Tag Archives: Victor Ponta

Donald Trump’s victory made Orbán “the man” in Europe

The study of Hungarian politics can take you to the most unexpected places. Here is, for example, a lengthy interview of Viktor Orbán by Gábor G. Fodor, Hungary’s modern Machiavelli and the recently appointed editor-in-chief of 888.hu, a fiercely pro-government tabloid. The title of the interview is shocking enough: “Ki a faszagyerek?—Orbán Viktor.” It sent me to a slang dictionary to be sure of the meaning of “faszagyerek.” Probably the closest translation would be “swinging dick,” but I wasn’t happy using that phrase in the title of this post. And so, from the slang dictionary I moved on to the American film industry, where I learned that a 2005 movie titled “The Man” is called in the Hungarian dubbed version “A faszagyerek.” Good enough. “The man” he is. G. Fodor must have loved the picture or its character because he has a whole series of “faszagyerekek”–for example, Zsolt Bayer, István Tarlós, and, of all people, Connie Mack. By the end of the interview, we learn from Orbán that his own “faszagyerek” is Öcsi Puskás. Who else?

Some Hungarian observers consider this interview to be as important as Orbán’s infamous “illiberal speech” in Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad on July 26, 2014. That speech made an incredible splash at the time. Western politicians and members of the media began to understand that Viktor Orbán is a man with dangerous ideas and intentions. I doubt that this interview will create the same worldwide sensation for the simple reason that by now the Hungarian prime minister is widely identified as the “pocket Putin.” So his plans to expel the few remaining NGOs from Hungary will not come as a surprise.

Because this is the main message of the interview. The outcome of the U.S. presidential election has emboldened Orbán. He is sure that his time has come and that his vision of Europe will prevail. He is planning to fight the old order with Trump behind him, cheering him on.

Trump’s name came up early in the interview, with Orbán introducing him into the conversation in connection with the “intellectual excitement” that exists in Fidesz, “which comes not from school learning but from character.” This, he said, establishes “some kind of kinship with the just elected American president” in whom “one can sense the mentality of the self-made man.” Just as “Fidesz is a self-made story.”

Using this spurious “self-made” analogy, Orbán found it easy to link the new United States and Hungary. The old European political elite, who no longer have answers to today’s challenges, look upon Trump as they look upon him, except that the United States is larger and therefore they consider Trump more dangerous.

Note Donald Trump’s picture on the wall of 888.hu’s editorial office

In the past Orbán always refrained from verbal attacks on the United States. He left that job to Péter Szijjártó and the journalists running the state media. But now, with the wind of a new era in Washington at his back, he openly complained about Democratic foreign policy not just toward Hungary but toward all Central European countries. American diplomats believe that in this region there are only two kinds of leaders: one kind is corrupt, the other is Putin’s man. Or perhaps both at the same time. Therefore, they have considered it their business to interfere. Their method has been “soft power, which is not just a theory but a devious action plan.” According to Orbán, this American “soft power” has been implemented through NGOs, foundations, civic organizations, and the media. The American government has believed, at least until now, that this “action plan” could be realized through George Soros.

First, a few words about “soft power,” which is not exactly a new concept. Joseph Nye of Harvard University coined it in 1990 and developed it further in a 2004 book, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. The idea behind “soft power” is that, instead of coercion, a smart government uses persuasion. “Soft power is the ability to shape the preferences of others through appeal and attraction…. The currency of soft power is culture, political values, and foreign policies.”

This is exactly what Orbán objects to when he criticizes the few civic organizations that act as defenders of human rights and democratic values. He is certain that the time has come to go against the Soros foundations with full force because Soros has “activated” himself against Trump’s plans to change the American political landscape. After all, it was only about a month ago that Politico reported that “George Soros and other rich liberals who spent tens of millions of dollars trying to elect Hillary Clinton are gathering in Washington for a three-day, closed-door meeting to retool the big-money left to fight back against Donald Trump.” After Trump is firmly ensconced in the White House, it will be safe to put an end to all those hated foundations in Hungary that day after day complain about the undemocratic nature of his regime.

During the discussion of Soros’s NGOs and their role as transmitters of American soft power Orbán brought up the Romanian elections in which, according to him, there were no anti-Hungarian voices because the Romanian socialists realized that it’s not the Hungarians who are the enemy but George Soros. “The winners campaigned against the Soros regime; the real opposition is not the small, inconsequential parties but the NGOs and foundations supported by Soros.”

I’m not familiar enough with Romanian affairs to pass judgment, but I am not aware of strong anti-American feelings in that country. On the contrary. However, I did find one article describing an interview that Victor Ponta, the former prime minister, gave to a publication called Stiri pe surse—Cele main oi stiri. There he explained why he had adopted an anti-Soros stance. His reasons seem to be identical to those of Viktor Orbán. Soros through his foundations produces “a certain type of people, pseudo-pseudo democrats for whom other countries’ interests are more important than the interests of Romania.” Doesn’t it sound familiar? How widespread this kind of thinking is among Romanian politicians I can’t say.

In Orbán’s opinion, all governments would do well to get rid of Soros’s foundations. “One can feel that already. They will find out where these monies are coming from, what kinds of connections exist with what kinds of secret service organizations, and what kinds of NGOs represent what kinds of interests.”

In addition to his plans for silencing the NGOs, Orbán sees other opportunities for next year. He is “convinced that 2017 will be the year of revolt, but it is another story whether the evil status quo politicians will repress these revolts or not. In Austria they managed to stop a successful march toward the radical right by rejecting Norbert Hofer as the future president of the country. But in Italy and the United States they couldn’t. Next year there will be elections in Germany, the Netherlands, and France. “A lot of things can happen.” Here Orbán clearly identifies his own party with far right parties: Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) of Frauke Petry, Front National (FN) of Marine Le Pen, and the Partij voor de Vrighelheid (PVV) of Geert Wilders. Orbán is keeping fingers crossed for these ultra-radical parties. I don’t know how often I have to repeat: Orbán’s Fidesz is a far-right radical party which is striving to turn Hungary into a one-party dictatorship.

December 17, 2016

Romanian-Hungarian relations: Ethnic strife and corruption

The first Orbán government, between 1998 and 2002, managed to alienate practically all of its neighbors, so the past five years can be viewed as something of an improvement. Budapest now proudly claims to have excellent relations with Slovakia and Serbia. Relations with Croatia are less rosy, and as far as Romania is concerned, the two countries’ relationship is outright disastrous. Viktor Orbán of Hungary and Victor Ponta of Romania have never officially met. I don’t know about Orbán, but Ponta said that he has no intention of meeting face to face with his Hungarian namesake.

There are several reasons for the strained relations between the two countries, chief among them the Orbán government’s constant interference in the affairs of the large Hungarian minority in Romania. There exists an ethnic Hungarian party in Romania, Romániai Magyar Demokrata Szövetség (RMDSZ) or Uniunea Democrată Maghiară din România (Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania), which since 1996 has often been part of the government. RMDSZ is a right-of-center party whose leaders always had better relations with Fidesz than with the socialist-liberal governments. For many years the chairman of the party was Béla Markó, a poet of some renown. In 2011 he was followed by Hunor Kelemen, another writer. I don’t follow Hungarian ethnic politics in Romania, but my impression is that Kelemen has much closer ties with the current Hungarian government than his predecessor did. Moreover, while Markó used to be proud of his party’s achievements as far as the rights of the Hungarian minority were concerned, Kelemen is much more critical of Bucharest and often harshly criticizes Romanian minority policies. Only a few days ago he complained to the president of the Venice Commission, Gianni Buquicchio, about the grievances of the Hungarian minority. Kelemen reproached the Venice Commission for praising Romania’s minority policy without consulting with RMDSZ, the representative of that minority.

But there are other issues of more recent vintage. One is Viktor Orbán’s pro-Russian policy, which Romania, boxed in between a less than friendly Russia on the east and a pro-Russian Hungary on the west, disapproves of. Another matter that divides the two countries is that while Hungary has been pursuing a less than friendly foreign policy toward the United States and is a very unwilling participant in the trans-atlantic alliance, Romania wholeheartedly supports it. From the vantage point of Brussels and Washington, Romania is a country that is heading in the right direction while Hungary is not.

In the last few years there were relatively few meetings between the Romanian and Hungarian foreign ministers. The last time a Hungarian foreign minister visited Bucharest was in 2013. Last February Romanian foreign minister Titus Corlățean was in Budapest, but it was not an official visit. He came to meet the foreign ministers of the Visegrád Four.

But now Foreign Minister Bogdan Aurescu came to Budapest on official business. He and his Hungarian counterpart, Péter Szijjártó, were supposed to sign a memorandum on minorities: Hungarians in Romania and Romanians in Hungary. According to the 2011 census there are 1,227,623 Hungarians in Romania and 35,641 Romanians in Hungary. Although apparently both sides wanted to sign the memorandum, at the end the two foreign ministers couldn’t agree on any of the ethnic issues. During the meeting they did sign some agreements on roads to be built and the opening of border crossings, but the ethnic issues seemed to be insurmountable. According to vs.hu, an internet news site, Zsolt Semjén, deputy prime minister in charge of minority policies, put pressure on Szijjártó not to move an inch on certain issues.

Bogdan Aurescu and Péter Szijjártó / MTI-MTVA / Photo: Tibor Illyés

Bogdan Aurescu and Péter Szijjártó / MTI-MTVA / Photo: Tibor Illyés

One topic that came up in the conversation will add to the poisonous relations between the two countries. That is the case of Attila Markó, a Romanian-Hungarian politician, who is currently sought after by Interpol and who is hiding in Budapest. And that takes us to the Romanian Anticorruption Directorate (Direcţia Naţională Anticorupţie/DNA) and its fearless prosecutor, Laura Codruța Kövesi.

I first read about her in a fairly lengthy New York Times article. Although DNA was originally established by the Romanian government in 2003 to placate the European Union, apparently the Romanians never meant it to be a serious corruption-fighting agency. Once Kövesi took over, however, things changed radically. Since 2013 several very important Romanian politicians have been charged and found guilty, including former prime minister Adrian Năstase and Dan Voiculescu, a politician and businessman who received a 10-year jail term for money laundering.

DNA became interested in Attila Markó, a member of the Romanian parliament and earlier undersecretary in charge of minority affairs. Markó was a member of the committee responsible for the restitution for confiscated property during Romania’s communist period. According to the charge, Markó and seven other members of the committee overpaid the claimants to the tune of 85 million euros. Markó in an interview with András Stumpf of Mandiner expressed his distrust of the Romanian justice system. In addition, he claimed that “the Romanian state is using the fight against corruption to decapitate the Hungarian political elite. To date there were too few Hungarians among those arrested.” So, Markó wants to make an ethnic issue out of a possible corruption case.

Of course, I have no idea whether Markó is innocent or guilty, but his claim that DNA is after him because of his ethnicity doesn’t ring true. After all, all eight members of this particular committee have been charged, and surely not all of them are Hungarians. Moreover, Laura Kövesi (née Laura Lascu) has lived all her life in near proximity of Hungarians. She was born in the county seat of Kovászna/Kovasna County, a predominantly Hungarian town in the middle of the Szekler region of Transylvania. She attended law school in Cluj/Kolozsvár, which also has a fairly large Hungarian population. And finally, judging from the name by which she is known today, she is or was married to a Hungarian. So, all in all, I doubt that Markó’s accusation is well founded.

Markó’s name apparently came up during the negotiations between Bogdan Aurescu and Péter Szijjártó. The Romanian foreign minister asked his colleague to inform the appropriate authorities about the international warrant issued for the arrest of Attila Markó, but Szijjártó refused to get involved, claiming that the foreign ministry has no authority in such matters.

I’m certain that we will hear the name of Attila Markó in the coming months because I doubt that the Hungarian authorities will extradite Markó to Romania. The Orbán government, which already has the reputation of doing nothing to combat the rampant corruption in Hungary, will now be in the unenviable position of harboring an allegedly corrupt politician from Romania.

Assistant Undersecretary Victoria Nuland’s keynote address at the 2014 U.S.-Central Europe Strategy Forum

Yesterday Victoria Nuland,  assistant undersecretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, delivered the keynote address at a conference organized by the Center for European Policy Analysis’s U.S.-Central Europe Strategy Forum. Just as the conference was winding down, I published a short summary of  the relevant passages of her speech that were addressed in part to Viktor Orbán and his government. She mentioned neither Orbán nor Hungary by name, but everybody in the audience knew whom she was talking about.

I consider her speech to be so important that I decided to republish itAfter all, few people will bother to search the U.S. State Department’s website for the text of Nuland’s speech. The couple of sentences devoted to the Hungarian government’s harassment of NGOs by President Bill Clinton or the remark by President Obama on the same topic were limited in scope. On the other hand, Victoria Nuland’s short speech outlines U.S. positions on vital issues concerning the East-Central European region and contains criticism of an unnamed politician whose domestic and foreign policies fail to meet with the approval of the United States. This politician is described as one who, among other things, pushes illiberal democracy and cuts dirty energy deals. Only one politician fits the bill: Viktor Orbán. 

* * *

Keynote at the 2014 U.S.-Central Europe Strategy Forum

Victoria Nuland
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs

stateThank you, Wess, for that introduction. It’s good to be here with you today with Minister Lajcak. Like me, Miro is still recovering from UNGA, the “World Cup” of diplomacy; or as we like to say at State: the diplomatic equivalent of speed dating. Our thanks to CEPA for your great work to strengthen our transatlantic bond with Central Europe. In just 9 years, CEPA has become the “go-to” think tank in Washington for those who care about a democratic, prosperous, secure Central Europe.

This fall, as we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, we are also reminded that two and a half decades ago, the countries of Central Europe inspired the world by seizing a moment of hope and transforming it into freedom and opportunity for tens of millions of people.

Across Central Europe, citizens stood up for the right to hold free elections; they built strong, independent institutions; and fostered civil society and a vibrant media.

They did the hard work of reforming their economies, stabilizing currencies, privatizing inefficient industries, opening up labor markets, and welcoming foreign investment. In short, they restored liberal democracy to the heart of the continent.

And they proved the skeptics wrong. In successive waves of NATO and EU enlargement 5, 10 and 15 years ago, they extended the boundaries of our Euro-Atlantic family and the values it represents.

We live in a better world because the countries of Central Europe chose the path of a Europe whole, free and at peace 25 years ago. But today that choice is under threat, and Central Europe is once again on the frontline in the fight to protect our security and values. And today, that fight is once again both external and internal.

Let’s look at these in turn.

First, the external threats: President Obama said in New York last week Russia’s aggression in Ukraine threatens to take us back to the days when large countries could trample small ones at will. Because the countries of Central Europe understand the danger better than most, almost all of them have been among the strongest and most generous in support of Ukraine’s right to choose its own future, and live in a more democratic, clean, free and prosperous country.

They have offered assistance and advice to Ukraine, security support, and even, as Slovakia has done, reversed the flow of gas to help fill Ukraine’s winter storage tanks. And most have been strong advocates inside the EU for the sanctions the Transatlantic community has put on Russia for its actions.

Today we must maintain that solidarity with Ukraine and unity within the Transatlantic community. Implementing sanctions isn’t easy and many countries are paying a steep price. We know that. But history shows that the cost of inaction and disunity in the face of a determined aggressor will be higher. The history of Central Europe itself teaches us that. So when leaders are tempted to make statements that tear at the fabric of our resolve, I would ask them to remember their own national history, and how they wished their neighbors had stood with them.

Ukraine is working hard to promote peace and change to meet its people’s expectations. It is fulfilling its commitments under the September 5 Minsk agreement—it passed amnesty legislation, a special status law for the east, and is working with Russia to demarcate the special status zone.

Now Russia and its proxies must do their part – withdraw their forces and all the heavy weapons that have flooded the east, restore Ukrainian sovereignty on the international border, withdraw heavy weapons there too, and return all the hostages—notably, including Nadiya Savchenko and Oleg Sentsov. When the Minsk agreement is fully implemented, we can and will begin to roll back some sanctions. It is in Russia’s hands when that day comes.

Every country in the CEPA space has made tough sacrifices. And as you stand with Ukraine, we stand with you. The United States’ commitment to NATO’s Article 5 is unwavering. As President Obama said at Tallinn, “we will defend our NATO Allies, and that means every Ally.” Our allies, in turn, are working to fulfill the pledge they made at Wales to reverse the decline in defense spending.

Even as we stand against Russia’s threat to Ukraine’s European choice, we must recognize that ISIL’s threat to our security, prosperity and values is also real, also immediate. Even in the Euro-Atlantic space, nobody’s immune. That’s why today the nations of Central Europe are joining the global coalition to degrade and destroy ISIL’s terrorism, contributing ammunition, training, humanitarian assistance and countering ISIL’s hateful ideology. All of us must do more to harden the Transatlantic space and make it a “no-go” zone for ISIL recruitment and finance.

When we pass anti-terror laws to keep our citizens from joining the fight, whether that fight is in Rakka or Luhansk, it is our values and way of life we are protecting: rule of law, state sovereignty, peace and security, individual human rights and dignity.

And just as we work together to defend our values externally, we must fortify them internally. In Central Europe today, I would argue, the internal threats to democracy and freedom are just as worrying. Across the region, the twin cancers of democratic backsliding and corruption are threatening the dream so many have worked for since 1989. And even as they reap the benefits of NATO and EU membership, we find leaders in the region who seem to have forgotten the values on which these institutions are based.

So today I ask their leaders: How can you sleep under your NATO Article 5 blanket at night while pushing “illiberal democracy” by day; whipping up nationalism; restricting free press; or demonizing civil society! I ask the same of those who shield crooked officials from prosecution; bypass parliament when convenient; or cut dirty deals that increase their countries’ dependence on one source of energy despite their stated policy of diversification.

As President Obama noted, oppressive governments are sharing “worst practices to weaken civil society.” They are creating wormholes that undermine their nations’ security, freedom and prosperity. The countries of Central Europe—through the EU and nationally—must remain vigilant. We can only be strong when we protect political pluralism, civil society and the right to dissent within our own borders; when our governments are clean, transparent and accountable to the people they serve.

For more than 20 years, Central Europe has been the canary in the coal mine for the promise of a Europe whole, free and at peace. The example set by the countries of this region has also inspired others around the world that they, too, can fight for democracy, free markets, rule of law and human dignity. As the President said in Warsaw in June, “The blessings of liberty must be earned and renewed by every generation – including our own.” We must renew our commitment today – to our citizens and to each other; at home and around the world. We are stronger together, and many around the world who crave the same freedom we enjoy are depending on us.

* * * 

What was the reaction in Budapest to this very harsh criticism of Viktor Orbán and his regime? The spokeswoman of the Hungarian Ministry of Trade and Foreign Affairs told journalists that, according to Péter Szijjártó, “the people of Central Europe have suffered under communist dictatorship and fought for their freedom and for the reunification of Europe.” The region is inhabited by freedom-loving people who surely wouldn’t allow their freedom to be curtailed. Hungary looks upon the United States as a friend and “our alliance is rock solid.”

Interestingly enough, the speech was also the topic of political debate in Romania. According to the Romanian Social Democratic Party, Victoria Nuland’s remarks were addressed only to the Hungarian prime minister. Prime Minister Victor Ponta stated that it was surely not Romania that harassed the NGOs. It was the Hungarian government that limited freedom of the media. It was Hungary that stopped sending gas to Ukraine, and it is Viktor Orbán who has a unique relationship with Vladimir Putin. Romania supports Moldova and Ukraine and helps its neighbors with their energy needs. President Traian Băsescu, a political opponent of Victor Ponta, thinks otherwise. He is certain that Nuland was also talking about Romania, especially when she referred to corruption as a threat to national security. 

In my opinion the bulk of the criticism was directed at Hungary, but corruption unfortunately is everywhere in this part of the world. 

Apparently Péter Szijjártó will meet Victoria Nuland during his forthcoming visit to Washington. I would not like to be in his shoes. Victoria Nuland is one tough lady.