A few years ago when Tamás Mészáros, a political commentator, had a program on ATV called Dominó I encountered Zoltán S. Biró, who impressed me greatly. The program was a political roundtable discussion among four men, including the moderator, who spent at least half of their allotted time on foreign affairs. In this company Zoltán S. Biró was the Russian expert. He was invited every time the discussion touched on Russian affairs.
I found his knowledge of even the smallest detail of Russian affairs staggering. I have not been following American scholarship on Russian politics, but I'm certain that S. Biró would be able to hold his own in the most illustrious international company of Russian scholars.
Unfortunately, about a year ago Dominó was taken off the air and I lost sight of Zoltán S. Biró. So I was happy to see his name again a couple of days ago in Galamus. I guess after this introduction you will not be surprised to learn that S. Biró responded to the information released by WikiLeaks on the American perception of Russian-Hungarian relations during the tenure of Ferenc Gyurcsány as prime minister of Hungary.
The title of his piece is "Lélekbuvár–A Wikileaks–iratokhoz" ("The psychologist–About the WikiLeaks documents"). The normal word for "psychologist" in Hungarian is "pszichológus" and the Hungarian synonym "lélekbuvár" has an ironic touch to it. Literally it means "a diver into the soul." The word carries the meaning of someone who thinks that he or she can look into the innermost thoughts of another person.
The reference in this instance is to April H. Foley's comment in one of her cables in which she claimed that Ferenc Gyurcsány perhaps felt more comfortable in the company of Vladimir Putin than among western politicians. Reading this particular passage I also raised my eyebrows because the obvious question is: how on earth can anyone know that? This is just a wild guess, most likely based on some preconceived idea.
Zoltán S. Biró, who seems to know Ferenc Gyurcsány personally, says that naturally he couldn't possibly say whether Gyurcsány enjoyed the company of Putin or not because after all he is not a "lélekbuvár." But he finds it "an absolutely impossible supposition that if he indeed liked the Russians he liked them because he had an inferiority complex in the company of western politicians." And, indeed, Gyurcsány strikes one as a very confident fellow. Perhaps too confident. Of course, he continues, he may be wrong and "the diplomatic psychologists" may be right. But perhaps there might be reasons other than personal ones why Gyurcsány tried to establish "intensive relations" with Moscow. And S. Biró lists three good reasons for Gyurcsány's move toward Russia.
(1) It became clear to Gyurcsány that the road to "the stimulation of Russian-Hungarian trade relations led through the consolidation of political relations." Here Gyurcsány did nothing more than continue the policies of Péter Medgyessy, his predecessor. The volume of Russo-Hungarian trade between 2002 and 2008 grew dramatically. In 2002 trade between the two countries was worth $2.7 billion, of which Hungarian exports amounted to $455 million. The rest consisted of Russian exports to Hungary. Six years later the trade between the two countries amounted to more than $14 billion, of which Hungarian exports to Russia were worth almost $4 billion. So, Hungarian exports to Russia grew eightfold while Russian exports to Hungary only doubled. Consider the headwinds. This change occurred during the period when the price of oil skyrocketed from $40 to $147 during the summer of 2008. And the price of natural gas in the region is tied to the price of oil. In this context S. Biró simply doesn't understand the American position which, according to the cable, stated that Gyurcsány overestimated the significance of Russian-Hungarian trade.
(2) Another circumstance that made relations between Moscow and Budapest "spectacular" was Poland's taking sides in the political changes that occurred in Ukraine during the fall of 2004. As a result Russian-Polish relations, which had been excellent in prior years, cooled considerably.
(3) The third reason that made "intensive dialogue necessary" was the Russian decision to build a new pipeline called the Southern Stream. S. Biró notes that the project was originally planned as a Russian-Italian joint effort. Putin didn't approach Gyurcsány to join. Rather, it was Romano Prodi, then prime minister of Italy, who turned to the Hungarian government. Italy's supply of natural gas comes from North Africa. The Italian government wanted to diversify its energy sources. If anything goes wrong in North Africa, Russia will be there as a backup source.
As it stands now, as the result of the economic crisis both Russia's Southern Stream and the EU's Nabucco are on ice. That leaves Hungary at the mercy of a Russian pipeline that travels through Ukraine with all the problems that poses.
Thus, says S. Biró, there were many good reasons for the policy Péter Medgyessy and Ferenc Gyurcsány pursued after the almost cold war atmosphere between the two countries they inherited from Viktor Orbán in 2002.