Tag Archives: Victoria Nuland

A more fitting celebration of the 60th anniversary of ’56 in Washington

About a week ago I included a sentence about the reception Réka Szemerkényi, Hungarian Ambassador in Washington, was giving for the sixtieth anniversary of the outbreak of the October Revolution. I reported that to the best of my knowledge a number of important American officials serving in the White House, Congress, and State Department had declined the invitation over concerns about the alarming political developments in Hungary. In addition to their general concerns, they may well have also noticed the systematic falsification of Hungarian history, which includes the events of the ’56 uprising as well. Mária Schmidt, Viktor Orbán’s court historian who had already perverted the history of the Hungarian Holocaust, rewrote the history of the revolution for the anniversary. The result is a monstrosity that bears no resemblance to reality.

This assault on the revolution prompted a group of people in Washington to organize a gathering to celebrate the real events of sixty years ago. They chose not to celebrate with those who claim that executed Imre Nagy “died nicely but wasn’t a hero.” Yes, this is a direct quotation from the chief organizer of the anniversary, Mária Schmidt. Thomas Melia (who as deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, had extensive dealings with Hungary), former Hungarian Ambassador to Washington András Simonyi, and Professor Charles Gati of Johns Hopkins University organized the event that took place last night. About forty people attended, including Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s national security adviser; Charles Kupchan, currently special assistant to the president and senior director for European affairs at the National Security Council; Damian Murphy, senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs and her husband, Robert Kagan, well-known author, columnist and foreign policy commentator; Hoyt Yee, deputy assistant secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs; André Goodfriend, chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Budapest between August 2015 and January 2016;  Jackson Diehl, deputy editorial page editor of the Washington Post, who writes many of the paper’s editorials on foreign affairs; and Pál Maléter, Jr. son of the minister of defense in the last Nagy government who was reburied along with Imre Nagy on June 16, 1989. Anthony Blinken, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, couldn’t make it but sent his greetings.

Professor Gati briefly retold the story of the revolution, which is admittedly complex because the intellectual unrest that preceded it began as a factional struggle in the communist party between the Stalinists and the reformers but quickly led to a coalition government in which four parties were represented. This coalition government, which naturally included the communist party, decided to leave the Warsaw Pact. Gati emphasized that the revolution was “profoundly democratic—demanding freedom of the press and checks and balances (called ‘socialist legality’ )—and profoundly pro-Europe. These demands were at the top of the list presented by the students.”

One of the few pictures of members of the Nagy government: Zoltán Tildy, Imre Nagy, and Pál Maléter

One of the few pictures of members of the Nagy government: Zoltán Tildy, Imre Nagy, and Pál Maléter

Of course, we know that the Orbán regime’s narrative is very different: the revolution was transformed into an anti-communist crusade led by right-wing representatives of the pre-1945 period. Those intellectuals who were disillusioned communists were removed from the historical narrative prepared for the anniversary celebrations, as were social democrats and liberals. As if they never existed. They simply don’t fit into Orbán’s worldview.

Professor Gati then moved on to the situation in Hungary today and brought up the speeches of Péter Boross and László Kövér. “This Monday, the speaker of the Hungarian parliament blamed the United States not Moscow for crushing the revolution while another high official spoke of the heinous deeds of U.S. imperialism,” adding “I’m not making this up.” And, Gati continued: “Even in Washington, where Hungarian officials work hard to mislead us by praising transatlantic relations, on Sunday they somehow forgot to read Vice President Joe Biden’s message to their invited guests; I guess their feelings were hurt that they didn’t hear from President Obama.”

Gati told his personal story as a refugee after the revolution. “I came here penniless and was treated fantastically by everyone: the International Rescue Committee, Indiana University, and various employees of Columbia University, Johns Hopkins University, even the State Department.” He recalled that the quota for Hungarians (4,400) was quickly filled but that within days Congress was authorized to allow another 40,000 Hungarian refugees to come. He contrasted this behavior with the situation today. In Hungary they build a razor wire fence to keep refugees out and even in the United States some people contemplate building walls. “My hope is that the old spirit of generosity will guide us again someday soon. There is another Hungary there that deserves our attention and support,” he concluded. I think that every Hungarian refugee should join Charles Gati in remembering the generosity of Austrians, Germans, Brits, Swedes, Swiss, Canadians, Australians, and Americans in those days and feel profoundly sad at the behavior of the Hungarian government, which incited ordinary Hungarians against the refugees.

I should add that Anita Kőműves, a young journalist who used to work for Népszabadság, happened to be in Washington and was invited to speak. The applause that followed her words honored those journalists who paid for their bravery with their livelihood because Viktor Orbán doesn’t believe in a free press, one of the very first demands of the Hungarian students in 1956.

October 28, 2016

A candid interview with Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó.    Part I

Members of the Orbán government rarely give interviews to news outlets that don’t belong to the government-controlled media empire. I can count on one hand Fidesz politicians who have dared to walk into these “lions’ dens.” In fact, I can think only of Nándor Csepreghy, deputy to János Lázár; Gergely Gulyás, deputy chairman of Fidesz and deputy speaker of parliament responsible for legislation; and Lajos Kósa, today the leader of the Fidesz delegation in parliament. It was therefore quite a surprise to see a lengthy interview with Péter Szijjártó published in Index yesterday. And even more of a surprise that the interview was refreshingly candid.

What can we learn from this interview that we didn’t know before? One cannot expect revelatory information about the general thrust of Hungarian foreign policy, but some until now unknown details emerged.

Let me start with the internal mechanism of decision-making in the Orbán government as far as foreign policy is concerned. At least according to Szijjártó. Three individuals are full-time advisers to Viktor Orbán on foreign policy. The man who is in charge of U.S.-Hungarian relations is Jenő Megyesy, formerly honorary consul in Denver, Colorado. Orbán met him in 2008 when he attended the Republican Convention and was obviously impressed with the man. Hungarians are convinced that Megyesy has an extensive political network in the U.S. and therefore is useful as an adviser. He has been employed by the prime minister’s office ever since 2010. He is the one Szijjártó turns to when it comes to matters concerning the United States.

szijjarto interview

The second adviser, Péter Gottfried, is an old-timer who has been involved in foreign trade and foreign policy ever since the late 1970s. He has served in high positions in all the post-1990 governments. According to Szijjártó, Gottfried deals exclusively with Europe.

The latest addition is József Czukor, a former intelligence officer, who started his career in 1988 at the Hungarian embassy in Bonn. He has also served all governments and has had friends on both sides of the aisle. In 2010 he was named ambassador to Germany, and in the fall he is moving into the prime minister’s office to be an overall foreign policy adviser to Orbán. From the interview Szijjártó seems to be less enthusiastic about Czukor than his boss is.

You may have noticed that there are no permanent advisers to Orbán who handle Russia and countries in the Far East. Szijjártó is, according to his own account, solely responsible for Russian-Hungarian relations. He relies on the advice of János Balla, Ernő Keskeny, and Zsolt Csutora. Balla, who has been a professional diplomat since 1982, is currently Hungarian ambassador to Russia. Keskeny is in Kiev. In February 2015 I wrote about Keskeny, whom I described as a “rabid Russophile” who allegedly was behind the Russian-Hungarian rapprochement. Subsequently, Keskeny was named ambassador to Ukraine, an appointment that the Ukrainian government couldn’t have welcomed given Keskeny’s well-known pro-Russian sympathies. Csutora began his career as an army officer in 1986 and then moved into the foreign ministry during the first Orbán government. Until recently he was ambassador to Azerbaijan.

What does Viktor Orbán consider to be the essence of Hungary’s foreign policy under his watch? When Orbán asked Szijjártó to be his foreign minister, he told him: “Péter, be a Hungarian foreign minister, and conduct a Hungarian foreign policy. That’s all he told me.” Of course, the journalists’ next question concerned the foreign policy of János Martonyi and Tibor Navracsics. Wasn’t theirs a Hungarian foreign policy? Szijjártó sidestepped that question and tried to explain that the style of foreign policy that Martonyi, for example, conducted wouldn’t work in today’s international climate. The harsher style he is using is the only one that is appropriate in the present circumstances.

As for his own less than diplomatic style, which shocks a lot of observers and analysts, Szijjártó has the perfect answer. He never starts a fight, but when someone attacks Hungary he must immediately counter it because, if there was no rapid response from Budapest, these unfair criticisms and insults would only multiply. At the probing of the interviewing journalists, Szijjártó guessed that he told off foreign politicians about 20 times during his tenure as foreign minister, although Index diligently collected 60 such instances. Szijjártó called in the ambassadors of Croatia, Romania, Austria, Greece, France, and the United States. Which countries’ leaders were given a piece of Szijjártó’s mind? Austria, the United States, Luxembourg, Greece, Germany, Croatia, Spain, France, Italy, Romania, the Netherlands, Serbia, and Sweden.

We found out who Szijjártó’s favorite ambassadors are: Iain Lindsay of the United Kingdom and Colleen Bell of the United States. I’m not surprised about Lindsay, who is an unusual sort of ambassador. On April 11, which is the day of poetry in Hungary, he recited an Attila József poem in very respectable Hungarian. As for Colleen Bell, Szijjártó has the highest opinion of her. According to him, “if Colleen Bell were not the ambassador of the United States in Hungary, political relations between [the two countries] would be much worse. She represents a very calm voice in the U.S. Embassy in Hungary and her presence has helped a lot in the somewhat improving relations between the two countries. Somewhat.”

When the journalists reminded the foreign minister that one finds the same American criticisms of the Orbán government in Bell’s public speeches that were present in André Goodfriend’s utterances, Szijjártó said: “Look, when I have a conversation with her it is a perfectly normal, honest and open talk. Such dialogue was impossible with her predecessors. She is a person who comes from the business world and is therefore pragmatic and approaches matters rationally and not emotionally.” Bell apparently occasionally does bring up these questions, but Szijjártó asked her “to bring concrete examples, not generalities because otherwise our talks will be no more than conversations between deaf people.”

In contrast to Szijjártó’s amiable relations with Colleen Bell is his strong dislike of Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, the highest ranking state department official Szijjártó has managed to meet. According to him, her criticisms were only vague generalizations. “I told Victoria Nuland after our second meeting that we should not meet again. Because there is no use further damaging our bilateral relations by her leveling unsubstantiated accusations [against Hungary] while I—how shall I say—more and more dynamically deny them because they are truly outrageous.”

From the interview I got the impression that the Hungarian government has no intention of fully investigating the corruption case the American company Bunge reported to the American authorities. I have written many articles about the case. Those of you who are unfamiliar with the story should read my last piece on the final outcome of the case. The upshot is that the prosecutors refused to investigate the case properly and brought charges only against the man who delivered the blackmail offer. They charged the messenger, not the person who sent him. The judge found him guilty, and that was, as far as the Hungarian government is concerned, the end of the matter. That the source of the blackmail offer was allegedly the director of Századvég, the same company I wrote about yesterday, was never pursued. The Orbán government refuses to move an inch on any of the corruption cases, which is perfectly understandable since corruption is at the heart of Orbán’s mafia state.

To be continued

August 3, 2016

Viktor Orbán’s lobbying efforts in Washington: The latest recruit is Jeff Duncan of the Tea Party

Yesterday I mentioned that the Orbán government’s answer to the State Department’s latest salvo was a renewed lobbying effort in Washington. Let me recap first.

Back in May I wrote about Connie Mack’s new job as a well-paid lobbyist for the Hungarian government. At that time the former politician turned lobbyist managed to convince Representative Dana Rohrabacher of California, the chairman of one of the subcommittees of the House’s Foreign Relations Committee, to hold a full-fledged hearing on the Hungarian situation. Rohrabacher is perhaps the only member of the U.S. Congress who is an unabashed supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Rohrabacher, whose knowledge of Hungary was pretty much what Connie Mack had told him, was helped along by the recently arrived Hungarian ambassador, Réka Szemerkényi, who naturally painted a rosy picture of the democratic paradise called Hungary. Those who were invited to report on the true state of affairs under Viktor Orbán’s governance were not given much credence by the aggressive Rohrabacher. The whole thing was a farce. The Democratic members of the subcommittee were poorly prepared and had no chance against the loud, antagonistic Rohrabacher.

This time Connie Mack couldn’t get a full-fledged hearing on how badly the United States is treating the Hungarian government. He had to settle for a brief encounter between Representative Jeff Duncan of South Carolina and Assistant Undersecretary Victoria Nuland, who happened to be a witness at a hearing on Syria. Their exchange of words became the following headline in Magyar Idők: “U.S. Congress: Nuland must take back statements on our homeland.” Of course, that sounds as if a congressional resolution was adopted to force Victoria Nuland to change U.S. policy toward Hungary.

duncan

Just to give you an idea of Nuland’s position in the State Department hierarchy, as assistant undersecretary of state for Europe and Eurasia she is responsible for thirty countries all told, from Albania to the United Kingdom, and therefore she is not directly involved in formulating U.S.-Hungarian policy on a day-to-day basis. Under her there are several deputy assistant undersecretaries who take care of smaller areas. So, when she was confronted by Jeff Duncan about Colleen Bell’s speech, it is not surprising that she was unfamiliar with the final text, although she was fully aware of the general thrust of the message that was delivered by the U.S. ambassador in Budapest. After all, the “non paper” that was presented to the Hungarian government a year ago was handed to Hungarian Foreign Minister Szijjártó in Washington by Nuland herself. And, just as Ambassador Bell repeated several times, there was nothing in her speech that the Orbán government didn’t know before.

While discussing the Syrian civil war Duncan began talking about the European migration crisis, and from there it was just a small step to end up in Hungary. Duncan wanted to know: “Why did the ambassador of the United States decide to provoke an attack against Hungary which is a western democracy and a NATO ally?” Nuland, while stressing that she was not familiar with the details of the speech, assured Duncan that the speech “confirmed the support of the United States to a Hungary which will be increasingly democratic.” On the other hand, Washington has misgivings about the Hungarian government’s handling of corruption and its treatment of the media.

Duncan repeated the Orbán government’s argument on sovereignty and undue interference in Hungary’s domestic affairs. Given Duncan’s fiercely anti-immigrant position in this country, he was especially eager to learn whether Colleen Bell had said anything disapprovingly about Viktor Orbán’s fence. As we know, she didn’t. Nuland, however, wasn’t cowed and explained to Duncan that the U.S. government supports a common European policy concerning the migrant crisis and that it is not particularly happy about fences being built at the borders of individual nation states. As for American misgivings, Nuland told Duncan that the United States in the last fifty years has been a steadfast supporter of a democratic and stable Europe. When a country is turning away from democracy and does nothing against corruption, “we will continue to speak about our misgivings.” This was the extent of the exchange, which was jubilantly presented to the Hungarian public by the right-wing press as a victory for Hungary. One new government-sponsored internet site called Duncan’s words to Nuland “a punch in the stomach.”

Finally, a few words on Jeff Duncan. Before he was elected to Congress in 2010 he was a member of the South Carolina House of Representatives between 2002 and 2010. According to his official biography, “during his tenure in the South Carolina House of Representatives, Jeff was known as one of the most conservative House Members, earning recognition as a ‘Taxpayer’s Hero.'” In Congress he serves on three different House committees, including the Foreign Affairs Committee. He was also appointed by former Speaker John Boehner to the Executive Committee of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. (Poor Tom Lantos! If he just knew who is serving on a human rights commission named after him.) In addition, he is a member of both the Republican Study Committee and the Tea Party Caucus, but lately over the budget issue he completely split from mainstream Republicans. He advocates an “all-of-the-above” strategy for border enforcement, including physical fencing, greater use of surveillance technology, and increased manpower. He opposes amnesty for illegal immigrants already in the country.

Duncan’s interpretation of the recent church shooting that killed nine people in Charleston is telling. In his opinion, the man who obviously attacked the church for racial reasons is only mentally ill. He thinks that “right-wing domestic terrorism is but the figment of the liberal imagination.” This is the kind of person Connie Mack manages to recruit to the cause of Viktor Orbán’s regime.

The Hungarian right-wing media’s attack on the United States and its ambassador, Colleen Bell

Right after Viktor Orbán’s last Friday morning radio interview on October 30, when he mentioned George Soros’s name in connection with civil activists’ work with the asylum seekers, one of the many headlines on the topic read: “Viktor Orbán has taken aim at George Soros instead of Colleen Bell.” The journalist was wrong. Viktor Orbán ordered an attack on both.

A couple of days ago I covered in broad outline the attack on George Soros. And earlier I reported on U.S. Ambassador Colleen Bell’s speech, which seemed to have come as a surprise to the Hungarian government. Or at least this was the impression government propaganda tried to convey. Slowly, however, the truth has come out. Bell informed Jenő Megyesy, Viktor Orbán’s American-Hungarian adviser, about the kind of speech she would be delivering at Corvinus University. Moreover, as it turned out, Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó and Ambassador Bell frequently consult by phone, sometimes several times a week. Surely, the American position couldn’t have been a secret to either the officials of the ministry of foreign affairs or the prime minister’s office.

Only two important government officials commented on the speech: Péter Szijjártó and János Lázár, head of the prime minister’s office. Both accused the United States of meddling in another country’s internal affairs when it calls the Hungarian government’s attention to its abandonment of democratic norms. But does the United States transgress the boundary of diplomatic rules when such criticism is leveled against Hungary? Not at all. Here I would like to thank Professor Kim Scheppele for calling my attention to the Moscow Document. In 1991 all member states of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe agreed to the following statement: “The participating States emphasize that issues relating to human rights, fundamental freedoms constitutes one of the foundations of the international order. They categorically and irrevocably declare that the commitments undertaken in the field of the human dimension of the CSCE are matters of direct and legitimate concern to all participating States and do not belong exclusively to the internal affairs of the State concerned.” Hungary was a signatory to this document.

Even if government officials try to ignore references to Colleen Bell’s speech, instructions surely have reached the new government media. As we know from the new editor-in-chief of Magyar Nemzet, before the falling out between Orbán and Simicska its staff was instructed by the government, sometimes twice weekly, about the “proper” presentation of the news and the tone of the editorials. So, we can be sure that whatever we read in publications like Magyar Idők, Pesti Srácok, or 888.hu reflects the opinion of the Orbán government.

diplomacy

The first attack on Colleen Bell came from Magyar Idők, which learned “from American sources” that Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs at the U.S. State Department, is dissatisfied with Ambassador Bell because she is not tough enough on the Orbán government. That’s why she is being called back to Washington for consultation. Well, no she isn’t being called back. She is going on a private visit, and naturally while in the United States she will pay a visit to the State Department.

This article, written by László Szőcs, formerly of Népszabadság, was outright polite in comparison to another piece that seems to reflect the opinion of the editorial staff. This second article is full of surprises because here Victoria Nuland is portrayed as the accomplice of George Soros. What is the connection? Believe it or not, it is Ukraine. The leading lights of Magyar Idők, who come from the hard-core Orbán worshippers at the old Magyar Nemzet, are fiercely pro-Russian and thus anti-Ukrainian. In this article both Nuland and Soros are accused of supporting the “bloody revolution of Maidan” in order “to build true democracy in Ukraine.” Soros, according to Magyar Idők, wants a similar fate for Europe. He wants to “bring the Arab Spring to our continent and change the current political systems of individual countries.” And he’s trying to achieve his devilish plan with the help of Viktoria Nuland.

Ottó Gajdics, one of the editors of Magyar Idők, was chosen to deliver an ugly personal attack on the U.S. ambassador, accusing her of having a low IQ. He also points to the Orbán-phobia of Victoria Nuland. In fact, Hungary is “one of the best allies of the United States in the region,” but these people find two serious problems with Hungary. One is that it is right-wing and nationalist, and as such is not ready to “serve the global ambitions of the superpower.” Their other problem with Hungary is that its government has too strong a legitimacy. Ever since 2010 the United States has done its best to foist upon Hungary a policy that would serve the interests of the United States. “But the country has resisted these most shameless attempts at interference by the giant who believes itself to be the policeman of the globe.”

Right after the Bell speech that made such waves in Hungary, Professor Charles Gati gave an interview to Gábor Horváth of Népszabadság. In it, Gati expressed his bafflement over the Orbán government’s foreign policy. As he put it, “There are two countries which are important from the Hungarian perspective. One is the United States, which guarantees the country’s security through NATO. The other is Germany, which is of key economic importance. Both countries are quite popular among Hungarians and yet the government lately has been attacking both. I simply don’t understand Hungarian foreign policy when the government rants against Chancellor Merkel and the United States. This is not in Hungary’s national interest.”

A few days ago three foreign policy experts got together at Corvinus University to discuss Hungarian foreign policy: Géza Jeszenszky, foreign minister (1990-1994) and ambassador to Washington (1998-2002); Péter Balázs, foreign minister (2009-2010); and Tamás Magyarics, ambassador to Ireland (2010-2014). They all agreed that having bad relations with the United States and the European Union is not smart. Perhaps the best description of Viktor Orbán’s foreign policy came from Péter Balázs, who likened the Hungarian government to a teenager going through puberty: insecure and oversensitive, confused. “Like a troubled teenager who turns against his family, makes friends with the wrong kind of people, neglects his studies, loses touch with his cousins who live beyond the borders, and is friendly with those who actually treat him badly.”

Unfortunately, I don’t see any inclination on the part of the Orbán government to change its course. If anything, the opposite is true. The attacks multiply and the volume is being turned up every day. Instead of finding common ground, Orbán hopes to change the atmosphere in Washington by courting Republican lawmakers with the assistance of Connie Mack, a former congressman and now lobbyist. Millions of dollars are being spent on Mack’s meager achievements. After all, the administration is still in Democratic hands, and criticism of the State Department by a few Republican congressmen will not make the slightest difference. But more about this tomorrow.

Entering a new phase in U.S.-Hungarian relations?

I would like to return to U.S.-Hungarian relations because I suspect that Washington will soon be more active than it has been since January of this year when the new ambassador, Colleen Bell, arrived in Budapest. The Hungarian media, ever since the beginning of October, has been convinced that as soon as the refugee crisis is over Washington will return to the kind of strong criticism of the Hungarian government and its practices that we saw a year ago. At that time Ildikó Vida, then still the director of NAV, the Hungarian equivalent of the Internal Revenue Service, was put on a list of those barred from entering the United States because of corruption charges.

Or at least this is what, according to vs.huDavid H. L. Van Cleve, first councillor in charge of political and economic affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Budapest, told a group of insiders. The 27 points Victoria Nuland raised with Péter Szijjártó are still on the table, and it is only question of time when they will be pursued again.

At the end of September Ambassador Colleen Bell gave her first in-depth interview to the on-line news site Origo. I am using here the original English version of the interview as it appeared on the website of the U.S. Embassy. I should mention by way of preface that I was impressed by the skill with which Ambassador Bell answered the reporter’s questions.

What did we learn from the interview? Quite a bit, despite Bell’s careful phrasing. First of all, it seems that the U.S. Embassy is in constant touch with the Hungarian foreign ministry concerning Hungary’s treatment of the refugees. U.S. policy seems to be that, although Hungary has the right to build a fence, “what we promote is for the European Union–including Hungary–to come up with a comprehensive and unified approach.” The United States offered “technical assistance and information sharing … to help meet the logistical and humanitarian challenges Hungary faces in trying to deal with an influx of vulnerable, displaced people.” My impression after reading the text is that the offered assistance wasn’t taken advantage of.

Ambassador Colleen Bell / Source: Origo / Photo by Gábor Szabó,

Ambassador Colleen Bell / Source: Origo / Photo by Gábor Szabó

Bell also indicated that the United States government disapproves of the way Hungary treated the refugees. Although “we understand that Hungary is in a difficult situation … we promote the humane treatment of the refugees.” And, however briefly, she returned to the themes of “corruption, the lack of predictability, fairness, and transparency,” conditions that impede foreign investment.

This interview coincided with the arrival of Deputy Assistant Secretary Robert Berschinski, and naturally the reporter wanted to know whether “there is a reason for the timing of his visit.” Bell tried to minimize the significance of Berschinski’s visit, saying that “there’s no specific reason for his visit other than spending time with us here at the Embassy and meeting members of the government and NGOs, and a variety of other people.” However, as vs.hu pointed out, Berschinski planned stay in Hungary was relatively long.

A day after his arrival in Budapest, Bell and Berschinski visited Miskolc, where he introduced himself as a personal representative of Secretary of State John Kerry and called on the city of Miskolc to follow the instructions of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. And he talked to representatives of the Jewish community. During his visit he also went to the prime minister’s office, where he met with Szabolcs Takács, undersecretary in charge of European affairs, who is also president of IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Association). And he got in touch with László Szabó, deputy of Péter Szijjártó, since the foreign minister happened to be in New York on that day.

In an interview with 444.hu he elaborated on some of the topics he discussed with various government officials: the election law, law on churches, corruption, discrimination against the Roma, and the refugee crisis. In addition, “we sent a message that the police investigation of NGOs must stop.” Perhaps, after all, American intervention was successful in this one respect. Today the National Tax and Customs Office (NAV) closed its investigation into Ökotárs and 17 other associations and foundations for lack of evidence. Berschinski admitted, however, that there is no progress at all on changing the electoral law or the law on the churches. At the end of his interview he indicated that friendly talks are not the only instruments the United States can use to change the attitude of the Hungarian government.

In addition, Berschinski gave an interview to Magyar Nemzet in which he repeated some of points he had made in his 444.hu interview, but he added a few revealing details. In this interview he made the reason for his trip clearer: “The object of my trip first and foremost was an opportunity to discuss with the Hungarian government our misgivings concerning human rights and the state of democracy.” And when the reporter interpreted the silence of the United States as a sign of satisfaction, or at least fewer reasons for criticism, Berschinski corrected her. “I can assure you that the ambassador will also make more public statements in the future.”

It seems to me that what has been going on at the embassy in the last few months is “a kind of data gathering” to prepare for tackling some of the outstanding issues.

A one-year-old American non-paper surfaces

For almost eight months there was hardly any news about U.S.-Hungarian relations in the Hungarian media, with the exception of stories about NATO troop deployment in Eastern Europe and a U.S.-Hungarian military maneuver that went off without a hitch. In military matters at least, all seems to be well between Washington and Budapest.

In political terms, the stormy relations of the fall of 2014 have quieted down considerably. At least on the surface. The new U.S. ambassador, Colleen Bell, has shown no inclination to roil the waters of U.S.-Hungarian relations despite Viktor Orbán’s occasional anti-American comments in connection with the alleged responsibility of the United States for the refugee crisis.

The prime minister’s more subtle criticism contrasts with the shrill anti-Americanism of the pro-government media. In earlier days it was Magyar Nemzet that led the way in this respect, but since Lajos Simicska and Viktor Orbán decided that their collaboration of a quarter of a century is over and the remaining staff of the paper no longer has to adopt a slavishly pro-government orientation, not only has Magyar Nemzet become a very much better paper but it has also abandoned its pro-Russian and anti-American slant.

There are still some government strongholds, however, especially the newly renamed Magyar Idők and Pesti Srácok. Here and there even Válasz and Mandiner come out with decidedly anti-American editorials, mostly in connection with the refugee crisis, which is usually portrayed as the direct consequence of U.S. meddling in the Middle East and North Africa.

After almost a year of relative calm Mandiner managed to get hold of a so-called non-paper prepared by the State Department, dated October 21, 2014. András Stumpf, the new star reporter of Mandiner, didn’t research his story thoroughly enough because otherwise he would have discovered that this non-paper was most likely handed to Péter Szijjártó himself during his meeting with Viktoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs. At least the dates match. So, all the talk that has appeared in the last few days in the Hungarian media about Chargé D’Affaires André Goodfriend’s “demands” handed to one of the diplomats in the Hungarian foreign ministry is a lot of nonsense. The “suggestions” or “demands,” as the pro-government media calls them, don’t contain any new revelations. It has been no secret what the United States thinks of the Orbán government’s anti-democratic policies. It also seems that, although a whole year has gone by, the Hungarian government hasn’t responded to any of the points made in the non-paper. Viktor Orbán has no intention of changing his undemocratic ways.

These two pictures accompanied a Romanian-language article published on October 27, 2014 Source: dcnews.ro

These two pictures accompanied a Romanian-language article published on 10/27/2014, a few days after the meeting between Victoria Nuland and Péter Szijjártó
Source: dcnews.ro

Stumpf indicates in his introduction to the document that they “learned about the existence of the document from a Washington source,” which was then confirmed by someone in Budapest. Most likely the Americans had had enough of the deafening silence from Budapest and decided to make the document, handed to Szijjártó a year ago, public.

There is nothing wrong about publishing such a document. In fact, I personally wish there were more such diplomatic revelations, but Stumpf’s or the editor’s decision to write a strongly anti-American headline is unfortunate. It reads: “This is how America would make the Orbán government its bitch” (Így csicskáztatná Amerika az Orbán-kormányt). The message is that because of the Orbán government’s steadfast refusal to oblige, the United States didn’t succeed in its attempt to curtail the country’s sovereignty.

Magyar Idők went even further. In its interpretation, the United States’ problem is that Hungary’s prime minister happens to be Viktor Orbán. Magyar Idők names André Goodfriend as the author and deliverer of the non-paper in question. In the view of the paper, Goodfriend was not at all concerned with the alleged corruption of Hungarian government officials because this non-paper didn’t deal with it. Written in the middle of the “corruption crisis,” the absence of the topic is telling. Ottó Gajdics, the editor-in-chief of the paper, also wrote an editorial. He pretty well denied the existence of any corruption in Hungary and accused the United States of being worried about “corruption only when no American interests prevail in a country.”

Válasz also chimed in, heralding the wonderful news that the Orbán government didn’t fall last October and November, although many people believed that it would because of strong U.S. pressure on the Orbán government. In the author’s opinion, the United States “got caught” (lebukott) with the publication of the non-paper.  It never occurred to him that officials in the U.S. State Department might have wanted to make the document public.

János Lázár, who is naturally a diligent reader of Magyar Idők and other pro-government papers, is convinced that this list came from an ordinary chargé d’affaires, whom he called “insolent.” According to Lázár, Goodfriend while he was in Hungary “used his time to poke his nose into the affairs of Hungary.” His spokesman, András Giró Szász, added that “André Goodfriend is always welcome in Hungary but only as a tourist.” Lázár is either ignorant of diplomatic protocol or, more likely, wants to minimize the weight of this non-paper.

Meanwhile, Népszabadság tried to set the record straight by pointing out that on October 22 Péter Szijjártó was in Washington and had a meeting with Victoria Nuland. It is a mistake to name André Goodfriend as the culprit. The non-paper was most likely handed to Szijjártó by Nuland herself.

The debate continues. This time between Zsolt Gréczy, spokesman for the Demokratikus Koalíció, and András Stumpf, the Mandiner reporter. Gréczy raised objections to the title of Stumpf’s article. In DK’s opinion, “it is difficult to criticize the contents of those 27 points the non-paper raises, which are exactly those that the Hungarian democratic opposition demands week after week.” Unlike me, Gréczy believes that the non-paper was made public by the Hungarian government. With its release it intended to incite anti-American feelings. He called on the government to cease and desist. Stumpf answered with ad hominem attacks on Gréczy. Otherwise, he denied the charge that the document came from the government.

And finally, here is the infamous non-paper:

Civil society:

– End harassment and intimidation of independent civil society, including by ceasing investigations, audits, and raids of organizations receiving European Economic Area-Norway grant funds and Swiss funds, returning seized documents and IT-equipment (and other seized property) to reided and audited organizations, and immediately reinstating suspended tax licenses.

– Publish online all information of KEHI audits and government investigations of NGOs in order to make it available to the public.

– Publicly promote civil society, human rights, checks and balances, and unrestricted space for political opposition.

– Allow civil society to operate freely and independently.

– Broaden incentives for private and corporate donations to NGOs.

– Require meaningful input from an inclusive sprectrum of civil society and the business community in public policy development and implementation, including on human rights, equality, and transparency in government.

– Ensure unbiased and transparent functioning of National Cooperation Fund with nonpartisan board and clear guidelines for grants and evaluations.

Inclusiveness – give opposition and other non-Fidesz loyalists a role in public policy (enhances checks and balances):

– Require oversight bodies to be made up of independent subject matter experts rather than political nominees, and that a certain number of slots be reserved for appointment by opposition.

– Constitutional Court appointment process should revert to pre-2010 ad hoc committee requiring agreement of two-thirds of the parties.

– Implement clearly defined and transparent procedures requiring issues of public interest to be addressed through meaningful consultation and input from all relevant experts and stakeholders.

– Legislative process: Build in hearings, debates, meaningful consultations with subject experts and civil society, and opportunities for amendments.

– Pass law that ensures long-term economic commitments and other matters of public interest are decided with transparency, substantive public input, and realistic opportunity and sufficient time for open debate and feedback.

Media:

– Rescind advertising tax, which is discriminatory and market-distorting.

– Require that state advertising budget be distributed evenly across major media outlets rather than to outlets aligned with the government party.

– Require all-party representation on media council and shorten terms.

– Amend legislation on criminal penalties for libel, including to rescind all criminal penalties for defamation and make it a civil matter.

– Remove media council’s ability to levy fines and penalties for unbalanced coverage, which gives media council excessive control over content.

– Remove regulations that allow state broadcasters to run campaigneads but oblige commercial media to run ads for free.

– Incentivize diversity in ownership and pluralism of views in media.

– De-consolidate management and funding of public media and shield public media outlets from political pressure on content, to encourage independence.

– Ensure the political independence of the media council.

Elections:

– Implement all OSCE/ODIHR election recommendation, including: Amend law to ensure election commissions enjoy broad political consensus.

– Put in place safeguards to ensure a clear separation between the state and party. „Campaign finance”.

– Courts and administrative rules

– Rescind law that civil servants can be dismissed without justification.

– Strictly enforce prohibitions of political pressupure of influence on judges.

Constitution:

– Reinstate the right of Constitutional Court to rule on substantive constitutionality of proposed amendments to the Fundamental Law.

– Reinstate the right of Constitutional Court to use jurisprudence from 1990-2011 as case law.

– Move appropriate matters from cardinal laws into regular statutes.

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.