Donald Tusk

Why did Viktor Orbán visit Brussels today?

Klubrádió noted this morning that Viktor Orbán’s visit to Brussels was rather strange. It resembled the kinds of visits newly installed prime ministers of member states make to introduce themselves to the dignitaries of the European Union. In this case the visit was obviously about something else since Viktor Orbán is no stranger in EU circles. The government website also felt the need to explain the reason for the visit. Their version talked about “a courtesy visit” necessitated by the change of personnel heading the governmental structure of the European Union.

I think we can safely state that Orbán’s visit to Brussels was no courtesy visit. Rather, it came about as the result of a kind of summons by Jean-Claude Juncker. Of course, it was couched in polite terms.

We know more or less what topics Juncker wanted to discuss with Viktor Orbán. The Hungarian prime minister is not as secretive as some people maintain. One just has to read his statements carefully, because they are usually revelatory, just as they were this time. There were no joint press conferences either with Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, or with Donald Tusk, the new president of the European Council. But Orbán almost always gives a press conference to Hungarian journalists when he is in Brussels, and this time was no exception. From this press conference we learned that Juncker wanted to clarify at least two issues. One was Orbán’s harsh, far-right statements concerning immigrants to the European Union; the other, the meaning of Vladimir Putin’s visit to Hungary.

So, let’s see whether we can reconstruct what transpired, at least in part, during a conversation to which we weren’t privy. One topic was definitely the immigration issue which, according to Orbán, he “managed to clarify.” Judging from Orbán’s wording, it seems that Juncker told Orbán that his statements on the subject were practically the same as those of the extreme right in Western Europe. Otherwise, Orbán wouldn’t have had to say at his press conference that “we don’t share the approach of the European extreme right” on the subject.

There is a good possibility that Juncker was not convinced of the legitimacy of the Hungarian position because, according to Orbán, “we asked them to understand that Hungary does not want to be the destination of immigrants.” This sentence indicates to me that Juncker was reluctant to accept the Hungarian point of view. Orbán tried to convince Juncker that Hungary’s position is unique because it is the transit country for economic immigrants from the Balkans. After all, sooner or later these economic immigrants will end up in countries west of Hungary. So what is in Hungary’s interest is also in the interest of Western Europe. Brussels should support the Hungarian position.

Orbán, it seems, also outlined his ideas about “more reasonable rules than the current ones” governing immigration to the European Union. He suggested “wide and thorough negotiations aimed at the formulation of a new European immigration policy.” I assume that Juncker expressed his readiness to convene such a conference. I’m not convinced, however, that Orbán received assurance that the topic will be discussed at the next EU summit, as the prime minister indicated during his press conference. It is even less likely that at the next summit “results can be achieved” on comprehensive immigration policies. This is surely only Orbán’s pipe dream.

The second topic was the Putin visit to Budapest, now definitely scheduled for February 17. Juncker, and most likely Tusk as well, wanted to know “what will happen” during their meeting, to which he coyly answered: “So would I.” His explanation for this ignorance was that, after all, his final position will be formed only after he has had a chance to talk with Chancellor Angela Merkel, who will spend a few hours in Budapest on February 9. The message was that he is a loyal follower of the EU position vis-à-vis Putin’s Russia and that he will conduct his conversation with Putin accordingly.

During his press conference he added quite a few harsh words, which he probably didn’t utter to either Juncker or Tusk. They sound to me like his typical nationalistic hyperbole that is so popular with hardcore Fidesz voters. Somehow I can’t imagine that Orbán actually delivered this sentence to Juncker or Tusk: “In the last twenty years I have been telling everyone, time and again, that when we joined the European Union we chose allies and not a boss. Hungary has no boss.” Some people would argue this point.

There was a small incident that fired the imagination of Hungarian journalists. At one point Orbán and Juncker had a photo-op, where they were supposed to shake hands. But after a second Juncker had had enough of the posing, turned to Orbán and said “OK. Thanks. Let’s go,” and practically dragged Orbán out of the room. It was the online site 444.hu that discovered this priceless scene. Most papers considered Orbán’s position “humiliating.” Gábor Török, a political commentator, on the other hand, found Juncker “impolite.” Acccording to the reporter for Klubrádió who was present, the two men were rushing to another photo-op, hence the hurry. Yet there was perhaps something symbolic about the scene. When the chips are down, Orbán will have to follow the policies of the European Union, even if he has to be dragged there or led by the hand.

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Viktor Orbán and the gathering storm clouds in the East

Meetings of the heads of EU member states usually last much longer than anticipated. At eight in the evening participants were still discussing who will replace Herman Van Rompuy as European Council president and Catherine Ashton as foreign policy chief.  They finally determined that the former post will be filled by Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk and the latter by Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini.

It seems, however, that the decision on further sanctions against Russia will be postponed for at least a week, although a draft of such sanctions dated August 27 exists which says that the bloc “stands ready to consider further steps” against Russia due to the “reported participation of Russian armed forces in operations on Ukrainian soil.” Petro Poroshenko, who was present at the discussions about his country, indicated that further sanctions are likely. The EU only wants to wait on implementation to see how Russia reacts to his attempt to revive a “peace plan” next week.

If Vladimir Putin’s threatening remarks are any indication, further sanctions and an increased Western military presence in Eastern Europe are indeed likely. Putin told the press that “Russia’s partners … should understand it’s best not to mess with us,” adding: “I think no one is thinking of unleashing a large-scale conflict with Russia. I want to remind you Russia is one of the leading nuclear powers.” Nuclear threat or not, the number of NATO troops in Poland and Romania has doubled already, and NATO is planning to send an additional 1,ooo troops to the region. And Britain and six other states are planning to create a new joint expeditionary force of at least 10,000 personnel to bolster NATO’s power.

map2

Meanwhile a rather frightening map was published by the Russian weekly Expert that showed the sphere of influence Russia is attempting to create. The green line indicates the reach of Soviet dominance, the red the current situation, and the orange Russian hopes for an expanded sphere of influence. That would include Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia.

Observers of Russia and its plans might be also interested in reading a statement by Kazakhstan’s 74-year-old dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev. Let me quote it verbatim from Kazakhstan’s official English-language website Tengri News.

If the rules set forth in the agreement are not followed, Kazakhstan has a right to withdraw from the Eurasian Economic Union. I have said this before and I am saying this again. Kazakhstan will not be part of organizations that pose a threat to our independence. Our independence is our dearest treasure, which our grandfathers fought for. First of all, we will never surrender it to someone, and secondly, we will do our best to protect it.

Of course, he added that nothing of the sort can possibly happen because “there are three representatives from each country [Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan] and three Vice-Prime Ministers. They also make their decisions together.”

Putin’s response to Nazarbayev’s statement called Kazakhstan’s future independence into question. Yesterday he said that Kazakhstan, although large, is only one-tenth the size of Russia. He also explained that Nazarbayev “created a state on territory where no state had ever existed. The Kazakhs had never had statehood. Nazarbayev created it. In this sense, he is a unique person for the former Soviet space and for Kazakhstan too.” But, Putin continued, underscoring his expansionist intentions, Kazakhstan is better off in the “big Russian world.”

Meanwhile Viktor Orbán, as his wont, gave a press conference upon his arrival in Brussels. Interestingly enough, he is usually driven to these meetings in his own Volkswagen minibus, an odd choice for such occasions. According to normal protocol, the hosts provide vehicles for visiting dignitaries, but for one reason or another Orbán insists on his own bus. One must wonder how this vehicle gets to Brussels. Is it driven or transported there ahead of time? Or, perhaps he has several identical vehicles?

It is also hard to know whether only Hungarian reporters are interested in what the prime minister has to say or whether journalists from other countries are also present. I suspect that only Hungarian reporters attend these events. On one of the pictures taken at the press conference I could see the mikes of only MTV and HírTV.

In Orbán’s opinion, today’s meeting was organized only for “the review and correction of the current political situation.”  The discussion centers around whether “the sanctions have reached their desired goals” but for that “we should know what the desired goals are.” He is convinced that sanctions will not work. Sanctions until now have not been successful and it would be self-deception to think that more of the same would end the conflict.

Finally, I would like to say a few words about the Conference of Western Balkan States that took place in Berlin on August 28, 2014. Participating were representatives of the European Union, Germany, Austria, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, and the Republic of Macedonia. It was called together by Chancellor Angela Merkel, who also chaired the meeting.

The idea for the conference came in response to the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I. The intention was to show commitment to the process of future enlargement of the European Union as well as to shore up relations with Serbia as a strategic partner of the EU, especially in light of the problems in Ukraine.

Serbia has, since the second half of the nineteenth century, been a close friend and ally of Russia. Its negotiations with the European Union for membership have been going on for a long time, but Serbia’s chances have been strengthened by what is going on in Ukraine. Because, as Adelina Marini of euinside.eu points out, “if Serbia becomes part of the EU, Russia will lose its influence in the Balkans or, at least, it will be significantly limited.”

However, Serbia apparently wants to have its cake and eat it too. Although it desperately wants to join the European Union, it also wants to keep its special relationship with Russia. Brussels is unlikely to accept such a “special status” for Serbia. But if Russia becomes a real threat to Europe, Serbia’s membership in the EU might help block the spread of Russian influence.

Diplomacy in Europe and especially in Eastern Europe and the Balkans is a much more complicated enterprise than it was a few years back when these countries did not have to worry about the Russian bear. Orbán’s idea that diplomacy can be pretty much replaced by foreign trade is patently wrong. The current situation is complex, negotiations are difficult, and a bad outcome would be very dangerous for Europe. And even as storm clouds are gathering in the East, Hungarian diplomacy is being guided by Péter Szijjártó, who is totally unfit for the job.

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.

No retreat: Viktor Orbán socks it to Ukraine

Once Viktor Orbán is on a roll there is no way of stopping him. It matters not what politicians of the countries in the European Union think of his belligerent remarks concerning the Hungarian minority in the Subcarpathian region of Ukraine, he will never admit that it may have been unfortunate to take Russia’s side in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict. Because this is exactly what Viktor Orbán did. The Russian newspapers uniformly welcomed the Hungarian prime minister’s remarks on minority rights, which in Ukraine’s case might mean the loss of sizable Ukrainian territories to Putin’s Russia. In his speech last Saturday Orbán talked about Hungarians as a chivalrous nation. I must say that he has odd ideas about the meaning of chivalry. Let’s kick somebody when he is down. A real gentleman.

Although Foreign Minister János Martonyi tried to salvage the situation after the outburst of indignation from Ukraine and disapproval from Poland, Orbán is not the kind of man who is ready to admit a mistake or misstep. Today at the meeting of the prime ministers of the Visegrád 4 (Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, and Hungary) held in Bratislava, Orbán not only repeated his earlier demands but added more fuel to the fire. He accused the western countries of hypocrisy when it comes to Ukraine because it is not only Russia that poses problems for the EU but Ukraine as well. Orbán expressed his doubts that democracy will ever take hold in Ukraine.

As far as his demands toward Ukraine are concerned, he told his audience point blank that since EU financial assistance is necessary, to which Hungary also contributes, he expects that Ukraine will do whatever is necessary to rectify the situation of Hungarians in Ukraine. Interestingly enough, in Hungary’s case that kind of argument doesn’t cut it for him. He takes the EU’s money and does whatever he wants. Brussels should not demand anything from Hungary.

So, what is the situation of the Hungarian minority in Ukraine? Since Orbán talks about 200,000 Hungarians in the region, the Hungarian media repeats this inflated number. According to the last Ukrainian census (2001), Hungarians numbered 150,000. Given the shrinking numbers of all minorities in the region, that number today, thirteen years later, is most likely smaller still.

Hungarians have cultural autonomy in Ukraine, as they do in Romania, Slovakia, and Serbia. After listening to Orbán, one might think that the Hungarian minority’s lot in the neighboring countries is intolerable. This is not the case. In fact, in the last twenty years or so their status has greatly improved. There are always some complaints but, on the whole, a state of peaceful coexistence seems to exist between the majority and the minorities. Orbán is simply using the crisis to his own advantage.

Of the four prime ministers who met in Bratislava, Donald Tusk is the one who most resolutely opposes Russia and supports Ukraine. Hungarians might complain about Russia’s military help to Vienna during the War of Independence in 1849 and, of course, Hungary was in the Soviet sphere of influence for forty years, but no one can discount Polish grievances when it comes to Russian imperialism. Polish concerns are both deeply felt and understandable.

Donald Tusk and Viktor Orbán, May 15, 2014, Bratislava Source: Hungarian Prime Minister's Office, Photo Barna Burger, MTI

Tense moments: Donald Tusk and Viktor Orbán, May 15, 2014, Bratislava
Source: Hungarian Prime Minister’s Office, Photo Barna Burger, MTI

I myself sympathize with the Polish position and fear that Viktor Orbán and Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, who seemed to support Orbán wholeheartedly, are short-sighted. Moreover, if I were Fico, I would be worried about Orbán’s intentions. When is he going to demand autonomy for the Hungarian minority in Slovakia? When he is going to attack the Slovak law that forbids dual citizenship for its citizens?

As usual, Orbán got international coverage for his latest bombastic idea, the formation of a regional army. He is demanding “military guarantees for Central Europe. He talked about a Central European military unit (harccsoport) that could be set up by 2016. He also mentioned a longstanding idea of his, the creation of a north-south infrastructure that would facilitate the movement of goods in the Central European countries. And he pitched the idea of nuclear energy, which in his opinion is the key to European competitiveness.

I’m certain that Orbán’s followers will welcome their leader’s resolute defense of the Hungarian minority. But critics think that Orbán’s belligerence actually makes the lives of the Hungarian minorities more difficult. Here is one example from Romania. The Romanian government steadfastly stands by Ukraine and condemns Russian provocations. And lately, especially since the outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis, they worry about the Hungarian government’s demand for autonomy. They look at Ukraine and fear for the integrity of their own country.

Yesterday Bálint Magyar and Attila Ara-Kovács, in a piece that appeared in Népszabadság, called attention to an article that was published in Adevarul, the largest Romanian newspaper. It dealt with the fear that because of the Hungarian demand for autonomy Romania might succumb to the fate of Ukraine. Of course, one could say that these fears are baseless, but Orbán’s ruthless exploitation of the Ukrainian crisis intensified Romanian paranoia. And if the Romanian government worries about its own security, it may decide to withdraw some of the privileges granted to the Hungarian minority in Romania.

I have the feeling that this particular incident will not blow over anytime soon. After all, the Russian-Ukrainian conflict will be with us for a while. If a country by inciting ethnic conflict wants to redraw borders, its actions can easily give rise to a full-fledged war and perhaps the demise of a state. Just think of  the former Yugoslavia.

How not to win friends and influence people: Viktor Orbán

I’m sure that Viktor Orbán never read Dale Carnegie’s famous self-help book How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936) that has sold more than 18 million copies in the last 78 years. In fact, I fear that his own anti-Carnegie principles will ensure that he will eventually be hated by everyone, with the exception of the “hard-core” who think he walks on water.

One of the chapters in Dale Carnegie’s book speaks about the virtues of leaders, specifically “how to change people without giving offense or arousing resentment.” Among the principal virtues Carnegie mentions are qualities that Viktor Orbán totally lacks. He suggests that a good leader should talk about his own mistakes before criticizing the other person. Orbán and self-criticism? Carnegie also suggests that if a leader is wrong he should admit it “quickly and emphatically.” Or another piece of advice: “Be sympathetic with the other person’s ideas and desires.” Or “show respect for the other person’s opinions.” All these are alien concepts to the prime minister of Hungary. In fact, he does just the opposite of everything that Carnegie thought was necessary for a successful leader.

Take, for example, the erection of the ill-fated Archangel Gabriel monument. Regardless of how much criticism he receives, regardless of how many historians and art historians tell him that the concept is historically and artistically inaccurate, he plows ahead with it. Yesterday the Hungarian Academy of Sciences organized a conference on the issue; their condemnation was unanimous.

Or there is the decision to extend the capacity of the Paks nuclear power plant. As Bernadett Szél (LMP member of parliament) continues to dig into the details of the planned expansion it is becoming obvious that no serious feasibility studies were done before Orbán hurriedly signed the contract with Russia. But that is perhaps the least of the problems Paks is causing Hungary. Orbán’s newly found friendship with Vladimir Putin has led him to regard Ukraine as a potential trophy not only for Putin but for himself as well.

First, he tried to ignore the issue of Russian aggression in the Crimea, but since Hungary happens to be situated in a region that borders on Ukraine, Orbán had to line up, however reluctantly, with Hungary’s neighbors. He decided, however, to make a claim of his own–though for people, not land.

In the same speech I wrote about yesterday, he spoke briefly about Hungarian foreign policy. Here is a translation of the relevant part.

We will continue our policy of the Eastern Opening; we will strengthen our economic presence in the Carpathian Basin. This is in the interest of Hungary as well as of the neighboring countries and the European Union. This strengthening of regional economic relations is not in opposition to a resolute national policy [nemzetpolitika]. The question of the Hungarian minorities has not been solved since the end of World War II. We consider the Hungarian question a European affair. Hungarians of the Carpathian Basin deserve dual citizenship, communal rights, and autonomy. This is our view, which we will represent on international forums. The Hungarian question is especially timely because of the 200,000 strong Hungarian community in Ukraine whose members must receive dual citizenship, the entirety of communal rights [ közösségi jogok], and the possibility of  self-government [önigazgatás]. This is our expectation for the new Ukraine currently under reconstruction that otherwise enjoys our sympathy and assistance in the work of the creation of a democratic Ukraine.

Not exactly a friendly gesture toward a neighbor that is in great peril at the moment because of Russian aggression. As if Hungary would like to take advantage of the troubled waters for its own gains. Apparently, according to a leaked foreign ministry document, “Fidesz with its own national policy [nemzetpolitika]–even at the price of ‘fertile chaos’–is striving for a change in the status quo.” If there is one thing the European Union and the United States are worried about, it is ethnic strife in Eastern Europe. And Hungary just took a rather aggressive step in this direction.

The Hungarian ambassador to Kiev was immediately summoned to the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry. He was told in no uncertain terms that such a step “is not conducive to the de-escalation and stabilization of the situation.” The spokesman for the ministry noted that “certain aspects of [Hungarian] national policy were criticized by Hungary’s partners in the European Union.”

The Ukrainian reaction was expected. Donald Tusk’s response, however, was more of a surprise given the normally warm relations between Poland and Hungary. Both Tusk’s party and Fidesz belong to the same conservative People’s Party, and usually Orbán receives a lot of help in Strasbourg from Polish members of EP. But this time the Polish prime minister was anything but sympathetic. “I am sorry to say this but I consider the statement made by Prime Minister Orbán as unfortunate.” And he continued: “Today, when we witness the Russian efforts of Ukraine’s partition such a statement must raise concern. We need to be careful that in no way, whether intentional or not, it should sound as backing the actions of pro-Russian separatists.” He added that the Polish government will make sure that none of its neighbors threatens the integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine.

Donald Tusk and Viktor Orbán / Photo Barna Burger

Donald Tusk and Viktor Orbán on May 5, 2014 / Photo Barna Burger

In cases like this it is Foreign Minister János Martonyi who comes to the rescue. According to Martonyi, Orbán’s words were misinterpreted. Orbán invoked “self governance” not autonomy. But if you read my translation carefully, you can see that he talked about both self-governance and autonomy in the Carpathian Basin. Martonyi tried to explain that self-government and autonomy are actually “cultural autonomy in Hungarian.” No, they are not. Cultural autonomy exists in Subcarpathian Ukraine already. There are Hungarian schools, Hungarian associations, Hungarian theaters.

Naturally, the opposition made hay out of these careless sentences of Orbán. Ferenc Gyurcsány recalled a sentence from the farewell letter of Prime Minister Pál Teleki to Miklós Horthy before he committed suicide. In April 1941 Hungary agreed to let German troops through Hungary in order to attack Yugoslavia with whom Hungary had just signed a pact of eternal friendship. In that letter Teleki told the Governor: “We became body snatchers!” On Facebook Gyurcsány asks Orbán whether he is playing the role of a body snatcher in these hard days in Ukraine.

Martonyi might have tempered Orbán’s harsh words but Orbán himself did not. He announced this afternoon that he simply reiterated the Hungarian government’s “long-standing views on the Hungarian minorities.” As far as he is concerned, the case is closed.

Difficult passage: Orbán’s ferrying between Moscow and Brussels

Endre Ady (1877-1919), one of Hungary’s greatest poets, also wrote an enormous number of political essays during his lifetime. After all, he made his living as a journalist. He was a sharp-eyed observer of Hungarian politics from an angle conservative Hungary considered to be radical. His criticism of his country, which he loved dearly but also feared for, could be harsh and often prophetic.

Some of his descriptions of Hungary at the turn of the nineteenth century are applicable even today. One of these is the famous label he stuck on Hungary: “a ferryboat country.” Like a ferry, the country keeps crossing the river back and forth. With every crossing it ends up not on the side of progress  and democracy but its opposite, stultifying reaction and with it tyranny. It cannot decide whether it belongs to the East or to the West.

Today Hungary has a prime minister for whom this disturbing aspect of Hungarian reality that Ady wrote about causes no sleepless nights. On the contrary, he considers it a plus that will allow his country to become a negotiator of sorts between East and West. He is convinced that Hungary will reap enormous benefits from his ferrying between the two worlds.

It seems, however, that Viktor Orbán’s ferry is drifting farther and farther toward destinations like Putin’s Russia, Lukashenko’s Belarus, and Yanukovych’s Ukraine.

Observers often comment on Viktor Orbán’s incredible luck. In the past four years political and economic analysts predicted that Hungary’s unorthodox policies would bring certain collapse, and yet he managed to keep his head above water. People admire his skill in playing a double game with the European Union. One day, people predict, the European Union will have had enough of him. And yet, even though he compares Brussels to the Moscow of the Soviet Union, money continues to pour in from Brussels.

Occasionally, however, things can go wrong. Only a couple of months ago he decided to strike a deal with Vladimir Putin that put Hungary solidly in Russia’s economic sphere. Moreover, the enormous loan that Putin made available to enlarge the nuclear power plant in Paks can be used by Putin as leverage against Hungary if need be. According to people close to Orbán, Putin made a good impression on him. Yet Putin is a foxy fellow who is most likely using Hungary to move Russian money and power into the European Union. As one Orbán critic put it, the ferry set anchor in Putin’s harbor.

Yes, Orbán has been lucky so far, but this Ukrainian revolution came at the very wrong time for him. There are serious questions at home over the wisdom of such a long-term commitment with Putin’s Russia. It is dangerous to get too friendly with Putin, whose Russia is increasingly harking back to Soviet times. People ask how ferocious anti-communists like Orbán and László Kövér, president of the Hungarian parliament, can get so chummy with a former KGB agent. Fear of Putin’s intentions in Hungary is real. Perhaps this is the most serious complaint in Hungary when it comes to the Putin-Orbán agreement.

And now comes the upheaval in Kiev. Yanukovych hitched his wagon to the Russian troika for a few billion dollars. Ukraine received just a little more money than what Putin promised to Orbán. But there was a price: giving up the idea of Ukraine ever belonging to the European Union. A lot of Ukrainians, however, didn’t want to be part of the Eurasian Economic Union Putin has been dreaming of for some time. He himself stated in November 2011 at a conference organized by his United Russia party that this Eurasian Union would be built upon “the best values of the Soviet Union.” During the same conference a Russian political scientist said that not just former Soviet states but also countries which “have been historically or culturally close to the former Soviet Union” would belong to this union. Hungary was one of them.  As for Ukraine, Russians always looked upon this territory as their very own. After all, Kiev was where Russia was born in the late ninth century. The former Czech president Václav Klaus, calling himself a realist, announced just today that Ukraine is an integral part of Russia; this is where it belongs. Those hot heads in Kiev shouldn’t be encouraged by the politicians of the European Union that it should be otherwise.

Viktor Yanukovych and Viktor Orbán in March 2012 during a short visit to Kiev

Viktor Yanukovych and Viktor Orbán in March 2012 during a short visit to Kiev

So, here is Viktor Orbán’s predicament. As the prime minister of one of Ukraine’s neighboring countries, he should take an active part in the negotiations initiated by his friend Donald Tusk, prime minister of Poland. The Polish foreign minister, Radosław Sikorski, has been instrumental in brokering an agreement between President Yanukovych and the opposition which at least for the time being has resulted in a restoration of the 2004 constitution and the promise of early elections. If the truce holds, it looks as if Putin’s attempt at gaining a foothold in Ukraine will have failed.

But Orbán doesn’t want to offend Putin and therefore he is keeping a low profile. Although leading politicians all over Europe have condemned Yanukovych’s bloody efforts to suppress the revolt, Orbán remains quiet. As he said today in his regular Friday morning radio address, “We are watching the events from the background.” In fact, they are remaining so far in the background that Foreign Minister János Martonyi suddenly became too ill to attend the extraordinary meeting of foreign ministers in Brussels. Hungary was represented by Undersecretary Zsolt Németh.

Well, I’m not quite correct in saying that Orbán did nothing in connection with the Ukrainian crisis. He hopped on a helicopter and visited the Hungarian-Ukrainian border at Záhony. And he made sure that his activities were videoed. As usual, he kept a few pieces of paper in front of him which he studied intently for a few seconds. He looked at the snow-covered Ukrainian terrain where he spotted a couple of deer. Then he rushed to a hospital where he was told that there are plenty of doctors and beds to take care of the wounded. And finally he gave a little pep talk to the border guards for doing their best. I might add that there is nothing in Zaparttia Oblast that would warrant his presence there. But his staff immediately placed the video on Facebook. One blogger described him as “a man who is trying to reap political benefit from the corpse of his neighbor.”

Meanwhile the servile state media feel that they have to take a pro-Russian stance. For example, the centrally edited news called the demonstrators in Kiev terrorists. When called to explain this report, it turned out that one of their sources was the “Russia Today” television station and the other a Russian daily newspaper’s online edition. Gordon Bajnai’s reaction upon hearing the story was disbelief until he himself listened to the broadcast. He bitterly remarked that if the Orbán government keeps going in the same direction as in the last four years “Hungary might become the most western successor state of the Soviet Union.” He added that this is one good reason to vote against Orbán and his party on April 6.

The Ukrainian crisis: Hungary between Russia and the West

There are occasions when it becomes blatantly obvious how little the Hungarian people are told about their government’s activities. I’m not talking about state secrets but about everyday events. I find it outrageous, for instance, that I had to learn from a Polish Internet site that Donald Tusk, the Polish prime minister, had a talk with Viktor Orbán in Budapest before flying to Brussels. There was not a peep about this meeting in Hungarian papers, presumably not because Hungarian journalists are a lazy lot but because the prime minister’s office failed to inform the Hungarian news agency of the meeting. The less people know the better.

There is official silence in Budapest on the Ukrainian protest, perhaps soon civil war, with the exception of a short statement issued by the Hungarian foreign ministry at 5:12 p.m. today. I assume there had to be some kind of communication between the prime minister and his foreign minister. If we compare the Hungarian statement to the words of Donald Tusk we can be fairly certain that the two men didn’t see eye to eye on the issue.

According to Tusk, “the moral judgment here is black-and-white, there are no gray areas.” Moreover, “the responsibility for the violence in Kiev rests with the government, not the opposition.” And what did the Hungarian communiqué say? “The responsibility of the Ukrainian government is decisive, but the parliamentary opposition forces must keep their distance from extremist groups.” While according to Tusk “the crisis in Ukraine could determine the course of the whole region” and  requires the European Union to prepare for commitments lasting “not for hours, days or weeks, but for many years,” the Hungarian foreign ministry simply stated that “Hungary finds the European Union’s active participation in the interest of a lasting solution to the country’s political and economic crisis important.”

One can only guess why Tusk had to stop in Budapest on his way to Brussels, but whatever transpired in that meeting it didn’t result in Hungary’s forceful condemnation of the Ukrainian government and its active participation in the process contemplated by the United States and the European Union. Tusk specifically mentioned Poland’s interest in Ukraine because of its common border and historical ties. Both are also true about Hungary’s relations with Ukraine.

It seems to me that Viktor Orbán got himself into a rather uncomfortable situation with his hurried agreement with Russia on the Paks nuclear plant. Pro-government papers, like Heti Válasz, show that journalists in government service feel obliged to defend Vladimir Putin and his policies. One spectacular sign of “loyalty” was an article that appeared in the paper about a week ago in which the author expressed his disgust with the American campaign for the rights of gays and lesbians that prompted a partial boycott of the Sochi Olympics. If the Hungarian right feels that it has to come to the rescue of Putin in this case, one can imagine its position when it comes to such a momentous event as the near-civil war situation in a Ukraine torn between East and West.

While Tusk welcomes Ukrainian refugees and Polish hospitals are taking care of the wounded, nothing was said about any Hungarian willingness to take in refugees if necessary. In fact, I detected a certain fear that such an onslaught might reach the country. There is some worry about the Hungarian minority of about 200,000 in the Zakarpattia Oblast, especially around Beregovo/Beregszász. The Hungarian Inforadio announced tonight that according to a Ukrainian Internet paper “the change of regime has been achieved peacefully in Zakarpattia Oblast.” This may simply be sloppy reporting, but we know that regional capitals all over western Ukraine are engulfed in violence and that in some places the opposition took over the administration. Ukraine is falling apart at the seams. All this is far too close for comfort as far as Hungary is concerned. Yet Viktor Orbán is sitting on the fence.

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

Meanwhile Donald Tusk has taken the initiative with spectacular success. He flew to Brussels to facilitate a quick decision on the Ukrainian crisis and assembled a delegation of French, German, and Polish foreign ministers to visit Ukraine tomorrow. They will assess the situation before a meeting in Brussels to decide whether to impose EU sanctions on Ukraine. While French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius was giving a press conference, U.S. Secretary John Kerry was standing by his side. He stressed President Viktor Yanukovich’s “opportunity to make a choice.”

At the same time German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier had a telephone conversation with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov who urged EU politicians “to use their close and everyday contacts with the opposition to urge it to cooperate with the Ukrainian authorities, to comply with agreements reached and to decisively distance itself from radical forces unleashing bloody riots, in fact, embarking on the route to a coup.”

It seems that Hungary is trying to strike a “balance” between the western position and that of Russia. It will be difficult.

Meanwhile in Hungary a liberal blogger compared the two Viktors and found many similarities. Neither is a democrat, both are corrupt, and both built a mafia state with the help of their oligarchs. And yet Ukrainians are fighting in the streets while in Hungary Orbán still has a large and enthusiastic following. In his post he tries to find answers to the question so many people ask: how is it that the Hungarian people have not revolted yet? Are they less freedom loving than the Ukrainians? Are they longer suffering? Can they be more easily fooled? Our blogger is convinced that one day Hungarian patience will run out. He gives Viktor Orbán a piece of advice: “Keep your eyes on Ukraine!”