foreign policy

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.

Viktor Orbán on the world stage and at home

Every second Friday Viktor Orbán spends about twenty minutes with a servile reporter from Magyar Rádió who asks the great leader about his achievements and plans. But before I cover the latest pearls of wisdom coming from the prime minister I want to share some thoughts about an unexpected private meeting between Chancellor Angela Merkel and Viktor Orbán preceding the European Union Employment Summit held in Milan on October 8.

Critics and opponents of Viktor Orbán’s domestic and foreign policy initiatives were dismayed over news of the meeting. Just when the United States finally seems to be showing signs of greater resoluteness in its dealings with the Hungarian government, Angela Merkel rewards him with a private meeting. Hungarian opposition papers pointed to Merkel’s broad smile and assumed that the encounter had to be friendly. But this might not have been the case. Of course, we don’t know what transpired during the meeting, but there are a few signs that may indicate a less jolly encounter than Merkel’s smile would indicate.

The official government website republished the MTI summary of the encounter, based on information supplied to the news agency by the prime minister himself. What can we learn from that brief description? “First and foremost [they] talked about foreign affairs.” The second topic was energy policy. As far as foreign policy is concerned, I assume the topic was Hungary’s reluctance to support the common EU resolve concerning further sanctions against Russia if necessary. It is also possible that Merkel mentioned her disapproval of Viktor Orbán’s eastern orientation. When it comes to the country’s energy policy, I’m almost certain that Merkel brought up Hungary’s sudden decision to stop sending natural gas to Ukraine three days after the CEO of Gazprom paid a visit to Viktor Orbán.

How do I surmise that? A careful reading of this short report on the meeting makes that interpretation more than plausible. Let me quote the appropriate passage verbatim: “Hungary will be part of the common European efforts, but at the moment she must establish her own energy security. Thus, Hungary now is busy with feeding its own storage facilities.” After January 1, 2015, when the Slovak-Hungarian gas pipeline is functioning, “we will be able to send non-Russian gas to Ukraine, if our Ukrainian friends would like it.” I should call attention here to Orbán’s emphasis on the source of the gas intended for Ukraine. That strongly indicates that he agrees with the Russian position that selling Russian gas to countries outside the EU is illegal.

As for the possibility of a discussion between Merkel and Orbán on Hungarian-EU relations, my source is Viktor Orbán’s Friday morning interview. While until now we have heard only criticism from Orbán concerning the West, which is in decline and on the wrong track, during the interview Orbán praised German economic strategy. The German mentality of hard work and prudence is the basis of  successful economic policy. I might add here that praise of German economic strategy was somewhat ill-timed in the wake of dismal economic news from the country.

As far as future domestic policies are concerned, the Friday morning interview was singularly uninformative. There has been much talk lately about a new era coming, but Viktor Orbán refuses to provide any details. A careless remark by Mihály Varga a couple of weeks ago prompted speculation about the introduction of new austerity measures. Rumor has it that the government cannot hold to the 3% deficit, which may followed by the reintroduction of the excessive deficit procedure by the European Commission. And that would mean turning off the money spigots from Brussels. A government denial followed Varga’s remark, but people are not convinced that austerity measures are not in the offing. The budget that should already have been presented to parliament is still nowhere. According to Orbán, he and Varga will go through the numbers this afternoon.

There was only one topic on which Orbán was more expansive: his ideas about education. Specifically, producing skilled workers. He has big plans for something he calls “dual education,” which will produce a highly skilled workforce. After a student has been in school for eight years he would enter a course of study that would combine some academic study with hands-on work experience. It would be a kind of apprentice (inas) program. There is nothing new under the sun. Many of us still remember Nikita Khrushchev’s introduction of precisely the same type of education. We also remember that it was a huge flop and the experiment was abandoned. I guess Orbán thinks he can do a better job.

But if Khrushchev’s experiment was a bad idea in the 1960s, it is a terrible idea today. Who thinks that eight years of elementary education are enough to produce highly skilled workers who nowadays need higher math, computer skills, and–most likely in Hungary’s case–the command of a foreign language, just to mention a few requirements? The very word “inas” (apprentice) conjures up images of the little boy who was apprenticed to a master and who was terribly exploited by him. He lived with the master’s family and often did all sorts of things that had nothing to do with his future trade.  But in those days one didn’t need a lot of education to learn how to make shoes or to become a bricklayer. Today I would say that to become a skilled worker one should finish high school and have at least a two-year associate’s degree.


Back to olden days

I agree that training a skilled workforce is needed, but Hungary is unlikely to be a country where industry dominates. The service sector will most likely remain the mainstay of the economy, as elsewhere in western countries. Moreover, it is not true, as Orbán claims, that “the road to successful life is through crafts” because statistics prove that university graduates’ compensation greatly exceeds the salaries of non-graduates. I fear, however, that he will introduce his ridiculous ideas on education very soon. He promises such legislation this year. I wonder what impact such a reorientation of education will have on the current educational system, which has already gone through a very hard time because of the nationalization and centralization of all public schools. One could also ask where they will find teachers by the thousands to instruct students to become skilled workers by the age of 16 or 18. What will happen to those teachers who today teach academic subjects? The whole thing sounds not only crazy but injurious to the country.

This year was spent mostly on campaigning for three different elections, and therefore the Orbán government had relatively little time to come up with ever new ideas and proposals that become law in record time. I fear this legislative respite is over, and the prime minister will have quite a few surprises for us in the coming months.

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.

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.

Did Viktor Orbán backpedal in his address to Hungarian ambassadors?

The consensus seems to be that in his address to the Hungarian ambassadors Viktor Orbán retreated from his previously articulated doctrine of illiberalism. In so doing he followed the lead of several right-wing analysts and journalists who tried to downplay the significance of the radical speech he delivered in Tasnádürdő/Băile Tușnad. In fact, they went to great imaginative lengths to explain the “true” meaning of the word “illiberalism.”

A friend called my attention to an editorial by Matild Torkos of Magyar Nemzet who argued that Orbán’s criticism was not of liberalism per se. What he meant was the kind of liberalism that existed in Hungary before 2010 when the Hungarian state did not defend state assets, when it did not recognize Hungarians living in the neighboring countries as part of the Hungarian nation, and when it allowed the country to be indebted. Or, there was an editorial by Zsolt Bayer of Magyar Hírlap, according to whom Orbán was not talking about the elimination of liberal democratic rights but only about people who make their living by work and not by welfare payments.

Tamás Fricz admitted that the choice of the word “illiberal” was unfortunate because since 1997 it has been equated with autocracy and semi-democracies. He even had a suggestion about a better way to describe “the new state and social model.” It should perhaps be called “national democracy,” where the emphasis is on the community as opposed to the individual.

George Schöpflin, formerly Jean Monnet Professor of Politics at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, is Fidesz’s “political philosopher.” He gave some learned answers to questions posed to him by HVG. For Schöpflin “liberalism” is a dirty word because “it seeks to coercively impose its ideals on the whole world.” In his interpretation, “Orbán was referring to economic liberalism, to market fundamentalism and the damaging impact that this has had on the Hungarian economy.” Later in an interview which is still unavailable in its entirety online he argued that in the United States “illiberal” has a different meaning than it does in Great Britain and therefore “its use was unfortunate.”

Fidesz analysts came to the conclusion that the word “illiberal” should be avoided, and indeed Orbán used the word only once in his address–by now available online–to the ambassadors. Orbán talked about the necessity of raising the number of the actively employed. In this context he said: “Our labor policy cannot be considered liberal because it does not give primacy to the individual but wants to have an equilibrium between individual and community interests. In plain language that means that we will not be able to provide social assistance to someone who is able to work and is offered a job by the government but is unwilling to work . This is an illiberal point of view. György Schöpflin is right that this word should be avoided because the Americans’ understanding of the word is different from that of the Europeans.” Of course, what Schöpflin claims is nonsense. Americans and Europeans have the same negative understanding of the word “illiberal.”

Suggested reading on "illiberalism"

I think it’s fair to say that as far as “illiberalism” and the admiration for authoritarian states or outright dictatorships are concerned, Orbán backpedaled in his address to the ambassadors. In fact, he stressed that “his country is anchored firmly in Western culture and political institutions.” As Ildikó Csuhaj of Népszabadság wrote today, Orbán must have listened to the critical voices coming from conservative circles and changed his tune. Of course, that doesn’t mean that he has given up on building an illiberal state, a project that has been going on for the past four and a half years. He has no intention of abandoning his goal. He just realized that it is not a good idea to talk openly about his plans.

The speech was crafted to avoid controversy. It was basically a pep talk to the ambassadors urging them to encourage foreign investment. There was relatively little about foreign policy, which in Orbán’s opinion has lost its importance.

When it came to the question and answer session, however, Orbán was less guarded. He addressed the subject of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict in response to a question from the Hungarian ambassador to Bratislava. And he offered a view of immigration that will undoubtedly raise hackles in Brussels.

European and American politicians are accustomed to Viktor Orbán’s “peacock dance.” At home he is belligerent while in Brussels he rarely raises objections and votes dutifully with the majority. Jean-Claude Juncker’s nomination was an exception and turned out to be a mistake. It is very possible that if it comes to further sanctions against Russia, Orbán will again support the majority. And the “peacock dance” continues.

Viktor Orbán’s foreign policy doctrine: only national interest

Every year Hungarian ambassadors assemble in Budapest to listen to very lengthy lectures by Viktor Orbán on their duties.  I began covering this gathering in 2010, when the prime minister outlined “a much more courageous, much more aggressive foreign policy”  than the one pursued by the socialist-liberal governments. In 2011 he announced his intention to wage a war against the European Union in defense of the country’s sovereignty, and he urged the ambassadors to steadfastly defend all of the government’s unorthodox moves. In July 2012 his speech centered around the protracted economic crisis that was “not made any easier” by the existence of the democratic model. “Europe chose the democratic model after World War II,” so that’s that. This was not a criticism on his part, he added. And a year later, in 2013, he claimed that Europe can remain competitive only if it finds accommodation with Russia. He admitted that this is a difficult proposition because Russia is not a democratic country. “However, we must understand that for Russia it is not democracy that is the most important consideration but rather how the country can be kept intact.”

If anyone thought that after his speech of July 26 Orbán would try to retreat, realizing that foreign reaction was exceedingly critical of his illiberal ideas that are incompatible with the values of western democracies, they were mistaken. Here are the most important segments of his long speech as reported by MTI. It appeared on the government’s website.

Orbán in his 2010 speech urged the ambassadors to defend the Hungary’s unorthodox policies. Today he suggested the opposite. They “should not assume a defensive posture” because “the Hungarian position can defend itself.” They should listen to what other nations’ representatives have to say, but their answers should not be substantive. It should be no more than a polite gesture, “a civilised obligation.” In brief, Hungary needs no advice from anyone.

Source: Népszabadság / Photo: Zsolt Reviczky

Source: Népszabadság / Photo: Zsolt Reviczky

The ambassadors must not represent a country which is constantly criticized and questioned on its economic indicators or on its historical sins. “No one in the whole world has the right to take us to task, especially since Hungary’s democratic credentials are the best in all of Europe.” After all, at the time of the acceptance of the new constitution every possible legal question was answered satisfactorily.

As for Hungary’s place in today’s world order, there is no question that “Hungary’s place is within the western alliance system,” but “we no longer follow a foreign policy based on ideology.” The only consideration is “Hungarian national interest.” In his opinion “clever nations invented foreign policy based on ideology for half-witted nations.” And surely, Hungary is not one of them.

Normally, Orbán does not like question and answer periods. For example, apparently the reason for his recent cancellation of a speech at Georgetown University was the university administration’s insistence on such a format. It seems that on these occasions, however, whether he likes it or not, he has to answer a few polite questions by the ambassadors.

So Csaba Balogh, ambassador to Bratislava, asked him about Hungary’s position on the Russian-Ukrainian crisis. We already knew that Orbán is reluctant to support joint European efforts at containing Putin’s expansionist plans. This time he made his position crystal clear. For him the Russian-Ukrainian crisis has only economic ramifications, and these are obviously negative. Already last year on the same occasion Orbán advocated closer ties between Russia and the European Union. Today he sadly noted that, despite his advice, relations between Russia and the European Union are getting worse and worse. And that is bad not only for Hungary but also for the European Union.

So, what will Hungary do under these circumstances? Orbán’s Hungary will seek out those countries whose interests lie in preventing further rifts between Russia and the EU and promote closer cooperation with them. In plain English, he will try to drive a wedge between the member states in their policy toward Putin’s Russia.

Orbán seems to be convinced that criticism of his “seeking a different political model”–as he euphemistically called his illiberal vision of Hungary’s future– is some kind of punishment for his “different views on Russian sanctions.” Otherwise, there would not be all that fuss.

Finally, Orbán stated that he is “dead against” immigration because he does not consider multiculturalism a desirable end. Homogeneity is a valuable feature within individual countries, and therefore these homogeneous communities should not be broken up. To quote Reuters, Orbán told his audience that “we must fight to keep this issue under national jurisdiction…. I make no secret of this: we will continue with a very tough policy that does not at all encourage immigration … For Europe to have general rules that affect all of us who think differently is out of the question.” I assume he means only extra-European immigration. In plain language, this is a “whites (and probably Christians) only” policy. He called the EU’s immigration policy hypocritical, impractical, and without moral foundation. As Reuters rightly pointed out, that might put Orbán at odds with Brussels.

It is also interesting to note what MTI’s summary left out, which other journalists who were present noticed. The most obvious to me was Népszabadság’s reporting that “one must not overrate the so-called common European values.” The liberal paper considered that sentence so important that it used it as its headline.

So, there is plenty to chew on here, and I am sure there will be more to discuss when the complete transcript is released. In any case, the European Union has a problem on its hands as Wolfgang H. Reinicke, president of the Global Public Policy Institute, pointed out a few days ago. He optimistically predicted that “Europe’s Orbán problem” can be fixed. It all depends on the political will to confront him. Orbán is ready for that fight.

Changes in the Hungarian foreign ministry and the growth of the third Orbán government

Today I would like to say a few words about the reorganization of the government. First, one wonders why it took so long to create the third Orbán government considering that on the top level there were very few personnel changes. Only two ministries were affected–the ministry of foreign trade and foreign affairs and the ministry of administration and justice. Not much changed in the latter, but what happened in the former is truly astonishing. With the arrival of Tibor Navracsics and Péter Szijjártó about 200 new faces appeared in the ministry; their corresponding numbers were either dismissed or moved to other positions in other ministries. It is just now becoming evident how dissatisfied Viktor Orbán must have been with János Martonyi and the men and women around him.

In 2010 Viktor Orbán announced that there were two ministers whose presence in his second government was assured: Sándor Pintér and János Martonyi. Martonyi hadn’t been officially nominated at the time, but Orbán sent him nonetheless to Bratislava to negotiate with the Slovaks.

Martonyi has been loyal to Viktor Orbán ever since 1998 when he was first named foreign minister. From the WikiLeaks documents we know that after the lost election of 2002 Martonyi was a frequent and welcome visitor in the U.S. Embassy in Budapest where he was especially highly regarded by Ambassador April H. Foley (2006-2009). As a result, the relationship between Ferenc Gyurcsány and the American ambassador was outright antagonistic.

János Martonyi made an almost clean sweep in the personnel of the ministry in 2010 and yet, it seems, the atmosphere and the foreign policy strategies devised by Martonyi were not to Orbán’s liking. More and more areas of foreign policy were taken away from the ministry and given to others: first to Tamás Fellegi, minister of national development, and later to Péter Szijjártó. The former was supposed to woo China and Russia while Szijjártó concentrated on the Middle East. And yet Martonyi defended the prime minister and remained loyal to the end. If he was insulted by being sidestepped and ignored, he didn’t show it.

Now his tenure is over. For six months Tibor Navracsics will fill Martonyi’s place after which Orbán’s real favorite, Péter Szijjártó, will become minister. He will most likely continue the policy of the “Eastern Opening,” the brainchild of Viktor Orbán. For such a drastic change in orientation an entirely new staff was necessary. Not one of the six undersecretaries remained, and out of the ten assistant undersecretaries only one kept his job.

Among the victims was Enikő Győri, undersecretary in charge of Hungary’s relations with the European Union, who will be leaving to serve as ambassador to Spain. Her departure might be connected to a debate about which ministry should deal with the EU.  János Lázár wants to move the responsibility to the prime minister’s office, while Navracsics insisted that relations with Brussels belongs to the ministry of foreign affairs. After Navracsics’s departure Lázár may well have his way.

The third Orbán government / MTI Photo Attila Kovács

The third Orbán government / MTI Photo Attila Kovács

Gergely Prőhle, the assistant undersecretary about whom I wrote several times, is also leaving. Zoltán Balog created a new position for him in the ministry of human resources. With this change Prőhle’s diplomatic career seems to be coming to an end. Earlier he served as ambassador to Bern and Berlin.

The most noteworthy change is the departure of Zsolt Németh, undersecretary of foreign affairs in both the first and the second Orbán governments. He was one of the founders of Fidesz who has held high positions in the party ever since 1989. In fact, between 1995 and 2003 he was one of the vice-presidents of the party. He has been a member of parliament since 1990. He will now be the chairman of the parliament’s committee on foreign affairs. According to NépszabadságNémeth was offered the post of ambassador to Washington but he preferred to retire completely from the conduct of foreign affairs. He supports a foreign policy based on transatlantic ties and “would like to see better relations between Hungary and the United States.” Apparently, he is not happy with the cozy relations between Hungary and Putin’s Russia.

In other ministries the changes were not that drastic, but practically everywhere the number of undersecretaries and assistant undersecretaries has grown. Perhaps the most spectacular growth occurred in the Office of the Prime Minister where there are eight undersecretaries and, believe it or not, 27 assistant undersecretaries. One of these new assistant secretaries has already made his mark. He is the one who is “negotiating” with the Norwegians about their grants to Hungary. In total, according to a new HVG article, there are 100 assistant undersecretaries in the third Orbán government.

I see no attempt on the part of the government to be frugal. Not only is the government growing steadily but grandiose plans are being hatched practically daily. The government is planning to build a new museum quarter, to move ministries from Budapest to various cities across the country, and to move the office of the prime minister to the Castle district, near the current residence of the president.

The Hungarian government is also continuing its mania for acquisitions. It is currently negotiating “to buy Bombardier’s stake in Hungarian rail transportation firm Bombardier MAV Kft.” The new minister of national development told Napi Gazdaság that “it’s a clear aim of the government and the ministry to carry out further acquisitions. It’s not a secret that there are talks under way in this respect with E.ON, for example.”

After this spending spree, who is going to replenish the Hungarian piggy bank?