I have written innumerable times about the ever-changing relationship between Viktor Orbán and Russia. Naturally, the man who as a youngster delivered a speech demanding the withdrawal of Soviet troops at the reburial of Imre Nagy was not exactly sympathetic to the then eastern neighbor. As not too many people were. But eventually there was a regime change in the Soviet Union as well and there were many reasons not to neglect Russia as a trading partner. However, neither the Antall government nor Viktor Orbán paid any attention to Russia.
I don't blame József Antall for not pursuing trade relations. At the time Russia was practically bankrupt and had no money to pay for foreign imports. After 1998, however, the situation was different. During the tenure of Viktor Orbán as prime minister, Hungary was outright antagonistic toward Russia for ideological and nationalistic reasons.
After Orbán lost the elections in 2002 the new Hungarian governments tried to mend fences. After all, Hungary is dependent on Russian energy, and as a trading partner for Hungarian goods Russia began to look more and more attractive. Orbán in opposition kept up his anti-Russian rhetoric and accused his opponents of selling out Hungarian interests to Russia. He even managed to convince George W. Bush that Ferenc Gyurcsány and his governments were "pro-Russian." At one point one could even hear about plans to create a cordon sanitaire in Eastern Europe as an obstacle to Russian expansion.
But then came a change in Fidesz thinking as it was becoming more and more obvious that Fidesz would win the 2010 elections. Both Orbán and Putin put out feelers. Putin even made the gesture of recalling Russia's ambassador, who made no secret of his negative opinion of Orbán, and replacing him with a friendlier man. Eventually we got to the point that Orbán in some of his speeches favored an eastern orientation that included Russia.
Great then was my surprise when the Hungarian prime minister in his speech at the French Institute of International Relations in Paris sounded an anti-Russian tone again. He warned his audience that "Hungary can support the forthcoming rapprochement between Russia and the European Union only if Eastern Europe receives special treatment and guarantees in the fields of military security, economic infrastructure, access to markets, and in other questions."
Russian ears immediately perked up. The RBK Daily, a Russian business paper, expressed the opinion that such statements and attitudes can only further complicate the already complicated negotiations between the European Union and Russia. The newspaper seemed to know that the Hungarian government even earlier had announced that the guarantees offered by Russia to the European Union are not satisfactory as far as they are concerned. The paper explained that these delicate negotiations have been going on for years but no document was signed yet because there were always member states who had some objections. According to Aleksei Mukhin, director of the Institute of Political Information, "the Hungarian worries are without foundation and they don't express the concern of the other countries of Eastern Europe."
But it is clear that this question is important for Hungarian foreign policy makers because Orbán repeated Hungary's demands for extra guarantees in Lisbon in front of Hungarian newsmen. He pointed out that a great historical alliance is coming into being between the West and Russia, and for Eastern Europe this is a turn of events that must be watched very carefully because there were rapprochements in history which had devastating effects on the region. "The world is changing and NATO considers Russia no longer an enemy but a partner. Therefore the countries of Eastern Europe must bring up their concerns because after all their independence, their autonomy, their sovereignty is at stake. . . . For the time being we mention our concerns only quietly, modestly, and alone" but in the next two or three years these voices will become stronger and these questions will reach the negotiating tables.
It is unlikely that Viktor Orbán said anything about his worries at the summit where he spoke briefly. According to his spokesman the Hungarian prime minister announced that "he as rotating president of the European Union will do everything to better relations between NATO and the European Union." He also assured his audience of his support of the new strategic concept of NATO.
So, let's see what this new NATO concept is. To build a joint U.S.-EU-Russian missile defense shield, signaling the closest military cooperation between Moscow and the West since the end of the Cold War. At the summit in Lisbon the two sides agreed in writing that they no longer posed a threat to one another and that the two sides will be cooperating in their own defense. The agreement naturally is politically important. The missile shield of NATO and Russia will be linked in defense against any possible attack from Iran.
The connection between NATO and the European Union is very close as Anders Fogh Rasmussen, secretary general of NATO, pointed out. "In many cases, NATO and the EU share the same requirements for military capabilities. … NATO and the EU are two of the world's most important institutions. They share 21 members." So, if there is a rapprochement between NATO and Russia an understanding between Russia and the European Union is not far off.
I listened to President Barack Obama's news conference today where he emphasized the positive aspects of the agreement and specifically mentioned that the countries of Eastern Europe didn't object to the agreement between NATO and Russia. In fact, they welcomed it because they can feel more secure now that the Russian arsenal can be inspected. It seems that Viktor Orbán must have uttered his objections so quietly that they never got to the top.