László Kéri

Vladimir Putin in Budapest

Four times today the Hungarian government had to revise the appointed hour of the Orbán-Putin press conference. At last the great event took place close to 8 p.m. Putin arrived late in the first place. Instead of 2 p.m. he landed at 3:20. Just to give you an idea of the scale of this visit, the Russians came with eight planes and carried along 30 some cars to protect Vladimir Putin’s armored limousine. Putin’s convoy moved to Heroes Square and from there to the Russian military cemetery.

Let’s pause here a bit because this cemetery became the object of great interest. Buried in most of the thousands of graves on this site are soldiers who died during the siege of Budapest during the winter of 1944-45. In addition, there are graves that belong to soldiers who died during the revolution in October 1956. In the cemetery there are monuments to their heroism during “the counterrevolution.” Most likely not too many people noticed these forgotten relics, which survived the regime change. But now, especially since belittling the greatness of the 1956 revolution is a punishable offense, most anti-government commentators are appalled. How is it possible that the Hungarian government didn’t manage to impress on the Russians that calling 1956 a counterrevolution is a sensitive issue in Hungary and that the inscriptions should be changed to something more neutral? After all, Boris Yeltsin apologized for 1956 and one would think that the new “democratic” regime in Russia no longer considers the Soviet intervention in 1956 justifiable. It turned out that Csaba Hende, minister of defense, suggested a change but to no avail. Knowing Vladimir Putin’s attachment to the Soviet past, I’m certain that he in fact considers the uprising in Hungary a counterrevolution. So, it’s no wonder that some of the speakers at yesterday’s demonstration denounced Viktor Orbán’s friendship with Putin as a desecration of Hungary’s proudest moment in the last century. Especially since Viktor Orbán claims pride of place in the events that led to a democratic regime thirty some years later.

As for the topics discussed by the two leaders, the public learned very little. On the Hungarian side almost no information was revealed. The little we learned was from Russian sources. According to one source, sputniknews.com, Yuri Ushakov, presidential aide to Putin, informed the paper that the 1998 gas contract that expires this year will certainly will be discussed. He also indicated that Putin would discuss an alternative to the Southern Stream. Otherwise, fairly mundane topics were on the agenda. Opposition circles guffawed over the news that Hungary will open a third consulate in Kazan, capital of the Republic of Tatarstan.

Putin and Orban Budapest2

Source: Reuters / Photo László Balogh

Five agreements were signed: on regional economic cooperation, on bilateral cooperation on healthcare issues and higher education, on the opening of the consulate in Kazan, and on the exchange of technical know-how on atomic energy issues. This last one is a first step toward building the second reactor in Paks. On the surface these are pretty meager achievements given the fanfare that preceded the visit.

After the press conference Hungarian talking heads announced that Viktor Orbán hadn’t achieved anything. Putin came empty-handed and didn’t seem to appreciate Orbán’s efforts on his behalf in the face of opposition by the European Union and the United States.

As I mentioned earlier, the press conference was held an hour later than originally planned. Between Putin’s arrival and the press conference more than four hours elapsed. That left plenty of time for a lengthy discussion between the two men. In my estimation Orbán had a much longer discussion with Putin than he did with Angela Merkel. If I had to judge, just on the basis of Orbán’s countenance, I would say that the Hungarian prime minister’s conversation with Putin went a great deal better than his conversation with Merkel did. At least from his point of view. Orbán certainly made sure that he would in no way show himself at odds with the Russian position. He talked about Ukraine as little as possible, and then simply repeated his desire for peace. At what price? He did not touch on any of that.

He was unctuous when he thanked Putin for the visit and stressed that his decision to come was “a great honor for us.” Hungary needs Russia because of energy. Cooperation and good relations are important not only for the two countries but also between Russia and the European Union. He emphasized the importance of “Eurasian cooperation” and expressed his delight that French leaders share his thoughts on the subject. He did not refer to Paks but said that a “political agreement was reached” on the use of the gas that Hungary had contracted for but had still not used. Hungary will be able to use this considerable amount of gas over the next few years instead of paying for it before the expiration of the contract. This “guarantees the future of Hungarian industry.” Unfortunately, we know nothing of the details–of the price of gas or the duration of the new contract. According to Magyar Nemzet, it is unlikely that Hungary will be able to purchase natural gas from Russia cheaper than, for example, Germany, a country that is not so heavily dependent on the Russian supply.

From Putin’s short speech we at last learned that it was, after all, Viktor Orbán who invited Putin to Hungary, a point of debate among Hungarian political observers. Putin talked about Paks and the 9 billion dollars Russia will lend to Hungary on very good terms. Paks will create 10,000 new jobs as an added bonus, he said. He found the talks very constructive. Putin made sure to mention that he invited Orbán to the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, which will take place in Moscow on May 9. Of course, Putin invited the leaders of all the countries that were involved in that war, but we don’t know yet whether, for example, Barack Obama will accept the invitation given “the deep chill in relations between Russia and the West, triggered by Russia’s annexation of the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine and its support for a rebellion in the country’s east.” North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was also invited to attend the ceremonies.

Viktor Orbán had the last word. He delivered a ringing speech attacking those people “who want to shut Russia out from the energy market of Europe, a proposition [he considers] utter nonsense (badarság).” Orbán I assume was referring to the United States. It is hard to fathom why it was necessary to attack Washington, especially after Péter Szijjártó expressed his hope for improved U.S.-Hungarian relations. Orbán said he was disappointed about the demise of the Southern Stream project but announced that Hungary has been negotiating with Turkey, Macedonia, Serbia, and Greece about a pipeline through these countries. According to Orbán, Vladimir Putin “has given us encouragement” to continue these negotiations. It was not quite clear what Orbán meant by claiming that between 1998 and 2002 “awful things happened in Russia.” Perhaps this was an attempt to explain why he as prime minister during those years was such a determined foe of Russia, despite the fact that Putin became prime minister of Russia in 1999. Finally he praised Putin’s Russia as a partner one can trust.

On the same day that Orbán met with Vladimir Putin, American Ambassador Colleen Bell gave a lunch in honor of Mykhailo Yunger, chargé d’affaires of the Ukrainian Embassy. Bell minced no words:

I find it significant and inspiring that the unity of effort among us has played such a critical part.  Our unity on sanctions has sent a clear message to Russia, that we cannot be divided.  And our collective message has also made clear that we do not accept the vision of “New Russia,” we do not accept Moscow’s explanation for the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner, we do not accept missile attacks on civilians in Mariupol, and we do not accept continued falsehoods about the recruiting, arming and equipping of separatists who are murdering and maiming innocent people including defenseless children.  We say no to this.  We say yes to Ukraine’s sovereignty.

As you are all well aware, President Putin is in Budapest today.  We could think of no better way to observe the day than to focus on our hopes for Ukraine’s sovereignty and its future, and to share those hopes with you, Mr. Yunger, among our friends and allies.

As a friend of mine, a well-known journalist, wrote to me: “after this speech they will wish Goodfriend back.”

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Hungary’s ruling party and its concept of democracy

A fairly lengthy psychological portrait of Viktor Orbán has been circulating online lately. It is not new. It was put together in 2010, and my hunch is that it’s arousing interest now because after almost three years of the Orbán regime people are becoming curious about the psychological makeup of the man. After all, it is becoming clearer by the day that there is something not quite right with the original founders of Fidesz. Perhaps they are not what people thought they were. Attila Ara-Kovács’s short essay on the young Orbán stirred things up, and I hope that others who know a lot about this period will probe further into the beginnings of Fidesz and the people who were responsible for its founding and nurturing.

The profile is based on Freudian psychoanalysis. To my mind its real value comes not so much from its theoretical hypotheses as from its account, based on contemporary sources and later recollections, of how  self-government in the college dormitory where Fidesz was born functioned. If we can believe László Kéri, the political scientist who was one of their original supporters, four people ran the show in the dormitory: László Kövér, Lajos Simicska, Viktor Orbán, and Tamás Varga. (Varga subsequently spent more than three years in jail for tax fraud.) Orbán, Simicska, and Varga all came from the Székesfehérvár gymnasium. The “gang of four” were the ones who told all the others how they were supposed to behave and what they were supposed to think. Kéri thought that they were an aggressive, exclusive group who ignored the opinions of others and constantly sought out enemies. He compared them to the “Lenin boys” of Béla Kun who traveled the country murdering people. Kéri apparently warned that when Orbán runs this country he “will hang [István] Stumpf and me first because we know who you were once-upon-a-time.” Lately there has been a concerted effort to discredit Stumpf who as a judge on the constitutional court has exhibited too much independence and tends to side with those who rule against the government.

Kéri may have been that perceptive in the late 1980s, but I must say that he showed less acumen when before the 2010 elections he was actually looking forward to a new Orbán government, preferably with a two-thirds majority, because Viktor Orbán in this case will accomplish great things. When the reporter who conducted the interview with Kéri reminded him that Orbán’s first government was not very promising, he optimistically remarked that Orbán is eight years older and therefore wiser. He will be a great prime minister.

Soon enough Kéri had to admit that he was dead wrong. Reflecting on the lost election of 2002, Orbán told József Debreczeni, his biographer, that the only reason he failed was that he was not tough enough.

Critics of the current government tend to gloss over the first Orbán government even though almost all of the present tendencies have their antecedents in Orbán’s first four years in power: extreme nationalism, unification of the nation across borders, accommodating MIÉP (an extremist anti-Semitic party), interference with the media, government propaganda, strained relations with the neighbors. And one could go on and on. General dissatisfaction with, and even fear of, the government led to a record turnout in the 2002 election. And yet eight years later the same crew was reelected with a large majority.

Today, conflicts with the outside world are considerably more numerous than they were between 1998 and 2002 when Hungary wasn’t part of the European Union. But even then Viktor Orbán wasn’t exactly the favorite of foreign political leaders. He had especially strained relations with the United States. George W. Bush refused to meet him, most likely because although he was present in the chamber he acted as if he didn’t hear István Csurka’s (MIÉP) comment after 9/11 that the United States only got what it deserved. Relations with Romania were bad and Orbán managed to tear into Austria as well. Because of his attack on the Beneš doctrine he was not exactly beloved in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. He looked upon Russia as an arch enemy. By the end he had only two friends left: Silvio Berlusconi and the Croatian Franjo Tuđman, whose funeral was boycotted by foreign politicians. But, fear not, Viktor Orbán was there.

A few days ago László Kéri wrote a fairly lengthy critique of the second Orbán government. The essay focuses on the first sentence of the government program allegedly written by Viktor Orbán: “The victor has a job to do, not to insist on being right…. For me this is the motto of modern governance.” And yet, says Kéri, Orbán has been doing nothing else in the last three years but trying to convince everybody that he is right. Always right. While none of the tasks he set forth has been accomplished. He destroyed practically overnight the old structures but was unable to set up functioning new ones.

The politicians of Fidesz don't believe in them

The politicians of Fidesz don’t believe in them.

These criticisms point out administrative failings. But George Kopits, former chairman of Hungary’s fiscal council between 2009 and 2011, is harder hitting. In The Wall Street Journal he bluntly calls Viktor Orbán’s newly constructed regime “a constitutional mob rule” because with the two-thirds majority Viktor Orbán can do whatever he wants. May I remind everybody that George Kopits is an economist with conservative political views, not one of those liberals whom the government accuses of treason against the nation when they criticize his government. Kopits also thinks that “today’s Hungary is eerily reminiscent of the communist regime of János Kádár, under which all public institutions were potemkin bodies that dared not challenge the hegemony of the Politburo.”

Is Kopits exaggerating? Surely not. Just today a lengthy interview with László Kövér appeared in Heti Válasz. Only a summary is available online, but the quotations are telling. “In a democracy there is only one constituent assembly, the people, which at election time receives a mandate through its representatives who via fixed rules and regulations exercise their rights.” The scrutiny of the constitution by the constitutional court “would mean the end of the rule of law and democracy.” He continues: “Who is a democrat? I, who think that the country’s future depends on the free decision of the people which can be corrected in four years, or those who in their distrust of the people expect a small body to read what kinds of messages the God of the Constitution (alkotmányosságisten) sends to earthlings based on the constellations, viscera, and bird bones?” In brief, the constitutional court is not only superfluous but is an outright undemocratic institution. So much for any understanding of democracy by the present rulers of Hungary. If one takes a look at the old 1949 Stalinist constitution, one will find very similar sentiments. Obviously Kövér and company feel quite comfortable with the constitutional arrangement of that dictatorial regime.