Azerbaijan

Another “strategic partnership”: This time with Azerbaijan, a model to follow

While we have been preoccupied with American-Hungarian and Russian-Hungarian relations, the dictator of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, arrived in Hungary for a visit, his third in four and a half years. Not too many high-level western visitors can be seen in Budapest lately, so Orbán must be satisfied with Azeri dictators and the like. Orbán himself is not welcome in western capitals, and therefore his official trips usually take him outside of the European Union and North America. He visited Baku twice, and I understand he will be going again to strengthen the “strategic partnership” he forged between Hungary and Azerbaijan, two countries that have a lot in common: both are extremely corrupt and both are led by autocratic leaders whom outsiders describe as mafia dons.

In September 2012 I wrote three posts (September 1, 2, and 3) on the Orbán government’s decision to release Ramil Safarov, an Azeri army officer, from the Hungarian jail where he was serving a life sentence for the brutal murder of an Armenian officer in 2004. The crime was perpetrated in Budapest, where both men spent a couple of months in a training program organized by NATO’s Partnership for Peace Program. The Azeri government made several attempts to convince the Hungarian authorities to release him into their custody. But because Safarov was considered to be a national hero the Gyurcsány and Bajnai governments, fearing that once Safarov stepped onto Azeri soil he would not spend a minute in jail, denied the requests. Not so the second Orbán government, which in the hope of Azeri goodwill and economic support decided to strike a deal with Aliyev, the Azeri dictator. To this day we don’t know what the Hungarian government got in return for the release of the “ax murderer,” as he is called in Hungary. According to rumors at the time, Viktor Orbán made the decision to extradite Safarov in exchange for the Azeri purchase of Hungarian bonds. The deal was struck under the watchful eye of Péter Szijjártó, and final approval came from Tibor Navracsics, the minister of justice who currently serves as one of the EU commissioners in Brussels. This dirty deal was the beginning of a great friendship between Aliyev’s Azerbaijan and Orbán’s Hungary.

Since then, the Hungarian government has manifested its commitment to closer economic and political ties between the two countries on several occasions. In November 2012 Hungary organized an “international conference” in Budapest to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Hungary and Azerbaijan. In 2013 Hungary opened a Hungarian Trading House in Baku, and yesterday Viktor Orbán and Ilham Aliyev signed a “strategic partnership” agreement. Apparently this agreement encompasses the following areas of cooperation: energy, education, commercial air transport, tourism, veterinary medicine, and youth and sport. Currently trade between the two countries is insignificant and has actually been falling since 2010. Szijjártó himself talks about Azerbaijan only as a “potential economic partner” of Hungary, a partnership that will be realized once Azeri gas reaches Europe. For the time being, one hears only about the hundreds of scholarships offered by Hungary as a goodwill gesture toward these Central Asian countries. Azerbaijan just gratefully acknowledged 200 scholarships.

As usual, in the joint press conference after the meeting and signing ceremony, Viktor Orbán went overboard, praising Azerbaijan as an “example to follow” (mintaállam). By the way, when Orbán is confronted with foreign dignitaries, he is often visibly servile. He bows just a little too low, which in Aliyev’s case was accentuated by the Azeri president’s height and Orbán’s small stature. He did the same thing when the Chinese prime minister, Wen Jiabao, visited Budapest in 2011.

In his unbridled enthusiasm for the Azeri model, he even praised Aliyev’s father, Heydar Aliyev, the former KGB agent who became president of Azerbaijan after a military coup that overthrew the democratically elected president of the country in 1993. His and his family’s corruption was legendary. After his death in 2003, his son, the current president Ilham Aliyev, took over after a fraudulent election. Since then he has been reelected three times, and he can be assured that he will remain president of the country as long as he is alive: the law was changed that barred repeated reelection of the same person to the post. Wikileaks documents have revealed that American observers compared  the Azeri president to a mafia crime boss. Well, perhaps this is what Orbán had in mind when he spoke of Azerbaijan as an example to follow.

President Ilham Alyev and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán

President Ilham Aliyev and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán

In the afternoon there was an economic forum where Orbán made a speech in which he announced that “countries that have political systems that offer clear and unambiguous leadership to a given community are lucky,” indicating that he considers both Azerbaijan and Hungary among the lucky ones. Aliyev immediately picked up on Orbán’s remarks, adding that “both countries are led along a clear strategy. Hungary is defending its national interests, its independence, and its sovereignty.” How should one interpret Orbán’s reference to “clear and unambiguous leadership”?  I, for one, think that he means that in such a regime no opposition forces could possibly alter the strategy of an autocratic leader. This is certainly true of Aliyev as well as Orbán.

Today HVG posted a short note online teasing an article in its print edition tomorrow, according to which there might be “a thread that connects Baku and Budapest” in the U.S. banning of the six Hungarian officials and businessmen. According to the paper, the case involves corruption surrounding Hungarian government bonds offered for sale to Azerbaijan in 2012. My recollection is that the deal eventually fell through. The Hungarians were apparently hoping that Azerbaijan would pay Hungary back for its release of Ramil Safarov by buying Hungarian bonds through ARDNF, the Azerbaijan State Oil Fund. However,  ARDNF announced on October 9 that it had no intention of buying Hungarian bonds and that it did not plan to invest in Hungary. I still remember all the jokes on ATV about “manat,” the Azeri currency. However, there is always the possibility that some secret deal was struck over the Hungarian government bonds and that perhaps some of the money received disappeared either into Fidesz coffers or into individual pockets. The official announcement of ARDNF might have been intended simply to disavow any connection between the Safarov case and payments received by Hungary. We’ll have to see what HVG came up with.

And here is the latest. According to an unnamed Fidesz source, Viktor Orbán realized that he went too far in embracing Russia, ratcheting up his anti-EU rhetoric, and attacking the United States. According to this highly placed individual, Orbán is planning a change of orientation. From here on he will be a model of cooperation with his western allies. Well, his latest moves don’t support this reorientation. First, he just raised RTL Klub’s 40% levy to 50%, presumably to punish them for reporting negative news about the government on their very popular 6 o’clock news. This huge levy is a serious financial blow to RTL Klub, one that its German parent company, Bertelsmann, will have to absorb. Second, he wouldn’t call Azerbaijan “an example to follow” if he is preparing the ground for a change in his foreign policy objectives. And third, if he were trying to show the U.S. that he is serious about ridding Hungary of corruption, he would tell his minions to relieve Ildikó Vida and her co-workers of their duties. I believe that this piece of news is no more than Fidesz disinformation. At best, it is a new round in his usual “peacock dance.”

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Hungary’s new friend: Turkmenistan’s dictator

The Hungarian media is full of stories about the visit of the bloody dictator of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov, to Budapest. The trip has been in the making for a long time. It was Hungary that initiated talks between the two countries when in November 2011 President Pál Schmitt was dispatched to Asgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan. In January of this year Péter Szijjártó announced that the two countries had signed an agreement on economic cooperation. It was at that time that it was revealed that the Turkmen dictator himself will visit Hungary sometime in June.

As for the economic ties, Szijjártó claimed that there are hopeful signs that the relatively low level of trade between the two countries will grow substantially in the near future. He revealed that there are already Hungarian “success stories” in the food processing industry and in agriculture. A Hungarian firm is involved with the construction of a large brewery. He also indicated that Turkmenistan intends to modernize its oil and gas sector and would welcome Hungarian participation.

Trade between the two countries is indeed very small: until 2010 it amounted to only 10-15 million dollars a year, but by last year it had reached 110 million dollars. Just to give you an idea of the relative size of this trade relationship, Turkmenistan is not among the top 50 trading partners of Hungary.

Szijjártó also mentioned the possible construction of a gas pipeline, which is currently under discussion between the European Commission and Turkmenistan. Clearly, Hungary’s interest lies primarily in Turkmenistan’s gas reserves, which are the fourth largest in the world.

The opposition loudly protests this cozy relationship between Asgabat and Budapest, pointing out that Turkmenistan is second only to North Korea in having the darkest dictatorship and that the only significant difference is that North Korea is very poor while Turkmenistan is flush with cash from the sale of natural gas to Russia and China. One can read more about the situation in Turkmenistan in the U.S. Human Rights Report of 2013.

Pro-government commentators point out that, after all, Ferenc Gyurcsány also visited Turkmenistan in the summer of 2008. Indeed, he did and apparently had a six-hour talk with Berdimuhamedov. He went there to show the United States that, despite rumors that he was against the Nabucco pipeline, the pet project of the EU and the United States, he was serious about finding a way of getting gas from outside of Russia. Apparently he came back convinced that the Nabucco project would not materialize. He turned out to be right.

The Trans-Caspian project was first conceived in the late 1990s.  Talks between the European Union and two of the five countries surrounding the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, officially began on September 7, 2011, but there was not much follow-through. In the wake of the protests in Kiev and the ensuing Russian-Ukrainian conflict, however, the Trans-Caspian pipeline gained new urgency. In December 2013 it was announced that negotiations between Turkmenistan and the European Union would begin in early 2014. The Russian response was swift. Sergei Lavrov, Russian foreign minister, indicated that “external interference in the Caspian region will strain the situation in the region and can have a negative impact on the five-party negotiations,” that is, among Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Iran, and, naturally, Russia.

In earlier Hungarian reports on Szijjártó’s trade negotiations, no mention was made of Turkmen natural gas, but on June 14 Trend, an Azeri site, said that “Hungary is interested in receiving Turkmen gas under transnational projects.” The next piece of information, from MTI, stated that Baymyrat Hojamuhammedov, deputy prime minister for oil and gas, told the newly appointed minister in charge of national economic development Miklós Seszták that Turkmenistan in the next two decades plans to more than triple its production of natural gas and wants to lay pipelines toward Europe, Pakistan, and India.

While Hojamuhammedov was visiting Miklós Seszták, Turkmen Foreign Minister Raşit Meredow was talking with Péter Szijjártó. Note that, flouting diplomatic protocol, the Turkmen foreign minister met only with Péter Szijjártó and not his Hungarian counterpart, Tibor Navracsics.

As for Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, he first met President János Áder in the Sándor Palace. Áder talked about the modernization of Turkmenistan and possible Hungarian participation in the Turkmen economy. It was no more than generalities. Berdymukhamedov’s announcement was, on the other hand, more interesting. He pointed out that “in a political sense the two countries’ points of view resemble each other in many ways. Both find stability and security important.” Turkmenistan is “grateful to Hungary for representing her in the United Nations.” He added that “the foreign ministers of the two countries continue their consultations concerning foreign policy.” He hopes that “Hungarian experts” will help Turkmenistan in its economic and social programs. Finally, he invited János Áder to Asgabat. It looks as if the two got along splendidly. The Hungarian media watched every move of the two men and even noted that their handshake lasted eight seconds!

Source: AFP. Photo Igor Sasin

Source: AFP/ Photo by Igor Sasin

Berdymukhamedov’s official program included a meeting with House Speaker László Kövér. Nothing has been said so far about a possible meeting between Berdymukhamedov and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, although it is hard to imagine that such a meeting would not take place.

Let me add a funny note. Hungary was just admitted to the Parliamentary Assembly of Turkic Speaking Countries, joining Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kirghistan, and Turkey. The request came from former deputy-speaker of the parliament Sándor Lezsák, who started his career in MDF but who now can be placed somewhere between Fidesz and Jobbik. He is among those who refuse to accept the Finno-Ugric origin of the Hungarian language and overemphasize the importance of  Turkic loan-words in the vocabulary. Anyone who’s interested in Turanism, which is closely linked to the idea of Hungarian being a Turkic language, can read a fairly good summary of the movement here or, in Hungarian, here.

I also thought that you would appreciate a picture of Berdymukhamedov on horseback. He even participates in horse races. In one of them, he was thrown off his horse but, never fear, just as a good dictator should, he won the race anyway.

Viktor Orbán feels at home in Iran, Azerbaijan, and China

It’s time to move on, although the saga of the Holocaust Memorial is far from over. Let’s look outside of Hungary to see what Hungarian foreign policy is up to. The first news item is from yesterday; I discovered it on the Iranian news agency’s website. The highest Hungarian dignitaries–János Áder, president; Viktor Orbán, prime minister; László Kövér, speaker of the house; and János Martonyi, foreign minister–tried to outdo each other in sending separate congratulatory messages on the occasion of “the anniversary of victory of the Islamic Revolution.” The news agency naturally mentioned that “Hungary has been a member of the European Union” ever since 2004. It also reported that in addition to the Hungarians, dignitaries of Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, and Tajikistan also sent greetings to the Iranian leaders.

Today another piece of news arrived from which we learned that a delegation of Hungarian journalists and film makers from MTV arrived in Azerbaijan. They are looking for a proper setting for a film about the “atrocities committed by Armenian troops” in the Nagomo Karabakh region. According to the Azerbaijan news agency, the Hungarian television crew will make a documentary about the town of Khojaly that was attacked by Armenian forces and where several hundred Azerbaijani were killed. The Azerbaijanis are certain that “the film will tell the truth to the world about Karabakh.” So, as you can see, the Orbán government finds kindred souls in Iran, Azerbaijan, and yes, China.

Because Viktor Orbán is in China right now where he keeps boasting about the Asiatic origin of the Hungarians. Not long ago he called his people “half Asiatic,” but by now it seems they have become completely Asiatic. He added that “Hungarians were ridiculed many times for their Asiatic origins” but by now that origin has become an asset because it is clear that “the center of gravity of the world economy has shifted from west to east.” I just hope that Orbán didn’t mention anything about the alleged relationship between the Huns and the Hungarians because the Chinese built the Great Wall in order to save themselves from the ferocious Hun invaders.

In Beijing, similar to other foreign visits/trade missions, the program started with a speech by Orbán before an audience of business people that included about 100 Hungarian business men who accompanied him. As usual, the speech was full of falsehoods about Hungary’s economic performance. It is hard to believe that Chinese businessmen who are known for their acumen are so ignorant that they believe that “whoever makes a business deal with the Hungarians will have a direct relationship with the economic engine of the European Union.” Or, “Hungary is Europe’s most competitive economy where a considerable production center came into being in addition to an important research-and-development network.” Furthermore, he outlined the future economic prospects of Hungary as outright rosy: a 4% economic growth year after year and 3-4 % unemployment, which is considered to be full employment.

In addition to the country’s economic prospects, he stressed “the political stability” in Hungary which is such an advantage when it comes to economic growth. In this respect the Hungarian situation is very similar to that of China, he said, adding that he very much hoped that “the Hungarian people will vote for political stability” in the coming election. This particular claim made quite a splash in Hungary where a blog writer pointed out that “Chinese political stability in other words means communist dictatorship” and that Orbán actually gave himself away by in effect admitting that Hungary is no longer a democracy.

The Chinese news agency was less effusive than the Hungarian prime minister, although Premier Li Kequiang and Viktor Orbán remembered fondly the 65th anniversary of Chinese-Hungarian diplomatic ties. Again, one just hopes that neither man remembered Mao Zedong’s less than friendly attitude toward Hungary at the time of the Hungarian October Revolution of 1956 when he urged Khrushchev to put down the revolt and show no mercy.

China-Orban

The Chinese seem to be interested primarily in building roads and railways. We heard about the Budapest-Belgrade railway line earlier, but now it seems to have become a reality. China also expressed an interest in expanding investment and local currency swap agreements. China will provide assistance to Hungarian companies to invest in China while Hungary will help Chinese businessmen acquire visas and working licenses and will provide them with health insurance. In addition, representatives of Huawei Technologies Hungary and the Hungarian government signed an agreement to establish an innovation center in addition to two Huawei Europe supply centers, one in Pécs and another in Komárom. What is really new is that Li called for Chinese-Hungarian cooperation on nuclear energy and hinted that it  could be accomplished jointly with a third party.

This last item sounds rather intriguing. Is it possible that Viktor Orbán realized in the last month or so that the Russian loan might not be quite enough to build the new nuclear power plant and that he is also soliciting Chinese money and know-how? What will Russia think of such an arrangement?

Another item of note is the establishment of a regional center of the Bank of China. While the Orbán government does everything in its power to get rid of western banks, the prime minister welcomes the Bank of China with open arms. I am curious what kinds of guarantees he offered the Chinese to prompt them to establish the Bank of China’s European regional headquarters in Hungary. Without some guarantees I can’t imagine that any banker in his right mind would choose Hungary.

The rest of the agreements are less exciting: the usual cultural centers, more bilingual Chinese schools, and additional scholarships for Chinese students to study in Hungary. It seems there is money for foreign students even as the government sharply reduced the money available for Hungarian higher education in general and introduced very high tuition fees for Hungarian students.

The question of a direct flight between Budapest and Beijing came up again. When there were such flights they operated at a loss. Of course, if Chinese business is substantial enough in Hungary, such flights might be feasible. At first glance, however, it is hard to tell how extensive Chinese economic penetration will be as a result of these agreements.