Eurasian Economic Union

The Hungarian people are not thrilled with Orbán’s Russia policy

Népszava‘s information about Vladimir Putin’s visit to Budapest, seconded by Attila Ara-Kovács on Klubrádió, turned out to be accurate. Válasz, a pro-government internet site, was skeptical about the accuracy of the news because, after all, there was no mention of such a visit in Russian sources. Moreover, no western media picked up the news from Népszava. A commenter on this blog also expressed his doubts about the authenticity of the news. After all, Népszava is an opposition paper and therefore, I guess, not quite reliable. By this morning, however, the press department of the Prime Minister’s Office confirmed the information: Putin is coming to Hungary, although the date hasn’t been fixed.

Meanwile Népszabadság, another opposition paper, learned “from diplomatic circles” that the trip was planned a year ago on Hungary’s initiative. At that time the sanctions against Russia were not yet in place. Moreover, originally the trip was supposed to take place sometime in 2014, but because of scheduling difficulties it was postponed to this year, a change that might be advantageous to Putin but is mighty uncomfortable for Orbán. But as László Kovács, former foreign minister, said yesterday, Orbán developed a relationship with Putin that precludes any postponement of the meeting.

While waiting for the arrival of Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin, several civic groups are preparing demonstrations. A group headed by Zoltán Vajda and Balázs Gulyás, two people whom I consider to be the most promising among the organizers of the recent demonstrations, plans to take the lead. Balázs Gulyás was the organizer of the mass demonstration against the internet tax, and Zoltán Vajda organized the demonstration on behalf of those 60,000 people whose savings in private pension funds the Orbán government wants to expropriate.

Vajda and Gulyás are planning two demonstrations. One will take place on February 1, the day before Angela Merkel’s arrival. It is called “Spring comes–Orbán goes: Demonstration for a European Hungary.” The second demonstration is planned for February 9 or, if Putin comes later, it will be postponed to the day of his arrival. The theme of the second will be “We will not be a Russian colony.” Other organizations and parties expressed an interest in joining these two Facebook groups, and it seems that they, unlike some others, are ready to cooperate with everybody who is ready to join them. As I wrote yesterday, PM asked all democratic parties to take part in massive demonstrations that include both parties and civilians.

In the lively discussion that followed yesterday’s post, a question was raised about the attitude of Fidesz voters toward Russia. According to one opinion, Fidesz voters are so brainwashed that they are ready to follow Viktor Orbán all the way to Moscow. Others, myself included, doubted the accuracy of this observation. In fact, I ventured to suggest that anti-Russian feelings might be a catalyst that will bring about a united opposition to Orbán’s regime. Well, today we have a more scientific answer to the question of Hungarians’ attitude toward the United States and Russia. The poll was taken by Medián for 444.hu

Here are some figures confirming that the Orbán propaganda did not significantly alter Hungarians’ anti-Russian sentiments. I will start with the most important and most telling figures: “If Hungary had to choose between the United States and Russia as a close associate, which country would you choose?” Fifty-three percent chose the United States and only 25% Russia. Hungarians are aware of the worsening relations between the United States and Hungary, and surprisingly the majority blame the Hungarian government for it. This finding goes against the widespread belief that Hungarians always blame others for their misfortunes. Fifty-seven percent of the respondents blame Hungary and only 14% the United States.

Medián also ran these figures against party affiliation. Those who feel more aligned with the democratic parties overwhelmingly blame their own country for the current situation (80%); only 4% blame the United States. Interestingly, the majority of Jobbik voters (59%) side with the United States. Only 13% put the blame on the U.S. while 27% think that the blame should be shared by the two countries. The situation is about the same among undecided voters. Fidesz voters are not as uniformly pro-Russian as some commenters on Hungarian Spectrum suspected. Only 37% blame the United States, 22% Hungary, and 40% think that both countries are at fault. I wouldn’t call that a resounding endorsement of a pro-Russian, anti-U.S. foreign policy.

Diplomats, present and former, have found it difficult to figure out what the real purpose of this meeting is. I could suggest a few topics that might come up. First, I think, is Paks. Orbán, for whom the building of a second reactor at the Paks Nuclear Power Plant is very important, surely would like to get reassurance from Putin that the project is still on and that Russia will not turn its back on Paks as it did on the Southern Stream. Another topic might be Hungary’s attitude toward the extension of the sanctions against Russia. Would Hungary vote against such a decision? There is also the question of the U.S.-EU free trade agreement, officially called the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which Russia opposes.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Orbán were a ready partner of Russia in opposing the free-trade agreement. On what am I basing this opinion? István Mikola, formerly the “nation’s doctor” and nowadays one of the undersecretaries in the foreign ministry, announced last night on HírTV that Hungary would go so far as to veto the TTIP if Hungary’s interests were not taken into consideration. One such reason would be the acceptance in the European Union of genetically modified food products coming from the United States. Fidesz lawmakers included a GMO ban in the new constitution. András Schiffer, the anti-capitalist, anti-globalist co-chair of LMP, went even further. In his opinion, the whole free-trade agreement is against the interests of Hungary. In fact, not just Hungary but in his words “it means in the long run the ruin of the whole globe.” He added that the agreement would mean the loss of 600,000 jobs in the EU. So, Putin and Orbán are of one mind when it comes to the TTIP. András Schiffer, the so-called opposition leader, joins them because of his far-left notions of modern capitalism and globalism.

Not so long ago, however, James Stavridis, dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, wrote an article in Foreign Policy: “Vladimir Putin hates the TTIP which is exactly why Europe and America need to get it done.” Stavridis explains his support of the treaty this way:

The TTIP is a sensible agreement on economic grounds, broadly speaking. But it also holds enormous real value in the geopolitical sphere. The increased linkages between the United States and our European allies and partners will stand in direct opposition to Putin’s key strategy of driving a wedge between the United States and the EU as the central members of the transatlantic community.

I don’t know how important the GMO issue is in the scheme of things, but one has the feeling that Hungary will be a difficult negotiating partner when it comes to the TTIP.

Another issue that might be discussed is Putin’s pet subject, the Eurasian Economic Union. It was only a few days ago that Russia’s EU ambassador urged Brussels to start talks with the newly born Eurasian Economic Union despite the Ukrainian crisis. As he put it, “common sense advises us to explore the possibility of establishing a common economic space in the Eurasian region.” A Russian-led bloc might be a better partner for the European Union than the United States. The reason: low health standards in the U.S. food industry. Orbán again might be helpful on this issue. However, in Orbán’s place I would tread lightly. It is true that Putin’s idea of a Eurasian Union became reality on January 1, but according to Reid Standish, an expert on Kazakhstan, Putin’s Eurasian dream was over before it began.

Eurasian Union

All in all, I think the two have plenty to talk about. The topics I have outlined are primarily Russian concerns, and getting Hungary on board would be only to Russia’s advantage. For Hungary to become Moscow’s Trojan horse in Europe is not strategically wise.

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Waiting for the Kazakh dictator

It was a few days ago that Vladimir Putin met with his counterparts from Kazakhstan and Belarus in the Kazakh capital, Astana, to form the Eurasian Economic Union as a counterweight to the European Union and the United States. The provisions of the union will give freedom of movement and employment across the three countries.  They will also collaborate on issues of energy, technology, industry, agriculture, and transport.

What does the formation of the Eurasian Economic Union have to do with Hungary, a member of the European Union? Directly not much, but one must not forget that one of the cornerstones of Viktor Orbán’s foreign policy initiatives is the “Opening to the East.” In the last three or four years he has developed good relations with all three countries.

There has been a lot of discussion here and elsewhere in the media about Russian-Hungarian cooperation in the Southern Stream gas pipe project and the recent European Union efforts to block its construction, fearing that Gazprom will not  abide by the Union’s competition rules. Even more time was spent on the Russian loan to Hungary for Rosatom to build two additional nuclear reactors in Paks. What we hear less about are the quiet but very friendly relations between Kazakhstan and Hungary. The same is true about Belarus. It seems that Viktor Orbán enjoys the company of dictators.

In May 2012 Viktor Orbán visited Kazakhstan and gushed over the great achievements of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the president and dictator of the country. He emphasized “the historical and cultural ties that unite our peoples.” He admired the new capital, Astana, which he described as a “symbol of humanity’s new phase of development.” Orbán’s servile performance was disgusting then but now, two years later, Hungarian servility toward Nazarbayev has reached new lows.

Back in March, a journalist from 168 Óra discovered that in Városliget, Budapest’s city park, one of the roads was renamed Astana Road. After some research the journalist discovered that the decision to name a street after the Kazakh capital had been reached already in 2013. Originally, it was to be somewhere in District VIII, a poor section of Pest, but apparently the Budapest city council decided that the district is not elegant enough for the very special relations that apparently exist between the two countries. By the end of April the same city council (naturally with Fidesz majority) voted to erect a statue of Abai Qunanbaiuli or Kunanbayev, the great 19th-century Kazakh poet. Kunanbayev is much admired in Kazakhstan, where many statues commemorate his person and his work. Outside of Kazakhstan he has only one statue, in Moscow. But soon enough there will a second one which Nursultan Nazarbayev himself will unveil on June 4 in Budapest. The statue is a present from the people of Kazakhstan. It is a bust that stands on a three-meter-high platform.

There are other signs of the excellent relationship between Hungary and Kazakhstan. The mayor of Astana offered a piece of real estate gratis to the Hungarian state. The Budapest government can build a structure on the site in which Hungary could hold exhibits about the country and its people. Apparently, this is a very generous offer because real estate prices in Astana are sky high: millions of dollars.

Nursultan Nazarbayev, dictator of Kazakhstan

Nursultan Nazarbayev, dictator of Kazakhstan

Meanwhile, the fawning over the Kazakh dictator seems to have no limits. At the end of April, before invited guests in the building of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences of all places, Sándor Fazekas, minister of agriculture and rural development, and János Horváth, the oldest member of parliament and a US-Hungarian citizen, introduced the Hungarian translation of Nazarbayev’s book about his childhood and youth.  Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources, was in the audience.

Naturally, the book was a bestseller in Kazakhstan, though I doubt that it will fly off the shelves in Hungary. Fazekas referred to the Kazakh dictator as “an internationally respected statesman” whose autobiography will help Hungarians learn more about the history of Kazakhstan. János Horváth went even further. According to him, the fantastic achievements of Nazarbayev’s agricultural reform “will one day be taught at universities.” In his opinion, “it is appropriate (helyénvaló)  for the leader of a Soviet-type government to behave like a dictator, but Nazarbayev wants to move away from the practice.” The problem with this claim is that there has been absolutely no sign of Nazarbayev giving up power and contemplating the introduction of democracy. In fact, just lately he got himself reelected with 95% of the votes. Naturally, the Kazakh ambassador to Hungary was present; he compared the Kazakh president’s autobiography to biographies of Gandhi and George Washington. It was quite a gathering.

And last Monday Duna TV showed a Kazakh film, with Hungarian subtitles, based on Nazarbayev’s autobiography. As Cink, a popular blog, reported, “The Stalinist Duna World is showing a film about the Kazakh dictator tonight.” This is how low Viktor Orbán has sunk in his quest for friendship with countries outside of the European Union.