When on March 19 world leaders gathered in Paris to discuss the details of the Libyan project, the Associated Press introduced the topic with the headline: “Orban is missing, the rotating president, embarrassing.” A month before, on February 17, the world found out that the 2011 summit on the Eastern Partnership that was considered an important event of Hungary’s rotating presidency of the European Union had been postponed. Allegedly because of the crowded schedule of international meetings of world leaders. The summit will be held in Warsaw during the rotating presidency of Poland. The Eastern Partnership, by the way, is an organization aiming to improve the political and economic trade relations of six post-Soviet states of “strategic importance” (Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia) with the European Union.
The Hungarians were naturally disappointed but put on a good face. The Hungarian ambassador to the European Union emphasized that the schedule at the end of May was indeed crowded, especially since the G8 summit was scheduled for May 26 and 27 in Deauville, France. Moreover, the ambassador added, the original plan called for Poland and Hungary to be co-hosts of the event, and thus the postponement under joint sponsorship involved little substantive change. The spokeswoman for the Hungarian foreign ministry also tried to make light of the Hungarian government’s disappointment, but perhaps inadvertently admitted that the Hungarian government had tried to change the date from May 27 to May 25 but that date was not suitable either because commemoration ceremonies for the fiftieth anniversary of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development were scheduled for May 25. There’s always a party somewhere!
According to commentators critical of the Orbán government, it is possible that the crowded schedule was actually created in order to prevent Viktor Orbán from having the summit in Hungary. I wouldn’t go that far, but we do know that Orbán is considered to be an “unpleasant fellow” in Brussels. I think that the United States and Western Europe have been watching the new Hungarian government’s increasingly nationalistic and undemocratic policies for some time and find them distasteful. One mustn’t forget that the first critical editorial on Orbán and his government appeared in The Washington Post already in the summer of 2010, and since then the U.S. government has indicated on several occasions that unless there is a drastic change in attitude in Budapest, U.S.-Hungarian relations will not be cozy. Germany, Hungary’s most important trading partner, has also been very critical. Both the German president and the chancellor recently sent a message via the Hungarian president Pál Schmitt that they are watching Hungarian political events carefully.
Although there were already reservations about the new Hungarian government’s nationalistic policies during 2010, the real problems began in 2011 after the Hungarian parliament voted for the new media law in the last days of December. I have written a lot about this controversy; here I just want to note that although Viktor Orbán might be very proud of his performance in Brussels when he vehemently defended the honor of Hungary in the European Parliament, in fact right then and there he dug his own grave with respect to his standing in the international community. I don’t think that Orbán had been a favorite among his fellow politicians in Brussels even before, but after that performance he was finished. They don’t want to have much to do with him. Indeed, they seem to avoid him as much as possible. On photos taken at these EU gatherings one can often see Orbán standing alone, looking on as a circle of people talk to one another.
And yesterday came the unexpected news. On the very same day that the Eastern Partnership summit was supposed to take place but had to be postponed due to scheduling conflicts a similar summit will be held in Warsaw. And while the Hungarians had been unsuccessfully courting Hillary Clinton to attend their summit, this Warsaw meeting will be attended by American president himself! The eastern partners will also be there, but it will be a meeting of the presidents of the participating countries.
The news came like a bolt from the blue. Pál Schmitt, who happened to be in Warsaw yesterday on other business, was told on the spot about the summit and that he was invited. Although it is true that Poland is a much larger and more strategically important country than Hungary and although it is also true that the Polish population of the United States is considerable, one cannot quite shake the impression that the United States in a not too subtle way was making the point that it is having absolutely nothing to do with Viktor Orbán. And it seems to me that Poland was ready to oblige and cooperate with the United States in isolating Donald Tusk’s allegedly great friend, Viktor Orbán.
You may recall that Orbán has been courting Poland and has stressed on every possible occasion that Poland is the cornerstone of Hungary’s foreign policy. But it seems that Prime Minister Tusk realized that being too close to Viktor Orbán is not to his advantage. He sold his friend down the river, let’s face it.
In today’s Népszava two former Hungarian diplomats were asked about the unexpected change of venue. Péter Balázs, former foreign minister, considered the announcement about the summit in Warsaw “a double loss for Hungary.” The original summit is being postponed while the hastily organized new one will also be held in Warsaw and not in Hungary. On the other hand, András Simonyi, former Hungarian ambassador in Washington, emphasized that one mustn’t confuse the original summit with this meeting. As far as he knows, “aside from the unpleasantness caused by the media law, the Hungary presidency is faultless.” I guess it all depends on who’s keeping score.
March 23, 2011