Hungary has a new “featherweight” foreign minister, a man after Viktor Orbán’s heart

On Friday Viktor Orbán nominated Péter Szijjártó (age 35) to be the next minister of foreign trade and foreign affairs. On Saturday four parliamentary committees in a joint session found him eminently suitable for the job. By Wednesday he will be sworn in. Several readers’ comments following this news item started: “one cannot sink lower.” One described him as a member of five-a-side football team who will find himself on a field where he does not belong. Or, as Endre Aczél, the veteran journalist, put it, Szijjártó is “the featherweight briefcase carrier” of Viktor Orbán.

Indeed, this appointment is a travesty. János Martonyi, the man who was in charge of foreign affairs in the first and second Orbán administrations, had extensive professional experience. First as commercial secretary in the Hungarian embassy in Brussels (1979-1984), later as department head at the ministry of commerce. After the regime change József Antall appointed him undersecretary in the foreign ministry.

Although I always thought Martonyi cut a slightly ridiculous figure with his waxed mustache, Kaiser Wilhelm II style, he was apparently highly regarded in diplomatic circles. The problem was that as minister of foreign affairs in the first Orbán government he mattered very little. Or rather, he said one thing and Viktor Orbán said something else, after which Martonyi tried to explain away the message of the Hungarian prime minister. It was, in my opinion, a demeaning position to be put in, but it did not seem to bother Martonyi, who enthusiastically agreed to be foreign minister again in 2010. In the intervening years behind the scenes he kept in touch with foreign embassies on behalf of Fidesz and Viktor Orbán.

If Martonyi was often ignored during Orbán’s first administration, in the second his influence amounted to zero. Foreign policy was conducted from the prime minister’s office, represented by Péter Szijjártó.

Szijjártó’s rise to power was phenomenal. At the age of 20 he was elected a member of the Győr City Council. In 2002, when he was 24, he became a member of parliament. In addition, after 2010 he was entrusted to be Viktor Orbán’s personal spokesman. Two years later he moved to a new position created especially for him: undersecretary of foreign trade and foreign affairs in the prime minister’s office. In brief, he became the real foreign minister in all but name.

Péter Szijjártó as Viktor Orbán's spokesman

Péter Szijjártó as Viktor Orbán’s spokesman

After the last election the handwriting was on the wall: János Martonyi’s days were numbered. There was little doubt who would be his successor. Therefore, I don’t quite understand the game of musical chairs Viktor Orbán played with the ministerial positions. Instead of immediately naming Szijjártó to replace Martonyi, he moved Navracsics to the foreign ministry, renamed the ministry of foreign affairs and trade (külgazdasági és külügyi minisztérium). Everybody knew, including Navracsics, that his tenure as a diplomat would last approximately four months, when he would be nominated to serve as Hungary’s representative on the European Commission.

Szijjártó with a more diplomatic demeanor at his hearing yesterday

Szijjártó with a more diplomatic demeanor at his hearing yesterday

Navracsics’s only noteworthy “achievements” in his new post were closing the Hungarian embassy in Tallinn, Estonia, and sacking about 300 diplomats, subsequently filling their positions with people from the prime minister’s office and from the ministry of justice. As one Hungarian newspaper put it, the first floor of the ministry’s building was cleared out completely. Employees, even high level ones, had no idea what would happen to them. Rumors were swirling about who would be the next victim.

Currently there are six undersecretaries in the ministry, each with a staff of 20. The minister has a staff of 40. In the previous administration Martonyi and his sole undersecretary, Zsolt Németh, together had a staff of 25. There is no longer a joint press department; each undersecretary has his own. No more separate department dealing with European affairs. Its former head, Enikő Győri, who had excellent connections in Brussels, has been exiled to Madrid. Hungary’s relations with the European Union were transferred to the prime minister’s office, under the jurisdiction of János Lázár.

Szijjártó at his hearing in front of the four parliamentary committees talked about the “renewal of Hungary’s foreign policy.” Indeed, why not? Viktor Orbán already “renewed” the country to an illiberal democracy, now it is time to renew the country’s foreign policy. A frightening thought. The man who four years ago managed to shake the financial stability of the world for a few days now like a bull in the china shop will conduct a foreign policy that will have practically nothing to do with diplomacy as we know it because we are in an entirely new world that needs entirely new diplomatic efforts. At least this is what Viktor Orbán and his faithful “janissary,” as István Józsa (MSZP) called Szijjártó at the hearing, think. Hungary will be a pioneer yet again. It will conduct diplomacy without diplomats. Of course, this entirely new world exists only in Viktor Orbán’s imagination.

I fear the worst given Szijjártó’s new “non-diplomatic” course. Hungary’s reputation has been greatly tarnished, but at least foreign diplomats in Budapest could negotiate with more or less seasoned diplomats in the foreign ministry. After this change of personnel not even the semblance of normal diplomatic relations between Hungary and the West will be possible.

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21 comments

  1. The bozo said “a new world order is being born and there will be winners and losers and we’d like to be among the former”. 

    Gee. Ain’t that simple? More mullah, bros. That’s our policy and shit …

    He was asked about President Clinton who recently called Orban a moneyhungry wannabe dictator in a brilliant interview with Jon Stewart on the Daily Show. Szijjarto casually went: “his advisers lied to him” (átvágták in Hungarian). The fellow wasn’t even confirmed yet and already called one of the most influential men stupid. Great prospects. So much about diplomatic skills.

    He has this weirdo hairstyle,  like a mohawk, so they call him cockatoo. 

    Do you remember Rozsa Hoffmann, the fallen education high muckamuck in the Orban cabinet. She was there, dressed in a Hungarian flag (red jacket, white blouse, green skirt). Her contribution in the hearings was “hope you are not limping and get better”. Szijjarto torn an ACL two weeks ago while playing futsal. Atta boy! That’s what papa Orban likes!

    Perfect puppet. He will proxy every idiocy that Orban will cook up in the future.

  2. Incidentally, this means that Navracsics – whose hearing will take place on Oct. 1st, 6 p.m. – has no safety net. My guess is OV is confident that he will be confirmed in his new position. As this piece suggests:

    Dave Keating, European Voice: However, there is a sense among MEPs that Navracsics, and by extension Orbán, has been punished enough by being given what is one of the more inconsequential portfolios in the new Commission …

  3. Although I am in full agreement with the article, however, I must most strenuously dispute one point: the mustache.
    Martonyi’s mustache is well groomed and artfully cultivated, exactly as my own. (albeit mine is far more beautiful than his) But it is not waxed. On the contrary! It is a piece of unmitigated natural beauty.
    And with this we have told everything positive about this minister.
    I taught this remark necessary on behalf, and in the interest of, the United Moustache International (The world’s preeminent NGO), lest a grave and harmful misunderstanding may ensue to the detriment of mustaches everywhere and Humanity at large.

  4. I think many of you overestimating Szijjarto. He’s only a minister by title. He is like a boarded up window (or vakablak in Hungarian). We can call it whatever, but he is simply a mouthpiece of Orban. Orban cannot be everywhere at the same time, so he choose people around him who has no dignity left or not smart enough to prove themselves in “real life”. Orban filled his potemkin government with dummies without individual thinking capabilities or with people who are power/money hungry enough to act like the Stepford Wifes. Orban tells them what to do, and that is that. It was proven over and over again that at any point one of those “ministers” do not have the right instruction from their master, the retreat, do not answer to questions, or come back to reexplain what they really meant to say.

  5. @Ambator

    I am keenly interested in your opinion of the mustache of Kover Laszlo.
    (The way it hangs in his mouth makes me think that he can remember what he ate the day before!)

  6. Dear Mr. petofi:

    Thank you very much indeed for your kind interest in the valuable work United Mustache International is labouring at around the Planet, for the betterment of people everywhere.
    As an elected official of the United Moustache International, (actually self-appointed and the only member of the Orgaization, but hey! just as important, if not more), it is my duty to divulge that Mr. Kover’s mustache had been rejected several times the privilege of membership.
    It pains me to share with you the decision of the Membership Committee, who repeatedly declined to agree to Mr. Kover’s accession on the ground that (and I quote!) “his protuberance is more disgusting than any other calamity, any applicant has ever had the temerity to present to the Committee, to date.” (Of course I don’t mean that the bushy brush of Mr. Kover called out the Committee for date with dinner. In any case they are all married.)
    Although such singularity is not, by itself, is en exclusionary circumstance, it has proven impossible so far to find even one member willing to vote for the acceptance of the unspeakable extremity.
    It appears, alas, unavoidable at the present time to appoint a mediation subcommittee, for the exclusive purpose of adjudicating the apparent conflict between Mr. Kover’s obnoxity on the one hand, and the intractable revulsion of the membership, on the other. Presently we are working to soften the conflict by appointing the members of the subcommittee exclusively from our Women With Moustach division.
    Of course, in the interest of advancing the cause of human understanding and brotherly love, and the important message United Moustache International brings to the World, I could pontificate much further about the intricacies of this very important matter. However, given the limited time and the restrictions of this measly blog, I am afraid this will have to do for the time being.
    I humbly request that all further inquiries should be directed to the PR department of United Moustache International, either at our New York headquarters, (www.UMI.org), or at any of our associated regional offices in Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia. I should also caution you that our Antarctica office is temporarily closed for technical reasons.

  7. To Mr. petofi:

    The purpose and function of Mr. Kover’s mustache is precisely as you surmised.
    As dumb as he is, how else could he remember what his lunch has been yesterday otherwise?

  8. @ambator:

    You are a bad, bad boy (or girl?) …

    After watching M1 news tonight (no, we are not masochists, it just happens – but not too often) I had given up hope – but now you made my day!

  9. wolfi, you are too kind.
    Do you have a mustache? Do you want to join UMI? I can help and it won’t cost you much… well, it’s worth it.

  10. @ambator – @all others: sorry for the totally OT):

    Well I’ve had a beard (and rather long hair) for many years – even when I worked for IBM 30 years ago …

    My wife says I look very much like Eric Clapton used to look:

  11. Hope you do not mind if I repeat myself. I posted here on Szíjjártó on August 20, 2011 at 4:48 am

    > Fidesz bears a large share of the blame for these verbal assaults that roll off the tongues so easily in right-wing circles.

    That reminds me of an encounter I had in Brussels on 24 June 2002 with Péter Szijjártó, now Orbán’s spokesman and then the youngest Hungarian MP. We were chatting amically, as I had told him I joined Fidesz as early as May 1988. (What I did not tell him was that this relationship of mine did not last after 1993 at the latest.)
    This was two months after Fidesz lost the elections. And why did they lose? Well, one of the foremost reasons for this was, Szijjártó told me quite in earnest, all those Jews that had been flown in on charter flights from Israel in order to vote. There was clearly a risk of Tel-Aviv dictating in Budapest.
    First I was not sure if Szijjártó was joking, but I could tell by his expression that he was not. But at that time I was not ready to believe that such bullshit would become not only acceptable, but mainstream in Hungary quite soon.

  12. I apologize for diverting the discussion from the topic.
    Unfortunately, the opportunity was far too tempting and, why deny it, I admit, the subject of even a moustach is more interesting in my estimation, than a whole barrelful of Szijjarto.
    In fact, it is the most astounding characteristic of the Orban system that it is infuriating and boring at the same time.

  13. “Hungary’s reputation has been greatly tarnished, but at least foreign diplomats in Budapest could negotiate with more or less seasoned diplomats in the foreign ministry.”

    Anybody competent at a technocratic level had been cleared out long before Szijjarto’s accession to the throne.

    One of the many reasons why embassies from the developed world a long time gave up trying to arrange joint programmes or conferences here is that they were dealing with regime-approved monolingual morons with the attention span and intellect of a fruit fly. The whole foreign department is staffed by and now headed by idiots who would struggle to find their way out of their own back garden never mind to a foreign assignment.

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