Tag Archives: Vladimir Putin

András Kósa: The speech of the chief, Őszöd ten years later, Part III

Gyurcsány’s attempt to interpret the speech in Őszöd as the beginning of a new era

András Kósa, a well-known Hungarian journalist, recently published The Speech of the Chief: Őszöd after Ten Years, a collection of interviews with Ferenc Gyurcsány, former and current politicians, and political commentators. Interest in Gyurcsány’s speech and its impact on subsequent political developments doesn’t seem to wane.

A reader and friend of Hungarian Spectrum, Steven N., who is also a friend of Kósa, translated the interview with Gyurcsány for publication here. Since the interview was lengthy, I posted it in installments. The first and second have already appeared. This is the final installment.

♦ ♦ ♦

András Kósa: You know Vladimir Putin personally, as you’ve met with him on several occasions. What is the secret of the surprisingly strong relationship between the Russian President and Viktor Orbán?

Ferenc Gyurcsány: To answer this, it has to be noted that in the mid-to-late 2000s, the European Union and the Obama administration viewed Putin as a leader who was democratizing cautiously. During his first visit to Berlin, the entire Bundestag gave him a standing ovation. Then, in the Russian parliamentary elections in the fall of 2011, he had to pilfer 17 percentage points to be able to win. In the spring 2012 Presidential election, he again needed to cheat to attain a “victory,” though less so this time. I think these things have changed Putin. He realized that the policies he had pursued up until then did not automatically expand his power, so he launched a campaign of harsh repression at home (including the killing of journalists and political rivals, remaking the Russian criminal code, and restricting the freedom of assembly), and again began to assert the conquering pursuits of Great Russia. I have not changed: I’m not critical of Putin because I’m in the opposition. My relationship towards him did not change until the summer of 2012. We even met in Moscow with our families then. But I don’t like this Putin now. Orbán, by comparison, has taken the opposite route: when the world trusted Putin more, he was very critical of our cooperation. Then when the world increasingly kept its distance from Putin because of what I said earlier, he became one of his main allies. I think the only thing that’s happened here was that Viktor Orbán was looking for partners for his foreign policy, and he found one in Putin. If I want to go against Brussels (which was Orbán’s big foreign policy shift after 2010), then – being the Prime Minister of a small-medium-sized country – I need partners to do this, and Putin is perfect for it at the moment. The current Polish leadership is also an excellent partner.

Is it “only” this?

The possibility that money and corruption are behind the good relations between Viktor Orbán and Vladimir Putin cannot be ruled out. Maybe it also greases their relationship. But it’s not the main reason.

As Prime Minister, you had insight into intelligence-related matters: would it be possible that the large intelligence agencies, for example Russian or American, could not find out pretty much anything about any kind of personal or perhaps business matter, or the financial situation, of the current Hungarian Prime Minister?

If they wanted to, they could find out pretty much anything. Of this, I have no doubt. If you’re asking whether these agencies are able to find out something that they could blackmail a Hungarian Prime Minister with, then I would say, yes, they could do that. Whether they’d use it or not, I wouldn’t be able to say. I didn’t come across these things during my own time in office. I did have very nasty disputes on energy issues with the American ambassador and with representatives of the government in Washington. They tried to talk me into this, that, and the other, but they didn’t venture beyond putting verbal pressure on me. Experts say that today around 600-800 people in Hungary are definitely working for the KGB in some capacity. This is not a small number. And their capacity is such that if they want to listen in on our phone calls, they can do it. If they want to know where we’re going and when, who we’re having dinner with and what we’re talking about, they can find out. I think that this coterie exerts a substantial influence on the world of Jobbik and Fidesz.

During your time in office, how big was this 600-800 number?

Roughly about half of that.

A two-speed Europe is forming right before our eyes, and for now we Hungarians seem to have a strong role on the periphery. In such a situation, in which we know that aid from the EU will be drastically reduced after 2020, how much can democratic ties loosen in Hungary, as well as in the region as a whole?

They won’t expel us from the European Union, but the processes can only really go in such a way that one group of countries will deepen its cooperation and head towards a federal Europe. While we remain on the periphery, as you said. Not only will they fund less and less of our finances, but also increasingly less attention will be paid to the social and general state of affairs here. Maybe I’m naive (since before 2010 I also didn’t expect that such a radical transformation would occur if Fidesz ever came into power), but I can’t really imagine what more the government could do in such a transformed EU. You can’t turn off the internet. There’s hardly any openness as it is. Under European circumstances, the police can still not just come into my apartment, and the authorities can’t take away my assets and businesses. I think that Fidesz has pretty much gone to the wall. It’s possible, of course that they’ve already figured this out, because what’s happening right before our eyes is a march towards a semi-authoritarian regime. János Kádár’s cloak stretches extremely far in this regard.

What do you mean?

We Hungarians signed on to what we thought was a highly successful, but nevertheless dishonest, historic compromise. Hungary was the only place in Eastern Europe where (in our so-called “soft dictatorship”) there wasn’t open repression that affected the masses. The “happiest barracks” was built on an immoral pact in which the authorities said: there are three things that you can’t touch. There’s a one-party system, 1956 was a counter-revolution, and the Soviet troops in Hungary protect the peace. Otherwise, you are more or less free to live your life, you can travel somewhat, the shoe stores have shoes, the meat shops have meat, and you can even tell political jokes too. This somewhat conflated the oppressor with the oppressed, which is why the majority of the country now reacts so permissively to political tyranny. Viktor Orbán correctly senses that it’s not the lack of democracy that will crush his regime. This issue has remained a cause only for the upper segment of the political class. Poor governance of the country leads to poor performance: healthcare, the educational situation, and a lack of prospects, shockingly low wages, and increasing vulnerability in the workplace – these are much more dangerous to Orbán than the fact that public television has become the television station of the ruling party. They’ll change the channel to something else.

Why is it that in Hungary charges of corruption don’t harm the government?

One reason is that Byzantine culture has maintained itself right up until the present time: if the powers-that-be dip into the common goods but some of it still occasionally comes my way, then I won’t be so strict with the rules all the time on my own level – this itself is in the tradition of Byzantine culture, which can still be found here. Moreover, the entire political class is considered corrupt – so what’s the difference? But there’s a much more tangible reason as well: the public prosecutor here has a monopoly on prosecuting cases. Péter Polt essentially refuses to launch any kind of investigation, so every initiative comes to naught. The system today is itself built upon corruption; it doesn’t have just a speck of corruption, but is its very essence. Everyone in Fidesz knows about it, everyone knows who is corrupt and in what way, but they condone each other’s actions. Finally, it’s because the opposition has not been very successful with these matters. In any case, Péter Juhász, the representative of the Együtt Party, has done more in this area in the past few years than the rest of us put together.

Will you be Prime Minister of Hungary again?

I won’t rule it out.

Would you want it?

I don’t have such a strong desire for it right now. I did have it in 2004, no question. I am grateful to fate for letting me be Hungary’s Prime Minister, but it now also has a strong desire for this democratic and civic alternative which I represent to gain a large base of support. It has a stronger desire for this now than it does to make me Prime Minister once more. I can feel good about imagining my life in a way that I remain a Member of Parliament and not have any higher power than this. But it’s devilishly hard to predict what fate will bring in 2022 or 2026. I’ll be 66 years old in 2026: this is still an active age as a politician. I am fortunate because my ambitions and opportunities are just now coming together.

You were once considered one of the most promising politicians in Hungary after the regime change of 1989, and then your name became associated with one of its biggest scandals. What was this experience like for you?

If I could be objective, I’d say: it’s my personal misfortune. But there’s no anger inside me towards anyone. For those who go into this career, it doesn’t hurt to be aware that such things can happen to you. Looking back, I don’t lament about how much of what happened to me was fair or not. Or how much was my fault, or how much was due to chance or a malicious conspiracy by others.

What was your responsibility?

To start with, I took over the government at the head of a party that I was not compatible with, neither culturally or in terms of mentality. This was encoded into what happened later.

When did you realize this? That you weren’t compatible with your own party.

When things started to go bad for us after 2006. And when I saw that Fidesz owed its success, among other things, to being able to fight its battles as a large singular unit, which we were not capable of. When Orbán gave his ultimatum after the Őszöd speech was leaked, that if they do not remove me as Prime Minister within 72 hours then he would put so much pressure on MSZP that we couldn’t hope to be able to bear it, I naturally called together the leaders of the Socialist Party. And I had to admit that there were some in the leadership who wanted to comply with Orbán’s demand purely out of fear. In that regard, of course, they were honest enough to indicate as much – and so the decision was made for me to ask for a vote of confidence against myself in Parliament. But after this, I felt that the party had completely changed: not standing up for introducing the doctor’s visit fee, not arguing for it or explaining it, but fleeing from it. This showed me that the party could not handle the struggles that I urged them to fight for in the Őszöd speech. I had convinced them right then and there. I got their votes, but I couldn’t get their hearts. If you don’t believe in the story, in the hellish debates, in the struggle – then what is it in politics that you do believe in?

We do love conspiracy theories, so since you’ve already brought up the 72-hour ultimatum of October 2006: many contend that with this step Orbán truly brought you back into the game from a losing position. If he had been slower and more patient then and there, he could even have succeeded with the ruling coalition ridding itself of Ferenc Gyurcsány. But after such an ultimatum, MSZP could not have done anything else but reinforce your position three days later in a Parliamentary vote of confidence.

I prefer to believe in the truth contained in a non-public poetic treatise by Orbán that we learned about from the Wikileaks cables, stating, “If you can kill your adversary, and don’t put it off.” I don’t think that today’s Prime Minster, who was the leader of the opposition at the time, delivered this ultimatum in order to keep me in office. He did it because he had assessed the courage of the Socialists pretty well, and he saw a chance that they would back away from me.

There is also an interpretation that you two need each other mutually in a political sense, as a clearly tangible image of each other’s enemy.

I know that to this day there exists this Orbán-Gyurcsány parallel, which really does hold up in two respects. With respect to our origin, we both came from a provincial town and from poverty, and were both first generation intellectuals. But more importantly, we have taken completely opposite routes since coming to Budapest: Orbán became jealous of the downtown elite – he felt that they had taken something from him. Even to this day, he views the metropolitan intellectual elite with contempt. But I admired them. The way I saw it, it was like, “Damn, you can live this way too! Then why would I do it any other way?” We’re also alike in that both of us are strong characters who live for politics. This is true. But there are no similarities between our respective visions. Nor between the systems that we want to build. I think that Viktor Orbán started as a very promising European-minded democrat, and I even saw very many things in him to admire. But from then on he has become an increasingly authoritarian figure who left behind everything about him that was respectable. I came from the youth organization of the state party, so there’s no doubt that he could label me a “communist” (while even before the regime change we had said that we wanted a multi-party system, just more cautiously and slowly, unlike Fidesz at the time), but on this basis I became a wholehearted democrat.

It is said that the reason why Viktor Orbán and Robert Fico understand each other so well (though they have different ideologies within their party’s family structure) is because both are opportunistic, populist politicians who always view a particular situation in terms of the techniques of power, and analyze how to exploit it to their benefit. After Fico was elected as Prime Minister for the second time (freeing himself from the nationalist Slovak National Party), he was able to “turn towards Europe” after 2012 and develop good relations with Brussels. Do you think Viktor Orbán would also be capable of the same in a particular situation?

I wouldn’t rule it out. The turnabout he did in Hungarian-Russian relations in connection with expanding the capacity of the Paks nuclear power plant, in a very short time and managed so successfully (the right-wing voting base, having previously been extremely suspicious towards the Russians, adopted a basically pro-Russian stance two months later, according to polling) speaks for itself. I do absolve Orbán on a very small point, and can self-critically say: it is of course important to be principally and morally committed in politics (which I think I still represent to this day), but it should not be taken too far. I took it too far. It’s perfectly normal for a politician to think about what his voters give him a mandate to do and not to do, no matter how correct he may be. When Orbán said to the Christian Democrats, “However right you are in regards to banning abortion, no matter how much it may be your fundamental position as a principled Christian, if we do this we’ll lose the elections,” I think he was completely right to say it. It wasn’t that I thought: “These Hungarians have become accustomed to free health care while they hand out gratuity money to doctors. I have to convince them to do things differently.” But before that point I should have thought about whether I could convince them, and if not, what good would it do if I lost and then they change it back? Because then I didn’t do anything. I was proud that I fought to justify myself even against the will of the majority. Viktor Orbán pushes terribly hard for the other half of this matter: he is capable of nearly any compromise on principle for the stabilization and extension of his power. Of course, he doesn’t rely on the discretion of the people, so he dismantles institutions that provide a check on democracy: even if they wanted to they wouldn’t be able to stop his intentions.

However, as a wealthy businessman, you sometimes say things like you know what it’s like to live on minimum wage, which it’s better to live poorly but honestly…

Why wouldn’t I able to know? A doctor doesn’t have to have a backache to be able to feel his patient’s pain. A teacher doesn’t have to be an idiot to be able to feel the suffering that his weakest student goes through studying for the next day’s lesson. A politician doesn’t have to live in misery to understand that public goods should be distributed on the basis of social justice. And I haven’t even spoken about coming from an apartment with a kitchenette, where our toilet was in the outer corridor, or a Christmas when we didn’t even have a donut to eat. And I don’t even have to add that a large part of my family still lives a life that is not even lower-middle class, but one beneath that. People I regularly get together with. I consider this comment a cheap intellectual slur if I ever happen to see it.

Do you have any personal relationships with right-wing politicians or opinion makers?

None.

Do you think this is normal?

Of course not. But this is because of a deliberate division of the country into two on Orbán’s behalf. We go along hearing phrases (from Orbán) like “the homeland cannot be in opposition,” while these are the most severe words you can say. This statement means that you do not consider another’s political existence as natural. You consider the other political side as an error that must be eliminated, and with their elimination you have less and less moral compunction. This is the endpoint of this process. And in turn, Viktor Orbán’s responsibility for making this concept more and more acceptable to the country cannot be overstated.

How do you think this final/fatal mutual distrust can be overcome? And would this generation be at all capable of doing it?

Certainly not with Orbán. The preamble to the current Hungarian constitution condemns the entire Hungarian left. Which is absurd. But I also do not think that a majority of Fidesz supporters and some of its leaders would not want a world that is much more relaxed than the one we have now.

Where do you think the country is now, ten years after Őszöd?

In its moral state ten years before Őszöd – I mean that it is in worse shape than before 2006. But Őszöd is not the primary cause of the moral deterioration. It’s a different issue whether it helped open up the way to letting what the authorities are now doing to the country hide in the cloak of legality. There is now a terrible atmosphere in the country, without any large, shared positive experiences or successes.

December 24, 2016

The great hope of the Hungarian right: Rex Tillerson as secretary of state

The revelations first disclosed by The Washington Post about possible Russian interference in the 2016 election to help Donald Trump win the presidency were received in Hungarian far-right circles with mixed emotions. Naturally, they identify with the president-elect, who is being portrayed by their media as Superman and the savior of the world. At the same time they find the possibility of Trump’s gaining the presidency with foreign help embarrassing. They even dug up a former secret service official, József Horváth from the Kádár era, who has close ties to Fidesz politicians. He announced with great confidence that “it is unlikely that the Russians intervened for the sake of Donald Trump’s victory.” Horváth’s expertise dates to the 1970s and 1980s, so he knows next to nothing about cyberspace or hacking. Even his reasoning is ridiculous. In his opinion, the claim of interference cannot be true because “such a hacker attack must have immediate legal and diplomatic consequences.” In the United States espionage is taken very seriously, but nothing has happened since the discovery of the alleged cyber crime. This nonsense was taken at face value by Magyar Idők, the government’s semi-official mouthpiece.

It is, however, Magyar Hírlap, the newspaper in which ranting demagogues like Zsolt Bayer and István Lovas publish their opinion pieces, that leads the way in Trump hero worship. Readers of Hungarian Spectrum are only too familiar with Bayer, but they most likely know little about Lovas, whom a couple of years ago I described as “one of the most unsavory characters in the Hungarian right-wing media.” Between 1976 and 1990 he lived in Montreal, Los Angeles, and Munich, where he was on the staff of Radio Free Europe’s Hungarian section. After his return to Hungary, he began working for decidedly right-wing publications. Although he has Jewish ancestry, he is an anti-Semite who received the Palestinian State’s “Objectivity” prize in 2002.

What Lovas cannot understand is how the CIA, which in 40 days will be under the thumb of Trump, dared to put forth a lie without any evidence of Russian support of Trump’s candidacy. The story is nothing more than “a long tale from the neoliberal/left-liberal Washington Post which regularly belches out fake news.” Moreover, Trump doesn’t care about the useless American intelligence reports and is ready to go against the “ruling elite,” which hoped that Trump would choose Mitt Romney, “one of the passengers on the irrational Russophobe hysteria train.” Romney is described by Lovas as someone close to the American defense industry who, if appointed secretary of state, would work hand in hand with the neocons already in the State Department.

But, thank God, Trump was brave and is rumored to have picked Rex Tillerson, an oil magnate and president of Exxon-Mobil “who has a good relationship with Russian President Putin.” Other less enthusiastic commentators describe the relationship between the two men as one of dependency. That is, Tillerson depended on his friendship with Putin to get oil deals done in Russia. Tillerson is described by politico.hu as the head of one of those Western companies who “were bowing and scraping before a man who had just shocked the world by violating international law” with the invasion of Crimea and who subsequently lobbied Washington to lift economic sanctions against Russia.

Rex Tillerson and Vladimir Putin are on very friendly terms

In connection with the nomination of Tillerson, Lovas attacks John McCain, The Washington Post’s “beloved Republican” who “called Orbán a fascist dictator” and who in an interview on Fox News called Putin “an aggressive character and a murderer.” McCain is “the mainstay of the genocidal U.S. policy in the Middle East.” Lovas wouldn’t be true to himself if he didn’t drag Israel into the discussion of Tillerson’s nomination. He cites an opinion piece titled “Thumbing Nose at Alleged Kremlin Debt, Trump Picks Putin’s Pal as Secretary of State” which appeared in Haaretz, adding that Jerusalem is bound to be disappointed by the choice of Tillerson.

A likely pro-Russian foreign policy naturally delights Lovas, although he sadly notes that the neocon John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, might become Tillerson’s deputy. “On our side” is also James Mattis, who is not really keen on the Russian president, “but we, supporters of Trump, are ready for compromise and we are satisfied with the fact that our sworn enemies feel that they are lying bleeding on the battlefield.” The sworn enemies of Hungary are, of course, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and the whole Democratic leadership. In his final sentence Lovas foresees the Democrats and Republicans like McCain one day standing before the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Perhaps the most bizarre analysis of Donald Trump’s alleged decision to nominate Rex Tillerson comes from Viktor Attila Vincze, who writes for Magyar Idők and other right-wing publications. The article, whose title “Is Donald Trump ready to be America’s Gorbachev because of China?” took my breath away, appeared in 888.hu. What on earth is this man talking about? When I hear Gorbachev’s name, my first thought is the collapse of the Soviet Empire, which Vladimir Putin hasn’t been able to accept to this day. Let’s hope that Trump’s presidency wouldn’t have such grave consequences for the United States as Gorbachev’s term did for the Soviet Union. But no, Vincze views Gorbachev as the far-sighted politician who decided to end the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Trump could end the unipolar world order with a diplomatic opening toward Russia “and toward other states” and perhaps, just like Gorbachev, he could end the war in Afghanistan. I assume Vincze would include Hungary among the “other states.”

If Trump wants to confront China, he has to change U.S. diplomacy toward Russia. Tillerson’s nomination “is the first significant step in this direction.” Vincze quite openly talks about Tillerson’s frustration over the sanctions that prevented Exxon-Mobil’s $500 billion deal with the Russian state company Rosneft. Obviously, Vincze doesn’t see any conflict of interest between Tillerson’s business dealings and his future role as secretary of state. Vincze hopes that Tillerson’s presence may result not just in the normalization of the relationship between Russia and the United States but also in a close friendship between the two countries. In this new world, Russia and the United States would be partners. This would put an end to the far too cozy relationship between China and Russia.

As you can see, the Hungarian right is very keen on close cooperation between Russia and the United States, and its spokesmen are counting on Donald Trump. The first sign that their hopes may be realized is Tillerson’s rumored nomination. If, however, the Washington Post is not just belching out another piece of fake news, this nomination is in danger of being blocked on the Hill, which may prompt Trump to go a different direction. That would sorely disappoint the Hungarian far right.

December 12, 2016

Hungarians on foreign affairs and the U.S. election

I’m very pleased with Vasárnapi Hírek’s decision to commission Publicus Research Institute to conduct public opinion polls. Its latest, which was published today, deals with Hungarians’ views on foreign policy in general and the European Union, the United States, and Russia in particular. In addition, Publicus asked people their perceptions of specific world leaders. And, since the poll was conducted just after the U.S. presidential election, they were asked about their reactions to the outcome.

I guess I don’t have to dwell on the Orbán government’s systematic hate campaign against the present U.S. administration and Viktor Orbán’s clear preference for Donald Trump as the future president of the United States. Moreover, Orbán’s incessant verbal warfare with the European Union is legendary by now. Yet, as we will see, all this propaganda hasn’t really paid off. By and large, the majority of Hungarians are still western-oriented and consider themselves friends of the United States. It seems that the engaging personality and reassuring presence of Barack Obama touched the Hungarian public. He is now the most popular and most trusted foreign politician in the country. And Orbán’s battles with the European Union haven’t made much of an impact on Hungarian public opinion either. Few people think that Hungary should be on its own, with independent foreign policy objectives.

Let’s look first at how much trust Hungarians have in foreign leaders: Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel, Donald Trump, and as the odd “man” out, the European Union. Among foreign leaders, Barack Obama is the clear winner: 55% of adult Hungarians surveyed have trust in him, 24% don’t. Putin runs way behind with 34% fans and 47% skeptics. Angela Merkel is truly unpopular in Hungary (21%), which is undoubtedly due to her policies on migration.

Of course, there is a marked disparity between right-wing and left-wing voters when it comes to their perceptions of foreign leaders. Far more left-wingers place their trust in Obama and Merkel than the average (65% and 47%) while Fidesz-Jobbik voters prefer Putin (50%) over Barack Obama (28%). The same is true when it comes to the assessment of Trump. His overall support is only 21%, but 36% of right-wingers welcomed his election.

Source: NBC news

Source: NBC news

I left the European Union to last. Hungarian public opinion is evenly split (46% for and 44% against) when it comes to passing judgment on its trustworthiness. Yet, when respondents had to pick only one “great power” to which Hungary should adjust its foreign policy, the European Union was the clear winner (53%). There is a small minority that would like to strengthen transatlantic ties and designated the United States as the country with which Hungary should have the closest relations (11%). Russophiles are an equally small minority: 11% would like to have Hungary committed to a pro-Russian foreign policy.

A small minority (14%) still clings to a separate “Hungarian road,” which I interpret as an independent foreign policy, which can be done only if Hungary is ready to abandon the European Union. But if that is the case, I don’t quite know what to make of a graph showing that 54% of the respondents don’t see any danger with a “Hungarian foreign policy (Hungarian road).” Clearly, a “go it alone” policy would be extraordinarily dangerous to the security and independence of Hungary. It is, of course, possible that the respondents misunderstood the question and simply thought that Orbán’s “fighting for national interests in Brussels” is what “Hungarian foreign policy” means.

Otherwise, Hungarians feel extremely secure. They don’t think that the far-away United States has a threatening presence in Hungary (70%), they don’t worry about the European Union’s encroachment (67%), and they don’t think that the Russian expansionist moves and threat to the Baltic states have anything to do with Hungary (58%).

The rest of the poll was devoted to the U.S. presidential election. First of all, almost 30% of the respondents knew so little about American politics that they couldn’t express an opinion on whom they thought would be better for Hungary, Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. Those who had an opinion were evenly split: about 30% for Clinton, 30% for Trump. Of course, given Viktor Orbán’s clear preference for Trump, the majority of Fidesz voters (53%) considered Trump’s election a bonanza for Hungary and only 18% thought that a Clinton presidency would have been better for the country. Interestingly enough, Jobbik voters’ view of the U.S. election was more “liberal,” if I may use this word. A third of the Jobbik voters sampled, that is about twice the percentage of Fidesz voters, considered Clinton a better choice for Hungary; only 24% thought that Trump would be better. From the point of view of Clinton versus Trump as far as U.S.-Hungarian relations are concerned, left-wingers considered Clinton (68%) a far better choice than Trump (7%).

Finally, Publicus wanted to know the mood of Hungarians after the election. Given Hungarians’ insularity, 23% of the sample was simply “not interested” in the election and 17% had no clue what is going on in the United States. Of the remaining 60%, 24% are “rather happy” over Donald Trump’s victory and 36% are “rather unhappy” with the result. It seems that their reactions didn’t depend solely on whom they thought would be better for Hungary.

Finally, a footnote to Orbán’s high hopes for greatly improved relations between the United States and Hungary. The Hungarian media learned from the Polish press that Polish President Andrzej Duda and Donald Trump had a conversation on Wednesday night and “the presidents also reportedly invited each other to visit their countries.” Trump called Poland “an important ally.” The next day, at János Lázár’s “government info,” a question was addressed to the head of the prime minister’s office as to whether Trump had phoned Orbán. After all, Duda and Trump had already spoken. Apparently, Lázár expressed his bafflement over the very question: what would the significance of such a conversation be, he asked. HVG pointed out that considering that Viktor Orbán was the only European prime minister who had expressed support for Trump at the time when Trump’s candidacy was a long shot, one would have expected Trump to get in touch with his fan in Hungary. The journalist added that Orbán was the first European head of state to congratulate Trump and “since then he has been constantly talking about the arrival of democracy in the United States” with Trump’s victory. “Apparently all that effort was not enough for a telephone call,” the reporter announced with a certain glee.

November 19, 2016

Russian disinformation in the pro-government Hungarian media

About two months ago I read a fascinating article published by Political Capital, a political science think tank, on Russian conspiracy theories and disinformation that circulate worldwide. On the whole the Russian effort is not very successful because few reputable conservative or liberal newspapers are willing to spread its propaganda. Not so the Hungarian pro-government newspapers, which often take Russian “news stories” at face value.

I have written several times about the Hungarian public’s gullibility when it comes to these theories. But it is one thing for an uneducated Aunt Mary or Uncle Joe to believe fanciful fabrications and quite another for pro-government newspapers to help spread the disinformation originating in Russia. In May of this year an English-language study titled Fog of Falsehood: Russian Strategy of Deception and the Conflict in Ukraine, edited by Katri Pynnöniemi and András Rácz, was published. One chapter, written by András Rácz, was devoted to Hungary. Naturally, the author concentrates on Hungarian reporting on Ukraine, but it is also a good source on the overall reporting practices of the official news agency, MTI, as well as publications like Index, Origo, Magyar Nemzet, and Magyar Idők. Since the study is in English and available online, there is no need to say much about it here, except that because MTI often relies on Russian sources, the news Hungarians receive on Ukraine goes through a kind of Russian filter. Since the Hungarian media is centralized and the Orbán government usually takes a pro-Russian position when it comes to foreign affairs, it should come as no surprise that papers that are in essence mouthpieces of the government will often regurgitate the pro-Russian attitudes of the politicians.

disinformation

Political Capital studied five pieces of disinformation circulated by the Kremlin. The first was in connection with the Maidan revolution of 2013-2014, which Vladimir Putin described as a far-right provocation. It was spread far and wide that the CIA organized the “Ukrainian putsch” in order to remove Putin from his position. The pro-government Hungarian media followed suit. From the very beginning Kossuth Rádió called the revolutionaries “terrorists.” One political scientist in the pay of the Hungarian government claimed that it was Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state, who dictated the names of the new Ukrainian cabinet to the U.S. Ambassador in Kiev. In Magyar Hírlap a right-wing economist took it for granted that the United States was behind the revolt.

The situation was the same when it came to the death of 298 people on the Malaysian Airline plane that was shot down, as it turned out later, by Russian or Russian-supported forces in July 2014. The Russians came up with all sorts of conspiracy theories to divert attention away from their own responsibility for the disaster. At that time Zsolt Bayer claimed that “even a child of average intelligence can figure out in three minutes that Putin is the one in this equation who had the least interest in the downing of the Malaysian plane.” One of the Orbán government’s so-called security experts, Georg Spöttle, claimed that “there was something on the plane” before it crashed. He based this supposition on a theory put forth by a pro-Russian internet site: that Dutch security forces had planted a bomb on the aircraft.

The pro-government Hungarian media also accepted Russian disinformation in connection with the assassination of Boris Nemtsov, circulated to deflect any suspicion of Putin’s complicity in the murder. The Russians offered several theories. One claimed that radical Islamists were behind the murder. The head of the Russian investigation committee was looking for extreme right-wing elements. Interfax talked about opposition business circles being behind Nemtsov’s death. The Hungarian right-wing media got the message. Gyula T. Máté, son of Gyula Thürmer, chairman of the Hungarian Communist Party, explained why Putin couldn’t possibly be involved in the murder and pointed instead to Ukraine. Zsolt Bayer embellished this story by adding that Nemtsov’s Ukrainian girlfriend had had an abortion and introducing a jealous lover.

The Hungarian pro-government media also picked up a story from the Kremlin-funded Sputnik, according to which two of the suspects of the terrorist attacks in Brussels were actually Belarussian citizens. Behind this bit of disinformation was a Russian-Belarusian spat over Belarus’s too friendly attitude toward the West at the time. Nonetheless, the official MTVA hirado.hu decided to run this bogus story, which was picked up from a historian who read about the brothers in Syrian and Tunisian internet sources. Magyar Idők also devoted a short article to the story, which in this case came straight from Pravda.ru.

Finally, there was the Russian attempt to blame the United States and George Soros for WikiLeaks’ release of the Panama Papers, which was considered to be a personal attack on Vladimir Putin. The Russian president himself in a question/answer marathon blamed the United States for the release of the Panama Papers, saying that “they will keep doing this anyway, and the nearer the elections, the more such stories will be planted.” The pro-government Hungarian media jumped on the bandwagon. Quoting Dmitriy Peskov, the spokesman for the Kremlin, Magyar Idők reported that American officials had apologized to Vladimir Putin for the release of the papers even before they were actually made available online.

These are just a few examples of Russian disinformation being spread by the Hungarian pro-government media. I’m sure that I could come up with many more if I spent a few days combing through the appropriate sources. The lesson? The Hungarian government has closely allied itself to Putin’s Russia. Orbán and his friends use a number of formerly pro-Soviet/pro-Russian journalists who studied in the Soviet Union or whose fathers spent years in Russia. They are fluent in the language and follow the Russian media closely. People of pro-Russian sentiment can be found on the left too, but after Orbán changed from being an avid Russian antagonist to an enthusiastic pro-Russian these left-wingers moved over to the Orbán camp. Thus, Gyula Thürmer, the arch-communist, by 2014 was supporting Fidesz, and his son, Gyula T. Máté, has a regular column in Magyar Hírlap. Strange things can happen in Orbán’s Hungary.

August 27, 2016

A CANDID INTERVIEW WITH HUNGARIAN FOREIGN MINISTER PÉTER SZIJJÁRTÓ.    PART II

Yesterday I covered only about half of the lengthy interview Péter Szijjártó gave to Index a couple of days ago. I talked about Viktor Orbán’s foreign advisers who are attached to the prime minister’s office and described U.S.-Hungarian relations, with special emphasis on Szijjártó’s relationship with Ambassador Colleen Bell and Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland. It is now time to move on to the Hungarian perception of Russia’s diplomatic and military plans. In addition, Szijjártó described at some length his ministry’s active support of even opposition politicians seeking political or business opportunities abroad. This claim came as news to many of us.

If we take Szijjártó’s comments on Russia at face value, the Orbán government has complete trust in Vladimir Putin. The conversation on Russian-Hungarian relations began with the reporter recalling recent statements about possible military threats from the east as well as the south. Does Szijjártó hesitate “to say that this eastern threat means Russia,” the reporter asked. The answer boiled down to the following. The Hungarian foreign minister “doesn’t think that Russia would decide on any threatening act against any of the NATO countries.” Therefore, the fears of the Poles and the inhabitants of the Baltic countries are based only on intangibles like past experience or geography. They look upon Russia as a “threat to their sheer survival.” Hungary’s situation is different: “we don’t consider Russia an existential threat,” he repeated several times. Therefore, he doesn’t think that “NATO soldiers should come to Hungary to defend us from Russia.”

How fast some people forget. It is true that Hungary, unlike Poland or the Baltic states, didn’t encounter Russian encroachment until 1849, but Hungarian aversion toward the Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union has been strong in the last two centuries. The Russian occupation of Hungary after World War II, which lasted almost 50 years, seems to have faded from Hungarian consciousness, and pro-Russian editorials have been abundant in the pro-government, right-wing media. The absence of fear of a Russian military threat can be at least partially explained by the fact that Hungary is no longer a direct neighbor of Russia. As Semjén Zsolt, deputy prime minister, said rather crassly at the time of the Ukrainian crisis in 2014, “It is a good thing to have something between us and Russia.” But, of course, the main reason for the current cozy relationship between Russia and Hungary is Viktor Orbán’s admiration of Vladimir Putin and his, I believe mistaken, notion that Hungary can act as a bridge between Russia and the European Union.

Although Orbán often quite loudly proclaims his opposition to the economic sanctions against Russia, time and again Hungary obediently votes with the rest of the EU countries to extend the sanctions. This was also the case at the end of June when the next six months’ extension was approved. So, not surprisingly, Szijjártó tried to camouflage Hungarian action by first saying that “the approval was reached at the level of deputy permanent representatives only and that it had to be accepted without any discussion because that was the expectation.” Soon enough, however, it became clear that the approval of the extension of the sanctions didn’t go exactly the way Szijjártó first described it. It turned out that there was in fact discussion “and at the beginning there were a few of us who were opposed to it, but the opposition melted away and at the end everybody accepted it.”

One segment in particular from this lengthy interview caused quite a stir in liberal circles. The conversation took an odd turn after a question about instructions the foreign ministry gives to Fidesz politicians when they go to Russia. The journalists were especially interested in Antal Rogán’s trip to Russia in May 2013. It was a secret trip to Moscow to discuss ways in which the Hungarian government could accumulate foreign currency reserves in Russian rubles because of the unstable position of the dollar. This trip created a scandal in Hungary. I wrote about it in “Viktor Orbán’s Russian roulette.”

Szijjártó, who at that point had nothing to do with the foreign ministry, couldn’t enlighten the journalist on this particular event, but he offered juicy information on all the assistance his ministry gives to politicians, and not just those who belong to Fidesz. He continued: “Perhaps it is surprising, but the Demokratikus Koalíció indicated that Ferenc Gyurcsány was going to China. It was the most natural thing for me to ask the Department of Chinese Affairs to put together some preparatory material for the former prime minister.”

Eorsi Matyas

That kind of information shouldn’t prompt an extended discussion in an interview, but in Hungary such simple and customary courtesy astounds everybody because it is so unexpected from the boorish lot that leads the country today. Once Szijjártó saw the astonishment on the faces of the journalists, he decided to tell more about the government’s generosity toward its political opponents. “But I can also tell you some breaking news! Recently I had a visit from Mátyás Eörsi, who lives in Warsaw and works as deputy-secretary general of an international organization called Community of Democracies. This organization has 18 members, among them Hungary, and Eörsi would like to run for the post of secretary-general, but he needs the nomination of his government. He asked me whether such a nomination would be possible, and I said: of course. I visited the prime minister and told him that this was a good idea. He said that [Eörsi’s] merits at the time of the regime change deserve respect even if we have since disagreed on many things.” It was at this point that Szijjártó learned that Mátyás Eörsi is actually a member of the Demokratikus Koalíció.

First, a few words about the Community of Democracies, which was established in 2000 at the initiative of Polish Foreign Minister Bronisław Geremek and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Its purpose is to bring together governments, civil society, and the private sector in support of democratic rules and to strengthen democratic norms and institutions around the world. As for Mátyás Eörsi, his political career is studded with important positions domestically as well as internationally. The English-language Wikipedia has a shorter and the Hungarian version a longer description of his political importance ever since 1990. Given Eörsi’s solidly anti-Fidesz political activities, his endorsement by the Orbán government is indeed a great surprise.

Eörsi, prior to the appearance of the Szijjártó interview, published an announcement of his nomination by the government on Facebook. Ever since, a fierce debate has been going on both in the media and among people on Facebook about Eörsi’s decision to seek the nomination from the Orbán government. There are those who find Eörsi’s move unacceptable. Among these is Christopher Adam, editor of Hungarian Free Press, and Tamás Bauer, formerly an SZDSZ member of parliament and nowadays a member of DK. Christopher Adam is worried that if he actually becomes the secretary-general of this organization he might not be able to publicly condemn Fidesz’s pro-Russian and anti-EU policies freely. Tamás Bauer argues about the inappropriateness of Eörsi’s decision because, while in democratic countries it is perfectly natural for a government to nominate for an international position someone holding different views, in this case we are dealing with a government that has completely destroyed democracy. Eörsi’s decision, Bauer continues, gives the false impression that Hungary is still a democracy. Thus endorsement is in the interest of Fidesz but not of Hungary. This is what Eörsi doesn’t understand, Bauer concludes. Zsolt Zsebesi in gepnarancs.hu called on Eörsi “not to be Orbán’s useful idiot.”

On the other side, Judit N. Kósa of Népszabadság expressed her dismay that the Hungarian political situation is so distorted that Eörsi had to explain why he turned to Szijjártó for a nomination. She expressed her hope that this is not just a trick from the Orbán government but that they truly mean that even an opposition politician can represent Hungary in the Community of Democracies.

Finally, today Ferenc Gyurcsány himself stood by Eörsi, also on Facebook. He assured Eörsi of his support but admitted that he doesn’t understand the government’s motives. “We shouldn’t doubt our colleague’s obvious decency…. It is not Eörsi who should explain the reasons for his action but Viktor Orbán. He should be the one who ought to explain to his own why he supports one of the symbolic representatives of the liberals, one of the leaders of DK for such an important position.” He added that Orbán may know that under the present circumstances it is unlikely that the board of the Community of Democracies will vote for a Hungarian secretary general because that would be considered an endorsement of Orbán’s regime. His final sentence was: “I would be glad if I were wrong . . .”

August 4, 2016

Russian propaganda aimed at weakening the European Union

The once fiercely anti-Russian Hungarian right and far-right have changed their tune in the last six years, encouraged by Viktor Orbán’s Eastern opening and his openly pro-Russian foreign policy. It was about two years ago that the Hungarian media began to look into some of the far-right internet sites which, as it turned out, used servers located in Russia. Some of these have since disappeared, but more than 90 such sites are still in existence.

Of course, Hungary is not the only target of Russian penetration within the European Union. In fact, I suspect that Moscow expends relatively little money and effort on Hungarian pro-Russian, anti-European Union, anti-American propaganda. After all, the Orbán government itself is doing its best to aid Russian subversive activities in Europe.

The European Union was slow to recognize and combat the ever-growing presence of Russian propaganda, which is tailor-made to influence public opinion country by country. This propaganda aims at turning EU member states against one another, a task made easier by the refugee crisis.

Last August the European External Action Service, which is the European Union’s diplomatic service, decided to set up a small task force, eight men and women, “to respond to massive Russian propaganda directed both at the home and at international audiences.” Although the group was supposed to start work on September 1, 2015, the EU allocated no funds for the project. Several members of the task force “are detached national experts, paid by their countries.” I hope that the EU is not pinning its hopes for combating Russian propaganda on eight people.

Meanwhile it was becoming increasingly evident that, just as in the case of the American presidential campaign, Russia is also directly meddling in European elections. The best documented instance of such interference occurred in Germany, where a Russian propagandist came up with a phony story about the gang rape of a German-Russian girl by Muslim refugees. The story ran just ahead of the German regional elections, and it may have contributed to electoral losses for Angela Merkel’s party. The “Lisa Affair” was a real eye-opener. Political analysts feared at the time that Moscow was planning something similar for the British referendum as well. Some also suspected that Russia was involved in the Dutch referendum vote, which rejected an EU treaty with Ukraine. Sputnik apparently hailed the result as “a step toward ‘Nexit.’” Speaking about Russia’s anti-German propaganda campaign, Jürgen Hardt, foreign policy spokesman in the Bundestag for the CDU/CSU alliance, said, “the underlying logic is that when you discredit Chancellor Merkel and Germany, you also weaken Europe.”

The Hungarian foreign policy analyst Botond Feledy, in an article written for Index, summed up the current goals of Russian propaganda. The aim is no longer persuasion, as in Soviet times, but to “pound it into the heads of Europeans” that (1) the West is weak, (2) democracy is useless and bad, (3) the United States is not an ally but only exploits Europe, (4) the West is decadent and has lost its values, and (5) the world order originally created by the United States is close to collapse. I don’t think I have to point out that Viktor Orbán is the perfect messenger of Vladimir Putin’s propaganda.

Disinformation coming from Moscow via Russian-financed sites occasionally gets reported as fact by Hungarian pro-government newspapers and the state television and radio stations. An excellent article on vs.hu lists current Hungarian sites that are most likely in the service of the Russian propaganda machine. Moreover, Russia is notorious for its thousands of trolls in the employ of the state who write comments on English- and German-language sites.

The European Commission is slowly waking up to the danger. EU officials now say that “Russian propaganda is powerful in all EU member states, [although] in some of them Moscow barely needed to make the effort, as local politicians are delivering its messages.” I assume Viktor Orbán is one of the highest-ranking members of that group.

The latest contribution to the analysis of Russian propaganda in the European Union is a study published by the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies, titled “The Bear in Sheep’s Clothing: Russia’s Government-Funded Organisations in the EU.” The Wilfried Martens Centre is the official think tank of the European People’s Party. This particular study focuses on Russian-established foundations, whose sources of financing are carefully hidden. The authors of the study describe them as “government-organized-nongovernmental-organizations” or GONGOs. They are based in Russia but can have numerous branches in EU countries. Money is also channeled to established European think tanks to influence political and intellectual elites. A prominent example of this kind of think tank is the French Institut de relations internationales et stratégiques, but there are several others.

Source: Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies

Source: Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies

All in all, the Russian threat comes in many shapes and sizes–from ordinary trolls to sophisticated think tanks. The authors offer a number of recommendations to combat Russian propaganda and disinformation. Mainly they suggest ways to strengthen the EU’s positive messages. But negative messages are incredibly powerful. Just think about those politicians who try to run a positive campaign. They quickly run into the buzz saw of negative advertising.

August 1, 2016

Meeting of great minds: Orbán welcomes Trump as savior of Europe

Hungarian commentators found Viktor Orbán’s endorsement of Donald Trump baffling. One of them, Szabolcs Panyi of Index, suggested that Viktor Orbán simply misspoke during his speech at Tusnádfűrdő/Băile Tușnad on July 23.

No one could have been so foolish, Panyi argued, as to endorse a presidential candidate who had just announced that he as president would disregard NATO’s Article 5, which is the cornerstone of the North Atlantic Alliance. Article 5 provides that an armed attack against one or more of the members of the alliance in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all. As far as Trump is concerned, those countries who don’t pull their weight in the alliance will be left in the lurch, among them Hungary with its measly defense budget of 0.7% (instead of at least 2%) of the GDP.

Then there is the story of likely Russian involvement in the release of damaging documents from the National Democratic Committee via WikiLeaks just a day before the opening of the Democratic Convention. It is a well-known fact that Trump is a great admirer of Vladimir Putin, whom he considers a strong leader who is “rebuilding Russia” and who “does his work well.” At one point Trump went as far as to say that, even if Putin hired people to kill his critics and opponents, “at least he’s a leader,” not like George W. Bush. Trump’s admiration of Putin has been amply returned. On several occasions the Russian president expressed his approval of Trump, and the Russian propaganda machinery is full of praise for Trump’s foreign policy ideas. His stance on NATO was especially well received.

The western media is full of stories that the Russians, by illegal means, are trying to tip the scale in Trump’s favor in the election campaign. (And, of course, today Trump egged the Russians on.) So, the endorsement of Trump by Viktor Orbán, who has been accused of being the Trojan horse of Russian designs on the European Union, is most unfortunate indeed.

For all of the above reasons Szabolcs Panyi believed that what Orbán said was not what he meant. Panyi came to that conclusion after seeing the video of the speech, where he discovered that Orbán had no written text in front of him and was trying to find an item among his notes. Panyi figured that the prime minister, in addition to talking about Trump’s ideas on terrorism, national security, and immigration, wanted to say more, but he couldn’t find his notes. Thus, his thoughts on Trump were truncated and misunderstood.

Viktor Orbán didn’t leave Panyi in doubt for long. Yesterday during the joint press conference with Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern he made himself crystal clear. Yes, he is supporting Trump wholeheartedly because he convinced that his election is in the interest of Hungary.

Reuters / Photo: László Balogh

Reuters / Photo: László Balogh

Orbán’s endorsement of Trump created quite a stir in the international media, and his comments yesterday were quoted in major newspapers worldwide. In the translation of Reuters, “the Democrats’ foreign policy is bad for Europe, and deadly for Hungary.” On the other hand, “the migration and foreign policy advocated by the Republican candidate, Mr. Trump, is good for Europe and vital for Hungary.” Actually, the original Hungarian, as recorded by Népszabadság, is even stronger: Republican foreign policy is good for Europe “and it means life for Hungary” while the Democrats’ foreign policy ideas “mean death for Hungary.” As far as Orbán is concerned, for Hungary “migration is not a solution but a problem … not medicine but a poison.”

Rumor has it that, over and above policy differences, Orbán holds a grudge against Hillary Clinton for her open criticism of his politics in the summer of 2011 during her visit to Budapest, which was followed by a letter written in December of the same year. As we know by now, Orbán neither forgets nor forgives. In fact, he is vengeful. It is enough to think of the fate of Gábor Iványi, head of the Methodist Brotherhood, or, for that matter, Ferenc Gyurcsány, whom he managed to discredit just because he lost a debate to him. Of course, in the case of the future president of the United States, Orbán is no position to play God, but he can embrace Donald Trump and verbally attack the despised Hillary Clinton.

Bill Clinton is not exactly a favorite either because the former president made a few nasty remarks about politicians who, like the Hungarian prime minister, “said he liked authoritarian capitalism, just saying ‘I don’t ever want to have to leave power’ – usually those guys want to stay forever and make money.” In addition, there is Orbán’s bogeyman, George Soros, who has a good relationship with the Clintons and just gave 25 million dollars to the Clinton campaign. All in all, there is every reason for Viktor Orbán to dislike Hillary Clinton.

There’s no question that Trump and Orbán have a lot in common. For instance, the same kind of crazy talk when it comes to protecting their countries against unwanted migrants. Yesterday, for example, Orbán announced that “Hungary does not need a single migrant” despite the country’s incredible labor shortage, while Trump talks about closing the door of the United States to all Muslims and, of course, building a “big, beautiful” wall along the Mexican border.

The consensus in Fidesz circles is that U.S.-Hungarian relations are already so bad that Orbán doesn’t risk much by endorsing Donald Trump. If Trump loses and Clinton wins, nothing will change. On the other hand, if Trump is the winner, he might remember kindly the only sitting European prime minister who openly and proudly endorsed a man who many of his colleagues deem unfit for and unworthy of the post of president of the United States.

July 27, 2016