Yesterday the Neue Zürcher Zeitung published an article about the forthcoming visits of Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin to Budapest titled “Orbans Tanz auf zwei Hochzeiten,” indicating that Viktor Orbán will be able to have his cake and eat it too. He will remain a member in good standing of the European Union and will be a close friend of Russia at the same time. I, on the other hand, maintain that he will not be able to pull off that extraordinary feat. There are many signs that the Hungarian prime minister is already in retreat.
Let’s start with the Merkel visit. Hungarian and foreign observers have come up with all sorts of explanations for her trip, starting with the simplest one–that she could no longer postpone it. After all, she has not visited the Hungarian capital in the last five years, ever since Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz, which professes to be a Christian Democratic party, won a stunning victory in 2010. Her last trip took place in 2009, on the twentieth anniversary of the Hungarian opening of the Austro-Hungarian border for East German refugees, when the socialist-liberal government of Gordon Bajnai was still in power. If the purpose of the trip was to have a serious discussion about the Russian-Ukrainian crisis and Hungary’s role in it, Merkel’s five-hour stay, with very little face time with Viktor Orbán, would not suffice. She is coming because she promised to and because, according to a 1992 agreement between Hungary and Germany, she has to.
There are analysts who are convinced that Angela Merkel will not even mention the erosion of Hungarian democracy under Viktor Orbán’s regime, the systematic transformation of a fledgling democracy into an autocratic regime akin to the political setup that existed in Hungary between the two world wars. She has more pressing issues on her agenda: Greece, the sanctions against Russia, and the growth of the German anti-immigration movement–PEGIDA (Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes / Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West), especially popular in the former East Germany. It is unlikely that Merkel will waste any time on the woes of Hungarian democracy. Her only aim is to make sure that Viktor Orbán stands by the extension of the sanctions. This hypothesis, in part at least, is outdated: Hungary obediently voted for the extension on January 29.
Others are more optimistic. They maintain that the trouble with Angela Merkel’s visit is that it seems to put a stamp of approval on the illiberal regime of Viktor Orbán. This is certainly how the Orbán government is portraying it. If Merkel says nothing about the state of democracy in Hungary, Orbán’s regime scores a victory. There is pressure on Merkel at home, however, to do something about the Hungarian situation. She has to give the appearance that her visit is something of a warning to Viktor Orbán.
There is some truth in this interpretation. In fact, there are signs that behind the scenes some “disciplinary measures” have already taken place. The successful negotiations with the leaders of the RTL Group indicate that Orbán got the message: there will be consequences if the Hungarian government blatantly and illegally discriminates against a media outlet just because it doesn’t like RTL’s news broadcast. Orbán caved, and I for one am certain that he didn’t get much in return. I find it interesting that the official announcement of Merkel’s visit occurred very late, on January 28, the day when according to Népszava‘s information the Hungarian government agreed to a substantial reduction in the enormous tax it had levied on RTL Klub. Was this agreement the price, or part of the price, of Merkel’s visit?
Because that’s not all. In his regular Friday morning interview Orbán announced that the exorbitant tax levies on the banking sector will most likely be gradually reduced because the Hungarian economy has greatly improved. “If possible, the interests of the country and the businessmen must be reconciled,” said the man who until now had laid all the financial burdens of his erroneous economic policies on businesses, especially foreign ones.
There might be several reasons for Orbán’s cooperation in addition to German negotiations. One is that the Americans undoubtedly know more about the Hungarian mafia state and Viktor Orbán’s role in it than they let on, but the Hungarian prime minister doesn’t know how much they know. That must be a powerful incentive to stick with the countries that provide Hungary with economic aid and military shelter. Another consideration might be the effect of the sanctions and the sinking price of oil on the Russian economy, which makes close ties with Putin’s Russia a less desirable option than, let’s say, a year ago.
And that leads us to the Putin visit on February 17. It was almost a year ago, in March of 2014, that the United States and the European Union began applying sanctions against Russia. Although Hungary agreed to support the move, in August Viktor Orbán declared that “Europe shot itself in the foot,” meaning that the sanctions actually hurt only the West and did nothing to weaken the Russian economy. Just about this time, however, oil prices began falling. The combination of sanctions and falling energy prices has made the Russian economic situation close to desperate by now.
Orbán was initially very proud of what he considered to be the crowning achievements of his Russia policy: the Southern Stream, which would have brought gas to Hungary circumventing Ukraine, and the Russian loan for the extension of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant. Since then, Russia abandoned the Southern Stream project because of lack of funds, and many people think that the much heralded Paks deal is also in trouble. Thus, the rationale for close relations with Russia has more or less evaporated, which leaves Viktor Orbán in the unenviable position of suffering the ill effects of his overly cozy relation with Putin while reaping practically no benefits.
Under these circumstances I doubt that the initiative for the Putin visit came from Budapest. It is no longer to Orbán’s benefit to make a lavish display of friendship with Russia. And indeed, the government is trying to downplay the importance of Putin’s visit, noting that it is only a working trip and not a state visit with the usual fanfare. For Putin, by contrast, it is an important trip at a time when nobody wants to have anything to do with him. Just think of the humiliation he suffered in Brisbane, Australia. He wants to demonstrate that he has at least one good friend in the European Union.
Putin’s second reason for the trip, I suspect along with others, is to find out how much he can rely on Viktor Orbán. Will he deliver as promised? Or it was just talk? Perhaps Orbán oversold his usefulness to Putin and is turning out to be a useless ally from the Russian point of view. Last August Jan-Werner Müller wrote an article in Foreign Affairs titled “Moscow’s Trojan Horse: In Europe’s Ideological War, Hungary Picks Putinism.” Well, the Trojan Horse may be just an empty shell and the damage it can cause within the European Union little to none.