Russian-Ukrainian conflict

Hungary and Europe through Russian eyes

Today let’s look at some Russian responses to Viktor Orbán’s policies as well as Russian analyses of U.S.-Hungarian and U.S.-EU relations. It was about a month ago that Vladimir Putin profusely praised Orbán’s Hungary as Russia’s best friend and ally in Europe. A few days ago Hungary again came up on a Russian State Television program called “Bремя покажет” (Time will tell) when a political scientist, Yuri Solozobov, an associate of the National Strategy Institute of the Russian Federation, explained to his audience that, instead of employing sanctions against the European Union, Russia should use some of its member countries to loosen the unity of the Union. After all, Russia already has allies in Eastern Europe: Hungary and Serbia. If there is no consensus regarding sanctions against Russia, the entire anti-Russian policy of the West will collapse. The video below is a three-minute segment on Hungary with English subtitles.

Solozobov is not the only Russian political scientist who contemplates using Hungary as a tool in Russian diplomacy. Pravda interviewed two other political analysts in the aftermath of Viktor Orbán’s announcement that “a new era has started when the United States not only interferes but takes an active part in internal politics in central European countries,” adding that this was “due to the Russia-Ukraine conflict, and the free trade talks under way between the European Union and the U.S.” Finalizing the free trade agreement, officially called the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), has been dragging on for a very long time and the issues are too complex to discuss here, but promoters claim that it would promote economic growth. Opponents in Europe insist that it would benefit only American corporations and would cause harm to the environment by adopting less stringent measures than those currently in force in Europe. Just the other day farmers and trade unions demonstrated in Brussels against the treaty.

The first political scientist to comment on Hungary’s economic and political dependence on the United States and the European Union was Vladimir Bruter, an expert from the International Institute of Humanitarian and Political Studies. He has written several studies for an English-language publication available online called Russia in Global Affairs, a quarterly produced with the participation of the American journal Foreign Affairs. In Bruter’s estimation Hungary depends on the U.S. both economically and politically, and the U.S. “has effective tools to create a conflict within a country that may result in [the] overthrow of power at the U.S.’s bidding.” Bruter is against the adoption of the free trade agreement because in his opinion it will merely serve U.S. interests. If adopted, “the actual independence of the European economy will simply cease to exist.” And this is especially dangerous for small countries like Hungary. American policy is “unacceptable for Central Europe.”

The other analyst who was questioned on Hungary was Aleksey Drynochkin, lead research scientist at the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He stressed that American political pressure on Hungary has been relentless. First, there were the accusations of a lack of democracy, now it is “corruption.” Surely, this is a cover story just as Viktor Orbán said. Drynochkin agrees with Orbán: the demonstrations are also the work of the United States. And he foresees the possibility that “some technical regulations on [the] operation of nuclear stations within the European Union may be toughened,” presumably undermining the enlargement of the Paks nuclear power plant by the Russian firm Rossatom.

As for the free trade agreement, according to Drynochkin “in terms of a bare economic theory, this project is likely to have no problems.” But there is a political aspect to it, and  it “is possible that [the] Americans are pursuing their own goal–to completely finish off Europe,” I guess economically. But what the U.S. would achieve by “finishing off Europe” remains a mystery. In his opinion, in political terms the European Union will be less and less independent and “will be more and more the conductor of some foreign actions and intentions.” What Drynochkin and other Russian analysts fail to see is that it was Russian aggression against Ukraine that brought the European Union and the United States closer together. Moreover, it is possible that Vladimir Putin’s belligerence will be the catalyst for a speedier adoption of the EU-U.S. free trade agreement.

But Russian strategists are correct: trying to undermine the cohesion of the European Union is a great deal less costly and risky than settling for a long trade war and a series of sanctions. Trying to torpedo the free-trade agreement is also in Russia’s interest. But why does Hungary support the Russian position in these matters? What does Hungary gain from standing by Russia? I find the Hungarian government’s position hard to explain.

And why does the editorial board of Magyar Nemzet believe it necessary to turn up the volume, accusing the United States of creating a Hungarian Maidan in Budapest? The title itself is outrageous: “Kievan scenario with Western producer?” Or why does Zsolt Bayer, a friend of Viktor Orbán and the owner of the #5 Fidesz membership card, write about “the many American scoundrels (gazember)” who are responsible for the Maidan uprising?  He says that the Americans achieved what they wanted. They will privatize the gas pipelines and will take over the rich land of the country. In brief, they will exploit Ukraine.

Hungary has a bad track record when it comes to picking sides in conflicts. And such governmental decisions have always come at a high cost to the country. “This time is different,” governments say, but it’s almost never different.

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Possible trajectories for Hungary with or without Viktor Orbán

Today I’ll backtrack a bit and revisit the serious diplomatic crisis that developed between Hungary and the United States. When the news hit about the American decision to ban six Hungarians from entering the United States, some commentators were convinced that the alleged corruption was only a pretext, that the real cause was Russia.

These people were wrong. The Americans stressed that the widespread and systemic corruption that permeates every facet of Hungarian society is a serious problem in and of itself. But they added that there are many other policies Washington finds unacceptable from an allied country, several of them having to do with Russia. At his last press conference M. André Goodfriend, the U.S. chargé d’affaires, underscored America’s disappointment in Hungary, once the the flag bearer of freedom. In the last few years the country has changed, and not for the better. Goodfriend was quite specific in enumerating some of the sore points in American-Hungarian relations. He mentioned the lack of transparency in connection with the negotiations with Russia about building the nuclear reactor in Paks. The United States is unhappy about Hungary’s far too accommodating behavior when it comes to the Southern Stream. Relying exclusively on natural gas is the wrong way to approach Europe’s energy needs. He mentioned the situation of the media in Hungary. Then there is Hungary’s self-serving behavior during the Russian-Ukrainian crisis. The United States realizes that autonomy for the Hungarian minority in Ukraine is an important consideration for Budapest, but this subject shouldn’t be brought up when Ukraine is fighting for its territorial integrity. The Orbán government’s behavior toward the European Union and the United States has been objectionable ever since June 2010, but Orbán’s pro-Russian policy at this particular juncture was the straw that broke the camel’s back. And finally, he brought up the Hungarian government’s attitude toward the NGOs.

On the same day a reporter from Index managed to get hold of Viktor Orbán in Brussels. Earlier, when asked about U.S.-Hungarian relations, he practically ran away. This time, from what he had to say on the topic, it was evident that he knows who the people are who have been barred from the United States. Yet he indicated that no investigation will take place because he cannot take responsibility for some other country’s assumptions. It is impossible to accuse someone without any proof. Clearly Orbán is stonewalling. No one demands that charges be brought against those who are implicated in the instances of corruption the U.S. reacted to. It is enough to investigate their cases. The Hungarian authorities had no difficulty ransacking the offices of the Ökotárs Foundation. Where was the proof then?

Orban in Brussels2

Meanwhile there are growing signs that the American move prompted quite a controversy in Fidesz circles. I already mentioned Válasz, a pro-Fidesz site, and Mandiner, an online news portal staffed by a group of young conservatives. Both publications were highly critical of Viktor Orbán. Péter Szijjártó let the cat out of the bag during his interview with a reporter from USA Today. He admitted that the dispute with the United States created “a large discussion” within Fidesz. Nick Thorpe, the British journalist who apparently has friends high up in the government party, also reported to the BBC that “there are growing divisions in the right-wing party over Mr. Orban’s steps to turn Hungary into an ‘illiberal democracy.'” According to Thorpe, “the mood in the corridors of power is wretched.” Moreover, the new pro-Russian foreign policy does not sit well with some of the fiercely anti-communist and anti-Russian politicians in Fidesz.

Ildikó Csuhaj of Népszabadság was even more specific. She spoke with several “conservative” critics of Viktor Orbán’s policies who are worried about the prime minister’s double dealings: for example, one day he stands by NATO and the next he wants to build the Southern Stream. These conservative informers believe that if Viktor Orbán does not change his course “Hungary might find herself staring into an abyss.” I know that some people would like to draw the conclusion that after a couple of more missteps there might be a palace revolution by the more moderate and cautious members of the governing party. I, however, can imagine such an event occurring only if the European Union stops the flow of free money to Hungary. As long as Orbán delivers the goodies, his friends have no reason to abandon him.

Nonetheless, Orbán’s position is precarious. Let’s assume that the Americans have in their files several more corruption cases that will reveal that the government and power structure Orbán has constructed in the last few years is in fact a regime in which the essence of politics is blatant, all persuasive corruption–a true mafia state as Bálint Magyar describes Orbán’s system. If these cases reveal that the entire political leadership is deeply implicated, Orbán’s political edifice might crumble. It could also happen that the European Commission, now headed by Jean-Claude Juncker, will be a great deal less charitable toward the Orbán government than it was in the last four and a half years under the leadership of José Manuel Barroso. Let’s assume that the Commission becomes tired of the corruption that surrounds the European grants. I just read that 10% of all corruption cases that are being investigated by OLAF, the office dealing with corruption in the countries of EU, come from Hungary. We can further assume that the EU will be more willing to move against Hungary after the American initiative. I wouldn’t be surprised if Washington and Brussels would even coordinate their policies toward Hungary. More and more people talk  in Brussels about the possibility of invoking Article 7 of the EU Treaty against Orbán’s Hungary. These are real possibilities.

KAL cartoon from The Economist

KAL cartoon from The Economist

But let’s take seriously for a minute László Kövér’s vision of a gradual retreat from the European Union. Where would Hungary find the funds to keep itself afloat? Russia? China? I don’t think that Russia is in any position to become the rescuer of Hungary. Moreover, Botond Feledy, a political scientist, points out in today’s Index that for Putin Hungary is useful only as long as the country is part of the European Union. As far as China is concerned, its leaders are shrewd businessmen.

Charles Gati of Johns Hopkins University has an interview in today’s Népszava entitled “Orbán faces the hardest decision of his life.” In his opinion, it would take an enormous amount of time and effort to convince the United States that the Hungarian government has abandoned those policies that almost led to a break in American-Hungarian relations.”This will not be easy and it will not be accomplished without great personal sacrifice.” If Orbán continues with his old policies, he will surely fail but if he changes and “leads the country along western values, he may also lose. The first alternative is certain, the other only a possibility. That’s why it is still too early to bury Hungarian democracy.”

Gazprom stores some of its natural gas in Hungarian facilities

I guess it is high time to talk about Vladimir Putin and natural gas.

First, Putin’s trip to Serbia. Serbia and Russia have had close ties for more than a century. The only exception I can think of is the 1948-1954 period when Tito was considered to be the “chained dog of the imperialists.” But otherwise in all conflicts Russia stood by Serbia. Serbia’s financial situation is pretty grim at the moment, and I understand that without Russian help Belgrade would be in even greater economic and financial trouble than it is. The closeness of the two countries is demonstrated by the fact that the date of the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Belgrade by the Red Army was moved forward to accommodate Vladimir Putin’s schedule. The military pomp on display to impress the Russian president was noteworthy, especially in view of Serbia’s insistence that she wants to become part of the European Union.

Putin decided to use this opportunity to deliver a stern message to Europe. He warned Brussels that as long as the Ukrainian crisis is not settled, naturally in favor of Russia, gas supplies to Europe might be disrupted just as happened in 2006 and 2009. He said that he himself will do everything to avoid such an eventuality, but if it does happen it will be the fault of the European leaders.

Almost at the same time news reached the West that Hungary will store Gazprom gas. You may recall that Hungary purchased the German-owned E.ON gas storage facilities in 2013 for an incredibly high price. The story of that purchase is well summarized in an article in the Budapest Beacon, according to which the Hungarian state-owned company, MVM, may have lost $2.6 billion as a result of the deal. Given the pervasive corruption in Hungary, analysts were certain that the purchase of E.ON’s business units was “a success story for certain business circles but a huge loss for the national economy as a whole.” This assessment might not be on target. It is more likely that Viktor Orbán’s eagerness to purchase E.ON at whatever price stemmed from a deal with Gazprom to use Hungarian storage facilities. Aleksey Miller, CEO of Gazprom, visited Budapest in October 2012. At that time Miller agreed to such a deal, but only if the storage facilities were in the hands of the Hungarian state. A year later Orbán obliged.

gaztarolok

So, what kinds of storage facilities are we talking about? E.ON Földgáz Storage Zrt. has five underground facilities in which it can store 3,740 million cubic meters of natural gas. According to Hungarian sources, these underground storage facilities are the best and the largest in the region and  fourth in size in Europe. As a result, in 2009 Hungarians were more or less unaffected by the gas shortage when Russia stopped the flow of gas through Ukraine to Europe.

I was pretty sure by the end of September that something was afoot concerning Russia’s use of Hungary’s storage facilities, but it was only on October 10 that I read an AFP report which noted that although Hungary is steadily buying gas from Russia, it is also storing Russian-owned gas. The article noted that “it is unusual for the company to store gas still owned by Gazprom, which is locked in a dispute with Kiev that some fear could see transit through Ukraine halted for the third time in a decade.” According to the spokesman of MVM, the owner of the facilities, “with this agreement Gazprom will be able to comply with its long-term contract obligations, should there be problems on the transport routes.”

Kyiv Post tersely noted the Russian-Hungarian deal without adding any editorial comment. But Kiev must see the deal as an antagonistic move because, with it, Russia can supply gas to Europe at the same time that it squeezes Ukraine.

As for the amount of stored gas owned by Hungary, this number is difficult to estimate. Throughout September the Hungarian media was full of complaints about Hungarian tardiness in filling the country’s storage facilities. In mid-September HVG claimed that they were only 58 percent full. Moreover, if one can believe MTI, a month later, on October 16, the situation was exactly the same. Opposition politicians naturally blame the Orbán government for its tardiness and predict terrible consequences come winter. But I suspect that something else might be behind the procrastination of the Hungarians. The Russian-Hungarian deal to store Russian gas in Hungary was signed only at the end of September, and it is very possible that in return for its “generosity” Hungary managed to get a lower price on Russian gas. I can’t think of any other rational explanation for not filling the storage facilities as quickly as possible. Especially since other European facilities are 80-90% full. Perhaps we will eventually learn the real story, although I’m sure that the Hungarian government will do its best to conceal it.

Péter Szijjártó’s foreign policy ideas

As I was searching for news on Péter Szijjártó, I found the following very funny headline on a right-wing site I had never heard of before called Jónapot kívánunk (We wish you a good day): “Péter Szijjártó will meet Fico in our old capital.” Why is it so funny? Because from the eighteenth century on the Hungarian nobles complained bitterly about the Habsburgs’ insistence on having the capital in Pozsony/Pressburg, today Bratislava, instead of the traditional center of the Kingdom of Hungary before the Turkish conquest, Buda. Pozsony/Pressburg was closer to Vienna and more convenient for the kings of Hungary to visit when the diet convened, which was not too often.

This trip to Bratislava is Szijjártó’s first since he became minister of foreign affairs and trade. During his quick trip he met Miroslav Lajčák, Slovak foreign minister and deputy prime minister, and Prime Minister Robert Fico. In the evening he visited the headquarters of Fidesz’s favorite Hungarian party in Slovakia, Magyar Koalíció Pártja (KMP). Fidesz politicians judiciously avoid Béla Bugár, co-chairman of a Slovak-Hungarian party called Híd/Most, meaning bridge. This party is not considered to be a Hungarian organization because its leadership as well as its voters come from both ethnic groups.

The encounter between Lajčák and Szijjártó must have been interesting: the Hungarian minister a greenhorn and Lajčák a seasoned diplomat, graduate of both the State Institute of International Relations in Moscow and the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. Just prior to meeting Szijjártó, Lajčák attended the conference organized by the Center for European Policy Analysis’s U.S.-Central Europe Strategy Forum in Washington and offered some introductory words following Victoria Nuland’s keynote address. This is the conference where the Hungarian participant, Zsolt Németh, had to withstand a barrage of criticism of Viktor Orbán’s government.

Péter Szijjártó and Miroslav Lajcák in Bratislava, October 7, 2014

Péter Szijjártó and Miroslav Lajčák in Bratislava, October 7, 2014

Szijjártó stressed the “strategic importance” of Slovak-Hungarian relations as the reason for his early visit to the Slovak capital. Mind you, “strategic importance” has become an absolutely meaningless concept in Hungary since 2010 since the Hungarian government signed perhaps 40-45 agreements of strategic importance with foreign firms. Szijjártó also pointed to “the success stories” shared by the two countries, such as cooperation in energy matters. The direct pipeline between Slovakia and Hungary is scheduled to open in January, although you may recall that before the election in April both Robert Fico and Viktor Orbán were only too glad to participate in a ceremony that gave the false impression that the pipeline was already fully functional. Most of the infrastructure projects, including roads and bridges, along the Slovak-Hungarian border are still in the planning stage.

Besides all the good news Szijjártó also talked about “hot topics” that should be discussed without “taboos.” Of course, what he meant was the Slovak law that bans the country’s citizens from having dual citizenship. This amendment to the original law on citizenship was designed to counteract the Hungarian decision to offer citizenship to ethnic Hungarians in the neighboring countries.

Miroslav Lajčák found the exchange “fruitful.” The Slovak journalists were less charitable and kept asking Szijjártó all sorts of embarrassing questions. For example, about the Hungarian fiasco in Brussels yesterday and about the delay in the construction of several bridges, one on the Danube between Komárom and Komarno and others across the Ipel’/Ipoly river. Construction of these bridges was supposed to begin three years ago. In brief, not much has materialized up to now that would constitute a true success story in Slovak-Hungarian cooperation. It seems that building football stadiums is much more important than constructing bridges across a very long river that defines in large part the Slovak-Hungarian border.

The day before his departure to Bratislava Szijjártó gave a lengthy interview to Origo. Here is a man who claims that old-fashioned diplomacy is passé and that he is primarily interested in foreign trade. After all, 106 commercial attachés will soon be dispatched to all Hungarian embassies, and some embassies will have multiple commercial representatives. Yet practically all the questions addressed to Szijjártó were of a diplomatic nature. For example, what about the rather strained bilateral relations between Romania and Hungary? The answer: “I recently met the economic minister of Romania. Our personal relations are good. And naturally I am ready to have talks with the Romanian foreign minister. I believe in reasonable dialogue.”

Or what about the Visegrád Four and their diverging attitudes toward Russia? They are allies, Szijjártó asserted, which lends a certain strength to their cooperation. They hold different views, but that in no way negatively influences their relationships. “As far as the Ukrainian-Russian conflict is concerned, we must not forget that there are 200,000 Hungarians in Subcarpathia and that Russia is our third most important commercial partner.” What is happening now is injurious to Europe; speedy negotiations are in everybody’s interest.

As for the United States, all unjust criticism must be rejected and Hungary must make clear its point of view. “General government control of the Hungarian civil sphere is without any foundation.” I call attention to a slight change in wording. Szijjártó here is talking about “general control,” which strictly speaking is true. The control is not general. Only those NGOs that are critical of the government are intimidated and harassed. Where does Barack Obama get his information about Hungary? “I have no idea, but those who talked to him didn’t tell the truth.”

And finally, the journalist pointed out that very few important foreign politicians have visited Hungary lately and asked Szijjártó whether that might mean that Hungary has been isolated in the last four and a half years. Szijjártó found such an accusation laughable. He said that he spent four years “right next to the prime minister and therefore I could see in what high esteem the prime minister is held  abroad.” So, all is well. Hungarians don’t have to worry. Their prime minister is Mr. Popularity among the leading politicians of the world.

Viktor Orbán at the 2014 NATO Summit

The NATO summit in Newport, Wales is over and, according to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, “from the Hungarian point of view it was a great success.” So, let’s see what the Hungarian prime minister considers to be a great success in view of his and other leading Fidesz politicians’ earlier pronouncements on the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.

NATO approved wide-ranging plans to strengthen its defenses on its eastern flanks in order to reassure Poland and the Baltic states that they have the full backing of NATO in case of Russian aggression. The plan includes the creation of a rapid action force temporarily stationed in Estonia but eventually to be moved to Poland. This rapid action force will include several thousand ground troops ready to be deployed. It will be supported by air, sea, and special forces. This is not as much as Poland initially wanted, which was a permanent NATO base in the region, but even Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk was satisfied with the current plan. According to details released and reported by Reuters, the first units of the force are expected to total around 5,000 troops that will be ready to move in two days.

Viktor Orbán spoke to Hungarian reporters after the summit ended. He announced that, just like other NATO members, Hungary will increase its military spending. As I noted yesterday, at the moment Hungary spends only 0.88% of its GDP on its armed forces; the country agreed to the compulsory minimum of 2.0%. If Hungary today decided to spend that much on the military it would mean an additional 360 billion forints, which at the moment it does not have. Orbán also announced that Hungary’s security can be guaranteed “only within the framework of  NATO” and that he therefore views “the decision of the Hungarian people when in a referendum they voted for membership in NATO” as wise. He said that Hungary would purchase modern weaponry and prepare the Pápa air base to receive large strategic carriers. He also said that “NATO troops will appear in the region of Central Europe,” which may mean that they will also be stationed in Hungary. By the end of the year each country will develop its own plans in case “there is a direct military threat” to these countries. The threat Orbán is talking about is obviously Russia.

Viktor Orbán, the faithful ally, withNATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and Prime Minister David Cameron

Viktor Orbán, the faithful ally, with NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and Prime Minister David Cameron

Realizing the discrepancy between his current enthusiasm for greater military security for Hungary and his earlier statements on the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, he tried to convince his audience that earlier he was only against sanctions, which is “an entirely different question” and independent of the decisions reached at the summit. However, Orbán not only spoke up against the sanctions but stated that as far as he is concerned the conflict for Hungary is an “economic” issue only. He made it clear at that time that he understands the anxiety of Poland and the Baltic states but Hungary’s situation is different. In plain language, as far as he is concerned Hungary’s old and faithful friend Poland can go down the drain, he doesn’t really care. It looks as if the Poles interpreted his words similarly. Zsolt Németh, former undersecretary of the ministry under János Martonyi and now chairman of the parliamentary committee on foreign affairs, talked about “a serious challenge to bilateral relations” between Poland and Hungary in Krynica in an economic forum. The Ukrainian issue should not be allowed to divide the two countries, he emphasized.

While today Viktor Orbán sang the praises of NATO, only a couple of days ago Tibor Navracsics, foreign minister at the moment, expressed doubts about the western commitment to Hungary. In an interview with Boris Kalnoky of Die Welt, he specifically talked about the West letting Hungary down in 1945 and 1956. Moreover, when asked whether Hungary would like to have NATO troops on its soil, he answered that Hungary, unlike the Baltic states, is not threatened by anyone. And recall László Kövér’s outlandish attack only two days ago on Ukraine and on the western powers who use her as a pawn to separate Russia from Europe. One cannot dismiss Kövér’s remarks as unimportant. After all, Kövér is the closest associate and friend of Viktor Orbán and the president of the Hungarian parliament. Apparently, he is the only person in Fidesz who can give Orbán a piece of his mind and who can actually influence him. So, it is hard to know what Viktor Orbán really thinks about NATO and Hungary’s relation to it.

The pressure is intense on Orbán as a result of the Russian aggression and the western reaction to it. Although the Russian “separatists” have ostensibly agreed to a ceasefire, there is no question that in the last few weeks a full-fledged war was waged in the southeastern districts of Ukraine. And everybody knows that that war was unleashed by Vladimir Putin. NATO’s and the EU’s reaction to Russian aggression was rapid and resolute. As a result, it looks as if Viktor Orbán’s “eastern opening” and his flirtation with Putin’s Russia is over. Orbán will have to shelve his grandiose plans to have Hungary play the role of mediator between East and West. In the future it will be impossible to play that game if he wants Hungary to stay in the European Union, which he clearly needs for financial reasons. Now the question is whether the European Union will allow him to build his “illiberal state” on its “liberal” money.

Hungary and the Russian-Ukrainian crisis

A couple of days ago I wrote about the Hungarian far right and Russia and mentioned the Russian accusation that Hungary has been supplying T-72 tanks to Ukraine. At that time the Hungarian government categorically denied the charge, but the case of the “missing” Russian-made tanks is still a subject of debate. First of all, the stories out of the Ministry of Defense were confused. The spokesman for the ministry first claimed that the tanks never left the country: they were just moved from one storage area to another. Then the story took a different turn. The ministry informed the media that T-72 tanks (70 in all) were actually sold to a company called Excalibur Defense Kft. of Székesfehérvár, which received permission from the Czech Ministry of Industry and Trade to transport the tanks to Czech territory.

That deal and the transportation of the tanks to the Czech Republic is most likely for real:  Magyar Nemzet published a facsimile of the “International Import Certificate” attesting to the arrangement. On August 25 the government informed the media that the tanks had begun their j0urney to the Czech Republic. Yet the documents published by Magyar Nemzet did not convince anyone about the final destination of the tanks. Vice Magazine published an article which took it for granted that the T-72 tanks did or will end up in Ukraine. The deal with Excalibur is only a decoy. And this belief is shared by the Russians. Vyacheslav Nikonov, a Russian political scientist and adviser to Vladimir Putin who also happens to be the grandson of Vyacheslav Molotov, in an interview on CNN accused Hungary of illegally selling military supplies to Ukraine.

Today several  newspapers reported that Csaba Hende, minister of defense, may leave his post sometime after the municipal elections. The exact reasons for his sudden departure are not known, but perhaps the clumsy handling of the T-72 tanks might be one of them. Given Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s excellent relations with Vladimir Putin and his outright antagonism of any sanctions against Russia, providing Ukraine with illegal shipments of weaponry is more than strange. If true, Orbán’s relations with Putin might be greatly damaged and his tarnished reputation in the West is unlikely to improve.

This is not the only strange turn in Hungarian foreign policy. There is also the government’s sudden change of heart about its support for NATO’s anti-Russian moves. Already in his last radio talk Orbán hinted that there might be more willingness on his government’s part to spend 2% of the Hungarian GDP on defense. This figure is the minimum NATO members, including Hungary, agreed to. Since 2010 the government has spent less and less on the armed forces, with the current expenditure a mere 0.88% of the GDP. In that talk he admitted that the country is in noncompliance.

Indeed, two days ago Magyar Nemzet reported that Hungary will arrive in Newport, Wales for the NATO summit with several proposals concerning the Hungarian contribution to the common effort to contain Russian encroachment into Ukraine. The semi-official newspaper is usually very well informed, and therefore we can be pretty certain that the news is correct. Hungary will send a contingent of 100 men to the Baltics to join an international NATO force there. In addition, Hungary will develop the air force base near Pápa. Moreover, Hungary will spend more money to improve the Hungarian military.

Aerial photo of the Pápa Airbase

Aerial photo of the Pápa Airbase

Yesterday HVG reported that several NATO member countries would like to see additional NATO troops in all countries that define the eastern borders of the organization. That would naturally also involve Hungary. According to an unnamed diplomatic source, if such a request is addressed to Hungary it will be almost impossible to refuse it.

Given all these developments one can only marvel at László Kövér’s performance yesterday. The occasion was a meeting of four prominent participants in the change of regime in Hungary–Sándor Lezsák, László Kövér, Mátyás Szűrös, and Péter Tölgyessy–with 20 young historians, journalists, and artists who travel through European countries following the footsteps of 1989. The project, called Freedom Express, was organized by the European Network of Remembrance and Solidarity. The group arrived in Budapest yesterday from Gdańsk and Warsaw. Well, the young visitors were treated to quite a tirade from the third highest dignitary of the country. It was an extraordinary performance that revealed Kövér’s antagonism toward Ukraine and her aspirations.

First, Kövér got upset about some of the questions that had more to do with Hungary’s pro-Russian views than the fine points of regime change in Hungary twenty-five years ago. Then a Romanian participant in Freedom Express asked Kövér a question that included a reference to the Romanian occupation of Budapest in 1919. He indicated that the Romanian army came to Hungary to liberate it from the communists. That really set Kövér off. He began by saying that “there is no reason to bring up topics with which we only irritate each other.”  So, he was in a bad mood even before all the questions poured in about the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and Hungary’s role in it.

Kövér gave his own version of the conflict. “What is going on in Ukraine is a manipulated affair in which the Ukrainians have the smallest role,” he claimed. “The goal of this circus is that it should forever separate Europe from Russia.” Although Kövér expressed his satisfaction with the NATO umbrella over Hungary and although he understands the Poles and the Baltic people who are worried about Russian expansion, Russia has its legitimate security needs. “Who was the American or European politician who asked what the Ukrainians want?” As far as Western media coverage of the conflict is concerned, “the western press lies just as much as Pravda did in the olden days.”

Kövér is also convinced that no democratic developments can be expected from Ukraine because one of the first moves of the Ukrainian government was the suspension of minority rights. (Kövér failed to add that a day later that move was reversed.) As far as he is concerned, there can be no question about the outcome of a military encounter involving “the nonexistent army of the nonexistent Ukrainian state.” Instead, the real solution would be “normal cooperation between Europe and Russia,” but “the chance of that has been lost for the foreseeable future.”

If there is a circus anywhere, I’m afraid it is what Hungarian government politicians have managed to create in the field of diplomacy. And the clowns in this circus are not at all funny.