Hungary, her neighbors, and Viktor Orbán

Viktor Orbán and foreign policy is a lethal combination. During his tenure as prime minister he managed to alienate practically all the neighbors with the possible exception of Franjo Tudjman's Croatia. In fact, Orbán was the only foreign political leader to attend Tudjman's funeral in 1999. All  others boycotted the funeral because of Tudjman's human rights record. Orbán managed to have strained relations with George W. Bush, who should have been an obvious ally. Instead, Bush refused to meet with him. He irritated Romania and Slovakia with his insistence on the introduction of a "Hungarian identification card" that gave special privileges within Hungary to those who claimed Hungarian nationality. He brought up the question of the Benes doctrine (1945) that made the Germans and Hungarians of Czechoslovakia collectively responsible for the destruction of Czechoslovakia. The law that resulted in deportation of and discrimination against Germans and Hungarians was allowed to lapse a few years later but was never officially abrogated. Out of the blue Orbán decided to bring up the issue, demanding official action. The Slovak reaction was predictable. No way. The Benes doctrine remained on the books. He attacked the Austrians for illegally buying up land close to the Austro-Hungarian border and threatened severe punishment. Russia was, of course, the arch enemy. His only friend was Silvio Berlusconi who campaigned on his behalf in 2002 and whom Orbán recently visited again.

For the time being Orbán is only hoping (expecting) to be the next prime minister of Hungary, but his not so beneficial influence on foreign policy is already being felt. The latest imbroglio came from a speech he made in Esztergom on May 23, 2008. It was a joint affair with the current head of the Slovak MKP (Magyar Koalició Pártja). By the way, every time I see the abbreviation MKP I have to pause for a moment because that was the abbreviation of the Hungarian communist party right after the war (Magyar Kommunista Párt).  Pál Csáky, the new leader of this party of Hungarians within Slovakia, is farther to the right than its former chairman, Béla Bugár, a moderate, and there is the usual intraparty strife.

In any case, the meeting was held at the bridgehead of the Mária Valéria bridge, the only bridge built or rather rebuilt during Orbán's tenure. It is a skimpy little thing because money was tight. It was funded by the "Poland and Hungary: Assistance for Restructuring Their Economies (PHARE) program created in 1989. Altogether there were about 12 million euros for the project, not exactly a large sum for bridge construction. It is very narrow (about 10 meters across) with only two lanes.Maria Valeria hid2 However, Orbán kept repeating what a "fabulous place" this is where such a wonderful bridge could be built. A bridge was indeed badly needed across the Danube between Slovakia and Hungary, but this one has limited usefulness. For instance, 16-wheelers are not allowed on it; it's too narrow and, I suspect, it might collapse under their weight. So it doesn't further the transport of goods between the two countries.

Orbán in his speech talked a bit more about the European Union than he normally does in his campaign speeches for the EP elections, but by now one wishes that he had said even less. The lightning rod was his call for the Hungarian nation in "the Carpathian basin" to elect as many Hungarians to the European Parliament as possible. There will be the twenty-two Hungarians from Hungary, he mentioned four or five from "Erdélyország" (Transylvania), and two or three from "Felvidék" (the Uplands, the old name of the territory that Slovakia "occupies" today). One can listen to the speech in its entirety (it's about twenty minutes long) here: http://www.tv2.hu/Root/Tenyek/Videok/2009-05-23-orban_teljes_beszede_vagatlanul 

The reaction in Slovakia was swift and sharp. Prime Minister Robert Fico not unnaturally used the issue to his own advantage. He implored Slovaks to vote in the EU elections. Their mandate? To prevent the possibility that among the thirteen members Slovakia can send to the European Parliament four or five might be ethnic Hungarians who would actually be in the service of Hungary. The Slovak media, with the exception of some liberal papers, supported Fico. The Slovak prime minister gave a press conference in Kosice on May 25 in which he attacked Orbán and Csáky who talked in Esztergom about "the Carpathian basin as a fictitious territorial unit that should be represented by as many Hungarian delegates as possible." This "absurd" idea threatens the territorical integrity of Slovakia. Fico wanted to know what country the Hungarian delegates from Slovakia would represent: Slovakia or Hungary. Fico and other Slovak politicians called for diplomatic initiatives in response to this threat. Some members of the Slovak parliament demanded an extraordinary session of the Slovak parliament to discuss the matter. By yesterday the necessary fifty signatures were collected and tomorrow an extraordinary parliamentary session will convene whose only topic will be Orbán's alleged attack on Slovakia's territorial integrity.

In Hungary the consensus is that Slovakia overreacted. After all, Orbán is merely the leader of one of the opposition parties and he didn't really mean what the Slovaks accuse him of. Fidesz's reaction was predictable. Péter Szijjártó, chief spokesman of the party, called one of the Slovak politicians "a boor." Not exactly acceptable language in diplomacy.

Fico is exploiting the Hungarian issue, but Orbán gave him the opening. One might argue that Slovakia is overly sensitive. But they have been joined by the Czechs and the Germans. There was a meeting of the Czech, Slovak, and German foreign ministers in Prague. After a working breakfast this morning the Czech foreign minister, Jan Kohout, at a press conference said that the Czech Republic is also worried about Orbán's reference to the representation of Hungarians of the Carpathian Basin in the European Parliament. He said that they consider such ideas a destabilizing force in the region. He added that he had hoped that once the countries formerly part of Greater Hungary joined the European Union "these problems would fade into the background but realizes with growing concern that they are still with us." And as if that weren't enough, Franz-Walter Steinmeier, the German foreign minister who after his visit to Prague went to Budapest, announced in the Hungarian capital that Germany is also worried about Orbán's statements.

The new Hungarian foreign minister, Péter Balázs, procrastinated. He promised a government reaction only after the extraordinary session of the Slovak parliament tomorrow. However, he tried to minimize the problem by saying that "a politician of the opposition said something on his own." Sure, sure, but everybody expects this politician of the opposition to be the next prime minister of Hungary.

All in all, Orbán most likely will continue his unique style of foreign policy where he left off. Although he had an experienced and moderate foreign minister in the person of János Martonyi, it was mostly Orbán and his close friend Zsolt Németh, who served as Martonyi's undersecretary, who conducted the country's so-called foreign policy. HVG, the respectable weekly famous for its covers, captured the essence of Orbán's DIY (do-it-yourself) foreign policy. Viktor Orbán, a soccer player in Hungarian national colors, is kicking a very high ball while János Martonyi is trying to catch it with a tennis racket. The Slovak foreign minister, Miroslav Lajcák, said in Prague and I must agree with him: "From the mouth of the chairman of Fidesz one can hear sentences that are no longer acceptable in the Europe of the 21st century. I would like to call attention to the danger that such politics pose."

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King Wenceslas
Guest

Nice article, Prague needs some care also

Mihai
Guest

The Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania will probably get only 3 seats in the EP. The Hungarians in Romania usually vote in a higher proportion than their fellow (Romanian) citizens but that is not enough for 1-2 extra seats.
As a Romanian that wants his country to have good relations with Hungary I’m also a bit worried about Mr Orban’s future declarations/policies. I remember the last time he was in office the relations between the two countries were not that great.
This latest imbroglio he got himself into didn’t make in the Romanian press but declarations such as these only help (Romanian, Slovak etc..) nationalists get more votes.

Öcsi
Guest

Orbán is dead wrong. Unfortunately he’s got lots of support. But, fortunately, the world is paying attention.
http://tinyurl.com/rcgxsp

Mark
Guest

Öcsi: “But, fortunately, the world is paying attention.”
You might want to look at the BBC’s full report which was more focussed on Jobbik, than FIDESZ:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/newsnight/8080987.stm

Öcsi
Guest

Thanks for that link, Mark.
I find it very scary seeing those men in uniforms at their information meeting. And what’s even scarier is that there is no uproar about it. It’s sad to see Hungary drift close to the abyss. And for what?? A greater Hungary? Well, it ain’t gonna happen!

Thrasymachus
Guest
What? A potential Hungarian Prime Minister who stands up for the right to self-determination of Hungarians outside Hungary’s borders? Shame on him, who does he think he is? What a dangerous precedent. No wonder other European politicians are deeply concerned. Such sentiments have no place in the 21st century, when we all know that Hungary’s role is simply to be quietly acquiescent to any discrimination or injustice meted out to her ethnic brethren. How brave of European politicians to finally admit that they hoped all along for such piddling concerns to “fade into the background”; because as we all know it was the promise that these issues would be addressed that convinced so many Hungarians to heartily approve of EU accession. They must feel so much better for coming clean at last. Neither should we allow an appreciation of Mr Orbán’s dangerously incendiary language to be clouded by the litany of grievances that ethnic Hungarians outside Hungary constantly feel are being ignored. I agree with you that such balance would have merely clouded the issue. Why can’t such people see sense, and understand that it is their responsibility to simply go and vote for the politicians that would persist in… Read more »
Thrasymachus
Guest
Oh Ms Balogh, pardon me. So Hungarians within Hungary’s borders are allowed to have grievances, and those without should pretend to be the majority ethnicity of the country they find themselves in, and keep their big mouths shut? Thanks for clarifying. Indeed a big difference. Am I also mistaken in thinking this is what you in fact (admittedly with the laudable motive of avoiding stirring up tensions) advocate? However, Chapter I, Article 6, Subsection 3 of the Hungarian constitution is unambiguous: please do not pretend it is not. If you are arguing that it be repealed: so be it. But surely that would be rather foolhardy given that the Benes doctrine remains on the Slovakian statute book; as the blogpost recognizes, but chooses not to condemn. In fact the blogpost states that the Slovakian refusal to remove the doctrine is “predictable” their behaviour “not unnatural.” Whereas Mr Orbán’s behaviour “irritates”, it “strains” and “alienates.” But provided the constitution continues to state that Hungary ‘felelősséget érez a határain kívül élő magyarok sorsáért, és előmozdítja a Magyarországgal való kapcsolatuk ápolását,’ Mr Orbán does not deserve the incendiary caricature. And as a Hungarian politician perhaps he should be forgiven for thinking that his… Read more »
Steve
Guest

Now is the EU election prime-time. Who benefits from this? Fico/Slota and their parties, because they can use it to activate voters. And off course the socialist (in Hungary and in EU), who can point fingers at Orbán. Did you notice that the German foreign minister isn’t member of CDU but of SPD (socialist)? So, sure, socialists are campaigning, especially since they are pretty much loosing everywhere in EU. Orbán is the vice president of the European People’s Party, and if can be attacked in any role (EPP VP or Fidesz president, or future PM) that is good for socialists. It was not a Slovak, Czech or German opinion, it was a socialist opinion. If you’d ask Angela Merkel (Chancellor of Germany, CDU, member of EPP) she would present a more favourable German opinion about Orbán’s speech.
But, this is interesting. The European Parliament is gaining more and more in importance, if politicians from different countries are willing to campaign for their EP parties this way. It is good in a way, since the political base of European union is getting stronger. It just happens the socialists choose a wrong cause to campaign with. A bit silly too.

Peter Sch
Guest

A major part of the Hungarian public still longs for the past when they were more important than they are now in Europe when they were part of Austro-Hungary and Viktor Orban has been playing on this but I think Hungary’s neihbors are starting to pay more attention now to his politics and I am not sure it is good for Hungary in the long run to have many of your neighbors pissed off at you.

Louis Vuitton 2012
Guest

I follow you VIA GFC and I love your blog!

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