Viktor Orbán and the gathering storm clouds in the East

Meetings of the heads of EU member states usually last much longer than anticipated. At eight in the evening participants were still discussing who will replace Herman Van Rompuy as European Council president and Catherine Ashton as foreign policy chief.  They finally determined that the former post will be filled by Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk and the latter by Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini.

It seems, however, that the decision on further sanctions against Russia will be postponed for at least a week, although a draft of such sanctions dated August 27 exists which says that the bloc “stands ready to consider further steps” against Russia due to the “reported participation of Russian armed forces in operations on Ukrainian soil.” Petro Poroshenko, who was present at the discussions about his country, indicated that further sanctions are likely. The EU only wants to wait on implementation to see how Russia reacts to his attempt to revive a “peace plan” next week.

If Vladimir Putin’s threatening remarks are any indication, further sanctions and an increased Western military presence in Eastern Europe are indeed likely. Putin told the press that “Russia’s partners … should understand it’s best not to mess with us,” adding: “I think no one is thinking of unleashing a large-scale conflict with Russia. I want to remind you Russia is one of the leading nuclear powers.” Nuclear threat or not, the number of NATO troops in Poland and Romania has doubled already, and NATO is planning to send an additional 1,ooo troops to the region. And Britain and six other states are planning to create a new joint expeditionary force of at least 10,000 personnel to bolster NATO’s power.

map2

Meanwhile a rather frightening map was published by the Russian weekly Expert that showed the sphere of influence Russia is attempting to create. The green line indicates the reach of Soviet dominance, the red the current situation, and the orange Russian hopes for an expanded sphere of influence. That would include Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia.

Observers of Russia and its plans might be also interested in reading a statement by Kazakhstan’s 74-year-old dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev. Let me quote it verbatim from Kazakhstan’s official English-language website Tengri News.

If the rules set forth in the agreement are not followed, Kazakhstan has a right to withdraw from the Eurasian Economic Union. I have said this before and I am saying this again. Kazakhstan will not be part of organizations that pose a threat to our independence. Our independence is our dearest treasure, which our grandfathers fought for. First of all, we will never surrender it to someone, and secondly, we will do our best to protect it.

Of course, he added that nothing of the sort can possibly happen because “there are three representatives from each country [Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan] and three Vice-Prime Ministers. They also make their decisions together.”

Putin’s response to Nazarbayev’s statement called Kazakhstan’s future independence into question. Yesterday he said that Kazakhstan, although large, is only one-tenth the size of Russia. He also explained that Nazarbayev “created a state on territory where no state had ever existed. The Kazakhs had never had statehood. Nazarbayev created it. In this sense, he is a unique person for the former Soviet space and for Kazakhstan too.” But, Putin continued, underscoring his expansionist intentions, Kazakhstan is better off in the “big Russian world.”

Meanwhile Viktor Orbán, as his wont, gave a press conference upon his arrival in Brussels. Interestingly enough, he is usually driven to these meetings in his own Volkswagen minibus, an odd choice for such occasions. According to normal protocol, the hosts provide vehicles for visiting dignitaries, but for one reason or another Orbán insists on his own bus. One must wonder how this vehicle gets to Brussels. Is it driven or transported there ahead of time? Or, perhaps he has several identical vehicles?

It is also hard to know whether only Hungarian reporters are interested in what the prime minister has to say or whether journalists from other countries are also present. I suspect that only Hungarian reporters attend these events. On one of the pictures taken at the press conference I could see the mikes of only MTV and HírTV.

In Orbán’s opinion, today’s meeting was organized only for “the review and correction of the current political situation.”  The discussion centers around whether “the sanctions have reached their desired goals” but for that “we should know what the desired goals are.” He is convinced that sanctions will not work. Sanctions until now have not been successful and it would be self-deception to think that more of the same would end the conflict.

Finally, I would like to say a few words about the Conference of Western Balkan States that took place in Berlin on August 28, 2014. Participating were representatives of the European Union, Germany, Austria, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, and the Republic of Macedonia. It was called together by Chancellor Angela Merkel, who also chaired the meeting.

The idea for the conference came in response to the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I. The intention was to show commitment to the process of future enlargement of the European Union as well as to shore up relations with Serbia as a strategic partner of the EU, especially in light of the problems in Ukraine.

Serbia has, since the second half of the nineteenth century, been a close friend and ally of Russia. Its negotiations with the European Union for membership have been going on for a long time, but Serbia’s chances have been strengthened by what is going on in Ukraine. Because, as Adelina Marini of euinside.eu points out, “if Serbia becomes part of the EU, Russia will lose its influence in the Balkans or, at least, it will be significantly limited.”

However, Serbia apparently wants to have its cake and eat it too. Although it desperately wants to join the European Union, it also wants to keep its special relationship with Russia. Brussels is unlikely to accept such a “special status” for Serbia. But if Russia becomes a real threat to Europe, Serbia’s membership in the EU might help block the spread of Russian influence.

Diplomacy in Europe and especially in Eastern Europe and the Balkans is a much more complicated enterprise than it was a few years back when these countries did not have to worry about the Russian bear. Orbán’s idea that diplomacy can be pretty much replaced by foreign trade is patently wrong. The current situation is complex, negotiations are difficult, and a bad outcome would be very dangerous for Europe. And even as storm clouds are gathering in the East, Hungarian diplomacy is being guided by Péter Szijjártó, who is totally unfit for the job.

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25 comments

  1. Thanks for nothing, lasso, the article is hogwash–it reaches the absolute pinnacle of platitudes.
    “So much to do together…” ?? That’s a laugher. Do you see a lot of countries co-operating with Hungary? Well, Putyin and Orban are cut from the same cloth: they’ll never tell a truth
    where a couple of lies will do instead. No one can trust the ogre, and no one should.
    Haven’t we seen this ‘movie’ before?
    Everything seems so depressingly 1930’s….
    Don’t people learn?

  2. Orban’s “National Interest” foreign policy: Hungary’s 2 main energy sources: gas and nuclear. In gas Hungary is basically dependent on Russia, but Gyurcsany managed to get gas reserve facilities built in the face of massive Fidesz oppisition. In nuclear, thanks to Paks2 Hungary is also dependent on Russia. It looks more like a policy tailored to Russia’s national interest than Hungary’s.

  3. Serbia has been financed by Russia for years, without Russia and its investors Serbia would have collapsed long ago, that is even below the dismal state where it is now. Russia was Serbia’s protector during the Yugoslav war and nobody will forget that on the two sides. Serbia by the way suffers from the same circumstances as Hungary does: a landlocked country, far from the rich markets, without any natural resources and a strong agricultural history as opposed to a history of gentrification for example in the mining towns in the area which is now Slovakia. Perhaps no other European country collapsed more since 1990 than Serbia, although obviously most of it was self-inflicted. But I am sure if any country than Serbia would surely benefit from an EU membership, Russia’s wreath notwithstanding.

  4. Kamill: Serbia has been financed by Russia for years, without Russia and its investors Serbia would have collapsed long ago, that is even below the dismal state where it is now.

    FDIs may not paint the whole picture, however their numbers place Russia rather low: in 8th position for the ’05-12 period, behind 6 EU members and Norway. Austria’s FDIs alone are four times that of Russia, and the total amount for the top 10 EU investor countries in Serbia is 15 times that of Russia. Also, the Russian Federation is only the fifth export destination for Serbia.

    But of course there is Gazprom, and we have more than a hint of what energy deals mean in matter of political influence.

  5. Re Carnegie study. A lot of people would argue that Putin’s Russia is much more of a threat than this benign interpretation would like us to believe. And I who is rather familiar with the history of Russia would also question Thomas Graham.

  6. Eva is correct to question the perspective of the Graham essay linked above. The Graham essay looks at foreign policy in relationship to Russia in a framework totally divorced from the unique economic features of Russia. Hence it fails to comprehend the expansionist nature of Putin’s perspective. Every economic relationship between one of the many state controlled enterprises and foreign companies or governments is based on a political calculation first as opposed to market based decision making. While Russia seeks to avoid losing money, it also will trade profit for influence in its business relationships.

    The USA separates this political use of economic power by utilizing non-private sector players such as USAID, IMF, or the World Bank. Russia’s economy is a hybrid capitalist economy that is dominated by the state controlled enterprises. The oligarchy does not constitute a social class but rather an appendage of the Putin controlled apparatus. I like to call it gangster capitalism, but there is another names for it which I discuss below.

    Graham is not alone in his failure to understand the unique and very dangerous nature of the Russian Federation. I would suggest that PM Orban in fact has a deeper understanding do how Russia’s economic structure is different than EU market based capitalism than Graham does and that is why he is drawn to it like a moth is drawn to light.

    In my opinion this economic structure is very similar to Italian fascist corporativism. This structure is the socio-political organization of a society by major interest groups, or corporate groups, such as agricultural, business, ethnic, labour, military, patronage, or scientific affiliations, on the basis of common interests. Corporatism is theoretically based upon the interpretation of a community as an organic body.The term corporatism is based on the Latin root word “corpus” (plural – “corpora”) meaning “body”.

    Alfredo Rocco (1875-1935) was the fascist theorist that refined this idea, but Mussolini propagandized the concept. Here is what he said:

    “When brought within the orbit of the State, Fascism recognizes the real needs which gave rise to socialism and trade unionism, giving them due weight in the guild or corporative system in which divergent interests are coordinated and harmonized in the unity of the State.”

    Until the west comprehends the real dangerous nature of Russia it will continue to believe Putin can be dealt with as some type of rational player, this is Graham’s fundamental error. My perspective on the unique nature of the Russian economy and state is shared by many theorists at the US Strategic Studies Institute and our perspective is not shared by the US foreign policy establishment. By the way some authors see China in a similar manner ips.cap.anu.edu.au/sites/default/files/IPS/…/JUAC_China_Corporatism.pdf

  7. Istvan, thanks, spot on analysis.

    My remark would be that an observer with a rational world view paradigm (enlightenment, rational choice theory, public choice theory etc.) can never really understand a world which is not rational at least in the sense such observer understands the term. At least this problem should be understood when very educated foreigners want to understand Russia, Hungary or a country like Iraq.

    I am not a historian, but it seems to me that the ‘the Holocaust’ (meaning this by now only projected event which was recreated via the holocaust discourse) became such a central concept around which the entire history of the middle of the 20th century is now organized, that it is almost impossible to use the terms fascism and national socialism to a contemporary system which is not currently setting up concentration camps.

    I agree that what we see in Russia, and increasingly in Hungary, where the state has such a central role in the legal economy and is actively organizing these corporatist bodies (for teachers, for entrepreneurs, for agricultural producers etc.), is actually very much like fascism or even national socialism (it’s not like in Germany everything was in public ownership, to the contrary). But people will call you crazily alarmist if you use these terms, like what’s the matter with you, do you see jews being deported to an extermination camp?

    The D’Amato interview linked by Marcel Dé was very insightful. Just as D’Amato argues we may never really know when we reached the threshold. It’s the old Sorites paradox, how is a heap of sand is produced, how many grains of sand do we need for that?

    I think that we did, just because Orban is not killing people or that we can blame the zombie (living dead) opposition for their part in maintaining this system, these don’t mean that Hungary is a democracy now. This is a totalitarian state which is not yet physically violent, but the Kadar system wasn’t really either (except right after 1956), and smartly let’s people play around on their Iphone and get drunk in the party district. But should you pose the weakest resistance even at the lowest levels, retaliation is inevitable.

  8. Re: the Thomas Graham piece.

    I wouldn’t call it ‘balanced’, because that’s not the author’s point. The purpose is to provide a new basic framework for US-Russian relations, from an US strategic point of view. Mr. Graham has been advocating this for years now, regularly pointing at the constant deterioration of bilateral relations since ’06, and at the absence of a clear agenda in the WH as well as in Congress. In that respect he has, alas, been right.

    And while I strongly disagree with his assessment of the ideological threat posed by Putin’s regime (Istvan, Banana Monkey, I’m definitely with you here), while I beg to notice that over the years in spite of his repeated reassurances he had to swallow Georgia and now Ukraine, I can’t blame the man for saying that the US has no strategy, and that they urgently need one.

  9. “I think that we did, just because Orban is not killing people or that we can blame the zombie (living dead) opposition for their part in maintaining this system, these don’t mean that Hungary is a democracy now.”

    Watch how many judges rule in favour of the banks in the next couple of days; the banks are basing their defence on the fact that the Orbanist regime has acted unconstitutionally (even on the basis of their own constitution) and if one were to examine the points proving that objectively, then the regime would lose each and every case. I won’t shed too many tears for the banks but in the bigger picture the judiciary and to all intents the media which matters is now inseparable from the regime.

    Hungary is thus not a democracy. It is not a dictatorship where inconvenient journalists and NGO activists are *disappeared* but that fact alone doesn’t make it a democracy. Sadly nobody, important enough to effect change, cares.

  10. Recently, I’ve been noting the number of zombie movies hitting the screen. I can’t explain their popularity the world over, but I can in Hungary: people want to see their own kind.

  11. D7 Democrat: “Hungary is thus not a democracy. It is not a dictatorship where inconvenient journalists and NGO activists are *disappeared* but that fact alone doesn’t make it a democracy.”

    When the fideszniks begin to feel the mortal fear for what is going to happen to them when their kleptocracy collapses, the killing will begin. That is the logic of dictatorship.

  12. Sometimes I wonder how long time it takes till the enlightenment hits home within the orbanist crowd that they may not that privileged after all as they assumed.

    There is always someone much more connected, there is always even better friends around, there are the family too, you see, so there indeed is a palpable insecurity among the comrades already. Let’s not to forget, the booty is already smaller than their appetite, and shrinking by the day, so the boys already started to take from each other – dog eats dog.

    Now, as the strings of the Russian purse suddenly getting drawn tighter, while the circumstances for this Great and Historic Friendship less and less favourable – in regard of the EU – the anxiety will help to accelerate the events even further, so the above mentioned “mortal fear” isn’t really that far away, in my opinion at least.

    Will see soon enough, I’m afraid.

  13. Message for Cheshire Cat:

    My profound apologies, but I have only just found and read your reply to my question to you about your thoughts on the Hungarian vs the English education systems (Aug 12th).

    I don’t want to try everyone’s patience with a detailed reply here, but I just wanted to say thank you for your interesting response. Your views pretty much match my opinions on the two systems – I think the English system is by some way the better (mainly because it still seeks to educate, not just teach), although it is still a long way from what I would like to see. And, we agree also on 4-5 being too early to start ‘formal’ education (although I also think 7 is too late).

    As for my wife’s views – perhaps surprisingly she agrees with you on some things (she is a music teacher, so particularly on the lack of classical music education!), and can see merit in the English approach, but she is still very much a product of the old system and feels more comfortable with more ‘facts and work’ – she is particularly keen on homework (which I hate) – which she thinks English children don’t do enough of.

  14. Getting back OT – one point that commentators don’t seem to be concentrating on as much a I think it deserves is Russian gas. For instance, just how far can Ukraine go against Russia, whatever the justification (Russian soldier on Ukrainian soil, etc), when the Russians can turn off their gas at any moment?

    With the winter only a month or two away, this is about to become a serious trump card for the Russians. And not just for the Ukraine – just how many other European countries are now significantly reliant on Russian gas?

    I think even Germany gets a significant part of its gas from Putin. They might have the storage and alternative supplies to survive the taps being turned off, but many countries will not have that flexibility.

    I wonder how WW2 would have turned out if Britain and France had both been overly dependent on German gas in 1939? Would the war even have started?

  15. Paul, the gas question is not so simple, because as much as Ukraine is dependent upon Russian gas, Russia is dependent upon Ukraine allowing the pipelines to flow through their territory, delivering gas to the most lucrative clients in the west.

  16. GW, the relatively friendly relationship Ukraine has with Western Europe now might not survive the act of turning off the gas taps to the EU. Most European people are not too aware of all the details of the situation in Ukraine, so they might not be so understanding while they are shivering in their homes. I hope I’m wrong, but we need only see what happened in 2006 and 2009, when the gas supply to EU countries was interrupted, to have an idea of how much power Russia holds. It’s likely that the EU will decide Ukraine’s southeast isn’t worth it, which would be very short-sighted, in my opinion. This is probably why Putin is willing to send Russian troops to support the rebels, at least long enough to enable his gas embargo to work.

    Europe made a huge mistake in letting Putin hook it on Russian gas. Nord Stream and the partial demise of Nabucco made possible the further control of Russia over much of the EU’s energy, and Orbán has certainly done his part of help Putin in this area.

  17. GW – interesting. Are all the pipelines through Ukraine?

    Mind you, the first time Ukraine tries to restrict Russia’s export of gas to the West, Putin will take it as a ‘justified’ reason to send in his troops.

    Could be an interesting winter…

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