Recent Hungarian diplomatic blunders: Romania and the Czech Republic

Let’s move from domestic to foreign affairs, not because there are no interesting topics at home in spite of the silly season (cucumber season in Hungarian or Saurgurkenzeit in German) but because Romanian President Traian Băsescu made headlines today with his caustic and, according to some, threatening remarks about the Orbán government’s behavior toward his country.

Traian Băsescu was Fidesz’s favorite Romanian politician a couple of years ago, and it seemed that Viktor Orbán and the Romanian president were kindred souls who understood each other and were ready to support each other. I vividly recall when back in 2009 Zsolt Németh, Fidesz’s foreign policy expert, gave a television interview in which he emphasized the importance of Băsescu’s re-election. He considered it to be critical from Hungary’s point of view, especially after Fidesz’s electoral victory in 2010.  In 2011 Băsescu attended Fidesz’s summer camp in Tusnádfűrdő and in 2012 Orbán campaigned on Băsescu’s behalf among Transylvanian Hungarians. Well, the honeymoon is over.

When Viktor Orbán and Trajan Basescu were still friends. On the right László Tőkés at Tasnádfűrdő

When Viktor Orbán and Trajan Băsescu were still friends. On the right László Tőkés at Tasnádfűrdő

I have two versions of what Băsescu had to say this morning in Marosfő/Izvoru Mureșului in Hargita/Harghita county at another summer free university gathering. Marosfő is a village with a population of 800 which is completely balanced ethnically. The Hungarian version appeared in the Romanian Új Magyar Szó, according to which Băsescu said that “politicians of Hungary became so impertinent that it is likely that we will not approve their holding their Free University and student camp in Bálványos.” He added that “Romania is ready to accept a leading role in reprimanding Hungary because  it has recently become the center of tension in the region.” He announced that 2013 was the last year that “the whole political elite could loiter undisturbed in Harghita and Covasna.” This was the version that Hungarian papers republished without any changes.

The other version appeared in The Independent Balkan News Agency, which covers all the Balkan countries in addition to Slovenia and Cyprus. This version is more complete and explicit than the one that appeared in the Hungarian paper. Here Băsescu talks about Hungary as “a regional hotbed of instability” and warns that Bucharest could seek “to teach Hungary to know its place” and made it clear that in the future Hungarian politicians “will not be able to roam around Romania freely.” As it turns out, the Romanian original from Băsescu’s blog is “poate să se perinde” which is very close to the Hungarian “loitering” (lófrálni). * The news agency also notes that Băsescu’s outburst came only two days after Gábor Vona, the leader of Jobbik, said (also in Romania) that “Hungary should engage in a conflict with Romania in order to protect the rights of the Hungarian minority. ” Moreover, László Tőkés’s suggestion that Hungary extend “protection” to the Hungarian minority in Romania is also mentioned.

Official Hungarian reaction was slow in coming. First it was Hunor Kelemen, chairman of RMDSZ/UDMR, the major Hungarian right-of-center party in Romania, who described Băsescu’s “recent reaction to Hungary [as] over the top.” The language Băsescu used was too strong even in connection with Gábor Vona’s remarks, but “Hungary’s leaders did not warrant such a reaction from President Traian Băsescu.” Kelemen found it “unacceptable for a head of state to threaten a neighboring country with isolation.”

It was only around 7:00 p.m. that Balázs Hidvéghi, a novice Fidesz member of parliament who since 2010 hasn’t done anything notable judging from his parliamentary record, was picked to answer the Romanian president. This choice I think reflects Viktor Orbán’s  attempt to make the event seem insignificant, undeserving of a high level answer. Hidvéghi was both understanding and friendly; he emphasized that the summer camps at Tusnádfűrdő were always held with a view to furthering Romanian-Hungarian dialogue and friendship.

Magyar Nemzet looked for a Romanian politician who had condemned Băsescu and found him in Mircea Geoană, the former Romanian foreign minister. He considered Băsescu’s attack on Hungary and the Hungarian politicians part of the Romanian president’s “desperate pursuit of popularity.” Geoană expressed his fear that after such an extremist statement “there will be the danger that the world will consider Romania to be the center of instability in Europe” instead of Hungary. What Magyar Nemzet neglected to mention was that the socialist Mircea Geoană was the candidate for the post of presidency in 2009 against Trajan Băsescu. But even Magyar Nemzet had to admit that another socialist politician, Mircea Dusa, a member of parliament from Hargita/Harghita, welcomed Băsescu’s condemnation of the Orbán government’s political activities in Romania.

If that weren’t enough, Viktor Orbán made another diplomatic faux pas, this time involving the Czech Republic and the Visegrád Four. The Visegrád Four (V4), an alliance of four Central European states–the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, and Hungary, was established both to further cooperation and to promote the European integration of these countries. The name of the alliance is derived from the place where Bohemian, Polish, and Hungarians rulers met in 1335. The three kings agreed in Visegrád to create new commercial routes to bypass the port of Vienna and obtain easier access to other European markets.

The Visegrád Four still exists and this year the prime minister of Hungary serves as chairman. The next summit of the four countries was scheduled to be held on August 24 in the fabulous Esterházy Palace located in Fertőd, close to the Austrian border. On August 8 the Office of the Prime Minister announced that Viktor Orbán had decided to postpone the summit due to the Czech government crisis. It was clear from the text of the announcement that the idea had originated with Viktor Orbán and that the postponement was not requested by the Czechs.

The Czech reaction was swift. Jan Hrubes, the Czech government spokesman, announced that there was no need to postpone the summit. Moreover, the Czech government learned about the change of plans only from the media. Jirí Rusnok, the current prime minister, was ready to participate in the summit. The spokesman of the Hungarian Office of the Prime Minister expressed his surprise since, according to him, the Poles and Slovaks received Orbán’s announcement. Whether the Czechs did or not is a moot point. The fact is that it is not customary in diplomacy to postpone a meeting on account of instability in one of the countries without the request of the country in question. A typical Viktor Orbán move; he behaves in international circles like a bull in a china shop.

According to observers, the real reason behind Orbán’s move can be traced to his political sympathies. The former prime minister of the Czech Republic, Petr Nečas, was a member of the right-of-center Civic Democratic Party and was an admirer of Orbán. In fact, he stood by the Orbán government at the time the European Parliament accepted the Tavares Report. He expressed his “deep disappointment” and forewarned of the grave consequences of the report for the future of the European Union. By contrast, President Miloš Zeman is a socialist and so is Jirí Rusnok, who will most likely remain at the head of the government at least until October when elections will probably be held. Tamás Rónay of Népszava suspects that Orbán’s decision to postpone the summit is a gesture to and an expression of solidarity with Nečas, who had to resign in the wake of a huge sex and corruption scandal. Just another case of diplomacy Orbán style.

*Thanks to my friends originally from Transylvania who provided me with the Romanian original.

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108 comments

  1. Dear Mutt,

    Believe me or not, I’m trying to forget. The comparison with the situation of ethnic minorities US seems realistic because in U.S. live most ethnic minorities in the world. South-West of the United States is populated with a large Latino minority; Louisiana was bought from the French, Alaska from the Russians and so on. Citizens born in the United States shall be considered themselves Americans at first generation, but Magyar extremists from Transylvania doesn’t identify themselves as Romanians, even if their families settled in Transylvania with hundreds of years ago. This is the main reason for their revisionist propaganda supported strongly by the Orban government and Hungarian organisation from abroad.

  2. Simona, you cannot compare the American situation with the East European one. At the time of Trianon in Transylvania + Partium Hungarians constituted over 30% of the population. It is unlikely that just because of the border changes these people would suddenly become Romanians. The only thing the Romanian government should expect from these people that they are loyal citizens of the Romanian state.As Hungarian-speaking Romanian citizens.

    One must accept ethnic minorities as citizens with equal rights. And that concept seems to be very difficult for East Europeans to accept.

    As years go by inevitable assimilation of the minorities take place anyway. It is enough to look at the censuses.

  3. Simona Botezan :
    Dear Mutt,
    Believe me or not, I’m trying to forget.
    Good, good ..
    The comparison with the situation of ethnic minorities US seems realistic because in U.S. live most ethnic minorities in the world.

    Well, yeah, you are right in this sense. Minorities here, minorities there. Same thing.

    I would only mention that these people, here in the US, immigrated in hope of a better life. They were not told “Hey, Jose! You and your family shall live in Albuquerque!” They would have gone like “¡Oh, Gracias, Dios!”…

    Also I never heard the guy who mows my lawn saying that Virginia should belong to Mechico. Or should at least be an autonomous region. I don’t think he wants to fly the Mexican flag on the county government building either.

    For the record, this Mexican maybe from El Salvador. I’m not sure. I’ll ask …

  4. Eva S. Balogh :
    Simona, you cannot compare the American situation with the East European one. At the time of Trianon in Transylvania + Partium Hungarians constituted over 30% of the population. It is unlikely that just because of the border changes these people would suddenly become Romanians. The only thing the Romanian government should expect from these people that they are loyal citizens of the Romanian state.As Hungarian-speaking Romanian citizens.
    One must accept ethnic minorities as citizens with equal rights. And that concept seems to be very difficult for East Europeans to accept.
    As years go by inevitable assimilation of the minorities take place anyway. It is enough to look at the censuses.

    Dear Eva,

    I agree with you, is difficult to Eastern Europeans to accept and assimilation is everywhere. Yellow race and Latino’s community grow up faster in U.S. and mixed family grows up too.

    If we look at census, in 2011 about 75% of Hispanics live in the nine states that have long-standing Hispanic populations — AZ, CA, CO, FL, IL, NM, TX, NY and NJ. New Mexico has the largest percentage of Hispanic residents (46.3%), followed by Texas and California (37.6%).

    A 2008 Census Bureau projection estimated that ethnic and racial minorities will become the majority in the United States by 2050 and that about 1 in 3 U.S. residents will be Hispanic by then. The Hispanic population more than doubled in Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, South and North Carolina. This is a sign that the Hispanic population is spreading out more widely than in the past”, said D’Vera Cohn, a senior writer from the Pew Research Center. “You now see Hispanic communities in many places that hadn’t had them a decade or two ago.” (Cohn). So, if white race will be in minority in short time, discourses about “pure races” are outdated and no longer will serve for petty political interests.

  5. Bucharest, Romania, 1976. A long line of people have been queuing in front of a butcher shop since 5 a.m. At 7 a.m., the butcher’s boy comes out and shouts: ‘There won’t be enough meat for the Gypsy comrades today’. The Gypsies get out of the line and go home. At 8 a.m., the butcher’s boy comes out again and shouts: ‘There won’t be enough meat for the Hungarians and Jewish comrades either’. The Hungarians and Jews get out of the line and go home. At 10 a.m., the butcher boy comes out and shouts: ‘We’re sorry comrades, but there won’t be any meat today’. Sadly, people start leaving the line, and one can hear mumbling: ‘What a shame. In our own Romania it’s Gypsies, Hungarians and Jews who have all the luck!”.

    It hasn’t changed much, apparently.

  6. Marcel,
    I just told your joke to my wife – just changed it a bit:

    Now it’s the Gypsies, the Jews and the Schwabs who get sent home – by the Hungarian butcher’s boy …

    She thought it wasn’t too far from reality and told me a joke from today’s Hungary:

    A patient is told by the doctor that he needs two operations and replies:

    But, doctor, that’s no good – I have to get back to work as soon as possible – my family needs the money that I make …

    And the doctor replies:

    Mine too!

  7. @Mutt, just ask this Jose from New Mexico if is immigrant of his family was there in 16th century because Spanish was first there before 1600. The Spanish were never able to achieve dominance over the Pueblo Indians from New Mexico and the isolated colony was characterized by ethnic tension, alternated with friendship, conflict and kinship between Indian groups and Spanish colonists. Also, for 200 years Spanish colonists have hostile relations with semi-nomadic Navajo, Apache and Comanche Indians and U.S. exploration in this area started around 1800. After Mexican – American War, US Army entered in Santa Fe without opposition and after that, under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848) Mexico received 18 millions to leave this area, CA, AZ, NM and TX (Texas was independent before Mexican- American War) were recognized as part of United States. Hispanic communities could choose whether they remain and receive American citizenship or leave for Mexico and get the Mexican citizenship. Well… the history of south-western U.S. is not so much different than Trianon and big difference between this story and our Eastern European story is about money – life stile, income, jobs and maybe communism…

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