Madam Ambassador’s Démarche


U.S. Ambassador to Hungary Colleen Bell speaking at Corvinus University in Budapest on October 28, 2015 (photo:

Nine months after arriving to Budapest, United States Ambassador Colleen Bell voiced her first criticism of the Orbán government during an October 28, 2015 speech entitled “A Current Look at U.S.-Hungarian Relations” at Corvinus University in Budapest.

Until this speech, Ambassador Bell, a political appointee and former television soap-opera producer, had conducted purely soft diplomacy, e.g., attending a rural festival with the agricultural minister, meeting with a popular young pianist and composer, planting trees on the square outside the U.S. embassy in Budapest and visiting a Hungarian Air Force base.

See entire post.


Designated Adversary 2015: USA

UncleSam_2Prime Minister Viktor Orbán appears to have chosen the United States to serve as Hungary’s designated enemy for the year 2015. Over the final couple of weeks of 2014, Orbán and three of the most powerful officials in his administration—Prime Ministry chief János Lázár, National Assembly Speaker László Kövér and Fidesz National Assembly caucus Chairman Antal Rogán—made statements casting the United States in an adversarial role. 

With regard to the entry ban the United States imposed on several administration officials, notably National Tax and Customs President Ildikó Vida (see The Spectacular Fall), Prime Minister Orbán said during an interview on pro-government Hungarian Television on December 23 (source in Hungarian from 6:23):

Every thoughtful person knows that the charges of corruption that the United States has articulated are a cover story. Here it is a question of the United States having found new interests in this region. It wants to acquire influence. And it is using corruption as a cover story for this. This becomes obvious when we ask for concrete details, when we initiate legal proceedings, when we say lay the cards on the table, let’s clear the air. But somehow this never seems to happen. This is an outgrowth of a typical secret-service influence-gaining action.

Referring to the large number of anti-government demonstrations that took place in Budapest during the final three months of 2014, Prime Ministry chief Lázár told the website on December 22 (source in Hungarian):

The demonstrations show that the American embassy seems to have assumed the role of the Hungarian opposition. It may appear that they have given up on the possibility that the opposition parties can ever win the confidence of the Hungarians, therefore they [the Americans] are the ones who have stepped up as the leaders of the malcontents.

Lázár continued:

They want to tell us how to behave and how to think about the world. They want to interfere and tell us how we should live. . . . The Americans must respect Hungary’s 1,000-year history and our traditions, which cannot be changed with outside force and pressure.

In an interview with the pro-government newspaper Magyar Hírlap published on December 27, National Assembly Speaker Kövér asserted (source in Hungarian):

Unfortunately we have never been too good at diplomacy. We shouldn’t work now to get the Americans to love us either. We must look for allies elsewhere. Those who are in the same boat with us, moreover on the lower deck. These are the central and eastern European countries.

Kövér also said with regard to Americans:

. . . from a national-security perspective, there is not a square centimeter of territory on Earth that falls outside of their interests. As a result of this, for them it does not exist that aside from themselves another country can have sovereignty.

In an interview with the pro-government Hungarian News Agency published on December 29, Fidesz National Assembly caucus Chairman Rogán stated that the party was formulating a “national protection action plan” (országvédelmi akcióterv) to repel “external attacks” from “economic interest groups and other governments that would have liked another government better” and were therefore attempting to bring down the Orbán administration through “non-electoral methods” (source in Hungarian). Rogán said that an official response to the U.S. entry ban on Orbán administration officials “could be one element” of the Fidesz national-protection plan to defend Hungary against an unnamed “external power,” which under the present circumstances could refer only to the United States (source in Hungarian).

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has incited hostility against purported enemies of Hungary as a means of gaining and maintaining political support since the very beginning of his political career in the late 1980s (see Fill in the Blanks). For several years after returning to power as prime minister in 2010, Orbán and his subordinates portrayed the International Monetary Fund and, subsequently, the European Union as the main external threats to Hungary’s sovereignty (see Sign of Things to Come). Following the U.S. entry ban on administration officials in October 2014, they have increasingly begun to depict he United States in this role. The Orbán government is likely to continue doing so throughout the year 2015 and perhaps even longer, until a more politically suitable candidate to serve as Hungary’s main adversary emerges.


The Spectacular Fall

Fidesz caucus Chairman Antal Rogán announces the party's support for mandatory drug-testing.

Antal Rogán announces the Fidesz’s support for mandatory drug-testing (photo: .

On December 8, 2014, Fidesz National Assembly caucus Chairman Antal Rogán announced that “a significant majority” of party representatives supported proposed mandatory annual drug testing for Hungarians between the ages of 12 and 18 as well as political officials and journalists (source in Hungarian).

Rogán’s announcement of support for the proposed drug-testing was presumably an attempt to divert the Hungarian public’s attention from the issues and events that have dominated news headlines in Hungary since the beginning of the autumn: the entry ban that the United States imposed on allegedly corrupt officials from Hungary’s National Tax and Customs Office; the luxurious lifestyles of officials in Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s inner circle; highly unpopular legislative initiatives; an unprecedented series of anti-government demonstrations; and disunity within the previously rock-solid Orbán administration, particularly between Fidesz and its allied Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP).

The focus of the media on these issues and events has significantly undermined the popularity of the Orbán government and Fidesz. The four major independent polling companies operating in Hungary reported the following month-on-month declines in the proportion of voters surveyed in November who said that they would vote for Fidesz in an upcoming election (source in Hungarian):

                                                                 Medián     Tárki      Ipsos      Nézőpont

                            November                    26              25             30                 29

                            October                         38              37              35                 32

                            Monthly Loss             -12            -12              -5                  -3

The opposition media has pointed out that Fidesz sustained an unprecedented loss in popularity in November, exceeding even that of the Hungarian Socialist Party immediately following the leak of former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány’s infamous “We fucked up” speech in September 2006 (source in Hungarian).

U.S. Entry Ban

Banned from entering the United States: National Tax and Customs Office President Ildikó Vida (photo: MTI).

Banned from entering the United States: National Tax and Customs Office President Ildikó Vida (photo: MTI).

On October 16, the pro-government business daily Napi Gazdaság reported that the U.S. State Department had prohibited unnamed officials from Hungary’s National Tax and Customs Office (NAV) from entering the United States based on former President George W. Bush’s Proclamation 7750 of January 12, 2004 suspending entry “of persons engaged in or benefiting from corruption” that “has or had serious adverse effects on the national interests of the United States” (source A in Hungarian and B in English). The corruption in question allegedly involved attempts to persuade the Hungarian subsidiary of U.S. agribusiness company Bunge to finance an unnamed pro-government foundation in exchange for NAV’s tacit permission for the company to engage in Value Added Tax fraud (source in Hungarian). The chargé d’affaires at the U.S. embassy in Budapest, André Goodfriend, declined to identify the NAV officials prohibited from entering the United States, though said that the embassy had sent them letters informing them of the ban (source in Hungarian). In a November 5 interview in the pro-government daily Magyar Nemzet, NAV President Ildikó Vida admitted that she was among the tax-office officials subjected to the U.S. travel ban (source in Hungarian).     

Embarrassment of Riches

János Lázár wearing his Rolex Bubbleback.

János Lázár (left) wearing his Rolex Bubbleback at the Hungarian Parliament Building.

Most Hungarians regard wealth as evidence of greed, immorality and treasonous cooperation with external powers (see Kuruc vs. Labanc) and feel particular hostility toward political leaders who appear to have used their position to obtain personal fortune. Since the beginning of the fall, the affluence and lavish lifestyles of the following four members of Prime Minister Orbán’s inner circle have been the focus of media attention: Minister in Charge of the Prime Ministry János Lázár; Minister of External Economy and Foreign Affairs Péter Szijjártó; Prime Ministry State Secretary in Charge of Government Communication András Giró-Szász; and Fidesz Vice President Lajos Kósa.

János Lázár

On December 2, the opposition television station RTL Klub reported that in April Lázár had purchased a house in Budapest under the name of his ten-year-old son at a cost of between 60 million and 70 million forints, or 260 and 300 times the average monthly salary in Hungary of just under 230,000 forints (source in Hungarian).

On November 10, the tabloid Blikk reported that Lázár had cancelled a 75,000-euro, or 23-million-forint, pheasant-hunting trip to the Czech Republic scheduled to take place earlier in the month (source A and B in Hungarian).

On November 25, the opposition website reported that the Rolex Bubbleback watch that Lázár was seen wearing during a plenary session of the National Assembly the previous month was worth an estimated 1 million forints (source in Hungarian).

Péter Szijjártó

On September 24, RTL Klub reported that Szijjártó had purchased a house in the Budapest suburb of Dunakeszi at a cost of 167 million forints, about 725 times the average monthly salary in Hungary (see Feeling No Shame).

András Giró-Szász

On November 24, reported that Giró-Szász had recently sold his stake in a media consultancy for 750 million forints (or about 3,265 times the average monthly salary in Hungary) and, according to his newly released asset statement, has 140 million forints in his bank account and owns a yacht worth 25 to 30 million forints (source in Hungarian). On November 25, reported that Giró-Szász would be the minority owner of a 3-billion-forint hotel being built in the center of Budapest (source in Hungarian).

Lajos Kósa

On October 7, RTL Klub reported that Kósa’s wife had purchased a home worth an estimated 100 million forints, or about 435 times the average monthly salary in Hungary, in the Óbuda district of Budapest (source in Hungarian). On November 22, reported that Kósa and three travel companions had spent an estimated 1 million forints each on a four-day trip to New Zealand primarily in order to attend a Rolling Stones concert in Auckland (source in Hungarian).

Unpopular Legislation

On October 21, the National Economy Ministry revealed that the government was planning to introduce a 150-forint-per-gigabyte tax on Internet usage (source in Hungarian). Though the proposal stipulated that the tax would be levied on service providers, most Hungarians expected them to build the cost of the tax into customer fees. Prime Minister Orbán revoked the proposed tax following massive demonstrations against it in Budapest, though said his government would revive the proposal in early 2015 (source in Hungarian).

On November 6, Christian Democratic People’s Party National Assembly caucus Chairman Péter Harrach announced that the Orbán government would support the party’s proposed mandatory Sunday closing of shops in Hungary (source in Hungarian). A total of 58 percent of those Hungarians surveyed in a Medián poll conducted in 2007 said that they opposed possible legislation stipulating the mandatory closure of shops on Sunday (source in Hungarian). Orange Files doubts based in empirical evidence that more Hungarians currently support such legislation, which the National Assembly approved on December 16.

Anti-Government Demonstrations

October 28 demonstration in Budapest against the proposed Internet tax (Orange Files photo).

Demonstrators cross the Elisabeth Bridge in Budapest during October 28 protest against the proposed Internet tax (photo: Orange Files).

Several tens of thousands of people took part in demonstrations held in Budapest on October 26 and October 28 to protest the proposed Internet tax (source A and B). With an estimated 30,000–40,000 participants, the October 28 demonstration was likely the largest ever against an Orbán-government measure (source in Hungarian). 

Several smaller demonstrations took place in Budapest over the subsequent weeks to protest the proposed internet tax and government corruption in connection to the U.S. travel ban (source A, B and C in Hungarian).

These culminated in the November 17 “Day of Public Outrage” (Közfelháborodás Napja) demonstration ending with a long standoff between protesters and riot cops in front of the Hungarian Parliament Building that was reminiscent of those that occurred regularly during the wave of anti-government demonstrations that took place in Hungary in 2006 and 2007 (source in Hungarian).

Signs of Disunity

There were growing indications of internal discord within the Orbán government beginning in the fall of 2014:

—in early October, Hungary’s ambassador to Norway, Géza Jeszenszky, resigned from his position, officially to write a book, unofficially because he disapproved of the Orbán government’s crackdown on Norwegian-financed NGOs operating in Hungary (source in Hungarian);

—in late October and early November, Peace March organizers András Bencsik and Zsolt Bayer announced that they would organize another such pro-government demonstration, though the Orbán administration rejected this initiative on the grounds that it would create the impression of weakness (source A, B and C);

—immediately after KDNP National Assembly caucus Chairman Harrach’s November 6 announcement that the government would support a bill calling for the mandatory Sunday closure of shops, the National Economy Ministry issued a communiqué stating that the government would first have to discuss the issue with trade unions organizations representing shop owners before it could formally support it (source in Hungarian);

—on November 26, Fidesz oligarch Lajos Simicska, who has been involved in an indirect and unacknowledged conflict with Prime Minister Orbán since the middle of the year, indicated that he might stand as a candidate in the February, 2015 by-election in the city of Veszprém that Fidesz must win in order to preserve its two-thirds super majority in the National Assembly (source in Hungarian);

—in a December 3 open letter to the Orbán government on the website, Editor-in-Chief Gábor Bencsik of the pro-government monthly Magyar Krónika wrote “Let us clarify something: this is not why we went out to the Peace Marches. . . . This is not why we tried to convince our friends. We did not stand up for you in every forum so that you could enrich yourselves (source in Hungarian);

—and finally, on December 8, National Assembly Justice Affairs Committee Chairman György Rubovszky of the KDNP told the opposition newspaper Népszabadság that the he was against the proposed mandatory drug-testing legislation, which he said “bleeds from a thousand wounds” (source in Hungarian).

End of Infallibility

Not a Bubbleback: Fidesz National Assembly caucus Deputy Chairman Zoltán Pokorni.

Not a Bubbleback: Fidesz National Assembly caucus Deputy Chairman Zoltán Pokorni.

The awkward attempt of Prime Minister Orbán and members of his inner circle to divert public attention from the politically damaging topics that dominated the domestic news in Hungary this fall via the red herring of mandatory drug testing suggests that they are either unwilling or unable to understand the true reasons for rapidly growing public dissatisfaction with their rule and to make the necessary adjustments to their political methods and tactics. This fall marked the end of an eight-year period, beginning when Orbán was still in opposition, during which he and his party radiated an aura of unassailable legitimacy and infallibility. From now on they will be forced to defend their public policies and justify the personal conduct of government and party officials against criticism in a truly competitive political arena. Some members of the Orbán administration have apparently understood this. Speaking on the pro-government television station HírTv on November 29, Fidesz National Assembly caucus Deputy Chairman Zoltán Pokorni said (source in Hungarian):

These bigger and smaller affairs—who wears what kind of watch, who goes where to relax or on summer vacation or whose house is how big—these were obviously known over the past years, but they didn’t interest anybody. They were not connected to charges of corruption. However, since the United Stats entry ban, these many small facts that were previously thought to be minor annoyances have now become rearranged into such a cross-section. The United States struck a chink in our armor, just a small hole, though it is through this hole that the water flows. And we must stop this water. There can’t be such living like a lord, that is, it shouldn’t be done, because a responsible government member or leading political official cannot permit himself to engage in the kind of lordly conduct that he could perhaps get by with before.


NYT vs. RT

Russia Today photo:

Russia Today photo: Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov of Russia and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary shaking hands.

On November 7, 2014, both the New York Times and the website of the state-run television station Russia Today (RT) published articles about Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his administration.

The title of the New York Times piece: “Defying Soviets, Then Pulling Hungary to Putin – Viktor Orban Steers Hungary Toward Russia 25 Years After Fall of the Berlin Wall.”

The title of the Russia Today piece: “The bullying of Hungary – the country that dared to disobey the US and EU.”

These articles are quintessential representations of the fundamental attitudes of the anti- and pro-Orbán camps, both inside and outside Hungary.

In short: globalist vs. anti-globalist; liberal vs. anti-liberal; pro-West vs. anti-West.

Presuming that the opinions expressed in the New York Times and Russia Today largely reflect those of the Obama and Putin administrations, respectively, the November 7 pieces in the NYT and RT also provide further evidence that Hungary has become a secondary theater, behind Ukraine, in the struggle between the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Russia to retain or regain political supremacy in the post-communist states of eastern Europe.

New York Times photo: Prime Minister Viktor Orbán at the Hungarian Parliament Building.

New York Times photo: Prime Minister Viktor Orbán at the Hungarian Parliament Building.


Frack It to Me Baby!

State Secretary Szijjártó (center) with his new friends.

State Secretary Szijjártó (center) with his new friends.

On March 17, Prime Ministry State Secretary for Foreign Affairs and External Economy Péter Szijjártó declared during a ceremony marking the start of an expansion of the truck-wheel plant that U.S. aluminum company Alcoa operates in the city of Székesfehérvár: “Essentially we are also together here today in order to write another chapter in the success story of Hungarian-American economic cooperation” (source in Hungarian at 11:14).

This statement, though referring specifically only to economic cooperation, nevertheless signified the first time that, beyond protocol and formalities, anybody in the second Orbán government had referred to U.S.–Hungarian relations in genuinely positive terms as a “success story” since coming to power in 2010.

The reason for this turnabout is that Hungary is interested in the possibility of importing gas from the United States as a means of reducing its dependence on the import of gas from Russia via Ukraine.

On March 11, State Secretary Szijjártó met with United States Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Economic and Eurasian Affairs Hoyt Brian Yee and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Energy Diplomacy Amos Hochstein in order to transmit the government’s request that the U.S. Congress act as soon as possible to expedite the process of authorizing U.S. gas exports to Europe (source in English).

Szijjártó’s meeting with the U.S. officials took place three days after the United States ambassadors of the Visegrád Group alliance of Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, all of which are heavily dependent on the import of gas from Russia (source in English), sent a letter to U.S. House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner asking Congress to pass a legislative bill that would eliminate current impediments to the export of gas to states with which the United States has not concluded free-trade agreements, which includes all countries of Europe (source in English).

Fracking shale gas in North Dakota.

Fracking shale gas in North Dakota.

The United States has among the largest reserves of shale gas in the world (source in English). Production of shale gas, which is extracted through a process called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” has risen dramatically in the United States over the past few years and will continue to increase in the future, making it possible for the country to export gas (source in English).

The U.S. Congress is considering legislation called the Domestic Prosperity and Global Freedom Act that would expedite the process of issuing Department of Energy permits for the export of gas to countries in Europe and elsewhere that do not have free-trade agreements with the United States, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement that facilitates U.S. gas exports to Canada and Mexico (source in English).

However, even if Congress approves the bill, gas-liquefaction and regasification terminals still need to be built in the United States and Europe in order for U.S. gas to be exported to European countries via tanker ship in the form of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG). State-owned Croatian companies expect to complete an LNG regasification terminal on the island of Krk off the coast of Croatia in the northern Adriatic Sea in 2016 (source in English), while the first gas-liquefaction plant in the contiguous United States is expected to begin full-scale operation in 2017 (source in English).

Once regasified, the imported U.S. shale gas would be transported to Hungary via a new pipeline running across the country between Croatia and Ukraine (source in Hungarian).

According to a 2013 European Commission report, gas accounts for an uncommonly high 38 percent of the energy consumed in Hungary (source in English). Hungary imports just over 70 percent of the gas consumed in the country from Russia via a pipeline running through Ukraine (source in English).

Route of the South Stream Pipeline.

Proposed route of the South Stream Pipeline.

The Orbán government previously hoped to reduce the dependence of Hungary on gas imported from the Russian state-owned energy company Gazprom through the import of gas from Azerbaijan via the planned Nabucco-West pipeline running to the country from Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania. However, the European Union- and United States-backed pipeline project may have suffered a fatal blow when the consortium of companies that operates the Shah Deniz gas field in the Caspian Sea off the coast of Azerbaijan decided in June 2013 to transport gas extracted at the field to Europe via the Trans Adriatic Pipeline rather than the Nabucco-West pipeline (source in English).

Gazprom was expected to begin delivering gas to Hungary through the South Stream pipeline via the Black Sea, Bulgaria and Serbia beginning in early 2017: this pipeline would reduce Hungary’s dependence on gas exported via Ukraine, but not on gas exported from Russia (source in English). However, European Union sanctions stemming from Russia’s annexation of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea in March 2014 have raised doubts regarding the eventual construction of this pipeline in EU member states (source in English).  

State Secretary Szijjartó prefaced his March 17 praise for the “success story” of U.S.-Hungarian economic relations with a reference to Russia’s annexation of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea (source in Hungarian):

Permit me since we are celebrating an event which takes place within an international economic sphere—namely that an American company has decided to expand its capacity in Hungary, more specifically Székesfehérvár—that we say a few words about the world around us and the impact it exercises upon us as well. You, just as I, are certainly paying attention to the important changes that have been taking place in the world. Over recent days, world economic and political power-relations have been undergoing a significant transformation. We can state without exaggeration that a new situation has arisen. And it is totally clear that if there is a new situation in the world, all the players in the world economy—not only companies, but countries as well—must react to it with a new strategy.    

Does this “new situation” signal the beginning of long-term improvement in relations between the Orbán government and the United States, a country with which the prime minister said Hungary had “problems of coexistence” during a 2013 speech to Hungarian diplomats (source in Hungarian)? Or do the recent friendly gestures of the Orbán government toward the United States represent a passing fancy that will give way to its previous cool contempt for the diminishing super-power once the Crimean crisis has passed? Orange Files suspects the latter scenario to be more likely, especially if construction proceeds on the South Stream pipeline carrying Russian gas to Hungary.  


Back to the Future

Demokrata editor-in-chief speaking at previous pro-government Peace March.

Demokrata editor-in-chief András Bencsik.

In the most recent issue of the nationalist weekly Magyar Demokrata, editor-in-chief András Bencsik published an appeal for the organization of another pro-government Peace March (source in Hungarian). Below is an Orange Files translation of Bencsik’s appeal: 

. . . As if a change of roles has taken place, as if America has begun to take on the role of the Soviet Union as it came to its inglorious end.  Rather than an ambassador (1), it [America] is sending an arrogantly confident governor, instructor, commissar to the subjugated country, whose task will not be to transmit the petty thoughts of the enslaved people to the imperial capital, but to use all its weight to force this primitive people to adopt the prescribed lifestyle: “checks, balances and marijuana.” 

Russia is the home of tolerance compared to this. Everything bad that could be said about the Soviet-Russians has been said over the past decades. And? They just signed the deal of the century with us regarding the expansion of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant, thanks to which Hungary’s energy dependence will end for a half century (2). President Putin did not voice even a word of objection to Hungary’s domestic political situation, although Russia is still the world’s second greatest power and in light of the visible trends it could easily become number one again within a century.  

Use of the system of checks and balances is, as a matter of fact, part of Hungarian thought. The Princes of Transylvania last used it magnificently between the Austrian and Turkish great powers. It looks like it is no different today: Hungary’s freedom of movement will again increase with the strengthening Russian connection. Of course this doesn’t please everybody, Izsák Schulhof (3) lamented the expulsion of the Turkish occupiers from Buda because for him it was better with them around at the time. 

The balancing ability of Hungarian politics is important to us. Present indications suggest that we must soon hold another Peace March in support of this. March 29, the Saturday before the weekend of elections, seems to be an ideal time.

This would be the sixth Peace March since Bencsik, fellow pro-government journalist Zsolt Bayer and businessman Gábor Széles organized the first such pro-Orbán demonstration in January 2012. The appeal offers an insight into the widespread sympathy among Fidesz supporters toward Putin’s Russia and its highly centralized political and economic systems.         


1-Reference to United States Ambassador-designate to Hungary Colleen Bell. 

2-Hungary and Russia signed an inter-state agreement on January 14 to have Russian state-owned company Rosatom build two new reactors at the Paks Nuclear Power Plant in south-central Hungary with 10 billion euros in Russian financing. 

3-Rabbi Isaac Schulhof, author of the Buda Chronicle recounting the expulsion of the Ottoman Turks from Budapest in 1686.