Negotiations between Putin and the Hungarian opposition leader?

Recently I noticed a short news item: "Orbán conferred with Vladimir Putin." Hmm? That was surprising. From the article I found out that Viktor Orbán, in his capacity as one of the vice-presidents of the European People's Party, was a guest at the eleventh national congress of the ruling United Russia Party and that while in St. Petersburg he took the opportunity to talk with Putin. Péter Szijártó, the Fidesz spokesman, was tight-mouthed. The only thing he divulged was that Orbán and Putin had talked about the future of Russian-Hungarian relations. His boss was more expansive when he gave an interview to HírTV (where else?). According to Orbán he indicated to Putin that he wants "to put Russian-Hungarian relations on an entirely new footing." He apparently made some less than complimentary remarks about "the shady socialist characters" who are now in charge of Hungary's foreign policy toward Russia. An Orbán government will "create a true partnership between the two countries" that is appropriate for the diplomacy of the twenty-first century.

This is an unexpected development because Orbán's relations with Russia were singularly bad during his tenure as prime minister between 1998 and 2002. Since then Orbán has been consistently critical of "close" relations with Russia. He and his party severely criticized Hungary's willingness to adhere to the arrangement that would supply natural gas from Russia to Hungary through the Southern Stream. I wrote about the topic twice: first on February 29, 2008 ("All those streams of natural gas") and again on July 29, 2008 ("U.S.-Hungarian relations"). Moreover, Orbán was very explicit about his foreign policy plans vis-à-vis Russia in his May 2008 leaked conversation with young political scientists when he talked about foreign investments in Hungary. According to him there are three possible sources of foreign capital: from Russia, from the Arab world, and from China. But he added: "political relations are another matter." He would keep those on a low level. In March 2007 he gave a speech at a conference in which he went into great detail about the conflicting mentalities of the Russians and the "Europeans" as far as energy policy is concerned. The Russians are using natural gas and oil as a political weapon, said Orbán. The Russian ambassador who was present actually got into a verbal duel with the leader of the opposition, finishing his interjection with "Do we understand each other?" (The former Russian ambassador's Hungarian is impeccable.) In August 2008 Orbán wrote letters to the leaders of Georgia, Ukraine, and Poland in which he condemned Russian military aggression. He drew a parallel between the Russian attack on Georgia and the Soviet behavior in 1956 in Hungary. Needless to say, the Russian ambassador disagreed.

Well, these most recent so-called negotiations are probably, as usual, the figment of Orbán's imagination. From what I have been reading in the last two days it seems that the Hungarian opposition leader managed to exchange a few words with Putin, perhaps in the receiving line. But the initial announcement by Magyar Nemzet (November 20) indicated a much grander occasion. From "Russian" sources the paper seemed to know that the Orbán-Putin meeting would take place in Putin's dacha. (Perhaps some of you remember that Viktor Orbán was supposed to have a meeting with George H. Bush in Kennebunkport but somehow he didn't quite make the plane connection!)

The headline of the article was "Moscow is not afraid: Orbán is planning to visit Putin." I guess "Moscow is not afraid" means that it is not afraid of the arrival of an Orbán government. In the body of the article interesting "details" could be read. We found out that President Dmitry Medvedev would also be present and therefore it was possible that there might be a negotiating session between Medvedev and Orbán. The "invitation" (I guess by the Russians to Orbán) means that Moscow is conducting a pragmatic foreign policy. Russia is counting on a Fidesz victory.

That indeed sounded fabulous, but it was telling that Fidesz's press department refused to confirm the information received by Magyar Nemzet from "Russia". Thus, soon enough Magyar Nemzet turned down the volume considerably. On November 21, that is the day after the initial announcement, it reported only that "at the conference Viktor Orbán as vice-president of the European People's Party was present." However, after the HírTV interview Magyar Nemzet talked about "private talks" between Putin and Orbán. Two days later on November 23 the paper quoted Orbán, saying that he "went there to put Russian-Hungarian relations in order."

At this point the liberal media moved into high gear and its journalists began to snoop around to find out what really happened in St. Petersburg. The first Doubting Thomas was Tibor Várkonyi who penned an opinion piece, most likely sometime on Sunday, published in Monday's Népszava. He found it strange that after important "private conversations" it was once again only Viktor Orbán who gave an interview. He recalled that the same thing happened after Orbán's meetings with Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy. Yesterday the journalists continued their pursuit, and it turned out that the spokesman of Russian president's office confirmed only a "spontaneous meeting" between the two men. They checked the website of the European People's Party to see whether it made any mention of this private meeting but they found nothing. They checked the websites of all important Russian papers and Ria novosti, a news service usually very detailed and reliable, but again they found nothing.

So the only thing we seem to know is that it was a "spontaneous meeting" and that they "were talking about the future of Russian-Hungarian relations." When journalists asked Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, he informed them that Russian-Hungarian relations are good but can always be improved. When he was asked about Orbán's opposition to Hungary's joining the Southern Stream, Peskov's answer was "dialogue is always important." These are fairly meaningless comments. It seems that Orbán again is trying to make hay out of nothing or very little. The question is why.


  1. I think you are ignoring the bigger issue, and instead focusing on the less important issue of Orban’s self-aggrandizement. The more important potential issue is a pivot potentially in FIDESZ’s foreign policy. Like Jobbik, it seems that Russia under Putin is an acceptable ally, and for sure it will likely serve both sides interests. For the Russians, another friendly country in the EU is a good thing, and it is a country where Russia continues to have considerable economic interests. For FIDESZ, Russia can be a good counter weight to the EU and the U.S., where Orban is not likely to find particularly friendly interlocutors. Moreover, Orban has made this promise of energy self sufficiency, and his only real route is to co-opt the current Government’s gas strategy. In the meantime, FIDESZ business interests can probably get themselves well positioned in the gas delivery chain, so that this policy can be profitable as well. Finally, lets face it, Putin’s authoritarian “democracy” where one really has a strong man leader with the veneer of democracy on the surface, is a political philosophy likely to be near and dear to Orban’s heart. This seems like a relationship made in heaven.

  2. Noted Permalink’s closing question – this is THE question. Forget about Orban’s habitual posturing, half truths and lies, the real issue is what is he planning or hoping for ? If it is to improve his/Fidesz relations with the Russians to the level, where “allied” businesses would rip substantial benefits, that would be quite an act. Some of the hurdles :
    1. Raised on a stable anti-Russian diet, Orban’s voters won’t be thrilled by any improvement, real or perceived, of the relations with Russia.
    2. Such efforts won’t score many points with the EU governments either.
    3. Orban’s insulting tirades of many years would hardly be forgotten in a day by the Russian ambassador or government. Even to placate the Russians into neutral position would require a lot singing and dancing.
    4. Finally, since Orban’s been always lambasting the socialist governments for their “submisssion” to Russian interests, and in tune with his recent calls for energy independence, the only “new” direction one can think of, is a tougher stand against the Russians. This, however, can have only one outcome: Orban will be shunned and Hungarian interests in Russia will not be advanced, to say the least.
    Opportunistic and unscrupulous as he may be, I doubt Orban can pull off such an impossible political about-face. And certainly not without a considerable vote loss. Maybe he plans for such a “consolidation” of his power that like losses wouldn’t matter. (Another interesting question)

  3. Well, into this picture of the Hungarian ‘Right’ (if I may use that word extremely widely) and its relation to the Russians, the Jobbik position is interesting.
    Jobbik does not shame themselves of being extremely Put in-friendly.
    To understand this one must understand why Jobbik takes this stand. I can think of 2 options:
    a) Like the Czech Secret Service has hinted, Russia is sponsoring ‘Radical Nationalists’ movements around Europe.
    Out is the old (Liberal) Left, in are the European Fascists.
    b) It is just the old hatred to Jews and a total misunderstanding on how the Put in Russia works. The Cheka never lost control, OK it was not as strong under Jeltsin, but Mr Put in is the real leader. The ‘jewish’ purges that any Jobbik-member will speak lyrically about was just the Good Old Cheka getting back the control.
    And the Cheka has its ‘jews’, but the Jobbik leadership does not see them.
    So, if Jobbik can rip it off against the Hungarians, why should Orban be worse?
    For what reason would Jobbik-voters/followers be easier happy with a pro-Russian perspective/future than the Fidesz-voters/followers?
    Anyone heard any demand lately to remove the Soviet WWII-monument on Szabadsag Ter?
    The rally-point for the extreme Hungarian Right before.

  4. Tacitus: “I doubt Orban can pull off such an impossible political about-face. And certainly not without a considerable vote loss.”
    Honest, by now I just don’t know about his psychological state. Something is wrong, I’m sure.

  5. Hungarian interests in Russia will not be advanced, to say the least.
    Opportunistic and unscrupulous as he may be, I doubt Orban can pull off such an impossible political about-face. And certainly not without a considerable vote loss. Maybe he plans for such a “consolidation” of his power that like losses wouldn’t matter.

  6. Chloe: “Hungarian interests in Russia will not be advanced, to say the least. Opportunistic and unscrupulous as he may be, I doubt Orban can pull off such an impossible political about-face.”
    Oh, yes, he will be able to. A few months ago the Russian ambassador who didn’t have a very good relationship with Orbán was sent home and a new appointed. Tamás Fellegi, one of the ministers in charge of economic policy just visited Moscow a couple of days ago. Fidesz that was against Hungary’s joining the Southern Stream (natural gas pipe) now is supporting it. So, the process began.

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