The Hungarian people are not thrilled with Orbán’s Russia policy

Népszava‘s information about Vladimir Putin’s visit to Budapest, seconded by Attila Ara-Kovács on Klubrádió, turned out to be accurate. Válasz, a pro-government internet site, was skeptical about the accuracy of the news because, after all, there was no mention of such a visit in Russian sources. Moreover, no western media picked up the news from Népszava. A commenter on this blog also expressed his doubts about the authenticity of the news. After all, Népszava is an opposition paper and therefore, I guess, not quite reliable. By this morning, however, the press department of the Prime Minister’s Office confirmed the information: Putin is coming to Hungary, although the date hasn’t been fixed.

Meanwile Népszabadság, another opposition paper, learned “from diplomatic circles” that the trip was planned a year ago on Hungary’s initiative. At that time the sanctions against Russia were not yet in place. Moreover, originally the trip was supposed to take place sometime in 2014, but because of scheduling difficulties it was postponed to this year, a change that might be advantageous to Putin but is mighty uncomfortable for Orbán. But as László Kovács, former foreign minister, said yesterday, Orbán developed a relationship with Putin that precludes any postponement of the meeting.

While waiting for the arrival of Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin, several civic groups are preparing demonstrations. A group headed by Zoltán Vajda and Balázs Gulyás, two people whom I consider to be the most promising among the organizers of the recent demonstrations, plans to take the lead. Balázs Gulyás was the organizer of the mass demonstration against the internet tax, and Zoltán Vajda organized the demonstration on behalf of those 60,000 people whose savings in private pension funds the Orbán government wants to expropriate.

Vajda and Gulyás are planning two demonstrations. One will take place on February 1, the day before Angela Merkel’s arrival. It is called “Spring comes–Orbán goes: Demonstration for a European Hungary.” The second demonstration is planned for February 9 or, if Putin comes later, it will be postponed to the day of his arrival. The theme of the second will be “We will not be a Russian colony.” Other organizations and parties expressed an interest in joining these two Facebook groups, and it seems that they, unlike some others, are ready to cooperate with everybody who is ready to join them. As I wrote yesterday, PM asked all democratic parties to take part in massive demonstrations that include both parties and civilians.

In the lively discussion that followed yesterday’s post, a question was raised about the attitude of Fidesz voters toward Russia. According to one opinion, Fidesz voters are so brainwashed that they are ready to follow Viktor Orbán all the way to Moscow. Others, myself included, doubted the accuracy of this observation. In fact, I ventured to suggest that anti-Russian feelings might be a catalyst that will bring about a united opposition to Orbán’s regime. Well, today we have a more scientific answer to the question of Hungarians’ attitude toward the United States and Russia. The poll was taken by Medián for 444.hu

Here are some figures confirming that the Orbán propaganda did not significantly alter Hungarians’ anti-Russian sentiments. I will start with the most important and most telling figures: “If Hungary had to choose between the United States and Russia as a close associate, which country would you choose?” Fifty-three percent chose the United States and only 25% Russia. Hungarians are aware of the worsening relations between the United States and Hungary, and surprisingly the majority blame the Hungarian government for it. This finding goes against the widespread belief that Hungarians always blame others for their misfortunes. Fifty-seven percent of the respondents blame Hungary and only 14% the United States.

Medián also ran these figures against party affiliation. Those who feel more aligned with the democratic parties overwhelmingly blame their own country for the current situation (80%); only 4% blame the United States. Interestingly, the majority of Jobbik voters (59%) side with the United States. Only 13% put the blame on the U.S. while 27% think that the blame should be shared by the two countries. The situation is about the same among undecided voters. Fidesz voters are not as uniformly pro-Russian as some commenters on Hungarian Spectrum suspected. Only 37% blame the United States, 22% Hungary, and 40% think that both countries are at fault. I wouldn’t call that a resounding endorsement of a pro-Russian, anti-U.S. foreign policy.

Diplomats, present and former, have found it difficult to figure out what the real purpose of this meeting is. I could suggest a few topics that might come up. First, I think, is Paks. Orbán, for whom the building of a second reactor at the Paks Nuclear Power Plant is very important, surely would like to get reassurance from Putin that the project is still on and that Russia will not turn its back on Paks as it did on the Southern Stream. Another topic might be Hungary’s attitude toward the extension of the sanctions against Russia. Would Hungary vote against such a decision? There is also the question of the U.S.-EU free trade agreement, officially called the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which Russia opposes.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Orbán were a ready partner of Russia in opposing the free-trade agreement. On what am I basing this opinion? István Mikola, formerly the “nation’s doctor” and nowadays one of the undersecretaries in the foreign ministry, announced last night on HírTV that Hungary would go so far as to veto the TTIP if Hungary’s interests were not taken into consideration. One such reason would be the acceptance in the European Union of genetically modified food products coming from the United States. Fidesz lawmakers included a GMO ban in the new constitution. András Schiffer, the anti-capitalist, anti-globalist co-chair of LMP, went even further. In his opinion, the whole free-trade agreement is against the interests of Hungary. In fact, not just Hungary but in his words “it means in the long run the ruin of the whole globe.” He added that the agreement would mean the loss of 600,000 jobs in the EU. So, Putin and Orbán are of one mind when it comes to the TTIP. András Schiffer, the so-called opposition leader, joins them because of his far-left notions of modern capitalism and globalism.

Not so long ago, however, James Stavridis, dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, wrote an article in Foreign Policy: “Vladimir Putin hates the TTIP which is exactly why Europe and America need to get it done.” Stavridis explains his support of the treaty this way:

The TTIP is a sensible agreement on economic grounds, broadly speaking. But it also holds enormous real value in the geopolitical sphere. The increased linkages between the United States and our European allies and partners will stand in direct opposition to Putin’s key strategy of driving a wedge between the United States and the EU as the central members of the transatlantic community.

I don’t know how important the GMO issue is in the scheme of things, but one has the feeling that Hungary will be a difficult negotiating partner when it comes to the TTIP.

Another issue that might be discussed is Putin’s pet subject, the Eurasian Economic Union. It was only a few days ago that Russia’s EU ambassador urged Brussels to start talks with the newly born Eurasian Economic Union despite the Ukrainian crisis. As he put it, “common sense advises us to explore the possibility of establishing a common economic space in the Eurasian region.” A Russian-led bloc might be a better partner for the European Union than the United States. The reason: low health standards in the U.S. food industry. Orbán again might be helpful on this issue. However, in Orbán’s place I would tread lightly. It is true that Putin’s idea of a Eurasian Union became reality on January 1, but according to Reid Standish, an expert on Kazakhstan, Putin’s Eurasian dream was over before it began.

Eurasian Union

All in all, I think the two have plenty to talk about. The topics I have outlined are primarily Russian concerns, and getting Hungary on board would be only to Russia’s advantage. For Hungary to become Moscow’s Trojan horse in Europe is not strategically wise.

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70 comments

  1. LwiiH:

    Canada is a glorified petrol state like Australia or for that matter Russia is. (Sure the former two are more diversified, but they both fundamentally rely on the extraction industry in one way or another). Canada can obviously benefit from any opening, it has something the rest needs, raw materials. As to whether the US and Mexico benefited (and in what way) from NAFTA is an open question (because causation is an issue obviously).

    Free trade can have lots of benefits, but not always and not for every country and not when the global GDP growth is expected to slow down (ie. when the pie is not getting bigger, because in that case more established companies are in a better position to compete).

  2. @googly (since we’re totally OT anyway):

    Come on! For someone who has to toil in the fields all day a lángos is the perfect food, enough calories …
    The problem is when people who sit in front of their computers all day eat stuff like that and consume gallons of high calorie drinks (have you looked up HFCS?) …
    PS.

    I like lángos very much when my wife makes it fresh – when we’re in Germany all our family and friends ask for it, but we have it only once a month. Btw, lángálló (kenyér lángos, similar to the Alsatian Flammkuchen and Pizza) is even better – my wife does the dough and I do the trimmings – mediterranean style with olives and garlic cloves added …

  3. györgy,

    You wrote: “I’m not so sure that theory that increasing foreign trade/opening of the markets are beneficial to both parties holds true for each and every case.”

    You’re correct, there are exceptions when it comes to trade agreements. A possible exception is the precursor to the Eurasian Union, the Eurasian Customs Union, in which Belarus and Kazakhstan found themselves at a disadvantage in many ways. I don’t know what the net result is, so it’s possible that they are still doing better than they would have had they not joined the ECU, but the main reason why I would say that it is still beneficial to all parties is that if they hadn’t joined, they might have been treated like Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine, and experiences punitive bans on key exports to Russia, for purely political reasons.

    You also wrote: “In Hungary, as in Eastern Europe companies are not competitive enough and they can’t really be”

    You may not realise it, but we already have some competitive companies in Hungary – quite a large number, considering the size of our country and our local pool of capital. There are OTP and MOL, of course, but we also have some world-class companies in pharmaceuticals and software. Ikarus has ben exporting buses all over the world for years. Until 2013, NABI exported buses to North America, but that ended for business reasons unrelated to the TTIP (possibly a result of Orbán’s new policies). Perhaps with better access to the North American market, that bus production could resume. I assume the factory is still sitting idle in Kaposvár.

    You also wrote: “We don’t have cheap energy, a huge local market in which we could grow and meanwhile protect our markets (China).”

    You’re absolutely correct, but that does not mean that we can’t foster local companies which can be successful internationally. In fact, many experts argue that energy exporters often suffer from “Dutch Disease”, which is when a country becomes so dependent on energy exports that all other sectors are strangled, and the country becomes over-reliant on the world-wide price of energy (ask Russia or Venezuela how this works). Large countries need to develop a large number of successful companies just to keep up, but small countries can do very well with an advantage in just a few sectors (Finland, Austria, Australia).

    You also wrote: “…the opening of the markets will create more failures for local businesses.”

    One important thing that I think you and goalie have missed in this argument is that we are already part of a free-trade agreement (actually a common market, which is actual free trade, unlike any free trade agreement that I know of), with the rest of the EU, and that includes Germany, France, the UK and the Netherlands. The US will likely not be able to negotiate an agreement that has much impact on Hungary, since we are already facing very similar conditions to those you have described.

    Also, what matters is not that there will be local businesses that fail, but total net job losses/gains, GDP per capita growth and total local entrepreneurship (that last one is hard to measure). Don’t forget that McDonalds are franchises, so they are likely owned by locals, who buy most of their raw materials (and all of their labor) locally (meaning EU, not necessarily Hungary).

    You also wrote: “… the Hungarian rural world where companies with little added value without he necessary know-how to compete have been shutting down — resulting among others in Jobbik and a kind of death spiral for rural Hungary (all the while Budapest has been doing quite well).The Hungarian economy was not in a situation to face open capitalism in 1990 and is already very open, we just don’t need more openness.”

    Experts argue the opposite, that those without the know-how are inefficient and should go out of business, to make way for those with the right business and technological know-how. What Hungary could use is more jobs, regardless of who owns the companies. There is too much land going fallow, and the current system just allows Fidesz cronies to buy it up and rake in the EU subsidies, even though they know nothing about agriculture. If more money could be made from growing something there, we could also be more likely to get local produce, rather than having to import so much of it. These experts argue that more openness, not less, is what creates better companies that can compete internationally. India and Brazil tried to foster local champion companies behind a wall of trade barriers, and they stagnated. When they opened their economies, they surged.

    You also wrote: “Well, I contend that the very fact that the US is much less export oriented has to do with the fact that its products are not as attractive as say the German engineering products. Nobody associates quality with the brand “US” at least in the case of things (services are another matter).”

    Ah, then you don’t look around much! The next time you take a lift or an escalator in Hungary, look at the manufacturer. Odds are it was built by Otis, a US company and the largest maker of “vertical transportation systems” in the world. Also, Boeing produced the largest number of airliners in the world in the last two years, and has more orders pending than Airbus, its only real rival. They were built almost entirely in the US, and are top-quality. There are many other examples, including chemicals, pharmaceuticals, factory robots, agriculture and mining machinery and equipment, and numerous high-end computer and electronic goods. In short, high-margin manufacturing goods are a US specialty, though they are not as dominant as they used to be. That’s where most countries wish to be, including China.

    As far as the US being a master negotiator when it comes to trade agreements, it’s worth checking whether the US or Mexico (or possibly Canada) received the greater benefit from the North American Free Trade Agreement. Many Americans clearly feel that Mexico has benefited greatly while the US has suffered, but that’s probably just a political stance.

    I won’t argue with the rest of what you wrote.

  4. I mentioned earlier that I have been watching a series on the American food industry which I find fascinating. When watching harvesting carrots on a field which is so large that one cannot see the end of it one must realize that small family farms couldn’t possibly produce carrots at the price that large farms can. A huge machine pulled out (practically excavated) rows and rows of closely planted carrots with lightening speed. It was a sight to behold.

  5. I’m fairly new as a close observer with Hungary, and handicapped by the usual linguistic problem among non-Hungarians, but given the way all countries of east-central Europe rushed to join NATO, and no evidence Hungarians have changed their mind, I have found Orbán’s attempt to triangulate by presenting Putin as a quixotic. In retrospect, I think Orbán’s proclamation of Putin as the real future of the world economy will be seen as the real beginning of the end of his dominance of Hungarian politics, precisely because he could not and cannot possibly act on it without raising the prospect of leaving NATO. It is almost Yanukovych’s problem in reverse, and of course a completely avoidable mistake. Thanks for providing some statistical evidence to back up my gut feeling.

  6. Eva, your story about “carrots-plucking” reminds me of something similar, yet different:

    Cucumbers in Germany are harvested by people (mainly Polish women) who are lying prone on the “wings” of a plane-like harvester which passes slowly over the field while the women pluck the cucumbers and put them in crates besides them. The largest machines carry more than 5 women on each wing …
    The work for them is much easier tah if they walked by and had to bent for every few cucumbers …

    We’ve done some shopping on one of these farms and saw the houses that the farmer built for his workers – some of them stay there all year (with their families) now, while most just come in for the “summer holidays” to make the extra money they need, among them are teachers, engineers etc, not only just labourers …

  7. @Wolfi re carrots. Everything was automated. There was only the fellow who drove this huge machine. I wish I could share some of these documentary films with you people.

  8. Wonderfully OT! – In the UK those harvesters the pickers lie on are called Lazy Susans.

    I’ve no idea why!

  9. Thanks for the link, Ron – nice to get something in English for a change.

    I’m puzzled by Orbán’s anti-immigrant stance though – who on earth would want to emigrate to Hungary? We have a home there, but still wouldn’t want to live there – and three quarters of us are Hungarian citizens!

  10. Knarf,

    You wrote: “Free trade can have lots of benefits, but not always and not for every country and not when the global GDP growth is expected to slow down (ie. when the pie is not getting bigger, because in that case more established companies are in a better position to compete).”

    I would say that it’s not always the case that more-established companies have an advantage when GDP growth is slow or negative. In fact, I would say that Hungarian companies in general might have an edge in that scenario, thanks to the weaker forint.

  11. “I’m puzzled by Orbán’s anti-immigrant stance though”

    I think it is relatively logical (as much as anything is now logical in Orbanistan 2015).
    He has had yet another bad week and he needs to throw yet another *threat* to Mother Hungary to keep the sheep in line.

    So… the Jews and Roma?
    Tried that, usually works with the racist, lowlife, braindead scum that comprise a large proportion of the Fidesz/Jobbik vote but something a bit more is needed now that the situation is in danger of getting out of hands
    The EU, US, the multis, independent Christian churches, charities and NGOS? That’s so 2014 and ithat card can be played only so many times.

    What are we left with then? The hordes of non-white, non-Christian bombers presently accumulating at Hungary’s borders obviously. The fact that he tried to link it with the Paris massacre shows what a contemptible piece of immoral filth he himself is *but* as I said before, his target audience is not those of the electorate lucky enough to possess a brain.

  12. Actually I have this funny feeling that GMO altogether misinterpreted – or thereabout.

    We’ve all learned of Gregor Mendel (something like 150 years ago) and his experiments with the peas. Hungarians all – over a certain age, I allow, but still – learned of Ivan Vladimirovich Michurin and his experiments of cross-breading, already some 80 years in the past, who made essentially the same thing, albeit on the somewhat longer path, – aren’t we we talking about the same thing?

    Are we declaring problem with the speed of the changes, because – well, breading a new kind of dog or horse or whatever – could take some time, indeed, taking into account the trial and error factor?

    Or we just expressing fear of the unknown? It is somewhat straightforward that if the fox terrier will make love to a dachshund the offspring will be mixed quite a lot, but still will be some kind of a dog – look up the rule of Mendel in order to guess, what kind they’re going to be – but we’re having some serious problem, when learned people ‘helping along’ the process and going directly to the core and changing it with a purpose?

    So, what are our problem really is here, dear folks?

    Aren’t any- and all cross-breading is based on manipulating the genes of certain species in order to change them?

    Just think about it – it’s the same process, just faster and more direct, and didn’t called GMO, while it was.

    Am I somewhat wrong here ?

    I am not joking, so I expect serious answers – if there’s any.
    Otherwise it’s enough that you read it 🙂

  13. Just another quick thought about GMO: once it’s planted in an area, there’s no way to stop it from spreading, and companies that own GMO patents have been known to sue farmers for allowing it to grow on their property, even though it wasn’t intentional.

    I agree with Wolfi and Julian Edmonds about the ISDS, but I really doubt that the EU negotiators will allow something like that to be put into the agreement. At most, there might be some language that strengthens the rights of companies to protect themselves, but whatever is agreed upon must either be legal in all EU countries or all those countries where it is not legal would need to make it legal. Imagine such a law being presented to the French or Greek Parliament, among others.

  14. @spectator – Plenty of Americans also are concerned about GMO crops. Googly is right about these crops spreading. About a decade ago a new lawn-grass variety (a fescue, as I recall) that had been genetically modified to stand up to certain weedkillers (RoundUp, as I recall) was test-grown in a plot in a remote part of Oregon. A couple of years after the testing it turned out thatthat genetically modified grass had pollinated wild grasses growing miles away, and the resulting offspring were resistant to weedkillers. They discovered this when grass growing on roadsides didn’t die after it was sprayed. Wildlife and livestock were feeding from meadows and pastures with that grass (with no apparent ill effects in this case – what about other cases?). Another concern was that some of that grass might appear in fields growing other crops (corn, strawberries, you name it), and would be very difficult to eradicate.
    If a farmer grows GMO corn, there is no way to prevent that corn from pollinating non-GMO corn growing in a neighbor’s field. Plants, and plant pollen, don’t recognize boundaries.

  15. Afaik one of the GMO technologies is “splicing” genes from other plants/animals in a sequence – which might have unforeseen results too.
    Anyway the main point is that companies have to be forced (!) to give info on their products – they often won’t do it willingly!

    A bit OT:
    There’s a funny story regarding that from a few years ago: A bread company advertised that their toast had 20% less calories than the competition per slice – what they didn’t say was that they cut their slices 20% thinner …
    And Cadbury also tried to introduce in to the German market a chocolate which looked exactly like the standard 100g chocolate – but contained only 80g and that was not allowed by the German courts. Nowadays these things are allowed but you always have to give the price per kg …

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