Stratfor

Two narratives of the impending Budapest visit of Angela Merkel

As Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to Budapest nears, there is conflicting speculation about the purpose of her visit. Merkel will spend five hours in Budapest, apparently on February 2. This short stint will include a meeting with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and a visit to Mazsihisz, the umbrella organization representing the Jewish religious community. Why is Merkel traveling to Hungary? According to critics, the trip is ill-advised because, with a visit to Budapest, she is implicitly endorsing the illiberal regime of Viktor Orbán. A few days ago one of the leading MSZP politicians announced that the party expects Merkel “to signal to Viktor Orbán in unambiguous terms that he has no place in the community of democratic European politicians.”

Others seem to be convinced that Merkel is going to Budapest to ensure that Viktor Orbán will vote together with the rest of the European prime ministers to extend the sanctions currently in force against Russia. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that the German chancellor made it clear that sanctions can be lifted only after the agreement reached in Minsk is fulfilled. And nothing of the sort has happened. In fact, just this morning Kiev announced that 700 Russian troops had crossed into Ukraine to aid the rebels fighting for control of the eastern provinces.

Attila Ara-Kovács, the foreign policy expert of Demokratikus Koalíció, is one of those who believe that the trip’s main purpose is to convince Viktor Orbán of the necessity of extending the sanctions. But he goes even further when he hypothesizes that Merkel has another message for Orbán in light of the recent demonstrations: he should end the political conflict at home. Somewhat similarly, Stratfor, an American geopolitical intelligence and advisory firm, is convinced that Merkel’s visit is part and parcel of a U.S. “diplomatic offensive” in the region and can be viewed as putting joint U.S.-German pressure on Viktor Orbán. The aim is to stop the spread of Russian influence in the region.

Is this the truth?

Is this the truth?

Or that?

Or this?

The other narrative of the impending Merkel visit comes straight from Fidesz. It is well summarized in the headline of an article by Zsolt Hazafi: “Is Merkel Orbán’s guardian angel?” It is true that the journalist turned the Fidesz message into a question, but the answer is “yes.” The story line goes as follows: Hungary and Germany are very close allies who synchronize all their diplomatic moves. More than that, Orbán’s Hungary is doing Germany’s bidding. Or at least this is what József Szájer, a Fidesz member of the European Parliament, intimated in his interview with Antónia Mészáros of ATV yesterday. As he put it: “Germany sent us ahead” to test the ground vis-à-vis Russia. Berlin, according to him, is just as much against sanctions as Budapest is, but Merkel is constrained, presumably by the United States. Therefore, she secretly welcomes Hungary’s position on the sanctions.

After talking with several high-level government officials, Hazafi gained the impression that in the last few years a Russian-German-Hungarian triangle came into being, a three-way relationship that includes an understanding about building a second reactor at the Paks nuclear power plant. Why would the German chancellor agree to the secret Russian-Hungarian deal on Paks? According to this narrative, Germany, where soon enough there will be no nuclear power plants, will be able to get inexpensive energy from Paks. Fidesz informants pointed out that a German firm was instrumental in making the Russian loan to Hungary possible. They added as proof of the understanding between Germany and Hungary on Paks that Günther Oettinger, former European commissioner for energy matters and a German, raised no objection to the Putin-Orbán deal. Members of the Hungarian government and leading Fidesz leaders consider both visits–Merkel’s and Putin’s–diplomatic triumphs. “Hungary is back on the map,” Orbán allegedly said.

Népszabadság also had its own Fidesz informants. They claim that Germany didn’t object to the Orbán-Putin meeting since Germany and Hungary work hand in hand when it comes to Russia. Some of the more embarrassing statements of Viktor Orbán are no more than trial balloons. One example is the question of sanctions. According to other Fidesz politicians, those who see a connection between the visits of Merkel and Putin “are not far from the truth.” Insiders also claim that the relationship between Merkel and Orbán is close. According to them, the two became closer after their hour-long meeting in Milan last year. Government officials, when claiming close German-Russian-Hungarian cooperation, usually bring up the fact that Klaus Mangold, former CEO of Daimler-Chrysler, was the middleman between Orbán and Putin throughout the negotiations. The informers seem to be pretty certain that “it is no longer in the interest of Germany to talk seriously about the lack of democracy in Hungary.” The author of the article (we don’t know who he/she is because there was no by-line) added that Merkel might have to resort to more serious criticism after “the prime minister’s crude anti-immigration theses” in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris.

So, here we have two irreconcilable narratives. I find the Fidesz version of close German-Hungarian relations hard to believe. There are just too many signs that contradict it. Unless, of course, we assume duplicity on the part of Angela Merkel. After all, time and again she expressed her misgivings about Russian aggression and her support of the sanctions, including additional ones if Russia refused to cooperate. Such a double game would make no sense, especially now that Russia is in serious economic and political trouble. Thus, my hunch is that the sudden talkativeness of Fidesz potentates is a concerted effort on the part of the Orbán regime to burnish the prime minister’s image, to point to his diplomatic importance and genius, and to portray him as one of the most important leaders in Europe.

I am inclined to believe that the main reason for the Merkel visit is indeed the question of the sanctions and Hungary’s overly chummy relations with Putin. I am also convinced that Merkel will talk about what Hungarians call “the democracy deficit,” which is something that is hard to ignore given the wide coverage of Orbán’s illiberal state and the latest demonstrations. In brief, I consider this latest tsunami of leaks by Fidesz politicians to be a part of a disinformation campaign.

Advertisements

Miklós Horthy and Viktor Orbán are kindred souls, at least according to George Friedman

I hope I made it eminently clear what I think of George Friedman’s brief description of the role of Miklós Horthy who, he claims, heroically tried to balance between two great powers. Friedman’s knowledge of the period is woefully inadequate. He couldn’t even keep his facts straight, never mind the validity of his conclusions.

On the basis of this inadequate description of what transpired in Hungary between, let’s say, 1933 and 1944, he portrays Horthy as a politician of vision who brilliantly managed to keep Germans and the far right at bay as long as possible. Thereby, he managed to save thousands of lives.

In Friedman’s eyes Prime Minister Viktor Orbán resembles Horthy: he is also trying to steer the ship of a weak and poor country though dangerous waters. Admittedly, he says, times are different, but “circumstances still bear similarities to Horthy’s time.” What, however, we never get any answer to is why Germany is a dangerous enemy of Hungary today. Because Viktor Orbán’s foreign policy is described as a balancing act between a  hostile Germany and a hostile Russia.

Friedman, it seems, envisages a Russia that sooner or later will run down all of Ukraine and thus will become a direct neighbor of Hungary. In the case of Germany, Friedman focuses on the nature of the EU and economics. First, “Hungary is already facing Germany’s policy toward liberal integration within the European Union, which fundamentally contradicts Hungary’s concept of an independent state economy. Hungary is already facing Germany’s policies that undermine Hungary’s economic and social well-being. Orban’s strategy is to create an economy with maximum distance from Europe without breaking with it, and one in which the state exerts its power. This is not what the Germans want to see.” And second, “There is little support from Hungary’s west, other than mostly hollow warnings. He knows that the Germans will not risk their prosperity to help stabilize the Hungarian economy or its strategic position.” Of course, the European Union does try to stabilize the Hungarian economy by pouring billions of euros into it, without which it would have gone under a long time ago.

Be afraid of the future because the past will return / Source: nikotex.blogspot.com

Be afraid of the future because the past will return / Source: nikotex.blogspot.com

And, according to Friedman, there is another similarity between the situations of Horthy and Orbán. Both leaders were faced with a far-right threat. Just to set the historical record straight, Horthy’s success with the extreme right was less than successful, not that he tried very hard. Horthy’s National Army from its birth was a gathering place of extremists. Although he boasted that he could get rid of them at any time, in fact both his administration and the army were full of anti-Semitic extremists who were great admirers of Hitler’s Germany. His friendships with far-right military and political actors in the 1930s dated to 1919-1920 when he was the hope of the extreme right. In the 1920s, Prime Minister István Bethlen managed to keep Horthy away from both his old extremist friends and politics. Once Bethlen was gone, there was no one to keep Horthy in line. He was on his own, with the well documented results.

Friedman sees Orbán just as he imagined Horthy to be: the guarantor of right-of-center politics. The real enemy is Jobbik and, if we didn’t have Orbán, Jobbik today would be the leading political force in Hungary. At least this is what the following muddled sentence indicates: Orbán “constructed a regime that appalled the left, which thought that without Orbán, it would all return to the way it was before, rather than realizing that it might open the door to the further right.” Friedman either doesn’t know or doesn’t want to know the real facts: Orbán has fulfilled several demands of Jobbik in the hope of siphoning off some of its support.

Orbán’s strategy as far as the extreme right is concerned has so far been quite similar to that of the governments between the two world wars. The problem is that the strategy didn’t work then and it doesn’t work now. Jobbik has not lost its appeal. On the contrary, the extreme right has gained ground during the last four years. In 2010 855,436 people voted for Jobbik (16.67%) while this year the number was 1,020.476 (20.22%). It seems to me that Orbán is no guarantee of anything. In fact, with his constant courting of the far right, he only added legitimacy and political heft to Jobbik.

As for the sorry state of Hungarian democracy, Friedman whitewashes Orbán’s domestic policies. “Internally he is increasing his power constantly, and that gives him freedom to act internationally.” Or, “Orbán is trying to do what Horthy did: strengthen his power over the state and the state’s power over society. He is attacked from the left for violating the principles of liberal democracy and Europe.” But, as Friedman explains, all this is necessary because of the external and internal threats Hungary faces.

In many ways George Friedman and Viktor Orbán see the world similarly. Both consider the European Union a massive failure. Moreover, in Friedman’s view, Orbán doesn’t want “to continue playing the German game in the European Union because he can’t. As in many European countries, the social fabric of Hungary is under great tension.”  So, the general portrait of Orbán that circulates at home and abroad as a man who wants to reap the benefits of the European Union but refuses to abide by its rules is all wrong. If we were to believe Friedman, Orbán is doing all this for the higher purpose of saving his country from the Russian bear and the German imperial eagle. He is the hero of the nation, and we are all too short-sighted to realize his true aim.

This particular construct, I’m afraid, is the work of Friedman’s imagination. Orbán’s policies are largely guided by his insatiable desire for power. He whips up nationalist and anti-European sentiments in order to bolster his popularity with Fidesz and Jobbik voters. At the last election, although more than half of the population wanted to see Orbán go, with help from clever mathematicians who managed to construct an electoral system that could produce a two-thirds majority from 44.87% of the votes cast for Fidesz, he managed to stay in power for another four years. After that, apparently he has another plan. Just like his friend Vladimir Putin, he is planning to move on to the presidency. Admittedly, right now the Hungarian president doesn’t have much power, but Orbán with his two-thirds parliamentary majority can easily change the Hungarian constitution to transform Hungary’s parliamentary system into a presidential one. If this happens, Orbán will be a major political figure in Hungary until at least 2022!

The real moving force of Orbán is his personal power and his inability to cope with any authority above himself. The rest is just talk.

I could wrap up my critique here, but I feel I should give a few more examples of the author’s wanton disregard for facts and the unsupported “grand theses” in this article. Here are a few examples. “The great depression in Mediterranean Europe, contrasted with German prosperity, is simply the repeat of an old game.” What old game? Or, Hungary allegedly lies between Russia and “the European Peninsula.” European Peninsula? Or, “the Ukrainian crisis can only be understood in terms of the failure of the European Union.”‘ In what way?

If this article had been published by a run-of-the-mill journalist I would be less appalled. But it was written by a former academic who is supposed to be an expert on international affairs and geopolitical strategy. Based on this piece, I think we can safely exclude from his areas of expertise Hungarian history and politics.