Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Love lessons at the Hungarian honey-trap school

My article in The Times:
As an ardent Romanian nationalist, the deputy mayor of Cluj was eager to explain the workings of the honey-trap operated by Hungary, the ancient enemy.  “Every year they send out scouts to look for the most beautiful and intelligent girls. They bring them to a special school in Budapest where they train them in special skills…you understand?” he asked, giving me a knowing look.
 I did, or at least I was hoping to. The first thing any male visitor to Budapest notices is the legendary beauty of Hungarian women.
He continued: “Then the government sends them around the world to the best universities where they target future political and business leaders. They seduce them and marry them.”
“Why?” I asked.
 He was amazed at my naivity. “So their husbands will support the Hungarian position on Transylvania, of course.”
Cluj, or Kolozsvar in Hungarian, and all of surrounding Transylvania, was part of Hungary until 1920 when it was ceded to Romania. The borders are still a sore point. But as a correspondent for The Times I needed evidence: dates, times, locations. Give me a name, I asked.
The deputy-mayor sat back with a satisfied look in his face. “Manfred Woerner.”
In fact Elfie Woerner, the wife of the former secretary-general of NATO, was born in Berlin. Richard Holbrooke, the American diplomat who brokered the peace accords that ended the Bosnian war would have been a much better example. He married Kati Marton, a well-known Hungarian-American journalist, in Budapest.
But never mind. There was a much more important question to answer. Why wasn’t I being targeted by these sirens? The Times, after all, is a newspaper with influence. I had a thick, embossed business card that opened the doors of governments and chancelleries across half of Europe. I was ready and waiting to be persuaded of the righteousness of the Hungarian, er, position on Transylvania, but nobody was bothering.
In fact I was striking out all over the place and only because the honey trap school only existed in the minds of Romanian conspiracy theorists. I arrived in Budapest in the early 1990s, having previously worked with several other freelancers out of an office in Islington. London N1 was not a good training ground for dating in Budapest. All the politically correct ideas I had absorbed about relations between men and women were useless, in fact counter-productive. Hungarian – and Polish, Czech, etc - men held doors open for women and let them go through first, they helped them on and off with their coats, pulled out the chair in a restaurant so their dates could sit down, complimented them on their looks, dress sense and hair and they paid the bill – not always, but at least the first couple of times. Confusingly, there was a different rule for bars or caf├ęs. The man went first, just in case there was a fight.
Hungarians introduce themselves to each other with a smile and handshake. Strangers greet each other in lifts, wishing each other good day and saying good bye when they leave. They even wish each a good appetite in restaurants. After a while, I realised that behaving like this actually felt more natural than the N1 model. I also noticed that when I returned to London with my new manners, such courtesies were appreciated by even the most modern women. Of course there is also a down-side to this: old fashioned courtesy often goes with old fashioned sexism. There are hardly any women in Hungarian public life apart from newsreaders and tabloid celebrities and not a single woman cabinet minister. Only 9 per cent of MPs are women, one of the lowest ratios in Europe.
Outrageous as that was, it was not my immediate concern. Now that I had learned to behave, more or less, the next step was to learn to speak. Speak, that is, in English that people can understand. It’s only when you live abroad, among people whose first language is not English you realise how we much native speakers have been socialised to communicate as much by what is not said as that which is actually vocalised. The passive circumlocutions and vague conditionals that we use every day are useless outside Britain, especially in social situations. Eg:
Me, at party, to attractive young woman after long talk: “Could I ask you for your telephone number?”
Her, puzzled: “I don’t know? Could you?” (Thinking –Does he want it or not?)
Eventually even I got the hang of it, which also provided some useful material for the tumultuous personal life of Alex Farkas, the hero of my thriller, The Budapest Protocol, who, purely coincidentally, is a foreign correspondent based in the Hungarian capital. Then I met my wife, at a party. We talked for a long time. She went to the bathroom and I ambushed her as she came out. I asked for her telephone number in clear, direct speech, which she duly provided.
We were married in little over  a year and two children quickly followed. Child-rearing in Hungary has so far proved much easier than dating, especially if you are lucky enough to get places at a good Ovoda (kindergarten). The state provides free childcare for children of working mothers from the age of six months until the age of seven, when children start school. The kids receive a three course lunch, afternoon snack and fresh fruit. There are numerous extracurricular activities from karate to folk-dancing. Hungarians love and are tolerant of children, even noisy ones and Budapest is a safe and very child-friendly city. Our neighbourhood boasts several EU-standard playgrounds with safe and modern equipment. Mothers organise pass-on rotas of clothes, which return, years later, long-forgotten but washed and folded, having been used by friends of friends of friends. Elderly ladies offer endless advice about the need for children to wear a hat.
Most analysts believe that the decline of the family in Britain helped fuel the riots. Here the family remains profoundly important: even the coolest Budapest hipsters go home to their parents  for lunch on Sundays. A respect for the elderly that has all but vanished in Britain’s inner cities still thrives. The young almost always give up their seats for the elderly on public transport. Older people even give up their seats to those travelling with toddlers, or try to. Travelling with our children on the tram I have several times thanked and reassured grey-haired pensioners that they do not need  stand up.
I witnessed a telling scene recently on the train from Lake Balaton to Budapest . It was a hot and sticky summer’s day and all six seats of the carriage were taken. A hot and bothered elderly lady looked in, shook her head, and then walked along the corridor to find a seat. The woman next to me bounded up and brought her back. She gave the elderly lady her seat and explained to the two schoolboys next to her that she would stand in the corridor for ten minutes, and then sit in one of the schoolboys’ seats while he stood in the corridor, and so on. The schoolboys immediately agreed. In fact they looked embarrassed that they had not given up their seats in the first place. The system worked smoothly  all the way to Budapest.
Deeply impressed by this, I wanted to tell my wife all about the rota when I got home. She also wanted to talk…curiously enough, about Transylvania.
The Budapest Protocol by Adam LeBor is published by Beautiful Books.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Bring back the Habsburg empire -my article in The Times

The Times April 25 2011

The royal wedding makes an old radical swell with pride

Bereft of real monarchs, eastern Europe is ruled by politician-kings

In my younger, radical days, I was a red-hot republican. Kings and queens were an absurd anachronism — their claim to rule because of some accident of birth an insult to reason and democracy; their insatiable appetite for yachts, palaces and personal toothpaste squeezers an expensive outrage.
I still think the Royal Family costs too much, but it’s not only the onset of middle age that makes me flush with patriotic pride when I think about the royal wedding. My reason goes deeper, too, than the knowledge that nobody does pomp and circumstance better than us. Rather, after twenty years of reporting on central and eastern Europe, I appreciate the profound importance of the monarchy in ensuring social stability, providing a symbol of healthy national identity, even safeguarding the rule of law.
The fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after the First World War destroyed Europe’s historical continuity, setting in motion a chain of disasters from which it has yet to recover. Out went Karl I, the Habsburg Emperor, in 1918 and with him went nascent democracy, political and economic stability, property rights, protection for minorities and a flourishing middle class, the best guarantee of prosperity. Bolshevik revolutions, right-wing putsches, fascism, Nazism and decades of Soviet dictatorship followed. In Russia the Romanov royal family was killed in a messy execution, the bourgeoisie was physically eradicated, property was “socialised” and 70 years of terror ensued. Russia and the world are still paying the price.
Even now, hazy memories of peace and stability under the Habsburgs endure — and not just among conservatives. The royal name still resonates across its former domains. Gyula Horn, a socialist Prime Minister of Hungary and once an ardent communist, made Gyorgy Habsburg, the grandson of Karl I, his ambassador for European integration in the 1990s.
Constitutional monarchies — politically constrained, this is the 21st century, after all — stabilise young democracies. When right-wing soldiers attempted a military coup in Spain in 1981, storming parliament and holding MPs hostage, King Juan Carlos, probably the only figure around whom the nation could unite, took control and helped to restore democracy.
Bereft of actual monarchs, much of central and eastern Europe is now ruled by politician-kings whose formative years were spent under communism, when the divine right of royalty was replaced by the divinity of dialectic. From the Baltic to the Balkans, these politicians picked up bad habits of minds. First, the authoritarian impulse is ingrained in them because the end always justified the means on the path to a just and classless society. And second, because that classless society turned out to be a cruel joke, they still have the “screw the system” mentality of those who lived under communism. There is barely any sense of public service, and these self-interested politicians ensure that they and a few lucky courtiers are enriched by crony capitalism while poverty and corruption soar.
Nor have the squabbles of empire faded. Old enmities have been reawakened: none could have been more destructive than the wars that ripped Yugoslavia apart; today Hungary and Slovakia constantly squabble. National identities are formed against imagined enemies, internal or external. Uncertain of their place in the world, new states obsess about banner and flags, languages and emblems. Hungary’s controversial new constitution, approved last week, makes much of the millennia-old Holy Crown, the centrepiece of its coronations. That has sparked accusations that the ruling party is wallowing in a nostalgia at odds with a 21st-century European democracy.
Ironically, Gyorgy Habsburg is far more modern and open-minded than most of Mitteleuropa’s leaders. Prince William and Kate Middleton have shown how a young, attractive couple can be a focal point for a national identity rooted not in ancient grievances but in simple pride in a country’s history and enjoyment of its pageantry. Perhaps it’s time for a Habsburg to be crowned again. Step forward, King George?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Nato, Libya, the rebels and the ever growing concept of 'Command Responsibility'

 In Libya, today’s rebels may be tomorrow’s war criminals

The conviction for atrocities of a former Croatian Army general shows how careful Nato must be

Adam LeBor   (The Times, April 18 2011)
Few in the West now wish to remember that, like the Libyan rebels, Ante Gotovina was our friend. Our very good friend, in fact. Throughout the summer of 1995 US satellites and CIA drones supplied imagery on Serb positions. The CIA set up listening posts and supplied encryption equipment to the Croatian Army. The US and its allies helped to bring about the biggest single act of ethnic cleansing of the Yugoslav wars.
Once again the West is fighting the most dangerous of conflicts: not in terms of casualties, but politically and, increasingly, legally, a proxy war. Whatever the politicians say, Nato is now acting, de facto, as the rebel air force. Just as in the former Yugoslavia, US and British intelligence officers and special forces in the field are gathering intelligence and liaising with local warlords.
The atrocities and mass murders committed by the Libyan government forces have been well documented. But now there are increasing reports of killings and lynchings committed by the rebels. So far, there have been no large-scale atrocities. But the gruesome accounts of vengeance meted out to some pro-Gaddafi prisoners have already led US officials to warn rebel leaders against harming civilians.
The West is now in alliance with a military force over which it has neither command nor control. But Nato commanders could yet be called to account for the rebels’ actions, especially if they commit atrocities. Many of the verdicts at the Hague are based on the doctrine of “command responsibility”: that a commander knew an atrocity would take place and took no action to prevent it; knew that one was occurring and did not stop it; or failed to punish those who carried it out.
Nato has formally assumed command of all military operations in Libya. The International Criminal Court prosecutor has promised that anyone, whether for or against Gaddafi, committing crimes against civilians will be investigated. That could yet include those who supplied the perpetrators with arms, intelligence and back-up air strikes.

Adam LeBor is the author of Complicity with Evil: the United Nations in the Age of Modern Genocide

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Why Hungary is not a dictatorship - a longer version of my article published in The Times

A familiar shadow has fallen over Central Europe, warn the doom-mongers. Cue gloomy music; soldiers marching over rain-sodden fields; raving leaders and adoring masses. The Washington Post sounds the alarm about “Putinisation”. In Brussels the Eurocrats mutter about one party rule. The German press intones solemnly about a new “Fuhrerstaat” (well, they would know). The rogue nation must be censured, sanctioned and turned into a pariah forthwith.
            Is this Belarus, where Aleksander Lukashenko despatched his brutal riot police to club demonstrators senseless and scores of activists remain in prison on trumped-up charges? Or perhaps Ukraine, where President Viktor Yanukovich’s government has arrested former cabinet ministers on charges of corruption and is now gunning for former prime minister Julia Timoshenko? Er, no. It’s Hungary.
            Yes, Hungary, the small country of ten million in the heart of Europe that now holds the EU’s rotating presidency. The same Hungary that has made a solid transition from Communism, is a stable, modern democracy, with a proud history, rich culture and tradition of technical wizardry that has brought the world countless inventions from the ballpoint pen to Vitamin C.  Reading some of the press coverage of recent events here, including a call in The Times by Bill Emmott for Hungary to be expelled from the European Union, and Nick Cohen’s description in The Observer of Hungary as an “ugly little state” I get a distinct sense of the playground bullies ganging up on the new kid.
            The reality is this: since his right-wing Fidesz party won a two thirds majority, Viktor Orban, the prime minister, has used his mandate to consolidate political power with unprecedented speed and determination. A former Fidesz MEP has been appointed President; a former Fidesz MP has been appointed to run the State Audit Office; the Fiscal Authority which oversaw the budget has been abolished; the powers of the Constitutional Court have been cut back and a new National Media and Communications Authority is now in charge of print, broadcast and online, with powers to impose massive fines for vague offences such as offending “human dignity.”
            Much of this is deeply unsettling, although Government officials say these institutions will remain independent. Meanwhile, dozens of public foundations dealing with the Roma minority, arts, culture, the homeless and even the internationally renowned Institute for the History of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution are to be abolished and their functions taken over by the government.
            Is this an act of reckless cultural and intellectual vandalism? Yes. Sould we be concerned about Fidesz’s centralisation of power? Absolutely. Does it mean Hungary is sliding into dictatorship? No. Such wild talk helps nobody, least of all the modernisers in the government trying to drag the country into the 21st century, while the arch-conservatives seem to prefer the 19th.
            In Britain we should know the difference between an over-centralised democracy and a dictatorship better than anyone. Mr Orban’s model seems to be not Vladimir Putin but Margaret Thatcher. She too was elected on a wave of hope after years of rule by a weak and ineffective left-wing government; centralised power to an unparalleled degree; waged cultural warfare against those she considered dangerous liberals and tolerated no dissent in her party. Lady Thatcher visited Budapest in 1990 to a rapturous reception. She would feel quite at home now.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Game over for the world's dictators

My thoughts on why the Tunisian revolution marks the beginning of the end for the world's dictators - also published in The Times today:

Every revolution needs a catchphrase. The Tunisian uprising’s iconic image is a protestor holding a placard proclaiming: “Game Over”, as indeed it is for President ben-Ali. Note please that “Game Over” is English, not French or Arabic, the local languages.
    The Arab world’s first people’s revolution is also the most media savvy in history. Which is why despots everywhere should be very worried indeed. There has already been a lot of excited talk that the Tunisian uprising is the world’s first Twitter Revolution, Wikileaks Revolution and Facebook Revolution. All of these new media did play crucial roles. Twitter provided second by second updates of events on the ground, operating at its best like a crowd-sourced news agency. Col. Qaddafi in neighbouring Libya blamed a Wikileaks cable from the US embassy, which detailed the ruling family’s breathtaking avarice, for catalysing the unrest. He may be right., a Tunisian bloggers collective, even launched to highlight and discuss the cable's explosive revelations.
            Tunisia had one of the world’s strictest internet censorship regimes, but President ben-Ali did not block Facebook - probably believing that such a concession may help defuse the protests. If so, it was a massive mistake. Facebook is hugely popular in Tunisia and was probably the primary channel for organising protests and uploading video. Outsiders also chipped in. Anonymous, the hacking collective which led a cyber-onslaught on Pay Pal and Mastercard, launched ‘Operation Tunisia’ and brought down the Tunisian government website. Television was also crucial. Al-Jazeera, the region’s most popular television channel, broadcast powerful images of the unrest and police brutality to the millions of its viewers who are not on Facebook and have never heard of Twitter. New and old media converged to frame a narrative of the people vs the government that is still sending shock waves through the Arab world.
            Ultimately, the internet, television and social networking were tools to be used by the Tunisians who took to the streets. Internet revolutions are a work in progress that began in Belgrade. In 1998 Slobodan Milosevic, the president of Yugoslavia, banned the opposition radio station B-92. Its journalists used the internet  and servers in Amsterdam to get their stories out. Two years later the Milosevic regime was brought down by a popular uprising.
    The people, not streams of binary code, depose tyrants. But the internet provides ever more efficient ways to communicate, collectively organise and channel years of pent-up fury. This convergence of popular anger, globalised information, decentralised, spontaneous networks with access to modern technology is unstoppable. For dictators across the world, ultimately, it’s game over.