Tag Archives: United States

Péter Boross on immigration, the European Union, and the United States

Péter Boross, prime minister of Hungary between December 12, 1993 and July 15, 1994, periodically makes outrageous statements. Today was one of those times and, as is usually the case, every internet organ is full of condemnation of Boross. This time the Hungarian media discovered that the former prime minister of Hungary is a racist. To my mind there is nothing surprising about this. It goes with the territory. Boross, who was born in 1928, would feel right at home in the Hungary of Gyula Gömbös and Pál Teleki, two prime ministers in the 1930s who were zealous “defenders of the race” (fajvédők).

Nowadays people who find the far-right regime of Viktor Orbán unbearable are apt to think of the Antall-Boross governments’ conservative system as a liberal heaven in comparison. But let’s not get carried away. Seeds of many of the political sins of today were sown by the conservative coalition of József Antall, whose good friend was Péter Boross. Thanks to that friendship Boross made a fantastic political career. First as undersecretary in the prime minister’s office and within months as minister of the interior. Once Antall died, he was chosen by his party to become prime minister.

Those of you who would like to learn more about Boross should read my post on him, which includes a brief biography. I also wrote a longer piece in Hungarian for the by-now defunct Galamus. In addition, I discovered a 2002 tongue-in cheek article by Gáspár Miklós Tamás (TGM) titled “An example for the progressive youth.” The conclusion is that Hungary’s former prime minister is a not very smart, reactionary, bigoted, narrow-minded man who was ill-suited for a political career in the first place. But, let’s face it, Hungary’s first democratically elected government was absolutely full of these characters.

The interview appeared in Magyar Hírlap, a far-right paper that is supportive of Fidesz. It was somewhere in the middle of the interview that Tamás Pindroch, a journalist whose views are not far from those of Boross, asked him whether he shares the widely-held view that the would-be immigrants cannot adapt to European norms because of their “cultural differences.” The civilizations where these people are coming from are so different from our own that adjustment is impossible. Of course, we know that this is the view Viktor Orbán holds who, in my opinion, defines “culture” in a very narrow sense. Since he denies that multi-national Hungary was a multi-cultural country, we must assume that for Orbán cultural difference means religious difference, Christian versus Muslim.

Boross, Magyar Hirlap

Boross, as it turned out, doesn’t share that view. Let me quote the crucial sentences:

Today no one dares to say that immigration is not a cultural but an ethnic problem. Namely, millions arrive in Europe whose languages and skin colors are different from those of Europeans. It is important to note that they don’t just come from different cultures but their psychic apparatus, their biological and genetic endowments are different. It is a well-known fact that in Western Europe third-generation immigrants oppose the nations that took them in. What kind of conclusion can we draw from this? If it were simply a question of culture, they should have adjusted a long time ago: they attended school in the countries they live in, they speak the language, they are familiar with the customs and behavior of Europeans. Cultural integration doesn’t work. It hasn’t worked with the Gypsies, although they have lived with us for hundreds of years. In this case, there is not much of a chance that it will work with masses of Muslims who are crossing our borders.

Liberal publications were shocked and condemned Boross for his racist remarks, but Válasz, a pro-Fidesz publication, was also critical. The article argued that after the appearance of this interview, all those who consider people “who don’t welcome the new arrivals with EU flags in hand bigoted and narrow-minded racists” will be able to point to the racist remarks of the former prime minister. Right-wing politicians in the West would never resort to such language. Listing cultural differences is enough for them.

Admittedly, Boross’s racist remarks were shocking, but I wouldn’t ignore some of his other observations which, though they might not touch on sensitive race issues, also manifest an attitude that is not far from the thinking of many Hungarians, politicians and non-politicians alike.

Although Boross covered many topics, I will pick only a couple that I found the most interesting. One such topic was the European Union. A careful reading of the text reveals that, as far as the former prime minister is concerned, Hungary would be much better off if she didn’t belong to the Union. He states that if there were only independent nation states in Europe, “this flood could easily have been stopped.” In what way it would have been easier to handle the problem, he neglects to tell us. But since the existence of the EU is a given, at least its important organizations shouldn’t be situated in Brussels, Strasbourg, and the Hague, which are strongholds of “western left-liberalism.” And since the EU is expanding eastward, it would be logical to change the venue of EU institutions. Somewhere in the former East Germany would be an excellent place.

What should the European Union do with the flood of immigrants? The answer is certainly not a quota system, which would divvy up the immigrants among the member states. What the EU needs is an army. Such an army, together with the military of the United States, should achieve peace by military force in the troubled regions, after which the immigrants can be sent back to where they came from. This joint military effort should be financed “from the money of the Americans because they were the ones who, without any thought for the future, began a war in the region.”

Boross then shared his golden thoughts on the United States. We learn that “the Americans live in a culture of competition without any human content.” When he talks about culture, he warns that the word must be put between shudder quotes because American culture is “the culture of the ‘half-learned'” (félművelt). Then he elaborates.

What I mean is that the Americans reward the stronger over the weaker in every case. In the United States the strong can trample on the weak without any interference. They call their system “absolute democracy.” After they became a superpower, they thought that democracy as it functions at their place will follow the “Arab spring.”… They are intellectually unfit to lead the world. Rome back then was wise because it left the conquered territories in peace and accepted some of the gods of the conquered as their own. Washington does exactly the opposite, it wants to force its own god, democracy, upon the conquered lands. (emphasis mine)

For Péter Boross democracy is something the Americans want to foist on every country, including Hungary. But Boross and his ilk want nothing to do with the god of the Americans, who after all are totally unfit to dictate anything to anyone.

It seems that Boross is right on one point: the United States doesn’t think that Hungarian democracy is thriving under Viktor Orbán. Moreover, it has the temerity to say so. This is the message Secretary of State John Kerry sent on the occasion of Hungary’s national holiday, which will be celebrated tomorrow:

On behalf of President Obama and the citizens of the United States, I offer heartfelt congratulations to the people of Hungary as you commemorate Saint Stephen’s Day this August 20th.

Today, we recall and pay tribute to the rich history of Hungary and to the great unifier, King Stephen I. The United States is proud to have honored his legacy by protecting the Crown of St. Stephen on behalf of the Hungarian people after the Second World War. This day is one of personal significance for me, moreover, as my own paternal grandmother was from Budapest.

The strong and enduring ties that exist between the United States and Hungary can be seen in our shared membership in the NATO Alliance, our mutual support for a sovereign and democratic Ukraine, our thriving economic and trade relationship, and a multitude of familial and cultural connections. To further our common interests, it is vital that we uphold transatlantic values including democracy and good governance, both in our own countries and around the world.

On this special day, the United States wishes the people of Hungary continued peace and a future filled with prosperity and joy.

Foolish, foolish, half-educated Americans still believe in democracy. Although the Americans, according to Boross, trample on the weak and the defenseless, Mr. Kerry most likely would be terribly shocked if he heard that a former prime minister of Hungary and an adviser to the present one thinks that human considerations must be set aside in the current immigration crisis. “Unfortunately, the opposition media, playing on human emotions, show crying children and thus manipulate public opinion. But in this question the fate of our nation takes priority. We must push human considerations into the background in handling this crisis.” Boross doesn’t have to worry. Viktor Orbán’s government has been doing just that for months by now.

What can we learn about U.S.-Hungarian relations from János Lázár?

A huge sigh of relief. Viktor Orbán’s speech in Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad is not worth reporting on. Normally he tests out his latest vision for Hungary on this occasion, but this time there was nothing new in the speech. Although he shares the view of the Hungarian far-right that the current migration of masses of people from the Middle East and Africa resulted from the United States’ invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan and its support of the Arab Spring and although his speech was full of ire against the migrants and those who are using Hungary as an entry point to the European Union, he refused to connect the present European situation to U.S. foreign policy after 9/11. It was a cautious speech and therefore rather dull.

Since I don’t have to waste time on the speech, I can return to yesterday’s topic, János Lázár’s outline of Hungary’s foreign intelligence, which deserves further scrutiny. In the first place, yesterday I couldn’t cover the very lengthy Q&A session, which is an integral part of the whole and without which the picture of the Orbán government’s thinking on foreign affairs is incomplete. Second, yesterday I simply summarized the main points of the testimony without analyzing them. And third, the questions posed by two members of the opposition are excellent examples of political incompetence and even subservience. They show how easy it is for Viktor Orbán to proceed unchecked.

Taking a larger view of the whole speech, including the Q&A period, one is struck by the almost total neglect of Russia, as Professor Charles Gáti in his comment to yesterday’s post rightly pointed out. By contrast, Lázár was preoccupied with the United States. Judging from his references to the U.S., relations between Hungary and the United States are much worse than one would suspect. After all, at the end of January the new U.S. ambassador, Colleen Bell, arrived in Hungary and at the same time a new Hungarian ambassador replaced the rather ineffectual György Szapáry in Washington. The Hungarian government expressed great hope that relations would improve as a result of these changes at the head of the missions.

Well, the differences of opinion between the two countries are not as visible as they were in the stormy autumn months during the tenure of André Goodfriend as chargé d’affaires. Colleen Bell has been smiling a lot. But judging from Lázár’s testimony, relations are frosty. In fact, Lázár used the occasion to send a message to the United States. The Americans must understand, he warned, that Hungary will not tolerate any interference in the country’s internal affairs. There are some countries where the U.S. ambassador acts like a conductor and legislators play the music accordingly. He was most likely thinking of Romania. Well, Hungary is not one of these countries. Lázár admits that this is not “a friendly message,” but this is how it is. He also pointed out that the extensive personnel changes at the foreign ministry were intended “to break personal connections going back thirty years, which worked very well when it came to foreign interests but less so when it involved Hungarian interests.” His message: “this world is coming to an end now.”

Hungarian suspicion of the United States was manifest in the discussion of the alleged harassment of the Hungarian minority in Romania. A careful reading of these passages indicates that the Orbán government suspects that the United States actually encourages the Romanian authorities to act against ethnic Hungarians and against the two main Hungarian denominations: the Catholic and Hungarian Reformed churches.

U.S.-Hungarian relations also came up when Lázár answered a question from Ádám Mirkóczki (Jobbik) about the United States’ intention to send heavy armaments to East-Central Europe and to establish military bases in the region. Mirkóczki wanted to know whether Hungarian intelligence looked into the effect of such an American move on Russian policy. Lázár adopted the well-known Hungarian position of sitting on the fence when it comes to the conflict between Russia and the West, but he added something significant. In a sarcastic tone, he pointed out that “the United States has not favored us with special attention concerning military cooperation with us…. The close cooperation between the United States and Poland and between Romania and the United States is well known. We didn’t get such serious offers or requests. However, we continually weigh the pros and cons of heavy armaments appearing in Central Europe and try to decide how much the presence of such armaments worsens or improves the situation.” When this answer was given, the Hungarian government was most likely already engaged in negotiations over a heavy armament shipment to Hungary.

The national security committee has seven members, three of whom are from opposition parties: the chairman, Zsolt Molnár (MSZP), Bernadett Szél (LMP), and Ádám Mirkóczky (Jobbik). I already summarized Mirkóczky’s question, which was one of the more intelligent ones. After all, Jobbik is a pro-Russian party, and his question had relevance to Jobbik’s views on Russian-U.S. relations.

Bernadett Szél and Zsolt Molnár

Bernadett Szél and Zsolt Molnár

Unfortunately, the performances of Szél and Molnár were less than sterling. Initially, Szél came up with three not very important questions, mostly on issues of domestic importance, that had nothing to do with the topics covered. Lázár’s lengthy answers took up an inordinate amount of time that would have been better spent on questions that actually had something to do with his prepared remarks. But then, as an afterthought, Szél asked a question that showed the affinity between LMP and Lázár when it comes to free trade. LMP is an anti-globalist party with strong anti-capitalist overtones. In addition, they are no friends of the United States. So they are dead set against the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a proposed free trade agreement between the European Union and the United States. In addition, LMP styles itself as a green party, so it decries the use of chemicals in the production of food as well as any methods of handling food that may be harmful to “the Hungarian people.” She wanted to know “how can the Hungarian government, on the one hand, speak loudly about national sovereignty and, on the other, take part in a game that is obviously against the welfare of the Hungarian people.” From Lázár’s answer we learned that there are differences of opinion within Fidesz on the subject of TTIP and that Lázár’s opinion is actually very close to Szél’s.

Then came Chairman Zsolt Molnár (MSZP), who is suspected of being a bit too close to Fidesz. Molnár, like Szél, strayed from the topic at hand and kept talking about capital punishment. He wanted to have an assurance that the question is no longer on the table. But even here the two men found common ground. The Orbán government at the moment is fighting with the European Court of Human Rights over life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The court considers “actual life-imprisonment” inhumane. The Hungarian government thinks it is necessary. Molnár also likes the idea of locking up people for good. Molnár and Lázár also agreed that Hungary’s sending a small contingent to Kurdistan will increase the threat of terrorist attacks on the country. His tentative question on the usefulness of the fence to be built on the Serbian-Hungarian border was answered with the same propaganda one can read everywhere on billboards and was accepted at face value.

Is it any wonder that people hoping for a change in the country don’t trust the current leaders of the democratic opposition?

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

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

János Lázár and enemies all around

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

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

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

enemies

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

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

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

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

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

György Matolcsy found an enemy in The Economist

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

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

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

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

Freedom House is also an enemy of Hungary

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

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

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

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

Kim Lane Scheppele: Hungary and the State of American Democracy

Professor Kim Lane Scheppele of Princeton University doesn’t need an introduction to the readers of  Hungarian Spectrum or to anyone who is interested in Hungarian constitutional law or politics. Here is her take on the hearing held by Dana Rohrabacher, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

* * *

Usually, I write about the dismal state of Hungarian democracy.   But today, I will write about the dismal state of American democracy.

I went to Washington Tuesday to attend the hearing about Hungary before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats. You can see the hearing and read the witness statements for yourselves here.

The hearing had a much higher profile than one might have expected. Fully nine Congressmen showed up and stayed through much of the hearing, which counts as a big turnout on Capitol Hill. In the audience, there was standing room only. Once the hearing began, however, it became obvious that the Democratic and Republican sides of the committee were not evenly matched nor was the committee interested in what the witnesses had to say. The Democratic members of the committee did not really understand why they were there, but the Republican members of the committee had an agenda that they relentlessly pushed for the full three hours.

Republicans hammered home their point that the US is unfairly picking on Hungary because it has a conservative government that adheres to Christian values. Hungary has entrenched in its constitution respect for fetal life, traditional marriage and belief in God, they pointed out, suggesting that the Obama administration was criticizing Hungary because it does not share these commitments. According to committee Republicans, the US ignores worse violations of democratic principles in other countries but, with its criticism of Hungary, has singled out unfairly a country that has been a loyal friend to the US. They argued that the Obama government’s increasingly critical policy toward Hungary is nothing more than a politically motivated campaign. Nothing to worry about in Hungary, they argued — it’s just conservative.

The performance of the American Congress on display at Tuesday’s hearing was not something to be emulated by any other democracy. It started with the disrespectful tone of the hearing toward witnesses – with Republican Subcommittee Chairman Dana Rohrabacher of California leading the way – and continued with the ignorance of the members of Congress who should have known better about the subject of their own hearing. Most shocking of all was the fact that the questions from the House Republicans to critical witnesses were identical to those that have been directed in the past against other critics of the Hungarian government – including me – by representatives of the Hungarian government itself. (For evidence of that these ways of attacking critics are not new and have been the Hungarian government’s line for years, see my earlier responses to those same questions here.

Rohrabacher2

The Republicans followed the Hungarian government’s usual script precisely, which raises questions about how that script was communicated to them. Or maybe members of the subcommittee were really ignorant of the agenda they were pressing, which would be a different sort of scandal. Tuesday’s hearing made it appear that the important House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee had simply offered their space to a foreign government to put on the show it wanted.

In addition, the hearing provided yet another example of Republican congressmen undermining the foreign policy of the Obama administration. In its audacity, the performance of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Tuesday was only a step below the recent incident in which congressional Republicans wrote to the government of Iran to tell them not to negotiate with President Obama because he could not make his word stick. Tuesday’s hearing misrepresented and mocked the concerns of the State Department while Republicans on the subcommittee buried witness Deputy Assistant Secretary Hoyt Yee under a barrage of hostile and irrelevant questions that he could not possibly have anticipated because they required him to discuss other countries that were not on the hearing’s agenda. The committee Republicans seemed to be willing to allow a NATO ally – and a country where the United States has worked hard to promote democracy through multiple presidential administrations of both parties – to slide into autocracy so long as this autocratic government promoted Christian conservative values.

But two important things came out of this hearing – both more consequential over the long-term:

  1. The prepared remarks of DAS Hoyt Yee were more critical than any prior State Department statement has been to date about Hungary. After all, it is the State Department that is charged with articulating US foreign policy, not the House Foreign Affairs Committee, so Yee’s statement represents current policy. It linked Hungarian democratic weaknesses at home to its ability to be a reliable member of NATO: “Since internal weakness invites nefarious influences from the outside, NATO needs all of its members to be internally strong.” That is why the state of Hungary’s democracy will continue to be of concern to the US government.
  2. The Congressional Research Service prepared a report for the hearing, which was extremely critical of Hungary. The CRS has a reputation for being neutral, factual, and non-partisan. The report shows that the “fact assessment” arm of the US Congress has found that Hungary’s critics have truth on their side. This will have a larger influence than anything that the committee members said on Tuesday because it what everyone looking for a neutral source on Hungary’s present condition will cite.

Those are the two important takeaways from the hearing. We should not confuse the embarrassing performances of the members of the committee Tuesday for real US policy, which is moving ever more resolutely toward serious consequences for Hungary.

That said, the hearing was a dismal performance by America’s elected representatives. It appeared to be a victory for the Hungarian government, if only because the belligerent committee chair engaged in frequent monologues so only the Hungarian side of the story – which he presented – actually got out. It was the kind of victory that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán specializes in – bullying, one-sided and mean. It was a demonstration of “gotcha” politics and depressing to see that the Hungarian government’s unfair tactics toward its opponents were transferred in every particular to Republican members of the US Congress who became the ventriloquists’ dummies for the government of Hungary.

For example, one of the witnesses was asked to recite the opening lines of the Hungarian constitution. Not surprisingly, he – being American – did not have the Hungarian constitution committed to memory. So the committee member triumphantly quoted the line: “God Bless the Hungarians.” And then he gave a lecture about how critics objected to the invocation of God, which was for him evidence of that the attacks of Hungary were politically motivated.

Actually, virtually all of the criticism of this opening line of the Hungarian constitution focuses on the fact that the constitution uses the word for “Hungarians” that covers only ethnic Hungarians and not all citizens of the country. So the constituent power invoked in the constitutional preamble fails to include Jews, Roma and members of other ethnic groups who are Hungarian citizens while it also includes ethnic Hungarians outside the territory who are not even citizens. That is why this statement raised red flags to many of us – not because it mentioned God. But the committee did not seem to have a clue about this issue.

Former Hungarian ambassador to the US, András Simonyi did a masterful job Tuesday holding his own as a witness in a show-trial-like situation. He focused on the Hungarian government’s refusal to recognize any limits on its powers and the way its non-transparent deals with Russia threatened to undermine European alliances, including the EU and NATO. Tad Stahnke from Human Rights First eventually got Chairman Rohrabacher to look a bit less sure of himself by mentioning the Hungarian government’s attacks on churches, which the congressman did not seem to know anything about (despite the fact that many of his colleagues signed a letter to the Hungarian government in 2011 protesting the cancellation of the legal status of hundreds of religious organizations and backing up the State Department concerns on this issue).

Chairman Rohrabacher got many of his facts wrong, and many dangerously so, but, since he controlled the chair, no witness could challenge them.For example, he denied all evidence of officially stoked anti-Semitism in Hungary, following the Hungarian government’s line that it is open-minded and tolerant while only the far-right Jobbik party is anti-Semitic. In response to an attempt by witness Tad Stahnke from Human Rights First to explain that the Hungarian government is rewriting Hungarian history through monuments, textbooks and museums to say that the Germans alone were responsible for the Holocaust in Hungary, Rohrabacher mocked the witness and pointed to the existence of open synagogues as the only evidence that was necessary to show that charges of anti-Semitism are baseless.

Chairman Rohrabacher was oblivious of the fact that surveys show levels of anti-Semitism in Hungary and a fear on the part of many Jews in Hungary about their futures there. He also didn’t seem to know that 30 of his Jewish colleagues in the US Congress had written a letter to Prime Minister Orbán protesting the Hungarian government’s rewriting of history again backing up the State Department’s expressed concerns. Chairman Rohrabacher’s denial that Jews in Hungary have reason to be alarmed was not a particularly good demonstration of his solicitude toward religion – or his colleagues.

The hearing made apparent that the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee was living in a parallel universe in which they got to invent their own facts. They paid no attention to the Congressional Research Service report and its careful findings. The three Republican congressmen that stayed throughout the whole hearing (Chairman Rohrabacher and Republican members Randy Weber and Ted Poe from Texas) denied evidence about growing authoritarianism and intolerance in Hungary, which turned the representatives’ description of Hungary into something like the fact-denying opinions of some of their party colleagues on climate change, economic policy and more. Stephen Colbert used to say that “reality has a well-known liberal bias” which is what these committee members seemed to believe. And so they were having none of it.

In fact, Chairman Rohrabacher and his allies on the committee did even worse than engage in denying facts that the Congress’ own research arm established. They followed the script used by the Hungarian government to bash its critics, literally repeating the same questions, the same comparisons and the same defenses of Hungary that I have heard many times from members of the Hungarian government itself.

I was in the audience, but only the official witnesses were allowed to speak. So let me give Chairman Rohrabacher some answers to his questions, given that he did not extend the courtesy to the witnesses to do so. By now I know all about these questions, since Hungarian officials have asked me the very same questions so often.

Chairman Rohrabacher argued that the Obama Administration has singled out Hungary for criticism even though it is no different than many of the US’s allies. He asserted that the UK has no more “checks and balances” than Hungary has – so why pick on Hungary? (The UK is the Hungarian government’s favorite example, too.) But can he really know so little about the government of both places? Yes, the UK has many more checks and balances than Hungary. While the UK, like Hungary, has a parliamentary system in which the parliament elects the prime minister, it also has an upper house – unlike Hungary – as well as a fiercely independent judiciary – unlike Hungary. And it has well-functioning independent accountability offices that can call the government to heel, unlike Hungary. Plus the UK has a robust party system with real choices, a free media and a strong and independent civil society, unlike Hungary. It’s a ridiculous comparison.

Chairman Rohrabacher, backed by Congressman Weber, then argued that Bulgaria and Romania were more or less in the same league, democratically speaking, as Hungary, but they badgered DAS Yee about why the US wasn’t also picking on them. They should have known that both Bulgaria and Romania were let into the EU with asterisks. Neither country fully complied with EU criteria upon entry and both are still under the supervision of the EU Cooperation and Verification Mechanism to ensure their continued progress toward EU standards, which they have not yet met. Hungary, which sailed through without question into the EU more than 10 years ago, should not be in the same league with Bulgaria and Romania because it started off much farther ahead in its democratic performance. The congressmen were right that Hungary is no longer clearly ahead of Bulgaria and Romania, but the comparison is misleading. It’s not, unfortunately, because Bulgaria and Romania have gotten so much better. Instead it is because Hungary has gotten dramatically worse. Since when is an exit by one of its allies from the family of unproblematic democracies of no concern to the US government?

Chairman Rohrabacher also excused the current Hungarian government for gerrymandering the last election because gerrymandering happens in the US too. Yes, both countries gerrymander, but there are big differences between the gerrymanders. In Hungary, a single party gerrymandered the whole country at once, with absolutely no input from any opposition party; in the US, gerrymanders in national elections happen at the state level so there is variation in who captures the process across the country. Plus it is a violation of American election law to exclude all opposition parties from the process of districting, which is precisely what happened in Hungary. In Hungary, there is no judicial review of the district maps to check for unduly self-serving gerrymanders; in the US, court review of districting is routine. Not all gerrymanders are the same. Yes, the US is bad on this – but Hungary is far worse.

Chairman Rohrabacher seems to believe that the US and Hungary both single out politicians for unfair treatment when they are in opposition. If he thinks his party is badly treated under a Democratic administration, I wonder what he would think of being in a parliament where an opposition party would have no chance to introduce bills, make amendments, or even debate most proposals of the government – and where they cannot even see the bills far enough ahead of time to know what they contain before the governing party calls the vote to pass them. Or where any attempt to protest the exclusion of opposition legislators from participation in the legislative process comes with hefty fines against individual members who try to make their views known. I suspect he would think that that was a different world.

I could go on, but you get the picture. The performance of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Tuesday was shameful. The committee allowed itself to be used to parrot the views of the Hungarian government and in so doing, showed what dreadful shape American democratic institutions are in.

U.S.-Hungarian rapprochement? I doubt it

Ever since the arrival of Colleen Bell, the new U.S. ambassador to Hungary, and the departure of M. André Goodfriend from Budapest, hopes have been high in government circles that U.S.-Hungarian relations will be on the mend. The general impression is that the United States has realized that Viktor Orbán is here to stay and the Americans better make peace with him. Orbán himself is convinced of this, and therefore it is unlikely that he is planning to change his policy toward the United States. The new ambassador’s considerable charm only supports this interpretation. Lots of smiles, lots of appearances, lots of flattering remarks about the greatness of Hungarian culture and the beauty of the country.

Viktor Orbán figures that the United States, for lack of a better alternative, is forced to cooperate with him. Of course, he tries to sweeten the bitter pill by leaking information about alleged business offers for American companies, from Sikorsky helicopters to Westinghouse’s participation in the Paks project. The government even suggested that they would be willing to join anti-ISIS forces in Iraq and Syria. How serious that offer was is questionable. The government pulled back on it because of “the opposition parties’ objections.” But since when has Fidesz ever cared about the opinion of the opposition parties? Meanwhile, the courting of the new ambassador began, which Népszabadság described as a “charm offensive.”

Colleen Bell in Budapest

Colleen Bell in Budapest

In any case, the government is optimistic while domestic critics of the government are deeply worried. They believe the government’s propaganda about the greatly improved relations between the United States and Hungary, which they interpret as the American abandonment of Hungarian democracy. They are certain that Goodfriend’s departure was the first step toward U.S.-Hungarian rapprochement, which will be followed by, if not a a full-blown friendship, American tolerance of Orbán’s anti-democratic policies.

Hungarian comments on articles about U.S.-Hungarian relations accuse Washington of trading Hungarian democracy for business interests. They compare Colleen Bell to her predecessor, whom they considered a clueless woman who was charmed off her feet by the cunning Viktor Orbán. Orbán, who already met Bell at a private party, will meet her officially on the 17th. I’m sure that the U.S. ambassador will be gracious, and I predict the anti-Orbán forces will interpret her words as a sign that the United States is caving in to Viktor Orbán. As they usually say: “You see, he always wins. Western politicians are easily fooled. They are naive.”

Most likely I’m among the few who are much more cautious when passing judgment on the current state of affairs between Washington and Budapest. Clearly, it is to the advantage of the Hungarian government to give the impression that the only reason for the strained relations between the two countries was the way Goodfriend handled his job. But as Thomas Melia, deputy assistant secretary of state, reiterated when he visited Budapest a few days ago, Goodfriend was simply following the policies of the State Department, to everybody’s satisfaction. And although Bell may smile a lot more often than Goodfriend did, Bell herself, between friendly gestures, also delivers Washington’s message. She announced that she will follow Goodfriend’s practice of meeting a wide variety of people, including the opposition leaders. She made it clear that in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, Hungary’s place should be with the West and not Russia. She talked about the rule of law, independent democratic institutions, checks and balances, free elections, and an active civil society.

There are signs, as we learned from Gábor Horváth’s editorial in Népszabadág, that the Orbán government is retreating on several fronts. László Szabó, undersecretary of the ministry of foreign relations and trade, told Melia that Hungary wants to diversify its energy supply and stressed Hungary’s commitment to the territorial integrity of Ukraine. A few weeks ago another undersecretary of the ministry, István Mikola, categorically announced that Hungary will veto the transatlantic free trade agreement. But the Orbán government changed its mind and most likely will sign the agreement, in whatever form it is eventually passed.

The question is whether American officials can be convinced that the Hungarian promises are credible or whether they will be remain suspicious that the present moves are just part of the same old peacock dance. I think that by now very few American or European politicians believe that Viktor Orbán will change, and therefore I doubt that throwing a few bones to state department officials will convince the Obama administration to radically alter its attitude toward Viktor Orbán’s illiberal state.

Attila Ara-Kovács, DK’s foreign policy expert, wrote a few days ago that the Orbán regime is “a closed system” in which foreign policy is an integral part of the whole. In his opinion, no fundamental change in foreign policy orientation is possible because otherwise the whole system would collapse. I’m inclined to agree with Ara-Kovács and therefore find Zsolt Németh’s hopes for a drastic reorientation of foreign policy illusory. Zsolt Németh, one of the founders of Fidesz who served Viktor Orbán as undersecretary of foreign affairs between 1998 and 2002 and again between 2010 and 2014, as an insider is unable to see that the disagreement between Washington and Budapest is not the result of “a misunderstanding” that can be ironed out. No, the differences are fundamental, and Viktor Orbán will never follow Németh’s suggestions for the very reasons Ara-Kovács outlined in his opinion piece.

Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs, will visit Budapest at the end of March. She was described by one of the Hungarian internet sites as “Orbán’s American bogey.” We’ll see how successful one of the undersecretaries of the Hungarian ministry of foreign affairs and trade will be in convincing Nuland, who is known as a tough cookie.

As for the Hungarian government’s overwhelmingly positive assessment of Colleen Bell, just today I saw the first signs of disapproval from Zsolt Bayer, the notorious journalist working for Magyar Hírlap. Colleen Bell asked for suggestions from Hungarians about the best way to learn about Hungary and Hungarians. According to Bayer, there was an excellent opportunity to learn something about the country but Bell missed it. On February 25 Hungary remembers the “victims of communism,” and for that day the House of Terror invited her to take a look at the exhibit. She would have had the opportunity to receive a guided tour of “one of the best museums in Europe.” But the ambassador didn’t even respond to the invitation.

That was bad enough, but she committed an unforgivable sin. On the very day of the victims of communism, she paid a visit to the Holocaust Museum where, with the top leaders of the museum, “she discussed the timely questions and fields of possible cooperation” between the United States and the Holocaust Museum. “On that day the ambassador shouldn’t have gone there. There are thousands and thousands of reasons for that, but let’s not talk about them now.” Bayer expressed his hope that Bell will visit the House of Terror next year on that day “in order to learn something about an era about which she knows nothing.”

There’s plenty of time for history lessons. For now, Bell has enough on her plate representing American interests and not becoming a victim herself, of the charm offensive.

Viktor Orbán continues his fight at home and abroad

Although Prime Minister Viktor Orbán most likely harbors a deep-seated antipathy toward the United States, he and his party have borrowed liberally from U.S. politics. Perhaps most important, they copied American campaign practices. The much criticized “Kubatov lists,” named after Gábor Kubatov, the successful Fidesz campaign manager, are an adaptation of door-to-door campaigns aimed at mobilizing the party’s electoral base. It is this kind of American-style campaigning that has been a key ingredient in Fidesz’s remarkable performance in national and local elections. And Fidesz normally hires American spin doctors every time they are in political trouble. Like now.

Another U.S. borrowing, again adapted to Hungarian circumstances, is Viktor Orbán’s “assessment of year” (évértékelő). It is normally delivered in February, hosted by an association whose activities are pretty well limited to organizing this event. This is the seventeenth time that Viktor Orbán addresses a crowd of invited guests. Everybody who is anybody in Fidesz circles is present on these occasions. Orbán delivers these speeches whether in office or in opposition.

The excitement preceding this annual event has subsided considerably over the years, and the content of the speeches has become correspondingly shallow. In the past Orbán was often interrupted by enthusiastic applause, but this time, just as last year, the audience was less appreciative. Orbán is good at keeping interest alive by telling a few jokes, which were still appreciated, but aside from the jokes the audience reacted positively to only a few of his announcements. One was “placing Hungary on the political map of Europe.” The other time his audience was fired up was when he called for a tightening of the ranks of the political right by gathering everyone under one flag (egy a tábor, egy a zászló). This is a slogan Orbán often uses when he urges his followers to fight harder for the success of Fidesz and his dreams.

The speech gave an account of the fantastic successes achieved in the last five years. I will leave a critique of his often false and/or misleading economic data to others. Here I will concentrate on some of the political aspects of the speech.

I suspected that Gábor G. Fodor’s “analysis” of Viktor Orbán’s Machiavellian political philosophy–that “polgári Magyarország” is “simply a political product”–would be received with great dismay in the Fidesz leadership. But it looks as if G. Fodor caused an even deeper wound than I thought. Both Zoltán Balog, president of the host organization and minister of human resources, and Viktor Orbán spent a considerable amount of time trying to refute G. Fodor’s contention. Both men emphasized that the ideal of “polgári Magyarország” is a core value in Fidesz’s political philosophy. They believe in “polgári, national, and Christian governance.” Balog expressed his fear that these “too clever by half” analysts will mislead the true believers. Viktor Orbán picked up on the theme at the very beginning of his speech, expressing his opinion that these analysts will not be able to “confuse people” because “our flag flies high and everybody can see that our lodestar is the idea of “polgári Magyarország.” G. Fodor’s unthinking slip hurt deeply and is being taken seriously because many people believe, not without reason, that he is telling the truth.

"Hungary is becoming stronger!"

“Hungary is becoming stronger!”

It was expected that Orbán would talk about his  foreign policy strategy since it is widely believed that his moves in the last year or so have led the country into isolation. Some people argued that Orbán, especially after the debacle in Warsaw, would realize that he cannot straddle East and West and will have to choose. Well, as far as I can see, Orbán will continue his policies. He repeated his worn-out ideas about a world that had become so fundamentally different after 2008 that the old methods of economics, politics, and diplomacy no longer worked. The European leaders have no answers for these problems. Hungary, however, has its own solutions. He will lead Hungary into a secure position in an insecure world. He has developed a “new foreign policy doctrine.” In fact, Hungarians “already live in a future that others are only trying to reach.” I do hope that those who mistakenly thought that Viktor Orbán would abandon his destructive, dangerous foreign policy will realize that the double game between Russia and the West will continue unabated.

At the end of the speech he felt compelled to say something about the loss of the electoral district in Veszprém County, which shook even the most loyal commentators. The right-wing papers ran editorials in which they urged the party leadership to change course. They claimed that the behavior of the most important government and party leaders is repugnant to the electorate. The party has to do something about corruption and rein in the high living of people like János Lázár, Péter Szijjártó, and Antal Rogán. Moreover, there are just too many recent government decisions that irritate people. Something must be done.

The editorials in right-wing papers fell on deaf ears. No change in governance is necessary, the prime minister said. The only task is “to fight harder” because the party faithful has to prevent the socialists from unseating Fidesz. After all, the socialists were the ones who “stole the country blind.” He and his followers believed that after achieving such a great victory the second time around last year “peaceful times were coming,” but it was just a dream. The opposition will wage a continuous “negative campaign” for the next three years. One must “fight for the polgári Magyarország every day.” And instead of his customary “Hajrá Magyarország, hajrá magyarok!” (which means something like “to the finish Hungary, to the finish Hungarians”) this time he ended with “Good morning Hungary, good morning Hungarians!” This was a meant as a wake-up call. He is determined to convince his followers, former and present, that the fight will be worth it.

Viktor Orbán’s dangerous games

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Orban

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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