John Lukacs

Russia, Hungary, and the European Union: Paks documents released

It’s time to make sense of all the contradictory pieces of information that have reached the public in the last couple of days concerning the European Union’s attitude toward the Russian-Hungarian agreement on the Paks II nuclear power plant. The central question was whether the Orbán government notified Brussels, as it was obliged to, about the details of the agreement.

Energiaklub, a non-profit organization that deals with questions of energy and the environment, wrote a letter to the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Energy on February 17 asking for “access to the documentation related to the notification, under the Euratom Treaty, of the PAKS nuclear power in Hungary.” The answer was: “This investment project has not yet been notified to the Commission under Article 41 of the Euratom Treaty, and therefore at the moment no documents can be found in the Commission’s possession.” Critics of Viktor Orbán were only too happy to find that his administration seemed once again to have been caught lying. Soon enough, however, the relevant documentation was made public on the website of the prime minister’s office.

But before I talk about these newly released documents, which give us only a little more knowledge of the whole Paks affair than we had before, I would like to jot down a few dates by way of a road map.

I began collecting material on Paks and nuclear energy on October 18, 2013 when Viktor Orbán, then in India, boasted that Hungary would have extremely low energy prices in the not too distant future. He brought this up as an economic enticement for Indian investors. He also emphasized his commitment to nuclear energy.



Then for almost two months we heard nothing about nuclear energy. Finally János Lázár broached the subject and talked about advanced negotiations with Russia for Rosatom to construct two new reactors in Paks. What we didn’t know was that on December 10, 2013 János Lázár wrote a letter to Günther Oettinger, commissioner for energy. The released document is a cover letter to “the Draft International Agreement with the Russian Federation.” The letter also indicates that the Commission had been notified earlier, at its November 26, 2013 meeting, that “Hungary intends to enter into an international agreement with the government of the Russian Federation on the cooperation in peaceful use of nuclear energy.” Attached was the draft agreement “in accordance with Article 103 of the European Treaty.” The letter also reveals that talks between Brussels and Budapest about Hungary’s intention to sign such a treaty had taken place even before that date because Lázár assured the commissioner that they took “into consideration the comments obtained from the Commission.” The conversation between the commissioner and the Hungarian government is described as “open and constructive.” The confusion described above was most likely due to Energiaklub’s reference to Article 41 as opposed to relevant Article 103 of the Euratom Treaty.

A month later, on January 13, Viktor Orbán traveled to Moscow where Mrs. László Németh, minister of national development, on behalf of the Hungarian government, signed a document about which we still know very little. A couple of days later curious Hungarian journalists inquired from Günther Oettinger’s office what the European Commission thinks of the Russian-Hungarian agreement. They were told on January 15 that the Commission had not passed judgment on whether the lack of competitive bidding was an obstacle to the European Union’s blessing for the deal. However, they were told by the spokesman for Oettinger’s office that such a probe will take place some time in the future.

A good two weeks after his trip to Moscow, Orbán decided to write a letter to José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, in which  he informed Barroso about “the recent developments with regards to nuclear energy cooperation between Hungary and the Russian Federation.” From the letter it becomes clear that there had been a response from Brussels to János Lázár’s December 10 cover letter attached to the copy of the draft treaty. According to Orbán, “the Commission raised no objection to the draft agreement” and therefore “my government signed the intergovernmental agreement on January 14, 2014.”

Orbán in this letter tried to downplay the fact that the job of building the nuclear power plant was given without any competitive bidding process. He added that “Rosatom, the Russian nuclear state authority, will be in charge of the implementation of the design and construction work. However, whenever any such work or services cannot be provided in-house, the Russian party will undertake an open and non-discriminatory tendering process.”

And finally, Orbán tried to reassure Barroso that the Russian-Hungarian deal actually serves European interests. “We believe that the long-term cooperation of Hungary with the Russian Federation in the field of nuclear power will contribute to strengthening the energy security of the EU as a whole.” It was at about this time that John Lukács, the conservative Hungarian-American historian who had fairly close ties with Viktor Orbán earlier, wrote him an open letter in which he warned about the deadly embrace of Putin’s Russia. I translated Lukács’s letter and Orbán’s rather impertinent reply.

By February 7 the Hungarian parliament, after five hours of debate, voted for a treaty about which the members knew practically nothing, even as opposition to the Russian-Hungarian deal was growing in the country. Most Hungarians didn’t want an extension to Paks, and they especially didn’t want to have the Russians building it. Foreign observers also envisaged a “Comecon reborn,” which looked quite possible after “realigning Ukraine as a satellite state under Vladimir Putin.” Nick Butler of the Financial Times emphasized Hungary’s “acceptance of Russian technology in its nuclear sector” and added that this huge investment will be financed by a Russian loan. He noted a reassertion of Russian power across the region and wrote that “the advance is not military but economic with energy issues to the fore.”

Barroso’s answer came on February 7. He referred to the progress made toward a common European energy policy. He attributed this success to the Commission’s “respect for Member States’ basic choices concerning their energy mix.” He added, however: “Member States’ commitment to comply fully with the rules of the Treaties and secondary legislation, in particular those governing the internal energy market, and to act in a spirit of coordination and full transparency, remains vital.” After the Commission examined the draft agreement it “raised no objections of principle to the agreement from the perspective of article 103.” But it seems that Orbán is still not entirely in the clear because “there are … other aspects of EU law to be observed, such as the rules on public procurement and state aid.”

Many people are convinced that the hidden state subsidies and the lack of public procurement are insuperable obstacles. Although who knows. Viktor Orbán always finds ways to come out on top.

A footnote to McCain’s visit and Viktor Orbán’s letter to John Lukacs

I’m going to start with a footnote to my post on American-Hungarian relations and the visit of John McCain to Budapest.

I have written about Foreign Minister János Martonyi several times over the years on Hungarian Spectrum. Here I’ll recap briefly.

Martonyi loyally served the Kádár regime as trade secretary in Brussels between 1979 and 1984 when he was promoted to department head at the ministry of foreign trade. He joined the communist party only a few months before its collapse.

In the Antall administration he became undersecretary in the ministry of foreign affairs, but when the socialists and liberals won the election in 1994 Martonyi, for the first time in his life, found himself outside the world of civil service. He became a partner at Baker & McKenzie’s Budapest office. His exile didn’t last long. In 1998 he became foreign minister in Viktor Orbán’s first government where he dutifully played second fiddle to Viktor Orbán, who even then was inclined to conduct his own diplomatic efforts, if you can call them that. While today he has his own undersecretary for foreign affairs and trade located in the prime minister’s office, then he was not so blatant. My impression in those days was that the man Orbán relied on was his old friend, one of the founders of Fidesz, Zsolt Németh, undersecretary under János Martonyi.

Initially I felt sorry for Martonyi for being put in such a demeaning position, but since then I changed my mind. A self-respecting person would have resigned. He didn’t. During Fidesz’s exile, especially during the tenure of April H. Foley, he was the confidant and skillful manipulator of the American ambassador. Perhaps because of his usefulness during this period Viktor Orbán decided that the post of foreign minister would go to Martonyi even though most people thought that the front runner was Németh. But given Zsolt Németh’s decreasing visibility and influence, it looks as if Németh has been dropped while Martonyi is just ignored.

In my post on the McCain visit I called attention to Martonyi’s enthusiastic endorsement of the Orbán government’s anti-American stance, which belies the man’s allegedly pro-western moderate views. Today he gave a telephone interview to MTI in which he explained that he had a private conversation with Senator McCain “who spoke in very positive terms” about his visit to Budapest. Martonyi assured the American politician that the rules of democracy are being followed to the letter in Hungary. He added that “John McCain is still our friend who follows Hungarian affairs with understanding. His visit to Budapest only strengthened his sympathies quite independently of the kind of terminology he used at his press conference.”

So, if I understand it right, according to Martonyi, Senator McCain lied at his press conference and in the press release I shared with you yesterday. Or put another way, those Hungarians who heard McCain and read the newspaper reports on that press conference were misled by the good senator because he, in fact, was mighty impressed with Viktor Orbán and Hungarian democracy and thought that the monument designed to demonstrate that Hungary had no role to play in the Holocaust was a splendid idea. A friend of mine originally from Romania told me that this kind of lying was a favorite trick of the Ceaușescu regime.

And now to something entirely different. I translated Professor John Lukacs’s open letter to Viktor Orbán expressing his misgivings about getting involved with Russia through a long-term commitment on the Paks nuclear power plant. Well, this time Viktor Orbán replied to Professor Lukacs very promptly.

* * *

Mr. John Lukács
Corvin-Chain recipient professor

Dear Mr. Professor:

I am reading your open letter that is also addressed to me and that appeared in the newspaper that once belonged to the communist party. I always looked upon your friendship and attention as one of the gifts of my life. Perhaps because of your books or the liberality of your lectures, or perhaps the genuine Catholic serenity which surrounds you. I don’t really know. Whatever it is, it was easy to be in agreement when we talked about Hungarian history, the state of Christian civilization, and the important questions of the future. This must have been the reason that until now I didn’t notice the differences which divide us and which are most likely due to our different generational responses.

You still see our beloved country’s anchoring in the West as an open question. For our own anti-communist generation hardened during the times of the regime change, it is a closed chapter.  A clearly and splendidly closed chapter. A worthy answer to the Soviet occupation of 1945 and to the decades of communism. It is an answer coming from the Hungarian spirit and Hungarian soul. Two plebiscites connect Hungary to the military and political system of the West. NATO and the European Union. What always belonged together has grown together. We chose our military, political, and economic systems by an overwhelming majority because today’s Hungarians know who we are and where we belong. We here at home already live in that future about which you still worry on the other side of the ocean.

miniszterelnokThe most challenging question of that future is the competitiveness of our West, that is of Europe in the next decades. My own answer can be summarized this way: the future of Europe is western identity and eastern activity. We have to firmly guard our values, including our Christian commitment, and at the same time with full speed we must build our economic ties with the East. This is what Germany, France, and even the United States are doing, and at last we ourselves started on that road.

Please don’t pay too much attention to the left, which is still struggling with its own communist past and Muscovite* role. Its present anti-Russian stance is outright laughable. To hold the view that strong economic ties with Russia are wrong because of its communist past would find its parallel in arguing against the strengthening of our economic ties with the Germans because they were Nazis. All this is only the scummy slough of communism.

As you know, we have an election campaign here and therefore there is more than usual disagreement. But I would bet a lot that on the question of Russian relations the day after the election there will be perfect agreement.

We thank you for your concerns and friendly words. We all of us wish you vigor and good health. We are looking forward to your new books.

January 27, 2014

With friendship,
Viktor Orbán


*Orbán actually uses the word “muszkavezető.” First of all, “muszka” as the equivalent of Russian is dying out in the Hungarian language. Second, “muszkavezető” literally means “someone who leads in the Russians.” One can say all sorts of things about Rákosi and his gang, but not that they themselves were responsible for the presence of the Russians on Hungarian soil.

John Lukacs on Paks

John Lukacs, the internationally renowned historian, was born in Budapest in 1924 but left Hungary at the age of 22 in 1946 when he foresaw that the Soviets would most likely force Hungary into a Soviet dominated eastern bloc of communist countries. A year later he joined the faculty of Chestnut Hill College where he spent forty-seven years until his retirement in 1994.

It is not easy to write a short introduction to somebody like John Lukacs who has in the last sixty years profoundly influenced historical scholarship on such varied topics as the history of the United States in the twentieth century, history and historiography, Adolf Hitler, George F. Kennan, Winston Churchill, and World War II, just to mention a few themes of his more than thirty books that appeared between 1953 and 2013. The scope of his scholarly interest is so wide that I can’t possibly do justice to it here. I’m sure that one day books will be written about him and his work. As it is, he has already been the subject of several scholarly articles.

John Lukacs is a conservative. In fact, he describes himself as a reactionary in the sense that he favors a return to earlier times. He dislikes mass culture and what goes with it. Lukacs’s bête noire is populism, which he considers to be the greatest threat to civilization; as he said, it gave rise to both national socialism and communism. A large portion of his scholarly works centers on Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler. In fact, he wrote a whole book on their struggle, The Duel: 10 May-31 July 1940: The Eighty-Day Struggle between Churchill and Hitler. But he also wrote separate volumes on these two men.

As a conservative he has been a favorite of Viktor Orbán and in general of the Hungarian right. During the first Orbán administration he was awarded the Corvin Chain, a decoration that was given out by Miklós Horthy between 1930 and 1943 to people for their achievement in the fields of science, literature, and the arts. Their number was limited to 12. It was in 2001 that Viktor Orbán revived the tradition. John Lukacs was among the first twelve recipients. But then Orbán lost the election and his successors decided to let the decoration lapse. In 2009 Lukacs received an honorary doctorate from Péter Pázmány University.

"A real Catholics cannot be a nationalist"

“A real Catholic cannot be a nationalist”

Considering that Lukacs finds populism and its practitioners abhorrent, I can’t imagine that he is too keen on what has become of Viktor Orbán. I can’t believe that the radical and abrupt changes that have been introduced into the Hungarian political system in the last four years are to the conservative Lukacs’s liking. But, as he says in his open letter translated and published here, it is not his task to comment on Hungarian politics. On the other hand, again as he himself remarks in the letter, even before 1988 he found that Viktor Orbán was no friend of the West. For a man who passionately believes in the mission of Western civilization, as Lukacs does, this attitude must be worrisome.

* * *

It was almost sixty-seven years ago that I left the country of my birth. Since then the fate of my country, my nation has often touched and gripped my heart, but I never dealt with or wrote about Hungarian politics.

Today, at the age of ninety, it is still not becoming. Yet something induces me to do it. I thought about this for two long nights.

The Russian-Hungarian agreement on Paks has been haunting me.

I don’t receive Hungarian newspapers. And only rarely Hungarian periodicals. In the mornings I click on Népszabadság for a few minutes. As far as I know, many Hungarians read this paper. That’s why I’m sending my letter there. Perhaps my words will reach a few hundred readers.

The present prime minister has honored me for many years with his attention and friendship. Still, I feel it my duty to address my opinion contained in this letter to him as well.  I have known his ideological inclinations for a long time, more than twenty years. The way I see it, even before 1989 he had a certain aversion to the so-called “West,” Western Europe and England.

But now he has reached a demarcation line. I don’t agree with those who talk and speculate about the economic consequences of the agreement on Paks. Will electricity be cheaper or more expensive in ten years when this project is completed (if at all)? My dear Hungarians, we have no way of knowing this, but even if we knew it, it is unimportant. The essence of a country, its fate is not an economic statistic. The essence of a country is who we are and where we belong.

History doesn’t repeat itself. That of nations rarely and only in small measure. The character of a man changes the least.  In the future perhaps this is the most profound question for Hungarians. Not just the dearth of Hungarian self-confidence. (Although that too!) But who we are, where we belong, which way to go.

Our St. Stephen wasn’t only a saint without peers but also a great founder of a state. At the time, more than a thousand years ago, the vast Greek Orthodox Byzantium almost completely surrounded the Carpathian Mountains. If Stephen had chosen accommodation with them he would have secured enormous advantages in the short run. But he didn’t choose that road. He chose Roman Christianity, papal legate, western wife, “Europe” (although that concept did not exist yet). It was this choice that shaped the faith, the character of Hungarian Christianity over the next one thousand years.

Western powers often did nothing or very little for us. And yet when Hungarian leaders a few times chose the “East” these ventures always ended in catastrophe. In the recent past the essence and origin of the tyranny that subjugated Hungary wasn’t communism but Russian occupation. At the end of the Second World War the great Churchill, who already knew that the Russians would occupy the whole of Hungary, repeatedly told Roosevelt (unfortunately in vain) that Hungary belongs not to Eastern but to Central Europe. The Hungarian masses rejected the East in 1956 and also in 1989.

What can we expect, what kind of reward from the Great Russian Empire? Nothing. Széchenyi and Kossuth already saw that. One must acknowledge and respect the Russians just as our distant relatives, the wise Finns, do. But we don’t have a place there. Accommodations with them cannot be the centerpiece of our endeavors. We honor their achievements, their great artists. But the spirit of the Hungarian mentality, the Hungarian intellect, Hungarian art and culture is western. Not Russian, not even American. Those who speak to us—in spite of all their greatness—are not so much Tolstoy or Dostoevsky as Dante, Shakespeare, Pascal, Goethe, and Tocqueville. The West was often our cross, but we must take it up because it is also our star. We should value our Russian neighbors but we must not accommodate them or fawn upon them because close association might be a lasting burden and a detriment to the Hungarian people for a long time to come.

Since 1989 we have been responsible for what we choose, what we do, and what we think. The Hungarian character and spirit are not eastern. Pax Vobiscum! These are the last words of the old Latin mass. Go in peace! But now Pax Nobis! Peace be with us!