Tag Archives: Vladimir Putin

The Three Seas Initiative and Donald Trump

On June 9 the White House Office of the Press Secretary announced the upcoming visit of President Trump to Poland at the invitation of Polish President Andrzej Duda in advance of the G20 Summit in Hamburg. At the end of the short statement we learned that, in addition to meeting with Duda and delivering a major speech, “he will attend the Three Seas Initiative Summit to demonstrate our strong ties to Central Europe.”

SouthFront: Analysis & Intelligence announced that “this visit deserves to be closely monitored for it will reveal more about the Trump Administration’s foreign policy agenda than his previous actions.” The opinion piece considered Trump’s presence at the Three Seas Initiative Summit especially meaningful since Poland’s current political elite is advancing the idea of Intermarium, a Polish-dominated confederation that would include the Baltic States, Ukraine, and possibly also the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, and Slovenia. It is supposed to serve “as a ‘cordon sanitaire’ against Russia and a counterweight to the power of Germany and the European Union.”

Before we embark on current opinions on the Three Seas Initiative, let’s look at its precedent–Intermarium, or in Polish Międzymorze, between the seas. It was a plan proposed by Józef Piłsudski, an important political figure and military leader of interwar Poland. He envisaged a confederation that, by its third iteration, would have included practically the whole of Central Europe, including Hungary. Nothing came of the plan because there were just too many conflicting national interests at work. In addition, other countries were suspicious of the whole project, which they viewed as an attempt to re-establish the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which in the seventeenth century included half of today’s Estonia, all of Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, the westernmost parts of Russia, and the larger part of Ukraine.

Józef Piłsudski’s Intermarium Plan and its different stages

A revival of the Intermarium project surfaced after the 2014 Ukrainian crisis when the present Euroatlantic arrangement couldn’t prevent the annexation of Crimea and the armed conflict in Donbas. Ukraine and its neighbors were looking for alternative models for regional cooperation. At that time the concept of a modern Intermarium began gaining adherents, among them Polish President Andrzej Duda, who “is attempting to recreate the Polish long-life plan of building a natural defensive alliance among like-minded neighbors in the face of the Russian threat, and with NATO military support.”

Duda looks upon the formation of the Three Seas Initiative (TSI) as his great diplomatic feat. On August 28, 2016 a two-day meeting took place in Dubrovnik, Croatia, which was attended by representatives of 12 countries, including Hungary’s president, János Áder. The Croatian president called the area between the Adriatic, the Baltic, and the Black Sea “the lifeblood of Europe.”

It is the second summit of this group that Donald Trump agreed to attend. Trump’s attendance, according to Wojciech Przybylski writing for Euobserver, will definitely put the spotlight on TSI. It is not impossible that Trump’s Polish visit is intended as “a slight against German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Emmanuel Macron.” In addition, some European leaders fear that the Polish ministry of foreign affairs can’t handle such a diplomatically sensitive visit. There is also the possibility that, after Trump’s visit, the Poles will be even more confrontational than before when dealing with the European Union, Przybylski concludes. Others, like the pro-Russian World Socialist Web Site, use stronger language. They are certain that “Trump’s meeting with the leaders of this alliance is a clear signal that the White House is reintroducing the Intermarium strategy which will exacerbate conflicts with Germany.”

Last December Vit Dostál, writing for visegradplus.org, called the Three Seas Initiative a “pipe-dream coming from Warsaw.” He may have been right because the Polish Gazeta Wyborcza cited at least one Czech diplomat who said that Prague will not attend the Three Seas event because it is far too close to the “concept of Piłsudski.” Sputnik Polska conducted an interview with Adam Wielomski, a Polish political science professor, who considers Trump’s visit to Poland and his presence at the TSI summit “support of Duda’s governing Law and Justice Party and the initiative to forge a Central and Eastern European union.”

The TSI project or, in Hungarian, “Három Tenger Kezdeményezés” was not widely covered in Hungary before the news of Trump’s attendance. MTI reported on the Dubrovnik summit, but no one was really interested in what was described as a round table discussion on energy. On the other hand, in November 2015, at a conference attended by politicians, both Jobbik’s Gábor Vona and LMP’s András Schiffer envisaged Hungary’s future in an East-Central European Union. I have not followed Schiffer’s foreign policy ideas, but Vona’s adherence to such a regional solution didn’t surprise me because a couple of months ago Matthew Kott of New Eastern Europe reported that Intermarium was hijacked by the far right in certain countries of the region.

The only serious Hungarian piece on the Three Seas Initiative and Donald Trump’s decision to attend its summit is by Attila Ara-Kovács, a foreign policy analyst, which appeared a couple of days ago. He is skeptical of the success of Duda’s project and Trump’s power to substantially influence the present geopolitical situation in Europe.

Donald Trump’s visit to Warsaw is fraught with danger. He knows absolutely nothing about the situation in Poland or, for that matter, about the whole complicated region. His visit will give a boost to the present Polish government, which is good neither for the Polish people nor for the people of the European Union.

June 29, 2017

Viktor Orbán’s friends: Vladimir Putin, Recep Erdoğan, and Ilham Aliyev

Yesterday around noon Moscow time the Kremlin published a short announcement regarding a telephone conversation that had taken place earlier that day. It was brief and to the point: Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orbán “discussed current issues on the bilateral agenda, in particular the implementation of agreements reached during the visit to Budapest by the President of Russia on February 2, 2017. The two leaders also stressed the importance of the construction, carried out by Rosatom State Corporation, of two new power units at the Paks Nuclear Power Plant, as well as joint gas projects.” About half an hour later the news of the telephone conversation was also announced in Budapest. It was even briefer than the Russian version. “Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and President Vladimir Putin held a telephone conversation about current questions of Hungarian-Russian bilateral relations.”

Most newspapers and internet sites republished the short MTI announcement without any comment or interpretation. I found only two exceptions. One was 168 Óra, which was certain that it was Viktor Orbán who called the Russian president “only a few hours after he had returned from the NATO summit in Brussels,” implying that perhaps the topic of conversation wasn’t so much Paks, as the Kremlin communiqué claimed. Perhaps Viktor Orbán reported to Putin on his impressions of the NATO summit.

The other was a longer opinion piece by Gábor Stier, Magyar Nemzet’s Russian expert. Stier is a pro-Russian journalist specializing in foreign affairs. As opposed to 168 Óra, he is certain that it was Putin who called Orbán. Stier might be a great friend of Russia, but even he doesn’t believe that the conversation between the two men was about “current bilateral relations.” Putin visited Budapest only a couple of months ago, and about two weeks ago the two men spent some time together in Beijing at the summit of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. Stier also can’t imagine that, now that all the obstacles have been removed to the financing and construction of Paks, the nuclear power plant merited a telephone call.

So, why was such an encounter arranged? Stier believes that the key to the content of the exchange lies in the brief Russian reference to “joint gas projects” which, in Stier’s opinion, is the construction of the “Turkish Stream,” which “would benefit not only Moscow and Budapest but the whole Mediterranean region.” Now that U.S. policy toward Europe is changing and “its relations with Russia may become more pragmatic, there is a chance that Washington will not hinder these plans,” says Stier. In that case, he believes, Berlin will be less antagonistic to the project. Apparently on the same day Putin also phoned Borut Pahor, president of Slovenia, an event that, according to Stier, supports his interpretation of this unexpected telephone conversation between Putin and Orbán. This second telephone conversation, however, was prompted by the twenty-fifth anniversary of diplomatic relations between Russia and an independent Slovenia, which took place on May 25, 1992. I’m therefore less sure than Stier that the phone call had anything to with the pipeline.

Given the paucity of information, all of the above is just conjecture, but the frequency of Putin-Orbán meetings and telephone conversations is striking. So is Orbán’s increasing diplomatic isolation, at least when it comes to Western countries. On the other hand, relations with autocratic countries like Turkey and Azerbaijan are excellent.

Let’s take a look at Turkish-Hungarian relations of late. President Recep Erdoğan was supposed to visit Hungary already in 2016, but the trip had to be postponed because of the Turkish military coup that occurred in July. According to the latest information, the trip might take place soon, to coincide with the opening of the restored “türbe” (tomb) of Gül Baba (d. 1541), a dervish poet and companion of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, which is in the hills of Buda.

There was also at least one telephone conversation between the two men that Orbán initiated. Orbán congratulated the Turkish president on his victory at the polls that made him an autocrat for life. In return, Erdoğan suggested bilateral talks in Beijing at the summit. At that time Erdoğan also invited Orbán to Ankara, which Orbán naturally gladly accepted.

Recep Erdoğan in Budapest in 2013

I might also add that while Orbán often justifies his anti-Muslim stance and Hungarians’ unwillingness to have Muslims in their country by reminding the world of the 150-year occupation of the central part of Hungary by the Ottomans, a veritable love affair is going on between the Hungarian and Turkish governments.

Not too many people are aware of the fact that Suleiman the Magnificent (1494-1566) died during the Battle of Szigetvár in Hungary. His body was taken back to Istanbul to be buried, but his heart, liver, and some other organs were buried just outside of Szigetvár. The Battle of Szigetvár is also an important site for Hungarians, who celebrate the heroism of the captain of the fort, Miklós/Nikola Zrínyi/Zrinski, who also died there. In any case, the Turkish government has generously contributed to archaeological work conducted to find the exact location of Suleiman’s burial. For its part, the Hungarian government is planning enormous busts of both Suleiman and Zrínyi. A rather strange way to commemorate the victory of 20,000 invading Ottoman troops over 2,500 Hungarian-Croatian defenders.

Another politician Orbán has warm relations with is Ilham Aliyev, president of Azerbaijan, who visited Budapest in 2014. Two years later Viktor Orbán and his wife paid a visit to Baku, where the two men agreed to repeat their visits to each other’s capitals. This year it is Aliyev’s turn to visit. Mind you, the Hungarian media had to learn from Azeri sources that their president will visit Budapest in October. Aliyev inherited “the throne” from his father in 2003, and he has been president ever since. This spring Aliyev designated his wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, first vice president. She would replace him in the event of his death. In 2016 at Orbán’s suggestion President János Áder bestowed a high state decoration on Aliyeva.

Putin, Erdoğan, Aliev—these are the people Orbán feels comfortable with. And they are are the ones who are willing to visit the Hungarian capital on a somewhat regular basis. A sad commentary on Hungary’s standing in the world of diplomacy.

May 27, 2017

Putin’s Night Wolves pay a visit to Budapest

The Hungarian public is becoming familiar with the name of a Russian motorcycle club–Night Wolves (Nochnye Volki)–whose beginnings date back to 1989 when a group of rock music fans and motorcycle enthusiasts got together to form a club during the perestroika era of the Soviet Union. It was the first official bike club in the USSR, led by Alexander Zaldostanov, known as the Surgeon. Currently, the club has 5,000 members and seven chapters outside of Russia–in Ukraine, Latvia, Germany, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, and Macedonia.

Zaldostanov and Putin may have known each other from their days in East Germany, where both resided in the 1980s. Some people suspect that Zaldostanov was also a KGB agent. Perhaps because of the supposed relationship between the two men in Germany, Zaldostanov and his club are fervent supporters of Vladimir Putin and Russian nationalism. Putin considers the Night Wolves his friends. At one point he even led their rally on a Harley-Davidson trike. Because of its close relations with the Kremlin, the club is well taken care of financially. According to at least one observer of the Russian scene, the club receives “several hundred million rubles a year.” In return, club members have performed such patriotic duties as fighting on the side of pro-Russian militants during the Crimean crisis and the war in Donbass.

The Wolves are not welcome in too many countries. For example, in 2015 when they were planning to celebrate “Victory Day” in Berlin, their trip was rudely interrupted by the government of Poland, which refused them entry. At that time they were not welcome in Germany either; their Schengen visas were cancelled. Some Wolves who tried to enter Germany by plane were denied entry. In December 2014 the United States announced sanctions against the bikers because of their recruitment of fighters for the war in Donbass. Canada followed suit a month later. I might add that the Wolves are great admirers of Stalin, “who was sent by God” to do great things on earth.

Poland and the Baltic States didn’t soften their hearts when it came to letting the Wolves through their countries to visit Berlin this year. (For some reason Germany relented.) On May 1 they were turned away from the Polish border. A day later another group of bikers was forbidden to enter Georgia. One group drove to Sebastopol, from where they went to Romania by ship. Riders from all seven chapters headed to Budapest. For example, Novorossia Today reported that the Bulgarian chapter of the Night Wolves began their journey in Sofia and met the other contingents in Budapest.

On May 4 the bikers, accompanied by members of the Russian Embassy, visited the famous cemetery on Fiumei út where Soviet soldiers are buried. Here they laid wreaths at the memorial erected in their honor. The ceremony can be seen on this video.

Given the excellent relationship that exists between Putin’s Russia and Orbán’s Hungary, it is not surprising that Hungary allowed the bikers to cross into Hungarian territory and from there move on to Bratislava, Prague, Dresden, and Berlin. But the Hungarian public, which has had enough of the overly friendly relations between Moscow and Budapest, was less than thrilled seeing the Wolves in Hungary. The majority of the population opposes the construction of a nuclear power plant in Hungary by a Russian firm and, as a result, Hungary’s being indebted for decades to come to Russia. The encounter between the Chechen-Russian patriot who threatened a Hungarian citizen didn’t go over well either. And now here are these grim-looking bikers carrying red flags with a hammer and sickle and a star. How is it possible that the Hungarian government makes a huge fuss over the red star in the logo of Heineken, the Dutch beer manufacturer, while these guys proudly display the real star (albeit in white), the symbol of the communist Soviet Union? A Hungarian citizen displaying these symbols can receive a jail sentence, according to §335 of the criminal code. So, in no time, an individual paid a visit to the central police station and filed charges. Naturally, the police had no intention of interfering. It was too late in any case. Once the bikers were inside the country, their display of these symbols was inevitable.

The opposition members of the parliamentary committee on national security asked a few questions from the police about their inaction. According to Bernadett Szél, the explanation offered by the police was “horribly embarrassing.” On the one hand, they argued that the cemetery is considered to be private property and therefore the police couldn’t enter the premises while, on the other hand, they explained that the bikers’ refusal to follow Hungarian law was justified by “the special circumstances.” The police report that was issued simply stated that “no criminal offense was committed” and therefore no action was necessary.

Péter Tarjányi, a national security expert and former police detective, told Olga Kálmán, who has a new program on HírTV, that through these Victory Rides the Night Wolves, with their powerful bikes and their frightening demeanor, intimidate the locals. And yet the Hungarian government doesn’t dare stand up to them. On the contrary. The Wolves were allowed to pay homage to the Soviet heroes and to the Great Patriotic War. They can thus be seen as a “communication arm” of a strong and powerful Russia and its leader.

It is hard to say whether Viktor Orbán is afraid to stand up to the Russians as Tarján claims or whether by now his involvement with Putin’s Russia is so extensive that he cannot extricate himself from Putin’s embrace. He committed his country too much to Russia while he practically burned his bridges to the West. To be able to say “no” to Putin could be done only if he were ready to abandon everything he has stood for in the last seven years. Such a reversal at the moment or perhaps ever is unimaginable.

May 12, 2017

An American LGBT hate group will enjoy the hospitality of the Orbán government

This is not the first time that I’m writing about the World Congress of Families. Through its annual gatherings, each year in a different country, WCF, as it is known in the United States, promotes Christian right-wing family values internationally. WCF was designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center an anti-LGBT hate group in February 2014 based on its involvement in the 2013 Russian LGBT propaganda law.

My earlier piece focused on its congress three years ago. The congress was scheduled to be held in Moscow in the fall of 2014, but then came the annexation of Crimea and several U.S. organizations pulled out of the project. Nonetheless, the congress proceeded as planned. Several leaders of right-wing European parties attended and were among the speakers, people like Aymeric Chauprade (National Front) and Heinz-Christian Strache (FPÖ). Hungary was represented by Gergely Prőhle, who was one of the speakers at the gathering. The journalist for Cink.hu who wrote an article about this far-right gathering was told by the ministry that the Hungarian government doesn’t care who took part in the conference; Prőhle was there to represent the government’s family policy. I should add that the congress issued a manifesto lambasting liberal Europe and calling for a ban on “homosexual propaganda.”

WCF is again in the news, this time for its impending gathering in Budapest between May 25 and May 28. Átlátszó published a lengthy article about the Orbán government’s sponsorship of this year’s conference. I was already stunned in 2014 because I thought that the Hungarian government’s official representation at such a conference was inappropriate. Now, in 2017, the Orbán government is actually organizing and financially supporting the affair. According to the official site, the chief organizer of the event is Katalin Novák, undersecretary for family, youth, and international affairs.

The event’s site explains that “the values of accepting life, undertaking to give birth to and raise children, and families based on the marriage of a man and a woman have been compromised in the past decades but need to be restored in order to implement a sustainable future.” WCF’s goal is the spread of the idea of the “natural family” as opposed to households where children are cared for by single parents or grandparents or are brought up in same-sex marriages. The group is well known for its anti-LGBT propaganda. Its influence is especially strong in Africa, where several countries’ anti-LGBT legislation resulted from WCF’s lobbying efforts. Most notably, it helped inspire harsh anti-LGBT laws in Nigeria and Uganda.

Just last year the director of the National Organization for Marriage, Brian Brown, was elected president of WCF, which was seen as “a logical trajectory for Brown, one of the best-known anti-LGBT activists in the United States.” According to the announcement of his appointment by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Brown over the past few years has gradually refocused his opposition to marriage equality on international work, especially after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality. Brown’s ideas find fertile soil in Hungarian government circles. SPLC gave a good summary of Brown’s ideas and checkered career at the time of his appointment as president of WCF.

Brian Brown, president of WCF / Source: AP Images

WCF’s platform is bad enough. But perhaps even more worrisome is its close cooperation with Russian nationalists, serving Russia’s geopolitical agenda. In fact, the World Congress of Families has its roots in Moscow. In 1995 the leader of an Illinois-based group, the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society, was invited to Russia by two professors at Lomonosov Moscow State University. The three men agreed that unfavorable demographic trends were the result of feminism and homosexuality. So, they came up with the idea of “pro-family” conferences in Europe and Russia and agreed to share their ideas with American evangelical thinkers.

WCF has had its greatest influence in Russia. It has deep ties to the Russian Orthodox Church and the Putin regime. Apparently, WCF has nothing but praise for Vladimir Putin and his policies. One its leaders wrote that Putin “is the one defending laws and morality consistent with the freedom in the U.S. Constitution.” Another leader called Putin “a power player who cares more about Russia’s national interests … than … that mythical force known as world opinion.”

Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBT civil rights advocacy group and lobbying organization in the United States, put together a comprehensive history of WCF, in which a chapter is devoted to Eastern Europe. In the region it was Poland that was most eager to welcome WCF. The Polish government hosted WCF’s annual gathering in 2007, during the brief tenure of Jarosław Kaczyński as prime minister of Poland. The group made its first excursion into Serbia in 2013, where WCF leaders attended an anti-LGBT rally which led to the cancellation of the Belgrade Pride Parade. A year later they organized a regional conference in Kiev. In 2014 a WCF partner, Alliance Defending Freedom, submitted an amicus brief to the Constitutional Court of Slovakia supporting the proposed referendum on a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union between one man and one woman. They are also active in Albania, Latvia, Romania, and the Czech Republic. In Hungary there was no need to lobby for a restriction of the meaning of marriage because the Orbán government incorporated it into the new constitution.

Looking through the very thorough history of WCF by the Human Rights Campaign, I found only two countries outside of Russia–namely, Poland and Hungary–where the organization has received official support. Suggestions by the independent media in Hungary that WCF is actually a homophobic hate organization were swept aside by Zoltán Balog, who is obviously a great supporter of the organization. According to Balog, “all sorts of nonsense has been published about ‘who’s who’ among the participants.” The Hungarian government certainly would not participate in any event that spreads hatred of LGBT people. He proudly announced that at the end of May Budapest will be the capital of families.

Hungary has its own conference on the family, the Budapest Demographic Forum—Families in Focus, which held its first gathering in June 2015. This year the Budapest Demographic Forum will hold its second conference in conjunction with WCF’s annual gathering. The Forum’s keynote speaker will be Viktor Orbán himself. A former Spanish minister of interior and the Croatian and Polish ministers responsible for family affairs will attend. Thus, an allegedly scientific gathering on demographics is subsumed into a four-day WCF extravaganza. Further and further down a very slippery slope.

May 11, 2017

Is Orbán an anti-Semite? Is Putin blackmailing him? A day of charges and countercharges

The Hungarian political arena was hyperactive today, so this post will be somewhat scattershot.

Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó gave a press conference, followed by his ministry’s issuance of a statement demanding the resignation of Vice President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans for “having accused Hungary’s Prime Minister and the country’s government of anti-Semitism.” Szijjártó insisted that the present government is in fact a benefactor of Hungary’s Jewish community, which “can always count on the respect, friendship and protection of the Hungarian government.” Yet Timmermans in an interview given to Die Zeit described Viktor Orbán as “clearly anti-Semitic” for “calling George Soros a financial speculator” in the European Parliament a week ago. Szijjártó retorted that the vice president was a coward for making the “strong and furthermore unfounded accusation” in an interview instead of face-to-face with Viktor Orbán.

The fact is that the government-induced Soros-bashing that has been going on for some time uses a vocabulary that is usually reserved in Hungary for anti-Semitic discourse: speculator, financial circles, globalization, multi-national business circles, and other similar epithets. Timmermans is not the first person to suspect that the government’s constant references to professions or occupations often associated with Jews are meant to awaken anti-Semitic feelings in Hungarians.

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with a journalist from a German radio station who asked me whether all these attacks against Soros have something to do with his Jewish background. That was her first thought.

György Konrád, the internationally recognized Hungarian author, wrote an open letter to Viktor Orbán, whom he knew personally from the days when Orbán was a liberal, accusing him of anti-Semitism. The letter was translated into English and published in The Tablet. Bálint Magyar, the author of many books on the “mafia state,” wrote a brief note on his Facebook page a few days ago in which he reported on the results of his Google search for the following word combinations: “spekuláns-tőzsde” (stock market) (27,400), “spekuláns-zsidó” (28,700), and “spekuláns-zsidó-Soros” (18,500). Clearly, the vocabulary of the government in connection with George Soros does resonate. I did my own search on “Jewish speculators” in  Google Images. And what did I find? The portrait of George Soros accompanying an article in The Greanville Post titled “Judeo-Centrism: Myths and Mania.” According to Fakenewschecker.com, “this publication is among the most untrustworthy sources in the media.” The article is pure anti-Semitic drivel. The portrait of Soros was put up to adorn this dreadful article only three days ago. So, it’s no wonder that people are suspicious of the language used by Viktor Orbán and the Hungarian government.

The search for “Jewish speculator” produced this portrait of George Soros

Once the foreign ministry finished with Timmermans, it was time to summon Canada’s ambassador, Isabelle Poupart, for a dressing down after she expressed concern over the fate of Central European University and academic freedom in general. She added that Canada “encourages a constructive dialogue” to resolve the matter. Nowadays even such a mild statement is cause enough for an ambassador to be dragged into the foreign ministry.

And that takes me to an article written by László Palkovics and published by the conservative Canadian National Post. The original title of the piece was “Calling out Michael Ignatieff,” a phrase that appeared in Palkovics’s piece, which was subsequently changed to “Michael Ignatieff is waging a media war against my government to suit his own ambitions.” In it, Palkovics accuses Ignatieff of “hijacking academic freedom in Hungary,” a curious interpretation in view of what has been happening in Hungary in the last four or five weeks. Although his alleged aim was “to dispel Ignatieff’s myths and set the record straight once and for all,” he simply repeated the lies that we have heard from government sources all along. Ignatieff responded to Palkovics’s accusations. He began by saying that “a battle to defend academic freedom is underway in Budapest and Canadians need to know what is at stake,” and he went on to point out all the factual errors in Palkovics’s article. I wonder what the reaction of the National Post editors was when they got the news today about the Hungarian government’s treatment of the Canadian ambassador. Perhaps Palkovics’s claims were not quite true after all.

Now let’s move to a topic that has been the talk of the town for at least two weeks: Ferenc Gyurcsány’s repeated statements that he was approached by unnamed men who claim to have hard evidence of Viktor Orbán’s unlawful or perhaps criminal financial activities, which would make the prime minister the subject of blackmail. The blackmailer, according to the story, is none other than Vladimir Putin. This would explain the sudden and otherwise inexplicable change in Viktor Orbán’s foreign policy orientation. Prior to 2010, he was a fierce opponent of anything to do with Russia and Putin, but after that date he became Putin’s Trojan horse inside the European Union.

Gyurcsány gave tantalizing interviews. Every time he appeared he offered up a few more details. He indicated that although he saw the documents, they were not in his possession. But he claimed that if Orbán sued him, then those people holding the documents would be compelled to release them and testify. At one point he gave Orbán 72 hours to make a move, which of course came and went without Orbán doing anything. Many people were skeptical of Gyurcsány’s revelations in the first place, but after the Gyurcsány “ultimatum” had no results, more and more people became convinced that the story was just the figment of Gyurcsány’s imagination. After all, they said, Gyurcsány uses these kinds of tricks to call attention to himself and his party.

Since the appearance of László Botka as MSZP’s candidate to be Hungary’s next prime minister, the left-of-center parties have been fighting each other instead of Viktor Orbán and Fidesz. Botka’s bête-noire is Ferenc Gyurcsány. He declared on many occasions that Gyurcsány cannot have a political role. In brief, he would like to have the votes of Gyurcsány’s followers without Gyurcsány. Two days ago Botka in an interview decided to join forces with those who consider Gyurcsány’s revelations bogus. “Gyurcsány must leave politics if he has no proof of the Russians’ having information about financial transactions that can be connected to Fidesz and personally to Viktor Orbán.”

MSZP’s position was that the allegation was simply not credible enough to hold hearings on it in the parliamentary committee on national security. Chairman Zsolt Molnár (MSZP) decided not to call a session to discuss the matter. Bernadett Szél (LMP), also a fierce opponent of Gyurcsány, agreed. As they put it, they’re not getting involved in a political soap opera.

That was the situation until today, when Bertalan Tóth, leader of the MSZP parliamentary delegation, announced that his party will after all demand hearings on the issue. Both Viktor Orbán and Ferenc Gyurcsány, he said, will be invited to testify. Molnár added that he wants information from the civilian and military secret services as well. Gyurcsány responded promptly, saying that he would attend as long as Viktor Orbán also makes an appearance, which, let’s face it, is unlikely. However, he is willing to personally and officially hand over all information in his possession to the chairman of the committee.

Depending on the nature of the information, this development might have very serious consequences. The only thing that is not at all clear to me is why the MSZP leadership suddenly changed its mind and now supports a further probe into the issue. One possibility is that they came to the conclusion that since Orbán will not attend, Gyurcsány would also refuse to testify. In that case, it would be patently obvious that his stories were inventions. Perhaps that would ruin his political career, which would make their job of getting rid of him simple. I’m sure they were not expecting Gyurcsány to offer to share all the information he has about Orbán’s possible criminal activities. What will happen if the accusations are credible? That may improve his standing, which would not be in the interest of MSZP, whose popularity, despite Botka’s month-long campaigning, is stagnating. MSZP has embarked on a dangerous journey, and no one knows at the moment where it will end.

May 5, 2017

Charles Gati: “Even the most talented diplomat cannot sell junk”

This is a translation of an interview with Charles Gati, senior research professor of European and Eurasian Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, which originally appeared in Magyar Narancs on April 20, 2017 under the title “You cannot circumvent the elite.” The English translation was published by The Budapest Sentinel on April 24.

Hoyt Brian Yee, Deputy State Secretary at the United States Department of State, was recently in Budapest to meet with the Hungarian government. While here he also raised the issue of Central European University (CEU), and confirmed to the press that Fiona Hill, Donald Trump’s advisor responsible for Russian and European affairs, also supports the CEU matter. Is the university remaining also important to Trump?

What I know is that the State Department agreed with the White House, and that in the White House the National Security Council, which deals with matters of foreign policy and security, supported advocating for the university to a great extent. Of course, this does not mean that the president personally requested this — it’s good if an American president devotes half an hour a year to Hungary. He wouldn’t have time for any more. Hungary’s significance in American politics today is minimal.

What changes have taken place to the State Department since the new president took office?

There are fifty or sixty positions at the State Department filled by political appointees. They have started assuming their positions. However, there is no change in those officials who deal with Hungary in the European department. One or two might be transferred. These experts continue their work independent of the person of the president or party. Deputy Secretary Yee is such an official and counts as the most important operative person in this field. He holds the same position now as at the time of Obama.

The Hungarian government recently recalled Réka Szemerkényi who represented our country to Washington the past two years. What is your view of the ambassador’s work?

Even the most talented diplomat cannot sell junk. An ambassador can stand on her head and it would be of no significance since the experts here know precisely what the situation is in Hungary, how close the Hungarian government is to Putin, how much it tries to undermine the European Union, and how little it contributes to the cost of NATO. I see lobbying the same way: it may be that, of the 535 congressmen, one or two manage to issue a statement. The vast sums of money spent on this by the Hungarian government is actually a complete waste.

What do you think explains the fact that in recent weeks the American president has acted in a manner diametrically opposed to what he promised during the campaign?

The most important question these days is really how long Trump’s political somersault will last. There have been as many changes in a week as Orbán — an ultraliberal in his youth — in a decade. Moreover, among the fresh changes are a number that pertain to Hungary. Trump wooed Putin during the campaign, mentioning him as a potential friend of America. And yet he incurred the anger of the Russian leadership by ordering the bombing of the Syrian airport. One of the most important statements of the campaign was that America would move its embassy from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem. These days we don’t hear anything about this. There was also talk that Hillary Clinton should be imprisoned. But these days he has to be more concerned that it is his people who will end up behind bars. A few days was enough to persuade himself that NATO is not a thing of the past. All of this indicates that the president is starting to move in the direction of the traditional foreign policy of the Republican Party. But in the Republican Party there are two truly important directions. The one is the conservative line near to Wall Street, which back in the day was more or less represented by George W. Bush. The other is the national line, whose nationalist rhetoric Trump made his own during the campaign. Although a nationalist direction won him the election, one senses more and more a Wall Street mentality in his politics. This is especially important from a foreign policy point of view since the direction opposes the politics of isolationism, which was one of the main program points on the side of the nationalists.

What could have caused the change? Did Trump realize that governance is more complicated than he thought? Or was he worried about getting into trouble after it turns out that many of his confidantes conspired with Russian leadership?

The majority of the people around him represent Wall Street: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and all the economic people. On the other side is the representative of the national side, Steve Bannon, who is more and more marginalized in the government. Trump did not understand politics when he assumed the presidency. In certain economic questions he was an absolute beginner, and he has woken up to this fact. The best example of this was when he said about the restructuring of the health-care system he “didn’t know that it was so complicated.” An unprepared and naive president assumed power in America, and now we are seeing a certain willingness to revise certain things.

But don’t these changes alienate him from those who voted for him?

It could easily be the case that sooner or later things go wrong with his electoral base. But it is not yet clear where this is leading, or what group of voters he is trying to win over.

In September 2012 Obama said he would interfere in Syria in the event chemical weapons were used. However, when he should have done so the following year, he stepped back instead. The Obama government explained this by saying that instead of a military attack it was using diplomatic means to persuade the Assad regime to give up chemical weapons. The chemical attack at the beginning of April indicates that the Syrian government retained these kinds of weapons. How does this reflect on Obama’s foreign policy?

In actuality this was the worst episode of Obama’s foreign policy. But when Trump went against his own promises, on the one hand he wanted to prove that he could fix the mistakes of his predecessor, and on the other demonstrate that the photos of destruction and the murdered children touched his soul. However, it is difficult to say whether any conclusions can be drawn from this regarding the foreign policy of the next months or years. The experts are now saying that this was a one-time strike and that we should not calculate with another intervention.

I cannot argue with this, but I have to say that I was personally affected when Trump responded in a human manner to the Syrian events. After all, children died, and it also turned out that Assad lied when he said he had given up all his chemical weapons. In my eyes, this increased Trump’s stature as a person, even if this action did not make him greater politically.

But is some sort of Middle East strategy starting to emerge from his actions? Not long ago he spoke about how he would like to repair US relations with the Gulf countries, and he provided support by telephone to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and supposedly distanced himself from moving the embassy to Jerusalem at the request of King Abdullah II of Jordan. All of this suggests that he is trying to contain Iran’s regional efforts, in alliance with the region’s Sunni leaders 

It is also difficult for me to say anything about the Middle East. A boastful, unprepared man assumed the White House who is incapable of delivering on what he promised. He campaigned on a promise to immediately terminate the Iran nuclear agreement, but he hasn’t done anything. He also said that he would take care of the Islamic State in a few days, but he had to wake up to the fact that this affair is much more complicated than he thought.

Construction of the wall planned for the Mexican border hasn’t started either.

Nevertheless, there are alarming developments here as the authorities are separating families. It is possible to hear a number of stories about parents whose children were born in the United States having no choice but to leave the country without them. This is the insensitive practice that is consistent with his promises. True, immigration policy did not become as cruel as many foretold during the campaign.

Today’s Trump believes China is no longer manipulating the yuan . . .

For now that is the most important change. After he met with President Xi Jinping, he said he understood why he doesn’t do more against North Korea, and he sees that this is a serious question. So there is some hope that relations with the world’s second-largest economy, which of course is still a dictatorship, will improve. This would be extremely important, because the world at this moment is perhaps more dangerous than at the time of the Cold War, and Chinese-American cooperation, which hopefully one day probably after Putin, Russia will also join, is our best hope for world peace in the coming years.

Is there no place for Europe in this constellation?

So long as the European Union is on the defensive and is this divided, it can only play a side role in matters of great strategy.

Who has the greatest influence over Donald Trump?

In many questions his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is the standard, but I would say that in foreign policy it is rather his National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster whose opinion counts. He thinks differently on many issues than the resigned Michael Flynn. McMaster is an old and respected member of the Washington national security elite.

This means that the current change in direction can be attributed to chance? If Flynn had not been compromised by his Russian connections, then would we be seeing a completely different American foreign policy?

These are not by chance. The decision to name such a serious and knowledgable person as McMaster in Flynn’s place was deliberate. The situation is that it is not possible to circumvent the Washington elite. Politics is a profession practiced by qualified people. It is not possible to charge in from New York’s Trump Tower and say we are reordering the world. The president also realized that power is limited. But it is important that the national side has not found sufficient support. Trump may have won the election but he received three million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton. His support is altogether 40 percent, which is far lower that of his predecessor during the first couple of months. The institutions are not giving in. A West Coast court was able to veto the ban on people arriving from Muslim-majority countries because even those sympathizing with Republicans clearly stated that the ban is unconstitutional. Congress rejected the law overwriting the health insurance system. The American press also uniformly condemns the Trump government. So American political culture is asserting itself, and the system of checks and balances is working well. Trump reacts to opposition by searching for more serious answers to the problems at hand.

The Guardian recently wrote that the Democratic Party is worsening its future chances by trying to drive out politicians practicing Bernie Sanders’ politics. The newspaper believes James Thompson of Kansas could have won a seat in Congress, but that the party did not even try to support his campaign, and this is why he failed.

I do not agree with this. In the state of Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff has a good chance of winning in an early election where so far Republicans have been the favorite. He, on the other hand, received a lot of support from the party. It is not as though the Democrats are that clever, but they benefit from Trump’s weakness even if there isn’t a fresh, new face behind which to line up party supporters. Sanders had a lot of followers. My oldest grandson also supported him, but my feeling is that he is a socialist. It is not possible to win an election in America with a social democratic program.

April 27, 2017

Viktor Orbán’s latest war is turning out to be a big mistake

Yesterday I ended my post by saying that, according to the latest public opinion poll conducted by the Publicus Intézet, within a few months the number of Hungarians who think the Orbán government’s foreign policy serves Russia’s interests tripled from 9% to 26%. That is a dramatic change. Given the mood in Budapest, I assume that this trend will continue. B. György Nagy, who reported on Publicus’s findings in Vasárnapi Hírek, titled his article “They made a big mistake with the Russians.” That is, Orbán’s decision, for whatever reason, to court the Russians has backfired badly. The government media’s overtly pro-Russian and anti-Western propaganda, the government’s undisguised admiration for Vladimir Putin, the population’s ambivalent feelings concerning Paks–all these have shaken public confidence in the Orbán government itself. The war on Brussels, on George Soros, on Central European University, and on civic organizations has only compounded these problems.

The events of the last two days have increased pressure on the government. We just learned that a Russian diplomat knew ahead of time about Magomed Dasaev’s planned vigilante act. Former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány announced on Friday that there are credible grounds for Vladimir Putin’s alleged blackmail of Viktor Orbán, and today he held a press conference where he further elaborated on some of the details of the evidence he claims to have. Another demonstration against Russian interference in Hungarian affairs is going on this moment near the Russian Embassy. (The police cordoned off a large area next to the building.) The Party of the Two-tailed Dog staged a hilarious anti-government demonstration, reported on by major media outlets all over the world. On top of it all, the massive propaganda campaign against CEU and the NGOs has not shifted Hungarian public opinion. Where is the political wizardry of Viktor Orbán?

The “Stop Moscow” demonstration / Photo: Népszava / Gergő Tóth

Hungarians are not following the lead of the government when it calls them to wage war against Central European University. Although we often hear commentators claim that most people have no idea what CEU is all about, that’s not the case. According to Publicus Intézet, only 22% of Hungarians sampled hadn’t heard of the university and only 14% support the government’s plan to close it down. A sizable majority (63%) are against the government’s anti-CEU campaign.

Moreover, the overwhelming majority of Hungarians think that in a well-functioning democracy civic groups, representing the interests of the people, must exist. In fact, in the last three months the percentage of people who believe NGOs are important government watchdogs has grown from 68% to 74%. When it comes to foreign-supported NGOs engaged in political activities, the majority (57%) still support the government’s position on the issue, but three months ago their number was higher (60%). In general, 66% of Hungarians disapprove of the government’s shuttering of civic organizations.

The government is not much more successful when it comes to the campaign against George Soros. When in June 2016 people were asked whether Soros wants to topple the government, only 27% of the respondents agreed while 44% disagreed. Despite all the propaganda, Hungarians’ perception of Soros hasn’t changed much. Today 47% percent of the respondents don’t believe that Soros wants to overthrow the Orbán government and 32% thinks otherwise. The same Hungarians believe that Russia poses a greater threat to the country than the American-Hungarian financier. In November only 32% of the voters considered Russia a threat; by now it is 42%. On the other hand, the vast majority (close to 70%) have trust in the United States and the European Union. Somewhere along the way Viktor Orbán has lost his bearings.

Moving on to Brussels, today Michael Ignatieff, president of CEU, had conversations with Frans Timmermans, first deputy president of the European Commission, and Commissioner Carlos Moedas, who is responsible for research, science, and innovation. Tomorrow he will take part in an event organized by the four largest delegations in the European Parliament. On Thursday George Soros will meet with Jean-Claude Juncker and Commissioner Vĕra Jourová, who is in charge of justice, consumers, and gender equality. On Friday Soros will talk with Frans Timmermans and Jyrki Katainen, vice president and commissioner in charge of jobs, growth, investment, and competitiveness.

On Saturday the European People’s Party will hold a meeting to discuss the Hungarian situation. Manfred Weber, the leader of the EPP group, warned Viktor Orbán a few days ago that Fidesz’s membership in the EPP caucus shouldn’t be taken for granted. He emphasized that core principles such as freedom of research and teaching are not negotiable.

In addition, there will be a plenary session of the European Parliament devoted to the “CEU” law. Apparently, Orbán is planning to attend. Finally, we mustn’t forget about the serious investigation underway by the European Commission “on the state of democracy” in Hungary, where further sanctions against the Orbán-led country are expected.

I can’t help thinking that this cheap, domestically ineffectual propaganda stunt against Soros, CEU, and the NGOs was one of Viktor Orbán’s greatest mistakes, one that may eventually unravel the whole fabric of his carefully crafted political system. Whether it was inspired by Vladimir Putin, as many people suspect, or it was designed to boost the resolve of Fidesz’s core supporters ahead the election next year doesn’t really matter. It can only be described as a colossal blunder. I suspect that Orbán didn’t expect such a vehement reaction both at home and abroad.

I have no idea what Orbán’s next step will be, but for now the Soros bashing continues unabated in the government media. In fact, if anything, it has intensified. Last week the latest spokesman for Fidesz, Balázs Hidvéghi, claimed that within one year “George Soros pumped 1.2 billion forints [$4,187,172] into his agent organizations in order to build up a new oppositional body to make persistent attacks against the legitimate Hungarian government.” This is more, he added, than the amount of money parties receive from the government annually.

Perhaps there is some inner logic to Orbán’s recent wars, but from the outside they don’t make much sense.

April 24, 2017