On May 13, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban arrived at the White House with a very delicate plan to meet with U.S. President Donald Trump.The sensitivity of the matter was shown by the fact that Orban raised this issue only during the private part of his meeting with Trump, which only the two of them and their closest associates attended.
According to Hungarian and foreign diplomatic sources, Orban tried to persuade Trump to help the Hungarian government’s efforts against independent Hungarian civil society organizations. In return, he suggested that he would not obstruct ongoing negotiations over a lucrative U.S.-Norwegian arms deal.
The deal in question involves Raytheon, a U.S. company, and Kongsberg, a partly state-owned Norwegian defense group that jointly produce an air defense missile system Hungary wants to buy. The arms deal was first reported by Direkt36, and it was officially announced during Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Hungary in February. To help seal the deal, Orban asked Trump to exert pressure on Norway for the 22 million euros of the so-called Norwegian Grant Fund which is meant to be distributed to Hungarian civil society organizations. Norway wants this money to be distributed by an independent operator, just like before, however, Hungary’s government disagrees and tried to persuade the U.S. government to intervene and help their cause.
But Trump refused Orban’s request and started to praise Norway instead. This indicated that, although the Hungarian government presented the meeting as a success, talks did not go according to Hungarian plans. Neither parties have publicly discussed this episode of the Orban-Trump meeting so far, and very few details of the negotiations have leaked out. Direkt36 uncovered new information from discussions that we have had in recent weeks with government and congressional officials, diplomatic sources and foreign policy experts, both Hungarian and foreign, in Budapest and in Washington DC. We also found out that not only Trump was not receptive to helping Orban in the Norwegian issue, but also some of Trump’s allies in the U.S. Senate’s influential Foreign Relations Committee turned against the Hungarian government.
Direkt36 already reported in May that Hungarian diplomacy wants to gain influence over the distribution of the Norwegian grant money for Hungarian NGOs in exchange for the Hungarian-U.S. arms deal. Later, Norway’s government told the Norwegian press that the Hungarian suggestion was unacceptable.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s spokesman and Hungary’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade did not react to our inquiry on the topic. According to a statement by the U.S. Embassy in Budapest, the debate over the financial support for Hungarian NGOs is a Hungarian-Norwegian bilateral issue, negotiations concerning Hungary’s purchase of U.S. arms are ongoing, and they do not comment on the content of private diplomatic conversations. Norway’s ambassador to Budapest told Direkt36 that they are aware that Hungary’s government has raised this topic with U.S. authorities, but the independence of NGOs is important and these issues cannot be linked.
What is the Hungarian government trying to achieve?
Norway has been supporting Hungarian NGOs since Hungary’s 2004 EU accession. The reason for this is that while Norway (and Iceland and Liechtenstein) are not members of the European Union, they have access to the European single market under the same conditions as EU members. Therefore, Norway undertook to assistance in catching-up of Eastern member states that joined in 2004 and after. These are the so-called EEA and Norway Grants, of which Hungary is supposed to get about 214.6 million euros (70 billion forints) during the current period (2014-2021). However, Norway requires 10 percent of this money to be distributed among Hungarian NGOs by an institution that is independent of Hungary’s government. The Orban government disagrees with this and would like to have a say in how that 10 percent is spent.
The political importance of the Norway Grants is that they provide significant resources to civil society organizations, including those critical of the government or simply have different values. After the election in 2014, the Orban government launched a campaign against Hungarian NGOs financed by the Norway Grants. This happened even before the government started to target George Soros and organizations affiliated with him starting in 2015.
In 2014, police raided the Hungarian Environmental Partnership Foundation (Ökotárs Alapítvány) which was the independent grant operator of the Norway Grants for Hungarian NGOs. Police claimed there were irregularities with how the money was used. Later it turned out that the police operation was unlawful, and no serious irregularities were found at the Foundation. This was the first time that the Hungarian state attacked the independent part of the Norway Grants. However, since the EU accession of Hungary, 503 million euros (163 billion forints) of total Norwegian money was allocated for Hungary but only 205 million has been withdrawn or spent. The remaining 298 million has been either lost or frozen since the 2014 debate.
This is the debate Hungarian diplomacy attempted to settle by using American re-engagement in the Central Eastern European region and the previously announced Hungarian-Norwegian-U.S. arms deal.
The Trump administration decided to forge closer ties with the countries of Central Eastern Europe in order to break growing Russian and Chinese influence in the region. In early 2019, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo travelled to the region and leaders from all Visegrad countries were invited to the White House one after another. U.S. diplomacy put less emphasis on it publicly, but this policy change brings serious business opportunities for the U.S. arms and energy industry. The success of the strategy is shown by the fact that during Pompeo’s spring tour he could show some progress in arms sales in almost every state in the region.
This is how the Hungarian-Norwegian-U.S. missile system purchase was announced. Negotiations of selling the so-called NASAMS system (National / Norwegian Advanced Surface to Air Missile System) to Hungary are so advanced that the U.S. has even launched a Congressional approval process which is required for arms deals. Hungary’s government tried to use these series of negotiations on the arms deal to put pressure on the Norwegian, then on the U.S. government over the Norway Grants issue.
Trump to Orban: “I really like Norway”
Trump was not the first high-ranking leader with whom the Hungarian government raised its request. In recent months, Minister of Foreign Affairs Peter Szijjarto has met his Norwegian colleague Ine Marie Eriksen Søreide several times. According to Hungarian and Norwegian sources, the Hungarian minister has already indicated to her that he wants to link the NASAMS deal and the Norway Grants issue. Søreide, who previously held the post of Minister of Defense, rejected this immediately and firmly. At the press conference after their meeting in Budapest on February 22, Szijjarto referred to the topic by saying that “we have a different position on certain issues”, and “negotiations must continue” on the Norway Grants.
According to a Norwegian diplomatic source, the Hungarian side seemed to understand immediately after the foreign ministers’ meeting in February that any idea to link the two separate issues is a non-starter. This is also indicated by the fact that direct pressure on the Norwegian government from Hungary “has not been too serious” ever since, our source explained.
In reality, however, the Orban government changed tactics. Instead of exerting pressure on Norway, Hungarian diplomacy then made several attempts trying to involve the United States in the debate on Hungary’s side. Several U.S. government officials have confirmed to Direkt36 that the request has been raised several times during diplomatic talks at lower levels, but they always made it clear to the Hungarians that the U.S. sees this Hungarian-Norwegian debate as a bilateral issue and will therefore not intervene.
Despite all this, Orban decided to raise his request with Trump too but he got a different answer than he wanted. According to sources who were not present at that part of Orban-Trump meeting, but who were informed on the content of the discussion, and according to a document seen by Direkt36 which also contained information on the meeting, the U.S. president avoided the request by vaguely saying first that he will “look at the matter”. Then he started praising Norway and his friendship with the Norwegians. Among other things, he told Orban that “I really like Norway”.
There were other signs later too that Orban could not expect any help from Trump. Norwegian newspaper VG (Verdens Gang) also reported at the beginning of June that Orban asked for Trump’s help. Olav Berstad, Norway’s Ambassador to Budapest, has now informed Direkt36 that “we are aware that Hungary has raised this issue with U.S. authorities”. According to the ambassador, attempts to link the two issues are unacceptable, the agreement on the Norway Grants has nothing to do with the purchase of defense materials.
“A well informed, active and independent civil society is vital for a well-functioning democracy. We are concerned that the legislation introduced by the Hungarian authorities affecting civil society is shrinking the space for the legitimate activities of the Hungarian NGOs”, the ambassador of Norway told Direkt36, adding that “attempts to involve other actors or link these issues will not change our position,” and they have no reason to believe that the U.S. will get involved in this issue.
Immediately after the Orban-Trump meeting, U.S. Ambassador to Hungary David Cornstein also mentioned this Hungarian request in a private diplomatic discussion, which was quoted by Nepszava. However, two sources informed on that discussion also told Direkt36 that Cornstein said that he feels Trump will not do anything about the Hungarian-Norwegian debate.
Richard Damstra, press attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Budapest confirmed this to Direkt36. Damstra said: “the U.S. government believes that a robust, independent civil society is an essential element of a strong democracy. If Hungary has disagreements with another country about specific civil society issues, that is a bilateral matter between those countries”. He also added that they do not comment on the content of their private diplomatic conversations, but negotiations concerning the arms deals are ongoing and Ambassador Cornstein is optimistic that these negotiations will prove successful.
Norway has been a close and reliable NATO ally of the United States for a long time and has a high strategic importance because of its geographic location (its overseeing of the North Atlantic and proximity to Russia). “The integration between the two countries in national security and military affairs is very intimate, from the deployment of U.S. Marine Corps equipment through joint military development programs to intelligence gathering”, a Norwegian diplomatic source told Direkt36.
“Hungary is simply not that important to the United States to risk cooperation with Norway,” a diplomatic source who is informed on the debate and the content of Trump’s discussion with Orban told Direkt36. This source also said that the U.S. government indicated to the Norwegians explicitly that they were pleased and supportive of Norway’s consistent position on human rights issues. This is despite the fact that the Trump administration generally avoids direct criticism of the Orban government’s human rights record.
Another aspect is that Hungary’s NASAMS procurement is dwarfed by the latest arms deal between the United States and Norway. Even though Ambassador Cornstein said in an earlier discussion that the Raytheon deal is worth $ 1 billion, according to several U.S. government officials, it may contain other items as well, while the value of the air defense missile system itself is only worth hundreds of millions. In addition, the U.S. and Norwegian companies producing the NASAMS system also have to share the money (approximately fifty-fifty percent). In contrast, Norway is buying 52 pieces from the state-of-the-art American F-35 fighter jets for $ 10 billion.
Orban’s efforts in the U.S. do not seem to be successful yet
The U.S. Congress also took notice of the pressure coming from Hungarian diplomacy. The U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations had already asked the Pentagon in mid-May (after the publication of Direkt36’s article on the topic) whether the Hungarian government was really trying to link the arms deal and the Norway Grants issue. The Senate committee has been following the case ever since, and according to committee sources, Democrat and Republican members are also concerned about the behavior of the Hungarian government. This committee has an enormous influence on shaping American foreign policy. Not only the U.S. Department of State’s nominations for senior positions are approved by them, but the committee oversees arms deals and foreign military support too, for example.
According to U.S. government officials, the relationship between Viktor Orban and the United States began to deteriorate seriously 18 years ago due to a failed arms deal under George W. Bush’s Republican leadership. In September 2001, the first Orban government canceled an already finalized F-16 fighter jet purchase just overnight. Then they decided to buy Swedish Gripen fighters, which have been used by the Hungarian army ever since. This has strained not only the relationship of the two countries, but Orban’s American reputation as well. After Orban came to power again in 2010, the Obama White House, in a few years’ time, even ended ministerial-level meetings because of the anti-democratic and autocratic measures taken by the Orban government.
After the Orban-Trump meeting, Hungarian government officials and Ambassador Cornstein emphasized how similar the two leaders are and how well they understood each other. After the meeting, Orban put out a video where he said Trump was a tough negotiator, “a strong, bright-headed, straightforward person who knows exactly what he wants.” Trump also praised Orban, saying that he is a “little bit controversial, but that’s okay”.
Although Orban succeeded in establishing a good personal relationship with Trump, he did not achieve what he wanted on the Norwegian issue, and his attempts drew serious opposition from the U.S. Congress. Before Orban’s visit, Republican and Democratic Senators from the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations (the one also following the Hungarian-Norwegian debate) sent a letter of protest to Trump detailing their list of concerns over Hungarian government policies.
What made this protest very serious is that the letter was signed by Senator Jim Risch, chairman of the committee, and Senator Marco Rubio, both members of Trump’s party. The Hungarian government reacted to this letter of criticism with their usual arguments. Zoltan Kovacs, Secretary of State for International Communications, said: “It is quite clear that we are talking about American members of Congress whose campaign was financed in some way by George Soros or his organizations.” The theory that George Soros supports moderate Republican congressmen and senators has been popular in American far-right forums for years, but is in fact based on the misinterpretation of a database following campaign donations.
The letter signed by Jim Risch and Marco Rubio, as well as the Hungarian response to it, has been described by several U.S. government officials and congressional staffers as an extremely significant development. Previously, Hungarian diplomacy has made a great deal of effort to keep Republicans on their side and prevent the criticism against the Orban government from being bipartisan, but these attempts are becoming less and less successful.