Thoughts in advance of the German and Russian visits to Budapest

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 This hypothesis, in part at least, is outdated: Hungary obediently voted for the extension on January 29.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.

Depiction of the Trojan Horse at the Schlilemann Museum in Akershagen, Germany

Depiction of the Trojan Horse at the Schliemann Museum in Akershagen, Germany

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.

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72 comments

  1. Marcel both the White House and Germany will fall in line with the plan to increase the lethal capacity of the Ukrainian military. The complete military leadership of NATO is in support of this policy, while the mass of Germans may be pacifists for good historical reasons those who defend that nation take a somewhat different perspective on the potential and growing threat of Russia. What is taking place here in the USA is the preparation of the public for significantly increased military expenditures that will evolve over the next few years as I have indicated before, this will involve some cuts to human services and education, possibly even limited tax increases. If US citizens have to give up things it can be expected my country will be little interested in Orban’s fears for energy supplies. Things are going to get hard in the next few years for all of us until Putin can be broken and the Russian people return to rationality from their current nationalist frenzy.

  2. @Istvan

    As opposed to Islamic religious tenets, Russian nationalistic ideology does not demand the conquest of the world. Putin governs as a tyrant (which is bad for the very people of Russia), he also wants to conquer the Russian-speaking E and S of Ukraine. (In case of a leadership change he can also take Belorussia and parts of Kazakhstan). But I think his ambitions stop there.

  3. @tappanch

    What about the Baltic states or Finland or even Sweden? Or even Poland?

    Russia in my mind wants to make Hungary into a vassal sate, a country similar to the older Ukraine or Belarus or Moldova. Perhaps independent on paper but controlled through corrupt energy and business deals and with directly financed politically parties like Jobbik. That’s what they are shooting for and only history will tell what they will end up with.

    Russia most certainly has imperial ambitions, including in the North pole region and the Caucasus and it is actively working on realizing that strategy.

    Too bad Moscow traditionally had a lot of European connections when in fact the big challenge comes from the East. But it’s much more difficult to learn Mandarin and influence China from without and especially from within so the Russians go with the flow and focus on Europe.

  4. Slightly OT: Back to the 2/3 and clean election. How can an election be called clean and by law when Fidesz is blackmailing the voters? THe latest example is the current municipal elections. All the cities where Fidesz mayors were elected is receiving substantial financial help from Fidesz. Those cities where non-Fidesz mayors were elected will receive nothing or some minuscule amount. Now, if you live in a city where street lights consumption needs to be cut back, where the roads cannot be repaired because there is no funding, and you know that in the minute Fidesz will be elected in the city money will be pouring in, who would you vote for?No. Hungarian political elections cannot be called democratic, fair, and clean any longer, and the 2/3 is likely 2/3 by default, by bribe, by misinformation or by blackmail.

    http://nol.hu/belfold/dragszel-salgotarjan-nyakan-1513737

  5. The new BMW investment and the role of Siemens in Paks is very significant. It shows the absurdity of the comments that claimed that Merkel came to criticize Hungary. He does not have to come to a country to do that in the first place.

    I think the most important was the coordination of the policies of Germany and Hungary regarding the question of Ukraine. To ensure that the two countries are on the same page. The new German investments negotiated were also very important.

    I am happy that Hungary is ordering new helicopters from Airbus. According to media reports this was also agreed or discussed during Merkel’s visit. Airbus is an excellent manufacturer and Hungary can expect good quality products from them.

    It also deepens Hungary’s ties with the west to get rid of old military hardware from the olden days and replace it with western equipment that is more similar and more compatible with Hungary’s NATO allies.

    All in all I think the visit from the German Chancellor benefited both Germany and Hungary as well.

  6. @Eva:

    All the comments that I’ve read in the German media on the visit are rather low key and they are not very prominent. The one on SPON (Spiegel online) disappeared already into the background.
    To me it seems as if Mrs merkel wanted to (and was successful in a way) to reign Hungary/Orbán in, reminding him of his obligations in the EU/NATO complex.
    It’s maybe interesting that on pol.hu the trolls are right now going crazy about “Hungary’s independent policy re Ukraine” which of course doesn’t exist/cannot be allowed by the EU …
    Those planned investments by BMW and Siemens are maybe “Trostpflaster” for Orbán – I’m not sure yet but it would correspond to Merkel’s ideas of doing everything the soft way.

  7. PS:
    I won’t comment on our latest troll “nag” except to say that (s)he’s surely Hungarian, probably sent by some Fidesz politician who wants to make “good weather” …
    Why? Called Mrs Merkel “he” – typical mistake …
    If it all means that Fidesz will return to the EU values that’s a good sign – even if it might take a very, very long time!

  8. @Olga

    It is needless to say that Putin does not share his thoughts with me. 🙂

    But I do not think the Russians want the Baltics or Scandinavia. These areas were not core part Russia historically.

    “Similarly to guberniyas of the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland, the Baltic Governorates until the end of 19th century were not a subject to the common civil and administrative laws of the Russian Empire” (well, from wikipedia….).

    It is also true that a significant part of the ethnic Russians are still not granted Latvian (or Estonian ?) citizenship, 24 years after independence.

  9. nag
    February 3, 2015 at 10:22 am
    The new BMW investment and the role of Siemens in Paks is very significant. It shows the absurdity of the comments that claimed that Merkel came to criticize Hungary. He does not have to come to a country to do that in the first place.

    AI am sorry, but do you actually read news? Did you watch the live broadcast? Merkel is just about o have enough of Orban. She is puzzled by his sentences, and surprised by how disconnected Orban is from reality. Of course Merkel is interested about all German investment, and maybe (just maybe) came to hug and love Orban, but she certainly changed her mind after talking to him. Pictures, my friend and spoken words tell much more then State propaganda. Go on youtube and watch the press conference. There is a lot for you to learn.

    wolfi
    February 3, 2015 at 10:42 am
    PS:
    I won’t comment on our latest troll “nag” except to say that

    He is a shill not a troll. He is on subject but pushes State propaganda.

  10. nag is a fidesz troll. We will see if these German companies will deliver, these are only rumors.

    But I am not sure that it’s a good business to build a HUF 4,000bn (not including the necessary Danube dams for cooling water, costs of dismantling and the nuclear depository) Paks 2 (and all from debt) just because we get some investments from Germany.

  11. tappanch clearly there are those in the US State Department and people like Dr. Kissinger who agree with the perspective that Russian nationalism has geographic limits in terms of its interests. In general I would say that perspective is not fully shared by researchers at either the US Army War College or Naval War College. I would say that the consensus perspective among military researchers is that Russia’s nationalism under Putin has a goal of restoration of the power of post WWII USSR. This plan or strategy is to block all western economic and military influence in the Baltic Republics, Belarus, Georgia, and Ukraine. Second it is to economically and militarily dominate the former Warsaw Pact states including Hungary with an ultimate goal of their exit from NATO.

    I am particularly influenced in my thinking on this issue by the (2013) book published by the US Army War College Press titled Politics and Economics in Putin’s Russia and the 2014 book by the same publisher titled Russia After Putin which all came out before the Crimea invasion. The Military Officers Association of America also has a similar perspective I would say Russian nationalism is in a expansion phase and Putin fears being economically isolated by the west. Many bad things are possible right now in my opinion.

  12. Also responding to Eva, if necessary the US will go it alone in supplying lethal weapons to the Ukraine, if Russia doesn’t finish off what is left of Ukraine’s Army before they get there. NATO will be faced with a completed fact in terms of the additional armaments. Ultimately the US will continue to pressure the Germans and others to accept the reality of the situation as will Poland and the Baltic states. Sanctions are devastating the Russian economy, but they will not stop Putin. Unfortunately it will have to also be Russian body bags that will have to give pause to the Russians for their actions. Also Hungarian aid to the Ukraine can include things as simple as 152 mm howitzer artillery shells, or parts for Soviet era self-propelled artillery.

    The truth is right now the Ukrainian army is pretty beat up.

  13. Nogo
    February 3, 2015 at 11:50 am
    nag is a fidesz troll.

    More like a shill. nag is on subject.

    A troll is someone who enjoys creating hate and discontent. They post information irrelevant to the topic as to stir the conversation away from the subject or simply create outrage.

    A shill is usually a paid liar and disinformation specialist. They could be troll-like too. Shills has an agenda, and they try to convey you to believe what they say even if by dishonesty. Shill is not always have monitory rewards but do have some sort of interest in “advertising” their point.

  14. Readers wake up.
    No more soft thinking.
    The Orban regime crippled and failed Hungary.
    The ordinary Hungarians are divided, confused, and depressed.
    It is time to discard the fear, and clean the parliament from FIDESZ and jobbik.

  15. Did anybody managed to comment ont the latest article?
    There is no ‘comment’ link as I see it.

    Another thing: According to information Chancellor Merkel hasn’t been invited to Hungary by Prime Minister Orbán, but the University of Szeged!
    However, here and there, for example by Tamás Deutsch been stated, that she visited Hungary because of Orbán invited her!

    Can anybody verify this, one way or other?
    A bit interesting, if it’s true. Could be the reason why the protokoll having been set up mainly without interference by the Hungarian government?

  16. Eva S. Balogh: @István re weapon supplies to Ukraine. but both Merkel and Orbán categorically said that they are against such step.

    Indeed, and they’re not the only ones. I have the feeling France isn’t ok with it either. The UK was running point last week in condemning Russia for the attack on Mariupol at the UNSC and the EU FAC, but both attempts failed.

    Istvan, I don’t share your view that the current U.S. administration is willing to help militarily the Ukrainian Army, either on their own or with allies.

  17. Marcel: We shall see what the budget that will be passed by the Republican Congress will reveal over the next few months. If its in the budget as aid to the Ukraine and passes with Democrat votes it will be hard for President Obama to oppose. Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), a top Democrat on the House Armed Services panel supports it, Senate Armed Services Committee member Carl Levin (D-Mich.) has also voiced support for providing ammunition and surface-to-air missiles to Ukraine. Even senior Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), has questioned whether further sanctions would do any good without direct military aid to the Ukraine.

    I know my the organization I belong to the Military Officers Association of America will be lobbying for this aid, as will the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation and many other organizations. I believe it will happen, but only time will tell. I could also see an attempt by the Russians to interdict these shipments if sent by sea which would be a very bad move by the Russians indeed.

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