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.


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 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.


Viktor Orbán between Russia and Brussels

In Budapest there is the usual Friday political turmoil since it’s the day that Viktor Orbán holds a well-rehearsed conversation with a journalist of the Hungarian state radio. I no longer call Magyar Televízió and Magyar Rádió public television and radio stations since in the last four years both have become mouthpieces of the government. Just like in the Kádár regime.

Normally the world does not pay much attention to these early morning chats, but today was different. By 04:45 EST Reuters reported on what Viktor Orbán had to say about the European Union’s sanctions against Russia. After the leaders of the Union decided on tough economic sanctions against Russia, Orbán publicly voiced his opposition to the plan. Referring to the Russian ban on agricultural products coming from the European Union, Canada, the United States, and Australia, he announced that the sanctions policy pursued by the West “causes more harm to us than to Russia…. In politics, this is called shooting oneself in the foot.” He continued: “I will do my utmost–of course we are all aware of Hungary’s weight, so the possibilities are clear–but I am looking for partners to change the EU’s sanctions policy.”

This move of Orbán may not have come at the best time. Just yesterday political observers noticed that Putin adopted a softer tone during a visit to the Crimea that was not carried live on Russian television. Moreover, the sanctions have just begun to bite, but even before there were signs of financial strain as a result of the annexation of the Crimea. Desperate for cash, the Russian government dipped into the national pension fund which means taking away from every Russian two years’ worth of social security payments. Although Putin’s personal popularity is extraordinarily high, according to one survey only 7-12% of the population are ready to make financial sacrifices for the sake of Russia’s policies in Ukraine.

Inflation is up 9% this year while there is no economic growth. The government is contemplating a new 3% sales tax to plug some holes in the federal budget. There are already shortages in the supermarkets. Forty percent of Russia’s food supply comes from abroad, and Russian consumers will be unhappy very soon. In the last twenty years or so they became accustomed to a great variety of products from all over the world and they have no intention of returning to Soviet times of limited supplies and inferior quality. Putin’s propaganda that the ban on Western food is just a means of “supporting the product manufacturers of the fatherland” will wear thin soon enough.

The temporary loss of the Russian market for Hungarian agriculture is less significant than the Hungarian government wants the world to believe. Orbán put in a bid for compensation and therefore, I assume, he exaggerates the potential losses for Hungarian farmers. Reuters in its report claims that Russia is Hungary’s largest trading partner outside the European Union, with exports worth 2.55 billion euros in 2013. However, this figure may be wrong. According to a Hungarian source, that figure is 70 billion forints, which is only 223 million euros at today’s exchange rate. So, the Russian sanctions against Hungary will not be as painful as Orbán would like to portray them. On the other hand, Western sanctions against Russia are more serious from Hungary’s point of view than the Russian sanctions against Hungary, Zsolt Kerner claims. One of the Russian banks affected by the sanctions is the state-owned Vnesneconombank (Bank for Development and Foreign Economic Affairs), which owns part of Dunaferr and is also the bank through which the Russian loan to build a new nuclear power plant in Paks will be administered.

Orbán’s attack on the Russian policy of the European Union is also ill-timed.  Finland’s president, Sauli Niinistö, is currently in Moscow to negotiate with Putin. Although Niinistö is not an official envoy of the European Union, he was in contact with western colleagues. The European Union has been seeking a diplomatic solution to the crisis, and they don’t need Viktor Orbán’s good offices as a messenger between Moscow and Brussels.

While Niinistö was negotiating with Putin in Moscow, the EU foreign ministers held an emergency meeting in Brussels, discussing among other things the Ukrainian situation. Of course, I have no idea what position Tibor Navracsics took at this meeting, but I assume he was instructed to oppose sanctions and perhaps suggest bilateral discussions with Moscow. Whatever the Hungarian position was, according to the agreed-upon statement “any unilateral military actions on the part of the Russian Federation in Ukraine under any pretext, including humanitarian, will be considered by the European Union as a blatant violation of international law.” And, most importantly, “the Council  … remains ready to consider further steps, in light of the evolution of the situation on the ground.” According to diplomats, the new measures would target Russian sales of sovereign debt, its ability to raise funding through syndicated bank loans, and high-tech machine imports.

I may add here that Viktor Orbán’s old friend David Cameron, with whom he saw eye to eye on the nomination of Jean-Claude Juncker to be president of the European Commission, is unlikely to be on his side on the issue of EU sanctions against Russia. Great Britain is one of the harshest critics of Russia’s destabilizing efforts in the region.

By now Orbán has one staunch ally and that is Robert Fico, the prime minister of Slovakia who announced his opposition to sanctions already yesterday. However, it seems that the Slovak leadership is divided. Andrej Kiska, who recently defeated Fico to become Slovakia’s president, came down on the side of sanctions. He said that “when words aren’t enough, economic sanctions can be used to bear greater pressure on countries which seek to expand, dictate or threaten.”

Orbán’s comment that the sanctions policy hurts the European Union more than it does Russia and that EU policy is in fact a move by which the EU shoots itself in the foot was not left unanswered. Lithuania’s foreign minister, Linas Linkevicius, upon arriving for the EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels, retorted that it was better to shoot oneself in the foot than to let oneself be shot in the head. Naturally, Lithuania politicians are a great deal more worried about Russian intentions than is Orbán, who looks upon his country as a kind of bridge between Moscow and Brussels.

What kind of sanctions? Let the man eat his sandwich in piece Source: Posteemes /Photo: Urmas Nemvalts

What kinds of sanctions? Let the man eat his sandwich in peace.
Source: Postimees / Urmas Nemvalts

Estonia, which is in the same boat as Lithuania and Latvia, has lately changed its until now pro-Hungarian attitude. One reason for that change is Orbán’s overly cozy relations with Putin’s Russia. But there is another. While Hungary just opened a new embassy in Ecuador’s Quito, it unceremoniously closed its embassy in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. Estonia is not only a fellow EU member, but Estonians speak a Finno-Ugric language. This linguistic connection has always been the source of a special bond between Estonia and Hungary, just as in the case of Finland. The Estonians not surprisingly took offense and closed their own embassy in Budapest.

And now the largest and most prestigious Estonian newspaper, Postimees, published an editorial with the title: “A delicate European problem called Viktor Orbán.” Here is a pull quote from the English-language editorial: “A headache indeed – the increasingly autocracy-minded statements and the ever tightening cooperation with Putin’s Russia by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. The issue being: how united is Europe in its values, firstly, and secondly in bridling the warlike neighbouring Kremlin. Obviously, the latter is searching for weak links in Europe. Alas, the still economically troubled Hungary and its populist-type anti-Brussels PM provide for one.”

Orbán’s fame is spreading, but it’s not exactly the kind that Hungarians can be proud of.