• Ryan O'Connell

So Trump Cares About Corruption in Ukraine...but not Hungary and Turkey?

Updated: Feb 10

January 27, 2020


Donald Trump claims that he refused to meet last summer with Ukraine’s new President, Volodymyr Zelensky, and held up $391 million of military aid, because he was worried about the country’s corruption. Not because he wanted to get dirt on Joe Biden.

Really? While Trump was refusing to meet Zelensky, he was delighted to welcome to the White House Viktor Orban, the Hungarian President, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish leader. It didn’t seem to bother Trump that both men run deeply corrupt regimes.


Orban and Erdogan are also profoundly authoritarian, while Zelensky is a democratic politician with a reform agenda. But that didn’t seem to matter to Trump, either.


Transparency International ranks Hungary #70, and Turkey #91, in its Corruption Perceptions Index for 2019 (published in January 2020). That’s pretty far down the totem pole. Transparency International, based in Berlin, ranks 180 countries, with Denmark as the best and Somalia the worst. (The U.S. is ranked #23, by the way, the same as France and slightly above Chile.)

Something’s Rotten in the State of Hungary

Furthermore, Hungary and Turkey have become more corrupt in recent years, according to Transparency International, and their ratings have declined. Both leaders have eliminated a formerly free press and an independent judiciary, so there is less scrutiny of government officials. That has made it easier for Erdogan and Orban to enrich their cronies through sweetheart deals.


In Orban’s case, important backers have received large amounts of land, which often entitles them to generous agricultural subsidies from the European Union. The government has also awarded many construction contracts without competitive bidding.


Orban used indirect means to destroy the free press in Hungary. Government advertising is an important source of revenue for Hungarian media. Orban simply cut off this source of funding for independent (critical) newspapers and radio and TV stations. Most were forced to sell out, and Orban arranged for his supporters to buy them at bargain prices. Then he restored the lucrative advertising contracts. The net effect: docile reporters who don't sniff out shady deals.


…and Turkey

Like Orban, Erdogan has muzzled the free press and the judiciary, but his approach is less subtle. He has jailed hundreds of journalists, and some have died. He also conducted a massive purge of judges whom he considered insufficiently loyal.

Erdogan has faced a number of corruption scandals over the years. In 2013, there were massive protests against his government because of highly favorable government contracts that enriched real estate developers, who happened to be key supporters. An investigation implicated four of his cabinet officials in suspicious transactions.


The pattern continues. In 2019, a member of the opposition party was elected mayor of Istanbul, which Erdogan’s party had controlled for many years. In fact, Erdogan got his start in politics as mayor of the city. In December 2019, after a months-long review, the new mayor halted work on several large projects after uncovering many financial irregularities. Critics charge that Erdogan and his party used the projects to enrich his immediate family and political allies.


In short, Hungary and Turkey are not profiles in clean government.


Trump and Orban/photo: Mark Wilson-Getty


A Cold Shoulder for Zelensky


It’s true that Ukraine is ranked even lower, at #126 in Transparency International’s index. However, President Zelensky was elected based on his platform of fighting corruption. He is a reformer.


If Trump were truly worried about Ukrainian corruption, you’d think that he would meet quickly with Zelensky, to back his efforts to clean up Ukraine’s politics. Furthermore, despite its many problems, Ukraine is a thriving democracy, with a free press.


But that is not what has happened, of course. Instead, Trump hosted a meeting in the Oval Office with Viktor Orban on May 20, 2019…over his staff’s objections.


The Hungarian leader had not visited the White House since 2005. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama shunned him, as the Hungarian leader became increasingly dictatorial. Orban has expressed his admiration for Vladimir Putin and his regime. Orban has piled scorn on Western European governments and proudly declared that Hungary is charting a new path as an “illiberal democracy”.

But A Warm Welcome for Autocrats

By coincidence, Trump’s meeting with Orban took place just one week before Zelensky’s inauguration as President on May 20, 2019. Putin must have been delighted that Trump would see Orban but not Zelensky.


At Trump’s invitation, Erdogan visited the White House on November 13, 2019. The meeting took place just one month after the President had ordered U.S. special forces to withdraw from northern Syria, at Erdogan’s request. With that rash decision, Trump abandoned the U.S.’s Kurdish allies, who had played a key role in defeating ISIS. The President also sparked fears among the Israelis, Saudis and other Middle Eastern countries that the U.S. was no longer a reliable ally.

Trump again ignored pleas, from his staff and numerous senators, not to host a meeting with Erdogan. They were incensed by Turkey’s invasion of Syria and attacks upon the Kurds. Furthermore, Erdogan has not acted like a loyal ally of the U.S. for some time. He has cozied up to Putin, working out “deals” on Syria and Libya while ignoring the U.S.


Turkey is a member of NATO. However, in July 2019, Erdogan purchased a Russian S-400 anti-missile defense system, at an estimated cost of $2.5 billion. Erdogan defied the U.S., which had strongly objected to the purchase, and he angered other NATO allies. The U.S had expressed great concern that the anti-missile system might be incompatible with other NATO defenses and its use by Turkey might give the Russians access to NATO technology.

So our President is happy to meet with autocrats, even if they are rampantly corrupt and poke the U.S. in the eye. Meanwhile, Volodymyr Zelensky is still waiting for his invitation to the White House.

Don’t hold your breath.

The Wall Street Democrat

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