Michael Roth

German-Hungarian dialogues: Munich and Berlin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Hungary is in a difficult diplomatic bind: The “Orbán doctrine” is dead

This morning 168 Óra ran the headline “The Orbán doctrine has collapsed after three days.” The reason is the Russian “incursion” into Ukrainian territory. After that, said Árpád Székely, former Hungarian ambassador to Moscow, there will be neither Paks nor the Southern Stream. Székely actually welcomes the first consequence, a dubious deal between the Hungarian and the Russian government to build a new nuclear reactor in Hungary, but he is sorry about the likelihood of scrapping the Southern Stream project that would have supplied gas to the Balkans, Hungary, and Austria.

While high-level negotiations in the UN, NATO, and EU are going on over the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, I had to think about one of the many fallacies Viktor Orbán presented us with during his pep talk to the Hungarian ambassadors only four days ago. In his speech he indicated that as far as he is concerned old-fashioned diplomacy is passé. “Not that classical diplomacy has lost its magic and beauty” but “we must acknowledge the realities of the economic age in which we live.” Well, the Russo-Ukrainian conflict must be solved by old fashioned diplomacy, and Hungary’s newly reorganized foreign ministry is ill prepared for the task. Moreover, its leaders are constrained by the prime minister’s unorthodox ideas on diplomacy. Orbán’s Hungary is in a bind.

I should note in passing that German-Hungarian relations have cooled considerably. Earlier, I wrote about a warning from Michael Roth, undersecretary of the German foreign ministry, that in his government’s point of view “Hungary is going in the wrong direction.” Since then an even more detailed and stronger statement was signed by Michael Roth, undersecretary in charge of European Affairs at the German Foreign Ministry, and his colleague Tomáš Prouza in the Czech Foreign Ministry. They warned that “Europe is more than a market.” It is a community of shared values.

According to Hungarian sources, Hungarian diplomats have been trying for some time to entice Chancellor Angela Merkel to visit Hungary for the annual German-Hungarian Forum. After all, this is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the German refugees’ safe passage to Austria thanks to the action of the Hungarian government in 1989. If she could not come, they at least hoped for a visit by the new foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Well, it seems that Budapest will have to be satisfied with an assistant undersecretary as the representative of the German government. The highest ranking German participant will be Reinhold Gall, social democratic minister of the interior of Baden-Württemberg.

Now, to return to the current diplomatic challenge. After the failure of the meeting between Vladimir Putin and Petro Poroshenko in Belarus, several thousand Russian troops crossed the Russian-Ukrainian border. Subsequently Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk announced that his government will introduce a proposal in parliament to change the non-aligned status of the country and to request membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Some observers immediately announced that Ukrainian admission to NATO was very unlikely. However, NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen made a statement today in Brussels, saying: “I’m not going to interfere in political discussions in Ukraine. But let me remind you of NATO’s decision at the Bucharest summit in 2008, according to which Ukraine ‘will become a member of NATO’ provided of course, Ukraine so wishes and fulfills the necessary criteria.” A strong warning for Russia. Putin often stressed that Russia will not tolerate a NATO presence on Ukrainian soil.

Meanwhile, EU foreign ministers are recommending tougher sanctions against Russia. They gathered in Milan today for an informal meeting to discuss the Ukrainian crisis. Tibor Navracsics represented Hungary in Milan, but I could find no report on his position in the Council of Foreign Ministers. We know that Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Latvia, and Denmark were strongly in support of tougher action.


German Foreign Minister Walter Steinmeier is arriving at the informal meeting of EU foreign ministers in Milan

Tomorrow the European Council will meet again to decide on the President of the European Union and the EU Foreign Affairs Chief. According to the latest intelligence, the next President of the European Union will be most likely Donald Tusk, prime minister of Poland.

Tusk’s government has been among the most hawkish in Europe over the issue of Ukraine. Just today the Polish government announced that it will allow the plane of Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu to fly over its territory only if the plane changes its status from military to civilian. Earlier his plane was barred altogether from Polish air space. Russia was not very happy. Its foreign ministry declared that Poland’s closing its air space to Shoygu’s plane is “a major violation of norms and ethics of the communication between states.”

Today three of the four members of the Visegrád4 (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary) issued statements about the Russian incursion. Poland’s foreign ministry said that it regards the incursion of Russian troops into the southern regions of the Donetsk province “as actions that fulfill the attributes of aggression, as defined in UN documents–Resolution 3314 of the United Nations General Assembly.”

The Czech statement was equally strongly worded. “The Czech Republic considers the incursion of the armed forces of the Russian Federation into the territory of eastern and southeastern Ukraine a fundamental threat to peace and stability of all of Europe.” It called on Russia “to immediately withdraw its troops from the Ukrainian territory.”

The silence from Slovakia was deafening.

Hungary chose an intermediate position and released the following statement: “We are closely monitoring and evaluating the situation on the ground, and we are in contact with our EU and NATO allies. A confirmed incursion of  Russian regular military units on Ukrainian territory would gravely escalate the crisis. In line with our consistently expressed earlier position, we emphasise that only a political process can lend a sustainable solution to the present crisis and therefore we support all diplomatic efforts to this end. The upcoming extraordinary European Council meeting and the informal meeting of the EU foreign ministers offer good opportunities for harmonizing the European position on this matter.”

Two of the opposition parties, Együtt-PM and DK, called on the government to stand by Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity. The former also wants the Hungarian government to suspend preparations for the expansion of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant while Russian troops remain on Ukrainian soil. The party also asked Orbán to use his good offices with Putin to convince the Russian leader to withdraw his troops from Ukraine.

DK wants to call together the parliamentary committees on foreign affairs, national security, and defense and to have the government prepare a statement that condemns Russian military action against Ukraine. In addition, Tibor Navracsics should call in the Russian ambassador to Hungary to convey to him Hungary’s condemnation of Russian aggression. Naturally, none of these suggestions or demands will be considered by the Orbán government.

On the other hand, I believe that Viktor Orbán will quietly vote with the majority on all the issues that will be discussed at tomorrow’s European Council meeting only to go home and report on the excellent ideas he gave to his colleagues about how to solve the Ukrainian crisis.

Another strange Orbán speech at the 25th anniversary of the Pan-European Picnic

Another day, another speech. Earlier I briefly mentioned that the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Pan-European Picnic has been one of the important topics in the German press lately. The interest is understandable. It was the very beginning of the German unification process.

During the summer of 1989 Otto von Habsburg, who at the time was a member of the European Parliament, gave a lecture in Debrecen extolling the benefits of a Europe without borders. A couple of MDF activists came up with the idea of organizing a picnic right at the border between Austria and Hungary, symbolizing the artificial nature of borders. The organizers convinced Otto von Habsburg and Imre Pozsgay, a member of the Németh government and high-ranking party functionary, to attend the gathering to be held on August 19.

It turned out to be more than a simple picnic. Some East Germans who happened to be in Hungary heard about the event and decided to crash it in more than one way. They ran to the gate between Austria and Hungary and broke through. The Hungarian border guards were instructed to let them go. In fact, some children who were left behind were taken by Hungarian border guards across the border to join their parents. What followed we all know. On September 11 the Hungarian government opened the borders for all East Germans who were camping out in Hungary waiting for an opportunity to leave.

Hungarian border guards open the gate to freedom

Hungarian border guards open the gate to freedom

Yesterday Germans, Hungarians, Austrians, and some of the few hundred people who broke through the gate gathered to remember that  momentous day. Naturally, Viktor Orbán was also present. But instead of giving a formal speech he had a fairly lengthy “conversation” with Philip Rákay, a long time Fidesz activist and nowadays the superintendent of MTV, the state television station.

It was a strange conversation in which Orbán combined praise of the Hungarian nation with an explanation of his use of the word “liberal.” His speech back in July does need some explanation, especially since a couple of days ago he received some harsh words from the German Foreign Ministry. Undersecretary Michael Roth indicated that in the opinion of the German government “Hungary is going in the wrong direction.” According to Roth, Germany is grateful to the Hungarians for their courage in standing up for freedom in 1989, but today Germany must ask about the state of freedom in Hungary. “The developments taking place in Hungary raise concern,” he said, because “they affect our common European foundation.” This admonition came not from The Washington Post or The New York Times but from the government of the strongest and most influential country in the European Union.

This morning Péter Szijjártó responded by calling Roth’s “allegations” so general as to be meaningless, and he declared that no one should worry about the state of democracy in Hungary. Hungarians demand “respect” because they are freedom-loving people. “We are not the ones who threaten democracy.” Orbán at the commemoration ceremony also stressed the freedom-loving nature of Hungarians, adding that they are also chivalrous and magnanimous. Magnanimous because they did not take the money offered to them by Germany in exchange for the Hungarian courage and generosity shown in allowing thousands of Germans to cross over to Austria.

Soon enough, however, Orbán left history behind and began talking about matters that were in one way or another connected to his infamous speech. For example, he pointed out that Hungary cannot copy the Chinese, Russian, Japanese, or South Korean models because “we are Hungarians who come from a fundamentally Christian culture, motivated by freedom and [therefore] we must build a different economic and political system.” I have the feeling that this reassurance will not be enough for the politicians of the Trans-Atlantic alliance.

As for his description of the events of 1989, “the year of miracles,” it focused on Fidesz’s and his own role, with the usual emphasis on forcing the Russians to withdraw and getting rid of the communists. The Fidesz youngsters decided to be as radical as possible while there was such a revolutionary mood. It is almost as if Viktor Orbán and his youth organization were the only players in the drama of the regime change. Most of those present don’t remember the minute details of those months and don’t realize that Viktor Orbán and his friend László Kövér were only minor characters who until the last minute were not even admitted as negotiating partners in the Round Table Discussions. They don’t remember that the Russian troop withdrawals were negotiated by the Németh government, the “communists” who figured so large in Orbán’s discussion yesterday at the celebration.

According to Népszabadság the word “communist” was the most frequent one to leave his lips. Orbán’s critics keep repeating that they don’t understand where Orbán finds his communists because according to practically all independent observers there are mighty few of them, and they certainly cannot be found in public life. These critics, however, are most likely not familiar with the works of Gyula Tellér, who is convinced that the power structure that developed in 1954-55 is still with us. At the top were the hard-core Rákosists and the communists around Imre Nagy. These two power groups fought for supremacy. Under them were the middle classes and the petite bourgeoisie. This structure, according to Tellér, has remained surprisingly stable over more than fifty years.

Since Orbán is an attentive student of Tellér, according to whom these two top communist groups still exist, he continues to talk about communists in a country where the communist party is practically nonexistent. The real enemy, however, is not this group of ineffectual self-proclaimed communists; it is the opposition, whom Orbán views as communists who hide beneath the mask of Western-style socialism and liberalism. These covert communists must be obliterated, destroyed. The fight cannot end.

In fact, that fight has been intensified since 2010 when there was a revolution thanks to the electoral victory that produced a two-thirds majority in parliament.  Orbán recalled that József Antall sarcastically said to his critics who complained that his government did not stamp out the whole communist hierarchy, “Tetszettek volna forradalmat csinálni,” a very difficult phrase to translate because “You should have staged a revolution” doesn’t do it justice. Well, Orbán continued, in 2010 “tetszettünk forradalmat csinálni”  (We did stage a revolution). The fight against the “communists” will continue.

And the fight will continue on another front as well. János Lázár in his speech today told the Hungarians that they “are only half way into the reorganization of the Hungarian state.” Yes, they created new civil and criminal codes and a new administrative structure. What is still missing is a “new state structure.” I’m afraid that means a move toward a presidential system, with Viktor Orbán as president with far-reaching powers.