Russia

The Putin visit a day after

Yesterday, shortly after the Putin-Orbán press conference ended, I summarized the events of the day and gave a brief account of what the two politicians had to say about their meeting. My immediate impression was that the winner of this encounter was Vladimir Putin. He received an invitation to a member state of the European Union where he has been a pariah ever since June 2014 and was treated well.

After forming his government in 2010, Viktor Orbán made no secret of his desire to have not only good economic relations with Russia but also close political ties. No country in the western alliance ever objected to trade relations with Russia, but Orbán’s political friendship with Russia has been watched with growing suspicion, especially after the events in Ukraine. During the last year or so Viktor Orbán has been busy trying to appease the European Union while hoping to get added benefits from Russia.

To his domestic critics Orbán’s performance yesterday was embarrassingly subservient. Attila Ara-Kovács, the foreign policy adviser to the Demokratikus Koalíció, described Putin as “a landlord” who came to look around his estate while Orbán the bailiff stood by, awaiting the master’s orders.

Putin’s visit to the cemetery has been drawing very strong criticism. Hungary seems to be in such a subordinate position to Russia that the government is unable to make the Russians change the objectionable word “counterrevolution.”  What happened yesterday was the humiliation of the nation, critics say. Barring the Hungarian media from the cemetery was also troubling.  Did the Russians insist on this? And if so, how could the Hungarian prime minister agree to such an arrangement?

The most substantive criticism of Orbán’s performance yesterday was his complete silence on Russian aggression against Ukraine. Two days after he visited Kiev he stood motionless next to Putin, who was “just rewriting the Minsk Agreement,” as István Szent-Iványi, former ambassador to Slovenia, aptly put it on ATV this morning.  Orbán’s message to the world was clear: “Hungary needs Russia.” That’s all he cares about.

Throughout the press conference he steadfastly supported the Russian position. Today’s editorial in Népszabadság on the Orbán-Putin encounter was titled “Shame.” What did the editorial board of the paper find shameful? The list is quite long. The “strong man of Europe” and “the living statue of bravery” listened while Putin accused the Ukrainians of starting the war and while he called the separatists “aided by Russian regulars armed to the teeth” simple miners and tractor drivers. Orbán didn’t move a muscle when Putin called on the Ukrainian soldiers encircled by Russian and separatist forces in Debaltseve to surrender. He didn’t mention the inviolability of territorial integrity and the sovereignty of a neighboring country. He said nothing about the concerns of the European Union or about the victims of the fighting. In brief, he behaved shamefully. Orbán chose Russia. The die is cast, says Népszabadság. 

What did Viktor Orbán get in exchange? Not much. Gas, which he would have gotten without all this humiliation from Russia, and scorn from the West. Since yesterday we learned that Hungary is paying $260 for 1,000m³, which is apparently higher than the open market price. At least he avoided signing a long-term contract which, given recent price volatility, would have been a particularly bad deal.

Unfortunately, we know almost nothing about what the two men discussed for two solid hours. It couldn’t have been the continued supply of Russian gas to Hungary because that was a done deal before yesterday’s meeting. Viktor Orbán himself admitted today when he talked to a group of journalists that what the deal needed was only the final nod from “the Indian chief.” It also looks as if negotiations about a new pipeline from Turkey to Hungary through Macedonia and Serbia are already underway. Orbán and Putin were completely alone without any of their aides. What did these two men talk about for that long?

Smiles all around

Smiles all around

Fellow politicians are suspicious. Especially since the Hungarian prime minister cannot be relied upon for an accurate account. Here is a case in point. Grzegorz Schetyna, the Polish foreign minister, gave an interview to a Polish radio station yesterday from which we learned that the week before Orbán went on and on about the absolute necessity of meeting Putin in person because of the extremely unfavorable terms of the present gas agreement. Well, today we know that not a word of Orbán’s lament to Schetyna was true. The meeting had nothing to do with a new gas contract.

Finally, another first can be recorded in the history of the Orbán administration. A few days ago Viktor Orbán called together the leaders of the five parliamentary delegations: Fidesz, Christian Democratic People’s Party, MSZP, Jobbik, and LMP. The meeting, of course, didn’t signify any change in the government’s attitude to the opposition, but it looked good. Today’s big news was that Viktor Orbán invited about 15 journalists who cover foreign affairs for a “background talk.” Gábor Horváth, who is the foreign editor of Népszabadság, had the distinct impression that such gatherings had been held earlier but without journalists from opposition papers.  Orbán talked for an hour and was ready to answer questions for another forty-five minutes. The prime minister called Russia “one of the most difficult partners” and claimed that “we would be worse off if we did not work with them.”

I for one wouldn’t take Orbán’s words about his difficult relations with Russia seriously. He seemed to be relaxed and happy on the same stage as Vladimir Putin. He looked as if he were basking in the limelight that he shared with the great man. Here was the president of a strong, important nation who didn’t pester him with checks and balances and democratic values.  Two weeks earlier he looked decidedly unhappy and annoyed when the chancellor of Germany somewhat undiplomatically announced that as far as she knows there is no such thing as illiberal democracy. Most likely he was humiliated and it showed. After he waved goodbye to Putin in front of the parliament building, Orbán and his close entourage looked extremely satisfied with their performance. It was a good day for Viktor Orbán. It started well and it ended well, as far as Viktor Orbán was concerned. Putin also seemed to be satisfied. Whether it was a good day for Hungary is another matter.

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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.”

Viktor Orbán goes to Kiev, M. André Goodfriend returns to Washington

Viktor Orbán has been a very busy man lately, especially when it comes to playing on the international stage. Angela Merkel visited Budapest last week; this week Orbán had talks with the prime minister of Georgia, and today he traveled to Kiev for a brief visit with Petro Poroshenko. Orbán’s Ukrainian visit is widely seen as an attempt to counterbalance the much criticized Putin visit next Tuesday. Today much of his regularly scheduled morning interview was devoted to Russian and Ukrainian affairs.

There is still no verbatim transcript of the interview, but I took notes when I listened to it and read several summaries that appeared in Hungarian newspapers and on the government’s website. Some of his comments on the Russian-Ukrainian conflict were platitudes about the dangers of war so close to home. Surely, Hungary is much more exposed than France or Germany, whose heads of state tried to broker an agreement with Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Orbán, who remains opposed to further sanctions, tried to put the best spin on the “fragile peace” that is still better than war.

When it came to Russian-Hungarian relations, Orbán treaded lightly and felt compelled to refer to Hungarian leeriness when it comes to relations with Russia. Mind you, the reference was fleeting. He said that “for many Hungarians this is an emotional issue.” One would have thought that either he would have stopped there or would have explained Hungarian reservations by talking about the role of the Russians in the 1848-1849 war of independence and, naturally, about the Russian suppression of the 1956 Hungarian revolution. But no, he said instead that “we lost a war against them,” referring to World War II. A most unfortunate remark since winning the war against the Soviet Union in this case would have meant victory for Nazi Germany. Magyar Nemzet might be moving in the right direction as far as honest journalism is concerned, but it decided to omit this sentence.

In his opinion, emotions cannot play a role in Hungary’s relations with Russia. He himself never had any doubts about Vladimir Putin’s  visit. It was he who invited Putin, and he is glad that Putin accepted his invitation. The Russian president is always welcome in the Hungarian capital.

It is becoming apparent to me that Viktor Orbán imagines today’s Europe as similar to the way it was between the two world wars. The simultaneous collapse of the large, powerful empires of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia allowed the formation of small nation states in the region of East-Central Europe. With the revival of Germany and Russia, these states found themselves squeezed between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Orbán keeps talking about the “two large powers,” Russia and Germany, on whom Hungary depends for its well being. But this is an outdated view. Today there is a European Union to which Hungary belongs. Hungary also joined NATO. Hungary is definitely committed to the West and her security lies on this side. Balancing between two world powers is no longer possible, and therefore I’m convinced that Orbán’s “brilliant” strategy will be a failure.

Orbán’s diplomatic balancing act leads me to another topic, the departure of M. André Goodfriend from Budapest. The announcement was a surprise because the United States government had explicitly stated that Goodfriend would remain in Budapest even after the arrival of Colleen Bell, the new U.S. ambassador. The chargé represented U.S. policies and worked closely with the State Department. It was a message to Budapest that no great changes in U.S.-Hungarian relations should be expected with the arrival of the new ambassador. But then came the bombshell that after all Goodfriend is leaving “for strictly family reasons.” Hungarians suspect that this explanation was fabricated, that some kind of a deal was reached between Washington and Budapest for which the U.S. government sacrificed Goodfriend.

Well, I’m one of those people who don’t believe this conspiracy theory. First of all, the one longer speech that Colleen Bell delivered to date in no way indicated a softening of the American attitude toward the Hungarian government. The speech was delivered before businessmen, and therefore she concentrated on economic issues. She brought up a point about which foreign businessmen complain: the unpredictability of Hungarian economic policy. Second, I see no sign of any softening of Orbán’s attitude either on the Russian issue or on the question of corruption. As for the attacks on nongovernmental organizations, the verbal abuse continues. If there was a deal, it was one that the Hungarian side is not honoring. And I refuse to believe that American diplomats are so naive as to strike a deal before the other side takes concrete steps to mend its ways. So, I’m inclined to accept the Embassy’s version that Mr. Goodfriend has some very urgent family business that can be taken care of only in the United States.

Goodfriend3

André Goodfriend’s departure is greeted with great sadness in liberal circles in Hungary. Many looked upon him as a valued friend of Hungary and were extremely grateful to him. On Facebook there are thousands of posts in which Hungarian citizens thank him for being the defender of Hungarian democracy. I heard a story about one gesture that exemplifies the kind of gratitude Hungarians felt. It was Christmas Eve and André Goodfriend went to a flower shop to buy a bouquet. When he wanted to pay, the owner of the flower shop wouldn’t accept his money, saying that it is she who owes him instead of the other way around.

Perhaps the most moving manifestation of the affection felt for André Goodfriend in Hungary is a video sent by Kreatív Ellenállás (Creative Opposition), a Facebook group, to which the creators added a popular song entitled “André j’aime” composed by János Bródy, played by the Illés Ensemble and sung by Zsuzsa Koncz. These people are legends in Hungarian popular music, mainly because their songs were highly critical of the Kádár regime.

Finally, Mr. Goodfriend was a regular reader of Hungarian Spectrum and a few times even engaged in our discussions. We will miss him, and I’m sure I can speak on behalf of our readership in wishing him the very best in his future endeavors.

Russia, Hungary, and the Hungarian minority in Ukraine

A few days ago an article appeared in Foreign Affairs with the somewhat sensational title “The Hungarian Putin? Viktor Orban and the Kremlin’s Playbook,” written by Mitchell A. Orenstein, Péter Krekó, and Attila Juhász. Orenstein is a professor of political science at Northeastern University in Boston and an associate of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University. Krekó and Juhász are associates of the Hungarian think tank Political Capital. The question the article poses is whether Hungary entertains any irredentist plans as far as her neighbors are concerned, similar to the way in which Russia behaved earlier in Abkhazia and now in Ukraine. After all, the Russian attacks on those territories were preceded by a grant of Russian citizenship to Ukrainians and Abkhazians. To this question the answer is negative. Viktor Orbán may sound bellicose at times, but he is interested in the Hungarians living in the neighboring countries only as a source of extra votes and perhaps a reservoir of immigrants to a country with dismal demographic figures.

The authors claim, however, that there is “a delicate balance [which] could easily topple.” What created this delicate balance? Although “Hungary’s radical right-wing, fascist, and irredentist party, Jobbik, has virtually no support among Hungarians abroad,” it is still possible that “aggressive separatist political movements, especially those with external political support, could … act as though they have a majority beyond them, as in eastern Ukraine.”  I must say that the exact meaning of this claim is unclear to me, but the authors’ argument is that the “nationalist political use of Hungarians abroad in Hungary could set the stage for such extremism and instability in neighboring countries.” In Ukraine such a danger is real “where Orban has taken advantage of political chaos to press Hungarian minority issues … in the sub-Carpathian region of western Ukraine, adjacent to Hungary.” There are far too many “ifs” here, but it is true that Orbán did announce his claim to autonomy for the Hungarian minority at the most inappropriate moment, during the first Russian attacks on eastern Ukraine.

It is unlikely that Hungary could convince Ukraine’s western friends to force Kiev to grant autonomy to the Hungarians of Sub-Carpathian Ukraine (Zakarpattia Oblast) who constitute 12.1% of the total population of the province. In 2001 they numbered 151,500, but since then it is possible that many of them either left for Hungary or with the help of a Hungarian passport migrated farther west. On the other hand, one occasionally hears Russian voices outlining ambitious plans for Ukraine and its minorities. For example, in March 2014 Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of the nationalist Liberal Democratic party that backs Vladimir Putin, suggested that Poland, Hungary, and Romania might wish to take back regions which were their territories in the past. Romania might want Chrnivtsi; Hungary, the Zaparpattia region; and Poland, the Volyn, Lviv, Ternopil, Ivano-Frankivsk, and Rovensky regions. Thus Ukraine would be free of “unnecesssary tensions” and “bring prosperity and tranquility to the Ukrainian native land.”

Or, there is the Russian nationalist ideologue, Aleksandr Dugin, the promoter of a Russian-led “Eurasian Empire” that would incorporate Austria as well as Hungary, Romania, Serbia, and Slovakia. Although Dugin’s specific recommendations were first reported on a far-right Hungarian site called Alfahir.hu, the news spread rapidly beyond the borders of Hungary. Dugin is an enemy of nation states and would like to see the return of empires. “If, let’s say, Hungary, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, or perhaps even Volhynia and Austria would unite, all Hungarians would be within one country. Everything would return to the state that existed before Trianon.” Of course, Dugin’s argument is specious. Surely, a United Europe offers exactly the same advantages to the Hungarian minorities that Dugin recommends, but without the overlordship of Putin’s Russia.

One could discount these suggestions as fantasies, but something is in the air in Russia. The country’s foreign minister considers the fate of the Hungarian minority in Ukraine to be of such importance that at the Munich Security Conference a couple of days ago he spent a considerable amount of time on the minority’s grievances.

Mind you, Sergei Lavrov’s speech was met with derision by those present. As the reporter of Bloomberg described the scene, the “crowd laughed at and booed him.” Apparently, during his 45-minute speech he “rewrote the history of the Cold War, accused the West of fomenting a coup in Ukraine, and declared himself to be a champion of the United Nations Charter.” From our point of view, the most interesting part of the speech was the time he spent on the Hungarian minority in the Zakarpattia Oblast.

I think it is worth quoting Lavrov’s answer to a question that addresses this issue:

[The Ukrainians] are probably embarrassed to say it here, but now Ukraine is undergoing mobilization, which is running into serious difficulties. Representatives of the Hungarian, Romanian minorities feel “positive” discrimination, because they are called up in much larger proportions than ethnic Ukrainians. Why not talk about it? Or that in Ukraine reside not only Ukrainians and Russians, but there are other nationalities which by fate ended up in this country and want to live in it. Why not provide them with equal rights and take into account their interests? During the elections to the Verkhovnaya Rada the Hungarian minority asked to organize constituencies in such a way that at least one ethnic Hungarian would make it to the Rada. The constituencies were “sliced” so that none of the Hungarians made it. All this suggests that there is something to discuss.

Perhaps the most “amusing” part of the paragraph Lavrov devoted to the Hungarian and Romanian minorities in Ukraine is his claim that fate was responsible for these ethnic groups’ incorporation into the Soviet Union. I remember otherwise. The Soviet government kept the old Trianon borders without any adjustments based on ethnic considerations. The ethnic map of Zakarpattia Oblast shows that such an adjustment shouldn’t have been too difficult a task.

Ethnic map of Zakarpattia Obast  / Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zakarpattia_Oblast

Ethnic map of Zakarpattia Obast / Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zakarpattia_Oblast

The small Hungarian minority is obviously being used by the Russians to further their own claims, which in turn might encourage Viktor Orbán to pursue his quest for autonomous status for the largely Hungarian-inhabited regions of the oblast. The Orbán government supports autonomy for the Szeklers of central Transylvania despite the Romanian-Hungarian basic treaty of September 1996 that set aside the issue of territorial autonomy, to which Romania strenuously objected. The treaty had to be signed because NATO and EU membership depended on it. The Ukrainian situation is different because Ukraine is not part of the EU. Whether Orbán will accept the tacit or even open assistance of Russia for the sake of the Hungarian minority in Ukraine remains to be seen. In any case, to everybody’s surprise Viktor Orbán will pay a visit to Kiev where he will meet with President Petro Poroshenko.

Putin’s visit: “Strategic impetus” for future Russian-Hungarian relations?

Yesterday the Russian ambassador to Hungary, Vladimir Sergeyev, when asked about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Hungary, basically repeated what Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has been telling the Hungarians in the last few days. Putin’s visit to Budapest is nothing out of the ordinary. The main topic of the talks will be “the extension of a long-term contract” that will ensure the uninterrupted flow of natural gas from Russia to Hungary. The contract is due to expire this year, hence the urgency of the negotiations. Sergeyev emphasized that Putin’s visit has nothing whatsoever to do with “the overall situation in the world and the tension we now observe.” In addition to energy questions, the two leaders will discuss “cooperation in tourism and culture.” All this sounds utterly innocent until we get to the last sentence: that the talks are designed “to give a strategic impetus” to the future development of relations.

Viktor Orbán, although he is usually quite tight-mouthed, also indicated, perhaps unwittingly, that “over and above the question of energy, we must strive for a truly balanced relation. That’s why we invited and welcome President Putin.” These sentences indicate that the conversations will go beyond economic relations. Suspicion is growing in Budapest that the “urgent issue of the gas supply from Russia” is only an excuse for a visit by the Russian president. The real reason is what Ambassador Sergeyev called a “strategic impetus” for closer relations between the two countries. And that is a political, not an economic issue.

Let’s return briefly to Lajos Simicska, the oligarch to whom Viktor Orbán owes his rise to power but who is no longer Orbán’s friend. In his interview with Magyar Narancs Simicska told the reporter that after the April elections he had a long conversation with Viktor Orbán, during which the prime minister outlined his “plans,” which Simicska did not like. Among other things, Orbán shared his views of Russian-Hungarian relations, which Simicska found odious. He expressed his disapproval of Orbán’s scheme, saying: “No, I don’t like it at all. I grew up at the time when the Soviet Union was still here and I don’t have pleasant memories of the activities of the Russians in Hungary. I can’t really see any difference between the behavior of the former Soviets and the political behavior of today’s Russians.” I am sure that Simicska’s anti-Russian feelings are genuine. He was known for his intense dislike of the Soviets even as a high school student. This antipathy most likely had something to do with his father’s involvement in the Revolution of 1956 and the reprisals the family suffered as a result. If his old friend Viktor had talked to him only about economic ties and a secure supply of gas, surely Simicska wouldn’t have reacted so negatively.

A Romanian view: "Putin will visit Hungary: A challenge to the United States Source: Independent.md

A Romanian view: “Putin will visit Hungary: A challenge to the United States”
Source: Independent.md

No, it is becoming clear that the urgent negotiations about a long-term gas contract are only a smokescreen. Although it is true that the current agreement will expire at the end of June, the flow of gas will not stop. According to the present contract, Gazprom is obliged to supply gas to Hungary for at least two more years. Perhaps three. Fifteen years ago, when the contract was signed, energy consumption was higher than it is now. The contract specified a certain amount of natural gas between 2000 and 2015, but that amount hasn’t been used up. So why is this deal suddenly so important to Orbán? Why does he think that he will be able to get the best deal from Gazprom thanks to Putin’s good offices? What did Orbán promise to Putin in exchange for cheap gas? Will he get cheap gas and, if so, at what price? Will Rossatom’s building of the two new reactors at Paks be enough for Putin in return? Or will Orbán be ready to sell or rent the storage facilities he purchased earlier from the German firm E-On to Gazprom? Most important, why is Orbán so keen on a special deal with Gazprom when by now Russia’s monopoly on the gas supply to Europe is broken?

Some observers even claim that it is not to Hungary’s advantage to sign a long-term contract with Russia because the current market price of natural gas is actually lower than what Hungary is paying for Russian gas. Hungary is paying between $350 and $400 for 1,000m³ of gas; on the open market it sells for $300. Moreover, as I already noted, Russia’s gas monopoly is a thing of the past. By now there are alternate pipelines through which western gas can reach Hungary. Although it is true that the completion of the pipeline between Slovakia and Hungary has been delayed due to technical problems on the Hungarian side, it should be ready very soon. Meanwhile gas has been steadily coming into the country from Austria and Croatia.

The Orbán government in the last five years or so was not too eager to work either on alternative pipelines or on reducing the amount of gas used by Hungarian households, which is twice that of Austrian households. The reason is inadequate insulation. European Union directives oblige energy suppliers to improve the insulation of buildings, but for some strange reason the Orbán government is in no hurry to change the Hungarian law to allow such a solution. According to experts, people could save 30 to 50% on their gas bills if this essential repair work on windows and doors were done. Definitely more than the much touted 10% decrease in utility bills legislated by the government.

Orbán has exaggerated the danger of running short of gas. He even indicated that if he is unsuccessful in his negotiations with Putin, Hungarians will freeze to death because there will be no gas to heat their houses and apartments. Of course, this is not only an outright lie but a stupid business tactic. If the situation is so desperate, the negotiating partner will have the upper hand in the negotiations, as several people pointed out.

And with that I return to Russian Ambassador Sergeyev’s mysterious “strategic impetus” for future relations between the two countries. Suspicion is growing in Hungary that Orbán is making some kind of a political deal with Putin which may commit Hungary to a closer relationship in the future. Miklós Hargitai of Népszabadság goes so far as to speculate that “it is not the decrease in our utilities bills that will depend on Putin but Orbán’s hold on power.” For whatever reason, the Russian card seems to be of the utmost importance to Hungary’s gambling mini-Putin.

A different kind of media war: Lajos Simicska versus Viktor Orbán

What a day! A shakeup–no, an earthquake–at Magyar Nemzet, Magyar Nemzet Online, HírTV, and Lánchíd Rádió, all part of Lajos Simicska’s media empire.

For those who have been following Hungarian politics over the last few years Lajos Simicska needs no introduction. He was the favorite oligarch of the Hungarian prime minister. His companies won about 40% of all government contracts financed by the European Union. What fewer Hungarians remember about him is that in the early 1990s it was Lajos Simicska who saved Fidesz from financial collapse. As Zsolt Bayer, a friend of both Simicska and Orbán, admitted, “without [Simicska] there would be no Fidesz today.”

This is not the place to go into all the gory details of this financial rescue operation. Suffice it to say that the young democrats received a piece of property from the Hungarian state for a party headquarters, which they subsequently sold. They invested the proceeds in all sorts of business ventures that failed, one after the other, leaving behind millions in company debt and unpaid value added taxes. It was Simicska and a lawyer friend of his, Csaba Schlecht, who came up with the master plan. They “sold” the failed companies to bogus individuals who couldn’t be traced. Among them were homeless people who for a few forints agreed to go to a notary and sign anything that was put in front of them. Two of these people became especially infamous. Simicska and Schlecht got hold of the passports of a Turkish guest worker in Germany, Ibrahim Kaya or, as he is known in Hungary, Kaya Ibrahim, and a Croat named Josip Tot. The scandal broke during the first Orbán government, and naturally the police made no serious effort to find the culprits. One could say that Fidesz was born in sin.

For the better part of a year rumor had it that the relationship between Orbán and Simicska had soured. All sorts of hypotheses were put forth about the reason for their fallout. The most prevalent was that Orbán no longer wants to be beholden to one person and would like to widen the financial circle around Fidesz. Soon enough there were signs of Orbán’s efforts to loosen the ties with Simicska, and of Simicska’s response. By last fall a number of journalists who were absolutely devoted to Viktor Orbán were sacked at Magyar Nemzet. In early January we learned that Orbán no longer wants to help the Simicska media empire with advertisements by state companies. These media outlets have to stand on their own feet; he will throw his financial support behind the state television and radio. It was clear that something was brewing, but what really brought matters to a head was the announcement yesterday that the Hungarian government will substantially lower the advertisement tax on RTL Klub and, instead, every media outlet, even the smallest ones, will have to pay a 5% tax on their advertising revenues. That was the last straw for Simicska, who went on a rampage today.

Source: Magyar Narancs / Photo: Dániel Németh

Source: Magyar Narancs Photo: Dániel Németh

First, Simicska got in touch with Népszava last night and told the social democratic paper that “the media war will most likely become total” from here on. He told them that he considers the government’s proposed tax on advertisements “the latest attack against democracy.” In an interview with Origo he claimed that it is not money that is his first consideration, but “what will happen if one day Viktor Orbán scratches his head and decides that he will double the tax?” In brief, he is complaining about the same thing the German businessmen did to Angela Merkel.

When Simicska really lost his cool was early afternoon after he learned from his own paper, Magyar Nemzet, that Gábor Liszkay, editor-in-chief of Magyar Nemzet and CEO of HírTV; Ottó Gajdics, editor-in-chief of Lánchíd Rádió; Gábor Élő, editor of Magyar Nemzet On Line; Péter Szikszai, deputy CEO of HírTV; Péter Csermely, deputy editor-in-chief of Magyar Nemzet; and Szabolcs Szerető, deputy editor-in-chief of Magyar Nemzet, had resigned. Their conscience, they said, does not allow them to work for a paper not in the service of Viktor Orbán.

Well, at that point Simicska went berserk. The man who in the last twenty years hardly ever appeared in public and who never gave an interview suddenly gave interviews to everybody who phoned him. He answered the phone himself and, in response to questions, spewed an array of four-letter words. First he talked to József Nagy of Hír24 and allowed him to publish their recorded conversation. He accused Viktor Orbán, whom he repeatedly called “a prick,” of being behind the resignation of his top management. He also talked about a war between two men, one of whom will fall and that fall can be “physical,” which may mean death, but he is ready even for that. “They can kill me! They can shoot me or there will be a hit-and-run accident.” From an interview with Origo we learned that Simicska and Orbán haven’t talked to each other since last April.

Perhaps the most revealing interview with Simicska was conducted by Magyar Narancs. Here he insisted that he “maximally disapproves of the government media policy” which in another interview he explained involves dividing media outlets into three categories: those who are absolutely loyal to Viktor Orbán and the government; those who here and there are critical; and the enemies. Of these three Orbán can tolerate only the absolute loyal ones and will systematically eliminate all the others.

Apparently Simicska doesn’t like Viktor Orbán’s pro-Russian foreign policy either. And let me quote him verbatim on the topic. “No, I don’t like it at all. I grew up at the time when the Soviet Union was still here and I don’t have pleasant memories of the activities of the Russians in Hungary. I can’t really see any difference between the behavior of the former Soviets and the political behavior of today’s Russians.”

At this point the interviewing journalist interrupted and reminded Simicska that, according to rumors, his disagreement with Orbán has more to do with business than anything else. For example, he was left out of very profitable business transactions connected to Russian natural gas. But Simicska insisted that “there are more important things in life than money.” He and Orbán initially got together “to dismantle a dictatorship and the post-communist regime. It turned out that this is not an easy task. One must work at it. But I did not join Orbán to build another dictatorship to replace the old one. I’m no partner in such an enterprise.”

After the journalist reminded him that he and Orbán have been close friends for thirty-give years and therefore it must be hard to part in this way, Simicska said, “I must admit that it is a great disappointment. I thought he was a statesman, but I had to come to the conclusion that he is not.”

Simicska didn’t have much time to waste. As he said, Magyar Nemzet must be published tomorrow and he has to appoint a completely new top management. Moreover, Gábor Liszkay, editor-in-chief of Magyar Nemzet and CEO of HírTV, was a shareholder in these companies. Simicska had to buy him out. Within a couple of hours the deal was completed. Simicska apparently paid Liszkay 100 million forints or “thereabouts.” Gábor D. Horváth, the only top journalist who didn’t quit, became the editor-in-chief of Magyar Nemzet, and Simicska himself took on the role of CEO of HírTV. And who became the editor-in-chief of Lánchíd Rádió? You won’t believe it. The same old Csaba Schlecht who managed to “sell” the bankrupt Fidesz companies to Ibrahim Kaya and Josip Tot.

I’m looking forward to seeing the articles published in the “new” Magyar Nemzet tomorrow and the days after. Will the pro-Russian and anti-American articles still appear, or will there be a noticeable change in the coverage of Hungary’s relations with Russia, the European Union, and the United States? If yes, then Simicska’s claim to having serious disagreements with Viktor Orbán’s foreign policy can be taken seriously. Otherwise, it is just a lot of hot air.

Merkel-Orbán conversations: Serious differences of opinion

Yesterday, right after Angela Merkel’s plane left the runway at the Budapest Airport, I jotted down my first impressions. It was a busy day for the German chancellor, so I had to be very selective in my post. I concentrated on Merkel’s comments, largely because they were the most unexpected elements in the exchange. Moreover, I talked mostly about her reactions to Hungarian domestic issues and spent a great deal less time on the disagreements between the two leaders over foreign affairs.

Let’s start with their attitudes toward Putin’s Russia. According to Orbán, Ukraine is important for Hungary because it is a neighbor of Hungary, because there is a Hungarian minority across the border, and because the gas that Hungary needs badly travels through this country. Therefore, he said, Hungary “can stand only on the side of peace. We can imagine only a solution that will take us toward peace.” But let’s see what Merkel had to say. According to her, the Germans would also like to have a ceasefire and political stability in Ukraine that “can guarantee the territorial integrity of the country.” Something Orbán didn’t talk about. Merkel also gently reminded Orbán that Hungary is not the only country that is dependent on Russian gas, indicating that it is unacceptable for Hungary to have a different viewpoint on the question of Russian sanctions.

That last remark from Merkel prompted Orbán to open a discussion with his guest on Hungary’s unique position in this respect. Germany’s situation cannot be compared to that of Hungary; “one must take Hungary’s situation vis-à-vis Russia very seriously.” Hungary has to renew her long-term agreement on the price of gas for the next fifteen years, and therefore “it is difficult to fully support the Russian sanctions.”

Although yesterday I talked about their disagreements over the meaning of democracy, I said nothing about how the topic came up during the press conference. Orbán naturally did not bring it up; it was Merkel who announced that during her conversation with Orbán she “indicated that although the Hungarian government has a large majority, in a democracy the role of the opposition, the civil society, and the media is very important.” She added that later she will find time to have a conversation with the leaders of Hungarian civil society. From Orbán’s reaction it was clear that the Hungarian prime minister did not expect such direct involvement by Merkel in a matter he considers a domestic issue. It was after these points of disagreement that Merkel and Orbán had their rather sharp exchange on the nature of “illiberal democracy.” As the Frankfurter Rundschau pointed out, Merkel can at times be quite “undiplomatic,” as she was this time, and therefore “she annoyed Orbán.” You can see the prime minister’s annoyance and his determination to follow his own path on the picture below, taken during their debate on “illiberalism.”

Source: MTI / Photo Tibor Illyés

Source: MTI / Photo Tibor Illyés

Csaba Molnár,  the number two man in the Demokratikus Koalíció, thought that Orbán was cowed and “behaved like a scared little boy standing by his teacher’s side.” I disagree. I saw exactly the opposite: a combative Viktor Orbán who will not be swayed by any argument and who will continue to build his illiberal state. I’m afraid the same might be true when it comes to negotiations with Vladimir Putin. Even though he might sign on to further sanctions, he will try to make a deal with Putin regardless of EU disapproval. It is another matter whether Putin will swallow a big one and give preferential treatment to Orbán despite the meager returns he can expect from Budapest.

As even the right-wing media had to admit, the visit was not a great success, although it was designed to be a showcase of German-Hungarian friendship and a stamp of approval by the German chancellor of the Orbán regime. What does Fidesz do in such an awkward situation? After all, they cannot admit that Merkel and Orbán disagreed on almost everything, starting with Russia and ending with the nature of democracy. The simplest and the usual Fidesz response in such cases is to resort to outright lying. This is exactly what happened today.

Vs.hu is a relatively new internet news site that came out with the startling news that the real significance of the conversation was in the realm of new German investments in the Hungarian economy. András Kósa, a well-respected journalist who used to be on the staff of HVG, just joined Vs.hu. He was told by unnamed members of the government and local German businessmen that although on the surface there was visible friction between Merkel and Orbán, in fact “concrete important industrial agreements came into being on Monday.” Siemens will be involved in the construction of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant. In addition, Hungary will buy thirty helicopters from Airbus, not from the American Sikorsky or the Italian-British AgustaWestland. Kósa was told that “BMW is contemplating opening a factory in Hungary.” Only the exact location remains to be settled. And, on top of everything else, Mercedes will build a new factory to manufacture a new model.

Well, that was quite a scoop. The Hungarian media went crazy. Dozens and dozens of articles appeared within minutes, and every time the story was retold it became grander and grander. While the original article emphasized that all these favorable developments “might happen,” by the time the story got to Magyar Nemzet it became “Gigantic German investments are forthcoming as a result of the Merkel-Orbán meeting.” Válasz discovered that the real significance of the meeting was that new “gigantic German investments are coming to Hungary,” obviously all that taken care of during a short luncheon. Even such a reputable site as Portfolio.hu fell for the story.

The first word of warning came from a specialized internet site that deals with the car industry, Autopro.hu. It is possible that economic relations were discussed, but it is impossible that there could be negotiations between Merkel and Orbán regarding concrete projects, the author of the article remarked. This is not the first time that the possibility of a BMW factory is being heralded by the Hungarian media, but nothing ever came of it. Moreover, if there are such plans or decisions, they would not be discussed by Merkel and Orbán but by the top management of BMW and Hungarian economic experts. Autopro.hu didn’t manage to get in touch with BMW, but they were told by Mercedes that at the moment they have no intention of building another factory. Later the pro-government Napi Gazdaság  learned from BMW headquarters that “the BMW Group has no plans to build a factory in Hungary.” I don’t know whether the rest of the story, about Siemens and Airbus, is true or is also a figment of the imagination of certain government officials.

I consider Kósa a reliable and serious journalist who would not make up such a story. But why would government sources leak information about nonexistent projects? What do these so-called high government officials think when they concoct stories that are bound to be discovered to be false? Perhaps they think that the false news will spread like wildfire, as it did in this case, and that the correction will be reported by only very few media outlets. Therefore, it can be considered a successful communication stunt. Fidesz is good at that.