In a tight spot: Orbán’s Hungary between Russia and the European Union

The last time I talked about the Hungarian government’s attitude toward the the Ukrainian crisis was at the beginning of March when, most likely as a result of Polish urging, Hungarian foreign minister János Martonyi joined his Visegrád 4 colleagues and condemned Russian action in the Crimea. Soon enough, Zsolt Németh, undersecretary in the ministry, called in the Russian ambassador to express Hungary’s disapproval of Russian aggression. By that point I thought that Hungary would remain resolute in defense of Ukraine. But something happened between March 4 and 18, when Hungary retreated from its earlier position.

The Council of the European Union released a statement in which it stated that “the EU does not recognize the illegal ‘referendum’ and its outcome.” The EU and the U.S. agreed to impose sanctions against Russian and Ukrainian officials considered responsible for the referendum. Sanctioning would proceed in three stages, with the final stage including economic sanctions.

In an interview with CNN on March 18 János Martonyi indicated that Hungary would be a very reluctant participant in any action against Putin’s Russia. If an economic conflict were to develop between the EU and Russia, “one of the EU national economies hit most would be Hungary due to its vulnerability to energy supplies.” A few days later Viktor Orbán claimed that they checked all the numbers and indeed Hungary would be a huge loser if economic sanctions were leveled against Russia.

In fact, it seems that Hungary is one of the three most reluctant EU members when it comes to taking a stance against Russian aggression. The other two countries are Greece and Cyprus. Both Greece and Hungary depend on Russia for about 50% of their energy needs while Cyprus, though it doesn’t need Russian gas, does want its oligarchs’ money. As Judy Dempsey, the well-known journalist, remarked, “Cyprus’s reluctance is linked to its status as a lucrative parking place for Russian money.” In the same article she stated that “East Europeans aren’t united either. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who recently signed a major nuclear energy contract with Russia, has played down the entire Ukraine crisis and Russia’s annexation of Crimea. In contrast, the Baltic states are so afraid of their giant neighbor’s appetite that they are taking a tough line despite a total dependence on Russian gas.” (For a complete list of the EU member states and their respective attitudes toward Russian sanctions, take a look at the chart in Judy Dempsey’s article.)

Well, there is playing down and playing down. At the outbreak of the crisis Viktor Orbán announced that “Hungary is not part of the conflict.” Just before the March 6 summit Orbán released a statement in which he made no reference to Russia at all. He announced that the topic in Brussels will naturally be Ukraine but added that “for us the most important consideration is the security of Hungarians in Subcarpathia.” It is “from this viewpoint that we look at the events. By sending the foreign minister to Subcarpathia we wanted to make sure that the Hungarians there know that they can count on us.”

Last Thursday Orbán had a chance to talk with Angela Merkel before the start of the summit. The meeting, in the presence of Péter Szijjártó, lasted half an hour during which, I’m certain, Orbán wanted to convince Merkel to refrain from additional sanctions. Originally 21 Russian and Ukrainian individuals were barred from entering the EU and their bank accounts were frozen. It seems that Orbán wasn’t persuasive enough because Merkel, who was keen on adding 11 more persons to the list, managed to convince her colleagues to embark on the second stage of sanctions against Russia. After the meetings Orbán announced to Hungarian journalists that the issue of Paks didn’t come up. In his usual cocky manner he announced that “there is nothing to discuss in this connection. It is a closed issue.”

In the end Orbán, representing Hungary, signed the agreement that cites Ukraine’s desire to become part of the European Union sometime in the future. The Hungarian prime minister made it clear, however, that minority rights in Ukraine are his primary concern. If the language law that would have curtailed the free use of Hungarian in Subcarpathia had been enacted, he wouldn’t have signed the document. He added that the Ukrainians must conduct a meticulous nationality policy and that at the same time the Ukrainian government must restrain the nationalistic far-right elements within the country.

He then turned to his ideas about the most desirable source of energy, which in his opinion is nuclear power. In this respect, he is following the lead of Great Britain. And that takes me to a newly published article on CNBC’s website by Javier E. David. The author argues that “the new Cold War brewing between Russia and the U.S. has the potential to go nuclear–just not in the conventional sense.” As a result of the Ukrainian crisis, a debate developed as to whether the United States can use natural gas to counter Russia’s global ambitions. But “some experts say the real front in the global energy battle lies not in oil and gas, but in the arena of nuclear technology.” According to the World Nuclear Association, Rosatom is building 37 percent of the new atomic facilities currently under construction worldwide.


The article cites Barbara Judge, former chairperson of the U.K. Atomic Energy Authority, who describes the situation as follows: “The Russians view nuclear as an excellent export product. . . . They are using it as part of their plan to establish themselves as a geopolitical power.”  How do they achieve this? By lending poorer countries money. “Countries that need nuclear often do not have the funds to pay for it.” By financially helping these countries purchase nuclear technology, Russia “is using that money as a lever to open the door.”

It is because of these considerations that Viktor Orbán might be mistaken and that, after all, the case of Paks might not be closed.


  1. “at the same time the Ukrainian government must restrain the nationalistic far-right elements within the country.”

    Just like he has in Hungary.

  2. Currently, the World Meeting is taking place on a nuclear summit in the Netherlands. It is mentioned in the press that the Summit is considering a “dirty” bomb as a major threat. Although it is not clear whether they talk about a nuclear bomb or VO.

    In another article (in Dutch) Ukraine apparently criminalized Ukrainians having two nationalities. Most Ukrainian Hungarians or Hungarian Ukrainians are afraid for being arrested. (In Dutch)

  3. News today that Nato’s military commander is concerned about the build-up of Russian troops on the Ukraine border. With Trans-Dniester talking about holding a referendum to become part of Russia, his fear is that the Russian will move troops into Trans-Dniester, as they did with Crimea. And of course to do that, they have to cross Ukrainian territory.

    Although, looking at the map, I can’t see how a massing of troops on the Ukraine/Russia border could help such an invasion, as the obvious route to Trans-Dniester would be via sea/air from Crimea – crossing the minimum of Ukrainian territory.

    But if Putin does do something insane like that (or occupy Ukraine’s eastern region to ‘protect his fellow Russians from the threat of the fascist government in Kiev” – which I fear is more likely), it will be interesting to see how Orbán responds.

    The West will not be able to do anything to stop either of these events, but Putin will have crossed a pretty serious line if he does invade, and the US and the EU will have to take a very serious stance against Russia. There will be no wriggle room for Orbán in that situation.

  4. Russia already has troops in Trans-Dniester and has had since 1992 or so under the ceasefire agreement which ended the fighting when the region separated itself from Moldova proper.

    With troops already on the ground the Trans-Dniester issue will be more about whether Russia will both strengthen its local garrison and also about whether it will use them for further meddling. There are 2 points where this meddling can occur. Firstly in Ukraine, Trans-Dniester is about 30 miles away from Odessa, which is Ukraine’s biggest port and a city which has a large Russian community and a history as a majority Russian city. Will Putin’s troops try to turn Odessa into the next Crimea? There are already rival demonstartions taking place in the city.

    The second place where Trans-Dneister can be used for Russian interference is in Moldova itself. After all, virtually every state in the world still recognises Trans-Dneister as being part of Moldova. The Russians appear to be funding Gauguz nationalism in southern Moldova. Moldova is, like Ukaraine, a former USSR republic which is torn between Europe and Russia and geographically and economically it is a very poor and small county and therefore would be virtually defenceless before Russia.

    Perhaps the most worrying thing about Russian influence is just how unpleasant it is. In eastern Europe wherever there is the toxic mix of corruption and extreme nationalism, there always seems to be Russian money funding it and preventing it from withering on the vine.

  5. The last time I heard of the Russians building something for a foreign power was the building in Moscow they built to be used by the US embassy…a residence or something like that. Anyway, it was so full of listening devices that the building had to be given up. So I guess,
    our friendly Russkiy builders may input a few things into the reactors and it won’t be listening devices.

    I can’t think of one country that has tied itself up with the Russians and thought well of it.
    I remember when the Egyptians traded the American backers for Russians, and quickly gave that up after a year or so.

  6. The root cause of the tragedy of Hungarian Jewry was their delusional belief that by the act of emancipation in 1867 they could and would in fact become part of the Hungarian “nation”. Despite everything that happened since, this same delusion continues to permeate the ranks of much of remnant Jewry in Hungary to this day.

    In the nineteenth century, this Jewish delusion was also fueled by the fact that the Hungarian “nation” was in fact a multi-ethnic Hungarian language community comprised largely of people of germanic, slavic, romanian, turkic and other ethnic origin who adopted Hungarian as their language after the Hungarian language reforms in the early 19th century. In contrast, remnants of the original Hungarians who claimed for themselves the Carpathian basin a thousand years before, were very few and far between by the time the idea of the modern Hungarian state arose as part of the East European awakening subsequent to the French Revolution.

    Thus Jews easily deluded themselves that they could and would in fact be accepted as just another local ethnic group that adopted the Hungarian language and the idea of becoming citizens of what was to become an ultimately independent Hungarian state. This worked out reasonably well during the subsequent half century unto the end of the First World War, because “Hungarians of the Mosaic Faith” enabled Hungarian language speakers claim a Hungarian majority in the multi-language Hungarian half of the Dual Monarchy. In that period, Hungarian Jewry had made a uniquely enormous contribution to modernizing a then feudal Hungary in every field of commerce, industry and culture. But this all came to a sudden tragic end with Trianon, which left Jews and ethnic Germans as the only significant ethnic minorities in a severly truncated Hungary, where Jews became not merely entirely redundant to the geopolitical needs of the majority Christian Hungarians, but an intolerable burden upon a hopelessly uncompetitive and therefore viciously antisemitic up-and-coming Christian intellectual elite and middle class.

    Trianon would have sealed the fate of Hungarian Jewry, regadless of the depredations of Jewish Communist terrorists during the short-lived Hungarian Soviet in 1919, which merely served as an excellent pretext for scapegoating all Jews thereafter. Despite Trianon, however, the majority of Hungarian Jews simply could not bring themselves to believe that all that they had achieved during the previous half century was in fact “gone with the wind”, and consequently stayed on in Hungary regardless of the ominous and increasingly violent and virulently antisemitic environment in which they found themselves in the Hungary of the twenties and the thirties, as presided over by Horthy and his gang.

    It has to be said, however, that if Horthy had not been seen as such a loyal ally by the Nazis, especially in gratitude for Nazi help at the beginning of the Second World War in the return of some of the territories lost to Trianon, Hungary would have undoubtedly been occupied by massive German forces latest by 1940-41, just like Czechoslovakia or Poland, and in those circumstances it is a certainty that Hungarian Jewry would have got wiped out completely by 1944, just as Polish Jewry was. As it is, almost a quarter of the pre-war 800 thousand Hungarian Jews survived purely as a by-product of diehard Hungarian loyalty to the Nazis (and/or sheer good luck and/or capacity to endure the horrors visited upon them by their Hungarian Christian “compatriots”), though not at all as a result of any kind of good will towards the Jews by Hungarians at large (with all due credit to the rare exceptions to this) or any kind of effective protection and assistance on the part Horthy or his gang. The fact that Horthy ordered a halt to deportations in July 1944 had nothing to do with protecting the Jews, and everything to do with protecting his own skin.

  7. Orban’s concern with the ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine is a sham.

    Fidesz does not care about them, it wants them to seek the Hungarian citizenship, vote for Fidesz and perhaps to move to Hungary (and continue to be a Fidesz-loyal person). That is their assigned role.

    This issue is just a cover to have a plausible denial why Hungary will not get tough on Russia like the Baltic countries or Poland do. And Western leaders probably swallow this too.

    The bottom line is about the hundreds of billions of HUF Orban, Simicska and others would gain if Paks would go ahead. (and once Paks 2 is built we will need the Danube dams, which is another bonanza for the oligarchs).

    Orban will not give up Paks, ever.

    Naive Westerners can think whatever they want, but Orban will take advantage of them and just build Paks. They will be long gone and Orban and Putin will still be there doing there businesses.

  8. How long can our hero stand the oppression of Hungarians in Romania before he offers them a vote to join Hungary?

  9. Russia will soon invade the East and South of Ukraine, most likely occupying parts of Moldova too thereby cutting the remainder of Ukraine from its access to the Black Sea as well as taking away its industrial base (currently located in the Eastern part of Ukraine).

    However, nothing will change as far as the EU and Russia are concerned since Europe (Germany, Hungary etc.) will still be dependent on Russian gas and oil. And nothing’s gonna change that.

    As a result, no real sanction will ever be issued against Russia.

    People in the West will soon realize that it’s only the Ukrainians, and who the f**k are they anyway? Oh, it turns out they are the Little Russians (kisoroszok in archaic Hungarian language), so kind of Russians. So it’s an internal dispute between various Slavs (origin: slaves) and thus it is not the West’s problem to get involved in these games.

    Thus Orban will lough a lot with his pal Putin in the coming years and they together will build this new pride of Hungary and that of Russian technology.

    The West believed the mythology it created about soft power, the end of history and if we all have Twitter and internet everybody will be free and love each other. It turns out nukes still count. Now go home, there’s nothing to see here.

  10. Marcel Dé (@MarcelD10) :

    Ron :

    An :
    @Ron: You mean they criminalized having a dual citizenship, right?


    Too much Russian propaganda can seriously damage your health.

    I recommend everybody to read the link. It describes a text book example of Russian disinformation.
    Quote from a comment: “- What is new is the incredible intensity (of disinformation). I’ve never seen anything like it. …”
    It seems that the author of the comment is not familiar with the intensity of disinformation in Hungary.

  11. tappanch :
    Now I can understand why the opposition does not have any campaign.
    The campaign manager of MSzP used to work for Fidesz.

    What about Együtt and DK and PM?

    My prediction is that Fidesz will only exceed the results of the united Left by a couple of percentage points in the party list segment.

    But in order for the Left to prevail overall it would have to lead over Fidesz by some 6-8 % points in the party list segment.

    Anyway, it may be better for Fidesz to win now with a small percentage (from where it can only go downhill) then for the divided Left to get to power now. I don’t think Fidesz will have more than 37-39% of the party list votes, its victory will be based on trickery and it will soon be clear to everybody.

  12. @petermarton, do you really think that the united Left is going to do that well? I hope you are right but from my own circle of acquaintances, what is deeply disappointing is that friends who in the past did vote for the “Left” in 2002 and 2006 and who were disillusioned in 2010, are simply not voting this year. I’m bracing myself for a parliament where perhaps only 15% of the MPs are from the non-Fidesz and Jobbik side of the spectrum.

  13. Hibom: yes, that is certainly a possibility, but I referred to the party list segment, which most clearly shows party popularity to any observer.

    In the gerrymendered districts, ethnic minority list etc. Fidesz will win big time, so its overall number of mandates in the Parliament will be huge for sure.

    But I still believe that Fidesz’ party list results will only be 2-3 points over those of the Left, something like 38% Fidesz, 36% Left, 18% Jobbik, 7% LMP, 1% others. So the results will show how distorted the system is.

    I still think that despite the GKI-Erste confidence index referred to by tappanch people are very frustrated and discontent all over Hungary (of course many still vote for Fidesz like those in Western Hungary).

    At least this is how I think results will turn out, based on my current interpretation of the circumstances.

  14. Welsz was almost certainly an official secret service employee, who by the way committed numerous felonies — all with the tacit or more likely active support of his employer/colleagues. That is clear to anybody with an IQ over 70.

    I don’t understand why MSZP doesn’t dare to be tougher about this issue. It is an outrageous part of this saga. Szanyi and Molnar are both very wishy-washy.

    But then again MSZP is bunch of wusses and they are scared s**tless by the Fidesz-state security complex.

  15. I have posted repeatedly on the dynamics of the Ukraine situation and the overall confused response to the Russian seizure of Crimea. Having been in the US Army I was very aware of the tactical position on NATO in relation to armed Russian invasion of NATO territory, and of course the Ukraine is not a member of NATO. But it was always assumed NATO’s response would be to use tactical nuclear weapons against Russian troops, most Hungarians I suspect were not aware of this stance when Hungary joined NATO.

    Putin is fully aware of this stance and knows that NATO has only about 30,000 troops it can rapidly deploy. Really only Poland and Lithuania have on a military level made a show of mobilization in the current situation. The Germans have repeatedly reduced military expenditures and have even reduced the size of their Air Force. Ultimately if the economic actions against Russia have an effect there will be military consequences. Russia is in an expansionist mode and will move forward with Eurasian economic zone at the point of a bayonet if needed.

    Orban is trying to play a classic Hungarian game of playing off great powers to the advantage of Hungary, a game that historically failed again and again. The hotter things get the less room Orban has to maneuver.

  16. @ Jean P

    Good comment.
    First off, I learned what ‘dystopian’ means. Second, Orwell’s quote is picture perfect description of Hungary and Hungarians:

    “War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength.”

  17. @ Istvan

    “Orban is trying to play a classic Hungarian game of playing off great powers…”

    (I guess not only your name is Hungarian…) What massive self-delusion!

    Orban is ‘playing’ no one except his own country and people.
    He’s a Russian asset.

  18. @Istvan–“The hotter things get the less room Orban has to maneuver”

    They have got already too hot for a small country as Hungary, the game that Orban wanted to play is “game over”.

  19. For a change, I am completely agree with the article. it would be also nice if the Hungarian government firmly declared that it has no territorial claims against Ukraine, to be sure that the world does not stand before the second Munich to dismember Ukraine as it was done with Czecho-Slovakia. It is not to say that Ukraine – one of the best countries in the world: its past was full of rabid Antisemitism, and in the present they failed to build a viable state during the last 20 years, but this should have no bearing on the condemnation of the unprovoked aggression done in violation of all signed agreements and promises.

  20. tappanch :
    The Ukraine is going to withdraw its remaining troops from the Crimea, says acting president Turchinov.

    What I found out from this your reference on a site in Russian, that you apparently read Russian. If so, why would not you read my article that I gave reference yesterday? It is:

    Under the paper there is a room for comments. Knowing in advance that you will not agree with me, I don’t mind at all if you write your negative comments on that site.

  21. Eliezer Rabinovich :
    it would be also nice if the Hungarian government firmly declared that it has no territorial claims against Ukraine

    This is implicit in Hungary’s membership of EU and NATO.You can not be admitted in either one if you have territorial claims, you have “close” first all disputes.I suppose that Hungary has signed a treaty with Ukraine, in the 1990s, before being admitted to EU/NATO.

  22. Ovidiu :

    Eliezer Rabinovich :
    it would be also nice if the Hungarian government firmly declared that it has no territorial claims against Ukraine

    This is implicit in Hungary’s membership of EU and NATO.You can not be admitted in either one if you have territorial claims, you have “close” first all disputes.I suppose that Hungary has signed a treaty with Ukraine, in the 1990s, before being admitted to EU/NATO.

    EU membership?
    How do you explain that Bruxelles allows a member country’s citizens to vote in another member country’s election? Hardly seems like ‘democratic values’ to me.
    Numbskull Hungarians should’ve objected that their tax-based right to vote is being diluted by non-tax payers…

  23. Ovidiu :

    Eliezer Rabinovich :it would be also nice if the Hungarian government firmly declared that it has no territorial claims against Ukraine

    This is implicit in Hungary’s membership of EU and NATO.You can not be admitted in either one if you have territorial claims, you have “close” first all disputes.I suppose that Hungary has signed a treaty with Ukraine, in the 1990s, before being admitted to EU/NATO.

    The Hungarian-Ukrainian “Treaty on Good-Neighbour Relations and Cooperation”, by which both parties renounced any territorial claims, was signed in Dec. 1991, and ratified in 1992.

    PS: although renouncing one’s territorial claims generally speeds up the accession process to both the EU and NATO, there are no specific provisions against them. Turkey occupies half of Cyprus. Spain still claims Gibraltar from the UK. And as far as I know Romania has not renounced Moldova.

  24. @Eliezer

    I do not know how to answer on your site. My Russian is also rusty.

    I just pick on two things.

    Fascism or democracy may have several, different definitions.

    But your headline says, [in 4.4.3.] that Horthy was the “Leader of an Anti-Semitic Democracy”

    Nobody called the Horthy regime a democracy in his time. He did not call his regime as such, that is certain.

    Most people did not have the right to vote under Horthy. Outside 12 privileged towns, people were allowed to vote only in the open.

    [5.3] Hungary was a “Refuge for One Million Jews”
    This is a factual error on your part.

    The 995,000 people in the Wikipedia article you quote includes the Jews of wartime Slovakia and Romanian Southern Transylvania as well. [I make an exception and accept Wikipedia this time on my own authority… :-)]

    The number of Jewish refugees could not have been bigger than a few thousand after the 1941 Kameniec-Podolsk deportations.

  25. “Outside 12 privileged towns, people were allowed to vote only in the open.” This model was emulated in the Crimea during the recent “referendum” in which the ballots had no envelopes and the voters were required to place them in clear ballot boxes.

  26. [5.3] Hungary was a “Refuge for One Million Jews”
    This is a factual error on your part.
    The 995,000 people in the Wikipedia article you quote includes the Jews of wartime Slovakia and Romanian Southern Transylvania as well. [I make an exception and accept Wikipedia this time on my own authority… :-)]
    The number of Jewish refugees could not have been bigger than a few thousand after the 1941 Kameniec-Podolsk deportations.

    In the text I explained that I used the quotation marks because I borrowed the title from ambassador’s Montgomery’s book (though checked in other sources that it is not a complete non-sense). But there is no apparently doubt that 800 thsd. did live in 1942 when Kallay took over.

    Democracy? Very relative, of course, it was not a Western-European country. But definitely not a fascist state even in the Italian sense. Several parties, vote and a rather limited power of the Regent. Dr. Eba Balogh wrote here on May 29, 2011:

    “His powers in connection with actual legislation were relatively limited. He did not until 1937, when it was conferred upon him, enjoy the prerogative of the “preliminary sanction,” i.e. the right to have a draft bill submitted to him for his personal approval before it was introduced in parliament… Horthy’s power to influence legislation was limited to a suspensory veto. If he disapproved of a measure, he could return it to parliament for reconsideration. If parliament persisted, he had to promulgate the measure.

    He took an oath to govern “in the sense of the Constitution and in agreement with parliament, through the prime minister…” But Horthy, especially in the 1920s, didn’t exercise some of the authority he enjoyed by law. And he was very careful not to exceed his constitutional authority. He never once exercised his power of suspensory veto.”

  27. Radio speech by Gömbös, premier of Hungary – as reported by “Rádióélet” on October 9, 1932:

    The end of his speech was:

    “Magyarok, testvéreim! Gyújtsátok meg lelkemnek nemzetemért, ti érettetek égő élettüzénél a bizalom szövétnekét! Világítsatok!”

    (I am not willing to translate this nonsense)

    The choir finished by singing “the august prayer of Szozat” and giving the Fascist salute.

    “Gömbös answered with the Fascist salute too and left the room with his entourage in good spirits, satisfied.”

    [Thanks dad, for saving this for me…]

  28. Mrs Merkle met Canadian prime minister harper today in Berlin and they agreed on Putin:
    “Putin “does not desire to be a partner — he desires to be a rival,” Harper said during his address.
    Harper painted Putin as a lone wolf, isolated even within his own country. ”

    “Merkel said if Russia doesn’t meet demands to de-escalate the situation, it will face further sanctions from the international community. The German leader said she hopes Putin makes the “right decisions” to avoid further sanctions, as they will harm not only Russia’s economy, but Europe’s as well. “

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