Difficult passage: Orbán’s ferrying between Moscow and Brussels

Endre Ady (1877-1919), one of Hungary’s greatest poets, also wrote an enormous number of political essays during his lifetime. After all, he made his living as a journalist. He was a sharp-eyed observer of Hungarian politics from an angle conservative Hungary considered to be radical. His criticism of his country, which he loved dearly but also feared for, could be harsh and often prophetic.

Some of his descriptions of Hungary at the turn of the nineteenth century are applicable even today. One of these is the famous label he stuck on Hungary: “a ferryboat country.” Like a ferry, the country keeps crossing the river back and forth. With every crossing it ends up not on the side of progress  and democracy but its opposite, stultifying reaction and with it tyranny. It cannot decide whether it belongs to the East or to the West.

Today Hungary has a prime minister for whom this disturbing aspect of Hungarian reality that Ady wrote about causes no sleepless nights. On the contrary, he considers it a plus that will allow his country to become a negotiator of sorts between East and West. He is convinced that Hungary will reap enormous benefits from his ferrying between the two worlds.

It seems, however, that Viktor Orbán’s ferry is drifting farther and farther toward destinations like Putin’s Russia, Lukashenko’s Belarus, and Yanukovych’s Ukraine.

Observers often comment on Viktor Orbán’s incredible luck. In the past four years political and economic analysts predicted that Hungary’s unorthodox policies would bring certain collapse, and yet he managed to keep his head above water. People admire his skill in playing a double game with the European Union. One day, people predict, the European Union will have had enough of him. And yet, even though he compares Brussels to the Moscow of the Soviet Union, money continues to pour in from Brussels.

Occasionally, however, things can go wrong. Only a couple of months ago he decided to strike a deal with Vladimir Putin that put Hungary solidly in Russia’s economic sphere. Moreover, the enormous loan that Putin made available to enlarge the nuclear power plant in Paks can be used by Putin as leverage against Hungary if need be. According to people close to Orbán, Putin made a good impression on him. Yet Putin is a foxy fellow who is most likely using Hungary to move Russian money and power into the European Union. As one Orbán critic put it, the ferry set anchor in Putin’s harbor.

Yes, Orbán has been lucky so far, but this Ukrainian revolution came at the very wrong time for him. There are serious questions at home over the wisdom of such a long-term commitment with Putin’s Russia. It is dangerous to get too friendly with Putin, whose Russia is increasingly harking back to Soviet times. People ask how ferocious anti-communists like Orbán and László Kövér, president of the Hungarian parliament, can get so chummy with a former KGB agent. Fear of Putin’s intentions in Hungary is real. Perhaps this is the most serious complaint in Hungary when it comes to the Putin-Orbán agreement.

And now comes the upheaval in Kiev. Yanukovych hitched his wagon to the Russian troika for a few billion dollars. Ukraine received just a little more money than what Putin promised to Orbán. But there was a price: giving up the idea of Ukraine ever belonging to the European Union. A lot of Ukrainians, however, didn’t want to be part of the Eurasian Economic Union Putin has been dreaming of for some time. He himself stated in November 2011 at a conference organized by his United Russia party that this Eurasian Union would be built upon “the best values of the Soviet Union.” During the same conference a Russian political scientist said that not just former Soviet states but also countries which “have been historically or culturally close to the former Soviet Union” would belong to this union. Hungary was one of them.  As for Ukraine, Russians always looked upon this territory as their very own. After all, Kiev was where Russia was born in the late ninth century. The former Czech president Václav Klaus, calling himself a realist, announced just today that Ukraine is an integral part of Russia; this is where it belongs. Those hot heads in Kiev shouldn’t be encouraged by the politicians of the European Union that it should be otherwise.

Viktor Yanukovych and Viktor Orbán in March 2012 during a short visit to Kiev

Viktor Yanukovych and Viktor Orbán in March 2012 during a short visit to Kiev

So, here is Viktor Orbán’s predicament. As the prime minister of one of Ukraine’s neighboring countries, he should take an active part in the negotiations initiated by his friend Donald Tusk, prime minister of Poland. The Polish foreign minister, Radosław Sikorski, has been instrumental in brokering an agreement between President Yanukovych and the opposition which at least for the time being has resulted in a restoration of the 2004 constitution and the promise of early elections. If the truce holds, it looks as if Putin’s attempt at gaining a foothold in Ukraine will have failed.

But Orbán doesn’t want to offend Putin and therefore he is keeping a low profile. Although leading politicians all over Europe have condemned Yanukovych’s bloody efforts to suppress the revolt, Orbán remains quiet. As he said today in his regular Friday morning radio address, “We are watching the events from the background.” In fact, they are remaining so far in the background that Foreign Minister János Martonyi suddenly became too ill to attend the extraordinary meeting of foreign ministers in Brussels. Hungary was represented by Undersecretary Zsolt Németh.

Well, I’m not quite correct in saying that Orbán did nothing in connection with the Ukrainian crisis. He hopped on a helicopter and visited the Hungarian-Ukrainian border at Záhony. And he made sure that his activities were videoed. As usual, he kept a few pieces of paper in front of him which he studied intently for a few seconds. He looked at the snow-covered Ukrainian terrain where he spotted a couple of deer. Then he rushed to a hospital where he was told that there are plenty of doctors and beds to take care of the wounded. And finally he gave a little pep talk to the border guards for doing their best. I might add that there is nothing in Zaparttia Oblast that would warrant his presence there. But his staff immediately placed the video on Facebook. One blogger described him as “a man who is trying to reap political benefit from the corpse of his neighbor.”

Meanwhile the servile state media feel that they have to take a pro-Russian stance. For example, the centrally edited news called the demonstrators in Kiev terrorists. When called to explain this report, it turned out that one of their sources was the “Russia Today” television station and the other a Russian daily newspaper’s online edition. Gordon Bajnai’s reaction upon hearing the story was disbelief until he himself listened to the broadcast. He bitterly remarked that if the Orbán government keeps going in the same direction as in the last four years “Hungary might become the most western successor state of the Soviet Union.” He added that this is one good reason to vote against Orbán and his party on April 6.

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179 comments

  1. Incidentally,Yulia Tymoshenko is not a favourite of the Fidesz supporters! Described by my wife, when listening to the news tonight, as “that evil woman”. I asked her why she thought this and she said that she was “clearly a criminal” and should be in jail. After all, where did all her money come from?

    There followed quite an interesting (if entirely predictable) ‘discussion’ on how politicians become rich. Apparently Gy’s riches clearly prove that he is a criminal, but Orbán’s don’t. In fact Orbán and his family aren’t very rich at all…

  2. @Paul

    Of course, the hrivnya situation is worse if we calculate it from the local maximum on July 10, 2013.

    EUR/UAH=
    July 10, 2013: 10.45
    February 20, 2014: 12.26, a 17.3% increase.

  3. Paul :
    Spectator – I wasn’t trying to define the word or argue with anyone else’s definitions, I was just reporting on my perspective as a rather puzzled native speaker.
    For what it’s worth, my assumption is that the original definition(s) no longer matter, it’s what people are using it to mean now that is important – and that would appear to be that parts of a document have been blacked out to maintain secrecy/security.

    But of course!
    I only tried to add (to the confusion?) or point your attention to another versions.
    Why I favour English to other European languages is the rich vocabulary which allowing the expression of a wide range of subtle differences, as opposed to – well, I rather won’t elaborate on it.

  4. Before I’ll forget:
    Please, keep the following address in a safe place, you may need it, particularly if Orbán get reelected and everything goes his way.
    You may even take it as a hint for the biggest business of the next few decades, or thereabout. At any event, you may be grateful one day..:

    http://www.protivogas.ru

  5. Paul :
    Incidentally,Yulia Tymoshenko is not a favourite of the Fidesz supporters! Described by my wife, when listening to the news tonight, as “that evil woman”. I asked her why she thought this and she said that she was “clearly a criminal” and should be in jail. After all, where did all her money come from?
    There followed quite an interesting (if entirely predictable) ‘discussion’ on how politicians become rich. Apparently Gy’s riches clearly prove that he is a criminal, but Orbán’s don’t. In fact Orbán and his family aren’t very rich at all…

    Here he is folks, lobbing in the hand grenade to generate useless controversy over Orban…

  6. Paul :

    spectator :

    tappanch :
    Here is Yanukovich’s real bathroom.
    http://index.hu/galeria/index/kulfold/2014/02/22/az_elnok_elmenekult_tuntetok_ulnek_a_wc-jen/5
    I wish Hungary had a celebrating crowd examining Orban’s palace from inside after the TEK had fled.

    The countdown already started, even if it isn’t that obvious, you’ll see.

    I would love you to be right, but I’m afraid you are very wide of the mark. There is no evidence at all of the sort of wide-spread dissatisfaction with the government/system in Hungary that you would need to fuel a Ukrainian-style ‘revolution’.

    Hmmm.. I may have failed to mention, that even if the coutdown has started, the counter still shows five digits…
    Its Hungary and the Hungarians, after all, it takes time, you know…

  7. gdfxx and Éva I just hope that this case proves that I am not neccessarily the sort of diabolical monster a few commenters tried to portray me as. One, constantly lying, needlessly overconfident, mistranslating on purpose, inventing words that do not exist to confuse and mislead, giving fake explanations as to meanings of words and so on and so forth. Sometimes the simple explanation that I was telling the truth is the correct one.

    Maybe I am also not a KGB agent and do not have handlers. Though those are lies that are kind of hard to disprove over the internet. (how would you prove you don’t have handlers- it is an absurd question I found myself asking as a result of some of the absurd comments here)

    Éva, I have nothing but respect for you because your age and your life’s story deserves nothing but respect. I don’t deserve any respect I know that and I do not expect any. All I ask, is that you keep an open mind.

  8. I agree with Paul’s earlier comments re: support for Fidesz. There’s a lot of shrugging about politics in general but it is very rare to hear openly voiced discontent aimed at Fidesz. It has been two years since any serious street protest against the government. And we really should accept this and analyse it. There is plenty of comparison with Ukraine and Hungary regarding policies and leaders but absolutely no comparison regarding public reaction.

  9. Check this out for the Great Putin:

    http://www.prosebeforehos.com/international-relations/07/17/40-photos-vladimir-putin-ridiculous/?galleryPage=1&showall=true

    Lao Tzu said that a good leader is one who doesn’t wish to rule, and is of becoming modesty.
    Do those pictures of Putin show a person of ‘modesty’?

    Anyway, a large hole has been blown into Putin’s plans by the developments in the Ukraine.
    Mr. P. must be fuming in his billion dollar palace in Sochi.

    Now for the coup de grace: are the Hungarians up to it?

  10. Mr. Paul :

    Éva, I have nothing but respect for you because your age and your life’s story deserves nothing but respect. I don’t deserve any respect I know that and I do not expect any. All I ask, is that you keep an open mind.

    One’s age has nothing to do with respect. There are an awful lot of old fools and knaves who don’t deserve anyone’s respect. And, by the way, self-pity doesn’t deserve respect either. I’m talking about your whining that you don’t get the respect you deserve.

  11. “I’m talking about your whining that you don’t get the respect you deserve.”

    Far from it. I am fully aware that I am not as the same level here. This has to do with Stevan Harnad’s earlier point. Pseudonymous vs real people with real achievements.

    Even though I only know your ’56 participation from your descriptions and half sentences (for example things that look like mines from a distance) you wrote here and there it is a factor in what I wrote earlier. It is a contributing factor as well as well as a few others.

    Anyway I just wanted to say that your opinion means something to me even if you don’t think it does.

  12. I agree with An and Eva; just ignore Mr Paul whatever he says. Can you just not read his comments? I don’t…

  13. Ivan :
    I agree with Paul’s earlier comments re: support for Fidesz. There’s a lot of shrugging about politics in general but it is very rare to hear openly voiced discontent aimed at Fidesz. It has been two years since any serious street protest against the government. And we really should accept this and analyse it. There is plenty of comparison with Ukraine and Hungary regarding policies and leaders but absolutely no comparison regarding public reaction.

    Thank you, Ivan.

    When viewed from the inside, Hungary is a very different place to the one imagined by many people, especially outside Budapest.

    Orbán didn’t just happen – the Hungarians put him there, and they keep him there. As we’ve seen again and again, if the people lose faith, the government can collapse very quickly, so the very fact that Orbán has done what he’s done and is still rock solidly in charge gives us a very good clue as to how the majority of Hungarians think and feel.

  14. Paul :

    Ivan :
    I agree with Paul’s earlier comments re: support for Fidesz. There’s a lot of shrugging about politics in general but it is very rare to hear openly voiced discontent aimed at Fidesz. It has been two years since any serious street protest against the government. And we really should accept this and analyse it. There is plenty of comparison with Ukraine and Hungary regarding policies and leaders but absolutely no comparison regarding public reaction.

    Thank you, Ivan.
    When viewed from the inside, Hungary is a very different place to the one imagined by many people, especially outside Budapest.
    Orbán didn’t just happen – the Hungarians put him there, and they keep him there. As we’ve seen again and again, if the people lose faith, the government can collapse very quickly, so the very fact that Orbán has done what he’s done and is still rock solidly in charge gives us a very good clue as to how the majority of Hungarians think and feel.

    Paul, even though I did not agree to “put him there”, I can see why people did go for him. I never liked the guy, but he did have charisma, and he knew how to dance, and he even admits to that with is peacock dance. His admitted lies to the American diplomats, and all…
    I cannot blame the people for being naive, what I will blame them for if they let him get away with this, and elect him again, now that it is very clear what is this guy about.

  15. While I believe that there are people who more or less find it acceptable what OV does, I have my doubts about the missing dissatisfaction. Perhaps people do not say so in public but that does not mean that the discontent is not there. What is missing on the part of these Hungarians is the conviction that if they unite and define how society should look like, this could change. There is so much scepticism and doubt about whether people around them can be trusted to do something for the general public without – in the end – falling back to what all do, only enrich themselves. I believe that people who say so are wrong, and that they exaggerate, but at the same time I heard it so often that it is could be disregarded. But it is a different problem than missing dissatisfaction as such. There is no doubt that people on the Maidan have been very brave, and they deserve all the support they can get, and yet we hear that the support in other regions of the Ukraine for this is uncertain. You hear of people in Kiev who do not want to be connected to the protesters. But it is one thing to be against the ideas or policies of the protesters, and the other to worry about being engaged in a (perceived or real) risky manner in the public sphere. And even if the outcome of these behaviours is similar, it should not be confused as it needs to be addressed differently.

  16. Kirsten,Some1,

    You are mixing things up.

    In Hungary the educated, urban, western-leaning, liberal people are fed up with Orban. They will never participate in anything violent or aggressive. They do not dare to. They are not that kind of people. They lack commitment, they are undecided and hate hierarchy which is a necessity in any effective political movement.

    The nationalistic, lunatic Fideszniks and Jobbikniks (similar to the hard-core of the Ukrainian revolt) could, however, stage a revolt against a lefty, Western oriented government just like they did in 2006. They were the Fradi-fans and other thugs supported by deep state elements loyal to Fidesz. Actually these right-wingers are much stronger now, because Fidesz now completely owns the security services, in 2006 Fidesz did only partially. The Left is in fact terrified of this prospect and that is why, should they ever come to power, will give gestures to the Right (e.g. they will OK the debated German memorial and Veritas lead by Sandor Szakaly and not only not go after Simicska but continue to award public procurements to him etc.).

    So there is indeed a chance of revolts, but only if the current opposition wins, against them.

    Ant-Fidesz voters will remain silent and rather leave Hungary and debate and argue everything to death like kids did at HaHa, the disappeared student organization which was supposed to be predestined to great political significance.

  17. Stilskin: “They lack commitment, they are undecided and hate hierarchy which is a necessity in any effective political movement.”

    And why exactly do you think do they do this? I think that I know what you mean, and yet my interpretation was as stated above, too little trust into other people that they can and would act in the public interest and not only in their own. What you write is much more difficult to deal with as you write that they might consider their own detachment to any political business as very savvy indeed, and that they would even undermine some compromise or agreed joint action. That never is very savvy, as they will have to emigrate to find better circumstances. So your interpretation is indeed different from mine, but it still boils down to too little practical knowledge (or interest in or trust in) democratic and cooperative political approaches.

  18. Stiltskin :
    Kirsten,Some1,
    You are mixing things up.
    In Hungary the educated, urban, western-leaning, liberal people are fed up with Orban. They will never participate in anything violent or aggressive. They do not dare to. They are not that kind of people. They lack commitment, they are undecided and hate hierarchy which is a necessity in any effective political movement.
    The nationalistic, lunatic Fideszniks and Jobbikniks (similar to the hard-core of the Ukrainian revolt) could, however, stage a revolt against a lefty, Western oriented government just like they did in 2006. They were the Fradi-fans and other thugs supported by deep state elements loyal to Fidesz. Actually these right-wingers are much stronger now, because Fidesz now completely owns the security services, in 2006 Fidesz did only partially. The Left is in fact terrified of this prospect and that is why, should they ever come to power, will give gestures to the Right (e.g. they will OK the debated German memorial and Veritas lead by Sandor Szakaly and not only not go after Simicska but continue to award public procurements to him etc.).
    So there is indeed a chance of revolts, but only if the current opposition wins, against them.
    Ant-Fidesz voters will remain silent and rather leave Hungary and debate and argue everything to death like kids did at HaHa, the disappeared student organization which was supposed to be predestined to great political significance.

    This is pretty much as I see it too. It may not be what people on here want to believe, but it is a pretty accurate description of the ‘opposition’. If you want proof of this, just look at how they have behaved and reacted over the last four years. There is no revolution fermenting in Hungary.

    And, as long as Orbán keeps the economy ticking over so that people can just about get by and enough of them can afford second cars, holidays abroad, flat screen TVs and a dacha at Balaton, then there will be no revolution outside Bp either.

    I too wish it were different, but I’m afraid it isn’t. The people either support Orbán or think that anyone else would be just as bad, or just don’t care.

    The reality in Hungary is that things aren’t too bad for most people, and the average perception (boosted by Fidesz propaganda) is that they’re doing OK, given the economic situation – probably better than some other countries, thanks to Orbán’s ‘unorthodox’ economic policies.

    The Orbán line that Hungary is different and better, and that any problems are the result of ‘outside forces’ (as always) conniving against her, feeds straight into the Hungarian psyche.

  19. Oaul, Siltskin, Some1. Kirsten: I don’t see the point of debating whether there is enough discontent in Hungary to get rid of Orban or not. Some of us think hat this discontent is much larger than it seems (and I’m on this side), while some of us, like Paul thinks that a good chunk of the population is still behind Orban so realistically there is no chance for his removal. Either way, these are gut feelings and we won’t convince each other.
    One thing I am pretty sure of is that dwelling too long on reasons why “there is no hope” are not very helpful at this point.

  20. Cont..
    The biggest problem in Hungary is apathy, I think. Even those who think what’s going on is not right think that there is nothing they can do about it.

  21. An: I think your observation about apathy is a good one, and I am not even sure if we will see it in the voting numbers. As some previous comments quoted some facts about how certain Fidesz fans are already filling their houses (at least on paper) with local voters. We also have no way of knowing about the real numbers of voters across the borders. Some across the border voters get their citizenship in couple of weeks with the voting rights, while others who born in Hungary as Hungarians are being turned down from the voters list. Who will fill those numbers? So, it is hard to check on that one.

    Stiltsken: I did not refer to people on the barricade. I am simply talking about people who still support Fidesz, like Paul’s family and superintendent in my parents building. My opinion had nothing to do with the extremists one side or another.

    One point I would like to make why we are talking about the “barricade”. It is very easy to talk about the revolt and express our disapproval behind our computers with a cup of cafe at hand of people not rising. I would absolutely against any kind of act that put people’s life in danger. Yes, I am very happy that people in Ukraine got heir “freedom” but I also think we yet to see the end. Please, only talk about revolt if you are willing to go or send your own kid, you own wife, and your own brothers and sisters on the barricade. I do not see to many of us saying here that if the “revolution” breaks out we will be first in line.

  22. Paul, no matter how “true” this is, it will be unworkable at some (not too distant) moment. The “second cars, holidays abroad, flat screen TV” will be available only to those who will even more than now live on means earned somehow in the grey area between legal and not legal. The government is spending huge amounts of money on projects that will yield nearly no growth but debt. You can survive on that for a while, and indeed, Hungary still has the resources to go on like this. But people will increasingly notice that it is not getting better but worse. The campaign of OV makes it clear that he is targeting those that could start to grumble but who might be kept in apathy as “the others” are even worse. I easily believe that your wife is representative for some people but you could equally believe that people other contributors know do not believe in Fidesz and Orban in the same fashion.

  23. Oh my …

    I’ an optimist at heart, but I was on the road today (so I didn’t read all your comments …) and I listened to my favourite song by Bob Dylan:

    Desolation Row …

    Why do Hungary and Ukraine remind me so mch of this song?

  24. @ Paul – “The Orbán line that Hungary is different and better, and that any problems are the result of ‘outside forces’ (as always) conniving against her, feeds straight into the Hungarian psyche.”

    If you go into Amazon.com/kindle and SEARCH Hungary – there is a book titled: Dirty Hungarian. I couldn’t help myself, I just had to review it.

    Another recent best selling book by an Australian author: on the first page his discussing a “Hungarian cleaning women in a mini skirt, with nice legs”.
    Do not worry Hungarian girls out there, I’ve written to the author, pointing out his lack of research and some notable facts about the Hungarian psyche, like “Hungarian girls in mini skirts and nice legs don’t do cleaning jobs, they prefer to spend their precious time on researching gold mines!) Just for the record!

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