It was only yesterday that I learned from Péter Szijjártó that the “Eastern Opening” also means Hungary’s move toward Africa. Very soon I think they will have to change the name “Eastern Opening” to “Opening to any country outside of the European Union.” Admittedly, it is cumbersome but apt.
You may recall that a few months ago one Hungarian delegation after another made pilgrimages to affluent Middle Eastern countries, targeting Saudi Arabia in particular. They made at least twenty official and semi-official trips to Riyad in the last year and a half, but, as Hetek, the publication of Faith Church, reported, until now with no great results. Prince Abdulaziz, son of King Abdullah, spent a few days last week in Budapest since he is the sponsor of an event called “Saudi Arabian Days” that showcased the culture and history of the Saudi Kingdom. Abdulaziz met Foreign Minister János Martonyi, who was especially eager to establish student exchange programs between the two countries. From here the next step was to entice the Arab country to invest money in Hungary’s poverty stricken higher education.
Corvinus University was the first to offer the Saudis an opportunity to be generous. The university’s senate decided to establish a Center of Islamic Studies and an M.A. program to go with it. Apparently the suggestion was welcomed by the faculty because the university is so strapped for funds that “it will be a miracle if [they] survive the summer.” The university also bestowed an honorary doctorate on Khalid bin Mohammed Al-Anqari, Saudi minister in charge of higher education.
The dean of Corvinus, László Csicsmann, is convinced that if Corvinus establishes an Islamic Center “one could speedily agree on a few million dollars of assistance to the university.” He used the expression “strike while the iron is hot.” After all, the minister received an honorary doctorate only recently, the university delegation just returned from Riyad, and here is the occasion of the Saudi Arabian Days in Budapest.
I suspect that Csicsmann is too optimistic about Corvinus’s chances of receiving a few million dollars with no strings attached. How much say would the Saudi government have in setting up the Islamic Center and how much influence they would demand when it comes to the curriculum? The dean was unable to give a clear answer, and why should he?After all, Saudi assistance cannot be taken for granted; discussions of the matter haven’t even begun.
According to the students, the new president, Zsolt Rostoványi, is very interested in developing close contacts with Arab countries. Since he took office there have been many conferences and the number of honorary doctorates to Arab officials has multiplied in the hope of some Saudi money coming to the university’s aid.
Corvinus is desperate in the wake of severe budgetary cuts. You may recall that about two years ago there were rumors that Corvinus might not survive a future reorganization of Hungarian higher education planned by the Orbán government. In the end, it seems, Viktor Orbán didn’t dare close or amalgamate into another institution one of the best universities in the country. But he doesn’t like the institution, which he considers to be a stronghold of liberal, “orthodox” economics. Slowly starving it to death is a perhaps less obvious strategy.
As Hungary seeks alliances with countries in the “East,” it’s burning its bridges with those in the West. Viktor Orbán’s ill-fated words about the German tanks didn’t remain unanswered by the German foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, who considers Orbán’s statement “a regrettable derailment that [Germany] rejects.” The Hungarian Foreign Ministry is desperately trying to explain away Orbán’s remarks, but this time their job seems especially difficult. Undersecretary Gergely Prőhle, who is usually quite skillful at defending the government’s position, did a poor job today during an interview with György Bolgár on Klubrádió. He is normally diplomatic and can even be semi-convincing; today he was irritated and aggressive.
But if the troubles with Germany weren’t enough, it seems that the Orbán government is taking on another “enemy,” the United States. On Friday Magyar Nemzet launched a frontal attack in a lead editorial. Magyar Nemzet has taken a consistently anti-American stance, but I’ve never seen such antagonistic writing as the piece by Gábor László Zord.
There is no question that Viktor Orbán is not exactly crazy about the United States. He has been snubbed too many times by successive American presidents ever since September 11, 2001. What did the young Hungarian prime minister do, or rather didn’t do, in 2001? He remained silent while the anti-Semitic István Csurka delivered a speech in parliament in which he stated that the U.S. deserved what it got on 9/11. Later, when there were attempts to make Orbán mend his way and at least belatedly express his sympathy with the United States, he neglected to do so. Subsequently, he tried to get an invitation to the White House but without success. I remember that János Martonyi was certain that Orbán would have an opportunity to make a state visit to Washington sometime in the fall of 2010. As we know, the doors of the White House seem to be closed to him. So it’s no wonder that Orbán carries a grudge against the United States and is irritated by what he considered “lectures” on democracy from Hillary Clinton and others. It seem that Magyar Nemzet’s reporters have a free hand to publish violently anti-American articles.
I don’t know what has happened in U.S.-Hungarian relations lately, but this latest attack on the United States is unprecedented. The reporter latches onto some of the problems currently facing the Obama administration to announce that “the United States doesn’t have the moral authority to tell the Hungarian government anything about democracy. If anyone is guilty of undemocratic acts it is the United States.” He offers a laundry list of sins, from the “murdered millions in pointless wars” to “doing business with representatives of dictatorship.” He is convinced that “if international law would work properly, masses of American officials and soldiers would be dragged to the Hague where they would receive the hospitality of the International Court of Justice.” But, says the reporter, sadly there is no justice in the world. “The truth lies with the powerful.” So, what can we do?
One thing Hungary can do, the reporter writes: “Keep up the list of their sins and always be ready to come back with our own answers. Don’t worry, we have a lot we can be proud of and they’d better huddle in some corner quietly.”
The Orbán government currently has enough problems with the country’s most important ally, Germany. I wouldn’t advise them to pick a new fight, this time with the United States.
Yesterday I wrote that Péter Szijjártó, undersecretary in charge of foreign policy and foreign trade, has been working to develop close political and economic partnerships with three former Soviet Republics–Belarus, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. The prime minister’s office, a huge administrative unit with hundreds of politicians and bureaucrats, is not exactly diligent about informing the public of Szijjártó’s doings. In fact, the first bit of news I discovered appeared in a paper dealing with sports.
The president of the International Weightlifting Federation is a Hungarian, Tamás Aján, who is also secretary-general of the Hungarian Olympic Committee and a member of the International Olympic Committee. He was visiting Tashkent on the occasion of the world championship of youth weightlifters that was held in the Uzbek capital. Islam Karimov, president of Uzbekistan, invited Aján for a private audience. After a long talk it became evident that the Uzbek dictator would like an arrangement whereby Uzbek athletes could train in Hungary. One of Karimov’s daughters is especially active in promoting education and sports for youngsters. Hence, I guess, the interest.
As for Karimov himself, he is an outright dictator who wins elections with 90-95% of the votes after he makes sure that no other party can participate in the elections. During the Soviet period he was a party apparatchik who eventually became the party’s first secretary in Uzbekistan in 1989. After Uzbekistan became an independent nation, he won the first presidential election in 1991 and has been in that position ever since.
A month after the weightlifting story Magyar Nemzet described the “Eastern Opening” as a “rumbling” while ” we flirt with Uzbekistan.” It turned out that Vladimir Norov, the first deputy foreign minister of Uzbekistan, came to Hungary to confer with Péter Szijjártó. According to Szijjártó’s press secretary, the Hungarian side emphasized that Budapest wants to have “close cooperation with the Middle Eastern countries.” Hungary will extend a loan to Uzbekistan that would enable Hungarian firms to modernize the lighting of Uzbek cities. In addition, the Hungarian government would financially assist the export of Hungarian medical equipment. There will also be student exchanges and stipends to go with them. And Hungary will supply irrigation systems for the Uzbek agricultural sector.
Uzbekistan is a politically isolated country. At the moment Hungary has no embassy, consulate, or even honorary consul in Tashkent. But I have the feeling that it will not be long before Hungary joins the odd assortment of countries with embassies in Uzbekistan.
There has been even less news on Turkmenistan in the Hungarian media. I found that at the end of March Gulsat Mammedowa, minister of education, was in Budapest and conferred with Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources. The topic was cooperation on higher education. Balog emphasized that Hungary is ready to engage in joint projects in education and in the field of science. They agreed that a bilateral agreement will be signed to that effect. The Turkmen minister of education also had conversations with Rózsa Hoffmann and István Klinghammer, two of the undersecretaries in charge of education within the ministry of human resources.
The history of Turkmenistan since the early 1990s is very similar to that of Uzbekistan. It is a single party state that was ruled by president-for-life Saparmurat Niyazov until his death in 2006. Niyazov was a former bureaucrat of the Soviet communist party who in 1985 became the head of the Communist Party of the Turkmen SSR. He retained absolute control over the country even after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow followed him in 2007. Although he is also a dictator, he’s made tentative steps toward establishing more contacts with the West. The former communist party is now known as the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan and is the only one effectively permitted to operate. Political gatherings are illegal unless government sanctioned. Hungary has no diplomatic relations in Ashgabat. But, once again, I assume there will be if Orbán is around for another four years.
To give you an idea of the kind of country Turkmenistan is, consider this story. The president is crazy about horses and horsemanship. On May 1 there was a horse show where he himself also rode. In the finish Berdimuhamedow fell off his horse. The television station was forbidden to show his fall and pictures taken on the spot by reporters were confiscated. Even ordinary spectators had to hand over their pictures. Security men came and took him away. For half an hour there was deadly silence in the stadium. There were some who cried. However, forty minutes later, as if nothing had happened, Berdimuhamedow showed up dressed in a national costume. Amid great applause he took the top prize money of $11 million as the winner of the race. (By way of comparison, the owners of the Kentucky Derby winner Orb took home $1.4 million.) I can’t ascertain whether he fell before the horse crossed the finish line or after.
Despite the Turkmen officials’ best efforts, the video ended up on YouTube.
On May 15 Péter Szijjártó, undersecretary in charge of foreign policy and foreign economic relations, received three new jobs from Viktor Orbán. He will be the chairman of the Hungarian-Belarussian, Hungarian-Turkman, and Hungarian-Uzbek bilateral economic councils. Following the announcement, Szijjártó’s spokeswoman emphasized that “economic cooperation with the former Soviet member states are the foundation pillars of the government’s strategy of the Eastern Opening and therefore the government will pay special attention to bilateral relations with Belarus, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.’”
Uzbekistan is described by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the U.S. Department of State as ”an authoritarian state with limited civil rights” in which there is “wide-scale violation of virtually all basic human rights.” Turkmenistan’s record is no better. Its government operates as a single party state. The country has been widely criticized for human rights abuses and has imposed severe restrictions on foreign travel for its citizens. According to Reporters Without Borders 2012, Turkmenistan had the second worst press freedom conditions in the world, just behind North Korea. Belarus is described as a dictatorship and has been barred from the Council of Europe since 1997.
So, these countries are the pillars of Viktor Orbán’s “Eastern Opening.” Nice company Hungary is keeping. Clearly, the Orbán government is ready to cooperate with countries with natural resources. Both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have extensive natural gas reserves and phenomenal economic growth. Belarus, on the other hand, seems to be in constant economic crisis; occasionally Putin’s Russia helps the country out with large loans.
Not much appeared in the Hungarian press about Belarus before November 2012 when HVG reported that Alexandr Lukashenko, the country’s president, announced that “the Hungarians seemed to have had enough of democracy and market economy. They sobered up.” He recalled that in the good old Soviet days the two countries were friends, and he expressed his belief that the two countries will strengthen their ties in the near future. “We cannot lose Hungary.”
That exchange between the Belarus president and the new Hungarian ambassador to Minsk made quite a splash in Budapest. Árpád W. Tóta, a commentator known for his verbal virtuosity and keen sense of politics, had a grand time with Lukashenko’s description of Hungary’s undemocratic ways, adding that Hungary is nowhere close to Lukashenko’s Belarus but “we are coming along nicely.” According to András Giró-Szász, government spokesman, Lukashenko “was only joking.”
Interestingly, at the time the Hungarian government was not eager to inform the public of closer Belarussian-Hungarian relations. Hungarian papers learned about the details from the Belarussian Telegraph Agency. For example, already in October 2012 “Minsk was playing host to the third meeting of the intergovernmental Belarussian-Hungarian commission for economic cooperation and the Belarussian-Hungarian business forum.” The Belarussian Ministry of Sport and Tourism and the Ministry of National Economy of Hungary signed an agreement on cooperation in the field of tourism. Working groups were set up for the study of cooperation in the fields of agriculture, industry, and tourism, as well as science and technology. In mid-December 2012 Aleksandr Khainovsky, Belarussian ambassador to Budapest, met with Sándor Lezsák, deputy-speaker of the Hungarian parliament and head of the parliamentary friendship group Belarus-Hungary. “The parties discussed the prospects of Belarussian-Hungarian inter-parliamentary relations and agreed on expanding cooperation in these areas…. The sides also specified projects to promote Belarus-Hungary contacts in culture, education and youth exchanges.”
By February 2013 the Hungarian media learned, again through the Belarussian Telegraph Agency, that Belorussian officials carried on negotiations at the time when the Agro Mash Expo 2013 was being held in Budapest about Hungary’s importing more Belarussian agricultural machinery, especially tractors. Already in 2011 Hungary purchased 973 tractors from Belarus for $16.6 million.
On May 1, 2013, Fidesz’s official website announced that Péter Szijjártó met Alena Kupchina, Belarus deputy foreign minister, in Budapest. They discussed setting up direct flights (Minsk-Budapest-Belgrade) that would “encourage economic and cultural relations between the two countries.” The two agreed that, as of the coming academic year, Hungarian will be taught at the University of Minsk. Further plans call for close cooperation in pharmaceutical research and development.
I was somewhat baffled that the same Alina Kupchina who met Szijjártó on May 1 was again in Budapest on May 6 when she met with two senior officials of the Hungarian Foreign Ministry, Zsolt Németh and Péter Sztáray. She came specifically for a “foreign policy consultation.” Németh at least brought up Hungarian concerns over the Belarussian human and political rights situation. He asked for the release of political prisoners because “this would assist Belarus’s more active participation in the work of the Eastern Partnership.”
Tomorrow I will continue with the other two “pillars” of Hungary’s Eastern Opening: Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
The big item in the Hungarian media today was an exchange between Chancellor Angela Merkel and Peer Steinbrück, her social democratic rival at the next German election. The scene was a yearly event called WDR Europaforum. WDR stands for Westdeutscher Rundfunk (West German Broadcasting), based in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. The program of this year’s forum is available on the Internet. In addition to Steinbrück and Merkel, such important European politicians as Guido Westervelle, German foreign minister; José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Union; and Wolfgang Schäuble, German minister of finance, attended.
It says a lot that Hungary came up at all at such a high-level gathering. But it did and in a country like Hungary, small and deeply divided politically, its very mention at such a forum brings immediate and sometimes violent reactions at home. Peer Steinbrück, who would like to have Angela Merkel’s job, criticized the chancellor for not being forceful enough regarding Hungary’s repeated violations of human rights and democratic principles. He urged a more aggressive policy instead of CDU’s shielding Viktor Orbán and Fidesz. He wouldn’t even exclude the possibility of Hungary’s exclusion from the European Union.
Merkel naturally defended her party’s handling of the Hungarian case and warned Steinbrück that “one shouldn’t send a whole cavalry to fight a war” that may end in exclusion because that way the European Union would have no influence whatsoever on Hungarian political developments. This way there is hope to persuade Viktor Orbán to change his ways. Foreign Minister Westervelle, a liberal, concurred.
Undersecretary Gergely Prőhle interpreted Merkel’s opinion as a sign that the German chancellor “rightly expects that Hungary will choose a European solution.” On the other hand, Népszabadság emphasized that Merkel promised that her own party, CDU, will pay close attention to Hungarian politics and that “we must do everything to change the ways of our Hungarian friends.” The editors decided to give the following headline to the news about the Merkel-Steinbrück exchange: “Only because of the leash is Hungary not kicked out of the European Union,” which may not be the most accurate interpretation of what happened at the WDR Europaforum.
But let’s see what Viktor Orbán’s reaction was. This morning he had his customary weekly radio interview, if you can call the conversation between a subservient reporter and a dictatorial prime minister an interview. One would have thought that, like the spokesman for the Hungarian Foreign Ministry, Orbán would have been appreciative of Merkel’s defense of Hungary against her social democratic rival. But obviously Orbán’s interpretation was closer to that of Népszabadság. He read it as a threat to limit his government’s freedom of action. He most likely didn’t like the fact that Merkel, as chairman of the CDU, made a reference to her party’s insistence that Orbán not overstep the limits imposed on him by the country’s membership in the European Union.
Orbán decided to attack Merkel and Germany. He announced that “the Germans once sent the cavalry to Hungary in the form of tanks. So, our request is: don’t do it. It wasn’t a good idea then. It didn’t work out.”
Why was this attack necessary? After all, Merkel didn’t demand a cavalry attack on Hungary. Just the opposite. Moreover, why was it necessary to bring up the subject of Nazi German tanks? This was especially inappropriate from the prime minister of a country that was allied with Hitler’s Germany to the bitter end. The tanks came but there was no Hungarian resistance. All in all, it would have been better to have said nothing. I don’t know whether there will be any diplomatic fallout from this unfortunate couple of sentences, but I’m sure that the German embassy in Budapest already sent a note to Berlin reporting on Orbán’s interview.
For the edification of those who are not familiar with pro-Fidesz arguments and their tone, here is an excellent example of what Viktor Orbán has managed to achieve with his anti-European Union propaganda. The article appeared on the site of Civil Összefogás Fórum (CÖF), the so-called civic group that organized the peace marches and launched a vicious campaign against Gordon Bajnai. The author is Eszter Dunst, vice president of Women for the Hungarian Nation. Judging from its Facebook page, it’s not exactly a bustling organization.
Here are a few choice sentences from her “Dear Madame Merkel!” opinion piece. First, she tried to figure out what Merkel actually said in German about the EU’s influence on Hungary. Perhaps “auf den richtigen Weg bringen,” to which she answers, “No, thank you! Hungarians don’t allow themselves to be directed or to be driven. The Bolshevik times are over. Do you understand? Not by anyone. Not even by the Germans…. How dare you lecture us on democracy when you must thank us, Hungarians, for the unification of your country…. It was we who destroyed the iron curtain. So, what are you talking about? It is Viktor Orbán who is right and not you. You are not even fit to carry Mr. Orbán’s umbrella. … You ruined Europe twice and still come out victorious in all things. … But enough! Just because you are 80 million strong it is not at all sure that you are right. You once made such a mistake and it wasn’t even such a long time ago.* But now we are right! Do you understand? Because we have a statesman that can be born in Europe only every hundred years. Someone who thinks about the long term. Someone who understands the situation thirty years ahead. Someone who thinks in terms of nation against internationalism. … We fought in defense of Europe, dear Madame Merkel, for almost a thousand years, and it is worth knowing that the bell at noon time is rung not only for us but for Europe.** … For us Hungarians only our national anthem and the ringing of the bell at noon time remained. What is important: you have no right to direct us. You have no moral authority. Do you understand?”
This is, I think, an excellent example of what a large proportion of Hungarians think of the European Union, of Germany and the Germans, and of their own infallible leader. Orbán succeeded in turning these people against everything outside of Hungary. It will be a very difficult task for any future government to undo the damage Orbán has inflicted on his own people. And if an attack on Germany weren’t enough, it seems that Orbán’s government is beginning another assault, this time against the United States. But more on this tomorrow.
*Clearly a reference to Hitler starting World War II.
**It is an urban legend that the noontime ringing of bells in Catholic churches was ordered by Calixtus III to commemorate the Battle of Belgrade (Nándorfehérvár) in July 1456. Actually the papal decision to add to the morning and evening bell ringing a third at noon was made three weeks before the victory of an international army led by János Hunyadi against the Ottoman forces. But once news of the victory reached Rome, the pope decided that the custom be “rebranded” to commemorate the victory at Belgrade.
Hungarian president will sign the objectionable amendments while Viktor Orbán seems cocksure in Brussels
Hungarian President János Áder returned from Berlin where he presumably got an earful. Both Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle gave their opinions about the Hungarian government’s policies in general and the latest outrage in Budapest: the castration of the constitutional court and the destruction of the most basic principle of constitutional rule, the separation of powers.
While in Berlin Áder told reporters that he tried to enlighten the German politicians about the true nature of the amended constitution and assure them that their criticism was unfounded. Their criticism is based on their lack of knowledge of the details, he claimed. At home demonstrators and public figures tried to convince the president that he should refuse to sign the bill. But some legal scholars argued that Áder, as a result of the amendments, has no choice but to sign the document. Others, including László Sólyom, former head of the Hungarian constitutional court, argued that he does have the power to deny his signature. After all, as long as his signature is not on the bill, the old constitution is still in force and that constitution didn’t take his prerogative away. Áder decided to opt for the first interpretation. He announced that he has no choice but to sign.
Áder made the announcement on MTV, Hungary’s public television station. While a day before he was convinced that all was well with the amended constitution, in “his speech to the nation” he didn’t stress this point. Instead, he told his audience that he had studied the amendments carefully, listened to experts, read all the letters he received. But “a responsible thinking citizen cannot urge anyone to disregard the letter of the law. This is especially true in the case of the president because if he were to step onto the path of unconstitutionality there would be only one consequence. Something none of us wants. Chaos. Anarchy. Illegality.” And then he quoted the words in the newly amended constitution that he hadn’t yet signed: “The President of the Republic shall sign the Fundamental Law or the amendment thereof sent to him within five days of receipt and shall order its publication in the Official Gazette.” So, he claimed that he has no choice but to sign, adding that this is his duty regardless of whether he personally likes the amendments or not.
Representatives of the new university student movement, HaHa, pointed out that he could have resigned. But no, Áder belongs to the inner sanctum of Fidesz. He has served Viktor Orbán well for years. He wavered only once, after the second lost election in 2006, when he apparently joined the ranks of those who thought that it might not be a bad idea if Viktor Orbán retired.
Tamás Deutsch, his old friend, was elated with his decision to sign. On Twitter Deutsch wrote: “You also know Jánó that THIS is what we once dreamed of.” Does it mean that these guys have been planning to destroy Hungarian democracy for the last twenty-four years? Let’s hope not.
While Áder was returning to Budapest, Orbán was getting ready to travel to Brussels to take part in one of the periodic summits of the European Council. The European Council is supposed to define “the general political directions and priorities” of the Union. It is the EU’s strategic and crisis solving body, acting as the collective presidency of the EU.
Given “the unparalleled uproar” in Brussels and other capitals over Viktor Orbán’s defiance of the European Union, the interest in the Hungarian prime minister was more intense than usual. Normally he doesn’t talk to reporters before these meetings, but this time the Hungarians organized an “international press conference.” Orbán managed to avoid answering questions by insisting that he didn’t want to hear opinions; he demanded ” facts.” Since foreign reporters are not experts in the minutiae of the Hungarian constitution, the “dialogue” became rather strange. He kept repeating: “I beg you, only the facts!” because so far he hasn’t been presented with any proof that what Hungary is doing is unconstitutional.
All in all, he was very cocky and sure of himself. Luke Baker, Reuters’ reporter in Brussels, tweeted: “Hungary’s Orban smiling like a Cheshire cat as he comes into press conference with international media to defend constitutional changes.” I’d wager to say that Baker had the original Cheshire Cat in mind, not the jolly fellow that appeared in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland. The original cat as depicted by John Tenniel, the illustrator of the 1866 publication of Lewis Carroll’s book, is a much more sinister character.
Orbán might get off his high horse soon because there are new developments afoot. One is that, according to “reliable information,” the “Hungarian question” will be on the table at the summit. Second, the German parliament (Bundestag) spent more than an hour today on the amendments to the Hungarian constitution. The initiative came from the social democrats, but all parties joined the socialists in demanding strong action on the part of Germany and Angela Merkel. At the same time Viviane Reding, European commissioner of justice, fundamental rights, and citizenship, warned Hungary of severe consequences as a result of Budapest’s latest moves. Reding talked about the possibility of invoking Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty and added that Hungary’s subsidies might be cut. “The Constitution is not a toy that can be changed every six months.” (The students said exactly the same thing.)
Orbán may appear to be unruffled, but all observers agree that the situation is serious. There are signs of impatience and annoyance in Brussels at Orbán’s provocations and games with the European Union. This time he might have gone too far.
Unfortunately the title of this post is not original; it is borrowed from an article in HVG. But it is an apt description of Viktor Orbán’s efforts to make a financial deal with the Russian government. The outlines of the plan can be stitched together from various sources, but not all the information is available yet. However, to me at least, it looks as if the Orbán government’s Russian orientation is nothing new. It was hatched perhaps even before the 2010 elections. It has been carefully worked out.
Today in the early morning edition of Népszava I found an article about a top secret trip of Antal Rogán, the whip of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation, to Moscow. Although the visit took place on February 28, a day before György Matolcsy’s nomination to be the next chairman of the Hungarian National Bank, the Hungarian press didn’t get wind of the trip until today. Rogán met with Sergei Zheleznyak, deputy secretary of the United Russia party’s chief council.
The information came from the official website of United Russia. Let me quote some of the most important passages describing the meeting. “The Hungarian guests noted that Russia today is their strategic partner…. These days the Hungarian government is considering the possibility of converting some of the Hungarian National Bank’s reserves to rubles because of the precarious situation of the dollar.” In addition, Rogán invited the Russian party chiefs to attend Fidesz’s next congress in June. He expressed his hope that at that time the two parties will sign a document of close cooperation.
As I mentioned, this development is nothing new. It is not a spur of the moment decision. Some of you may recall Viktor Orbán’s much debated meeting with Vladimir Putin in November 2009 at the party congress of United Russia. At that time there was a debate about how serious these talks were and what the topic of conversation could have been. The follow-up visit of János Martonyi to Moscow in March 2010, that is before the election, received less attention. Martonyi had dinner with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, but not as the future foreign minister of Hungary but as a representative of Fidesz, the “fraternal party” of United Russia.
Viktor Orbán’s second trip to Moscow, which took place in early February of this year, was also hotly debated in the Hungarian press where he was described as “Putin’s new little kitten.” A few days later the Hungarian media heard that “Orbán exchanged the IMF for Moscow for 4.6 billion dollars.” HVG reported that Moscow would purchase 4.6 billion dollars worth of Hungarian government bonds at a very low, 2.25% interest rate. The article also said that “sometime in the future the Hungarian government might issue government bonds in rubles.” HVG pointedly asked what Hungary would have to give in exchange for all this.
Yesterday Népszava asked the Hungarian National Bank whether they know anything about converting some of the bank’s reserves into rubles, but naturally the government never bothered to inform the bank officials of such a deal. They were obviously waiting for the arrival of an obliging György Matolcsy because surely András Simor would never have agreed to such a “hazardous game.” The ruble is not fully convertible and is therefore an illiquid currency. Moreover, the exchange rate of the ruble fluctuates wildly. Not exactly qualities one wants in a reserve currency.
The bank officials didn’t know about any of these negotiations but Mihály Varga, the incoming minister of the economy, certainly did. Although during his Napi Gazdaság interview today he claimed that he knew nothing about the negotiations, he admitted that there were talks between Budapest and Moscow. He described them as “inter-party talks” and suggested that the journalist “talk to Mr. Rogán.” But he told Ildikó Csuhaj of Népszabadság that it is a good idea to diversify.
By early afternoon Rogán’s press department confirmed last week’s Moscow trip. Not surprisingly, the spokesman said nothing about the central bank’s reserves and the conversion of dollars or euros to rubles. Fidesz’s official website posted information about “talks concerning economic matters” but couched this news in carefully crafted language that may mask the real intent . The Fidesz communiqué reads: “While discussing economic ties the idea of a ruble-based swap agreement surfaced that would make the mutual financing of Hungarian-Russian trade easier.”
Gergő Nagy of HVG wrote a fairly lengthy article that contained comments from leading members of the financial community. He is the one who called the plan a hazardous “Russian roulette.” Hazardous because most of Hungary’s financial obligations are in euros and because the ruble is not exactly a favorite of currency traders. On the plus side, however, the yield on Hungary’s euro reserves is close to zero while the interest rate the National Bank pays is between 4 and 5%. That means about a 100-200 billion forint loss a year to the bank which by law the state must replenish. The yield on Russian government bonds is between 5 and 6%, which might begin to close the gap but only at great risk that might not be worth it.
Officials of several financial institutions emphasized that the reference to the instability of the dollar during the Moscow negotiations was nonsense. The dollar is still the world’s number one reserve currency and most likely will remain so for the foreseeable future. Sixty percent of world trade is in dollars. Another bank expert mentioned that one of the goals of the central bank is to create financial stability, which also means the stability of the reserves, and Russia is not a financially stable country. For example, in 1998 the Russian government had to declare bankruptcy.
László Tamás Papp wrote a scathing opinion piece entitled “Rogán, ruble, the ruszkis are coming back.” He recalls the fiercely anti-communist stance of Fidesz throughout the party’s existence, Orbán’s attacks on Ferenc Gyurcsány because allegedly he wanted to make Hungary “the happiest barracks of Gazprom,” and his famous speech in 1989 at the reburial of Imre Nagy in which he demanded the immediate withdrawal of the Soviet troops. And here he is now fawning over former members of the KGB. Now he is offering not only the Hungarian National Bank to the Russians but also the Paks nuclear power plant. The party that made sure that Ronald Reagan has a statue in Budapest is now brown-nosing a former KGB agent and a post-Soviet autocrat. Someone who insists on a yearly memorial to the victims of communism on February 25, the day when Béla Kovács, secretary of the Smallholders Party, was taken to the Gulag in 1947, now praises Putin’s Russia. The whole opinion piece is a passionate outcry against the cynicism of the regime and against the people who tolerate all this without a murmur. He ends his article: “You didn’t like Western capitalism? Now you can find out what the Eastern variety is like. If you let it happen, you deserve whatever the eastern winds blow into your face.”
A few months back I ended one of my posts with a question: How long will the Romanian-Hungarian love affair that Viktor Orbán and Traian Băsescu initiated back in 2009 last?
In the last few days over 200 articles have appeared in the Hungarian media on the “székely (Szekler) flag.” Before I venture into the tiff over the flag, let’s look at who the Szeklers or székelyek are. The origin of those Hungarians who live in Covasna (Kovászna) and Harghita (Hargita) counties in the eastern part of Transylvania is shrouded in mystery. Perhaps the most accepted theory is that they were originally a Turkic group that came along with the other Hungarian tribes to present-day Hungary. They were already Hungarian speaking at the time. Originally they settled in Bihor (Bihar) county around Oradea (Nagyvárad). From there they moved farther east and guarded the eastern regions of the Kingdom of Hungary.
As for the origin of the flag, it is even murkier. The Székely Nemzeti Tanács (National Council of Szeklers) claims that the design they came up with was inspired by the flag of the only Szekler prince of Transylvania, Mózes Székely (1553-1603). However, the flag attributed to Mózes Székely was not his heraldic flag but a so-called battle flag he received as a gift from Prince Zsigmond Báthori before a battle led and lost by him against the royal Habsburg forces. It was just one of many such flags and was never associated with the Land of the Szeklers. I think one can safely say that this flag is a new symbol for the Szeklers, who are currently demanding territorial autonomy within Romania.
So, what happened that caused a diplomatic spat between Romania and Hungary? Last month the prefects of the two dominantly Hungarian inhabited counties forbade flying the székely flag on private or public buildings. This flag had been displayed in Romania since 2010. László Kövér, speaker of the Hungarian parliament who supports the National Council of Szeklers, ordered the display of the flag on the parliament building in November 2010. In January 2012 the demonstrators of the Peace March demanded, among other things, autonomy for the Land of the Szeklers and carried hundreds of Szekler flags. The demand for Szekler autonomy spread beyond Transylvania and gained increasing support in Hungary.
After the Covasna County Court ruled that the Szekler flag cannot be displayed in Romania a local leader of RMDSZ asked Hungarian mayors to fly the Szekler flag in a display of solidarity. That was on January 18, and ever since one after the other, especially the more radical Fidesz mayors, have obliged. First it was Siófok that displayed the flag, then Budafok, and a few days later District VII, the historic Jewish quarter of Pest. No wonder that a blog writer who lives there made fun of all those Szeklers who inhabit Erzsébetváros.
Zsolt Németh, undersecretary of the foreign ministry, attended the ceremony that accompanied the display of the flag at the Budafok City Hall on February 5. There he delivered a speech in which he called the Romanian decision to ban the Szekler flag “symbolic aggression” and urged other mayors to follow suit. He insisted that “the steps Romania has taken lately are contrary to Romanian-Hungarian cooperation, the values of strategic partnership, and the norms of the European Union.”
A day later the Romanian prime minister, Viktor Ponta, answered in kind. Romania will not tolerate any interference in Romania’s domestic affairs. He described Németh’s remarks as “impertinent” and called on Romania’s foreign minister to make a vigorous response to the Hungarian government concerning the issue. Bogdan Aurescu, undersecretary of the Romanian Foreign Ministry, considered Németh’s words to be support for territorial autonomy, which the Romanian constitution forbids.
On the very same day Oszkár Füzes, the Hungarian ambassador, was called into the Romanian Foreign Ministry. During the conversation the Hungarian ambassador apparently said that Hungary supports the display of the Szekler flag in Romania. Moreover, he gave an interview to a Romanian television station where he stated that his country supports the Szeklers’ demand for territorial autonomy and gave a piece of advice to the Romanians: they should change their constitution and make Romania a multi-national state. At this point the Romanian foreign minister threatened Oszkár Füzes, who had gotten into trouble earlier in Romania, with expulsion. He added that even before possible expulsion Füzes will be persona non grata in Bucharest. He expressed his hope that Budapest will be able to keep its ambassador in line; if that effort is unsuccessful, “his mandate in the Romanian capital will be short-lived.”
János Mártonyi came to the rescue of his ambassador in Bucharest: “Oszkár Füzes did not say anything on the question of Szekler autonomy that would be different from the opinion of the Hungarian government.” Hungary’s position hasn’t changed with respect of Szekler autonomy in twenty-two years. He added that “we were not the ones who started the war of the flags.’” Zsolt Németh also put in his two cents’ worth, saying that “they are ready to negotiate but the solution is in the hands of Romania.”
RMDSZ, a much more moderate Hungarian party than either Fidesz or the Szeklers’ Magyar Polgári Párt, looked upon all this with trepidation. According to György Frunda, adviser to Viktor Ponta, this “diplomatic scandal” hurts the Hungarian community in Romania. Hunor Kelemen, chairman of RMDSZ, considered Zsolt Németh’s words inflammatory, adding that the fate of the Szekler flag is not in the hands of Hungarian politicians.
Today János Martonyi phoned the Romanian foreign minister, Titus Corlăţean. From what we can learn from the Hungarian news agency’s report, the two agreed to disagree. But “the negotiating partners concluded that the lessening of tensions is mutually desirable.” They will continue negotiations and “they count on the contribution of the diplomatic corps.” So, it seems that Romanian-Hungarian relations are currently so bad that the conflict needs the mediation of outsiders. It sure doesn’t sound too promising.
I’m sticking with Russian-Hungarian relations, although today I won’t write about the Hungarian opposition’s reactions to the Putin-Orbán meeting as promised. The reason for this change of plans is that I read an in-depth interview with Zoltán Sz. Bíró on the relationship between the two countries over the last ten years or so. I would like to share it with those of you who are not in a position to read it in the original.
Although I’m quite familiar with Russian history and Soviet politics, I haven’t been following what’s going on in Russia. I know as much as one can learn from the media. A couple of years ago, however, Tamás Mészáros hosted a show on ATV that dealt with foreign affairs. Every time the discussion touched on Russia Zoltán Sz. Bíró, a research fellow in the Historical Institute of the Research Center attached to the Hungarian Academy’s Section of the Humanities, was among the participants. He always impressed me with his learning and his analytical skill.
His track record continues. I learned more from the interview that appeared in today’s Népszava on the state of Russian-Hungarian affairs than from all the other articles I read on Viktor Orbán’s visit to Moscow. The main thrust of Bíró’s analysis is that, despite Vladimir Putin’s warm welcome, there is a great deal of dissatisfaction with the Orbán government’s Russia policy. Putin’s Russia doesn’t hide its true feelings toward Viktor Orbán, which in this case translated into a short audience, no scheduled press conference, and no lunch or dinner after the official appointment. In November 2010 when Viktor Orbán first visited Russia as prime minister these niceties were planned, but in the end they were dispensed with. By contrast, each time Péter Medgyessy or Ferenc Gyurcsány paid a visit to Moscow there was always a press conference and a dinner meeting.
Russia has reason to be dissatisfied with trade relations and mutual investments between the two countries. In the last three years the rate of investment has slowed. To quote from Putin’s welcoming speech: “The level of investment until recently was well balanced between the two countries. However, for the last three years it hasn’t grown or has grown very slowly.”
Before December 2002, when Medgyessy visited Moscow, Hungarian exports to Russia were less than half a million U.S. dollars while imports were around 2.2 billion dollars. By 2008 both exports and imports peaked: Hungarian imports reached 10 billion and exports 4 billion dollars. That is, while Hungarian imports grew fourfold, exports expanded by a factor of eight. Not even in the old Soviet days was the volume of trade between Russia and Hungary that great.
This spectacular growth was due in part to the change of government in Poland when under the Kaczynski brothers’ rule Russian-Polish relations soured. In addition, in 2007 Russia finally decided to build the Southern Stream that would supply Hungary with natural gas. Negotiations over the pipeline necessitated frequent contact between the two countries.
Viktor Orbán is in a difficult position when it comes to friendly relations with Russia because of the heavy political baggage he carries from his days in opposition. In those days he made irresponsible comments about Russia. A responsible politician should think ahead: what will happen if he wins the election? How hard is it going to be to mend fences? The Russian leaders are pragmatic, but in 2005 there was a spectacular change in the official Russian stance on its role in World War II. In order to give emotional content to the regime, Putin’s government stands ready to do battle with any country that tries to minimize or question Russia’s sacrifice. The Orbán government’s frequent anti-Soviet rhetoric certainly doesn’t endear it to the Russians.
Earlier I wrote about Viktor Orbán’s resolve to purchase E.On’s Hungarian subsidiary from the German company. At the moment the Hungarian media is full of extended debates about whether the 800 million euros the Hungarian government is paying is too much. According to some, it is not worth more than 400 million. I can’t take sides because I have no idea of the value of E.On. But presumably E.On could purchase Russian gas at a cheaper rate than a Hungarian state-owned company could. Russia’s largest natural gas customer in Europe is Germany at 35-36 billion cubic meters a year. Hungary in the last three or four years decreased its natural gas purchases to about 6 billion cubic meters. This difference in purchasing power most likely influences the price of Russian natural gas. That’s why “the Hungarian government’s anti-E.On policies are incomprehensible.”
According to Sz. Bíró, a half-hour meeting on the highest level simply cannot replace the day-to day work necessary to develop a good relationship between countries. János Martonyi’s absence was glaring. Péter Szijjártó was there, but in Sz. Bíró’s opinion the young upstart lacks a thorough knowledge of the areas he is supposed to deal with. Here is one example. Szijjártó announced that Russian-Hungarian economic relations are especially promising because the Russian economy last year grew by 3%. But this is not a great accomplishment for Russia. On the contrary, “it is a serious set-back.” After all, in 2010 and 2011 the Russian economy grew by more than 4% while during the prior decade the Russian GDP grew by 7-8% every year.
Sz. Biró is not at all sure whether Hungary should enlarge the Paks Nuclear Power Plant, not just because of its enormous cost (2-4 trillion Hungarian forints) but because the country might not need a larger facility in the first place. Second, this enormous investment would have to be financed by new loans. Sz. Bíró also fears that “if a political group is able to get even a small portion of this money it will be able to eliminate the possibility of open and democratic political competition.” In brief, Hungary will be stuck with a Fidesz government for a very long time to come.
I think that I more or less managed to summarize Zoltán Sz. Bíró’s opinions on the current status of Hungarian-Russian relations. Let me finish with something that I hope Viktor Orbán said in jest Friday morning during his weekly interview on MR1 (Kossuth Rádió) when asked about his trip to Moscow. He described his trip thus: “Hungarian history is a great teacher. That’s why the first success is that we not only went to Moscow but we also came home. We should start here!” What on earth did he want to say? If it was a joke, it was a very bad one. Not exactly how to make friends and influence people!
Otherwise, Orbán said nothing specific about his accomplishments in Moscow. When asked about Russian participation in the building of additional facilities at the Paks Nuclear Power Plant, he acted as if he didn’t hear the question. Instead, he went on and on about Russia’s contribution to the fields of music and literature. According to him, “We can’t even imagine European music and literature without Russia.” He quickly added that Hungary is a “kultúrnemzet” which also contributed greatly to European culture. “We can therefore speak of Russia with appreciation.” Why? Otherwise we couldn’t?
A quick look at Facebook reveals that jokes about Viktor Orbán’s appreciation of music and literature number in the hundreds. We know from Gábor Fodor’s description of Viktor Orbán in his college days that “Viktor moved in the world of culture like an elephant in a porcelain shop,” meaning he didn’t feel at home there. He was interested in football and politics almost exclusively. It is highly unlikely that in his spare time the Hungarian prime minister reads Dostoevsky or Tolstoy. But I guess if you don’t want to acknowledge Russia’s importance in today’s world, it is always safe to praise its cultural heritage. A nationalistic prime minister also has to point out, however, that Hungary is no less cultured and that its contribution is just that great as that of other nations.