Tag Archives: Vladimir Putin

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

Growing anti-Russian sentiment in Hungary

In the last couple of months the Hungarian government has been so preoccupied with George Soros’s evil empire that it has not noticed a shift in public opinion on its increasingly close relations with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Hungarians are getting fed up with Russian influence, which is noticeable wherever they look. In March, Publicus Intézet conducted a poll which revealed that the majority of Hungarians consider Viktor Orbán’s pet project, the extension of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant, to be contrary to Hungarian interests. Better informed people are convinced that the City of Budapest was forced to buy refurbished outmoded metro cars from Russia–cars that kept breaking down–in order to please the Russians.

When Bernadett Szél of LMP accuses Fidesz members of parliament of being Russian agents, when anti-Russian slogans are chanted at demonstrations, and when the Party of the Two-tailed Dog carries posters like the ones shown here, we can see that Orbán’s shameless courting of Putin’s Russia is starting to backfire at home.

By now many perfectly sane people are convinced that Orbán’s abrupt foreign policy turnabout when he was reelected prime minister in 2010 was not exactly voluntary. Until then, Orbán had been fiercely anti-Russian. Russian-Hungarian relations, way before Russia’s Putinization, were seriously strained during Orbán’s tenure as prime minister between 1998 and 2002. It took the socialist-liberal government years to normalize relations between the two countries. While in opposition, Orbán criticized any and all moves toward closer relations with Russia, especially Ferenc Gyurcsány’s friendly personal relations with Vladimir Putin after 2006. But then, in 2009, Orbán showed up in Moscow as the head of Fidesz to attend the congress of Putin’s party, United Russia.

It was Ferenc Gyurcsány who the other day said publicly what thousands of people suspect: that Vladimir Putin has something on Viktor Orbán which caused him to change course practically overnight. On April 8 Gyurcsány gave a long interview to Magyar Nemzet in which he claimed that “Viktor Orbán’s about-face can be logically explained only by assuming that the Russians are blackmailing him.” Upon further questioning, he indicated that he knows about certain aspects of Orbán’s life that might lend themselves to blackmail. On April 21 he went further in an interview on ATV’s Egyenes beszéd. “I know the following: the Russians have confronted the prime minister with certain facts and documents which are so embarrassing that he would think five times before he would reject Putin’s demands.” Those who are in possession of the documents can be forced to release them only if the documents are required as evidence in a court of law. Therefore, Gyurcsány continued, “the prime minister should sue me over this accusation if he thinks that what I’m saying is untrue. In that case, I will prove my assertion.”

This is a pretty startling announcement from a former prime minister, but the fact is that a fair number of commentators, politicians, and ordinary citizens have been convinced for some time that this recent Russian-Hungarian love affair raises red flags. Two politicians who were interviewed right after Gyurcsány, neither of them a Gyurcsány fan, didn’t reject the possibility. On the contrary.

Meanwhile an activist, Gergő Komáromy, to demonstrate his opposition to Orbán’s cozy relationship with Putin, threw (washable) yellow paint on the Soviet War Memorial, which stands on Liberty Square right across from the U.S. Embassy. Komáromy received a fine of 30,000 forints (around $100), a much milder sentence than Márton Gulyás got for a lesser act. But that was not the end of the story. A few days later Komáromy was contacted by a Chechen-born Russian citizen, Magomed Dasaev, who demanded a public apology. After Dasaev informed him that he is a nice Chechen but there are others who are not so nice and might be after him and his family, Komáromy readily agreed to a public apology both in Hungarian and in English. The video that was put online was a great hit among Russian internet users. In no time close to 200,000 people watched the Hungarian’s humiliation. For good measure even the Russian Foreign Ministry got into the fray, calling attention to the bilateral agreements on Soviet and Russian military memorials in Hungary.

That a Chechen decided to take things into his own hands and threaten a Hungarian citizen was too much even for András Stumpf of the conservative Válasz. He found the video “chilling.” The Fidesz government, which prides itself on being a “national government,” should be national now and raise its voice against a Chechen forcing a Hungarian citizen to be humiliated in front of everybody. The Russians “look upon this city as their predecessors used to. As a colony, their own little kindergarten. So, it is really time for all of us to be national.”

Bernadett Szél (LMP), a member of the parliamentary committee on national security, moved into action. She finds it unacceptable that neither the Hungarian intelligence community nor the prime minister speaks out against “Russian pseudo civilians telling Hungarian citizens how they can protest the government’s policies.” Her view is shared by Zsolt Molnár (MSZP), chairman of the committee. The committee will call on the Budapest police and the Office for the Defense of the Constitution for an explanation. What happened cannot be tolerated in an EU country, Molnár said.

Others called attention to mysterious Chechens showing up in Moscow. As Krisztián Ungváry put it, “In the beginning, the Chechen only asks; then he sends the head of a dead animal; and finally someone is hit by a car.” Attila Ara-Kovács recalled a group photo from 2006 on which one can see Anna Politkovskaia, Stanislav Markelov, and Natalia Estemirova. What they have in common is that by now all three are dead, killed by Chechen hit men. And, of course, there is the case of Boris Nemtsov, who was killed practically in front of the Kremlin, also by a Chechen. Putin, it seems, created a network of Chechen henchmen who do his dirty work. Given Viktor Orbán’s itchy palms and CÖF’s talk about civil war, the appearance of Hungary’s own Chechen is worrisome.

I assume that nobody is shocked after everything that has happened recently that the attitude of Hungarians toward Russia has undergone a dramatic shift. To the question “In your opinion, whom does the current foreign policy of the government serve first and foremost?” the percentage of those who named Russia tripled (from 9% to 26%) between November 2016 and April 2017 while the percentage of those who answered that the Orbán government’s foreign policy primarily serves the interests of the homeland has shrunk from 57% to 45%. But more about this fascinating poll tomorrow.

April 23, 2017

Hungary has no secrets from Russia? The strange story of the Yandex capture code

On April 8, 444.hu’s curious and internet savvy journalists, while looking at the government’s website where citizens can fill out the infamous “Stop Brussels” questionnaire, discovered that “personally identifiable information” (PII) is being passed on to Yandex’s Russian servers.

First, a few words about Yandex, a Russian multinational company specializing in internet-related services. It is the largest search engine company in Russia. It also performs services similar to those of Google Analytics, but it can perform certain additional tasks that Google doesn’t (and won’t): with a special setting it can collect “personally identifiable information,” a feature that is described by experts as marking the difference between capture and spying.

Citizens who choose to answer the Orbán government’s moronic questions online must give their full names, e-mail addresses, and age. Although the website assures respondents that their personal information is safe, that it is not given out to a third party, it is clear from the source code that this is not the case. Thus, what Antal Rogán’s propaganda ministry, which runs the website, did was against the law. But that’s only one of the many problems connected to using Yandex.

It is well known in internet technology circles that Yandex passed information to Russia’s state security service, FSB, back in 2011. Yandex also has a service similar to PayPal, which the Russian blogger Alexey Navalny used for donations he collected for an anti-corruption website. Yandex passed the names of the donors on to the FSB. It is also well established that in Russia there is no such thing as data protection. Any information Yandex and other Russian internet service providers collect is readily accessible by the security services. Therefore, Yandex is almost never used in western democratic countries. That the Hungarian government opted for Yandex lends additional credence to the hypothesis that Viktor Orbán, for one reason or another, is beholden to Vladimir Putin. He never misses an opportunity to give preferential treatment to Russian companies.

It didn’t take long after 444.hu made its finding public for the capture code to disappear from the site’s page source code. The discovery of the Yandex connection had to be embarrassing to the Hungarian government. Moreover, the removal of the capture code signaled that this was not just an innocent mistake or an oversight. It took the government a whole day to try to explain away Yandex’s capture code. They didn’t succeed. The statement concentrated on questions that had nothing to do with the problem at hand. For example, it claimed that “personal data and the opinions expressed are stored in a closed and unconnected manner.” In taking the capture code down, the government only wanted to avoid “malicious misinterpretations” in the future.

Source: Index.hu

The conservative mandiner.hu rushed straight to Yandex. Its president, Victor Tarnavski, argued that Yandex is really not a Russian company, a dubious claim considering that the company’s headquarters are in Moscow. He said that the data most likely ended up in Yandex’s data center in Finland. He added that it is “the duty of our clients to check the mode of capture.” The special function that allows the capture of personal data must be set by the user of the code–in this case, the Hungarian government.

Not surprisingly, the opposition parties were up in arms and demanded to know more. Zsolt Molnár (MSZP), chairman of the parliamentary committee on national security, indicated on Sunday, April 9 that he would ask questions about the case from the military and national security experts present at the regular Monday meeting the following day. Bernadett Szél (LMP), a member of the committee, asked the head of the Military National Security Service about the Russian code. He informed her that this is a domestic matter and he has nothing to do with it. Then Szél turned to the head of the Office for the Defense of the Constitution. Before he could answer, the deputy chairman of the committee, Szilárd Németh, abruptly got up and left the room, to be followed by all the Fidesz members of the committee. Thus, the committee no longer had a quorum, and the questioning had to be stopped. Szél was especially outraged. She said “apparently the prime minister of this country is no longer called Viktor, but Vladimir.”

In the wake of the scandal over the Russian code and the subsequent fiasco in the committee, leading Fidesz politicians treated the public to a series of ridiculous pseudo-explanations. Lajos Kósa said that “we don’t want to make a secret of how many people responded. This is not a secret even if Vladimir Putin himself counts them in the loneliness of the Kremlin.” He also expressed his surprise at the outrage of the opposition members of the parliamentary committee, saying that “when we say that the meeting ends we leave, but otherwise the opposition can shoot the breeze as much as they wish.”

As far as the government and Fidesz are concerned, we’ve reached the end of the story. However, Attila Péterfalvi, head of the Authority of National Data Protection and Information, is investigating the case.

Magyar Idők must have thought they were very clever when they ran a short article with the title “444 is spying.” They discovered that 444.hu, the internet news site, uses Google Analytics (just as Hungarian Spectrum does). The government mouthpiece wanted to know why 444.hu can follow its readers with “an American spy program.” This description of Google Analytics came from a right-wing blogger who claimed that Google, Facebook, Yahoo, “and practically all American internet providers report to the CIA, the NSA, etc.” So, what’s the problem?

I have no idea, of course, whether any personal information reached a data collection center in Russia. If it did, what could the Russian government do with such information? One thing that comes to mind is that they could construct a database (or add to a database they already have) that would allow the Russian propaganda machine to target Orbán voters, who are most likely susceptible to pro-Russian disinformation and propaganda. Given Russia’s passion for cyber warfare, disinformation, and propaganda, this hypothesis is within the realm of possibility.

April 14, 2017

The Orbán media on the U.S. air strikes in Syria

The reaction of the Hungarian government and its media to the U.S. missile strikes against a Syrian air base manifests its pro-Russian bias and its disappointment in President Trump.

Magyar Hírlap published a lengthy article, “Act of War or a Clear Message?,” on the international reception of the American move in which the dominant theme was the rejoinders of Russian politicians. The article started with quotations from President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and ended with Russian Foreign Minister Spokeswoman Mariia Zacharova’s detailed description of the Russian position on the issue. In between, the paper summarized the attitudes of the more important countries in Europe and Asia.

In the Central and East European region, the article covered only Poland and Hungary. Poland approves the move because it considers “the United States the guarantor of world peace and order. There are times when one must react and when actual steps must be taken.” By contrast, this was one of the few times that Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó struck a pessimistic note. Although “a U.S.-Russian agreement on Syria is not only in the interest of Hungary and Europe but the whole world … we have never been farther from such an understanding.” Judging from this statement, the Orbán government must be deeply disappointed with the way in which the Trump administration’s Russia policy is evolving. As for the use of chemical warfare, Hungary naturally “condemns it and hopes that it will not be repeated.” Szijjártó, unlike most of the journalists writing for the government press, didn’t question the Syrian government’s likely role in the chemical attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun, resulting in the deaths of 87 people. Even Viktor Orbán said a few meaningless words that carefully avoided any judgment on the attack one way or the other. He simply stressed the need for security and order.

As for the government media, news from Russia dominated the reporting. 888.hu even has a man in Moscow who reported straight from the Russian capital. He attended the press conference of the spokesman for the ministry of defense, who gave details on the American attack which, according to him, was not effective. He also reported from the foreign ministry and described Russian naval movement on the Black Sea.

The bias in Magyar Idők’s reporting in Russia’s favor is evident even in simple news articles. For starters, the author talked about an “alleged chemical attack” when by today, when the article was published, there can be no question that such a chemical attack did in fact take place. The article used the verb “to accuse” in connection with Assad’s role in the attack instead of “to maintain” or “to assert.” After reporting on the so-called events, the paper turned to a U.S. expert who works for an institute attached to the Hungarian foreign ministry. He is known to sympathize with the politics and ideology of the Republican Party. He noted the “great changes that have taken place in the policies of the American president,” policies that run counter to Russian interests.

Of course, from our point of view, the most interesting articles are the opinion pieces that allow us to gauge the views of pro-government, right-wing members of the media. I will start with a journalist whose op-ed articles often appear in Magyar Idők, Levente Sitkei. The piece’s title is “Sirens.” Sitkei compares the accusation that Bashar el-Assad waged chemical war against his citizens to allegations that Saddam Hussein stockpiled weapons of mass destruction. Since the latter claim turned out to be untrue, the implication is that the charge against Assad is similarly untrue. “In those days, he [Saddam Hussein] was the bad boy who could hear at least twenty times a day that accusation about himself until [the Americans] toppled his statue and hanged him.” Bashar al-Assad will not end his life this way because “he is only a pawn, a minor character.”

Sitkei claims that a photo of an ISIS fighter crying over the fate of the children in Aleppo is accepted as truth by CNN viewers, but when the same man on Russia Today tramples on a cross, it is labelled Russian propaganda. “Syria is not a state but a wretched, blood-soaked stage … where every move is carefully calculated by experts of a far-away country.” We all know whom he is talking about. As far as the chemical attack is concerned, Sitkei has his doubts about the veracity of the event because it was reported by activists of a civic organization with headquarters in Great Britain. So, it might be nothing more than simple deception. It might never have happened. Or, if it did happen, it might have been done by a rebel group. “The usefulness is what matters, not the truth.” In brief, the western world, and Americans in particular, lie.

The second opinion piece, which also appeared in Magyar Idők, was written by László Szőcs, formerly the Washington correspondent of Népszabadság. He portrays the civil war in Syria as a “proxy war” in which “the Syrian people have only a minor role to play.” The key actors in this fight are the United States and Russia, “the two most important factors of world politics.” I doubt that too many military experts or political commentators would agree with Szőcs on this score.  His conclusion is that no peace can be achieved in Syria “without a reconciliation between Washington and Moscow.”

Mandiner, a site run by younger conservatives but read mostly by hard-core right-wingers, is not convinced by the American claim that the chemical attack was carried out by the Assad regime. They found a brief note on Facebook from Jakob Augstein, a well-known German journalist, in which he criticizes journalists who praise Trump for his attack on Syria while at the same time talk about “the possibility of the use of chemical weapons.” Either we are sure or we’re not.

In the independent Hungarian media there is silence for the most part. Of course, they reported the events and covered Russian as well as American reactions, but no one wanted to express an opinion on the matter.

The pro-government media is largely anti-American and pro-Russian while the government is sitting on the fence, advocating a Russian-American understanding which Orbán and Szijjártó no longer believe is possible. I suspect that Viktor Orbán is starting to suffer from buyer’s remorse. Yes, the candidate he (and Russia) backed became president of the United States, but it seems that no pro-Russian policy will be forthcoming from Washington.

April 8, 2017

Attack on Central European University is part of an ideological struggle

In the last couple of days I have received several telephone calls from journalists. They wanted me to offer reasons for the attacks against George Soros, Central European University (which he founded), and the handful of non-governmental organizations that receive a few thousand dollars from him. Journalists who are less familiar with the Hungary of Viktor Orbán find the whole thing baffling, if not downright incomprehensible. What nonsense, one of them told me, to endow Soros with the power to move millions of refugees half the length of the continent in order to infiltrate the European Union and thereby change its ethnic composition. This is madness, he said.

As usual, ever since the news broke that the very existence of the Central European University is in jeopardy, all sorts of fanciful explanations for the government’s action have surfaced. One that gained some traction came from Lajos Bokros, chairman of the Modern Magyarország Mozgalom party. According to him, Vladimir Putin expressly demanded the shuttering of Central European University (CEU). Apparently, this theory circulated widely in the Russian media, which is where Bokros picked it up. Putin noticed that in the Russian, Ukrainian, and Georgian administrations there are just too many graduates of CEU, which seems to specialize in educating free thinkers and opposition leaders.

I for one doubt that such a conversation between Putin and Orbán took place, but I think we can safely assume that Viktor Orbán finds Vladimir Putin’s template attractive. The Russian president’s harsh measures against NGOs resonate with the Hungarian prime minister. Let’s face it, the Helsinki Commission, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, and Transparency International are thorns in his side. He has every reason to be angry: they keep winning cases against the Hungarian government and are therefore considered to be enemies of the present political system. How much easier the life of the Orbán government would be if all these organizations simply disappeared.

The only reason the Hungarian prime minister didn’t move against them with full force until now was his fear that the United States would put roadblocks in his way just as it did in December 2015 when several high-level U.S. diplomats descended on Budapest. They told Orbán that there would be serious consequences if he went through with his plan to erect a statue honoring the anti-Semitic Minister of Education Bálint Hóman. He caved. And most likely viewed the encounter as one of greatest humiliations of his political life.

When it comes to CEU, the reason for the government’s antipathy toward it is not as direct as in the case of the NGOs, but I’m sure it has been an irritant all along. First of all, in only 25 years this university has come to be regarded as one of the leading institutions of higher learning in Europe, whereas none of the other Hungarian universities managed to crack the top 500 on the World University Rankings’ list. This fact alone must rankle the Hungarian government. Moreover, CEU has an endowment of $888 million, making it one of the wealthiest universities in Europe. This means that, unlike the teaching staff at the other Hungarian universities, the 300 faculty members who come from more than 30 countries are very well paid.

CEU’s prestige in the region and even beyond aroused jealousy in certain Hungarian academic circles. They began to look upon the university’s faculty and students as a bunch of privileged snobs. The very fact that the language of instruction is English annoys some people to no end. András Bencsik, editor of the far-right Magyar Demokrata and a strong supporter of Fidesz, expressed his irritation by pointing out that, after all, the official language of the country is Hungarian. (Other countries, such as the Netherlands and Denmark, whose languages are spoken by too few people had the good sense to use English as the language of instruction in their universities.) Orbán, who recently announced that he wants to see only Hungarians in Hungary, would naturally recoil from the idea of a multi-ethnic, multi-language group of teachers and students using English as the language of instruction. What right-wing critics of the university don’t want to realize is that, in large measure, it is the language of instruction that made CEU’s entry into the top tier of European universities possible.

Another reason for Orbán’s dislike of CEU is that it is a private university in whose internal affairs the Hungarian state cannot easily meddle. Moreover, Fidesz politicians are certain, and not without reason, that the great majority of the students and faculty do not sympathize with the present Hungarian government. In fact, Fidesz and KDNP politicians expressed their belief that CEU is a university whose graduates are their enemies. As Péter Harrach (KDNP) said about the massive Sunday demonstration, “an international crowd demonstrated for a university that serves international goals. It has become obvious that [the university] is part of an ideological and political struggle and that it is the officer training school of an army that fights a hard fight in Hungarian society. This is the gist of it.”

Demonstration in front of the parliament building, April 4, 2017

And so, however despicable it may be, the Orbán regime’s hatred of George Soros and the people who believe in an open, pluralistic society is both rational and understandable. The antipathy is not new. Orbán has been harboring these feelings for a very long time, but only in the last couple of years was the international climate conducive to a frontal attack on George Soros. The refugee crisis offered Orbán an opening, especially since Soros was outspoken on the subject. Soros’s larger presence in Europe gave Orbán the opportunity to turn up the volume on his condemnation of Soros, who is meddling in the internal affairs of Hungary by helping his enemies. And, of course, Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States further emboldened the Hungarian prime minister, who was an early and ardent supporter.

People who are critics of the Orbán government are stunned. In a few hours parliament passed the amendments to the law on higher education, which make the existence of CEU in Hungary impossible. Although Fidesz spokesmen keep insisting that this was just a small administrative adjustment, this is not the case. CEU is supposed to fulfill two obligations. One is to establish a brand new university practically overnight in the United States. The other is that a bilateral treaty must be signed between Washington and Budapest, without which the university cannot accept any students after January 1, 2018. Neither demand can be met.

The insistence on a bilateral treaty prompted Hungarian opposition politicians and commentators to conjecture that the attack against CEU was manufactured for the sole purpose of forcing direct contact between the Trump administration and the Orbán government. These same people recall that Péter Szijjártó failed to meet anyone of importance at the State Department. That might be true, but he did manage to speak with two people who are very close to the president–Sebastian Gorka, Trump’s deputy assistant, and Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s former lawyer and now U.S. special representative for international negotiations.

Orbán certainly didn’t endear himself to the U.S. State Department with this move. Its spokesperson announced on March 31 that “the United States is concerned about legislation proposed by the Government of Hungary … that imposes new, targeted, and onerous regulatory requirements on foreign universities.” The United States urged the government of Hungary “to avoid taking any legislative action that would compromise CEU’s operations or independence.” After the passage of the amendments, the U.S. embassy in Hungary issued another statement today, saying that “the United States is disappointed by the accelerated passage of legislation targeting Central European University, despite the serious concerns raised by the United States.”

It is possible that the Hungarian government is dissatisfied with the Trump administration’s relative neglect of Viktor Orbán, who so far has not received any special treatment as a reward for his support. Just today we heard that Réka Szemerkényi, the Hungarian ambassador in Washington, will be recalled soon. 24.hu learned from diplomatic sources that the Hungarian government is dissatisfied with Szemerkényi’s performance because she didn’t manage to convince the State Department of the legitimate and non-discriminatory nature of the legislation regarding Central European University. We don’t yet have confirmation of these reports. When ATV’s journalist asked Viktor Orbán whether it is true that Szemerkényi will be recalled, he answered: “I don’t handle entanglements with women” (nőügyekkel nem foglalkozom). The crudity of the man never ceases to amaze me.

P.S. While I was writing this post, thousands of people were demonstrating in front of the parliament building.

April 4, 2017

Russian-Hungarian exchange of top security information

After a lot of suspense, the fate of Paks II, to be built by Rosatom and financed by the Russian government, has been settled. The European Commission threw in the towel. Admittedly, there is still a possibility that the Austrian government will take the case to the European Court of Justice as it did with Great Britain’s Hinkley Point Nuclear Power Plant. The British case is still pending, and a verdict against Hinkley Point might have some bearing on Paks II. But that is a long shot.

Although the specific points of the final agreement on Paks II are of great interest, here I would rather look at another, possibly nefarious instance of Russian-Hungarian relations: an agreement between Russia and Hungary “on the mutual protection of classified information.” News that this agreement would come into force on April 1 was announced on March 3, 2017 on the last pages of the Official Gazette. It was discovered by the staff of Magyar Nemzet. Interestingly, with the exception of very few media outlets, this agreement has been ignored.

What is even more surprising is that the agreement itself was signed in September 2016 without anyone noticing it. Bernadett Szél (LMP), for example, who is a member of the parliamentary committee on national security, had no inkling of the document’s existence. This is what happens when the opposition parties lack the resources to hire a research staff.

Of course, the agreement is not especially significant by itself because it only defines rules and regulations governing the transfer of secret information between the two countries. What is of considerable interest, however, is the extent of the working relationship between the Russian and Hungarian national security forces or, as the agreement states, “the competent authorities responsible for the implementation of [the] Agreement.” These “competent authorities” are the National Security Authority in Hungary and, in Russia, the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB), the successor to the KGB of Soviet times.

The agreement reveals that top secret documents change hands between Hungary and Russia which cannot be shared by a third party. How many such documents are we talking about? The agreement at one point states that “for the transfer of classified information carriers of considerable volumes of classified information, the authorized bodies shall, in accordance with the laws and other regulatory legal acts of their States, agree on the modalities of their transportation, itinerary and escorting method.” There are also detailed instructions about the destruction of certain secret documents, including the proviso that “classified information carriers marked Szigorúan titkos!/Совершенно секретно (Top secret) shall not be destroyed and shall be returned to the authorized body of the originating Party, when they are no longer deemed necessary.” All this indicates to me a close working relationship between the Russian FSB and the Hungarian NSA.

We don’t know, of course, what kinds of top secret documents are being exchanged by the Russian and Hungarian national security agencies. It is certainly not immaterial what kind of information the Hungarian partner passes on to the Russians, especially in view of Hungary’s membership in NATO and the European Union. In fact, Magyar Nemzet specifically asked the Ministry of Foreign Relations and Trade whether the Hungarian authorities gave information about the details of cooperation between Russian and Hungarian national security forces to the European Union and NATO. No answer has yet been received. Bernadett Szél told the paper that she was certain the Hungarians don’t pass any sensitive information on to the Russians and that the European Union and NATO are fully aware of all such exchanges between the two countries. I wish I were that confident that the Orbán government is playing by the book.

Tamás Szele in Huppa.hu is convinced that such an exchange of secret documents greatly favors Russia “because considering the weight and strength of the two organizations, it is hard to imagine the arrangement as one of cooperation between equal partners.” For Szele this means that “we have become unreliable diplomatic partners, surrogates of Russia with whom one cannot candidly negotiate or conclude secret agreements because everything that has been said or written will be in the Kremlin within an hour.” Let’s hope that Szele exaggerates, but as far as I know western diplomats are already worried about the trustworthiness of the Hungarian diplomatic corps. And as Attila Juhász of Political Capital, a political science think tank, said the other day, “the government seemed to have forgotten that Hungary is a member of the European Union and NATO. It replaced a friend with a foe, contemplating idly the growing use of Russian propaganda.”

Hungarian state media spread fake Russian news / Source: Budapest Beacon

There is another danger in this cozy Russian-Hungarian exchange of top secret information, which is the possibility that the Russians disseminate disinformation that may lead the Hungarian agents astray. Given our knowledge of Russian disinformation efforts in the United States and the European Union, I don’t think it is too far-fetched to assume such a possibility. The use of disinformation via the internet is one of Russia’s weapons in the destabilization of Europe.

The far-right Hungarian-language internet sites under Russian tutelage work hard to turn Hungarians against Western Europe and the United States in favor of Russia. This is bad enough. But the real problem is that the Hungarian government media outlets consistently join the chorus of pro-Russian far-right groups, which only reinforces the worst instincts of a large segment of the population. According to a recent study on the attitude of the Visegrád 4 countries toward Russia, “the Hungarian government disguises its pro-Russian stance behind a mask of pragmatism,” but there is reason to believe that the government media’s love affair with Russia is not against the wishes of the Orbán government. The Orbán government’s long-range economic and financial dependence on Russia in connection with the Paks II project further ties Hungary to Putin’s Russia, whose plans for Europe don’t bode well for Hungary either.

March 6, 2017