Zsolt Németh

Hungarian foreign minister in Washington: A stalemate

Let’s cut to the chase: neither the Hungarian nor the American position has changed despite Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó’s meeting with Assistant Undersecretary Victoria Nuland in Washington today. So far we have two brief reports on the meeting. The first was published in Magyar Nemzet; its source is HírTV, which sent its own crew to Washington for the occasion. The second is from the Washington correspondent of MTI, which I found in HVG. The former is a more expansive summary of what transpired between Nuland and Szijjártó, complete with direct quotations from Szijjártó himself.

What did we learn from this report? Despite repeated American explanations of why the U.S. government is unable to reveal the names of the individuals who have been banned from entering the U.S., Szijjártó was still hoping for such information. Here is Szijjártó in his own words: “I asked the government of the United States to share with us creditable information on the basis of which they accuse certain Hungarian citizens of corruption.” As long as there is no such information “we cannot move forward…. It is only the United States that can make the first move.” A stalemate. The United States expects the Hungarian government to clean up the country’s thoroughly corrupt behavior toward international businesses while the Hungarian government’s interpretation of the situation is much more narrowly defined. As far as the Hungarians are concerned, there may be some corrupt officials but unless the United States names these people the Hungarian government can do nothing. The only positive development, according to Szijjártó, was that Nuland did not repeat the threat uttered by Goodfriend that “if that trend continues it may reach a level where the United States can no longer cooperate with Hungary as an ally.” I do hope that Szijjártó doesn’t interpret this omission to mean that Goodfriend made an empty threat  because I’m almost certain that if Hungary stonewalls, other harsh steps will be taken against the Orbán government. And for the time being stonewalling seems to be the Hungarian diplomatic strategy.

The MTI report was more upbeat. Who knows why Szijjártó changed his story, but he did. No more talk about who will have to take the next step. Instead, he emphasized his government’s willingness to fight corruption and said that in this fight the two governments can count on each other. Economic and military relations between the two countries are excellent. According to Szijjártó, Nuland was full of praise for Hungary’s decision to supply gas to Ukraine. There was an interesting remark made in passing. It turned out that Nuland brought up some specific criticisms of certain pieces of Hungarian legislation, but Szijjártó brushed these objections aside as being irrelevant because they have been accepted and approved by the European Commission.

György Szapáry, Hungarian ambassador to Washington, and Péter Szijjártó MTI / Ministry of Forreign Affairs and Trade / Tamás Szémann

György Szapáry, Hungarian ambassador to Washington, and Péter Szijjártó
MTI / Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade / Photo: Tamás Szémann

What did the Hungarian government know about the coming storm? It seems a lot, and not only about the corruption cases. One had to be blind and deaf not to notice the growing dissatisfaction of foreign governments with the Orbán regime. One also assumes that Hungarian diplomats do their job and write reports on the current attitude toward Hungary in their host countries. Of course, given the atmosphere in government offices in the Orbán regime, it is possible that the ambassadors don’t dare tell the truth. Still, although there was a stream of denials of any wrongdoing and everything was chalked up to Hungarian liberals’ squealing and turning against their own country, I believe they knew full well that trouble was brewing all around. And yet Népszabadság‘s Ildikó Csuhaj, who seems to have good Fidesz sources, claimed today that Viktor Orbán himself knew nothing about the NAV affair. One wonders how much disinformation from “reliable” Fidesz sources lands on Csuhaj’s desk. This seems to be one of them.

Although there was plenty of evidence of growing U.S. dissatisfaction with Viktor Orbán’s policies, he did not change his ways on issues that seemed important to Washington. He even ignored Zsolt Németh’s warning. I wrote about a conference held in Washington on October 2 where one of the speakers was Németh, an old friend of Orbán–at least until recently, who received a very chilly reception. It was here that Victoria Nuland delivered the speech I republished in Hungarian Spectrum. Today Németh decided to speak and tell the world that he had forewarned Orbán about the impending bomb that might be coming from Washington. The interview with Németh appeared in Válasz. In it Németh expressed his hope that “several of the questions surrounding the [NAV] affair will be cleared up.” (As we know by now they were not.) Hungarian right-wing journalists dismiss corruption as the real cause of the present situation. In their interpretation the reference to corruption is only a pretext. Válasz‘s reporter also wanted to know whether the real reason for the ban on corrupt officials is Viktor Orbán’s relations with Russia. Németh wouldn’t dismiss corruption entirely, but he thinks that in addition to the Russian connection there are other very irritating issues: the NGOs, Hungary’s attitude toward Ukraine, the Russian sanctions, and the speech on “illiberalism.” Németh sensed all that, and on his return to Budapest he informed the foreign minister–still Tibor Navracsics then–and the prime minister of his experience. At the end of the interview Németh indicated that a new chapter should open in U.S.-Hungarian relations: “we are right after the election, both countries will send new ambassadors. Let’s see the good side of this affair: we are at a point from which we can take off.” Although not in so many words, what Németh suggests is an entirely new Hungarian foreign and domestic orientation.

Németh is most likely right. I can see no room for improvement in U.S.-Hungarian relations if the Orbán foreign policy proceeds apace. I even have my doubts about improvement if Orbán makes some adjustments in his domestic and foreign policies. By now Orbán strongly believes in his vision of a new Hungary in which liberalism has no place. This new Hungary is an authoritarian country with pseudo-democratic trappings. He is also convinced in the declining West and the rising East. He will not change course. He really can’t. He is what he is. He can never satisfy the demands of western democracies.

Just to reinforce my point about Orbán’s mindset, here are two pieces of news about the latest Hungarian diplomatic moves. Hungary may be experiencing a serious diplomatic crisis with the United States but the foreign ministry just announced that Hungary will open a cultural and commercial agency in Northern Cyprus, a “country” recognized by only one country, Turkey. This move might make Hungary’s relations with two EU countries, Greece and Cyprus, less than friendly. This is a gesture toward Turkey, whose “illiberal democracy” is a thorn in the side of western democracies.

The second diplomatic move also sends a not too cordial message to the United States. Two days ago the Iranian Tasmin News Agency announced that a Hungarian parliamentary delegation is scheduled to pay an official visit to Iran. The visit will be fairly long. The delegation is headed by deputy speaker János Latorcai (KDNP). The invitation to the Hungarians was extended by the deputy speaker of the Iranian parliament Seyed Mohammad Hassan Abu Torbifard. It is interesting that reports of controversial Hungarian diplomatic moves usually don’t appear in the Hungarian press. Hungarians hear about the events from the other countries’ news agencies. From a later Tasmin News Agency report we learned that Latorcai had a meeting with the chairman of the Iranian parliament’s national security and foreign policy commission, Alaeddin Boroujerdi. According to the report, Boroujerdi made the following comment during their conversation: “the illogical and wrong policies adopted by the US and its regional allies have caused the spread of terrorism and instability across the region and their continuation has turned terrorism into a global concern.” As for Iranian-Hungarian relations, the Iranian politician said that “the two nations have great potential for the enhancement of relations in the political, economic, and cultural fields.” Latorcai, for his part, emphasized that “Budapest is determined to strengthen its ties with the Eastern nations, with Iran in particular.” One must wonder whether these diplomatic moves are the result of inexperience or, as I suspect, are designed to irritate Hungary’s allies and flaunt the country’s total independence. Whatever it is, this attitude will eventually lead to diplomatic disaster. It’s just a question of time.

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.

Péter Szijjártó’s new foreign policy and the U.S. response to the Hungarian challenge to democracy

Only a few days have gone by since Péter Szijjártó became Hungary’s new foreign minister but he hasn’t wasted any time. In two days he put together a new team. So, in the last four months the top personnel at the ministry has changed not once but twice. First, Tibor Navracsics got rid of the old guard who were most likely not enamored with Szijjártó’s activities as quasi foreign minister in the Prime Minister’s Office. The purge included  Zsolt Németh, one of the founders of Fidesz, who has been present in the Hungarian parliament ever since 1990 and who over the years became the foreign policy expert within Fidesz. He was János Martonyi’s parliamentary secretary during the first Orbán government (1998-2002), and in 2010 I was half expecting that he would take over the foreign ministry in the second Orbán administration. That was not to be. And now he has really been dropped. Today he is simply the chairman of the parliamentary committee on foreign affairs. In this capacity he has no influence whatsoever on the course of Hungarian foreign policy.

Meanwhile, after Tibor Navracsics’s reorganization of the ministry when about 200 people lost their jobs, here is the second wave of firings which Szijjártó calls “streamlining.” According to the new minister, over 200 more people will be let go. It is not clear whether that number includes ambassadors who are being recalled. In the next year 84 ambassadorial posts will have new occupants. Thirty-four have already departed, and between now and the first half of 2015 fifty more ambassadors will be recalled.

Szijjártó made it clear that he is laying down the foundation of a new Hungarian foreign policy and that this change “will be irreversible and final.” From here on the Hungarian foreign ministry will be headed by a man who is convinced that there is a “new world order” in which the goal of foreign policy is “the representation of Hungary’s economic interests.” The new administration will change “ingrained structures,” a move that might be attacked by some, but he “will not retreat because this is what is in the interest of the country.” He also emphasized that the “eastern opening” will continue. As far as U.S.-Hungarian relations are concerned, he reiterated that Barack Obama’s remarks had no basis whatsoever. Calling in the U.S. chargé d’affaires was therefore warranted. In fact, in the future André Goodfriend can look forward to regular chats in the foreign ministry’s building. Hungarians don’t mind criticism, but the U.S. charges are without merit. He himself is planning to visit Washington soon for “business and political meetings.” Index seems to know that in Washington Szijjártó will meet with officials concerned with energy policy. It is worth noting that the new foreign ministry will have almost nothing to do with European affairs, which will for the most part be handled by János Lázár in the prime minister’s office.

One can safely say that Hungary is no longer interested in what we call “Atlanticism,” a belief in the importance of cooperation between Europe and the United States and Canada regarding political, economic, and defense issues. I might add here that “Atlanticism” has been especially strong in eastern and central Europe. In Hungary, Martonyi and his political undersecretary, Zsolt Németh, were strong proponents of Atlanticism, and it is no coincidence that supporters of strong ties with North America and the European Union were the first to get the ax.

And now let’s go back to Zsolt Németh who as chairman of the committee on foreign relations still has opportunities to talk about foreign policy issues. On September 30 he told Népszabadság that the cooling of U.S.-Hungarian relations is not in the interest of the country and “it is the preeminent job of Hungarian diplomacy to change the situation.” Hungary’s national interest demands close cooperation with the United States, he said, and he added that he might be able to move things in this direction during his visit to Washington.

Németh was practically on his way to Washington when this interview took place. He came to attend a conference organized by the Center for European Policy Analysis’s  (CEPA) U.S.-Central Europe Strategy Forum, which is the largest annual gathering of U.S. and Central East European officials, experts, and scholars. The conference was entitled “Reviving Atlanticism in Central Europe–Perils and Possibilities.” The conference ended about an hour ago and, according to friends who were present, Németh got quite a battering. Most of the questions centered around Hungary and were addressed primarily to him. As one attendee described the scene, “it was not good to be Hungarian today.”

Victoria Nuland

Victoria Nuland

I will rely here on a report filed by Anita Kőműves of Népszabadság, who gave a good summary of what Victoria Nuland, undersecretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, had to say in her opening address. Put it this way, she did not mince words. She began by saying that it was 25 years ago that the Berlin Wall crumbled and people of East-Central Europe again became part of the world where there are free elections, freedom of the media, the existence of a civil sphere; “in brief, they restored liberal democracy.” Today these rights are in danger, with threats coming from the outside as well as inside. The outside dangers are Russia and ISIS, but the inside dangers to democracy and freedom in Central Europe are equally grave. While the region enjoys the benefits offered by NATO and the European Union, there are leaders in the region who seem to have forgotten on what foundations these institutions have been established. “I ask these leaders how can they sleep at night under the blanket of Article V while during the day they press for illiberal democracy, they arouse nationalist sentiments, limit the freedom of the media and demonize civil groups? I ask those who defend corrupt officials from justice, who bypass their own parliament if that is convenient for them, or who make dirty deals which increase their country’s dependence on a single energy source despite their earlier pledges to energy diversification. I am asking them: how do these steps strengthen and make their countries more secure?”

I would have hated to be in Zsolt Németh’s shoes. He had to answer questions posed by Victoria Nuland and others in the audience, questions to which there are no good answers. Németh repeated the old refrain about the United States not being well informed, with the stab that perhaps if the United States had a full-fledged ambassador in Budapest Washington would know more about the situation in Hungary. As for the current plight of the NGOs, Németh claimed that “there are no problems whatsoever” on that score. In taking on the sensitive issue of “illiberal democracy” Németh resorted to an outright lie. He asserted that there is a global competition between liberal and illiberal democracies whose final outcome is still cloudy. But “Hungarian democracy is liberal and it will remain so. However, perhaps we should learn from other countries, including the illiberal ones, to become successful.” Pitiful, I must say.

I very much doubt that Zsolt Németh will be able to convince anyone in the State Department that Viktor Orbán is not a danger to liberal democracy or that his dirty dealings with Putin are not drawing Hungary into Russia’s orbit. If Németh thought that he could lessen the tension between the United States and Hungary he was mistaken. The sources of the tension cannot be handled at this level. It would need Viktor Orbán’s total abandonment of his domestic and foreign policies. And that isn’t about to happen.

Hungary has a new “featherweight” foreign minister, a man after Viktor Orbán’s heart

On Friday Viktor Orbán nominated Péter Szijjártó (age 35) to be the next minister of foreign trade and foreign affairs. On Saturday four parliamentary committees in a joint session found him eminently suitable for the job. By Wednesday he will be sworn in. Several readers’ comments following this news item started: “one cannot sink lower.” One described him as a member of five-a-side football team who will find himself on a field where he does not belong. Or, as Endre Aczél, the veteran journalist, put it, Szijjártó is “the featherweight briefcase carrier” of Viktor Orbán.

Indeed, this appointment is a travesty. János Martonyi, the man who was in charge of foreign affairs in the first and second Orbán administrations, had extensive professional experience. First as commercial secretary in the Hungarian embassy in Brussels (1979-1984), later as department head at the ministry of commerce. After the regime change József Antall appointed him undersecretary in the foreign ministry.

Although I always thought Martonyi cut a slightly ridiculous figure with his waxed mustache, Kaiser Wilhelm II style, he was apparently highly regarded in diplomatic circles. The problem was that as minister of foreign affairs in the first Orbán government he mattered very little. Or rather, he said one thing and Viktor Orbán said something else, after which Martonyi tried to explain away the message of the Hungarian prime minister. It was, in my opinion, a demeaning position to be put in, but it did not seem to bother Martonyi, who enthusiastically agreed to be foreign minister again in 2010. In the intervening years behind the scenes he kept in touch with foreign embassies on behalf of Fidesz and Viktor Orbán.

If Martonyi was often ignored during Orbán’s first administration, in the second his influence amounted to zero. Foreign policy was conducted from the prime minister’s office, represented by Péter Szijjártó.

Szijjártó’s rise to power was phenomenal. At the age of 20 he was elected a member of the Győr City Council. In 2002, when he was 24, he became a member of parliament. In addition, after 2010 he was entrusted to be Viktor Orbán’s personal spokesman. Two years later he moved to a new position created especially for him: undersecretary of foreign trade and foreign affairs in the prime minister’s office. In brief, he became the real foreign minister in all but name.

Péter Szijjártó as Viktor Orbán's spokesman

Péter Szijjártó as Viktor Orbán’s spokesman

After the last election the handwriting was on the wall: János Martonyi’s days were numbered. There was little doubt who would be his successor. Therefore, I don’t quite understand the game of musical chairs Viktor Orbán played with the ministerial positions. Instead of immediately naming Szijjártó to replace Martonyi, he moved Navracsics to the foreign ministry, renamed the ministry of foreign affairs and trade (külgazdasági és külügyi minisztérium). Everybody knew, including Navracsics, that his tenure as a diplomat would last approximately four months, when he would be nominated to serve as Hungary’s representative on the European Commission.

Szijjártó with a more diplomatic demeanor at his hearing yesterday

Szijjártó with a more diplomatic demeanor at his hearing yesterday

Navracsics’s only noteworthy “achievements” in his new post were closing the Hungarian embassy in Tallinn, Estonia, and sacking about 300 diplomats, subsequently filling their positions with people from the prime minister’s office and from the ministry of justice. As one Hungarian newspaper put it, the first floor of the ministry’s building was cleared out completely. Employees, even high level ones, had no idea what would happen to them. Rumors were swirling about who would be the next victim.

Currently there are six undersecretaries in the ministry, each with a staff of 20. The minister has a staff of 40. In the previous administration Martonyi and his sole undersecretary, Zsolt Németh, together had a staff of 25. There is no longer a joint press department; each undersecretary has his own. No more separate department dealing with European affairs. Its former head, Enikő Győri, who had excellent connections in Brussels, has been exiled to Madrid. Hungary’s relations with the European Union were transferred to the prime minister’s office, under the jurisdiction of János Lázár.

Szijjártó at his hearing in front of the four parliamentary committees talked about the “renewal of Hungary’s foreign policy.” Indeed, why not? Viktor Orbán already “renewed” the country to an illiberal democracy, now it is time to renew the country’s foreign policy. A frightening thought. The man who four years ago managed to shake the financial stability of the world for a few days now like a bull in the china shop will conduct a foreign policy that will have practically nothing to do with diplomacy as we know it because we are in an entirely new world that needs entirely new diplomatic efforts. At least this is what Viktor Orbán and his faithful “janissary,” as István Józsa (MSZP) called Szijjártó at the hearing, think. Hungary will be a pioneer yet again. It will conduct diplomacy without diplomats. Of course, this entirely new world exists only in Viktor Orbán’s imagination.

I fear the worst given Szijjártó’s new “non-diplomatic” course. Hungary’s reputation has been greatly tarnished, but at least foreign diplomats in Budapest could negotiate with more or less seasoned diplomats in the foreign ministry. After this change of personnel not even the semblance of normal diplomatic relations between Hungary and the West will be possible.

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.

Changes in the Hungarian foreign ministry and the growth of the third Orbán government

Today I would like to say a few words about the reorganization of the government. First, one wonders why it took so long to create the third Orbán government considering that on the top level there were very few personnel changes. Only two ministries were affected–the ministry of foreign trade and foreign affairs and the ministry of administration and justice. Not much changed in the latter, but what happened in the former is truly astonishing. With the arrival of Tibor Navracsics and Péter Szijjártó about 200 new faces appeared in the ministry; their corresponding numbers were either dismissed or moved to other positions in other ministries. It is just now becoming evident how dissatisfied Viktor Orbán must have been with János Martonyi and the men and women around him.

In 2010 Viktor Orbán announced that there were two ministers whose presence in his second government was assured: Sándor Pintér and János Martonyi. Martonyi hadn’t been officially nominated at the time, but Orbán sent him nonetheless to Bratislava to negotiate with the Slovaks.

Martonyi has been loyal to Viktor Orbán ever since 1998 when he was first named foreign minister. From the WikiLeaks documents we know that after the lost election of 2002 Martonyi was a frequent and welcome visitor in the U.S. Embassy in Budapest where he was especially highly regarded by Ambassador April H. Foley (2006-2009). As a result, the relationship between Ferenc Gyurcsány and the American ambassador was outright antagonistic.

János Martonyi made an almost clean sweep in the personnel of the ministry in 2010 and yet, it seems, the atmosphere and the foreign policy strategies devised by Martonyi were not to Orbán’s liking. More and more areas of foreign policy were taken away from the ministry and given to others: first to Tamás Fellegi, minister of national development, and later to Péter Szijjártó. The former was supposed to woo China and Russia while Szijjártó concentrated on the Middle East. And yet Martonyi defended the prime minister and remained loyal to the end. If he was insulted by being sidestepped and ignored, he didn’t show it.

Now his tenure is over. For six months Tibor Navracsics will fill Martonyi’s place after which Orbán’s real favorite, Péter Szijjártó, will become minister. He will most likely continue the policy of the “Eastern Opening,” the brainchild of Viktor Orbán. For such a drastic change in orientation an entirely new staff was necessary. Not one of the six undersecretaries remained, and out of the ten assistant undersecretaries only one kept his job.

Among the victims was Enikő Győri, undersecretary in charge of Hungary’s relations with the European Union, who will be leaving to serve as ambassador to Spain. Her departure might be connected to a debate about which ministry should deal with the EU.  János Lázár wants to move the responsibility to the prime minister’s office, while Navracsics insisted that relations with Brussels belongs to the ministry of foreign affairs. After Navracsics’s departure Lázár may well have his way.

The third Orbán government / MTI Photo Attila Kovács

The third Orbán government / MTI Photo Attila Kovács

Gergely Prőhle, the assistant undersecretary about whom I wrote several times, is also leaving. Zoltán Balog created a new position for him in the ministry of human resources. With this change Prőhle’s diplomatic career seems to be coming to an end. Earlier he served as ambassador to Bern and Berlin.

The most noteworthy change is the departure of Zsolt Németh, undersecretary of foreign affairs in both the first and the second Orbán governments. He was one of the founders of Fidesz who has held high positions in the party ever since 1989. In fact, between 1995 and 2003 he was one of the vice-presidents of the party. He has been a member of parliament since 1990. He will now be the chairman of the parliament’s committee on foreign affairs. According to NépszabadságNémeth was offered the post of ambassador to Washington but he preferred to retire completely from the conduct of foreign affairs. He supports a foreign policy based on transatlantic ties and “would like to see better relations between Hungary and the United States.” Apparently, he is not happy with the cozy relations between Hungary and Putin’s Russia.

In other ministries the changes were not that drastic, but practically everywhere the number of undersecretaries and assistant undersecretaries has grown. Perhaps the most spectacular growth occurred in the Office of the Prime Minister where there are eight undersecretaries and, believe it or not, 27 assistant undersecretaries. One of these new assistant secretaries has already made his mark. He is the one who is “negotiating” with the Norwegians about their grants to Hungary. In total, according to a new HVG article, there are 100 assistant undersecretaries in the third Orbán government.

I see no attempt on the part of the government to be frugal. Not only is the government growing steadily but grandiose plans are being hatched practically daily. The government is planning to build a new museum quarter, to move ministries from Budapest to various cities across the country, and to move the office of the prime minister to the Castle district, near the current residence of the president.

The Hungarian government is also continuing its mania for acquisitions. It is currently negotiating “to buy Bombardier’s stake in Hungarian rail transportation firm Bombardier MAV Kft.” The new minister of national development told Napi Gazdaság that “it’s a clear aim of the government and the ministry to carry out further acquisitions. It’s not a secret that there are talks under way in this respect with E.ON, for example.”

After this spending spree, who is going to replenish the Hungarian piggy bank?

Difficult passage: Orbán’s ferrying between Moscow and Brussels

Endre Ady (1877-1919), one of Hungary’s greatest poets, also wrote an enormous number of political essays during his lifetime. After all, he made his living as a journalist. He was a sharp-eyed observer of Hungarian politics from an angle conservative Hungary considered to be radical. His criticism of his country, which he loved dearly but also feared for, could be harsh and often prophetic.

Some of his descriptions of Hungary at the turn of the nineteenth century are applicable even today. One of these is the famous label he stuck on Hungary: “a ferryboat country.” Like a ferry, the country keeps crossing the river back and forth. With every crossing it ends up not on the side of progress  and democracy but its opposite, stultifying reaction and with it tyranny. It cannot decide whether it belongs to the East or to the West.

Today Hungary has a prime minister for whom this disturbing aspect of Hungarian reality that Ady wrote about causes no sleepless nights. On the contrary, he considers it a plus that will allow his country to become a negotiator of sorts between East and West. He is convinced that Hungary will reap enormous benefits from his ferrying between the two worlds.

It seems, however, that Viktor Orbán’s ferry is drifting farther and farther toward destinations like Putin’s Russia, Lukashenko’s Belarus, and Yanukovych’s Ukraine.

Observers often comment on Viktor Orbán’s incredible luck. In the past four years political and economic analysts predicted that Hungary’s unorthodox policies would bring certain collapse, and yet he managed to keep his head above water. People admire his skill in playing a double game with the European Union. One day, people predict, the European Union will have had enough of him. And yet, even though he compares Brussels to the Moscow of the Soviet Union, money continues to pour in from Brussels.

Occasionally, however, things can go wrong. Only a couple of months ago he decided to strike a deal with Vladimir Putin that put Hungary solidly in Russia’s economic sphere. Moreover, the enormous loan that Putin made available to enlarge the nuclear power plant in Paks can be used by Putin as leverage against Hungary if need be. According to people close to Orbán, Putin made a good impression on him. Yet Putin is a foxy fellow who is most likely using Hungary to move Russian money and power into the European Union. As one Orbán critic put it, the ferry set anchor in Putin’s harbor.

Yes, Orbán has been lucky so far, but this Ukrainian revolution came at the very wrong time for him. There are serious questions at home over the wisdom of such a long-term commitment with Putin’s Russia. It is dangerous to get too friendly with Putin, whose Russia is increasingly harking back to Soviet times. People ask how ferocious anti-communists like Orbán and László Kövér, president of the Hungarian parliament, can get so chummy with a former KGB agent. Fear of Putin’s intentions in Hungary is real. Perhaps this is the most serious complaint in Hungary when it comes to the Putin-Orbán agreement.

And now comes the upheaval in Kiev. Yanukovych hitched his wagon to the Russian troika for a few billion dollars. Ukraine received just a little more money than what Putin promised to Orbán. But there was a price: giving up the idea of Ukraine ever belonging to the European Union. A lot of Ukrainians, however, didn’t want to be part of the Eurasian Economic Union Putin has been dreaming of for some time. He himself stated in November 2011 at a conference organized by his United Russia party that this Eurasian Union would be built upon “the best values of the Soviet Union.” During the same conference a Russian political scientist said that not just former Soviet states but also countries which “have been historically or culturally close to the former Soviet Union” would belong to this union. Hungary was one of them.  As for Ukraine, Russians always looked upon this territory as their very own. After all, Kiev was where Russia was born in the late ninth century. The former Czech president Václav Klaus, calling himself a realist, announced just today that Ukraine is an integral part of Russia; this is where it belongs. Those hot heads in Kiev shouldn’t be encouraged by the politicians of the European Union that it should be otherwise.

Viktor Yanukovych and Viktor Orbán in March 2012 during a short visit to Kiev

Viktor Yanukovych and Viktor Orbán in March 2012 during a short visit to Kiev

So, here is Viktor Orbán’s predicament. As the prime minister of one of Ukraine’s neighboring countries, he should take an active part in the negotiations initiated by his friend Donald Tusk, prime minister of Poland. The Polish foreign minister, Radosław Sikorski, has been instrumental in brokering an agreement between President Yanukovych and the opposition which at least for the time being has resulted in a restoration of the 2004 constitution and the promise of early elections. If the truce holds, it looks as if Putin’s attempt at gaining a foothold in Ukraine will have failed.

But Orbán doesn’t want to offend Putin and therefore he is keeping a low profile. Although leading politicians all over Europe have condemned Yanukovych’s bloody efforts to suppress the revolt, Orbán remains quiet. As he said today in his regular Friday morning radio address, “We are watching the events from the background.” In fact, they are remaining so far in the background that Foreign Minister János Martonyi suddenly became too ill to attend the extraordinary meeting of foreign ministers in Brussels. Hungary was represented by Undersecretary Zsolt Németh.

Well, I’m not quite correct in saying that Orbán did nothing in connection with the Ukrainian crisis. He hopped on a helicopter and visited the Hungarian-Ukrainian border at Záhony. And he made sure that his activities were videoed. As usual, he kept a few pieces of paper in front of him which he studied intently for a few seconds. He looked at the snow-covered Ukrainian terrain where he spotted a couple of deer. Then he rushed to a hospital where he was told that there are plenty of doctors and beds to take care of the wounded. And finally he gave a little pep talk to the border guards for doing their best. I might add that there is nothing in Zaparttia Oblast that would warrant his presence there. But his staff immediately placed the video on Facebook. One blogger described him as “a man who is trying to reap political benefit from the corpse of his neighbor.”

Meanwhile the servile state media feel that they have to take a pro-Russian stance. For example, the centrally edited news called the demonstrators in Kiev terrorists. When called to explain this report, it turned out that one of their sources was the “Russia Today” television station and the other a Russian daily newspaper’s online edition. Gordon Bajnai’s reaction upon hearing the story was disbelief until he himself listened to the broadcast. He bitterly remarked that if the Orbán government keeps going in the same direction as in the last four years “Hungary might become the most western successor state of the Soviet Union.” He added that this is one good reason to vote against Orbán and his party on April 6.