It was back in August that we first heard about the impending negotiations between Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orbán in Moscow. Tamás Fellegi, minister of national development, was entrusted with preparing the ground for an Orbán visit to Moscow. The fact that the task was assigned not to the foreign ministry but to a minister who is primarily concerned with economic matters was a clear indication that the negotiations would concentrate on bread and butter issues.
However, negotiations were hard going. Fellegi went to Moscow and talked with first deputy prime minister, Viktor Zubkov, but this August 27 meeting was most likely not very successful. A second meeting was scheduled for mid-November, but Fellegi had to cancel his trip because Zubkov postponed the meeting. Apparently, the reason for Russian displeasure was the extra tax levied on the energy companies which affected two Russian companies active in Hungary. According to observers, the Russians were also getting tired of Hungarian brainstorming sessions instead of properly worked out, realistic plans.
Two weeks later, toward the end of November, Fellegi made his second trip to Moscow, but it seems that no agreement was reached even then. At last, on November 30, Orbán arrived in Moscow. Putin and Orbán talked behind closed doors for about two hours, but no joint or even individual press conferences were held afterwards. The Hungarian prime minister’s office simply informed the world that “Viktor Orbán conducted successful negotiations with Prime Minister Putin in Moscow.” Dmitri Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, announced that the Russian and Hungarian prime ministers talked about Surgutnetfegaz’s stake in MOL and that they will continue to discuss the still outstanding issues.
The Hungarian analysts concluded that the negotiations ended in failure. I think that the picture below is telling. No smiles here.
Nothing was accomplished. Some people, like László Lengyel, who are not too fond of Viktor Orbán thought that the failure of the talks was the result of Viktor Orbán’s negotiating style. Orbán likes to flex his muscles, but that surely doesn’t work with Vladimir Putin who is after all the prime minister of one of the great powers. Others, like the socialist László Kovács, foreign minister twice before, thought that Putin simply couldn’t forget how Orbán called him and the Russians in general barbarians.
I don’t think that sentiment had much to do with the failure of the negotiations. Instead, Hungary had darned little to offer, and it was unwilling to give in on the Surgut issue. It is possible that the Hungarians wanted to buy the Russian stake, but Surgut has no intention of selling. As for voting rights that the Russian company doesn’t have, despite a 21% interest in MOL, I have the feeling that the Hungarian side was not willing to give in on that point. Thus, the negotiations stalled.
Ferenc Gyurcsány, who had good relations with Putin, suspects that something went very wrong. He asked a friend of his to search the Russian media for news, but the man found nothing except an article from the site of Regnum, an organization close to the administration that publishes opinions that are considered to be half-official messages of government intentions. According to Regnum, “the politics of Viktor Orbán contains some radical ideas…. The spread and strength of ethnic nationalism in Hungary has been quite obvious for some time. The government is trying to make excuses for Hungary being the last satellite of Hitler and is attempting to reinterpret the role of Horthy” who according to Regnum was a dictator. (Horthy of course was not a dictator, but here the important thing is that the Russians think he was.) The article mentions that the Russian negotiating partner must make it clear to Orbán that “this unconscionable demagoguery” is unacceptable to the Russian side. Well, if Putin told all that to Orbán, it’s no wonder that the negotiations failed.
There is a Hungarian website devoted to international relations and to Hungarian foreign policy on which a long unsigned article about the failed negotiations appeared. It begins like this: “Viktor Orbán’s trip to Moscow was good for only one thing: at least there is a picture of him alongside Vladimir Putin.” Yet, there are many outstanding issues: MOL, MALÉV, Nabucco-Southern Stream, extra taxes on energy companies, renegotiation of Russian gas prices due in a couple of years. And there is the question of Paks, the Hungarian atomic power plant originally built by the Soviets which badly needs expansion. Perhaps the most sensitive issue is Surgut’s stake in MOL. The treatment of the Russian company is an obvious irritant: Putin even mentioned it to Angela Merkel only about a week ago. Putin complained about Hungary’s refusal to adhere to European Union standards.
What the article didn’t bring up, and I didn’t see any mention of it in the Hungarian papers, is Viktor Orbán’s latest warning of a possible Russian danger to the countries of Eastern Europe. Negotiations between Russia and the European Union have been going on for a couple of years and Putin just lately complained about the obstacles that some countries are erecting on the path toward rapprochement. Surely, the Russians took notice and didn’t appreciate Orbán’s remarks in Paris.
Tomorrow I will continue with an interesting side issue: strained U.S.-Hungarian relations as a result of the socialist governments’ mending fences with Russia after Orbán’s departure in 2002.