Foreign Affairs

Hungary is in a difficult diplomatic bind: The “Orbán doctrine” is dead

This morning 168 Óra ran the headline “The Orbán doctrine has collapsed after three days.” The reason is the Russian “incursion” into Ukrainian territory. After that, said Árpád Székely, former Hungarian ambassador to Moscow, there will be neither Paks nor the Southern Stream. Székely actually welcomes the first consequence, a dubious deal between the Hungarian and the Russian government to build a new nuclear reactor in Hungary, but he is sorry about the likelihood of scrapping the Southern Stream project that would have supplied gas to the Balkans, Hungary, and Austria.

While high-level negotiations in the UN, NATO, and EU are going on over the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, I had to think about one of the many fallacies Viktor Orbán presented us with during his pep talk to the Hungarian ambassadors only four days ago. In his speech he indicated that as far as he is concerned old-fashioned diplomacy is passé. “Not that classical diplomacy has lost its magic and beauty” but “we must acknowledge the realities of the economic age in which we live.” Well, the Russo-Ukrainian conflict must be solved by old fashioned diplomacy, and Hungary’s newly reorganized foreign ministry is ill prepared for the task. Moreover, its leaders are constrained by the prime minister’s unorthodox ideas on diplomacy. Orbán’s Hungary is in a bind.

I should note in passing that German-Hungarian relations have cooled considerably. Earlier, I wrote about a warning from Michael Roth, undersecretary of the German foreign ministry, that in his government’s point of view “Hungary is going in the wrong direction.” Since then an even more detailed and stronger statement was signed by Michael Roth, undersecretary in charge of European Affairs at the German Foreign Ministry, and his colleague Tomáš Prouza in the Czech Foreign Ministry. They warned that “Europe is more than a market.” It is a community of shared values.

According to Hungarian sources, Hungarian diplomats have been trying for some time to entice Chancellor Angela Merkel to visit Hungary for the annual German-Hungarian Forum. After all, this is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the German refugees’ safe passage to Austria thanks to the action of the Hungarian government in 1989. If she could not come, they at least hoped for a visit by the new foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Well, it seems that Budapest will have to be satisfied with an assistant undersecretary as the representative of the German government. The highest ranking German participant will be Reinhold Gall, social democratic minister of the interior of Baden-Württemberg.

Now, to return to the current diplomatic challenge. After the failure of the meeting between Vladimir Putin and Petro Poroshenko in Belarus, several thousand Russian troops crossed the Russian-Ukrainian border. Subsequently Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk announced that his government will introduce a proposal in parliament to change the non-aligned status of the country and to request membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Some observers immediately announced that Ukrainian admission to NATO was very unlikely. However, NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen made a statement today in Brussels, saying: “I’m not going to interfere in political discussions in Ukraine. But let me remind you of NATO’s decision at the Bucharest summit in 2008, according to which Ukraine ‘will become a member of NATO’ provided of course, Ukraine so wishes and fulfills the necessary criteria.” A strong warning for Russia. Putin often stressed that Russia will not tolerate a NATO presence on Ukrainian soil.

Meanwhile, EU foreign ministers are recommending tougher sanctions against Russia. They gathered in Milan today for an informal meeting to discuss the Ukrainian crisis. Tibor Navracsics represented Hungary in Milan, but I could find no report on his position in the Council of Foreign Ministers. We know that Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Latvia, and Denmark were strongly in support of tougher action.

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German Foreign Minister Walter Steinmeier is arriving at the informal meeting of EU foreign ministers in Milan

Tomorrow the European Council will meet again to decide on the President of the European Union and the EU Foreign Affairs Chief. According to the latest intelligence, the next President of the European Union will be most likely Donald Tusk, prime minister of Poland.

Tusk’s government has been among the most hawkish in Europe over the issue of Ukraine. Just today the Polish government announced that it will allow the plane of Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu to fly over its territory only if the plane changes its status from military to civilian. Earlier his plane was barred altogether from Polish air space. Russia was not very happy. Its foreign ministry declared that Poland’s closing its air space to Shoygu’s plane is “a major violation of norms and ethics of the communication between states.”

Today three of the four members of the Visegrád4 (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary) issued statements about the Russian incursion. Poland’s foreign ministry said that it regards the incursion of Russian troops into the southern regions of the Donetsk province “as actions that fulfill the attributes of aggression, as defined in UN documents–Resolution 3314 of the United Nations General Assembly.”

The Czech statement was equally strongly worded. “The Czech Republic considers the incursion of the armed forces of the Russian Federation into the territory of eastern and southeastern Ukraine a fundamental threat to peace and stability of all of Europe.” It called on Russia “to immediately withdraw its troops from the Ukrainian territory.”

The silence from Slovakia was deafening.

Hungary chose an intermediate position and released the following statement: “We are closely monitoring and evaluating the situation on the ground, and we are in contact with our EU and NATO allies. A confirmed incursion of  Russian regular military units on Ukrainian territory would gravely escalate the crisis. In line with our consistently expressed earlier position, we emphasise that only a political process can lend a sustainable solution to the present crisis and therefore we support all diplomatic efforts to this end. The upcoming extraordinary European Council meeting and the informal meeting of the EU foreign ministers offer good opportunities for harmonizing the European position on this matter.”

Two of the opposition parties, Együtt-PM and DK, called on the government to stand by Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity. The former also wants the Hungarian government to suspend preparations for the expansion of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant while Russian troops remain on Ukrainian soil. The party also asked Orbán to use his good offices with Putin to convince the Russian leader to withdraw his troops from Ukraine.

DK wants to call together the parliamentary committees on foreign affairs, national security, and defense and to have the government prepare a statement that condemns Russian military action against Ukraine. In addition, Tibor Navracsics should call in the Russian ambassador to Hungary to convey to him Hungary’s condemnation of Russian aggression. Naturally, none of these suggestions or demands will be considered by the Orbán government.

On the other hand, I believe that Viktor Orbán will quietly vote with the majority on all the issues that will be discussed at tomorrow’s European Council meeting only to go home and report on the excellent ideas he gave to his colleagues about how to solve the Ukrainian crisis.

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The aftershocks of the Szentmihályi Szabó affair

The translation of  Péter Szentmihályi Szabó’s article on the “agents of Satan” three days ago on Hungarian Spectrum has reawakened international scrutiny into the real nature of Viktor Orbán’s regime. Immediately after the document’s publication letters started pouring into the Italian Foreign Ministry and the Italian embassy in Hungary asking the Italians not to accept Szentmihályi Szabó as Hungary’s envoy.

Yesterday morning the Jewish Telegraphic Agency published a short article in which they said:

Eva Balogh described Szentmihályi Szabó as a “raging” and “inveterate” anti-Semite. She quoted an article written by him in 2000 in the far-right Magyar Forum, called “The Agents of Satan,” which, though it doesn’t specifically use the term “Jew,” clearly describes Jews in classic anti-Semitic terms similar to those used in Nazi propaganda.

The Hungarian Jewish leadership did not immediately respond to the nomination. But a source close to the leadership of the main Jewish umbrella group Mazsihisz told JTA that the nomination was a “very unfriendly gesture from the government” during the year designated by the government as an official Holocaust Memorial Year.

Vox.com also noticed my post and quoted at some length from Szentmihályi Szabó’s infamous article, describing it as “pretty appalling stuff.” According to the journalist responsible for the article, this latest development is “especially troubling given that it happened in Hungary, where there has been a trend of anti-Semitism… [T]hough right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orbán condemns anti-Semitism, his government doesn’t have the best track record on it.”

And finally today the World Jewish Congress raised its voice in protest. Let me quote the text of the press release in full:

The head of the World Jewish Congress (WJC) on Thursday said that appointment of Hungarian far-right publicist Péter Szentmihályi Szabó as Hungary’s ambassador to Italy was “clearly an affront to Jews”. WJC President Ronald Lauder urged Italy to refuse the accreditation of Szentmihályi Szabó, who has penned anti-Semitic texts in the past.

“A man who suggests that Hungary’s Jews are ‘agents of Satan’, ‘greedy, envious, evil and ugly’ is not fit to represent his country abroad, and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán would be well-advised to withdraw this man as soon as possible and look for a person who is suitable for this job,” said Lauder.

“It is particularly sad and irritating that Hungary, which declared 2014 as Holocaust memorial year, is once again in the news with this sort of thing. How can an anti-Semite represent a government whose leader pledged a policy of zero tolerance toward anti-Semitism?” Lauder asked, referring to Orbán’s speech before the World Jewish Congress Plenary Assembly in Budapest in May 2013. He said decisions such as this would do further damage to Hungary’s reputation abroad and “not inspire confidence that the Orbán government means business when it says it will fight anti-Semitism.”

The WJC leader expressed hope that, given Italy’s history and strong commitment to fight racial hatred and anti-Semitism, the Italian government would not accept an outspoken extremist and Jew-hater as a member of the diplomatic corps in Rome.

The appointment by Budapest of the 69-year-old Szentmihályi Szabó comes after a recent decision by the Hungarian government to build a controversial World War II monument that obfuscates Hungary’s role in the deportation of Jews to the Nazi death camps in 1944.

Meanwhile Péter Szentmihályi Szabó acts as if nothing has happened. Or at least he pretends that all this “noise” doesn’t bother him a bit. Rather, he seems to be proud of his name being bandied about in the Hungarian and the foreign press. He shared his reactions in his regular column in the far-right Magyar Hírlap called “Sarkosan fogalmazva,” which is perhaps best rendered as “Not beating around the bush.”

Actually, Szentmihályi Szabó exaggerates somewhat. Only about three dozen articles appeared about him, mostly in the liberal press. None in Magyar Nemzet or Válasz. Naturally, Magyar Hírlap, his own paper, reported disapprovingly that “Gyurcsány and Co. are asking Europe’s help in the matter of Péter Szentmihályi Szabó” and republished DK’s protest released by the party’s press department. In addition, László Domonkos, a journalist who since 1990 has written a number of books for far-right publishing houses, expressed his absolute delight that “István Csurka’s comrade-in-arms” received the honor of being able to represent Hungary in Rome. The late István Csurka was a self-professed anti-Semite who established MIÉP (Magyar Igazság és Élet Pártja/Party of Hungarian Truth and Justice) in 1993. Domonkos, I might add, wrote a biography of Csurka (Kárpátia Studió, 2012). He is on the editorial board of Trianoni Szemle (Trianon Review) and a frequent contributor to Nagy Magyarország (Greater Hungary).

Publication of the Committee on European Affairs responsible for the nomination of  Péter Szentmihályi Szabó

Publication of the Committee on European Affairs which was responsible for the nomination of Péter Szentmihályi Szabó

And finally, let me talk about an article written by Attila Ara-Kovács, a journalist and former diplomat, in Magyar Narancs where he has a regular column, “Diplomáciai jegyzet” (Diplomatic Notes). His latest piece is on Szentmihályi Szabó’s appointment. Its title is “To Rome with Love,” a reference to the Woody Allen movie of the same name.

Ara-Kovács, who is very well informed, suspects that there are serious differences of opinion over the direction of Hungarian foreign policy within Fidesz circles. The more conservative members have been worried about the worsening relationship between the Orbán government and the West. The first sign of discontent appeared in 2012 when it became clear that Orbán was taking Hungary in a direction that these conservative supporters or diplomats found injurious to the interests of the country. Turning to the East was bad enough, but when this new orientation culminated in the Putin-Orbán summit and the subsequent loan agreement, this was too much for these people who not surprisingly harbor anti-Russian sentiments from the days of the Kádár regime and are suspicious of Putin’s intentions. Then came what Ara-Kovács calls “the massacre” in the Foreign Ministry when about 200 people arrived from Tibor Navracsics’s Ministry of Administration and Justice and Péter Szijjártó’s Office of the Prime Minister. Naturally, a lot of old hands were fired to make place for the newcomers.

And now we come to the question of the source of the leak about the nomination of Péter Szentmihályi Szabó. Parliament is not in session, but the chairman of the Committee on European Affairs called the members together for an extraordinary session to discuss this particular nomination. The chairman of the committee is Richárd Hörcsik, who has been a member of parliament ever since 1990 when he belonged to the right-of-center Magyar Demokrata Fórum (MDF). Neither the Demokratikus Koalíció nor Együtt-PM is represented on this committee. There is one Jobbik member and two MSZP members. It turned out that both MSZP members, István Józsa ad Bertalan Tóth, were absent. Thus, the news that spread like wildfire about the committee giving its blessing to Péter Szentmihályi Szabó’s nomination must have come either from Jobbik or more likely from one of the Fidesz members of the committee. It looks as if this nomination was too much for somebody who seems to be worried about the foreign policy direction of the third Orbán government.

A raging anti-Semite will be Hungary’s ambassador in Rome

Late Sunday night the media learned that Péter Szentmihályi Szabó, a mediocre poet and political commentator of the far right, will be Hungary’s next ambassador to Rome. Two opposition parties, Democratic Coalition and Együtt-PM, immediately protested against the appointment, pointing out that over the last two decades the nominee has been publishing in such far-right papers as István Csurka’s Magyar Fórum, Kárpátia, and Nemzetőr. Currently, he has a regular column in the far-right Magyar Hírlap and is also a regular on Echo TV, another far-right organ.

Tibor Navracsics and Péter Szentmihályi Szabó The foreign minister is delighted

Tibor Navracsics and Péter Szentmihályi Szabó
The foreign minister is delighted

There were commentators whose “breath was taken away” when they heard the news of Szentmihályi Szabó’s imminent ambassadorial appointment. A blogger expressed himself more strongly: “Viktor Orbán happened to appoint a rat to be ambassador to Rome.” One thing is sure: Szentmihályi Szabó is an inveterate anti-Semite. Pure and simple. So, it is a rather ironic Orbánite gesture to appoint such a man to an important post in the Memorial Year of the Holocaust.

I could hopscotch from article to article penned by this man, but perhaps it would be more useful to translate one of his memorable pieces that appeared in Magyar Fórum on December 14, 2000.

Meet Viktor Orbán’s choice for ambassador to Italy.

* * *

Péter Szentmihályi Szabó : The Agents of Satan

I don’t know, I don’t understand why they hate us so much. They live here in Hungary, they speak and write in Hungarian, but they loathe us. I really don’t understand why they stay if it is that bad here, in this welcoming country that is so foolishly patient. It is not difficult to recognize them because they are cowardly and impertinent at the same time. Money is their God, their mother tongue in which they have trusted from time immemorial. Dark circles under their eyes, flabby skin, clammy palms, cold feet, freakish smiles give them away. They can be found everywhere on the earth. They are the agents of Satan. They arouse fear and they live off of fear. They create turmoil and discord. They are constantly packing, yet they don’t leave. Are they foreign spirits whose mission is to destroy the local communities? International criminals who, following Marx and Lenin, decided to enslave mankind? Eternally homeless folk condemned to be constant wanderers? They are the debt collectors. The ones who first figured out that money “works” without labor although there are no goods behind the merchandise, only a piece of metal, a piece of paper, or by now only a digital symbol on the computer. Everybody is afraid of them, yet they dread those who fear them. The world’s strongest army guards their security, and yet they still don’t dare to get close to those whose rights they defend so loudly.

Pharisees, hypocrites, agents of Satan. They are in every party, in every church, in every community. They are ready for every betrayal because they are empty. They have no God, no nation, no people, no homeland, no Weltanschauung, only bank accounts. They don’t even have families, only temporarily. Their families are replaceable. They use everything, but nothing is theirs. And they clearly realize that. I am listening to the naive official statements about the forthcoming law on Hungarians living in the neighboring countries. One can hear the mistaken centuries-old notion being repeated: “a Hungarian is one who considers himself to be a Hungarian.” Oh my Lord, any member of any reasonably cultured nation would have a hearty laugh hearing this! Is someone who calls himself an Englishman, a Frenchman, a German, an American actually an Englishman, a Frenchman, a German or an American? In that case, our Roma in Strasbourg would have abandoned us a long time ago…. The agents of Satan are the devotees of globalism; they are not attached to their names, to their firms, to their own homeland. They have no attachment, only bank accounts. They are born traitors because they have never had their own country. They are in every radio and television station where they bray among themselves speaking in a nasal sing-song way and slimily blurring their r’s. They live off their fears. They are professional worriers. They are internationalists and cosmopolitans. Faithful friends of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Lukács, and György Aczél.

Descendants of Rákosi, the jailers of the “guilty” Hungarian nation. Members of the State Security forces, members of detachments, worker guardists. Approximately 200,000 people who call themselves Hungarian who have not cleared out of the country yet because after 1989 they realized that the stupid Hungarian people don’t harbor vengefulness. The two million former unskilled laborers understand only the demagoguery of MSZP and SZDSZ. Viktor Orbán is the same target as József Antall or Péter Boross, or for that matter István Csurka were.  The agents of Satan play games with us and have a grand time at it. They slap us in the face and call us to account that we, in an intolerant and very unchristian-like manner, don’t turn the other cheek. They are the ones who are most indignant when somebody tries to put an end to the greedy acquisition of Hungarian real estate by foreigners; they are the ones for whom abortion and drugs are human rights. They have more than one passport, preferably the kind that has no extradition treaty with Hungary–security foremost. They live in castles, they have servants, but they are great friends of the homeless, the Roma, the needy. From a distance and only in words. If they see some gain in getting involved with Hungarian issues, like, for example the millennial celebrations, then they reluctantly join in. They think everybody can be bought, because they themselves can be, always by the kilo. They are greedy, envious, evil–and ugly. Countenance is the mirror of the soul, but their mirror is a tarnished one. They are callous. Condemned souls for whom there is no resurrection. It is likely that Satan bestows such agents on all nations, ones who not only prey on them but also lecture the nations as if they were stupid primitive domestic animals. Hell is waiting for their return.

Changes in the Hungarian foreign ministry and the growth of the third Orbán government

Today I would like to say a few words about the reorganization of the government. First, one wonders why it took so long to create the third Orbán government considering that on the top level there were very few personnel changes. Only two ministries were affected–the ministry of foreign trade and foreign affairs and the ministry of administration and justice. Not much changed in the latter, but what happened in the former is truly astonishing. With the arrival of Tibor Navracsics and Péter Szijjártó about 200 new faces appeared in the ministry; their corresponding numbers were either dismissed or moved to other positions in other ministries. It is just now becoming evident how dissatisfied Viktor Orbán must have been with János Martonyi and the men and women around him.

In 2010 Viktor Orbán announced that there were two ministers whose presence in his second government was assured: Sándor Pintér and János Martonyi. Martonyi hadn’t been officially nominated at the time, but Orbán sent him nonetheless to Bratislava to negotiate with the Slovaks.

Martonyi has been loyal to Viktor Orbán ever since 1998 when he was first named foreign minister. From the WikiLeaks documents we know that after the lost election of 2002 Martonyi was a frequent and welcome visitor in the U.S. Embassy in Budapest where he was especially highly regarded by Ambassador April H. Foley (2006-2009). As a result, the relationship between Ferenc Gyurcsány and the American ambassador was outright antagonistic.

János Martonyi made an almost clean sweep in the personnel of the ministry in 2010 and yet, it seems, the atmosphere and the foreign policy strategies devised by Martonyi were not to Orbán’s liking. More and more areas of foreign policy were taken away from the ministry and given to others: first to Tamás Fellegi, minister of national development, and later to Péter Szijjártó. The former was supposed to woo China and Russia while Szijjártó concentrated on the Middle East. And yet Martonyi defended the prime minister and remained loyal to the end. If he was insulted by being sidestepped and ignored, he didn’t show it.

Now his tenure is over. For six months Tibor Navracsics will fill Martonyi’s place after which Orbán’s real favorite, Péter Szijjártó, will become minister. He will most likely continue the policy of the “Eastern Opening,” the brainchild of Viktor Orbán. For such a drastic change in orientation an entirely new staff was necessary. Not one of the six undersecretaries remained, and out of the ten assistant undersecretaries only one kept his job.

Among the victims was Enikő Győri, undersecretary in charge of Hungary’s relations with the European Union, who will be leaving to serve as ambassador to Spain. Her departure might be connected to a debate about which ministry should deal with the EU.  János Lázár wants to move the responsibility to the prime minister’s office, while Navracsics insisted that relations with Brussels belongs to the ministry of foreign affairs. After Navracsics’s departure Lázár may well have his way.

The third Orbán government / MTI Photo Attila Kovács

The third Orbán government / MTI Photo Attila Kovács

Gergely Prőhle, the assistant undersecretary about whom I wrote several times, is also leaving. Zoltán Balog created a new position for him in the ministry of human resources. With this change Prőhle’s diplomatic career seems to be coming to an end. Earlier he served as ambassador to Bern and Berlin.

The most noteworthy change is the departure of Zsolt Németh, undersecretary of foreign affairs in both the first and the second Orbán governments. He was one of the founders of Fidesz who has held high positions in the party ever since 1989. In fact, between 1995 and 2003 he was one of the vice-presidents of the party. He has been a member of parliament since 1990. He will now be the chairman of the parliament’s committee on foreign affairs. According to NépszabadságNémeth was offered the post of ambassador to Washington but he preferred to retire completely from the conduct of foreign affairs. He supports a foreign policy based on transatlantic ties and “would like to see better relations between Hungary and the United States.” Apparently, he is not happy with the cozy relations between Hungary and Putin’s Russia.

In other ministries the changes were not that drastic, but practically everywhere the number of undersecretaries and assistant undersecretaries has grown. Perhaps the most spectacular growth occurred in the Office of the Prime Minister where there are eight undersecretaries and, believe it or not, 27 assistant undersecretaries. One of these new assistant secretaries has already made his mark. He is the one who is “negotiating” with the Norwegians about their grants to Hungary. In total, according to a new HVG article, there are 100 assistant undersecretaries in the third Orbán government.

I see no attempt on the part of the government to be frugal. Not only is the government growing steadily but grandiose plans are being hatched practically daily. The government is planning to build a new museum quarter, to move ministries from Budapest to various cities across the country, and to move the office of the prime minister to the Castle district, near the current residence of the president.

The Hungarian government is also continuing its mania for acquisitions. It is currently negotiating “to buy Bombardier’s stake in Hungarian rail transportation firm Bombardier MAV Kft.” The new minister of national development told Napi Gazdaság that “it’s a clear aim of the government and the ministry to carry out further acquisitions. It’s not a secret that there are talks under way in this respect with E.ON, for example.”

After this spending spree, who is going to replenish the Hungarian piggy bank?

A new Hungarian government and a new interim foreign minister

Right after the election, the media began the usual guesswork on the composition of Viktor Orbán’s new government. Most of the speculation turned out to be wrong,  but four days after the election it looked pretty certain that Miklós Szócska, undersecretary in charge of health care, Rózsa Hoffmann, undersecretary in charge of education, and János Martonyi, foreign minister, would leave the government. The media also learned early on that Tibor Navracsics will move from the Ministry of Administration and Justice to the Foreign Ministry. Otherwise, at least on the ministerial level, very few changes were made. With the exception of Mrs. László Németh at the head of the Ministry of National Development and János Martonyi, all other ministers remained part of the team.

First, perhaps I should say a few words about the odd structure of Viktor Orbán’s government. While in opposition, Orbán harshly criticized expenditures he found superfluous. If it depended on him, all ministers would have used ten-year-old cars with 500,000 km on them. He promised a frugal government. In order to demonstrate that frugality, he got it into his head that his new government will be the smallest of all Hungarian governments since 1848. So, he created only eight ministries, as Lajos Batthyány did on March 23, 1848. But the world has changed a bit since, and it was apparent from the very beginning that a lot of tinkering would be necessary to create a functioning government with only eight ministries. Mega-ministries were created, the largest and most unmanageable being the Ministry of Human Resources that was supposed to deal with education, health care, sports, and culture.

The new arrangement did not result in the desired frugality. On the contrary, the reorganization entailed additional expenses. Moreover, although there might have been only eight ministers, the number of undersecretaries who actually functioned as ministers multiplied. In the past, there were twelve or fourteen ministries and each had two undersecretaries: one who was a kind of deputy minister who could represent the minister in parliament and answer questions from the floor and the other, the administrative undersecretary who was allegedly in charge of running the ministry itself. Thus if there were fourteen ministries the number of undersecretaries would be 28. Now with eight ministries we have 48!

At one point Viktor Orbán quipped that one will hardly notice that a new government has been formed because so few changes will be made. Actually, this is pretty much the case. There is only one personnel change on the ministerial level: in place of Mrs. László Németh, Orbán picked Miklós Seszták. More about him in a forthcoming post.

Moving Tibor Navracsics to the Foreign Ministry is a strange decision, especially since it was already decided that in six months he is leaving for Brussels to be one of the 28 commissioners. The current Hungarian commissioner, László Andor, was appointed by the socialist-liberal government in 2009. With the formation of the new European Commission, Orbán at last has the opportunity to appoint his own man. When Navracsics goes to Brussels, Péter Szijjártó will replace him as foreign minister. Péter Szijjártó has already moved from the Prime Minister’s Office to the Foreign Ministry, where he is considered to be Navracsics’s temporary deputy. And by the way, the ministry was renamed the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Foreign Affairs.

There were plenty of rumors to the effect that Viktor Orbán wasn’t entirely satisfied with Navracsics, who apparently did not agree with some of his decisions. Journalists learned that he rarely spoke at cabinet meetings, but his face registered his bemusement or disagreement. Politicians who fall out of favor are often sent out to pasture in Brussels.

In today’s Népszabadság there is a long interview with Navracsics. It is hard to tell how honest Navracsics is in this interview, but he claims that he is happy with his new post because he has always been interested in foreign affairs. I find it hard to imagine that anyone can be happy with a six-month stint holding the position for someone else, especially for Péter Szijjártó. After all, Navracsics in civilian life was a university professor of some standing, and I can’t imagine that he considers this young man suitable for the job. And now he is forced to make him his deputy and later hand over the job he most likely wouldn’t mind having himself.

Tibor Navracsics, interim foreign minister / Photo Miklós Teknős, Népszabadság

Tibor Navracsics, interim foreign minister / Photo Miklós Teknős, Népszabadság

His task as foreign minister is “to carry out the foreign policy of the Hungarian government … which is headed by Viktor Orbán.” Specifically, he stressed that “the opening to the East does not mean the closing to the West, just as Prime Minister Orbán says.” In brief, the “peacock dance” will continue in the next six months, not that I expected anything else. There might, however, be a slight change in the delivery of the messages, especially since Navracsics is well versed in political philosophy. He knows, for example, that all that talk of Viktor Orbán about the “decline of the West” is “a century-old idea that turns up from time to time.” Here he sounds like a man who doesn’t take Orbán’s ideas terribly seriously. He also stressed that with cooperation one can achieve more than with confrontation, but added that “cooperation is not equal to friendship.” Some of his incredibly aggressive encounters with Commissioner Viviane Reding are striking counterexamples of this principle of cooperation.

Navracsics is quite capable of contradicting himself. For example, in one sentence he claims that in the last ten years Hungary was not able to make its “European policy really successful.” He added that “one must take size into consideration … therefore we cannot have such ambitions as Germany or even Poland.” But when the journalist reminded him that Viktor Orbán is acting like the prime minister of a great power, he quickly retreated, saying that “he can certainly do that because after all our weight in the European Council is the same as all others.”

He showed himself to be open toward the opposition when he emphasized that “we are the members of the same political class as the opposition parties.” When it was pointed out to him that he himself in the election campaign claimed that Fidesz alone represents national interests in Europe, naturally he couldn’t deny it, but he said that he does not want to open “that chapter again.” Now, after the election, “the two sides should take a deep breath and begin a new kind of cooperation.” (The few comments to this interview called Navracsics a liar.)

Tibor Navracsics is heading to Brussels. There he is supposed to represent the interests of the European Union, but clearly he will be there to represent the interests of Viktor Orbán. He will have to hone his obfuscation skills even more finely to appear acceptable to his colleagues in the Commission.