Yesterday I promised an interesting tidbit about the strained U.S.-Hungarian relations as a result of Hungarian foreign and economic policy toward Russia during the Gyurcsány years. And what makes the information especially important is that it comes from the horse's mouth. Ferenc Gyurcsány tells about his rocky relations with George W. Bush's last ambassador to Budapest, April Foley.
But first a little background. It was in February 2008 that Hungary signed an agreement, together with Austria and Italy, to adhere to a consortium that would build a new pipeline called the Southern Stream. Negotiations were long and arduous and the European Union, and especially the United States, was dissatisfied with the Hungarian government. According to Washington Hungary should have nothing or very little to do with Russia. The country should put all its eggs into one basket, the Nabucco project, which was then and still is no more than a dream. Neither the source of the gas nor the financing by the European Union countries has been secured. I wrote about the Russian pipelines at some length in February 2008.
At the time Ferenc Gyurcsány's position was that Hungary has no intention of abandoning the Nabucco project but that Hungary's energy security is on firmer ground if the country has multiple sources of natural gas. As we know only too well, at the moment there is only one pipeline from Russia that reaches Hungary, and that is through Ukraine. I guess I don't have to spend a lot of time describing past difficulties when, because of Ukrainian non-payment, no gas came to Hungary for weeks on end.
I thought this Hungarian position made a lot of sense, and I was somewhat taken aback when I realized that in official circles in Washington there was widespread belief that Gyurcsány's relations with Russia were far too cozy and therefore suspect. I simply considered it in Hungary's self-interest to have amiable relations with Russia especially since, let's face it, Hungary's energy supply is in large measure dependent on Russian goodwill. I'm sure that Gyurcsány doesn't sympathize with Vladimir Putin's undemocratic ways, but he maintained cordial relations with the Russian president/prime minister. In fact, their personal relations could be said to be good. Putin was invited to the home of the Gyurcsány family, and in return Putin invited Gyurcsány and his wife to a family dinner, although by that time Gyurcsány was no longer prime minister.
Enough of the background. Now let's turn to Gyurcsány's revelations on his blog. Because of Viktor Orbán's trip to Moscow he wrote how surprised he was when a few months ago he heard from Orbán that after all Hungary's adherence to the Southern Stream project was a laudable move. Orbán and Fidesz no longer have any problems with this pipeline even though two years ago they accused Gyurcsány of selling the country to the Russians or building a stepping stone for the Russian bear to put its ugly paws on Western Europe. Now suddenly, says Gyurcsány, Orbán is in favor of close relations with Russia. What has changed since then?
According to Gyurcsány, his relations with George Herbert Walker III, ambassador to Hungary between 2003 and 2006, were based "on mutual respect," while with his predecessor, Nancy Goodman Brinker (2001-2203), the relationship was more than official. To this day every time Nancy Brinker goes to Hungary she meets with the Gyurcsánys. But then came April Foley and things changed. It was quite obvious even to outside observers (like myself) that April Foley was a friend and supporter of Fidesz. According to Gyurcsány, at one of their meetings Foley expressed her disapproval of the growing trade between Russia and Hungary. "When I heard that I almost fell off my chair," says Gyurcsány. Later Foley, using all of Fidesz's arguments, complained about the agreement with Russia over building the Southern Stream. "This was more than disapproval, I would rather describe it as a calling to account." Foley, according to Gyurcsány, "gave instructions, orders" and in response Gyurcsány didn't mince words and criticized her behavior. "At the end, I told her that not even the ambassadors of the Soviet Union dared to talk to the Hungarian leaders as she does." The meeting was cut short and their subsequent relations were icy.
Gyurcsány elaborates on the Bush administration's attitude when it came to Russia. If Germany signed an agreement with the Russians to build the Northern Stream there were no complaints. Hungary, however, was not granted the same latitude.
With the change of administration in Washington American-Russian relations have improved, and therefore it seems that Orbán is also changing his tune. But, Gyurcsány argues, a few years back Hungary's position was the correct one and Bush's policy was faulty. The United States is a friend and an ally, but that doesn't mean that Hungary "must follow all its demands." After all, Hungary has its own national interests.
So, the message is that Gyurcsány followed a policy that served Hungary's national interests although there was considerable pressure from Brussels and Washington to take a different course. Now, it seems that Orbán is slavishly following the wishes of Washington. "Who is the patriot then?"–Gyurcsány asks in conclusion.
Personally, I doubt that Orbán is kowtowing to Washington in developing his Russia policy. But then I don't have to score political points.