CEPA

Péter Szijjártó’s new foreign policy and the U.S. response to the Hungarian challenge to democracy

Only a few days have gone by since Péter Szijjártó became Hungary’s new foreign minister but he hasn’t wasted any time. In two days he put together a new team. So, in the last four months the top personnel at the ministry has changed not once but twice. First, Tibor Navracsics got rid of the old guard who were most likely not enamored with Szijjártó’s activities as quasi foreign minister in the Prime Minister’s Office. The purge included  Zsolt Németh, one of the founders of Fidesz, who has been present in the Hungarian parliament ever since 1990 and who over the years became the foreign policy expert within Fidesz. He was János Martonyi’s parliamentary secretary during the first Orbán government (1998-2002), and in 2010 I was half expecting that he would take over the foreign ministry in the second Orbán administration. That was not to be. And now he has really been dropped. Today he is simply the chairman of the parliamentary committee on foreign affairs. In this capacity he has no influence whatsoever on the course of Hungarian foreign policy.

Meanwhile, after Tibor Navracsics’s reorganization of the ministry when about 200 people lost their jobs, here is the second wave of firings which Szijjártó calls “streamlining.” According to the new minister, over 200 more people will be let go. It is not clear whether that number includes ambassadors who are being recalled. In the next year 84 ambassadorial posts will have new occupants. Thirty-four have already departed, and between now and the first half of 2015 fifty more ambassadors will be recalled.

Szijjártó made it clear that he is laying down the foundation of a new Hungarian foreign policy and that this change “will be irreversible and final.” From here on the Hungarian foreign ministry will be headed by a man who is convinced that there is a “new world order” in which the goal of foreign policy is “the representation of Hungary’s economic interests.” The new administration will change “ingrained structures,” a move that might be attacked by some, but he “will not retreat because this is what is in the interest of the country.” He also emphasized that the “eastern opening” will continue. As far as U.S.-Hungarian relations are concerned, he reiterated that Barack Obama’s remarks had no basis whatsoever. Calling in the U.S. chargé d’affaires was therefore warranted. In fact, in the future André Goodfriend can look forward to regular chats in the foreign ministry’s building. Hungarians don’t mind criticism, but the U.S. charges are without merit. He himself is planning to visit Washington soon for “business and political meetings.” Index seems to know that in Washington Szijjártó will meet with officials concerned with energy policy. It is worth noting that the new foreign ministry will have almost nothing to do with European affairs, which will for the most part be handled by János Lázár in the prime minister’s office.

One can safely say that Hungary is no longer interested in what we call “Atlanticism,” a belief in the importance of cooperation between Europe and the United States and Canada regarding political, economic, and defense issues. I might add here that “Atlanticism” has been especially strong in eastern and central Europe. In Hungary, Martonyi and his political undersecretary, Zsolt Németh, were strong proponents of Atlanticism, and it is no coincidence that supporters of strong ties with North America and the European Union were the first to get the ax.

And now let’s go back to Zsolt Németh who as chairman of the committee on foreign relations still has opportunities to talk about foreign policy issues. On September 30 he told Népszabadság that the cooling of U.S.-Hungarian relations is not in the interest of the country and “it is the preeminent job of Hungarian diplomacy to change the situation.” Hungary’s national interest demands close cooperation with the United States, he said, and he added that he might be able to move things in this direction during his visit to Washington.

Németh was practically on his way to Washington when this interview took place. He came to attend a conference organized by the Center for European Policy Analysis’s  (CEPA) U.S.-Central Europe Strategy Forum, which is the largest annual gathering of U.S. and Central East European officials, experts, and scholars. The conference was entitled “Reviving Atlanticism in Central Europe–Perils and Possibilities.” The conference ended about an hour ago and, according to friends who were present, Németh got quite a battering. Most of the questions centered around Hungary and were addressed primarily to him. As one attendee described the scene, “it was not good to be Hungarian today.”

Victoria Nuland

Victoria Nuland

I will rely here on a report filed by Anita Kőműves of Népszabadság, who gave a good summary of what Victoria Nuland, undersecretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, had to say in her opening address. Put it this way, she did not mince words. She began by saying that it was 25 years ago that the Berlin Wall crumbled and people of East-Central Europe again became part of the world where there are free elections, freedom of the media, the existence of a civil sphere; “in brief, they restored liberal democracy.” Today these rights are in danger, with threats coming from the outside as well as inside. The outside dangers are Russia and ISIS, but the inside dangers to democracy and freedom in Central Europe are equally grave. While the region enjoys the benefits offered by NATO and the European Union, there are leaders in the region who seem to have forgotten on what foundations these institutions have been established. “I ask these leaders how can they sleep at night under the blanket of Article V while during the day they press for illiberal democracy, they arouse nationalist sentiments, limit the freedom of the media and demonize civil groups? I ask those who defend corrupt officials from justice, who bypass their own parliament if that is convenient for them, or who make dirty deals which increase their country’s dependence on a single energy source despite their earlier pledges to energy diversification. I am asking them: how do these steps strengthen and make their countries more secure?”

I would have hated to be in Zsolt Németh’s shoes. He had to answer questions posed by Victoria Nuland and others in the audience, questions to which there are no good answers. Németh repeated the old refrain about the United States not being well informed, with the stab that perhaps if the United States had a full-fledged ambassador in Budapest Washington would know more about the situation in Hungary. As for the current plight of the NGOs, Németh claimed that “there are no problems whatsoever” on that score. In taking on the sensitive issue of “illiberal democracy” Németh resorted to an outright lie. He asserted that there is a global competition between liberal and illiberal democracies whose final outcome is still cloudy. But “Hungarian democracy is liberal and it will remain so. However, perhaps we should learn from other countries, including the illiberal ones, to become successful.” Pitiful, I must say.

I very much doubt that Zsolt Németh will be able to convince anyone in the State Department that Viktor Orbán is not a danger to liberal democracy or that his dirty dealings with Putin are not drawing Hungary into Russia’s orbit. If Németh thought that he could lessen the tension between the United States and Hungary he was mistaken. The sources of the tension cannot be handled at this level. It would need Viktor Orbán’s total abandonment of his domestic and foreign policies. And that isn’t about to happen.