Visegrád Four

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.

Recent Hungarian diplomatic blunders: Romania and the Czech Republic

Let’s move from domestic to foreign affairs, not because there are no interesting topics at home in spite of the silly season (cucumber season in Hungarian or Saurgurkenzeit in German) but because Romanian President Traian Băsescu made headlines today with his caustic and, according to some, threatening remarks about the Orbán government’s behavior toward his country.

Traian Băsescu was Fidesz’s favorite Romanian politician a couple of years ago, and it seemed that Viktor Orbán and the Romanian president were kindred souls who understood each other and were ready to support each other. I vividly recall when back in 2009 Zsolt Németh, Fidesz’s foreign policy expert, gave a television interview in which he emphasized the importance of Băsescu’s re-election. He considered it to be critical from Hungary’s point of view, especially after Fidesz’s electoral victory in 2010.  In 2011 Băsescu attended Fidesz’s summer camp in Tusnádfűrdő and in 2012 Orbán campaigned on Băsescu’s behalf among Transylvanian Hungarians. Well, the honeymoon is over.

When Viktor Orbán and Trajan Basescu were still friends. On the right László Tőkés at Tasnádfűrdő

When Viktor Orbán and Trajan Băsescu were still friends. On the right László Tőkés at Tasnádfűrdő

I have two versions of what Băsescu had to say this morning in Marosfő/Izvoru Mureșului in Hargita/Harghita county at another summer free university gathering. Marosfő is a village with a population of 800 which is completely balanced ethnically. The Hungarian version appeared in the Romanian Új Magyar Szó, according to which Băsescu said that “politicians of Hungary became so impertinent that it is likely that we will not approve their holding their Free University and student camp in Bálványos.” He added that “Romania is ready to accept a leading role in reprimanding Hungary because  it has recently become the center of tension in the region.” He announced that 2013 was the last year that “the whole political elite could loiter undisturbed in Harghita and Covasna.” This was the version that Hungarian papers republished without any changes.

The other version appeared in The Independent Balkan News Agency, which covers all the Balkan countries in addition to Slovenia and Cyprus. This version is more complete and explicit than the one that appeared in the Hungarian paper. Here Băsescu talks about Hungary as “a regional hotbed of instability” and warns that Bucharest could seek “to teach Hungary to know its place” and made it clear that in the future Hungarian politicians “will not be able to roam around Romania freely.” As it turns out, the Romanian original from Băsescu’s blog is “poate să se perinde” which is very close to the Hungarian “loitering” (lófrálni). * The news agency also notes that Băsescu’s outburst came only two days after Gábor Vona, the leader of Jobbik, said (also in Romania) that “Hungary should engage in a conflict with Romania in order to protect the rights of the Hungarian minority. ” Moreover, László Tőkés’s suggestion that Hungary extend “protection” to the Hungarian minority in Romania is also mentioned.

Official Hungarian reaction was slow in coming. First it was Hunor Kelemen, chairman of RMDSZ/UDMR, the major Hungarian right-of-center party in Romania, who described Băsescu’s “recent reaction to Hungary [as] over the top.” The language Băsescu used was too strong even in connection with Gábor Vona’s remarks, but “Hungary’s leaders did not warrant such a reaction from President Traian Băsescu.” Kelemen found it “unacceptable for a head of state to threaten a neighboring country with isolation.”

It was only around 7:00 p.m. that Balázs Hidvéghi, a novice Fidesz member of parliament who since 2010 hasn’t done anything notable judging from his parliamentary record, was picked to answer the Romanian president. This choice I think reflects Viktor Orbán’s  attempt to make the event seem insignificant, undeserving of a high level answer. Hidvéghi was both understanding and friendly; he emphasized that the summer camps at Tusnádfűrdő were always held with a view to furthering Romanian-Hungarian dialogue and friendship.

Magyar Nemzet looked for a Romanian politician who had condemned Băsescu and found him in Mircea Geoană, the former Romanian foreign minister. He considered Băsescu’s attack on Hungary and the Hungarian politicians part of the Romanian president’s “desperate pursuit of popularity.” Geoană expressed his fear that after such an extremist statement “there will be the danger that the world will consider Romania to be the center of instability in Europe” instead of Hungary. What Magyar Nemzet neglected to mention was that the socialist Mircea Geoană was the candidate for the post of presidency in 2009 against Trajan Băsescu. But even Magyar Nemzet had to admit that another socialist politician, Mircea Dusa, a member of parliament from Hargita/Harghita, welcomed Băsescu’s condemnation of the Orbán government’s political activities in Romania.

If that weren’t enough, Viktor Orbán made another diplomatic faux pas, this time involving the Czech Republic and the Visegrád Four. The Visegrád Four (V4), an alliance of four Central European states–the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, and Hungary, was established both to further cooperation and to promote the European integration of these countries. The name of the alliance is derived from the place where Bohemian, Polish, and Hungarians rulers met in 1335. The three kings agreed in Visegrád to create new commercial routes to bypass the port of Vienna and obtain easier access to other European markets.

The Visegrád Four still exists and this year the prime minister of Hungary serves as chairman. The next summit of the four countries was scheduled to be held on August 24 in the fabulous Esterházy Palace located in Fertőd, close to the Austrian border. On August 8 the Office of the Prime Minister announced that Viktor Orbán had decided to postpone the summit due to the Czech government crisis. It was clear from the text of the announcement that the idea had originated with Viktor Orbán and that the postponement was not requested by the Czechs.

The Czech reaction was swift. Jan Hrubes, the Czech government spokesman, announced that there was no need to postpone the summit. Moreover, the Czech government learned about the change of plans only from the media. Jirí Rusnok, the current prime minister, was ready to participate in the summit. The spokesman of the Hungarian Office of the Prime Minister expressed his surprise since, according to him, the Poles and Slovaks received Orbán’s announcement. Whether the Czechs did or not is a moot point. The fact is that it is not customary in diplomacy to postpone a meeting on account of instability in one of the countries without the request of the country in question. A typical Viktor Orbán move; he behaves in international circles like a bull in a china shop.

According to observers, the real reason behind Orbán’s move can be traced to his political sympathies. The former prime minister of the Czech Republic, Petr Nečas, was a member of the right-of-center Civic Democratic Party and was an admirer of Orbán. In fact, he stood by the Orbán government at the time the European Parliament accepted the Tavares Report. He expressed his “deep disappointment” and forewarned of the grave consequences of the report for the future of the European Union. By contrast, President Miloš Zeman is a socialist and so is Jirí Rusnok, who will most likely remain at the head of the government at least until October when elections will probably be held. Tamás Rónay of Népszava suspects that Orbán’s decision to postpone the summit is a gesture to and an expression of solidarity with Nečas, who had to resign in the wake of a huge sex and corruption scandal. Just another case of diplomacy Orbán style.

*Thanks to my friends originally from Transylvania who provided me with the Romanian original.