Experts say US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statements against Russia and China in the Visegrad nations have more to do with protecting American business interests in a region that has been increasingly looking elsewhere.
When US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Poland, Slovakia and Hungary this week to shore up long-standing relations, he also came with a warning for his NATO partners; that they are the targets of a campaign by Russia and China to divide the West.
Arriving in Bratislava yesterday, Pompeo reminded Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajack of his country’s history of oppression under four decades of communism and “the aggressive role Russia continues to play in the region”.
Invoking Russia’s annexation of Crimea, he encouraged Central Europe to embrace closer defence ties with the US and to become more aware of political manipulation from Moscow.
“Russia and China are authoritarian powers who do not share our joint aspirations of freedom,” he said during a joint news conference in Budapest on Monday with Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto.
Poland and Hungary in particular are seen as increasingly undemocratic countries with right-wing governments that have cosied up to Russia and China in recent years. Earlier this month, Washington-based think tank Freedom House downgraded Hungary from "free" to "partly free" in its annual freedom survey, making it the only EU country in that category.
"We must not let Putin drive wedges between friends in NATO," Pompeo continued.
In the first visit by a US secretary of state in eight years, Pompeo placed part of the blame on the US and its absence from the region.
“Secretary Pompeo needs to treat this trip not as a friendly meeting between allies, but as an opportunity to have a frank conversation with a state increasingly at odds with both American interests and its human rights obligations,” Human Rights First said in a statement.
While Hungary would go on to sign a defence cooperation agreement with the US on Monday, as well as agreeing to buy US military equipment, the trip would not come without tension, with Szijjarto stating that Budapest has grown tired of the West’s “enormous hypocrisy” with regards to Russia.
At the same time, Pompeo managed to raise eyebrows by stating a US intention to fight corruption and strengthen support for independent media in all the Visegrad Four (V4) countries. Each of the V4 countries (the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia and Hungary) have been accused of large-scale government corruption in recent years, while Hungary and Poland in particular have decimated media outlets that are critical of the government.
“If you look at the Hungarian media, the independents are against the rightist government – they have labelled them as socialist-liberal – so [in the new US position] there is certainly an ideological underpinning,” Balazs Jarabik, a nonresident scholar of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Europe think-tank, told TRT World.
He said that while the US would most likely focus on countering a mass anti-EU disinformation campaign perpetrated by Moscow in recent years, it was nonetheless inappropriate for them to tamper with the media landscape of sovereign countries.
“Yes, the Hungarian government controls most of the media, about 60 percent, but does not control the public opinion. Whether it is the job of the Americans to strengthen independent media, I don’t think so,” he said.
In Hungary on Monday, Pompeo also warned Europe that using technology from Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei could hurt their relationship with the United States, adding that it has an obligation to alert other governments to the risks of building networks with equipment from the mobile operator.
His statement comes amid the latest efforts to push Huawei out of lucrative fifth generation (5G) contracts around the world over what it believes to be serious security threats. Despite security concerns, Hungary and Slovakia have remained in Huawei’s corner, saying the company does not pose such a threat in their countries.
Jarabik said Pompeo’s statement has more to do with protecting American business interests in a region that has been increasingly looking elsewhere.
“This is a part of selling American. Pompeo and the Americans have proved to be a very effective salesmen and this is all about that,” he said.