Tag Archives: Zsolt Németh

Viktor Orbán’s regime under fire at home and abroad

It is difficult nowadays to write a post about the Hungarian political scene since it is almost impossible to predict what may happen in the next few minutes on the streets of Budapest, which are again filled with demonstrators.

One thing I have been pondering today in view of the latest U.S.-Hungarian clash over the Central European University (CEU) is the Orbán regime’s total ignorance of the workings of the U.S. government. Throughout the presidential campaign, interest in the Clinton/Trump duel was just as intense in Hungary as anywhere else in Europe. Yet day after day it was apparent that a great many journalists as well as politically engaged citizens were unfamiliar with even the most basic principles of the U.S. electoral law. I found this depressing. But when politicians who are supposed to make decisions affecting U.S.-Hungarian relations are ignorant of how U.S. diplomacy functions, we are in real trouble. And unfortunately, this is increasingly the case.

In the last three years the whole Hungarian diplomatic corps was decimated, and their places were filled with party loyalists who had no diplomatic experience. But even those who in the past 20 years were in important diplomatic positions and who are considered to be Atlantists, i.e. working for better U.S.-Hungarian relations, can come up with mind-boggling idiocies. The latest example comes from Zsolt Németh, undersecretary of the foreign ministry between 1998 and 2002 and again between 2010 and 2014. Commenting on Hoyt Brian Yee’s message to the Hungarian government, he said that Yee’s report on the U.S. government’s support for CEU is “only an opinion and in any case we are talking only about a deputy assistant secretary. Moreover, as far as I know, he has held this position for the last few years, so we ought to wait for the answer of the present American administration as to whether we can sign an agreement that would make CEU’s continued work possible.” What dilettantism and what arrogance, said Zsolt Kerner of 24.hu. The Orbán government assumed (and of course hoped) that the American response still reflected the thinking of the Obama administration. But a few hours after Németh’s comment Mark C. Toner, spokesperson of the State Department, confirmed Yee’s message. The most important sentence of Toner’s lengthy answer to a journalistic question was: “We’re urging the Government of Hungary to suspend implementation of the law.” The message cannot be clearer. The simplistic view of the Orbán government that, for Hungary, “Democratic rule is bad, Republican rule is good” was once again proved wrong. How could Viktor Orbán have forgotten his bad luck with George W. Bush after 9/11 when his insensitivity or perhaps planned insult got him into deep trouble with the Republican administration for the rest of his term?

Viktor Orbán has been a great deal more successful in his dealings with the European Union. For years he has been hoodwinking the hapless “bureaucrats.” But the “Stop Brussels” campaign and the farcical questionnaire of the so-called National Consultation helped them see the light. At last the College under the chairmanship of First Vice-President Frans Timmermans decided “to take stock of the issues at hand, in an objective, facts-based and law-based manner” concerning “the compatibility of certain actions of the Hungarian authorities with EU law and with our shared values.” Timmermans outlined the issues the European Commission and Parliament considered troubling. Heading the list was the fate of Central European University, but right after that came the announcement that “the Commission … decided that it will prepare and make public its own response to the Hungarian Government’s ‘Stop Brussels’ consultation.”

The current European Commission

Moreover, Timmermans accused Hungary of not abiding by Article 2 of the Lisbon Treaty, which reads: “The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.” The sins of the Orbán government are numerous: its attack on CEU and the NGOs, lack of transparency of funding, asylum questions, disregard of human dignity and freedom, and a lack of respect for human rights, tolerance, and solidarity. Of course, we have heard all this before, but what’s different this time is that Timmermans announced that they will complete the legal assessment of the Hungarian situation as soon as possible and “the College will consider next steps on any legal concerns by the end of the month.” In the European Union, where everything takes months if not years, the Hungarian issue seems to have priority. The EU’s criticisms didn’t go unnoticed in Poland. Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski, in an interview with MTI, the Hungarian news agency, labeled Timmermans’ announcement “blackmail.” Péter Szijjártó called it a “pathetic accusation.”

I left to the end a development that I find extremely important. Viktor Orbán’s whole political system relies on a three-pronged parliamentary structure. Fidesz is the “center power” with two opposition groups on its flanks: Jobbik on the right and assorted smaller parties on the left, where the right and left have diametrically opposed ideologies. This was the situation in Hungary between the two world wars, which ensured the government party’s supremacy from 1920 to 1944. The genius of this arrangement is that these two poles, due to their ideological incompatibility, are unlikely to unite against the middle.

But in the CEU case Jobbik opted to join ranks with the left. In Hungary 25% of parliamentary members can demand a review of a law by the Constitutional Court, even if it has already been signed by the president. LMP decided to invoke this procedure to trigger a Court review of the new anti-CEU law. To reach the 25% threshold LMP needed to muster 50 votes. If only LMP (5), MSZP (28), and all the independents (11) were to vote for the initiative, they would come up short. But Jobbik decided to add its 24 votes. Demokratikus Koalíció (4), whose members sit with the independents, opted not to join the others because DK doesn’t consider the Fidesz-majority Constitutional Court a legitimate body. Thus, 64 members of parliament joined together in an action against Fidesz. Of course, the Jobbik spokesman emphasized that the decision was made only to save the rule of law in Hungary, and he kept repeating that this doesn’t mean an endorsement of George Soros or his university. But the fact remains that Jobbik decided to join the rest of the opposition. (At the time of the vote on the law on higher education they simply didn’t vote.) This Jobbik decision may have significant consequences.

As I write this, tens of thousands are demonstrating in Budapest, all over the city. The cause is no longer just CEU and the NGOs but democracy and a free Hungary.

April 12, 2017

Valiant efforts to sell Viktor Orbán’s version of 1956

Let me start with a brief summary of some events that will take place in Budapest and Washington on the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary of the outbreak of the Hungarian revolution of 1956. I’m certain that Viktor Orbán can never forgive fate that he was not the prime minister of Hungary on the fiftieth anniversary of that important event in the history of the international communist movement. After all, a fiftieth anniversary carries a great deal more weight than a sixtieth. Ten years later, Orbán is trying to compensate for that missed opportunity. Mind you, he was certainly not inactive on October 23, 2006, when he orchestrated a demonstration that eventually became a large-scale struggle between the inexperienced and ill-equipped police force and the rabble that had been egged on by Fidesz politicians for weeks. They had a second revolution in mind.

Now he is basking in glory, as if he and his kind had a legitimate right to speak about those days. The Orbán government has spent an inordinate amount of money both at home and abroad on the celebrations, but as far as I can see the results are meager. One of the Hungarian papers triumphantly announced that Hungary will have a very important visitor for the anniversary in the person of Polish President Andrzej Duda, who will appear alongside Orbán as he delivers his speech in front of the parliament building. The article made it clear that Duda will be the only foreign visitor in Budapest on that day. A rather interesting situation. Is it possible that the Hungarian government didn’t invite any foreign dignitaries for fear of being rebuffed and therefore settled for a show of Polish-Hungarian friendship that has an important message to convey to the rest of the world today? In any case, given the hype surrounding this not so significant anniversary, the absence of foreign visitors is glaring.

The Washington events are not faring any better as far as I know. The Hungarian government originally wanted to organize a conference on the significance of the 1956 revolution at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, but the Center refused to hold the event. Of course, it is hard to know what the management of the Center had in mind when it declined the request of the Hungarian government. There are a couple of possibilities. One is that the participants were mostly members of the government instead of scholars. The second complaint of the Center might have been the lopsidedness of political views of the participants presented to them. Well-known scholars of 1956 were most likely left out on ideological grounds. At the end, the conference had to be moved to the National Defense University, where it was held on August 12.

The theme of the conference was “1956: The Freedom Fight that Changed the Cold War—Geopolitics and Defense Policy.”  Donald Yamamoto, senior vice president of the National Defense University, and Réka Szemerkényi, ambassador of Hungary, welcomed the audience. The keynote speaker was István Simicskó, minister of defense. In connection with Simicskó it is perhaps worth remembering that he was the only member of parliament who voted “no” to Hungary’s joining the European Union in 2003.

Finlay Lewis, a journalist from CQ Now and CQ Roll Call, was the moderator of the morning session, during which Brigadier General Peter B. Zwack from the Institute for National Strategic Studies and the National Defense University, László Borhi, a historian from Indiana University, and Áron Máthé, vice chairman of the Committee of National Remembrance, Budapest discussed “Cold War Geopolitics and the Broader Context to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.” Peter Zwack’s only connection to Hungary is that he is the son of Péter Zwack of Unicum fame. He doesn’t speak Hungarian. László Borhi has written several books on U.S.-Hungarian diplomatic relations, but apparently he is far too close to Mária Schmidt. Áron Máthé is a fairly young historian who so far has published one book about a court case against a number of Arrow Cross men in 1967, which has nothing to do with 1956.

After a coffee break an hour was devoted to “the memory of the 1956 revolution and freedom fight,” during which “Time Capsule 1956—Revolt in Hungary” was screened and Imre Tóth, a member of the revolutionary government of 1956, spoke briefly. I didn’t manage to find anything about Imre Tóth’s precise role in 1956, but I heard from a friend that he might have been an employee of the ministry of foreign affairs, which was in utter chaos during October-November 1956.

After lunch were four more speeches, including one by Tamás Magyarics from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Magyarics’s specialty is U.S.-Hungarian relations.

On the same day the ribbon cutting ceremony of the “1956 Hungarian Freedom Fighters Exhibit” took place at the Pentagon. Present were U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense James J. Townsend, Ambassador Colleen Bell, Defense Minister István Simicskó, and Ambassador Réka Szemerkényi. Ambassador Bell delivered this short speech:

Good afternoon. It is my pleasure to be here today at such a special event. Ambassador Szemerkényi, Minister Simicskó, special guests and friends of Hungary, I am honored to be here.

As many of you may know, I serve as the U.S. Ambassador to Hungary and I have the honor of representing the United States and President Obama in Budapest. During the past two years, I have grown to love the Hungarian people and their devotion to freedom. I have had the pleasure of getting to know Minister Simicskó and greatly appreciate all he and the Hungarian Defense Forces do to make Europe a more free and democratic continent. Thank you for your contributions to NATO, as well as all of the other bilateral and multilateral exercises you participate in on a continual basis. The Hungarian military has deployed – and currently remains deployed – in Afghanistan, Iraq, Africa, the Balkans, and the Baltics. Even if our countries don’t always see eye to eye on all issues, our troops still stand shoulder to shoulder. Hungarian forces’ contributions to democracy and freedom help to make the world a freer place in which to live.

As friends and allies, the United States and Hungary share a faith in democracy. We share a common heritage, cherishing our rights not as subjects or vassals, not as dependents or followers, but as citizens.  We are citizens bound together by our love of liberty, and our willingness to serve.

That is why we are here today – to honor those very brave men and women who sixty years ago attempted to throw off the yoke of communism. Today, in a free Hungary, in the United States, and in many other places around the world, we honor their memory and sacrifices.

Thank you so much for joining us here today. Köszönöm szépen.

Finally, a controversial bronze statue depicting a young boy, a “Budapest Lad/Pesti srác,” will be unveiled on October 16 in Washington.

"The Budapest Lad" in Washington I guess they don't dare to show the rest

“The Budapest Lad” in Washington

The Budapest version of the statue "Pesti srác

The Budapest version of the statue “Pesti srác”

I must say that the Budapest version is a great deal better from an artistic point of view, but as the photo of the model for the statue demonstrates, these kids couldn’t possibly have known what the revolution was all about.

pesti-srac3I really should devote a post to the interpretations of the Hungarian Revolution put forth by Fidesz over the years. Initially, the party viewed the event as a “bourgeois democratic revolution.” But then the Fidesz leadership found their real idols, about 200-300 street fighters who were mostly working class youngsters and whose leaders as time went by became far-right spokesmen for those revolutionary times. They claimed that the real heroes and leaders came from their ranks, as opposed to those anti-Stalinist communists who were responsible, in the final analysis, for the outbreak of an armed revolt. Members of Fidesz have never been admirers of Imre Nagy. As Orbán said years ago, “Imre Nagy is not our hero.” For a while, they even contemplated removing his bust from a site near the parliament building.

These young street fighters did have a role to play in forcing the Nagy government to transform itself into a coalition government of sorts. But had the revolution been successful and had it ushered in a period of consolidation, these unruly groups would most likely have been quietly disarmed and eliminated. For Orbán and Fidesz, however, these kids and their intransigent leaders are the embodiment of 1956.

Of course, there will be speakers from Hungary at the unveiling: Miklós Seszták, minister of national development, Zsolt Németh, chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Hungarian parliament, and János Horváth, former doyen of parliament. Horváth was born in 1921 and left Hungary in 1956 for the United States. In 1992 he was the Republican candidate for Indiana’s 10th congressional district, which was a fairly hopeless undertaking against the Democrat Andrew Jacobs, Jr., who held the seat between 1983 and 1997.

Colleen Bell will also give a speech, which is somewhat strange since, to the best of my knowledge, Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, and Thomas Melia, USAID’s assistant administrator for Europe and Eurasia, declined invitations to the reception organized by Ambassador Réka Szemerkényi. Keep in mind that both of them have been and still are heavily involved in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy vis-à-vis Hungary. Their refusal to attend is not a good sign.

It matters not how many billions the Orbán government is ready to spend on this sixtieth anniversary extravaganza as long as the whole democratic world is watching what’s going on in Hungary with horror. As long as foreign observers and politicians look upon Viktor Orbán as an ally of Vladimir Putin and someone who wants to destroy the European Union. No amount of paint or bronze can cover the grime that has accumulated in Hungary in the last six years.

October 14, 2016

Love affair: Ambassador Bell on U.S.-Hungarian relations

U.S. Ambassador Colleen Bell delivered a speech before the members of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Hungarian Parliament on May 5. It was given behind closed doors, a decision, it would seem, of the Fidesz-KDNP majority urged on them by Zsolt Németh, Fidesz chairman of the committee. Ordering a closed session for such an occasion is unusual, and the Hungarian media–or more specifically Népszava, the only major newspaper to pay attention to the event–began speculating about the source of the decision. Some who were familiar with preparations for the event claimed that it was the ambassador herself who had insisted on secrecy, which seems unlikely since her remarks were promptly published on the U.S. Embassy’s website. The lack of coverage of the speech by leading pro-government publications also supports my suspicion that Zsolt Németh was not eager to make the content of the speech public.

Of course, we don’t know what kind of bad news or unpleasant messages Németh expected from the ambassador. In reality, her remarks were far too complimentary to the Orbán government. My recurring complaint about U.S. policy toward Hungary is that American diplomats fail to understand Viktor Orbán’s way of thinking. The Americans coat their criticisms with so many layers of sugary compliments that the casual reader has a hard time finding even the few mild criticisms. This is not the way to talk to Orbán’s entourage. Orbán and his minions consider such overly polite speech a sign of weakness, which only encourages further verbal aggression on the part of the Hungarian government.

Unlike some others, I am not surprised that Bell didn’t level any criticism of the Orbán government’s domestic policies in this speech. After all, it was delivered before members of the foreign affairs committee, and therefore it was focused almost exclusively on international
fishiesrelations. But refraining from criticism of domestic policy is one thing, sending unnecessary and most likely counterproductive love messages to the Orbán government is something else.

At the beginning of her speech she recalled that she arrived in Hungary in the dead of winter. Since then, she has worked with government and opposition politicians “so that together, out of that winter, we would force the spring. Our collective effort has succeeded.”

To demonstrate the excellence of U.S.-Hungarian relations, Bell reached back, probably to David Foster Wallace’s famous commencement address at Kenyon College in 2005, for her guiding image: “you may know the old joke about the fish who was asked one day, ‘So, how’s the water?’ And the fish replied, ‘Water? What the heck is water?’ This is how our alliance feels to us both, like the water we swim in, scarcely felt but all around us, our life support, our milieu.” Isn’t that a tad more than polite diplomatic language? This and similar undeserved praise throughout her speech blunted the few messages she delivered to the Hungarian government on Russia, Ukraine, and the handling of the refugee crisis.

As I said, one has to look hard to find substantive U.S. messages, but she was pretty clear on the American commitment to maintain sanctions against Russia. You may recall that Viktor Orbán, during his visit to Moscow, indicated to Vladimir Putin that Hungary would not support the automatic renewal of the sanctions. So let’s see what Bell had to say on this topic.

As many Hungarians reminded me, you need no introduction to the nature of Russian aggression. Your response has always been to show resolve. Our best weapons, in fact, are resolve and solidarity. They speak to our unity and our common purpose. Europe and the United States are going to continue to stand united, sustaining sanctions for as long as they are necessary, and providing assistance to Ukraine until full implementation of the Minsk agreement…. Hungary has made economic sacrifices to support Russian sanctions, and you have done so with the full awareness of their greater purpose. We in the international community know that sanctions are having a direct impact on Russia. As the United States and Hungary have both stated many times, Russia has a simple choice: fully implement Minsk or continue to face sanctions.

I read this passage with astonishment because this is not how I remember the recent course of Russian-Hungarian relations. Resolve to stick with sanctions? Just remember all the negotiations with Russia over handling Hungarian agricultural exports differently from those of the rest of the EU countries because, after all, Hungary is such a good friend of Putin’s Russia. Or, what about Viktor Orbán’s pronouncement that by voting for sanctions the EU shot itself in the foot? I assume from the words of the ambassador that the duplicitous Hungarian prime minister has already reversed himself. But do these “concessions” on Orbán’s part warrant all this lavish praise from the United States? I believe that such a reaction only encourages Viktor Orbán’s double games.

And the panegyric doesn’t end here. We learn that

Hungary has all the imagination, vision, and understanding to contribute substantially to collective security, to endow the global economy with its resources and its enterprise, and to broker solutions to conflicts that defy other statesmen. Whether it is the moral resolve that drives European unity on sanctions or the material sacrifice of investing more in your country’s defense to meet the pledge of the Wales Summit, Hungary is striving to meet some of the most critical challenges of the day. More than this, Hungary is equal to the great challenges of our times and the United States is counting on you.

The only conceivably critical sentence in the entire lengthy speech was the following: “Every sovereign nation has the right and an obligation to protect its borders. But every nation, as a part of the international community, also has a fundamental obligation to help refugee populations seeking safety. We commend the humanitarian spirit of Hungarian leaders, law enforcement and military personnel, and ordinary citizens who are responding to this crisis with generosity and compassion.” Even here, however, what started off as potential criticism ended up as praise.

We also learned from this speech that “Hungary and the United States share the view that our alliance is the cornerstone of our security, and that together, we secure a Europe that is whole, free, and at peace,” a rather surprising observation in light of Viktor Orbán’s relentless efforts to divide Europe, thus making it a potential target of Russian diplomatic machinations.

All in all, this speech, which bordered on the servile, didn’t show the United States in the best light. No wonder, therefore, that both Chairman Zsolt Németh and Deputy Chairman Gábor Vona (Jobbik) expressed their utmost satisfaction after the session was over. Németh noted that “a perceptible change” for the better has occurred in U.S.-Hungarian relations, while Vona specifically mentioned the attitude of the ambassador, who is “more open, more ready for consensus” than her predecessors.

Pro-government papers decided not to spend any time on the speech itself. I suspect the reason for their silence is what they would consider a shameful capitulation of their favorite government on several issues that are important to the United States: Russian sanctions, defense of Ukraine’s sovereignty, and a positive attitude toward Europe which should remain “whole.”

Instead, G. Gábor Fodor’s internet rag, 888.hu, picked up an English-language article by Daniel McAdams, the director of the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity, described by James Kirchick, a freelance journalist writing for The Daily Beast, as “a bevy of conspiracy theorists, cranks, and apologists for some of the worst regimes on the planet.” McAdams is no stranger to Hungary, having spent six years there as a journalist. During this time he was the editorial page editor of the Budapest Sun. McAdams also worked closely with John Laughland, who was described in Kirchick’s article as someone “who has never met a Central or Eastern European autocrat he didn’t like.” Laughland’s organization, the British Helsinki Human Rights Group, for whom McAdams was a rapporteur, has been fiercely defending Viktor Yanukovych, Alexander Lukashenko, and other similar shady characters. This group believes that “Washington is promoting a system of political and military control not unlike that once practiced by the Soviet Union.” The article by McAdams titled “US Ambassador to Hungary: Overthrow Assad, Let in Refugees, and Fight Russia … or Else!” is written in this vein. Obviously, members of the Fidesz media empire don’t like the chummy relationship between the evil United States and Hungary that they might extrapolate from the extravagant tribute the U.S. ambassador delivered.

If, however, the diplomats in Washington think that the attitude of the Orbán government toward the United States has changed dramatically in the last year or so because of the more accommodating new ambassador, they are wrong. I do hope that the staff of the U.S. Embassy in Budapest diligently follows Magyar Idők and Magyar Hírlap because these two publications are timely barometers of the thinking of the Hungarian government.

In today’s Magyar Hírlap, for example, Zsolt Bayer wrote an open letter to the citizens of the United States. He said that by now he’s keeping fingers crossed for Russia and that he thinks of the United States the way he used to think of the Soviet Union. The U.S. government is responsible for “the dreadful situation that exists in the world,” and all that “syrupy propaganda about democracy, world peace, and the greatness of the United States is truly unbearable.” There is, however, hope on the way: a man appeared out of nowhere “who wants to create a new America.” And this new America will give up its imperial ambitions and will be satisfied with a strong American national state. In brief, the United States will return to its former splendid isolation and will leave Hungary alone. This new great statesman who has discovered the key to saving the United States from itself is, of course, Donald Trump, for whom the Hungarian right, including the Fidesz top brass, will root in the next few months.

So, let’s not kid ourselves, please!

May 8, 2016

Zsolt Németh’s advice to the U.S. State Department

This is what happens if you go away for three days. You come back to find that the U.S. government has a simple binary choice as far as the refugee question in Europe is concerned. Either the White House follows the left-liberal solution of George Soros or it shares the views of the East European countries, which recommend a policy aimed at making Europe safe from Islamic terrorism. The former option leads to anarchy; the latter, to better relations between the United States and the countries of Eastern Europe.

This in a nutshell is the opinion of Zsolt Németh, whom western observers have viewed as a moderate, a man who considers U.S.-Hungarian relations important, and who has often criticized foreign policy steps of the newly reconstructed ministry of foreign affairs and trade under the nominal leadership of Péter Szijjártó. Nominal, because we all know that nothing happens in that ministry that doesn’t reflect the ideas and designs of Viktor Orbán.

So, what happened? In both the first and second Orbán governments Németh was the undersecretary of the foreign ministry, which basically means that he was the deputy foreign minister. But the newly reconstructed ministry had no place for Zsolt Németh, an old friend of Viktor Orbán dating back to their student days. He was one of the handful of people who established Fidesz as a student movement in 1988. After his forced retirement from the foreign ministry, he was apparently offered a job in Brussels as the head of the Hungarian embassy to the European Union. But, sensing that the office would not have any significant influence on the course of Hungarian foreign policy, he opted for the chairmanship of the parliamentary committee on foreign affairs instead.

Németh is no longer a critic of the Hungarian foreign policy that was formulated by Viktor Orbán and that came into full bloom after Péter Szijjártó became foreign minister. In fact, judging from his recent statements, he supports the present course wholeheartedly. What changed his mind? I suspect he fell prey to the seeming success of Viktor Orbán’s handling of the refugee crisis. At the moment he believes that the European Commission led by Jean-Claude Juncker and backed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel will not be able to get support for their policies and consequently will fail. Sentiment will start to shift toward Viktor Orbán’s ideas, so the Hungarian government should stick with Orbán’s plans come hell or high water. “The defense of the outside borders is a Hungarian brand that must be jealously guarded” and, I guess, broadly promoted.

nemeth zsolt

Németh was taken aback by the latest American message delivered by U.S. Ambassador Colleen Bell. From an interview with Népszabadság it looks as if he totally misunderstood the relative quiet in U.S.-Hungarian relations that set in with the arrival of Bell as ambassador and thus accuses the United States of returning to the “Goodfriend era.” Which he considers a big mistake. A wrong policy move. Instead of criticizing Hungary, the United States should “recognize the new situation that has presented itself in 2015” in the whole region. The United States “should look at East-Central Europe through appropriate glasses” because it is on the wrong track. Németh warns the United States that at present “a radical political rearrangement is taking place in the region” which Washington should recognize. In case U.S. policymakers don’t quite know what Németh is talking about, he explains that the tremendous electoral victory of Fidesz in 2014 and the results of the Polish election a couple of weeks ago indicate that a serious right-wing swing is taking place in Eastern Europe. The United States should simply accept that fact. Németh is warning Washington: don’t try to play the overseer of democratic norms here. You will only burn yourself.

Although I always doubted Németh’s commitment to the Euro-Alantic alliance, at least I used to think that he was politically sophisticated. But anyone who singles out George Soros as the chief culprit of the migrant crisis is not only creating an alternate reality but is also laying the Hungarian government open to charges of anti-Semitism. Of course, Németh is only echoing his boss. Viktor Orbán blames Soros for the crisis and accuses him of wanting to ruin Christian Europe by insisting on the integration of asylum seekers for demographic and economic reasons.

Anti-Semitism may not be explicitly voiced but, as László Kéri, a political scientist and former professor of Orbán, said on ATV on Monday night, Soros is the embodiment of the wealthy Jewish American. So when Orbán attacks Soros, everybody knows what he is talking about, even though he doesn’t say it outright. He is fanning anti-capitalism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Americanism. Far-right publications are already full of lists of state department officials of Jewish origin. And the pro-government Magyar idők says that “Soros’s partner-in-crime directs the U.S. ambassador.” The innocent non-Jewish American ambassador is being manipulated. At least this is what the author of an editorial in Süddeutsche Zeitung thinks. Orbán’s dragging Soros into this discourse is a case of anti-Semitism pure and simple.

One thing is sure. Supporters of European far-right parties find Viktor Orbán’s messages very attractive. A politician of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) quoted Orbán’s accusations against Soros approvingly on Facebook. The usual anti-Semitic comments followed: Zionist Jewish financiers are supporters of the immigrants and “rich American Jews take revenge for centuries of Jewish persecution in Europe.” The politician agreed, adding that she as a politician cannot voice such opinions but she is glad to read the brave and independent thoughts of others. The result: the politician was forced out of the party. Not even FPÖ would tolerate that kind of behavior. This is how far right Orbán has moved, even if only through coded messages.

Polak, Węgier — dwa bratanki / Lengyel, magyar – két jó barát–Not at the moment

Two days ago the media got wind of the news that Viktor Orbán was heading to Warsaw today to give a lecture on the Hungarian economic miracle before the Polish Chamber of Commerce, which bestowed on him the prestigious “Golden Umbrella” prize. I understand that among the earlier recipients were Lech Wałęsa, Bronisław Komorowski (today president of Poland), and Pope Benedict XVI.

There is a good possibility that Orbán’s original Warsaw schedule didn’t include a meeting with Ewa Kopacz, who only recently succeeded Donald Tusk as prime minister of Poland. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the Hungarian side asked for the meeting only recently. At least this is what I read between the lines of an article published two days ago that talks about “plans for a meeting with the Polish prime minister as well.” Orbán was also hoping to meet with Jarosław Kaczyński, chairman of the far-right Law and Justice party (PiS) and–at least until now–a great admirer of Viktor Orbán. Apparently, the Hungarians tried for two solid days to convince Kaczyński to meet with the Hungarian prime minister but he was unmoved. Mariusz Błaszczak, the leader of PiS’s parliamentary delegation, confirmed the party’s refusal to meet with Orbán, announcing that in their estimation such a meeting was out of the question given the present political situation. This is total reversal of PiS’s policy toward Orbán’s Hungary. You may recall the thousands of Poles in colorful folk costumes joining the Peace Marches organized to save Viktor Orbán’s premiership. As a Hungarian site gleefully remarked: We won’t see Poles demonstrating for Viktor Orbán and his party for a while. The reason, of course, is Viktor Orbán’s soft spot for Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Since the very beginning of the Russian-Ukrainian crisis Poland has been totally committed to Ukraine. We must remember that the western portion of Ukraine belonged to the Polish crown until the middle of the seventeenth century. As a Hungarian expert on Poland, Judit Hamberger, told Index, Ukraine for the Poles is something like Transylvania for the Hungarians. Polish public opinion is decidedly pro-Ukrainian and anti-Russian. In addition, Poles are great supporters of the European Union, joint EU defense forces, and a unified energy policy. So, they are for all those things Viktor Orbán hates. Orbán’s popularity in Poland plummeted when he stopped sending gas to Ukraine after he had a chat with the CEO of Gazprom, Alexey Miller.

Members of the Polish government share the sentiments of the Polish people. President Komorowski, no friend of PiS and Kaczyński, agreed with the leader of the opposition party when he recalled that “it was not a long time ago that certain Polish politicians considered Budapest an example to follow. Perhaps it is now worth their while to re-examine their positions.” Well, it seems that they did. Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna predicted that Orbán will have to pay a heavy price for his pro-Russian stance because, after all, the majority of Hungarians are against Orbán’s friendship with Russia. Naturally, the Polish media followed suit, from far-right to liberal. Rzeczpospolita, a center-right publication, declared that “Putin buried Orbán’s past,” meaning his famous speech in 1989 at the reburial of Imre Nagy. The liberal Gazeta Wyborcza accused Orbán of buying popularity at home by acquiring cheap Russian gas.

I have the feeling that the decision to arrange a meeting with the Polish prime minister was prompted by a report by Zsolt Németh, who happened to be attending a conference in Warsaw. It is one thing to feel important in the presence of President Putin in Budapest and quite another to be in Poland and feel its ire: parties, media, everybody. On the 17th Németh gave an interview to Index in which he emphasized the urgency of “explaining at the highest level that strengthening economic cooperation with Russia doesn’t mean that we want to withdraw from our support of European integration.” So, a meeting was quickly arranged which, as a Polish official remarked, couldn’t be refused under the circumstances.

It turned out to be a disaster for Viktor Orbán. Even his customary kissing of the lady’s hand didn’t help the situation. It seems that Orbán doesn’t do well with women, especially when they are in powerful positions. He had a pretty rough time with Angela Merkel. And I think that his meeting with Merkel was a cakewalk in comparison to what he had to endure in Warsaw. A Polish source, the television station TVN24, quoted Jacek Rostowski, head of the prime minister’s advisory team. “I think Prime Minister Orbán understood quite clearly what the position of the Polish government is.” And, he added, the Hungarian prime minister “didn’t receive any absolution.” On the contrary, “he was called to order.” In East-Central Europe they know that the polite, diplomatic language used in the western part of Europe does not work with this man. Rostowski wasn’t sure, but he hoped that Orbán understood the “very clear language of the prime minister.”

Kopacz and Orban2

Ewa Kopacz herself described the conversations as open, honest, and difficult. We all know what these words mean in diplomacy. The following quotation comes from a Hungarian translation. “As is customary between friends in an open and honest conversation, not avoiding each other’s eyes, I told Mr. Orbán: the European Union and the unity of the Visegrád countries in the present grave Ukrainian situation is of critical importance. I think that a large country like Ukraine has the right to decide its own fate. In our common past we Hungarians and Poles always lost when force supplanted international law. I think that countries like ours, which twenty-five years ago thanks to assistance coming from abroad, with the help of western democracies regained their independence, owe a debt of gratitude toward those who are denied the right of independence.” The delivery was anything but friendly. Moreover, the Poles made sure that the flag of the European Union was stuck between the Hungarian and Polish flags. I’m sure they knew that this flag irritates Viktor Orbán to no end.

It must have been very difficult to say anything after that speech. Orbán was brief and concentrated on the Minsk Agreement.”European unity is built on that agreement which Hungary will support and defend to the very end…. In this respect Poland can count on Hungary.” But I’m sure this will not be enough. The Poles want Orbán to condemn Russian aggression against Ukraine and support the EU position without any “ifs and buts.” But it is unlikely that the “great freedom fighter” will oblige. How long can he sit on the fence?

Hungarian foreign minister in Washington: A stalemate

Let’s cut to the chase: neither the Hungarian nor the American position has changed despite Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó’s meeting with Assistant Undersecretary Victoria Nuland in Washington today. So far we have two brief reports on the meeting. The first was published in Magyar Nemzet; its source is HírTV, which sent its own crew to Washington for the occasion. The second is from the Washington correspondent of MTI, which I found in HVG. The former is a more expansive summary of what transpired between Nuland and Szijjártó, complete with direct quotations from Szijjártó himself.

What did we learn from this report? Despite repeated American explanations of why the U.S. government is unable to reveal the names of the individuals who have been banned from entering the U.S., Szijjártó was still hoping for such information. Here is Szijjártó in his own words: “I asked the government of the United States to share with us creditable information on the basis of which they accuse certain Hungarian citizens of corruption.” As long as there is no such information “we cannot move forward…. It is only the United States that can make the first move.” A stalemate. The United States expects the Hungarian government to clean up the country’s thoroughly corrupt behavior toward international businesses while the Hungarian government’s interpretation of the situation is much more narrowly defined. As far as the Hungarians are concerned, there may be some corrupt officials but unless the United States names these people the Hungarian government can do nothing. The only positive development, according to Szijjártó, was that Nuland did not repeat the threat uttered by Goodfriend that “if that trend continues it may reach a level where the United States can no longer cooperate with Hungary as an ally.” I do hope that Szijjártó doesn’t interpret this omission to mean that Goodfriend made an empty threat  because I’m almost certain that if Hungary stonewalls, other harsh steps will be taken against the Orbán government. And for the time being stonewalling seems to be the Hungarian diplomatic strategy.

The MTI report was more upbeat. Who knows why Szijjártó changed his story, but he did. No more talk about who will have to take the next step. Instead, he emphasized his government’s willingness to fight corruption and said that in this fight the two governments can count on each other. Economic and military relations between the two countries are excellent. According to Szijjártó, Nuland was full of praise for Hungary’s decision to supply gas to Ukraine. There was an interesting remark made in passing. It turned out that Nuland brought up some specific criticisms of certain pieces of Hungarian legislation, but Szijjártó brushed these objections aside as being irrelevant because they have been accepted and approved by the European Commission.

György Szapáry, Hungarian ambassador to Washington, and Péter Szijjártó MTI / Ministry of Forreign Affairs and Trade / Tamás Szémann

György Szapáry, Hungarian ambassador to Washington, and Péter Szijjártó
MTI / Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade / Photo: Tamás Szémann

What did the Hungarian government know about the coming storm? It seems a lot, and not only about the corruption cases. One had to be blind and deaf not to notice the growing dissatisfaction of foreign governments with the Orbán regime. One also assumes that Hungarian diplomats do their job and write reports on the current attitude toward Hungary in their host countries. Of course, given the atmosphere in government offices in the Orbán regime, it is possible that the ambassadors don’t dare tell the truth. Still, although there was a stream of denials of any wrongdoing and everything was chalked up to Hungarian liberals’ squealing and turning against their own country, I believe they knew full well that trouble was brewing all around. And yet Népszabadság‘s Ildikó Csuhaj, who seems to have good Fidesz sources, claimed today that Viktor Orbán himself knew nothing about the NAV affair. One wonders how much disinformation from “reliable” Fidesz sources lands on Csuhaj’s desk. This seems to be one of them.

Although there was plenty of evidence of growing U.S. dissatisfaction with Viktor Orbán’s policies, he did not change his ways on issues that seemed important to Washington. He even ignored Zsolt Németh’s warning. I wrote about a conference held in Washington on October 2 where one of the speakers was Németh, an old friend of Orbán–at least until recently, who received a very chilly reception. It was here that Victoria Nuland delivered the speech I republished in Hungarian Spectrum. Today Németh decided to speak and tell the world that he had forewarned Orbán about the impending bomb that might be coming from Washington. The interview with Németh appeared in Válasz. In it Németh expressed his hope that “several of the questions surrounding the [NAV] affair will be cleared up.” (As we know by now they were not.) Hungarian right-wing journalists dismiss corruption as the real cause of the present situation. In their interpretation the reference to corruption is only a pretext. Válasz‘s reporter also wanted to know whether the real reason for the ban on corrupt officials is Viktor Orbán’s relations with Russia. Németh wouldn’t dismiss corruption entirely, but he thinks that in addition to the Russian connection there are other very irritating issues: the NGOs, Hungary’s attitude toward Ukraine, the Russian sanctions, and the speech on “illiberalism.” Németh sensed all that, and on his return to Budapest he informed the foreign minister–still Tibor Navracsics then–and the prime minister of his experience. At the end of the interview Németh indicated that a new chapter should open in U.S.-Hungarian relations: “we are right after the election, both countries will send new ambassadors. Let’s see the good side of this affair: we are at a point from which we can take off.” Although not in so many words, what Németh suggests is an entirely new Hungarian foreign and domestic orientation.

Németh is most likely right. I can see no room for improvement in U.S.-Hungarian relations if the Orbán foreign policy proceeds apace. I even have my doubts about improvement if Orbán makes some adjustments in his domestic and foreign policies. By now Orbán strongly believes in his vision of a new Hungary in which liberalism has no place. This new Hungary is an authoritarian country with pseudo-democratic trappings. He is also convinced in the declining West and the rising East. He will not change course. He really can’t. He is what he is. He can never satisfy the demands of western democracies.

Just to reinforce my point about Orbán’s mindset, here are two pieces of news about the latest Hungarian diplomatic moves. Hungary may be experiencing a serious diplomatic crisis with the United States but the foreign ministry just announced that Hungary will open a cultural and commercial agency in Northern Cyprus, a “country” recognized by only one country, Turkey. This move might make Hungary’s relations with two EU countries, Greece and Cyprus, less than friendly. This is a gesture toward Turkey, whose “illiberal democracy” is a thorn in the side of western democracies.

The second diplomatic move also sends a not too cordial message to the United States. Two days ago the Iranian Tasmin News Agency announced that a Hungarian parliamentary delegation is scheduled to pay an official visit to Iran. The visit will be fairly long. The delegation is headed by deputy speaker János Latorcai (KDNP). The invitation to the Hungarians was extended by the deputy speaker of the Iranian parliament Seyed Mohammad Hassan Abu Torbifard. It is interesting that reports of controversial Hungarian diplomatic moves usually don’t appear in the Hungarian press. Hungarians hear about the events from the other countries’ news agencies. From a later Tasmin News Agency report we learned that Latorcai had a meeting with the chairman of the Iranian parliament’s national security and foreign policy commission, Alaeddin Boroujerdi. According to the report, Boroujerdi made the following comment during their conversation: “the illogical and wrong policies adopted by the US and its regional allies have caused the spread of terrorism and instability across the region and their continuation has turned terrorism into a global concern.” As for Iranian-Hungarian relations, the Iranian politician said that “the two nations have great potential for the enhancement of relations in the political, economic, and cultural fields.” Latorcai, for his part, emphasized that “Budapest is determined to strengthen its ties with the Eastern nations, with Iran in particular.” One must wonder whether these diplomatic moves are the result of inexperience or, as I suspect, are designed to irritate Hungary’s allies and flaunt the country’s total independence. Whatever it is, this attitude will eventually lead to diplomatic disaster. It’s just a question of time.

Péter Szijjártó’s foreign policy ideas

As I was searching for news on Péter Szijjártó, I found the following very funny headline on a right-wing site I had never heard of before called Jónapot kívánunk (We wish you a good day): “Péter Szijjártó will meet Fico in our old capital.” Why is it so funny? Because from the eighteenth century on the Hungarian nobles complained bitterly about the Habsburgs’ insistence on having the capital in Pozsony/Pressburg, today Bratislava, instead of the traditional center of the Kingdom of Hungary before the Turkish conquest, Buda. Pozsony/Pressburg was closer to Vienna and more convenient for the kings of Hungary to visit when the diet convened, which was not too often.

This trip to Bratislava is Szijjártó’s first since he became minister of foreign affairs and trade. During his quick trip he met Miroslav Lajčák, Slovak foreign minister and deputy prime minister, and Prime Minister Robert Fico. In the evening he visited the headquarters of Fidesz’s favorite Hungarian party in Slovakia, Magyar Koalíció Pártja (KMP). Fidesz politicians judiciously avoid Béla Bugár, co-chairman of a Slovak-Hungarian party called Híd/Most, meaning bridge. This party is not considered to be a Hungarian organization because its leadership as well as its voters come from both ethnic groups.

The encounter between Lajčák and Szijjártó must have been interesting: the Hungarian minister a greenhorn and Lajčák a seasoned diplomat, graduate of both the State Institute of International Relations in Moscow and the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. Just prior to meeting Szijjártó, Lajčák attended the conference organized by the Center for European Policy Analysis’s U.S.-Central Europe Strategy Forum in Washington and offered some introductory words following Victoria Nuland’s keynote address. This is the conference where the Hungarian participant, Zsolt Németh, had to withstand a barrage of criticism of Viktor Orbán’s government.

Péter Szijjártó and Miroslav Lajcák in Bratislava, October 7, 2014

Péter Szijjártó and Miroslav Lajčák in Bratislava, October 7, 2014

Szijjártó stressed the “strategic importance” of Slovak-Hungarian relations as the reason for his early visit to the Slovak capital. Mind you, “strategic importance” has become an absolutely meaningless concept in Hungary since 2010 since the Hungarian government signed perhaps 40-45 agreements of strategic importance with foreign firms. Szijjártó also pointed to “the success stories” shared by the two countries, such as cooperation in energy matters. The direct pipeline between Slovakia and Hungary is scheduled to open in January, although you may recall that before the election in April both Robert Fico and Viktor Orbán were only too glad to participate in a ceremony that gave the false impression that the pipeline was already fully functional. Most of the infrastructure projects, including roads and bridges, along the Slovak-Hungarian border are still in the planning stage.

Besides all the good news Szijjártó also talked about “hot topics” that should be discussed without “taboos.” Of course, what he meant was the Slovak law that bans the country’s citizens from having dual citizenship. This amendment to the original law on citizenship was designed to counteract the Hungarian decision to offer citizenship to ethnic Hungarians in the neighboring countries.

Miroslav Lajčák found the exchange “fruitful.” The Slovak journalists were less charitable and kept asking Szijjártó all sorts of embarrassing questions. For example, about the Hungarian fiasco in Brussels yesterday and about the delay in the construction of several bridges, one on the Danube between Komárom and Komarno and others across the Ipel’/Ipoly river. Construction of these bridges was supposed to begin three years ago. In brief, not much has materialized up to now that would constitute a true success story in Slovak-Hungarian cooperation. It seems that building football stadiums is much more important than constructing bridges across a very long river that defines in large part the Slovak-Hungarian border.

The day before his departure to Bratislava Szijjártó gave a lengthy interview to Origo. Here is a man who claims that old-fashioned diplomacy is passé and that he is primarily interested in foreign trade. After all, 106 commercial attachés will soon be dispatched to all Hungarian embassies, and some embassies will have multiple commercial representatives. Yet practically all the questions addressed to Szijjártó were of a diplomatic nature. For example, what about the rather strained bilateral relations between Romania and Hungary? The answer: “I recently met the economic minister of Romania. Our personal relations are good. And naturally I am ready to have talks with the Romanian foreign minister. I believe in reasonable dialogue.”

Or what about the Visegrád Four and their diverging attitudes toward Russia? They are allies, Szijjártó asserted, which lends a certain strength to their cooperation. They hold different views, but that in no way negatively influences their relationships. “As far as the Ukrainian-Russian conflict is concerned, we must not forget that there are 200,000 Hungarians in Subcarpathia and that Russia is our third most important commercial partner.” What is happening now is injurious to Europe; speedy negotiations are in everybody’s interest.

As for the United States, all unjust criticism must be rejected and Hungary must make clear its point of view. “General government control of the Hungarian civil sphere is without any foundation.” I call attention to a slight change in wording. Szijjártó here is talking about “general control,” which strictly speaking is true. The control is not general. Only those NGOs that are critical of the government are intimidated and harassed. Where does Barack Obama get his information about Hungary? “I have no idea, but those who talked to him didn’t tell the truth.”

And finally, the journalist pointed out that very few important foreign politicians have visited Hungary lately and asked Szijjártó whether that might mean that Hungary has been isolated in the last four and a half years. Szijjártó found such an accusation laughable. He said that he spent four years “right next to the prime minister and therefore I could see in what high esteem the prime minister is held  abroad.” So, all is well. Hungarians don’t have to worry. Their prime minister is Mr. Popularity among the leading politicians of the world.