German-Hungarian relations

The Orbán government is at a loss: Which way to turn?

Today even Válasz had to admit that the Hungarian government’s PR stunt that followed the less than successful Merkel-Orbán meeting was a mistake. Referring to the false news about mega-investment,” Valóság, after an earlier glowing report, had to retreat and acknowledge that “there is no BMW, there is no new Mercedes factory and Fidesz doesn’t seem to be successful in the RTL Klub affair either. This wouldn’t be drama if the government had the guts to deny Vs.hu‘s news. But now we do have a small drama.”

I don’t know whether we can call it a drama, but that the Hungarian government’s already tarnished reputation now has an ugly rusty spot as well, that’s for sure. AFP picked up the news about the gigantic German investments that were agreed on during the meeting between the German chancellor and the Hungarian prime minister, but unlike András Kósa, the author of the Vs.hu article, AFP, before publishing the article, did go to the “spokesman for the Hungarian government [who] declined to comment.” Not did the spokesman not deny the story, as Válasz would have suggested, but he purposely spread the disinformation. That leaves me to believe that this PR stunt was concocted by the large communication team around the prime minister’s office.

What can one say about a government that engages in such cheap tricks? Keep in mind that the team around Viktor Orbán was handpicked by the prime minister himself. The members of this team are the ones who manage “communication,” which seems to be the most important aspect of politics for Viktor Orbán. He is like a salesman who has only one goal: to sell his wares regardless of their value or even utility.

What were these communication wizards thinking? Surely they had to realize that sooner or later reporters will ask these companies about their alleged plans and the truth will be revealed. Indeed, Mercedes and BMW have already denied the leaked information about their plans to build factories in Hungary, and this morning we learned from the Siemens spokesman that Siemens is no longer active in industries connected to nuclear energy and therefore the news about their involvement with the Paks Nuclear Power Plant is untrue. As far as the helicopters are concerned, apparently no decision has been made. It is possible that after the meeting Airbus, the French-German company reported to have won the contract, might not be the favorite.

I can only hope that the story of this ruse will reach Angela Merkel’s office, not that I have any doubt about her assessment of the Hungarian prime minister’s character. In any case, the Orbán government’s courting of Germany as a counterbalance to the United States did not work out to Orbán’s satisfaction. Of course, he himself is partly to blame for the fiasco with his public defense of “illiberal democracy.” Even Gábor G. Fodor, a right-wing “strategic director” of Századvég, a Fidesz think tank, said that Viktor Orbán made a mistake when he openly defended his vision of “illiberal democracy.” In fact, he went so far as to say that “this debate cannot be won,” especially not before a western audience. If this absolutely devoted Orbán fan considers the prime minister’s defense of his ideology to have been a mistake, then, believe me, the mistake was a big one.

So, here we are. After all the effort the government put into good relations with Germany, it looks as if Angela Merkel was not convinced. So, where to go from here? There seems to be a serious attempt at improving U.S.-Hungarian relations. This effort was prompted by the long-awaited arrival of the new U.S. ambassador, Colleen Bell, who shortly after her arrival began a round of visits and attended to a number of official duties. Her first trip was to Csaba Hende, minister of defense, which was reported by Hungary Today, a  newly launched, thinly disguised government propaganda internet site. The news of her visit was coupled with the announcement of Hungary’s plans to purchase a new helicopter fleet. The fleet will consist of 30 helicopters that will cost 551 million euros. Discussing the helicopters and Colleen Bell’s visit in the same article was no coincidence. Most likely, the Hungarian government wants to give the impression that there is a possibility that the helicopters will be purchased from the United States.

Even more telling is the paean on the Hungarian government’s website to “successful Hungarian-U.S. economic cooperation.” The occasion was the opening of Alcoa’s “expanded wheels manufacturing plant in Hungary.” It is, if I understand it correctly, an expansion of facilities that have been in place ever since 1996. The construction cost $13 million, and it will create 35 new permanent jobs. The facility was officially opened by Colleen Bell and Péter Szijjártó. Szijjártó was effusive: “with Alcoa’s new investment, a new chapter has opened in the success story of Hungarian-U.S. economic cooperation.” We also learned that the Hungarian government “granted one billon forints for the project.”

Photo by Márton Kovács

Photo by Márton Kovács

Bell, for her part, appealed to Hungarian pride by reminding her hosts that, although Alcoa has existed for 125 years, “this is not very long in terms of Hungary’s 1000-year-old history, but for the United States, a 125-year period covers half of its existence.” Music to Hungarian ears. Of course, she also promised that in the future she will work hard to create new opportunities for both U.S. and Hungarian businesses and to further improve their cooperation. The mayor of Székesfehérvár, the city where the Alcoa factory is located, announced that the wheels of buses in the city will gradually be replaced with Alcoa products.

I somehow doubt that courting the United States in this manner will make Washington forget about the anti-American rhetoric of  pro-government papers or the incredible performance of the Orbán government in connection with the U.S. banning of Hungarian nationals because of corruption charges. Somehow I have the feeling that courting the United States without changing government policies will be just as unsuccessful as Orbán’s earlier efforts in Germany.

And one final note. Today Orbán announced that the fate of cheaper utility costs depends on his successful negotiation with Vladimir Putin on the price of gas and oil to Hungary. If he is unsuccessful, the current low utility rates cannot be maintained. The message? The Hungarian people should support his Russia policy. If not, their utility bills will rise again. Let me add that the team that came up with the idea of reducing utility prices hit a gold mine. The Orbán government’s popularity in 2012 was even lower than it is now. Yet a year and a half later the popularity of the party and the government soared. For Orbán utility rates are terribly important, and therefore I suspect that he will do everything in his power to strike a deal with Putin. The question is at what price.

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Angela Merkel in Budapest

Yesterday I sketched out a number of hypotheses about Angela Merkel’s objective in visiting Budapest. Almost all Hungarian foreign policy experts were certain that Merkel would not touch on Hungarian domestic issues. Her only concerns would be Viktor Orbán’s compliance with the common EU policy regarding Russia and his treatment of German businesses in Hungary. Since the Hungarian prime minister accommodated on both fronts just prior to her visit, she would have little to complain about. The consensus was that she would remain silent on the state of democracy in Hungary.

I, on the other hand, couldn’t imagine that Merkel could ignore this issue. The German press has been full of stories about Orbán’s authoritarian regime. It has given extensive coverage to Hungary’s anti-government, pro-democracy demonstrations. So there was some homegrown pressure on the German chancellor to stick her neck out and talk openly about the issue. Many people comment on Merkel’s low-key, sometimes vapid style. Those who know her better, however, assure us that in private she can be a tiger. Well, today, we caught a glimpse of that side of her character.

This morning Gregor Peter Schmitz in Der Spiegel demanded “plain talk” from Merkel in Budapest. “The whole of Europe is terrified of extremists, Angela Merkel is meeting one,” he said. It is time to speak out. If Schmitz watched the press conference after a short luncheon meeting between Angela Merkel and the Hungarian prime minister, he was most likely disappointed, at least initially. She did talk about issues that democrats at home and abroad find important: the role of civil society and the importance of the opposition, but her critique was pretty bland. She said, for instance, that “even if you have a broad majority, as the Hungarian prime minister does, it’s very important in a democracy to appreciate the role of the opposition, civil society, and the media.” Merkel had said the same thing many times before.

The real surprise, “the plain talk” Schmitz demanded, came at the end when Stephan Löweinstein of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung asked Merkel her opinion about Orbán’s “illiberal democracy.” After explaining that liberalism is part and parcel of the ideology of her own party, she added: “I personally don’t know what to do with the term.” In her opinion there is no such animal. Orbán did not back down. He repeated his belief that not all democracies are liberal and that liberalism cannot have a privileged position in the political landscape. I should add that the Hungarian state television station omitted this exchange in its broadcast of the press conference.

Source: HVG / Photo: Gergely Túry

Source: HVG / Photo: Gergely Túry

Viktor Orbán was not a happy man. I’m certain that he expected concessions from Merkel after he was so “generous” on the RTL Klub case. It seems that Merkel did not appreciate his efforts to the extent hoped for in Budapest.

During the press conference Orbán talked mostly about German-Hungarian economic relations and thanked Germany for its investment, which resulted in 300,000 jobs in Hungary. But he became more insistent and strident as time went on, especially when Merkel began talking about a common European energy policy. He indicated that in his opinion the European Union doesn’t appreciate Hungary’s utter dependence on Russian gas. He stressed, in a raised voice, that the Russian-Hungarian long-term gas supply contract will be expiring soon and that Hungary must have a new agreement with the Russians. Hence the forthcoming Putin-Orbán meeting in Budapest.

An opposition politician called my attention to the fact that Merkel referred to Orbán as “ein Kollege” instead of the customary designation “friend.” An American acquaintance noted that the new American ambassador also talks about Hungary as an “ally” and no longer as a friend.

The German papers are already full of articles about the trip, and I’m sure that in the next few days there will be dozens of articles and op/ed pieces analyzing Merkel’s day in Budapest. I’m also certain that I will spend more than one post on this visit. Here are a few initial observations.

Merkel spent very little time with Viktor Orbán. Just a little over an hour, including a meal. With János Áder no more than 15-20 minutes. On the other hand, the event at the German-language Andrássy University was quite long where differences of opinion between the two politicians became evident. The introductory remarks by the president of Andrássy University were lengthy as was the speech by the president of the University of Szeged, which bestowed an honorary degree on Angela Merkel. Her own speech was not short either. What was most surprising was the number of questions allowed. Some of the questions were not political but personal. Perhaps the students didn’t have the guts to ask politically risky questions. Her answers showed her to be quite an open person, very different from what I expected. One brave soul did bring up the topic of terrorism and immigration, indicating that Orbán inflames prejudice against people from different cultural backgrounds. Merkel stood by her guns, stressing the need for tolerance, openness, and diversity. Another question was about Russian aggression. Here she used strong words against aggression and condemned Putin’s use of force.

Finally, a few words about Merkel’s final destination, the synagogue on Dohány utca, where she talked to Hungarian Jewish religious leaders. Apparently, the Hungarians first suggested that Viktor Orbán accompany Merkel. The Germans turned that kind offer down. I find it significant that Merkel’s visit to the synagogue was longer than planned. Her plane left Budapest half an hour later than scheduled.

All in all, those people who were afraid that by going to Budapest Angela Merkel would give her stamp of approval to Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal democracy” can breathe a sigh of relief. Nothing of the sort happened.

Two narratives of the impending Budapest visit of Angela Merkel

As Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to Budapest nears, there is conflicting speculation about the purpose of her visit. Merkel will spend five hours in Budapest, apparently on February 2. This short stint will include a meeting with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and a visit to Mazsihisz, the umbrella organization representing the Jewish religious community. Why is Merkel traveling to Hungary? According to critics, the trip is ill-advised because, with a visit to Budapest, she is implicitly endorsing the illiberal regime of Viktor Orbán. A few days ago one of the leading MSZP politicians announced that the party expects Merkel “to signal to Viktor Orbán in unambiguous terms that he has no place in the community of democratic European politicians.”

Others seem to be convinced that Merkel is going to Budapest to ensure that Viktor Orbán will vote together with the rest of the European prime ministers to extend the sanctions currently in force against Russia. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that the German chancellor made it clear that sanctions can be lifted only after the agreement reached in Minsk is fulfilled. And nothing of the sort has happened. In fact, just this morning Kiev announced that 700 Russian troops had crossed into Ukraine to aid the rebels fighting for control of the eastern provinces.

Attila Ara-Kovács, the foreign policy expert of Demokratikus Koalíció, is one of those who believe that the trip’s main purpose is to convince Viktor Orbán of the necessity of extending the sanctions. But he goes even further when he hypothesizes that Merkel has another message for Orbán in light of the recent demonstrations: he should end the political conflict at home. Somewhat similarly, Stratfor, an American geopolitical intelligence and advisory firm, is convinced that Merkel’s visit is part and parcel of a U.S. “diplomatic offensive” in the region and can be viewed as putting joint U.S.-German pressure on Viktor Orbán. The aim is to stop the spread of Russian influence in the region.

Is this the truth?

Is this the truth?

Or that?

Or this?

The other narrative of the impending Merkel visit comes straight from Fidesz. It is well summarized in the headline of an article by Zsolt Hazafi: “Is Merkel Orbán’s guardian angel?” It is true that the journalist turned the Fidesz message into a question, but the answer is “yes.” The story line goes as follows: Hungary and Germany are very close allies who synchronize all their diplomatic moves. More than that, Orbán’s Hungary is doing Germany’s bidding. Or at least this is what József Szájer, a Fidesz member of the European Parliament, intimated in his interview with Antónia Mészáros of ATV yesterday. As he put it: “Germany sent us ahead” to test the ground vis-à-vis Russia. Berlin, according to him, is just as much against sanctions as Budapest is, but Merkel is constrained, presumably by the United States. Therefore, she secretly welcomes Hungary’s position on the sanctions.

After talking with several high-level government officials, Hazafi gained the impression that in the last few years a Russian-German-Hungarian triangle came into being, a three-way relationship that includes an understanding about building a second reactor at the Paks nuclear power plant. Why would the German chancellor agree to the secret Russian-Hungarian deal on Paks? According to this narrative, Germany, where soon enough there will be no nuclear power plants, will be able to get inexpensive energy from Paks. Fidesz informants pointed out that a German firm was instrumental in making the Russian loan to Hungary possible. They added as proof of the understanding between Germany and Hungary on Paks that Günther Oettinger, former European commissioner for energy matters and a German, raised no objection to the Putin-Orbán deal. Members of the Hungarian government and leading Fidesz leaders consider both visits–Merkel’s and Putin’s–diplomatic triumphs. “Hungary is back on the map,” Orbán allegedly said.

Népszabadság also had its own Fidesz informants. They claim that Germany didn’t object to the Orbán-Putin meeting since Germany and Hungary work hand in hand when it comes to Russia. Some of the more embarrassing statements of Viktor Orbán are no more than trial balloons. One example is the question of sanctions. According to other Fidesz politicians, those who see a connection between the visits of Merkel and Putin “are not far from the truth.” Insiders also claim that the relationship between Merkel and Orbán is close. According to them, the two became closer after their hour-long meeting in Milan last year. Government officials, when claiming close German-Russian-Hungarian cooperation, usually bring up the fact that Klaus Mangold, former CEO of Daimler-Chrysler, was the middleman between Orbán and Putin throughout the negotiations. The informers seem to be pretty certain that “it is no longer in the interest of Germany to talk seriously about the lack of democracy in Hungary.” The author of the article (we don’t know who he/she is because there was no by-line) added that Merkel might have to resort to more serious criticism after “the prime minister’s crude anti-immigration theses” in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris.

So, here we have two irreconcilable narratives. I find the Fidesz version of close German-Hungarian relations hard to believe. There are just too many signs that contradict it. Unless, of course, we assume duplicity on the part of Angela Merkel. After all, time and again she expressed her misgivings about Russian aggression and her support of the sanctions, including additional ones if Russia refused to cooperate. Such a double game would make no sense, especially now that Russia is in serious economic and political trouble. Thus, my hunch is that the sudden talkativeness of Fidesz potentates is a concerted effort on the part of the Orbán regime to burnish the prime minister’s image, to point to his diplomatic importance and genius, and to portray him as one of the most important leaders in Europe.

I am inclined to believe that the main reason for the Merkel visit is indeed the question of the sanctions and Hungary’s overly chummy relations with Putin. I am also convinced that Merkel will talk about what Hungarians call “the democracy deficit,” which is something that is hard to ignore given the wide coverage of Orbán’s illiberal state and the latest demonstrations. In brief, I consider this latest tsunami of leaks by Fidesz politicians to be a part of a disinformation campaign.

The United States as enemy #1

Bálint Ablonczy, a journalist working for Heti Válasz, a pro-Fidesz publication, wrote a few days ago that “the idea of permanent revolution is not working anymore.” And yet the two most important players on the Hungarian political scene, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and János Lázár, his chief of staff, resolutely follow a strategy that is in Ablonczy’s opinion “no longer accepted by the voters.”

Most commentators agree that the prime minister is losing his sense of reality. They point out that the present course of action can result only in defeat and the further isolation of the country. After listening to Viktor Orbán’s latest outburst against the United States last night, I must join this chorus of critics. But before I go into some details of his warped view of the world, let me summarize his accusations against the United States, the country that, despite the fact that it is one of Hungary’s allies, is in his eyes solely responsible for his current political problems.

According to him, the United States’ allegation of corruption against certain Hungarian officials is nothing but “a cover story,” as “every thinking man knows.” The United States wants to gain leverage to increase its influence in the country. Currently a CIA operation is underway in Hungary. The United States is not only meddling in the internal affairs of the country but “is in fact an active political actor.” By this he means that the United States is organizing the demonstrations against his government. It’s trying to topple him.

The American interest in Eastern Europe is twofold. The Americans want to gain access to the energy market, and they want to have a commercial foothold in the region. The U.S. is “sore” because they wanted to build the Paks atomic power plant but Hungary chose Russia instead. And now Washington wants to drag Hungary into the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, but the Hungarian government wants to avoid a conflict that will lead to a new cold war. These charges are nonsense. The U.S. not sore because an American company didn’t get the contract to expand Paks, and it was not the United States that dragged Hungary into the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Just the opposite. It was Viktor Orbán who positioned himself in the middle of the power play between Russia and the Western alliance.

By the way, after the appearance of the Lázár interview, I found only one reaction coming from an “unnamed official” of the State Department that was published by HVGThe State Department urges the Hungarian government to take into consideration “the domestic and foreign misgivings.” Washington would like “to continue a constructive dialogue … about those decisions that are related to the state of democracy and rule of law.” Surely, Orbán has no intention of following the Americans’ advice.

As a Hungarian cartoonist sees it

As a Hungarian cartoonist sees it

Turning back to Orbán’s interview, I want to highlight some points that weren’t picked up by the wire services. One was his emphasis on Hungary’s “innocence” and its “loneliness.” One could feel Orbán’s hurt when he said that “we have never harmed anyone” and yet we are badly treated. The attacks on us are unjustified. As for the “loneliness” theme, Orbán returned to the age-old Hungarian lament that “we are alone” in the world. There are the Slavs to the East and the “honest (derék)” Germans to the West. The only thing Hungarians have is the land “where they have always lived,” their language, and their culture.

Note the adjective “honest/derék” in front of “Germans.” We can see from this interview as well as Lázár’s that the new government strategy is to counterbalance the worsening U.S.-Hungarian relations with an increased reliance on Germany. Both men tried to portray Germany as a great friend of Russia. Orbán, who when talking about the United States declared that Hungary will not be a “colony,” two minutes later announced that Hungary is happily following the lead of Germany when it comes to foreign policy. It seems that Orbán is hoping that Germany will ride to its rescue and mediate between Washington and Budapest. After all, since Germany has had its problems with the U.S. and since it is such a good friend of Russia, Hungary should benefit from German mediation.

As far as the Hungarian political leadership knows, Angela Merkel is still planning to visit the Hungarian capital in February. Dávid Trencséni, a journalist for Stop, put it bluntly: Berlin is “Orbán’s last hope.”

Berlin may be Orbán’s last hope but it may also have been partly responsible for his woes with the U.S. He’s been able to get his way most of the time in the European Union, thanks in large part to the German Christian Democrats. Both Fidesz and the Christian Democrats belong to the European People’s Party, a party that stands by its members even when they behave outrageously. By contrast, Orbán has no political ally in the United States. Both Republicans and Democrats condemn Orbán’s illiberal state and his pro-Russian policies.

And finally a few oddities that run through both interviews. Hungary must be respected because it has a thousand-year-old history. Well, Egypt has a much longer one, so should I respect the current Egyptian government? Hungary in the past was successful only when it was independent. Well, actually the opposite is true. The period between 1867 and 1914 when the country was part of Austria-Hungary is considered to be the golden age of modern Hungarian history. Then there are claims that merit no comment. For instance, even Hungary’s enemies have to admit that Hungary has been a success story in the last five years. All the decisions Orbán’s government made were the right ones. Economically, every year was better than the one before. Hungary is a strong country that has weight and “will take an active part in this new era.” Well, maybe these claims do merit comment after all: Who unlocked the gates of the asylum?

German-Hungarian dialogues: Munich and Berlin

A few months ago, on August 7, 2014, Professor Charles Gati wrote an important article about Viktor Orbán’s Hungary,”The Mask Is Off.” The article was inspired by the Hungarian prime minister’s infamous speech on his plans to finish the job of building an “illiberal state” in Hungary. “Orbán has now dropped his democratic mask,” Gati announced. What followed was a thorough analysis of Orbán’s political system. At the end of the article Gati listed options the United States had for influencing Hungarian domestic politics. Among them, he mentioned the possibility of the United States “actively encouraging the European Union . . . to put the question of Hungarian membership in the EU firmly on the agenda.” That is, the European Union should no longer stand by helplessly watching Hungarian domestic developments and the increasingly anti-EU rhetoric of Orbán and his pro-Russian orientation.

If you watched the Budapest Beacon‘s interview with Kim Lane Scheppele, you undoubtedly noticed her rather optimistic assertion that now that Jean-Claude Juncker has finished creating his “cabinet,” Hungary’s case will finally be put on the agenda. If that happens, the question will be how the sides line up. Just today an article appeared entitled “EU allies alarmed at Hungary’s Kremlin drift,” which indicated that opposition to Orbán is growing even in the German Christian Democratic Party, which is in many ways the most important ingredient in an anti-Orbán coalition within the EU.

One of the few places west of Hungary where Viktor Orbán is still welcome in an official capacity is Bavaria, where on November 6 he was greeted by Horst Seehofer, minister president of Bavaria, as the democratically elected head of a coalition government. Hungarian reports indicated that Orbán’s visit was not without its critics but that Seehofer, the leader of the very conservative Christian Social Union, stood by Orbán. However, in an interview that appeared in the conservative Die Welt on November 8 one can see several not so subtle differences between the two men.

Horst Seehofer and Viktor Orbán in Munich Source: Die Welt / Photo Jörg Fokuh

Horst Seehofer and Viktor Orbán in Munich
Source: Die Welt / Photo Jörg Fokuh

Seehofer wholeheartedly supports the European Union and does not see the kind of crisis Orbán invokes every time he has the opportunity. Seehofer talked about big union projects while Orbán thinks that each country is responsible for its own economy and that joint projects must wait. Seehofer wants to widen the eurozone and urges countries outside of that zone to introduce the structural reforms necessary to be eligible for membership. Orbán spoke sharply against the euro and made it clear that he wants none of it. At this point Seehofer became just a tad sharper in his response. He defended the euro as “the basis of our high standard of living.” Orbán did not give up. For him “the future of the euro is unclear.” Well, that was too much for Seehofer, who said that “the euro stays!”

Seehofer might be a good friend of Orbán, but he firmly believes in the founding principles of the European Union: “a value system based on democracy, justice, tolerance, and Christianity.” These values are much more important than a community based only on economic interests.

Finally there were questions concerning the Ukrainian crisis and, although Orbán tried to be diplomatic and not show his true colors on the subject, he indicated that helping Ukraine financially would be difficult. It would cost too much and “I have no idea where we are going to get that much money.” As for Putin, naturally Orbán said nothing about his relationship with Russia, but Seehofer made it clear that he no longer trusts the Russian president.

German-Hungarian relations, even in the most favorable case of Bavaria, are not without their problems. Other German politicians have been more outspoken about Hungary’s place in the European Union. Let’s start with Michael Roth, undersecretary of the German foreign ministry, who was also interviewed by Die Welt (November 12). The whole interview is about Hungary. According to Roth, “we are currently conducting an intensive debate on democracy and the rule of law in the European Union.” He expressed his satisfaction that the new Commission attaches such great importance to this issue. He is especially glad that Frans Timmermans, deputy president, “wants to increase the EU’s credibility in constitutional questions.” Roth was obviously talking about Hungary when he said that western countries press for democratic rights in China and Russia, but how can they be credible if they tolerate the lack of such values within the Union.

Roth brought up Article 7 of the European Constitution, which would take away rogue nations’ voting rights in the case of a gross violation of European values, and indicated that as far as he was concerned this measure “was an appropriate means in many cases,” certainly in cases like Hungary because he sees no improvement in Hungary as far as individual liberties, the rule of law, and the fight against corruption are concerned. All in all, Roth is watching the developments in Hungary with “great concern” because the existence of “liberal democracy is seriously in doubt in Hungary.”

And if that weren’t enough, there was the warning from Frank-Walter Steinmeier, German foreign minister, a couple of days ago when Péter Szijjártó visited Berlin. Steinmeier called on the Hungarian government to comply with fundamental democratic values.”There can be no doubt that all members of the European Union must be committed to the rule of law and the canon of civil rights,” Steinmeier said. How much Szijjártó understood is unclear, especially since in his answer he talked about Hungary’s “balanced, healthy, and pragmatic relations with Russia.” He also tried to assure his German counterpart that any “violation of international law,” presumably by Russia, is “unacceptable to Hungary.”

Péter Szijjártó and Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Berlin Source: Die Welt / Photo Bernd von Jutrczenka

Péter Szijjártó and Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Berlin
Source: Die Welt / Photo Bernd von Jutrczenka

Not only does Szijjártó seem to be impervious to words of warning in Germany and elsewhere, his prime minister is practically taunting western politicians to go to battle with him. I’m almost certain that there will come a time when his wishes will be fulfilled.

Orbán’s attack on Angela Merkel and Germany

The big item in the Hungarian media today was an exchange between Chancellor Angela Merkel and Peer Steinbrück, her social democratic rival at the next German election. The scene was a yearly event called WDR Europaforum. WDR stands for Westdeutscher Rundfunk (West German Broadcasting), based in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. The program of this year’s forum is available on the Internet. In addition to Steinbrück and Merkel, such important European politicians as Guido Westervelle, German foreign minister; José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Union; and Wolfgang Schäuble, German minister of finance, attended.

It says a lot that Hungary came up at all at such a high-level gathering. But it did and in a country like Hungary, small and deeply divided politically, its very mention at such a forum brings immediate and sometimes violent reactions at home. Peer Steinbrück, who would like to have Angela Merkel’s job, criticized the chancellor for not being forceful enough regarding Hungary’s repeated violations of human rights and democratic principles. He urged a more aggressive policy instead of CDU’s shielding Viktor Orbán and Fidesz. He wouldn’t even exclude the possibility of Hungary’s exclusion from the European Union.

Merkel naturally defended her party’s handling of the Hungarian case and warned Steinbrück that “one shouldn’t send a whole cavalry to fight a war” that may end in exclusion because that way the European Union would have no influence whatsoever on Hungarian political developments. This way there is hope to persuade Viktor Orbán to change his ways. Foreign Minister Westervelle, a liberal, concurred.

Undersecretary Gergely Prőhle interpreted Merkel’s opinion as a sign that the German chancellor “rightly expects that Hungary will choose a European solution.”  On the other hand, Népszabadság emphasized that Merkel promised that her own party, CDU, will pay close attention to Hungarian politics and that “we must do everything to change the ways of our Hungarian friends.” The editors decided to give the following headline to the news about the Merkel-Steinbrück exchange: “Only because of the leash is Hungary not kicked out of the European Union,” which may not be the most accurate interpretation of what happened at the WDR Europaforum.

x-emborok.blog.hu

x-emborok.blog.hu

But let’s see what Viktor Orbán’s reaction was. This morning he had his customary weekly radio interview, if you can call the conversation between a subservient reporter and a dictatorial prime minister an interview. One would have thought that, like the spokesman for the Hungarian Foreign Ministry, Orbán would have been appreciative of Merkel’s defense of Hungary against her social democratic rival. But obviously Orbán’s interpretation was closer to that of Népszabadság. He read it as a threat to limit his government’s freedom of action. He most likely didn’t like the fact that Merkel, as chairman of the CDU, made a reference to her party’s insistence that Orbán not overstep the limits imposed on him by the country’s membership in the European Union.

Orbán decided to attack Merkel and Germany. He announced that “the Germans once sent the cavalry to Hungary in the form of tanks. So, our request is: don’t do it. It wasn’t a good idea then. It didn’t work out.”

Why was this attack necessary? After all, Merkel didn’t demand a cavalry attack on Hungary. Just the opposite. Moreover, why was it necessary to bring up the subject of Nazi German tanks? This was especially inappropriate from the prime minister of a country that was allied with Hitler’s Germany to the bitter end. The tanks came but there was no Hungarian resistance. All in all, it would have been better to have said nothing. I don’t know whether there will be any diplomatic fallout from this unfortunate couple of sentences, but I’m sure that the German embassy in Budapest already sent a note to Berlin reporting on Orbán’s interview.

For the edification of those who are not familiar with pro-Fidesz arguments and their tone, here is an excellent example of what Viktor Orbán has managed to achieve with his anti-European Union propaganda. The article appeared on the site of Civil Összefogás Fórum (CÖF), the so-called civic group that organized the peace marches and launched a vicious campaign against Gordon Bajnai. The author is Eszter Dunst, vice president of Women for the Hungarian Nation. Judging from its Facebook page, it’s not exactly a bustling organization.

Here are a few choice sentences from her “Dear Madame Merkel!” opinion piece. First, she tried to figure out what Merkel actually said in German about the EU’s influence on Hungary. Perhaps “auf den richtigen Weg bringen,” to which she answers, “No, thank you! Hungarians don’t allow themselves to be directed or to be driven. The Bolshevik times are over. Do you understand? Not by anyone. Not even by the Germans…. How dare you lecture us on democracy when you must thank us, Hungarians, for the unification of your country…. It was we who destroyed the iron curtain. So, what are you talking about? It is Viktor Orbán who is right and not you. You are not even fit to carry Mr. Orbán’s umbrella. … You ruined Europe twice and still come out victorious in all things. … But enough! Just because you are 80 million strong it is not at all sure that you are right. You once made such a mistake and it wasn’t even such a long time ago.* But now we are right! Do you understand? Because we have a statesman that can be born in Europe only every hundred years. Someone who thinks about the long term. Someone who understands the situation thirty years ahead. Someone who thinks in terms of nation against internationalism. … We fought in defense of Europe, dear Madame Merkel, for almost a thousand years, and it is worth knowing that the bell at noon time is rung not only for us but for Europe.** … For us Hungarians only our national anthem and the ringing of the bell at noon time remained. What is important: you have no right to direct us. You have no moral authority. Do you understand?”

This is, I think, an excellent example of what a large proportion of Hungarians think of the European Union, of Germany and the Germans, and of their own infallible leader. Orbán succeeded in turning these people against everything outside of Hungary. It will be a very difficult task for any future government to undo the damage Orbán has inflicted on his own people. And if an attack on Germany weren’t enough, it seems that Orbán’s government is beginning another assault, this time against the United States. But more on this tomorrow.

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*Clearly a reference to Hitler starting World War II.

**It is an urban legend that the noontime ringing of bells in Catholic churches was ordered by Calixtus III to commemorate the Battle of Belgrade (Nándorfehérvár) in July 1456. Actually the papal decision to add to the morning and evening bell ringing a third at noon was made three weeks before the victory of an international army led by János Hunyadi against the Ottoman forces. But once news of the victory reached Rome, the pope decided that the custom be “rebranded” to commemorate the victory at Belgrade.