Southern Stream

Thoughts in advance of the German and Russian visits to Budapest

Yesterday the Neue Zürcher Zeitung published an article about the forthcoming visits of Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin to Budapest titled “Orbans Tanz auf zwei Hochzeiten,” indicating that Viktor Orbán will be able to have his cake and eat it too. He will remain a member in good standing of the European Union and will be a close friend of Russia at the same time. I, on the other hand, maintain that he will not be able to pull off that extraordinary feat. There are many signs that the Hungarian prime minister is already in retreat.

Let’s start with the Merkel visit. Hungarian and foreign observers have come up with all sorts of explanations for her trip, starting with the simplest one–that she could no longer postpone it. After all, she has not visited the Hungarian capital in the last five years, ever since Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz, which professes to be a Christian Democratic party, won a stunning victory in 2010. Her last trip took place in 2009, on the twentieth anniversary of the Hungarian opening of the Austro-Hungarian border for East German refugees, when the socialist-liberal government of Gordon Bajnai was still in power. If the purpose of the trip was to have a serious discussion about the Russian-Ukrainian crisis and Hungary’s role in it, Merkel’s five-hour stay, with very little face time with Viktor Orbán, would not suffice. She is coming because she promised to and because, according to a 1992 agreement between Hungary and Germany, she has to.

There are analysts who are convinced that Angela Merkel will not even mention the erosion of Hungarian democracy under Viktor Orbán’s regime, the systematic transformation of a fledgling democracy into an autocratic regime akin to the political setup that existed in Hungary between the two world wars. She has more pressing issues on her agenda: Greece, the sanctions against Russia, and the growth of the German anti-immigration movement–PEGIDA (Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes / Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West), especially popular in the former East Germany. It is unlikely that Merkel will waste any time on the woes of Hungarian democracy. Her only aim is to make sure that Viktor Orbán stands by the extension of the sanctions. This hypothesis, in part at least, is outdated: Hungary obediently voted for the extension on January 29.

Others are more optimistic. They maintain that the trouble with Angela Merkel’s visit is that it seems to put a stamp of approval on the illiberal regime of Viktor Orbán. This is certainly how the Orbán government is portraying it. If Merkel says nothing about the state of democracy in Hungary, Orbán’s regime scores a victory. There is pressure on Merkel at home, however, to do something about the Hungarian situation. She has to give the appearance that her visit is something of a warning to Viktor Orbán.

There is some truth in this interpretation. In fact, there are signs that behind the scenes some “disciplinary measures” have already taken place. The successful negotiations with the leaders of  the RTL Group indicate that Orbán got the message: there will be consequences if the Hungarian government blatantly and illegally discriminates against a media outlet just because it doesn’t like RTL’s news broadcast. Orbán caved, and I for one am certain that he didn’t get much in return. I find it interesting that the official announcement of Merkel’s visit occurred very late, on January 28, the day when according to Népszava‘s information the Hungarian government agreed to a substantial reduction in the enormous tax it had levied on RTL Klub. Was this agreement the price, or part of the price, of Merkel’s visit?

Because that’s not all. In his regular Friday morning interview Orbán announced that the exorbitant tax levies on the banking sector will most likely be gradually reduced because the Hungarian economy has greatly improved. “If possible, the interests of the country and the businessmen must be reconciled,” said the man who until now had laid all the financial burdens of his erroneous economic policies on businesses, especially foreign ones.

There might be several reasons for Orbán’s cooperation in addition to German negotiations. One is that the Americans undoubtedly know more about the Hungarian mafia state and Viktor Orbán’s role in it than they let on, but the Hungarian prime minister doesn’t know how much they know. That must be a powerful incentive to stick with the countries that provide Hungary with economic aid and military shelter. Another consideration might be the effect of the sanctions and the sinking price of oil on the Russian economy, which makes close ties with Putin’s Russia a less desirable option than, let’s say, a year ago.

And that leads us to the Putin visit on February 17. It was almost a year ago, in March of 2014, that the United States and the European Union began applying sanctions against Russia. Although Hungary agreed to support the move, in August Viktor Orbán declared that “Europe shot itself in the foot,” meaning that the sanctions actually hurt only the West and did nothing to weaken the Russian economy. Just about this time, however, oil prices began falling. The combination of sanctions and falling energy prices has made the Russian economic situation close to desperate by now.

Orbán was initially very proud of what he considered to be the crowning achievements of his Russia policy: the Southern Stream, which would have brought gas to Hungary circumventing Ukraine, and the Russian loan for the extension of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant. Since then, Russia abandoned the Southern Stream project because of lack of funds, and many people think that the much heralded Paks deal is also in trouble. Thus, the rationale for close relations with Russia has more or less evaporated, which leaves Viktor Orbán in the unenviable position of suffering the ill effects of his overly cozy relation with Putin while reaping practically no benefits.

Depiction of the Trojan Horse at the Schlilemann Museum in Akershagen, Germany

Depiction of the Trojan Horse at the Schliemann Museum in Akershagen, Germany

Under these circumstances I doubt that the initiative for the Putin visit came from Budapest. It is no longer to Orbán’s benefit to make a lavish display of friendship with Russia. And indeed, the government is trying to downplay the importance of Putin’s visit, noting that it is only a working trip and not a state visit with the usual fanfare. For Putin, by contrast, it is an important trip at a time when nobody wants to have anything to do with him. Just think of the humiliation he suffered in Brisbane, Australia. He wants to demonstrate that he has at least one good friend  in the European Union.

Putin’s second reason for the trip, I suspect along with others, is to find out how much he can rely on Viktor Orbán. Will he deliver as promised? Or it was just talk? Perhaps Orbán oversold his usefulness to Putin and is turning out to be a useless ally from the Russian point of view. Last August Jan-Werner Müller wrote an article in Foreign Affairs titled “Moscow’s Trojan Horse: In Europe’s Ideological War, Hungary Picks Putinism.” Well, the Trojan Horse may be just an empty shell and the damage it can cause within the European Union little to none.

Advertisements

Viktor Orbán’s Eastern Opening initiative is foundering

Vladimir Putin’s announcement yesterday about the cancellation of the Southern Stream caught the Hungarian government by surprise. It looks as if Putin neglected to tell his loyal strategic ally that Russia was planning to scrap the project upon which the Orbán government built its foreign and energy policy.

It must have been a bitter pill to swallow, and I am fairly certain that it will not be the last. Because Russia is in trouble. Big trouble. The current economic situation reminds Csaba Káncz of privátbankár.hu of the late Soviet period when in 1985 Saudi Arabia dramatically raised the daily quota from three to eight million barrels and the price of oil dropped from thirty dollars to ten. The same commentator reminded his readers that three-quarters of Russian exports come from oil and that half of the Russian budget depends on oil revenues. The Russian situation today raises the specter of 1998, when the country defaulted on its domestic debt and declared a moratorium on payment to foreign creditors.

pipes

They are empty

Indeed, Russian economic prospects are grim. Since the beginning of the year the ruble has lost 60% of its value. Inflation is at 9%. Official figures for economic growth are revised practically monthly, and it looks as if Russia is heading toward recession. Apparently Rosneft, the giant Russian oil company, had to sell 20% of its shares to keep the 2015 budget in balance, at least for a while. The Russian people are already feeling the pinch. Real wages may drop by 4%.

Even Válasz woke up and in a short article listed five signs that “Russia is in trouble.” The drastic devaluation of the ruble, oil prices, inflation, recession, and the flight of capital are the telling signs. Válasz points out that $120 billion in foreign capital has left Russia recently.  Only Magyar Nemzet tried the old journalistic trick of publishing an article about a Bulgarian politician who thinks that “Russia’s decision … is only a tactical move.”

Otherwise, the Hungarian media uniformly interprets the cancellation of the Southern Stream as an indication that Viktor Orbán’s Eastern Opening has failed. Hungary’s foreign policy, if you can call it that, is in tatters. How could it happen that the Hungarian administration put its blind faith in Putin’s Russia when for months it has been quite obvious that the Russian economy is in trouble? In fact, it was in trouble even before the western sanctions were imposed. Not only foreign analysts found the Russian situation worrisome but Zoltán S. Biró, a Hungarian expert on Russian history and politics, talked about the possibility that the Southern Stream might not materialize. A former Hungarian ambassador to Moscow, who is also knowledgeable about Russian affairs, also warned that the project might be scrapped and even ventured to predict that Paks might turn out to be a pipe dream. But these are not the people Viktor Orbán listens to.

Already under Foreign Minister János Martonyi (2010-2014) a large number of old hands in the foreign ministry were fired because they were deemed to be too closely associated with the socialist-liberal governments. But prior to the move of Tibor Navracsics and Péter Szijjártó to the ministry there were still a few people left who could have given an honest appraisal of the Russian situation. I hear, however, that fear has spread throughout the administration and that the foreign ministry is no exception. People are afraid to give their honest assessment of a situation because they know that “bad news” is not welcome in the prime minister’s office. Moreover, it has been apparent from day one that Viktor Orbán is conducting his foreign policy through Péter Szijjártó, a diplomatic greenhorn. And the “experts” they listen to are the folks at Századvég whose ideas about the world are staggeringly deficient. This is, at least in part, how Viktor Orbán ended up in this mess.

Commentators point out what we always knew: it is not the West that is in decline but Russia that cannot keep up with the rest of developed world. As Index put it, “Suddenly we learned that Russia is not so strong after all.” The drop in the price of oil and the sanctions did the job. It turned out that Russia is just “a huge Venezuela.” Orbán bet on the wrong horse and he lost. This is “a loss of prestige for NER (Nemzeti Együttműködés Rendszere/System of National Cooperation), Orbán’s alleged new political system.”

On Klubrádió Ferenc Gyurcsány also talked about the failure of a foreign policy that relies on an ever-weakening Russia. The Eastern Opening has no future and Orbán should end “the age of adventures,” a reference to the tenth-century Hungarian military incursions into Western Europe that eventually came to a sorry end when Otto I, the Holy Roman Emperor, taught them a lesson near Augsburg in 955. Gyurcsány made another historical allusion when he talked about Hungary ending up being “the last servile retainer” (csatlós) of Russia, comparing today’s situation to 1945 when Hungary stuck with Hitler’s Germany to the bitter end.

What did the administration have to say? Not much. According to Péter Szijjártó, “Russia has the right to make such a decision and Hungary takes note of it.” This terse statement barely hides Hungarian annoyance and disappointment.  He added that “the situation is entirely new. We have to look for new sources of energy.” His statement to MTI indicated that the Orbán government hasn’t done anything to look for alternative sources of energy. Everything was hanging on the completion of the Southern Stream by 2017. Today Szijjártó gave an interview to Magyar Nemzet in which he was asked about “the secure position of the Paks project.” His answer to the question was that, as far as he knows, Rosatom has never gone back on its commitments. A rather tricky answer because the real question is whether the Russian government is willing and able to lend ten billion euros to Hungary. If not, Rosatom is out of a job.

Magyar Nemzet tried to elicit a pro-Russian answer from Szijjártó by calling his attention to “the black and white” description of Russian-Ukrainian relations by the secretary-general of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen. According to the pro-Russian and anti-American paper, he described Ukraine as a country that can expect “a wonderful European future” while Russia must be condemned. Well, Szijjartó did not fall into that trap. He again recalled Hungary’s bad experiences with the Soviet Union and promised that “Hungary will give all the necessary assistance to Ukraine to launch the necessary reforms.”

So, this is where we stand at the moment. This new development is clearly a blow to Viktor Orbán’s grandiose plans. The question is whether he learned his lesson or whether he will actually ratchet up his eastern policy, as many commentators predict.

Hungary’s pending blue law

For weeks we have been reading about the Christian Democrats’ brainstorm to close stores over a certain size on Sundays. This despite the fact that in the past twenty years shoppers have gotten used to stores being open on Sundays; shopping has become a family affair. Everybody can have a say in the purchase of large items: a new refrigerator, stove, TV set, or new furniture. And while they are out shopping on Sunday, the family often has lunch in one of the malls or goes to the latest movie.  People like the convenience, and I’m certain they will be mighty unhappy if and when the Fidesz and KDNP majority votes to close targeted stores on Sundays. People expect their options to increase, not decrease.

Until now it looked as if Viktor Orbán and the Fidesz leadership would not endorse the KDNP plan. Mihály Varga, minister of national economy, said that, given the touch-and-go economic situation in the country, taking away the opportunity to conduct business seven days a week was not a good idea. Associations representing the merchants reported that Sunday is their third busiest shopping day. They figured that about 12,000 jobs would be lost if they were forced to close their doors. Even Viktor Orbán announced a couple of weeks ago that the question should be discussed with everybody involved because the Christian Democrats consulted only those organizations that supported their position: right-wing trade unions and groups like the association of large families who backed their plan for ideological reasons.

The way the proposal was originally worded, the bill discriminated against foreign-owned large chains since only those stores larger than 400m² that were not family-owned and operated would have been forced to close. The bill would not have applied to Hungarian franchises such as CBA, a chain of smaller stores owned by three fanatic supporters of the current Hungarian government: László Baldauf, Vilmos Lázár, and his brother Zoltán. These small stores can’t compete successfully with the large chains. Their selection is limited and their prices are higher. If the large chains were forced to close on Sundays, the small CBA stores would reap the benefit. I suspect that Fidesz’s initial hesitation was due to their recognition that the bill was discriminatory. After all, having German, British, and French companies sue the Hungarian government is not something Fidesz needs at the moment.

Today Antal Rogán came out with what seems to be the final word on the subject. The Fidesz parliamentary delegation will support the proposal but with substantial amendments. Even the name of the bill will be changed. From here on it will be known as the “Law on the prohibition of work on Sundays.” The aim is, Rogán said, the “total cessation of work on Sundays.” An ambitious plan indeed, and I could give Rogán a few suggestions. No football on Sunday; after all those players are paid for their work. And then there are the priests and ministers who are also paid for Sunday work. And one could continue with policemen, firemen, doctors, nurses, or agricultural workers during planting and harvest season. What about restaurants or theaters, movies, concert halls? This proposed Hungarian blue law reminds me of Ottawa in the 1950s and 1960s when everything but everything was closed. It was a jolly place indeed. When I read such nonsense I always suspect that these people don’t think before they speak.

I understand that some of the influential higher-ups in Fidesz argued against the store closures because they knew that the move would be unpopular and, they argued, the government does not need another huge demonstration. According to an article that appeared on November 19, the Christian Democratic proposal was not popular among Fidesz leaders, including Viktor Orbán. But now, it seems, he changed his mind. According to vs.huOrbán turned against those, among them Lajos Kósa, who today argued for dropping the idea because of the current public mood. Orbán apparently countered that unpopular pieces of legislation should be introduced right at the beginning of the new administration. But, of course, this does not answer the question: why is the Sunday closing of stores such an important issue? Why should the government gamble on its already waning popularity? It is hard to fathom what’s going on in Orbán’s head. Has he lost his earlier keen political sense or is the Christian Democratic delegation perhaps blackmailing him, threatening him with a withdrawal of their support?

CBA Pecs

We know few details of the Fidesz amendments to the KDNP bill. One change that has been mentioned is that only very small family-owned stores can be open and only members of the family can work in them on Sundays. The size of stores that will be exempted from the blue law will be smaller than the originally proposed 400m² because it will include not only the shopping space but the store’s storage area as well. With the Fidesz amendments it seems that most CBA franchises will suffer along with the foreign-owned supermarkets. I don’t know the average area of these stores (or the average size of the families owning the franchises), but the Pécs CBA I found pictured online surely couldn’t do business on Sunday if this proposal becomes law.

Switching topics: Vladimir Putin announced a few hours ago that Gazprom has cancelled the construction of the South Stream pipeline. Not a good day for Viktor Orbán. What will happen to the storage facilities in Hungary? What about Paks? It looks as if Viktor Orbán might fall between two stools. It was risky gamble from day one, and it is getting riskier by the day.

Viktor Orbán picks another fight with the West, this time over the Southern Stream

I know that everybody is intensely interested in the Hungarian government’s latest brainstorm, the introduction of an internet tax, but I would rather wait with an analysis of this latest scandal until it becomes clear what the fate of the proposal will be. So far the reaction to this new tax has been so vehement that the government most likely will have to retreat. When an article in the right-wing Válasz predicts that “if we had an election today Fidesz would lose big,” I think it’s time to order a quick turnabout. I would like to add just one observation on a related topic: the Hungarian budget must be in a sorry state if an additional tax must be levied on soap and detergent, allegedly because they are harmful to the environment. Let’s not contemplate the detrimental effect of curtailing the use of soap because this would take us too far afield.

So, instead of dealing with the effects of an internet tax, I will look at other recent governmental decisions that have been detrimental to Hungary’s relations with the United States and the European Union. What I have in mind is Viktor Orbán’s flirtation with Putin’s Russia, which is being watched with growing concern in Washington and Brussels. Already there have been a couple of moves indicating close cooperation with Russia that raised eyebrows in the democratic world: the building of a nuclear power plant by a Russian firm on Russian money, Hungary’s refusal to support the common European position on the Russian sanctions, a tête-à-tête between Gazprom and the Hungarian prime minister followed by the Hungarian decision to stop supplying gas to Ukraine, and the government’s decision to let Gazprom use Hungarian facilities to store gas in case Russia cuts off the flow of gas through Ukraine.

These moves worried and irritated the United States and the European Union, only compounding their concerns about all the transgressions of the rules of democracy committed by the Fidesz government against the Hungarian people. Years have gone by; at last western politicians are slowly, ever so slowly deciding that they have had enough. After Norway it was the United States that openly showed its dissatisfaction with the domestic and foreign policies of the Orbán government. Yet, as the last few days have demonstrated, Viktor Orbán is not changing tactics. On the contrary, as I wrote yesterday, he is strengthening ties with countries whose relations with the United States and the European Union are strained. Almost as if Viktor Orbán purposefully wanted to have an open break with Hungary’s western allies.

Yesterday one could still hope that Viktor Orbán would  come to his senses and would at least make some gestures, but as yesterday’s meeting between Péter Szijjártó and Victoria Nuland indicated, the new Hungarian foreign minister was sent to Washington without a Plan B. By today, however, most likely in his absence, the government came out with a new idea. What if the Hungarian office of taxation and customs (NAV) announces that in the last several years they have been diligently pursuing their investigation of those criminal elements who through tax fraud unfairly competed against the American company Bunge? Maybe it will work. Mihály Varga, minister of national economy, announced this morning that four of the culprits are already in jail. Very nice, but there is a fly in the ointment. Most likely the U.S. State Department remembers, as I do, that András Horváth, the whistleblower at NAV, months ago gave a detailed description of the ways in which these criminals operated. He asked NAV to investigate and disclose their findings, but the managers of the tax office first fired Horváth and a couple of days later announced that after an internal investigation found everything in perfect order. So I doubt that the Americans will fall for that bogus story.

Yesterday Portfólió asked “how to make the USA more angry with Hungary,” but they “did not have the faintest idea that the government has been holding the best answer to that and it beats every idea [the Portfólió] have ever had.” So, what is it? In order to understand the situation we have to go back to the controversy over Russia’s new pipeline already under construction–the Southern Stream–that would supply Russian gas to Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, Slovenia, Greece, and Italy. The United States and the European Union were never too happy about the project and now, in the middle of the Russian-Ukrainian crisis, they are especially leery of Putin’s plans. In fact, the European Commission asked the Bulgarians to stop the construction of the pipeline in their country. They obliged. The European Union also warned Serbia that they can forget about future membership in the European Union if they agree to support the project right now.

southern stream

In Hungary construction has not yet begun, but the Orbán government seemed to be afraid that something similar would happen to them what happened to the Bulgarians. They decided to act. Changing the law by now has become a Fidesz pastime. Today Antal Rogán proposed an amendment to a 2008 law on natural gas that will allow any gas company to construct a pipeline. The original law, in harmony with laws of a similar nature in other countries, specified that the company in charge of the construction has to be a certified transmission system operator who must conform to international rules. Since pipelines are transnational projects, the countries involved must coordinate their individual projects. What the Hungarians hope is that as a result of this amendment Hungary will not be bound by any international constraint. Starting the project will depend only on the Hungarian Energy Office, which could give permission to any company it chooses to construct the pipeline. Portfólió suspects that both the European Union and the United States will be “furious” upon hearing this latest Hungarian ruse.

Clever Hungarian lawyers, who seem to specialize in circumventing the letter of the law, might think that this scheme is foolproof, but I suspect that EU lawyers will find the legislation full of holes. Hungarian papers suggest that the Orbán government is playing for time. But the case is settled, they argue; the pipeline will be built. Surely no one will force Hungary to destroy it.

Let’s contemplate another scenario. What if the European Union and the United States in joint action put such pressure on the Hungarian government that the plan must be abandoned? As it is, according to analysts, Budapest is already between a rock and a hard place. When political scientist Gábor Török, who has the annoying habit of sitting on the fence, says that “the Orbán government is in big trouble. It was before but now it is different. It will not fall, surely not now…. But if it does not recognize the fork in the road or if it chooses the wrong road, we will mark the events of today as a definite turning point.” And in an interview this afternoon Ferenc Gyurcsány twice repeated his belief that Hungary is at the verge of leaving the Union and, when it happens, it will not be Viktor Orbán’s choice.

I wouldn’t go that far, but I do predict that the screws will be tightened. Among those who will apply pressure will be Norway since the Hungarian government audit office just came out with its report claiming that Ökotárs, the organization in charge of distributing the Norwegian Civil Funds, has used the money inappropriately. A criminal investigation will be launched.

We know that Barack Obama said that the American government supports NGOs in countries where they are under fire. Today we learned that Veronika Móra, chairman of Ökotárs, was a member of a delegation that visited Washington in late September. During that trip the NGO leaders were received by President Obama in the White House. By contrast, Péter Szijjártó did not get any higher than one of the assistant undersecretaries of the State Department. If I were Viktor Orbán, I would take that as a warning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"German

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

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

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

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

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

The silence from Slovakia was deafening.

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

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

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

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

Waiting for the Kazakh dictator

It was a few days ago that Vladimir Putin met with his counterparts from Kazakhstan and Belarus in the Kazakh capital, Astana, to form the Eurasian Economic Union as a counterweight to the European Union and the United States. The provisions of the union will give freedom of movement and employment across the three countries.  They will also collaborate on issues of energy, technology, industry, agriculture, and transport.

What does the formation of the Eurasian Economic Union have to do with Hungary, a member of the European Union? Directly not much, but one must not forget that one of the cornerstones of Viktor Orbán’s foreign policy initiatives is the “Opening to the East.” In the last three or four years he has developed good relations with all three countries.

There has been a lot of discussion here and elsewhere in the media about Russian-Hungarian cooperation in the Southern Stream gas pipe project and the recent European Union efforts to block its construction, fearing that Gazprom will not  abide by the Union’s competition rules. Even more time was spent on the Russian loan to Hungary for Rosatom to build two additional nuclear reactors in Paks. What we hear less about are the quiet but very friendly relations between Kazakhstan and Hungary. The same is true about Belarus. It seems that Viktor Orbán enjoys the company of dictators.

In May 2012 Viktor Orbán visited Kazakhstan and gushed over the great achievements of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the president and dictator of the country. He emphasized “the historical and cultural ties that unite our peoples.” He admired the new capital, Astana, which he described as a “symbol of humanity’s new phase of development.” Orbán’s servile performance was disgusting then but now, two years later, Hungarian servility toward Nazarbayev has reached new lows.

Back in March, a journalist from 168 Óra discovered that in Városliget, Budapest’s city park, one of the roads was renamed Astana Road. After some research the journalist discovered that the decision to name a street after the Kazakh capital had been reached already in 2013. Originally, it was to be somewhere in District VIII, a poor section of Pest, but apparently the Budapest city council decided that the district is not elegant enough for the very special relations that apparently exist between the two countries. By the end of April the same city council (naturally with Fidesz majority) voted to erect a statue of Abai Qunanbaiuli or Kunanbayev, the great 19th-century Kazakh poet. Kunanbayev is much admired in Kazakhstan, where many statues commemorate his person and his work. Outside of Kazakhstan he has only one statue, in Moscow. But soon enough there will a second one which Nursultan Nazarbayev himself will unveil on June 4 in Budapest. The statue is a present from the people of Kazakhstan. It is a bust that stands on a three-meter-high platform.

There are other signs of the excellent relationship between Hungary and Kazakhstan. The mayor of Astana offered a piece of real estate gratis to the Hungarian state. The Budapest government can build a structure on the site in which Hungary could hold exhibits about the country and its people. Apparently, this is a very generous offer because real estate prices in Astana are sky high: millions of dollars.

Nursultan Nazarbayev, dictator of Kazakhstan

Nursultan Nazarbayev, dictator of Kazakhstan

Meanwhile, the fawning over the Kazakh dictator seems to have no limits. At the end of April, before invited guests in the building of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences of all places, Sándor Fazekas, minister of agriculture and rural development, and János Horváth, the oldest member of parliament and a US-Hungarian citizen, introduced the Hungarian translation of Nazarbayev’s book about his childhood and youth.  Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources, was in the audience.

Naturally, the book was a bestseller in Kazakhstan, though I doubt that it will fly off the shelves in Hungary. Fazekas referred to the Kazakh dictator as “an internationally respected statesman” whose autobiography will help Hungarians learn more about the history of Kazakhstan. János Horváth went even further. According to him, the fantastic achievements of Nazarbayev’s agricultural reform “will one day be taught at universities.” In his opinion, “it is appropriate (helyénvaló)  for the leader of a Soviet-type government to behave like a dictator, but Nazarbayev wants to move away from the practice.” The problem with this claim is that there has been absolutely no sign of Nazarbayev giving up power and contemplating the introduction of democracy. In fact, just lately he got himself reelected with 95% of the votes. Naturally, the Kazakh ambassador to Hungary was present; he compared the Kazakh president’s autobiography to biographies of Gandhi and George Washington. It was quite a gathering.

And last Monday Duna TV showed a Kazakh film, with Hungarian subtitles, based on Nazarbayev’s autobiography. As Cink, a popular blog, reported, “The Stalinist Duna World is showing a film about the Kazakh dictator tonight.” This is how low Viktor Orbán has sunk in his quest for friendship with countries outside of the European Union.

The Russian view of Paks; the right-wing rant on the united opposition

I’m staying with yesterday’s topics: Russian-Hungarian relations and the most important domestic development, the new united opposition. But with a difference. In the case of the Russian-Hungarian understanding, I will take a look at Russian reactions. How does the Russian media view these developments? As far as the gathering of the opposition forces is concerned, I will share some excerpts from the right-wing press, especially Magyar Nemzet and Magyar Hírlap.

I was initially skeptical that whatever Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orbán signed the other day would be more advantageous to Hungary than to Russia, or even equally advantageous. And not just in economic terms. But I became truly concerned this morning when I saw a Hungarian translation of a Russian article that appeared in the well-known Russian daily, Kommersant. The author of the article, Andrei Kolesnikov, called attention to Viktor Orbán’s eagerness to please his Russian partners. The reporter pointed out that the Hungarian prime minister volunteered the information right after the ceremonies were over that Hungary will fulfill all its obligations as far as the Southern Stream project is concerned. There is no formal connection between the agreement signed on the Paks nuclear power plant and the Southern Stream project, and therefore mentioning the controversial arrangement was not at all necessary. Orbán’s reference to the pipeline could serve only one purpose: to make it clear that regardless of EU objections Hungary will go through with the project. He is ready to engage in another fight with the bureaucrats in Brussels, this time over the Russian pipeline.

I became curious about other Russian media reactions and found an incredible number of articles. In addition, I was lucky enough to catch a radio interview with Zoltán Sz. Bíró, a historian of present-day Russia, whom I consider one of the most reliable and knowledgeable students of Putin’s Russia. According to him, Viktor Orbán’s visit was the leading news item on the Russian state television station. Hungary was hailed as “the most independent country in the European Union.” Long opinion pieces appeared about Orbán, who was described as “the ally of Putin within the European Union.” One article’s headline hailed the agreement as a great victory for Russia because, after all, now “Eurasia is at the Danube.” According to another analysis, this Russian-Hungarian agreement is more than an economic act; it is a kind of political alliance. Another reporter described the event thus: “We already bought Ukraine, and now we are buying Hungary.” The goal of Russia, according to Sz. Bíró, is to have an ally inside of the Union, to whom under certain circumstances Russia can turn. To have a country that can be the spokesman for Russia in Brussels.

Of course, there are also critical voices concerning the Russian-Hungarian deal, mostly in the relatively small independent media. Critics don’t understand why Russia has to spend billions and billions when the Russian economy has slowed considerably in the last few years. It was not too many years ago that the Russian GDP grew 6-7% a year. Today, if all goes well, that figure will be 1.4%.

Although we have no idea what interest rate Hungary will have to pay on the loan, apparently the Russian finance minister already indicated that it has to be high enough to equal the interest rate at which Russia would be able to borrow in the market. This would indicate that the interest rate will not be as low as János Lázár would like us to believe.

Today’s Russia is a politically much more oppressive country than it was before the 2011-2012 elections. The election was rigged, the urban middle classes are increasingly dissatisfied with the regime, and in turn the government is clamping down more and more. To have such a close relationship with Putin’s Russia is anything but wise. Andrei Kolesnikov in his article in Kommersant called attention to the similarities between Putin and Orbán: “the Soviet gene is alive in both of them, whether they like it or not,” which makes them kindred souls.

And as long as we’re on the theme of “the Soviet gene,” perhaps it might interest you to know that Ágnes Seszták, who is a regular contributor of opinion pieces to Magyar Nemzet, began her article about the new five-party alliance this way: “The chartered train arrived which brought Comrade Rákosi, Comrade Gerő, and Mihály Farkas to the podium. Comrade Révai is ill-disposed but he will join the group. Oh, what am I talking about? This is not that age. This is the team of today.” The reference was to the joint appearance of Attila Mesterházy, Ferenc Gyurcsány, and Gábor Fodor on ATV. Gordon Bajnai was invited but couldn’t attend. This is how the right-wing propagandists assist the Orbán government’s efforts to equate the present-day socialists and liberals with the the worst figures of the Rákosi regime.

As the Orbán government wants to portray the social democrats and the liberals

The way the Orbán government wants to portray the social democrats and liberals

Another regular, Miklós Ugró, called the left-center gathering “the little nincompoops” (kis idétlen). I guess that is better than comparing it to the Rákosi-Gerő-Farkas-Révai quartet, but Ugró couldn’t resist calling these politicians comrades who “loathe each other”(rühellik egymást). And the style doesn’t get any more acceptable as he goes on. He mentions “the few political traveling salesmen [vigéc] who betrayed LMP.” Solidarity is “a collection of rowdies [tahók].” And his final word is that this team is nothing but the “reconvening of the old MSZP” that naturally ruined the country and would again if given the opportunity.

Zsolt Bayer in Magyar Hírlap also accuses the socialists of all sorts of sins.  They still consider György Lukács and Oszkár Jászi their intellectual heritage–a murderer and a traitor. They dare to adore Béla Kun and the other commissars, although only in secret.  But their real idol is Kádár. As for Gyurcsány, he is “the greatest, the vilest, the most disgusting crook of the regime change.” Yet, the pro-government forces and voters shouldn’t think that Gyurcsány’s presence will take votes away from the present left-of-center alliance. No, he will bring votes “because they are like that.” Thus, the right has to fight doubly hard to win this election because if “the socialists lose in April, they are really finished. For ever and for good.”

Bayer could have given Attila Mesterházy sound advice. If he had decided not to get together with the others and MSZP had run alone at the next election, he would have had a chance to be prime minister in 2018. “But this way he will disappear with the rest of the crooks. Forever!”