Russo-Ukrainian relations

Viktor Orbán’s foreign policy doctrine: only national interest

Every year Hungarian ambassadors assemble in Budapest to listen to very lengthy lectures by Viktor Orbán on their duties.  I began covering this gathering in 2010, when the prime minister outlined “a much more courageous, much more aggressive foreign policy”  than the one pursued by the socialist-liberal governments. In 2011 he announced his intention to wage a war against the European Union in defense of the country’s sovereignty, and he urged the ambassadors to steadfastly defend all of the government’s unorthodox moves. In July 2012 his speech centered around the protracted economic crisis that was “not made any easier” by the existence of the democratic model. “Europe chose the democratic model after World War II,” so that’s that. This was not a criticism on his part, he added. And a year later, in 2013, he claimed that Europe can remain competitive only if it finds accommodation with Russia. He admitted that this is a difficult proposition because Russia is not a democratic country. “However, we must understand that for Russia it is not democracy that is the most important consideration but rather how the country can be kept intact.”

If anyone thought that after his speech of July 26 Orbán would try to retreat, realizing that foreign reaction was exceedingly critical of his illiberal ideas that are incompatible with the values of western democracies, they were mistaken. Here are the most important segments of his long speech as reported by MTI. It appeared on the government’s website.

Orbán in his 2010 speech urged the ambassadors to defend the Hungary’s unorthodox policies. Today he suggested the opposite. They “should not assume a defensive posture” because “the Hungarian position can defend itself.” They should listen to what other nations’ representatives have to say, but their answers should not be substantive. It should be no more than a polite gesture, “a civilised obligation.” In brief, Hungary needs no advice from anyone.

Source: Népszabadság / Photo: Zsolt Reviczky

Source: Népszabadság / Photo: Zsolt Reviczky

The ambassadors must not represent a country which is constantly criticized and questioned on its economic indicators or on its historical sins. “No one in the whole world has the right to take us to task, especially since Hungary’s democratic credentials are the best in all of Europe.” After all, at the time of the acceptance of the new constitution every possible legal question was answered satisfactorily.

As for Hungary’s place in today’s world order, there is no question that “Hungary’s place is within the western alliance system,” but “we no longer follow a foreign policy based on ideology.” The only consideration is “Hungarian national interest.” In his opinion “clever nations invented foreign policy based on ideology for half-witted nations.” And surely, Hungary is not one of them.

Normally, Orbán does not like question and answer periods. For example, apparently the reason for his recent cancellation of a speech at Georgetown University was the university administration’s insistence on such a format. It seems that on these occasions, however, whether he likes it or not, he has to answer a few polite questions by the ambassadors.

So Csaba Balogh, ambassador to Bratislava, asked him about Hungary’s position on the Russian-Ukrainian crisis. We already knew that Orbán is reluctant to support joint European efforts at containing Putin’s expansionist plans. This time he made his position crystal clear. For him the Russian-Ukrainian crisis has only economic ramifications, and these are obviously negative. Already last year on the same occasion Orbán advocated closer ties between Russia and the European Union. Today he sadly noted that, despite his advice, relations between Russia and the European Union are getting worse and worse. And that is bad not only for Hungary but also for the European Union.

So, what will Hungary do under these circumstances? Orbán’s Hungary will seek out those countries whose interests lie in preventing further rifts between Russia and the EU and promote closer cooperation with them. In plain English, he will try to drive a wedge between the member states in their policy toward Putin’s Russia.

Orbán seems to be convinced that criticism of his “seeking a different political model”–as he euphemistically called his illiberal vision of Hungary’s future– is some kind of punishment for his “different views on Russian sanctions.” Otherwise, there would not be all that fuss.

Finally, Orbán stated that he is “dead against” immigration because he does not consider multiculturalism a desirable end. Homogeneity is a valuable feature within individual countries, and therefore these homogeneous communities should not be broken up. To quote Reuters, Orbán told his audience that “we must fight to keep this issue under national jurisdiction…. I make no secret of this: we will continue with a very tough policy that does not at all encourage immigration … For Europe to have general rules that affect all of us who think differently is out of the question.” I assume he means only extra-European immigration. In plain language, this is a “whites (and probably Christians) only” policy. He called the EU’s immigration policy hypocritical, impractical, and without moral foundation. As Reuters rightly pointed out, that might put Orbán at odds with Brussels.

It is also interesting to note what MTI’s summary left out, which other journalists who were present noticed. The most obvious to me was Népszabadság’s reporting that “one must not overrate the so-called common European values.” The liberal paper considered that sentence so important that it used it as its headline.

So, there is plenty to chew on here, and I am sure there will be more to discuss when the complete transcript is released. In any case, the European Union has a problem on its hands as Wolfgang H. Reinicke, president of the Global Public Policy Institute, pointed out a few days ago. He optimistically predicted that “Europe’s Orbán problem” can be fixed. It all depends on the political will to confront him. Orbán is ready for that fight.

August 22, 1914

A change of pace. What else can we say about Viktor Orbán after his three recent public appearances and his decision to share his vision and wisdom with the world? Instead, let’s talk about history.

I must have mentioned how great the interest is in Europe on the 100th anniversary of World War I. German and Austrian papers in particular have been spending considerable time and energy telling their readers about events a hundred years ago. Often on a daily basis.

Hungarians who are so terribly interested in history seem to spend less time on the Great War, as it was called at the time. However, there is a company called Arcanum Adatbázis Kft. that specializes in the digitization of documents, maps, paintings, etc. They just offered free access to the issues of five Hungarian newspapers published one hundred years ago. I took advantage of the offer and read the August 22, 1914 issue of Népszava, the newspaper of the Hungarian Social Democratic Party. Today I’ll share some of that hundred-year-old news.

Before I embark on my project let me note that the Hungarian social democrats, just like other social democratic parties all over Europe, forgot about their internationalism after the outbreak of the war and became enthusiastic supporters of the war effort. Thus no one should be surprised about Népszava‘s patriotism and its fierce attack on tsarist Russia. After all, Russia’s oppressive regime was one of the justifications for socialist support of the war effort.

I should also mention that by coincidence I happened to pick a day that is described by historians as the war’s “deadliest.” It was on August 22, 1914 near Ardennes and Charleroi that the French army lost 27,000 men. It was a much larger loss than the one the British suffered in the Battle of Somme, which is usually cited as the war’s worst. The Battle of the Ardennes lasted three days, between August 21 and 23. Keep in mind that the articles in Népszava, a morning paper, were most likely written the night before.

Népszava was a slim paper in those days, ten pages in all, but six of these were devoted to the war. Headlines: “The German army destroyed the French. The troops of the Monarchy advance in Russia. Revolution broke out in the empire of the hangman Tsar.”

The paper enthusiastically announces that the German advance this time is even swifter than it was during 1870-1871 and optimistically predicts that “the war will soon be over.” The first decisive battle has taken place. Although it was not on French territory, as was predicted, it was very close, only 12 kilometers from the border. “Brussels already belongs to the Germans”; this occupation was a magnificent military achievement. Liège is also in German hands.  “The German army will soon move all the way to the North Sea.”

The situation on the ground was not so rosy. Here are a few lines from a German soldier’s diary entry: “Nothing more terrible could be imagined…. We advanced much too fast–a civilian fired at us–he was immediately shot–we were ordered to attack the enemy flank in the forest beeches–we lost our direction–the men were done for–the enemy opened fire–shells came down on us like hail.”

Népszava, like the other papers, spends considerable time accusing the enemy of all sorts of beastly things. According to the paper, German soldiers write letters home in which they tell stories about the cruelty of the French toward prisoners of war. For example, “they cut both hands, poked the eyes out, and tore out the tongue” of a German prisoner.

After the Battle of Ardennes

After the Battle of Ardennes

On the Russian front the newspaper is unable to come up with such spectacular victories. The report simply says that “the Russians have been unable to cross the border of Bukovina,” which was  part of Austria-Hungary until 1918. As for the paper’s claim of a revolution in the Crimea, that might have been only wishful thinking on the part of the Hungarians because history books do not seem to know about it.

It is interesting to read about Russian-Ukrainian relations from the perspective of 1914. The paper points out that there are 30 million Ukrainians living in Russia who look upon this war as “a war of independence.” These oppressed Ukrainians are looking forward to the day when they can join their four million Ruthenian brethren who live in Austria-Hungary.

A Hungarian paper would naturally spend considerable time on the war next door, in Serbia. They relate stories coming from returning wounded soldiers and prisoners of war. According to a Hungarian lieutenant, the Hungarians “decimated” the Serbian forces. Those who were not killed escaped in the direction of Podgorica (in Montenegro) and Ada (Serbia). However, some soldiers climbed trees and kept shooting at the Hungarian troops. He claimed that the Serbs are cowardly and brutish soldiers who leave their own wounded men behind. The Serbs, according to the paper, don’t have too many fatalities, but they do have a lot of wounded soldiers. Two of them were brought to Budapest. They told the Hungarians that they did not want to join the army but their officers forced them with revolvers. These two also claimed that the army is tired, but the officers are trying to convince them to go on because the Russians will be coming momentarily.

A fair number of Serb prisoners of war arrived in Hungary already by late August.  The paper talks about 300 prisoners in Esztergom. Apparently another 3,000 were on their way, being transported by ship.

All in all, the usual war psychosis. The enemy is vile, cowardly, cruel while our side is brave and wonderful. Our victories are magnified, the enemy’s minimized. Hopes center around a Ukrainian uprising so they can join the Ukrainians living in the Monarchy. There is also speculation of a revolution in Russia. Much time is spent on the weariness, disillusionment, and hardships in the enemy country. This is especially the case when it comes to stories about Serbia.

Finally, something the journalists of Népszava did not know when they put the newspaper together. It was on August 22, 1914 that Austria-Hungary declared war on Belgium. A bit late, don’t you think?