Hungarian foreign policy

American rapprochement with Viktor Orbán’s Hungary?

While readers of Hungarian Spectrum continue to discuss the possible reasons for André Goodfriend’s departure, let me share one right-wing Hungarian reaction to the exit of the former chargé, István Lovas’s opinion piece in yesterday’s Magyar Hírlap titled “The Bell Change.”

One could devote a whole series of posts to István Lovas himself, from his brush with the law as a teenager to the open letter he wrote recently to Vladimir Putin in which he asked him to start a Hungarian-language “Russia Today” because the Russian propaganda television station is actually much better than BBC. Lovas lived in Canada, the United States, and Germany, where he worked for Radio Free Europe. He was considered to be a difficult man who caused a lot of turmoil in the Hungarian section of the organization.

For many years Lovas was a devoted Fidesz man. He already held important positions in the first Orbán government (1998-2002). For years he worked for Magyar Nemzet, most recently as its Brussels correspondent, but a few months ago Lovas, along with a number of other Orbán stalwarts, lost his job. Mind you, the European Parliament had had enough of Lovas even before he was sacked by Magyar Nemzet, especially after he presented a bucket of artificial blood to Sophie in ‘t Veld, the Dutch liberal MEP. The bucket of blood was supposed to symbolize the Palestinian children who were victims of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Lovas, himself of Jewish descent, is a well-known anti-Semite.

After having lost his job at Magyar Nemzet and after Putin failed to respond to his plea for a Hungarian “Russia Today,” Lovas moved on. Gábor Széles, who owns Magyar Hírlap and EchoTV, offered him a job. Now he has a weekly political program called “Fault Lines” (Törésvonalak) on EchoTV, and he also writes opinion pieces for Széles’s newspaper.

So how does István Lovas see American-Hungarian relations in the wake of the arrival of Colleen Bell and the departure of André Goodfriend? To summarize his opinion in one sentence: from here on the United States and the Orbán government will be the best of friends.

According to Lovas, André Goodfriend was the darling of those lost liberals who have been wandering in the wilderness “ever since SZDSZ was thrown into the garbage heap of history.” They are still hoping that nothing will change. Originally they were certain that Goodfriend would run the embassy while the newly arrived ambassador would be its public face. Meanwhile, Goodfriend would continue visiting “left/neoliberal SZDSZ or MSZP politicians and intellectuals.”

These liberal hopes were dashed soon after Colleen Bell’s arrival. The new orientation was clear from day one. Bell went and laid a wreath at the statue of the unknown soldier on Heroes’ Square. She visited the Csángó Ball organized every year to celebrate a fairly mysterious group of Hungarians living in the Romanian region of Moldavia, speaking an old Hungarian dialect. These are important signs of the new American attitude toward things dear to the current government: fallen heroes and national minorities. Certainly, says Lovas, Goodfriend would never have been found in such places. Yet liberals don’t seem to have grasped the significance of all this. They think that more Hungarians will be banished from the United States and that Hungary will have to pay a high price for peace with the United States. Most likely, Orbán will have to compromise on Paks, on Russian-Hungarian relations in general, and/or will have to buy American helicopters.

But Lovas has bad news for them. There will be no more talk about corruption cases, and Hungary will pay no price whatsoever. Colleen Bell realized that Goodfriend’s methods had failed. Of course, Lovas is talking nonsense here. Even if Lovas is right about a change in U.S. policy, it was not Bell who decided on this new strategy but the United States government.

Lovas is certain that the change has already occurred. It is enough to look at the new website of the U.S. Embassy in Budapest. There are no more programs on tolerance, on Holocaust events, “all those things that are kicks in the groin of the Hungarian people and their elected government.” A drastic change occurred in U.S.-Hungarian relations which even such liberal-socialist diplomats as Péter Balázs, foreign minister in the Bajnai government, László Kovács, foreign minister under Gyula Horn, or András Simonyi, ambassador to Washington (2002-2010), couldn’t explain away.

This change couldn’t have taken place if Goodfriend had stayed or if the Orbán government had conducted “the kind of servile atlantist policy recommended by Géza Jeszenszky,” foreign minister under József Antall and ambassador to Washington during the first Orbán government. Jeszenszky, who just resigned as ambassador to Norway, had a long interview in which he expressed his deep disappointment with Viktor Orbán and his foreign policy, especially with his attitude toward the United States.

According to Lovas, what happened recently is a victory for Orbán’s foreign policy, a feat that “could be achieved only by the courage and tenacity” of the Hungarian prime minister. The United States government tried to mend its ways by sending someone to Budapest who is not worried about such things as tolerance or the Holocaust. From here on the Budapest embassy will function just as American embassies do in other capitals. The U.S. Embassy in Vienna, for example, does not report “breaking news” about the Anschluss.

Lovas might exaggerate, but something is going on. When was the last time that Viktor Orbán called together the whips of all political parties for a discussion on Hungarian foreign policy? As far as I know, never. As Magyar Nemzet put it, “Viktor Orbán asked for the support of the political parties in reaching the nation’s foreign policy goals.” Among the topics was the objective of “strengthening the American-Hungarian alliance.” Péter Szijjártó, who was of course present, claimed that “political relations with the United States are improving” and that the Orbán government “will take further steps toward the restoration of earlier economic, political, and military cooperation.”

The meeting of the leaders of the parliamentary delegations  Source: MTI / Photo Gergely Botár

The meeting of the leaders of the parliamentary delegations convened by Viktor Orbán
Source: MTI / Photo Gergely Botár

I’m sure that we all want better relations between Hungary and the United States, but the question is at what price. The United States can’t close its eyes to Viktor Orbán’s blatant attacks on democracy, the media, human rights, and civil society. And then there is the timing of this alleged renewed love affair between Budapest and Washington. If true, and that’s a big if, it couldn’t have come at a worse time for Hungarian democracy–yes, liberal democracy. Just when Viktor Orbán’s support is dropping precipitously and when it looks as if he may lose his precious two-thirds majority in spite of all the billions of forints he promised from taxpayer money to the city of Veszprém to buy votes. When a large part of the hitherto slavish right-wing media at last decided to return to more critical and balanced journalism.

No, this is not the time to court Viktor Orbán. It would be a grave mistake. It is, in fact, time to be tough because the great leader is in trouble. Trouble abroad, trouble at home. Frans Timmermans, the first vice-president of the European Commission, in a speech to the European Parliament said the following without mentioning Viktor Orbán’s name: “We cannot let our societies imperceptibly slip back; we cannot allow illiberal logics to take hold. There is no such thing as an illiberal democracy…. We are keeping a close eye on all issues arising in Member States relating to the rule of law, and I will not hesitate to use the [EU Rule of Framework established last March] if required by the situation in a particular Member State.”

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Another “strategic partnership”: This time with Azerbaijan, a model to follow

While we have been preoccupied with American-Hungarian and Russian-Hungarian relations, the dictator of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, arrived in Hungary for a visit, his third in four and a half years. Not too many high-level western visitors can be seen in Budapest lately, so Orbán must be satisfied with Azeri dictators and the like. Orbán himself is not welcome in western capitals, and therefore his official trips usually take him outside of the European Union and North America. He visited Baku twice, and I understand he will be going again to strengthen the “strategic partnership” he forged between Hungary and Azerbaijan, two countries that have a lot in common: both are extremely corrupt and both are led by autocratic leaders whom outsiders describe as mafia dons.

In September 2012 I wrote three posts (September 1, 2, and 3) on the Orbán government’s decision to release Ramil Safarov, an Azeri army officer, from the Hungarian jail where he was serving a life sentence for the brutal murder of an Armenian officer in 2004. The crime was perpetrated in Budapest, where both men spent a couple of months in a training program organized by NATO’s Partnership for Peace Program. The Azeri government made several attempts to convince the Hungarian authorities to release him into their custody. But because Safarov was considered to be a national hero the Gyurcsány and Bajnai governments, fearing that once Safarov stepped onto Azeri soil he would not spend a minute in jail, denied the requests. Not so the second Orbán government, which in the hope of Azeri goodwill and economic support decided to strike a deal with Aliyev, the Azeri dictator. To this day we don’t know what the Hungarian government got in return for the release of the “ax murderer,” as he is called in Hungary. According to rumors at the time, Viktor Orbán made the decision to extradite Safarov in exchange for the Azeri purchase of Hungarian bonds. The deal was struck under the watchful eye of Péter Szijjártó, and final approval came from Tibor Navracsics, the minister of justice who currently serves as one of the EU commissioners in Brussels. This dirty deal was the beginning of a great friendship between Aliyev’s Azerbaijan and Orbán’s Hungary.

Since then, the Hungarian government has manifested its commitment to closer economic and political ties between the two countries on several occasions. In November 2012 Hungary organized an “international conference” in Budapest to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Hungary and Azerbaijan. In 2013 Hungary opened a Hungarian Trading House in Baku, and yesterday Viktor Orbán and Ilham Aliyev signed a “strategic partnership” agreement. Apparently this agreement encompasses the following areas of cooperation: energy, education, commercial air transport, tourism, veterinary medicine, and youth and sport. Currently trade between the two countries is insignificant and has actually been falling since 2010. Szijjártó himself talks about Azerbaijan only as a “potential economic partner” of Hungary, a partnership that will be realized once Azeri gas reaches Europe. For the time being, one hears only about the hundreds of scholarships offered by Hungary as a goodwill gesture toward these Central Asian countries. Azerbaijan just gratefully acknowledged 200 scholarships.

As usual, in the joint press conference after the meeting and signing ceremony, Viktor Orbán went overboard, praising Azerbaijan as an “example to follow” (mintaállam). By the way, when Orbán is confronted with foreign dignitaries, he is often visibly servile. He bows just a little too low, which in Aliyev’s case was accentuated by the Azeri president’s height and Orbán’s small stature. He did the same thing when the Chinese prime minister, Wen Jiabao, visited Budapest in 2011.

In his unbridled enthusiasm for the Azeri model, he even praised Aliyev’s father, Heydar Aliyev, the former KGB agent who became president of Azerbaijan after a military coup that overthrew the democratically elected president of the country in 1993. His and his family’s corruption was legendary. After his death in 2003, his son, the current president Ilham Aliyev, took over after a fraudulent election. Since then he has been reelected three times, and he can be assured that he will remain president of the country as long as he is alive: the law was changed that barred repeated reelection of the same person to the post. Wikileaks documents have revealed that American observers compared  the Azeri president to a mafia crime boss. Well, perhaps this is what Orbán had in mind when he spoke of Azerbaijan as an example to follow.

President Ilham Alyev and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán

President Ilham Aliyev and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán

In the afternoon there was an economic forum where Orbán made a speech in which he announced that “countries that have political systems that offer clear and unambiguous leadership to a given community are lucky,” indicating that he considers both Azerbaijan and Hungary among the lucky ones. Aliyev immediately picked up on Orbán’s remarks, adding that “both countries are led along a clear strategy. Hungary is defending its national interests, its independence, and its sovereignty.” How should one interpret Orbán’s reference to “clear and unambiguous leadership”?  I, for one, think that he means that in such a regime no opposition forces could possibly alter the strategy of an autocratic leader. This is certainly true of Aliyev as well as Orbán.

Today HVG posted a short note online teasing an article in its print edition tomorrow, according to which there might be “a thread that connects Baku and Budapest” in the U.S. banning of the six Hungarian officials and businessmen. According to the paper, the case involves corruption surrounding Hungarian government bonds offered for sale to Azerbaijan in 2012. My recollection is that the deal eventually fell through. The Hungarians were apparently hoping that Azerbaijan would pay Hungary back for its release of Ramil Safarov by buying Hungarian bonds through ARDNF, the Azerbaijan State Oil Fund. However,  ARDNF announced on October 9 that it had no intention of buying Hungarian bonds and that it did not plan to invest in Hungary. I still remember all the jokes on ATV about “manat,” the Azeri currency. However, there is always the possibility that some secret deal was struck over the Hungarian government bonds and that perhaps some of the money received disappeared either into Fidesz coffers or into individual pockets. The official announcement of ARDNF might have been intended simply to disavow any connection between the Safarov case and payments received by Hungary. We’ll have to see what HVG came up with.

And here is the latest. According to an unnamed Fidesz source, Viktor Orbán realized that he went too far in embracing Russia, ratcheting up his anti-EU rhetoric, and attacking the United States. According to this highly placed individual, Orbán is planning a change of orientation. From here on he will be a model of cooperation with his western allies. Well, his latest moves don’t support this reorientation. First, he just raised RTL Klub’s 40% levy to 50%, presumably to punish them for reporting negative news about the government on their very popular 6 o’clock news. This huge levy is a serious financial blow to RTL Klub, one that its German parent company, Bertelsmann, will have to absorb. Second, he wouldn’t call Azerbaijan “an example to follow” if he is preparing the ground for a change in his foreign policy objectives. And third, if he were trying to show the U.S. that he is serious about ridding Hungary of corruption, he would tell his minions to relieve Ildikó Vida and her co-workers of their duties. I believe that this piece of news is no more than Fidesz disinformation. At best, it is a new round in his usual “peacock dance.”

Possible trajectories for Hungary with or without Viktor Orbán

Today I’ll backtrack a bit and revisit the serious diplomatic crisis that developed between Hungary and the United States. When the news hit about the American decision to ban six Hungarians from entering the United States, some commentators were convinced that the alleged corruption was only a pretext, that the real cause was Russia.

These people were wrong. The Americans stressed that the widespread and systemic corruption that permeates every facet of Hungarian society is a serious problem in and of itself. But they added that there are many other policies Washington finds unacceptable from an allied country, several of them having to do with Russia. At his last press conference M. André Goodfriend, the U.S. chargé d’affaires, underscored America’s disappointment in Hungary, once the the flag bearer of freedom. In the last few years the country has changed, and not for the better. Goodfriend was quite specific in enumerating some of the sore points in American-Hungarian relations. He mentioned the lack of transparency in connection with the negotiations with Russia about building the nuclear reactor in Paks. The United States is unhappy about Hungary’s far too accommodating behavior when it comes to the Southern Stream. Relying exclusively on natural gas is the wrong way to approach Europe’s energy needs. He mentioned the situation of the media in Hungary. Then there is Hungary’s self-serving behavior during the Russian-Ukrainian crisis. The United States realizes that autonomy for the Hungarian minority in Ukraine is an important consideration for Budapest, but this subject shouldn’t be brought up when Ukraine is fighting for its territorial integrity. The Orbán government’s behavior toward the European Union and the United States has been objectionable ever since June 2010, but Orbán’s pro-Russian policy at this particular juncture was the straw that broke the camel’s back. And finally, he brought up the Hungarian government’s attitude toward the NGOs.

On the same day a reporter from Index managed to get hold of Viktor Orbán in Brussels. Earlier, when asked about U.S.-Hungarian relations, he practically ran away. This time, from what he had to say on the topic, it was evident that he knows who the people are who have been barred from the United States. Yet he indicated that no investigation will take place because he cannot take responsibility for some other country’s assumptions. It is impossible to accuse someone without any proof. Clearly Orbán is stonewalling. No one demands that charges be brought against those who are implicated in the instances of corruption the U.S. reacted to. It is enough to investigate their cases. The Hungarian authorities had no difficulty ransacking the offices of the Ökotárs Foundation. Where was the proof then?

Orban in Brussels2

Meanwhile there are growing signs that the American move prompted quite a controversy in Fidesz circles. I already mentioned Válasz, a pro-Fidesz site, and Mandiner, an online news portal staffed by a group of young conservatives. Both publications were highly critical of Viktor Orbán. Péter Szijjártó let the cat out of the bag during his interview with a reporter from USA Today. He admitted that the dispute with the United States created “a large discussion” within Fidesz. Nick Thorpe, the British journalist who apparently has friends high up in the government party, also reported to the BBC that “there are growing divisions in the right-wing party over Mr. Orban’s steps to turn Hungary into an ‘illiberal democracy.'” According to Thorpe, “the mood in the corridors of power is wretched.” Moreover, the new pro-Russian foreign policy does not sit well with some of the fiercely anti-communist and anti-Russian politicians in Fidesz.

Ildikó Csuhaj of Népszabadság was even more specific. She spoke with several “conservative” critics of Viktor Orbán’s policies who are worried about the prime minister’s double dealings: for example, one day he stands by NATO and the next he wants to build the Southern Stream. These conservative informers believe that if Viktor Orbán does not change his course “Hungary might find herself staring into an abyss.” I know that some people would like to draw the conclusion that after a couple of more missteps there might be a palace revolution by the more moderate and cautious members of the governing party. I, however, can imagine such an event occurring only if the European Union stops the flow of free money to Hungary. As long as Orbán delivers the goodies, his friends have no reason to abandon him.

Nonetheless, Orbán’s position is precarious. Let’s assume that the Americans have in their files several more corruption cases that will reveal that the government and power structure Orbán has constructed in the last few years is in fact a regime in which the essence of politics is blatant, all persuasive corruption–a true mafia state as Bálint Magyar describes Orbán’s system. If these cases reveal that the entire political leadership is deeply implicated, Orbán’s political edifice might crumble. It could also happen that the European Commission, now headed by Jean-Claude Juncker, will be a great deal less charitable toward the Orbán government than it was in the last four and a half years under the leadership of José Manuel Barroso. Let’s assume that the Commission becomes tired of the corruption that surrounds the European grants. I just read that 10% of all corruption cases that are being investigated by OLAF, the office dealing with corruption in the countries of EU, come from Hungary. We can further assume that the EU will be more willing to move against Hungary after the American initiative. I wouldn’t be surprised if Washington and Brussels would even coordinate their policies toward Hungary. More and more people talk  in Brussels about the possibility of invoking Article 7 of the EU Treaty against Orbán’s Hungary. These are real possibilities.

KAL cartoon from The Economist

KAL cartoon from The Economist

But let’s take seriously for a minute László Kövér’s vision of a gradual retreat from the European Union. Where would Hungary find the funds to keep itself afloat? Russia? China? I don’t think that Russia is in any position to become the rescuer of Hungary. Moreover, Botond Feledy, a political scientist, points out in today’s Index that for Putin Hungary is useful only as long as the country is part of the European Union. As far as China is concerned, its leaders are shrewd businessmen.

Charles Gati of Johns Hopkins University has an interview in today’s Népszava entitled “Orbán faces the hardest decision of his life.” In his opinion, it would take an enormous amount of time and effort to convince the United States that the Hungarian government has abandoned those policies that almost led to a break in American-Hungarian relations.”This will not be easy and it will not be accomplished without great personal sacrifice.” If Orbán continues with his old policies, he will surely fail but if he changes and “leads the country along western values, he may also lose. The first alternative is certain, the other only a possibility. That’s why it is still too early to bury Hungarian democracy.”

Hungarian foreign minister in Washington: A stalemate

Let’s cut to the chase: neither the Hungarian nor the American position has changed despite Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó’s meeting with Assistant Undersecretary Victoria Nuland in Washington today. So far we have two brief reports on the meeting. The first was published in Magyar Nemzet; its source is HírTV, which sent its own crew to Washington for the occasion. The second is from the Washington correspondent of MTI, which I found in HVG. The former is a more expansive summary of what transpired between Nuland and Szijjártó, complete with direct quotations from Szijjártó himself.

What did we learn from this report? Despite repeated American explanations of why the U.S. government is unable to reveal the names of the individuals who have been banned from entering the U.S., Szijjártó was still hoping for such information. Here is Szijjártó in his own words: “I asked the government of the United States to share with us creditable information on the basis of which they accuse certain Hungarian citizens of corruption.” As long as there is no such information “we cannot move forward…. It is only the United States that can make the first move.” A stalemate. The United States expects the Hungarian government to clean up the country’s thoroughly corrupt behavior toward international businesses while the Hungarian government’s interpretation of the situation is much more narrowly defined. As far as the Hungarians are concerned, there may be some corrupt officials but unless the United States names these people the Hungarian government can do nothing. The only positive development, according to Szijjártó, was that Nuland did not repeat the threat uttered by Goodfriend that “if that trend continues it may reach a level where the United States can no longer cooperate with Hungary as an ally.” I do hope that Szijjártó doesn’t interpret this omission to mean that Goodfriend made an empty threat  because I’m almost certain that if Hungary stonewalls, other harsh steps will be taken against the Orbán government. And for the time being stonewalling seems to be the Hungarian diplomatic strategy.

The MTI report was more upbeat. Who knows why Szijjártó changed his story, but he did. No more talk about who will have to take the next step. Instead, he emphasized his government’s willingness to fight corruption and said that in this fight the two governments can count on each other. Economic and military relations between the two countries are excellent. According to Szijjártó, Nuland was full of praise for Hungary’s decision to supply gas to Ukraine. There was an interesting remark made in passing. It turned out that Nuland brought up some specific criticisms of certain pieces of Hungarian legislation, but Szijjártó brushed these objections aside as being irrelevant because they have been accepted and approved by the European Commission.

György Szapáry, Hungarian ambassador to Washington, and Péter Szijjártó MTI / Ministry of Forreign Affairs and Trade / Tamás Szémann

György Szapáry, Hungarian ambassador to Washington, and Péter Szijjártó
MTI / Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade / Photo: Tamás Szémann

What did the Hungarian government know about the coming storm? It seems a lot, and not only about the corruption cases. One had to be blind and deaf not to notice the growing dissatisfaction of foreign governments with the Orbán regime. One also assumes that Hungarian diplomats do their job and write reports on the current attitude toward Hungary in their host countries. Of course, given the atmosphere in government offices in the Orbán regime, it is possible that the ambassadors don’t dare tell the truth. Still, although there was a stream of denials of any wrongdoing and everything was chalked up to Hungarian liberals’ squealing and turning against their own country, I believe they knew full well that trouble was brewing all around. And yet Népszabadság‘s Ildikó Csuhaj, who seems to have good Fidesz sources, claimed today that Viktor Orbán himself knew nothing about the NAV affair. One wonders how much disinformation from “reliable” Fidesz sources lands on Csuhaj’s desk. This seems to be one of them.

Although there was plenty of evidence of growing U.S. dissatisfaction with Viktor Orbán’s policies, he did not change his ways on issues that seemed important to Washington. He even ignored Zsolt Németh’s warning. I wrote about a conference held in Washington on October 2 where one of the speakers was Németh, an old friend of Orbán–at least until recently, who received a very chilly reception. It was here that Victoria Nuland delivered the speech I republished in Hungarian Spectrum. Today Németh decided to speak and tell the world that he had forewarned Orbán about the impending bomb that might be coming from Washington. The interview with Németh appeared in Válasz. In it Németh expressed his hope that “several of the questions surrounding the [NAV] affair will be cleared up.” (As we know by now they were not.) Hungarian right-wing journalists dismiss corruption as the real cause of the present situation. In their interpretation the reference to corruption is only a pretext. Válasz‘s reporter also wanted to know whether the real reason for the ban on corrupt officials is Viktor Orbán’s relations with Russia. Németh wouldn’t dismiss corruption entirely, but he thinks that in addition to the Russian connection there are other very irritating issues: the NGOs, Hungary’s attitude toward Ukraine, the Russian sanctions, and the speech on “illiberalism.” Németh sensed all that, and on his return to Budapest he informed the foreign minister–still Tibor Navracsics then–and the prime minister of his experience. At the end of the interview Németh indicated that a new chapter should open in U.S.-Hungarian relations: “we are right after the election, both countries will send new ambassadors. Let’s see the good side of this affair: we are at a point from which we can take off.” Although not in so many words, what Németh suggests is an entirely new Hungarian foreign and domestic orientation.

Németh is most likely right. I can see no room for improvement in U.S.-Hungarian relations if the Orbán foreign policy proceeds apace. I even have my doubts about improvement if Orbán makes some adjustments in his domestic and foreign policies. By now Orbán strongly believes in his vision of a new Hungary in which liberalism has no place. This new Hungary is an authoritarian country with pseudo-democratic trappings. He is also convinced in the declining West and the rising East. He will not change course. He really can’t. He is what he is. He can never satisfy the demands of western democracies.

Just to reinforce my point about Orbán’s mindset, here are two pieces of news about the latest Hungarian diplomatic moves. Hungary may be experiencing a serious diplomatic crisis with the United States but the foreign ministry just announced that Hungary will open a cultural and commercial agency in Northern Cyprus, a “country” recognized by only one country, Turkey. This move might make Hungary’s relations with two EU countries, Greece and Cyprus, less than friendly. This is a gesture toward Turkey, whose “illiberal democracy” is a thorn in the side of western democracies.

The second diplomatic move also sends a not too cordial message to the United States. Two days ago the Iranian Tasmin News Agency announced that a Hungarian parliamentary delegation is scheduled to pay an official visit to Iran. The visit will be fairly long. The delegation is headed by deputy speaker János Latorcai (KDNP). The invitation to the Hungarians was extended by the deputy speaker of the Iranian parliament Seyed Mohammad Hassan Abu Torbifard. It is interesting that reports of controversial Hungarian diplomatic moves usually don’t appear in the Hungarian press. Hungarians hear about the events from the other countries’ news agencies. From a later Tasmin News Agency report we learned that Latorcai had a meeting with the chairman of the Iranian parliament’s national security and foreign policy commission, Alaeddin Boroujerdi. According to the report, Boroujerdi made the following comment during their conversation: “the illogical and wrong policies adopted by the US and its regional allies have caused the spread of terrorism and instability across the region and their continuation has turned terrorism into a global concern.” As for Iranian-Hungarian relations, the Iranian politician said that “the two nations have great potential for the enhancement of relations in the political, economic, and cultural fields.” Latorcai, for his part, emphasized that “Budapest is determined to strengthen its ties with the Eastern nations, with Iran in particular.” One must wonder whether these diplomatic moves are the result of inexperience or, as I suspect, are designed to irritate Hungary’s allies and flaunt the country’s total independence. Whatever it is, this attitude will eventually lead to diplomatic disaster. It’s just a question of time.

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.

Attila Ara-Kovács and Bálint Magyar: On the periphery of empires–a buffer zone of the EU?

Today the European Union is faced with conflicts it has never encountered before either within or beyond its borders. In 2004, when several Eastern European countries were admitted to the EU in the wake of the Drang nach Osten, the democracy deficit of the new member states was considered no more than a children’s disease which—given proper treatment—they would surely outgrow. However, as the post-communist mafia state took shape in Hungary between 2010 and 2014, this assumption proved utterly mistaken. Outside its borders—as in Ukraine for example—the hope that societies will necessarily come nearer to European “civilized” norms turned out to be an illusion.

Within the Borders of the EU

Hungary was once a pioneer of the region in expending efforts to dynamically modernize and democratize the country. Although the “central field” policy was described by Viktor Orbán well before 2010, it has been implemented since he came to power. The main aim of this policy is to prevent any change in the political setup and establish an autocratic regime, while stressing that stabilizing liberal democracy is just one alternative in our region. Eastern European post-communist societies today are under the threat of becoming autocratic regimes, thus stabilizing themselves. It is a moot point whether the EU has the clout to put these countries back on the trajectory of liberal democracy or—failing that—excommunicate them from the EU.

Eastern EuropeThe system of sanctions against democracy deficit as legitimized by Brussels is based on two premises. The first one posits that integration implies a system of values whose effectiveness is dependent on the coherence and homogeneity of these values. According to the second premise the fundamental principle of the policy followed by the member states is underpinned by the shared values of liberal democracies, and deviations from this policy should not be regarded as intentional only as occasional slips. The system of sanctions works only if both of these premises are accepted because—short of the second one—exclusion from the community would automatically come into force as a last resort. In other words, unless the shared values of the member states fail to be harmonized due to the reluctance of certain countries to eliminate those deviances, the community is bound to reject those countries in self-defence, lest for other reasons.

Since the perception of public opinion in Hungary denying the value system of the EU is not incidental but systematic, it is often assumed that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s long-term goal is to lead Hungary out of the EU.

Challenging this view, we assert that neither the exclusion of Hungary nor a government attempt to quit the EU is a likely scenario.

Beyond the Borders of the EU

The recent brutal events in Ukraine reveals an increasingly fierce geopolitical competition between the European Union and the “Euro-Asian Union” being formed and led by Russia. This competition is rendered particularly intense owing to the fact that the battle of the great spheres of interest is reinforced in two more dimensions. On the one hand it can be interpreted as a fight between quasi-democratic and quasi-autocratic forces while on the other as a Russian-Ukrainian conflict tinged with a more and more obvious ethnic character. The latter problem also has some cultural undercurrents: after World War II the territory of Ukraine grew, extending its borders from the onion domes of Orthodoxy into the world of Gothic churches of Catholicism.

The lofty goals of fighting for a better value system are mixed with the down-to-earth goals of expanding the empire. This war is not waged with weapons though. Just the opposite, the big powers are trying to win the voters’ sympathy with offering “bonuses”. The Russians dangle the carrot of supplying cheap energy and opening an administratively controlled market in the former Soviet regions whereas the EU is giving the associated countries financial support and access to EU markets operating on a competitive basis. The imperialistic nature of this battle is revealed by attempts at mutually ruling out the possibility to avail of both channels of “bonus”.

If the requirements of homogeneity in value systems were imposed in strict terms, Ukraine would not at all stand a chance of joining the EU. At the same time however the geopolitical aims of the West seem to move towards a policy of increasingly close cooperation with Ukraine.

Value system versus geopolitics

The rationality of common values as declared by the EU on the one hand and the rationality of geopolitics with its pressure of circumstances on the other are mutually exlusive concepts, impossible to realize simultaneously. A move to admit or lure the former communist countries from the Balkans and Eastern Europe which are still outside the EU would lead to a catastrophic inflation of the system of common values. However, a flat rejection of these countries, let alone an expulsion of the quasi-autocratic regimes within the walls of the EU, would give the Russian Empire in the process of reincarnation the opportunity to expand towards the West. An EU decision to draw its geographical borders according to the system of common values would surely result in a reincarnation of Yalta, with the implication that the validity of political community would be overruled by the historical self-movement of value systems. Whereas the post-war Yalta agreement cut Europe into two along the North-South axis largely leaving out of consideration issues of cultural value systems, the axis now seems to move diagonally, from North-East to South-West. Such a move is supposed to irrevocably embed the Baltic states, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and possibly Slovakia into the EU but renders the place of Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria in this community ambiguous.

Even though Brussels declines to consider this option, it looks as if the contradiction between the dream of common values and the reality of geopolitics can be solved only by means of a two-speed EU, introduced under political duress. The euro-zone, a “westernized” form of multi-speed Europe has already been realized. The post-communist member states well entrenched in the EU either belong to the euro-zone already or are intent, irrespective of their ideological commitments on joining the euro-zone within a few years. Others however, including Hungary produce a national ideology to justify their resolve to stay permanently outside. The claim for preserving our autonomy hidden in the rhetoric of “national war of independence” is in fact the euphemistic demand that we be exempted from the norms of liberal democracy. Let there be no mistake: what these countries mean by “the Europe of nations” is an obvious claim to establish or maintain their quasi-autocratic regimes. No one but their own citizens can resist such demands effectively. If there is no resistance or if the resistence turns out to be unsuccessful, the stabilization attempts of “national autocracies” are sure to succeed. Whereas the geopolitical considerations of the EU should not allow the Russian Empire to reach out again as far as the River Leitha on the Western border of Hungary. The Western-European political elite—while giving up its romantic belief and original mission following the collapse of the Berlin Wall—is considering Eastern-Europe falling behind not as a companion in a cultural sense but only as an era to be influenced economically. In fact today’s Eastern-European elite –instead of trying to civilize– only wishes to strenghten its eastern scale of values with the help of national and social populism—in order to build up and preserve their autocratic power.

For some members of the EU to stop this process might seem all the more hopeless since to create a stable democracy is utterly impossible without an autonomous citizenship and a wide middle class.  What’s more, the financial crisis of 2008 even cast light upon the fact how vulnerable EU member South-European societies may be in this respect.

EU buffer zone – the playing field of autocrats

It follows from the above that we are moving towards a buffer zone, an area permanently outside the euro-zone, where unprincipled concessions in EU norms may be made. The new imperial logic defends itself not with the tactic of “scorched earth” but with a policy of giving support in well-proportioned doses while acquiescing in democracy deficits—in the past such behaviour was tolerated only exceptionally.

Why on earth would autocrats like Orbán wish to leave the EU once they can live in this buffer zone by “milking two empires”: regular support arrives through structural and cohesion funds from the EU whereas cheap energy through agreements with the Russian empire? While the former is made to pay for a semblance of showing good manners in politics and espousing the ideals of freedom, the latter for our submission into an Eastern system of dependency.

Attila Ara-Kovács, ex-diplomat

Bálint Magyar, ex-minister of culture and education

The Ukrainian crisis: Hungary between Russia and the West

There are occasions when it becomes blatantly obvious how little the Hungarian people are told about their government’s activities. I’m not talking about state secrets but about everyday events. I find it outrageous, for instance, that I had to learn from a Polish Internet site that Donald Tusk, the Polish prime minister, had a talk with Viktor Orbán in Budapest before flying to Brussels. There was not a peep about this meeting in Hungarian papers, presumably not because Hungarian journalists are a lazy lot but because the prime minister’s office failed to inform the Hungarian news agency of the meeting. The less people know the better.

There is official silence in Budapest on the Ukrainian protest, perhaps soon civil war, with the exception of a short statement issued by the Hungarian foreign ministry at 5:12 p.m. today. I assume there had to be some kind of communication between the prime minister and his foreign minister. If we compare the Hungarian statement to the words of Donald Tusk we can be fairly certain that the two men didn’t see eye to eye on the issue.

According to Tusk, “the moral judgment here is black-and-white, there are no gray areas.” Moreover, “the responsibility for the violence in Kiev rests with the government, not the opposition.” And what did the Hungarian communiqué say? “The responsibility of the Ukrainian government is decisive, but the parliamentary opposition forces must keep their distance from extremist groups.” While according to Tusk “the crisis in Ukraine could determine the course of the whole region” and  requires the European Union to prepare for commitments lasting “not for hours, days or weeks, but for many years,” the Hungarian foreign ministry simply stated that “Hungary finds the European Union’s active participation in the interest of a lasting solution to the country’s political and economic crisis important.”

One can only guess why Tusk had to stop in Budapest on his way to Brussels, but whatever transpired in that meeting it didn’t result in Hungary’s forceful condemnation of the Ukrainian government and its active participation in the process contemplated by the United States and the European Union. Tusk specifically mentioned Poland’s interest in Ukraine because of its common border and historical ties. Both are also true about Hungary’s relations with Ukraine.

It seems to me that Viktor Orbán got himself into a rather uncomfortable situation with his hurried agreement with Russia on the Paks nuclear plant. Pro-government papers, like Heti Válasz, show that journalists in government service feel obliged to defend Vladimir Putin and his policies. One spectacular sign of “loyalty” was an article that appeared in the paper about a week ago in which the author expressed his disgust with the American campaign for the rights of gays and lesbians that prompted a partial boycott of the Sochi Olympics. If the Hungarian right feels that it has to come to the rescue of Putin in this case, one can imagine its position when it comes to such a momentous event as the near-civil war situation in a Ukraine torn between East and West.

While Tusk welcomes Ukrainian refugees and Polish hospitals are taking care of the wounded, nothing was said about any Hungarian willingness to take in refugees if necessary. In fact, I detected a certain fear that such an onslaught might reach the country. There is some worry about the Hungarian minority of about 200,000 in the Zakarpattia Oblast, especially around Beregovo/Beregszász. The Hungarian Inforadio announced tonight that according to a Ukrainian Internet paper “the change of regime has been achieved peacefully in Zakarpattia Oblast.” This may simply be sloppy reporting, but we know that regional capitals all over western Ukraine are engulfed in violence and that in some places the opposition took over the administration. Ukraine is falling apart at the seams. All this is far too close for comfort as far as Hungary is concerned. Yet Viktor Orbán is sitting on the fence.

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

Meanwhile Donald Tusk has taken the initiative with spectacular success. He flew to Brussels to facilitate a quick decision on the Ukrainian crisis and assembled a delegation of French, German, and Polish foreign ministers to visit Ukraine tomorrow. They will assess the situation before a meeting in Brussels to decide whether to impose EU sanctions on Ukraine. While French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius was giving a press conference, U.S. Secretary John Kerry was standing by his side. He stressed President Viktor Yanukovich’s “opportunity to make a choice.”

At the same time German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier had a telephone conversation with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov who urged EU politicians “to use their close and everyday contacts with the opposition to urge it to cooperate with the Ukrainian authorities, to comply with agreements reached and to decisively distance itself from radical forces unleashing bloody riots, in fact, embarking on the route to a coup.”

It seems that Hungary is trying to strike a “balance” between the western position and that of Russia. It will be difficult.

Meanwhile in Hungary a liberal blogger compared the two Viktors and found many similarities. Neither is a democrat, both are corrupt, and both built a mafia state with the help of their oligarchs. And yet Ukrainians are fighting in the streets while in Hungary Orbán still has a large and enthusiastic following. In his post he tries to find answers to the question so many people ask: how is it that the Hungarian people have not revolted yet? Are they less freedom loving than the Ukrainians? Are they longer suffering? Can they be more easily fooled? Our blogger is convinced that one day Hungarian patience will run out. He gives Viktor Orbán a piece of advice: “Keep your eyes on Ukraine!”