foreign affairs

The sorry state of Hungarian foreign policy

This morning I listened to lectures delivered at a conference,”Az elszigetelt Magyarország és a globális világ” (Isolated Hungary and the Global World), that took place on Friday. The conference was organized by Attila Ara-Kovács, who is currently heading the foreign policy “cabinet” of the Demokratikus Koalíció (DK) and who earlier worked in the foreign ministry under László Kovács. Ara-Kovács was joined by Charles Gati, professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, for a conversation centering on U.S.-Hungarian relations. Mátyás Eörsi, who was undersecretary of foreign affairs between 1997 and 1999, assessed the Orbán government’s foreign policy and came to the conclusion that as such it doesn’t really exist. Ferenc Gyurcsány delivered a short speech in which he insisted that the whole political system built by Viktor Orbán must be dismantled. There is no possibility of changing the current foreign policy strategy because that would mean a denial of “the essence of the system.” Zoltán Sz. Biró, an expert on Russia, delivered a fascinating lecture on the state of the Russian economy. Finally, Zoltán Balázs, a political scientist whose sympathies lie with the right of center, offered a few critical remarks, saying among other things that the speakers had ignored the resilience of Orbán’s followers. Orbán may go but his devoted admirers remain, and for them Hungary’s martyr complex is very much a reality. I can strongly recommend these lectures to anyone who understands the language.

Zoltán Sz. Biró, while outlining the grave Russian economic situation, expressed his surprise at the ignorance of Hungarian policymakers about the real state of affairs in Russia. Don’t they ever look at the economic and financial data available online? Obviously not, because otherwise Viktor Orbán and Péter Szijjártó should have been more cautious in their approach toward Moscow. But behind their Russia policy is Viktor Orbán’s mistaken notion of “the decline of the West” and thus he put all his eggs in one basket. By now it looks as if even the enlargement of Paks will come to naught.

As for the diplomatic corps, according to Mátyás Eörsi fear is widespread because of the hundreds of “pink slips” handed out to old-timers with diplomatic experience at the foreign ministry in the wake of János Martonyi’s departure. One “bad” sentence and the person’s job is in jeopardy. Thus, nobody offers any opinion that might differ from that of the “diplomatic expert,” Viktor Orbán.

Ferenc Gyurcsány and M. André Goodfriend at the Conference on Hungary in Isolation and the Global World

Ferenc Gyurcsány and M. André Goodfriend at the Conference on Hungary in Isolation and the Global World

The housecleaning was so thorough that Szijjártó proudly announced that “we will lay the foundations of the new Hungarian foreign policy irreversibly, once and for all.” They will not retreat but forge ahead according to what they consider to be Hungary’s economic interest. Two weeks later it was announced that out of the staff of 900 at the ministry more than 200 will be fired, including some who were brought in by Tibor Navracsics a few months earlier. As a result there is total chaos in the ministry, whose new spokesman is a former sports reporter.

Not only is the ministry’s staff decimated but certain background institutions like the Magyar Külügyi Intézet (Hungarian Institute of Foreign Affairs) no longer exist since its entire research staff resigned en bloc. The administration is in the throes of “reorganization” of the institute. It’s no wonder that no one was prepared for the crisis in U.S.-Hungarian relations that came to the fore in mid-October.

By October and November there was such chaos in the ministry that some of the diplomats were certain that Szijjártó couldn’t possibly remain in his new position. Rumors circulated at the time that the ministry of foreign affairs and foreign trade would split into two ministries and that Szijjártó would be in charge of foreign trade only. This was probably a reflection of the long-suffering diplomats’ wishful thinking.

Others were convinced that Orbán will change his foreign policy orientation and will give up his anti-West rhetoric and policies. However, Attila Ara-Kovács in an article that appeared in Magyar Narancs outlined the impossibility of such a scenario. In the same article Ara-Kovács shed light on the atmosphere at the ministry of foreign affairs nowadays. An ambassador with close ties to Fidesz happened to be back in Hungary and wanted to talk to his superiors in the ministry. He was not allowed to enter the building because, as he was told by the security officer at the door, “you are on the list of those who are forbidden to wander around the corridors alone.”

Since then the situation has only gotten worse.  According to insiders, “in the last two months the chief preoccupation in the ministry is saving one’s job.” By October 34 ambassadors were sacked in addition to the hundreds who were fired earlier. János Martonyi, the previous foreign minister, because of his pro-trans-atlantic sentiments is considered to be a traitor and an American agent by those people who were brought in by Navracsics and Szijjártó from the ministry of justice and the prime minister’s office. Indicative of this new anti-American orientation, a recent order from the prime minister’s office required employees to report in writing all contacts with American diplomats over the last few years.

Szijjártó seems to have a free hand when it comes to personnel decisions. He created a job for a friend of his from the futsal team Szijjártó played on until recently. Despite no degree or experience, the futsal player will coordinate the work of the “minister’s cabinet.” For Szijjártó, as for the prime minister, it is “loyalty” that matters. Among the five undersecretaries there is only one with any diplomatic experience and he is, of all things, responsible for cultural and scientific matters. The newcomers don’t understand the world of diplomacy, so they’re creating their own rules. They are introducing a “new language” for diplomatic correspondence. They tell the old-timers that they mustn’t be “too polite” in official letters. Also, apparently they don’t consider it important to put conversations or decisions into writing. They think that a telephone conversation or perhaps an e-mail is enough. Therefore it is impossible to know what transpired between Hungarian and foreign diplomats. All that writing is cumbersome and slow. It seems that they want to follow the well-known practice of the Orbán government. A decision is made without any discussion and the next day the two-thirds majority passes the new law. But diplomacy doesn’t work that way. It is a delicate business.

Currently, I’m reading a biography of Benjamin Franklin in which his efforts at securing an alliance with France are described in some detail. It took him a year and a half to achieve that feat, which was vital for the young United States at war with Great Britain. And he was a seasoned diplomat. The new staff at the foreign ministry is decidedly unseasoned. Some of them haven’t even been schooled in foreign affairs, history, or political science. Believe it or not, two of the five undersecretaries have medical degrees. A rather odd background, I would say, for conducting foreign policy.

Diplomacy is the antithesis of everything that characterizes the Orbán government. For Viktor Orbán the “peacock dance,” which is basically nothing more than deceiving your negotiating partners, passes for diplomacy. And the new, “irreversible” foreign policy has already led Hungary to the brink of diplomatic disaster.

By the way, U.S. Chargé d’Affaires M. André Goodfriend, as you can see from the photo accompanying this post, attended the conference.

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Hungary has a new “featherweight” foreign minister, a man after Viktor Orbán’s heart

On Friday Viktor Orbán nominated Péter Szijjártó (age 35) to be the next minister of foreign trade and foreign affairs. On Saturday four parliamentary committees in a joint session found him eminently suitable for the job. By Wednesday he will be sworn in. Several readers’ comments following this news item started: “one cannot sink lower.” One described him as a member of five-a-side football team who will find himself on a field where he does not belong. Or, as Endre Aczél, the veteran journalist, put it, Szijjártó is “the featherweight briefcase carrier” of Viktor Orbán.

Indeed, this appointment is a travesty. János Martonyi, the man who was in charge of foreign affairs in the first and second Orbán administrations, had extensive professional experience. First as commercial secretary in the Hungarian embassy in Brussels (1979-1984), later as department head at the ministry of commerce. After the regime change József Antall appointed him undersecretary in the foreign ministry.

Although I always thought Martonyi cut a slightly ridiculous figure with his waxed mustache, Kaiser Wilhelm II style, he was apparently highly regarded in diplomatic circles. The problem was that as minister of foreign affairs in the first Orbán government he mattered very little. Or rather, he said one thing and Viktor Orbán said something else, after which Martonyi tried to explain away the message of the Hungarian prime minister. It was, in my opinion, a demeaning position to be put in, but it did not seem to bother Martonyi, who enthusiastically agreed to be foreign minister again in 2010. In the intervening years behind the scenes he kept in touch with foreign embassies on behalf of Fidesz and Viktor Orbán.

If Martonyi was often ignored during Orbán’s first administration, in the second his influence amounted to zero. Foreign policy was conducted from the prime minister’s office, represented by Péter Szijjártó.

Szijjártó’s rise to power was phenomenal. At the age of 20 he was elected a member of the Győr City Council. In 2002, when he was 24, he became a member of parliament. In addition, after 2010 he was entrusted to be Viktor Orbán’s personal spokesman. Two years later he moved to a new position created especially for him: undersecretary of foreign trade and foreign affairs in the prime minister’s office. In brief, he became the real foreign minister in all but name.

Péter Szijjártó as Viktor Orbán's spokesman

Péter Szijjártó as Viktor Orbán’s spokesman

After the last election the handwriting was on the wall: János Martonyi’s days were numbered. There was little doubt who would be his successor. Therefore, I don’t quite understand the game of musical chairs Viktor Orbán played with the ministerial positions. Instead of immediately naming Szijjártó to replace Martonyi, he moved Navracsics to the foreign ministry, renamed the ministry of foreign affairs and trade (külgazdasági és külügyi minisztérium). Everybody knew, including Navracsics, that his tenure as a diplomat would last approximately four months, when he would be nominated to serve as Hungary’s representative on the European Commission.

Szijjártó with a more diplomatic demeanor at his hearing yesterday

Szijjártó with a more diplomatic demeanor at his hearing yesterday

Navracsics’s only noteworthy “achievements” in his new post were closing the Hungarian embassy in Tallinn, Estonia, and sacking about 300 diplomats, subsequently filling their positions with people from the prime minister’s office and from the ministry of justice. As one Hungarian newspaper put it, the first floor of the ministry’s building was cleared out completely. Employees, even high level ones, had no idea what would happen to them. Rumors were swirling about who would be the next victim.

Currently there are six undersecretaries in the ministry, each with a staff of 20. The minister has a staff of 40. In the previous administration Martonyi and his sole undersecretary, Zsolt Németh, together had a staff of 25. There is no longer a joint press department; each undersecretary has his own. No more separate department dealing with European affairs. Its former head, Enikő Győri, who had excellent connections in Brussels, has been exiled to Madrid. Hungary’s relations with the European Union were transferred to the prime minister’s office, under the jurisdiction of János Lázár.

Szijjártó at his hearing in front of the four parliamentary committees talked about the “renewal of Hungary’s foreign policy.” Indeed, why not? Viktor Orbán already “renewed” the country to an illiberal democracy, now it is time to renew the country’s foreign policy. A frightening thought. The man who four years ago managed to shake the financial stability of the world for a few days now like a bull in the china shop will conduct a foreign policy that will have practically nothing to do with diplomacy as we know it because we are in an entirely new world that needs entirely new diplomatic efforts. At least this is what Viktor Orbán and his faithful “janissary,” as István Józsa (MSZP) called Szijjártó at the hearing, think. Hungary will be a pioneer yet again. It will conduct diplomacy without diplomats. Of course, this entirely new world exists only in Viktor Orbán’s imagination.

I fear the worst given Szijjártó’s new “non-diplomatic” course. Hungary’s reputation has been greatly tarnished, but at least foreign diplomats in Budapest could negotiate with more or less seasoned diplomats in the foreign ministry. After this change of personnel not even the semblance of normal diplomatic relations between Hungary and the West will be possible.