Paks Atomic Power Plant

Vladimir Putin’s impending visit to Budapest

Népszava, a social democratic paper, is generally well-informed about the “secrets” of the government. This time it surprised its readers with a front-page article announcing a planned visit by Vladimir Putin to Budapest sometime in March. Budapest, judiciously spurned by western political leaders of late, is becoming a hub of diplomatic activity. Angela Merkel is scheduled for a five-hour visit on February 2 and now the news about Putin.

The newspaper pointed out that this will not be Putin’s first visit to Budapest. He was the guest of Ferenc Gyurcsány in February 2006 when the Hungarian prime minister supported the idea of the Southern Stream to the great annoyance and disapproval of both the United States and Viktor Orbán. Orbán at that time considered such a policy to be the equivalent of treason. The paper also called attention to Viktor Orbán’s about-face when he paid a visit to Moscow in November 2010 and again in February 2013.

Actually Népszava missed an earlier indication that a change in Russo-Hungarian relations was in the works. In November 2009, prior to his becoming prime minister, during a visit to St. Petersburg as one of the vice presidents of the European People’s Party Orbán attended the eleventh congress of the ruling United Russia Party. During this visit he indicated to Putin that he wanted “to put Russian-Hungarian relations on an entirely new footing.” He had made up his mind to conduct a pro-Russian foreign policy once in power.

Viktor Orbán and Vladimir Putin in Moscow, January 2014 Source: Europess / Getty Images / Sasha Mordovets

Viktor Orbán and Vladimir Putin in Moscow, January 2014
Source: Europess / Getty Images / Sasha Mordovets

Perhaps the first person to comment on the news of the visit was László Kovács, former foreign minister, who happened to be a visitor on the early morning program “ATV Start.” He assumes that the initiative for the visit came from Moscow. Zoltán Sz. Bíró, a Russian expert, shares Kovács’s hypothesis. Putin must have been the one to suggest the visit in the hope of convincing Orbán to veto the extension of EU sanctions against Russia, which expire in March. In Biró’s opinion, a veto by Orbán not supported by any other EU country would poison the relationship between Hungary and the West for a very long time. Therefore he doubts that Orbán would dare to go that far.

Attila Ara-Kovács, head of the “foreign cabinet” of the Demokratikus Koalíció, told Klubrádió that he knew about the impending visit for about a week but, according to his information, Putin’s visit will take place not in March, as Népszava reported, but on February 9. In his reading, it was Orbán who invited Putin and not the other way around, perhaps to show the world that he is not alone in his battle with the United States and the European Union. If Orbán sensed that Angela Merkel intended to deliver “bad news” during her stay in Budapest, perhaps a looming visit from Putin might temper her disapproval. Ara-Kovács considers this latest move of Orbán a provocation that will only add fuel to the fire in the strained relationship between Hungary and the West.

What are the reactions of the opposition parties? As usual, MSZP is hibernating. Not a word from József Tóbiás, the party chairman, or from anyone else. Együtt somewhat naively demands that the government consult with all parliamentary parties “in preparing the meeting between Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and the Russian president.” Együtt can wait for such a consultation. Együtt joined LMP in its opposition to the construction of the Paks2 nuclear power plant. Both parties want the government, during the prime minister’s meeting with Putin, to break its contract for a 10-billion-euro Russian loan to have Rossatom build the plant. Well, that will not happen either but it is possible, as Zoltán Sz. Biró suspects, that Russia for financial reasons will give up the idea of the project. PM’s reaction was the most sensible: the party would like to see a huge demonstration against Putin’s visit organized by all the democratic opposition parties as well as by the civic groups that were responsible for the recent mass demonstrations.

László Szily, the blogger of Cink.hu, correctly pointed out that, if it is true that Putin is coming to Budapest, Viktor Orbán just did those who have been expressing their anger against his regime in the last few months a huge favor. The most recent demonstration showed signs of fatigue, but Putin in Budapest could resurrect the old enthusiasm of the crowds and just might unite the hitherto anti-party civic groups and the democratic parties into one large and potent group. Moreover, too cozy a Russian-Hungarian friendship might cause a rift within Fidesz itself. A lot of Fidesz voters are adamantly anti-Russian.  In Szily’s words, “The vacillating opposition on the streets can be grateful to the prime minister because kowtowing to Russia, parading with the dictator is the kind of event that could successfully bring together the dissatisfied left, right, and liberal public.”

One party was elated by the news: Jobbik. This afternoon Jobbik published an official statement, the theme of which was “Hungary must represent the interests of peace and neutrality.” Márton Gyöngyösi, the party’s foreign policy expert, said that Jobbik is a supporter of Viktor Orbán’s “eastern opening” and “considers Russia an economic, political and cultural partner of Hungary.” Budapest, because of the Hungarian minority in the Subcarpathian region of Ukraine, shouldn’t side with its western allies. Gyöngyösi went even further than the rather subdued official statement when he told Hiradó, the organ of state propaganda, that “it is unacceptable that the Hungarian government, blindly representing western interests, is ready to throw the Subcarpathian Hungarians as bones to the West.”

It is hard to know what the next couple of months will bring on the international scene. We have no idea what kind of message Angela Merkel will deliver to Budapest on February 2. We don’t know what foreign reactions to Putin’s visit will be. But domestically the Russian president’s visit might just be a potent catalyst for political change.

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Viktor Orbán bet on the wrong horse

It’s time to turn our attention eastward, to Russia. Yesterday’s dramatic events shook the world despite the fact that people keeping an eye on the Russian economy have known for at least a year that Russia is in trouble.

Putin’s Russia, which not so long ago Viktor Orbán viewed as an ascendant power–as opposed to the countries of the declining west, is close to economic collapse. Viktor Orbán bet on the wrong horse both politically and economically. His scheme to offer Gazprom storage facilities in return for cheaper gas fell through when Putin was forced to abandon his ambitious plans for the Southern Stream that would ultimately reach Italy and Austria. As for Orbán’s grandiose project of adding two more reactors to the already functioning Paks nuclear power plant, there is a good chance that Russia will not be able to fulfill its promise of a 10 billion euro loan to Hungary. All in all, Orbán’s Russia policy is crumbling.

I would like to return to the passages from the infamous Bloomberg interview in which Orbán talked about his foreign policy objectives. Although some of Orbán’s English sentences are well nigh incomprehensible, here’s my best guess as to his intent.

I found it somewhat surprising that he admitted that the original underpinning of his foreign policy is no longer applicable. We all know that in his mind foreign policy is driven solely by commercial and financial interests. His whole Eastern Opening was based on this belief. Hungary may be a member of the European Union, but its economic future lies with the East. Well, he discovered that currently foreign policy “is based on geopolitics … which is a new challenge for all of us.” Well, not for all of us. It is a challenge for members of the new Hungarian diplomatic corps who have no diplomatic experience. It is a challenge for Péter Szijjártó whose only job until now was running around in Asian and Middle Eastern countries trying to drum up business.

When it came to Russia, Orbán was rather fuzzy in this interview. Hungary’s “Russian Doctrine”–whatever ‘doctrine’ means in this context–“is respect for international law while keeping open opportunities for economic cooperation.” This is a simplistic way of looking at the art of diplomacy. Russia did not respect international law and therefore Hungary, according to its Russian Doctrine, should stand squarely with the European Union. But that attitude most likely precludes “economic cooperation” with Moscow at the moment. How is he planning to achieve this acrobatic feat? “Hungary’s national interest on [sic] Russia is that we have to stick to principles of international law and shape economic sanctions depending on the situation. We shouldn’t throw sanctions out of the tool box but the EU should also start talks with Eurasian countries at the same time.” First of all, it is not clear what he means by “Eurasian countries.” Does he mean those countries that belong to the Eurasian Union? Belarus and Kazakhstan? Belarus used to send 80% of its exports to Russia, but because of Russia’s economic collapse those exports now make up only 40-45% of the country’s total exports. President Aleksandr Lukashenka urged his government to seek new markets. The Hungarian government, which complained bitterly about the EU sanctions that affected the country’s agricultural sector, would most likely have seen its agricultural exports to Russia slashed as well, even without the sanctions.

There is another Orbán sentence I found intriguing: “it can be expected of Hungary that it be as loyal as it can to Europe’s common foreign policy and for it not damage its efficiency.” My best guess is that this means that Hungary will be loyal as long as such loyalty does not damage its own interests. That’s not much of a commitment.

 

Vincent van Gogh, Old Nag (1883)

Vincent van Gogh, Old Nag (1883) Source: wikiart.org

The first batch of EU sanctions against Russia expires in March, the next in April, and the most painful ones on Russian banks and energy firms at the end of July. Russia already began lobbying in the capitals of countries most likely to take Russia’s side and thus prevent the renewal of the sanctions. The three countries the Russians are concentrating on are Hungary, Cyprus, and Italy. Hungary and Cyprus are considered to be vehicles of Russian designs–not exactly countries loyal to the EU cause. For the Hungarian prime minister, loyalty to the West only goes so far.

As for the future of Paks, more and more people believe, even within Fidesz circles, that nothing will come of it. Yet on December 9 three contracts were signed by MVM Paks II Atomerőmű Fejlesztő Zrt. and the Russian Joint-Stock Company Nizhny Novgorod Engineering Company. The Hungarian government official in charge of the project claimed that five months of intensive negotiations preceded the signing of the contracts. All details concerning the deals are secret. It seems to me that the Hungarian government is trying to sign all contracts pertinent to the building of the reactors as soon as possible. Of course, these contracts have nothing to do with the loan agreement itself. Contracts with engineering firms will be useless if there is no Russian loan. One can only hope that the Hungarian side had the good sense to include a proviso to the effect that the contracts are binding only if Hungary gets the necessary loan from Moscow.

Since December 9 not much has been heard about the contracts except for an exchange between Bertalan Tóth, an MSZP member of parliament, and János Lázár, minister of the prime minister’s office. According to Lázár, it was decided that in building the new reactors the government will invite western managers and partner firms. International headhunters are looking for the appropriate partners, according to Lázár. According to information received by vs.hu, two such energy companies might be in serious contention: the French Areva and the Finnish Fortum. This sounds to me like an attempt to sweeten the bitter pill for Brussels. Of course, it is possible that all this effort will be in vain and that Orbán’s dream of being the supplier of energy for half of western Europe will never materialize.

Attack on the United States and friendship with “tolerant” Russia

Don’t think that the Hungarian government’s attack on the incoming American ambassador is independent of the Hungarian-Russian deal on the Paks power plant. Oh no, both have a great deal to do with the Hungarian government’s continuing war of independence. The newest ally in this fight is the “tolerant” and democratic Russia under Vladimir Putin. At least this is what András Bencsik, one of the organizers of the Peace Marches that demonstrated against the European Union, thinks.

If you think that I’m joking, you are wrong. Serious efforts are being made by Fidesz-Jobbik supporters  to recreate the old Soviet/Russian friendship from which twenty-three years ago Hungarians were happy to escape. The Fidesz-Jobbik label is not a mistake on my part. I consider Zsolt Bayer, András Bencsik, Gábor Széles and others involved in the Peace March movement outright anti-Semite neo-Nazis. And yes, they are supporters of the present government. The two are not mutually exclusive alternatives.

It all started with the letter addressed to Colleen Bell, the U.S. ambassador designate, who was accused by Gergely Gulyás, an influential member of Fidesz and an MP, of representing the interests of the Hungarian opposition. She was told in no uncertain terms that the Hungarian people will not stand for the tutelage of a foreign power. There is even talk of dragging the new ambassador before a parliamentary committee investigating American illegal spying on Hungarian politicians, including perhaps Viktor Orbán.

Of course, we all know that Gergely Gulyás would never dare to make such a frontal attack on the United States on his own. There is no question in my mind that a vicious anti-American propaganda is under way which might be connected to the forthcoming election as well as the possible domestic opposition to the Russian-Hungarian deal on Paks. In any case, the innocent victim of the political and diplomatic game will be Colleen Bell, who has not the foggiest idea what is waiting for her. I suspect she will soon be sorry that she ever had ambassadorial ambitions.

As soon as Gulyás set the tone, everybody on the right felt free to join the offensive. Even our “moderate” János Martonyi decided to line up and move Hungary’s attack against the United States abroad. He gave an interview to the Budapest correspondent of The Wall Street Journal in which he “urged the incoming U.S. ambassador to Budapest to stay independent in her judgment after Colleen Bradley Bell voiced concerns about the state of checks and balances in Hungary and independence of some of the country’s institutions.”

Naturally, Martonyi is more diplomatic than the far-right-wing Fidesz supporters like András Bencsik who feel just as comfortable in Jobbik’s Hungarian Guard as in Fidesz (and earlier, in the case of Bencsik, in communist circles). Bencsik is a man of action. This morning he wrote a short piece on Facebook in which he announced his plans to organize another Peace March, not surprisingly a week before the election, on March 29. Of course, one goal is to fire up the core Fidesz electorate. But it will be a demonstration against the United States “which takes up the role of the Soviet Union. It doesn’t send ambassadors but arrogant regional governors, instructors, commissars to the subjugated country whose job is to relay tidbits of the ideas of the enslaved people to the heart of the empire. Their job is to force these primitive people to lead a prescribed life: ‘checks and balances and marijuana.'” The last refers to President Obama’s views on the legalization of marijuana. “In comparison Russia is the home of tolerance.”

Bencsik in this Facebook note interprets “checks and balances” as some kind of geopolitical balance that was, for example, practiced by the princes of Transylvania who maneuvered  between the Ottoman and the Habsburg Empires. With closer relations with Russia, Bencsik argues, Hungary can have a larger role to play in foreign affairs and will thus receive greater independence. Of course, not everybody will be happy with this new Russian-Hungarian friendship, just as Izsák Schulhof mourned the departure of the Turks from Buda. What? Who is this Schulhof? Bencsik, an anti-Semite, naturally found his anti-Hungarian Jew who allegedly mourned the departure of the escaping Turks from Buda in 1686. As usual, the story is not accurate. A friend of mine sent me a link to a letter of a historian of the Budapest Historical Museum which sets the story straight. It seems that these anti-Semites manage to find some usually untrue story to depict Jews as historically against the Hungarian nation. The implication of Bencsik’s reference to Schulhof is that only Jews complain about the foreign policy of Viktor Orbán which otherwise gives greater leeway for diplomatic maneuvering and therefore is beneficial to Hungary.

paks1

paks2

Some Hungarian weeklies had fantastic covers depicting this new love affair between Viktor Orbán and Vladimir Putin. András Bencsik’s Magyar Demokrata, on the other hand, decided to feature the new “museum quarter” in the heart of Budapest.

Heti Válasz opted for word play on “pax vobiscum” from the Catholic mass,  meaning “peace be with you,” while Figyelő talked about “atomic power.” HVG reminded its readers of the “Eastern bloc.” I especially like Magyar Narancs’s “The country is on Putin’s hook.” The pictures appeared on 444.hu.

Russian-Hungarian agreement concerning atomic energy: What will Putin and Orbán sign tomorrow?

It was again Magyar Nemzet that first came out with a short news item heralding Viktor Orbán’s forthcoming “diplomatic offensive.” The paper’s guess was that the move was in some way connected to the election campaign. The prime minister is supposed to visit Russia, China, and several other, mostly Arab countries.

I didn’t find Magyar Nemzet‘s explanation for this diplomatic onslaught terribly convincing because I’m sure Viktor Orbán still remembers his mistake during the election campaign in 2002 when he decided not to dirty his hands with campaigning but instead showed himself as the real statesman hard at work. And he lost the election.

The pro-government paper did mention, with reference to his Russian trip tomorrow, that “Viktor Orbán may sign an agreement about the continuation of the existing cooperation between the two countries concerning atomic energy matters.” It added that “the expansion of the Paks nuclear power plant” might also be discussed.

Népszabadság learned more about the plans from Fidesz sources. The paper reminded its readers of János Lázár’s announcement about the “advanced negotiations” concerning the enlargement of Paks’s capacity, which would double the output of the power plant. The government claims that this addition to the existing facilities would lower utility prices. The opponents of the plan claim the opposite: prices would rise because of the high cost of expanding Paks. Indeed, this particular investment will be costly. Experts talk about 3-4 trillion forints, which naturally Hungary doesn’t have. But that’s not the only problem. In her present financial situation, Hungary can’t even borrow that much money because it would upset the precarious balance the government achieved as far as the deficit is concerned. But it seems that thanks to the “good offices” of the Rosatom State Atomic Energy Corporation the Hungarian partner may be able to pay the cost of the investment on the “installment plan.” Originally, even Orbán was talking about an international tender, but none of the other companies that are in the atomic power plant business was ready to be so generous. Of course, this generosity has its price which might take several forms: joint ownership, profit sharing, and various other business arrangements.

Paks Aromic Power Plant /www.sff.hu

Paks Atomic Power Plant /www.sff.hu

Not surprisingly it was the politicians of Párbeszéd Magyarországért (PM/Dialogue for Hungary) who were the first to raise their voices against the plan because these politicians are committed to the idea of green energy. They objected, with good reason, to the secrecy with which these negotiations were conducted. They raised objections to making such a momentous and controversial decision without any public discussion or any consultation with independent experts. Why the hurry? Is Viktor Orbán afraid that he might not win the election and does he therefore want to push the decision through his parliamentary voting machine prior to April or May? Benedek Jávor, co-chair of PM, declared that he and his party consider any agreement arrived at in Moscow without parliamentary authorization null and void. Such a momentous decision cannot be the private domain of the prime minister. It is not only a very expensive undertaking, but the planned arrangement also puts Hungary at the mercy of Putin’s Russia.

The government’s answer to the critics was lame. András Giró-Szász, the government spokesman, declared that it would have been impolite to refuse an invitation from Putin. This explanation is utterly ridiculous. As if Putin one morning woke up, had a burning desire to meet Viktor Orbán again, and out of the blue dropped an invitation in his mailbox. Giró-Szász, perhaps realizing the absurdity of his first claim, added that “after all, it is very important to take a look at the past year’s economic results.” As if they had anything to do with the matter at hand.

Today we learned that Gordon Bajnai (Együtt-2014) and Benedek Jávor (PM) jointly wrote an open letter to Viktor Orbán in which they pointed out that the expansion of Paks would determine the country’s energy policies for the next sixty years and therefore such a decision cannot be sanctioned without a public debate and without parliamentary authorization. They demanded immediate information about any negotiations and decisions.

A couple of hours later Bajnai and Jávor got an answer: “yes, there will be a bilateral agreement” signed in Moscow. The Government Information Center pointed out that the government has been studying the possibilities of the use of atomic energy. A year ago Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orbán discussed questions of cooperation at the time of Orbán’s visit to Moscow. An agreement was reached in December. After the prime minister’s return from Moscow the government will inform the public about the details.

Thus, we don’t know more about the agreement than before. Obviously Viktor Orbán can make the decision, whatever that decision is, alone. The “people” this government talks so much about have no business questioning the wise man’s decision. He knows what is good for the people. Another case of Hungarian democracy at work.