/15 for Fidesz (not unreasonable for reasons I will explain), Fidesz could get its two-thirds with only 44%. If Fidesz wins by the same margin it won last time, with 53% of the party-list vote, it would get 76% of the seats in the parliament instead of the 68% it won under the old system.

In short, Fidesz has designed the election to allow itself to win big, even without majority support. Or, to put it differently, Fidesz has designed the election so that the opposition loses even if it wins.

These effects occur because the way that the districts are drawn and the votes are aggregated. It doesn’t even count all of the other things that Fidesz is doing to help the opposition lose, like monopolizing the media, operating an election office that is giving out misleading instructions and only selectively registering to vote Hungarian citizens who are living abroad.

If Fidesz is reelected under this self-dealing system, then it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the election has been rigged. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s “mandate” will be tainted.

It’s serious to accuse an incumbent party of potentially rigging an election, so the evidence needs to be strong. In this series of five blog posts, I will show precisely how the outcome of the election is cooked into the rules even before a single ballot is cast. The rules were designed to look “normal” but to allow Fidesz to win in a very particular political context, which is where we will start.

As Fidesz officials are quick to argue, they will win the election because they are the most popular single party in Hungary. Which is true (see graph below). But Fidesz’s popularity has only recently climbed above 30%, a level that would cause analysts in most democratic states to predict that an incumbent party is in trouble, especially given how low Fidesz fell over the last several years. What makes Fidesz look like a winner, however, is that all of the other parties are even less popular.

voting intentionsFor the last month, however, Fidesz has been confronted by a more substantial opponent than it has had during its tenure in office so far. Five left-leaning parties calling themselves the “democratic opposition” have combined to form the Unity Alliance (Összefogás). They have put forward a common slate of candidates for the individual constituencies and they are running a joint party list. Their joint strength might just be enough to challenge Fidesz’s domination of the elections – if there were a level playing field. But they were late to the election party, so to speak, announcing their joint effort only on 14 January 2014 just before the election date was set. So they have some catching up to do.

(The five parties in the Unity Alliance are the Socialists/MSzP headed by Attila Mesterházy; Together 2014/E-14 headed by Gordon Bajnai; Dialogue for Hungary/PM led by Benedek Jávor; Democratic Coalition/DK headed by Ferenc Gyurcsány and the Hungarian Liberal Party/Liberálisok headed by Gábor Fodor. Since the coalition was formed, the Movement for a Modern Hungary/MOMA, headed by Lajos Bokros, a conservative MEP, has agreed to support the joint ticket.)

And then there is Jobbik, which its detractors call the “non-democratic opposition.” This far-right party has become internationally known for its anti-Semitism and anti-Roma agitation, its toxic assertion of nationalism, and its ideology so far beyond the edge of the European political spectrum that its three representatives in the European Parliament cannot affiliate with any party caucus. Fidesz might reasonably worry that it would lose votes to Jobbik on the right, which may be why many – including Jobbik’s leadership – claim that Fidesz is “stealing [their] issues and ideas.”  For its part, Jobbik’s campaign ads this year portray it as substantially more moderate than its reputation in order to steal voters from Fidesz.

At the moment, Jobbik seems to have the allegiance of just under 10% of the electorate, though some worry that Jobbik’s support may climb again to the 17% of the vote it won in the 2010 election. Jobbik cannot form a government with that vote, but is the only party that can seriously challenge Fidesz’s electoral strategy by dividing the vote on the right.

Just as Fidesz faces a challenge to its base from Jobbik, the Unity Alliance is challenged by a party called Politics Can be Different (LMP) that provides an alternative for its voters as well. In the last year, LMP – a small party to begin with – split so that one fraction joined the broader opposition alliance and the rest remained unaligned. While LMP lost support since the split, it still seems to be polling around the 5% threshold needed for a single party to enter the parliament.

Though Fidesz and the Unity Alliance are the two big parties in this race, polling data show that the largest single voting bloc – a clear majority of the electorate for the last several years – is still “undecided.” That large number becomes even more formidable when one considers that more than half of the Hungarians asked do not answer surveys. Is it hard to know if those who do not answer are still engaged in politics at all, and if so, how.

In past Hungarian elections, the turnout had to reach 50% for the election to be valid. But Fidesz changed that rule too so that there is no minimum turnout required any longer. Low voter turnout, then, is no barrier to a valid election.

But even with the large number undecided or apolitical voters, the results are not in doubt. The governing party designed the system precisely to prevent surprises in this particular political landscape, and they wrote the rules to allow themselves to win almost no matter which way opinion breaks and almost no matter what the turnout is on election day. It is hard to see a realistic outcome for this election that doesn’t put Fidesz front and center in the next government. Fidesz will thrive if there is low turnout because the party has a powerful system for bringing out its voters. If Jobbik surges, Jobbik could not govern unless Fidesz were the dominant partner in a coalition. But, perhaps most importantly for judging the fairness of the election, Fidesz will win even if the “democratic opposition” were to pull ahead of them by a substantial margin.

Why is that? According to election experts, the Unity Alliance could only gain a parliamentary majority if it won by more than a comfortable margin in the popular vote. That is because of the way that the system has been designed. Unless there is swing toward the left that is larger than anything we have seen in the post-communist period or unless Jobbik’s support rises by so much that it substantially depletes the Fidesz vote, Fidesz will surely win outright and is very likely to get its two-thirds back again.

How could Fidesz win under almost any likely scenario for 6 April? I will turn to that next.