President Sólyom and Hungarian foreign policy

Constitutionally, the Hungarian president’s political competence is very limited. Anyone interested in the details should read the relevant chapter (Chapter III) of the Hungarian constitution. Among other things, he cannot conduct his own foreign policy. He is supposed to consult with the ministry of foreign affairs about his trips abroad and, once outside the country, to represent the official views of the Hungarian government. Unfortunately, László Sólyom is something of a loose cannon.

Let’s start with Sólyom’s initial meddling in foreign affairs. It touched on U.S.-Hungarian relations. The issue was fingerprinting visitors to the United States. Sólyom, who was formerly a law professor and later president of the constitutional court, reacts very sensitively to what he considers to be violations of civil liberties. In general, Hungarians are outraged at the very idea of fingerprinting. In their view only criminals are fingerprinted and therefore the American practice of fingerprinting is utterly repulsive to them. Given this particular combination it is not at all surprising that Sólyom didn’t like the practice. So far so good. The problem is that he cannot, as the president of Hungary, announce that he will not visit the United States because he refuses to be fingerprinted. Of course, it is very unlikely that the president of Hungary would get fingerprinted in Washington or New York, but I think that Sólyom actually meant to say that he would never visit the United States as long as there is fingerprinting of visitors to this country.

Well, this was a diplomatic blunder that put the Hungarian government in a very awkward position. Soon enough he did have to enter the United States, visiting the headquarters of the United Nations, but, like Fidel Castro, he came with a special UN visa (one that allows its holder only limited traveling privileges).

Then came the question of the radar station that was supposed to be built on NATO money on the Zengő, the highest peak of the Mecsek Mountains in southern Hungary, close to the city of Pécs. I initially wrote about the sad story of this still nonexistent radar station on July 17. Here the president’s complaint (exhibited as he walked with local environmentalists) was that the installation would endanger wild roses. Then came a new spot that he seemed to have endorsed initially but later, when the environmentalists also found something wrong with this spot, he mysteriously announced that, after all, he knows a better spot but will not divulge it until the minister of defense asks him. And this is where we stand at the moment.

Some of his other diplomatic blunders included a heart to heart with George W. Bush whom he lectured a bit on civil rights. Admittedly, the Bush administration’s record on this issue is, shall we say, "wanting," but I don’t think that it should fall to the president of the Hungarian Republic to lecture the president of the United States on civil rights.

He also lectured the president of Slovakia about nationality rights; once again I doubt this made the Hungarian government and its prime minister and foreign minister very happy. A few weeks ago he certainly didn’t represent the Hungarian government’s views in Serbia where he announced that Hungary would like to give to the Hungarians living in the Voivodina region dual citizenship. Considering that Ferenc Gyurcsány personally campaigned against dual citizenship before a referendum on this question (proposed by the Fidesz) in 2005, it is crystal clear that Sólyom was never authorized to say anything like that in Serbia. Well, this was even too much for the European Union. Sólyom apparently received a letter from Brussels in which in no uncertain terms he was told that the European Union forbids dual citizenship to people who do not live within the borders of the Union. The exact wording of the letter is not known because Sólyom didn’t make it public.

The latest splash is his remarks on Slovak soil about the infamous Beneš decrees. I talked about the background of the decrees and the recent Slovak reaffirmation of these decrees on October 1 ("Slovak-Hungarian Relations"). In this particular blog I wrote that I was hoping that on both sides cooler heads would prevail. Well, I forgot about President Sólyom’s penchant for saying the wrong things at the wrong time. He was on a so-called private visit in Komárno, just across the Danube, opposite the Hungarian Komárom. (Before 1918, the two formed one city connected with a bridge. That bridge was blown up during the last days of World War II and the two brotherly socialist states, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, didn’t think it important enough to rebuild it for almost sixty years. A rather cheap bridge was eventually built during the Fidesz period with European Union money and once again named Mária Valéria Bridge, after the youngest daughter of Franz Joseph and Elizabeth, king and queen of Hungary.) Now a political figure–and let’s face it, Sólyom is a political figure, however much he keeps repeating that he is above politics–can’t really have an absolutely private visit. A political figure will be followed by hundreds of cameramen and reporters, as happened this time too. After his lecture at the Hungarian university in Komárno one of the reporters asked his opinion about the reaffirmation of the Beneš decrees by the Slovak parliament. Instead of saying something like "I have already expressed my views on this subject elsewhere" and leaving it at that, in no uncertain terms he told his opinion. Again, he might be perfectly right about the reaffirmation of such discriminatory decrees in the twenty-first century, but the president of a country speaking in another country about that country’s parliament might not be the best diplomatic move.  Prime Minister Fico of Slovakia had a fit, and he practically threatened Sólyom with expulsion from Slovakia if he dares to step across the border again. Of course, the Slovak response was ridiculous. After all, both Slovakia and Hungary belong the European Union and there is no law that would curtail freedom of speech by a non-Slovak citizen. Perhaps Fico was in a bad mood because his party once again didn’t get permission to join the European socialists because of his association with the ultra-national party  of Ján Slota, a real Hungarian hater. But Sólyom should have known better. The poor Hungarian government was in a bind. It had to defend the country’s president but, thanks to Sólyom, from here on it will be much more difficult to mend relations with Slovakia.