Today I’ll backtrack a bit and revisit the serious diplomatic crisis that developed between Hungary and the United States. When the news hit about the American decision to ban six Hungarians from entering the United States, some commentators were convinced that the alleged corruption was only a pretext, that the real cause was Russia.
These people were wrong. The Americans stressed that the widespread and systemic corruption that permeates every facet of Hungarian society is a serious problem in and of itself. But they added that there are many other policies Washington finds unacceptable from an allied country, several of them having to do with Russia. At his last press conference M. André Goodfriend, the U.S. chargé d’affaires, underscored America’s disappointment in Hungary, once the the flag bearer of freedom. In the last few years the country has changed, and not for the better. Goodfriend was quite specific in enumerating some of the sore points in American-Hungarian relations. He mentioned the lack of transparency in connection with the negotiations with Russia about building the nuclear reactor in Paks. The United States is unhappy about Hungary’s far too accommodating behavior when it comes to the Southern Stream. Relying exclusively on natural gas is the wrong way to approach Europe’s energy needs. He mentioned the situation of the media in Hungary. Then there is Hungary’s self-serving behavior during the Russian-Ukrainian crisis. The United States realizes that autonomy for the Hungarian minority in Ukraine is an important consideration for Budapest, but this subject shouldn’t be brought up when Ukraine is fighting for its territorial integrity. The Orbán government’s behavior toward the European Union and the United States has been objectionable ever since June 2010, but Orbán’s pro-Russian policy at this particular juncture was the straw that broke the camel’s back. And finally, he brought up the Hungarian government’s attitude toward the NGOs.
On the same day a reporter from Index managed to get hold of Viktor Orbán in Brussels. Earlier, when asked about U.S.-Hungarian relations, he practically ran away. This time, from what he had to say on the topic, it was evident that he knows who the people are who have been barred from the United States. Yet he indicated that no investigation will take place because he cannot take responsibility for some other country’s assumptions. It is impossible to accuse someone without any proof. Clearly Orbán is stonewalling. No one demands that charges be brought against those who are implicated in the instances of corruption the U.S. reacted to. It is enough to investigate their cases. The Hungarian authorities had no difficulty ransacking the offices of the Ökotárs Foundation. Where was the proof then?
Meanwhile there are growing signs that the American move prompted quite a controversy in Fidesz circles. I already mentioned Válasz, a pro-Fidesz site, and Mandiner, an online news portal staffed by a group of young conservatives. Both publications were highly critical of Viktor Orbán. Péter Szijjártó let the cat out of the bag during his interview with a reporter from USA Today. He admitted that the dispute with the United States created “a large discussion” within Fidesz. Nick Thorpe, the British journalist who apparently has friends high up in the government party, also reported to the BBC that “there are growing divisions in the right-wing party over Mr. Orban’s steps to turn Hungary into an ‘illiberal democracy.'” According to Thorpe, “the mood in the corridors of power is wretched.” Moreover, the new pro-Russian foreign policy does not sit well with some of the fiercely anti-communist and anti-Russian politicians in Fidesz.
Ildikó Csuhaj of Népszabadság was even more specific. She spoke with several “conservative” critics of Viktor Orbán’s policies who are worried about the prime minister’s double dealings: for example, one day he stands by NATO and the next he wants to build the Southern Stream. These conservative informers believe that if Viktor Orbán does not change his course “Hungary might find herself staring into an abyss.” I know that some people would like to draw the conclusion that after a couple of more missteps there might be a palace revolution by the more moderate and cautious members of the governing party. I, however, can imagine such an event occurring only if the European Union stops the flow of free money to Hungary. As long as Orbán delivers the goodies, his friends have no reason to abandon him.
Nonetheless, Orbán’s position is precarious. Let’s assume that the Americans have in their files several more corruption cases that will reveal that the government and power structure Orbán has constructed in the last few years is in fact a regime in which the essence of politics is blatant, all persuasive corruption–a true mafia state as Bálint Magyar describes Orbán’s system. If these cases reveal that the entire political leadership is deeply implicated, Orbán’s political edifice might crumble. It could also happen that the European Commission, now headed by Jean-Claude Juncker, will be a great deal less charitable toward the Orbán government than it was in the last four and a half years under the leadership of José Manuel Barroso. Let’s assume that the Commission becomes tired of the corruption that surrounds the European grants. I just read that 10% of all corruption cases that are being investigated by OLAF, the office dealing with corruption in the countries of EU, come from Hungary. We can further assume that the EU will be more willing to move against Hungary after the American initiative. I wouldn’t be surprised if Washington and Brussels would even coordinate their policies toward Hungary. More and more people talk in Brussels about the possibility of invoking Article 7 of the EU Treaty against Orbán’s Hungary. These are real possibilities.
But let’s take seriously for a minute László Kövér’s vision of a gradual retreat from the European Union. Where would Hungary find the funds to keep itself afloat? Russia? China? I don’t think that Russia is in any position to become the rescuer of Hungary. Moreover, Botond Feledy, a political scientist, points out in today’s Index that for Putin Hungary is useful only as long as the country is part of the European Union. As far as China is concerned, its leaders are shrewd businessmen.
Charles Gati of Johns Hopkins University has an interview in today’s Népszava entitled “Orbán faces the hardest decision of his life.” In his opinion, it would take an enormous amount of time and effort to convince the United States that the Hungarian government has abandoned those policies that almost led to a break in American-Hungarian relations.”This will not be easy and it will not be accomplished without great personal sacrifice.” If Orbán continues with his old policies, he will surely fail but if he changes and “leads the country along western values, he may also lose. The first alternative is certain, the other only a possibility. That’s why it is still too early to bury Hungarian democracy.”