Iran

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.

Advertisements

Viktor Orbán feels at home in Iran, Azerbaijan, and China

It’s time to move on, although the saga of the Holocaust Memorial is far from over. Let’s look outside of Hungary to see what Hungarian foreign policy is up to. The first news item is from yesterday; I discovered it on the Iranian news agency’s website. The highest Hungarian dignitaries–János Áder, president; Viktor Orbán, prime minister; László Kövér, speaker of the house; and János Martonyi, foreign minister–tried to outdo each other in sending separate congratulatory messages on the occasion of “the anniversary of victory of the Islamic Revolution.” The news agency naturally mentioned that “Hungary has been a member of the European Union” ever since 2004. It also reported that in addition to the Hungarians, dignitaries of Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, and Tajikistan also sent greetings to the Iranian leaders.

Today another piece of news arrived from which we learned that a delegation of Hungarian journalists and film makers from MTV arrived in Azerbaijan. They are looking for a proper setting for a film about the “atrocities committed by Armenian troops” in the Nagomo Karabakh region. According to the Azerbaijan news agency, the Hungarian television crew will make a documentary about the town of Khojaly that was attacked by Armenian forces and where several hundred Azerbaijani were killed. The Azerbaijanis are certain that “the film will tell the truth to the world about Karabakh.” So, as you can see, the Orbán government finds kindred souls in Iran, Azerbaijan, and yes, China.

Because Viktor Orbán is in China right now where he keeps boasting about the Asiatic origin of the Hungarians. Not long ago he called his people “half Asiatic,” but by now it seems they have become completely Asiatic. He added that “Hungarians were ridiculed many times for their Asiatic origins” but by now that origin has become an asset because it is clear that “the center of gravity of the world economy has shifted from west to east.” I just hope that Orbán didn’t mention anything about the alleged relationship between the Huns and the Hungarians because the Chinese built the Great Wall in order to save themselves from the ferocious Hun invaders.

In Beijing, similar to other foreign visits/trade missions, the program started with a speech by Orbán before an audience of business people that included about 100 Hungarian business men who accompanied him. As usual, the speech was full of falsehoods about Hungary’s economic performance. It is hard to believe that Chinese businessmen who are known for their acumen are so ignorant that they believe that “whoever makes a business deal with the Hungarians will have a direct relationship with the economic engine of the European Union.” Or, “Hungary is Europe’s most competitive economy where a considerable production center came into being in addition to an important research-and-development network.” Furthermore, he outlined the future economic prospects of Hungary as outright rosy: a 4% economic growth year after year and 3-4 % unemployment, which is considered to be full employment.

In addition to the country’s economic prospects, he stressed “the political stability” in Hungary which is such an advantage when it comes to economic growth. In this respect the Hungarian situation is very similar to that of China, he said, adding that he very much hoped that “the Hungarian people will vote for political stability” in the coming election. This particular claim made quite a splash in Hungary where a blog writer pointed out that “Chinese political stability in other words means communist dictatorship” and that Orbán actually gave himself away by in effect admitting that Hungary is no longer a democracy.

The Chinese news agency was less effusive than the Hungarian prime minister, although Premier Li Kequiang and Viktor Orbán remembered fondly the 65th anniversary of Chinese-Hungarian diplomatic ties. Again, one just hopes that neither man remembered Mao Zedong’s less than friendly attitude toward Hungary at the time of the Hungarian October Revolution of 1956 when he urged Khrushchev to put down the revolt and show no mercy.

China-Orban

The Chinese seem to be interested primarily in building roads and railways. We heard about the Budapest-Belgrade railway line earlier, but now it seems to have become a reality. China also expressed an interest in expanding investment and local currency swap agreements. China will provide assistance to Hungarian companies to invest in China while Hungary will help Chinese businessmen acquire visas and working licenses and will provide them with health insurance. In addition, representatives of Huawei Technologies Hungary and the Hungarian government signed an agreement to establish an innovation center in addition to two Huawei Europe supply centers, one in Pécs and another in Komárom. What is really new is that Li called for Chinese-Hungarian cooperation on nuclear energy and hinted that it  could be accomplished jointly with a third party.

This last item sounds rather intriguing. Is it possible that Viktor Orbán realized in the last month or so that the Russian loan might not be quite enough to build the new nuclear power plant and that he is also soliciting Chinese money and know-how? What will Russia think of such an arrangement?

Another item of note is the establishment of a regional center of the Bank of China. While the Orbán government does everything in its power to get rid of western banks, the prime minister welcomes the Bank of China with open arms. I am curious what kinds of guarantees he offered the Chinese to prompt them to establish the Bank of China’s European regional headquarters in Hungary. Without some guarantees I can’t imagine that any banker in his right mind would choose Hungary.

The rest of the agreements are less exciting: the usual cultural centers, more bilingual Chinese schools, and additional scholarships for Chinese students to study in Hungary. It seems there is money for foreign students even as the government sharply reduced the money available for Hungarian higher education in general and introduced very high tuition fees for Hungarian students.

The question of a direct flight between Budapest and Beijing came up again. When there were such flights they operated at a loss. Of course, if Chinese business is substantial enough in Hungary, such flights might be feasible. At first glance, however, it is hard to tell how extensive Chinese economic penetration will be as a result of these agreements.