Here is an old/new story that will provide us some relief from pondering the chances of the Hungarian opposition in 2014.
It was more than three years ago, on August 21, 2009, that President László Sólyom tried to cross the Slovak-Hungarian border at Komárom-Komárno in order to attend the unveiling of a statue of St. Stephen. The Slovak government warned him while he was en route to stay away. Sólyom was undeterred. In the middle of the bridge between the two cities Sólyom and his entourage had to turn back. The Slovak government’s stated reason for denying entry to the Hungarian president was that August 21 was the anniversary of the military invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact countries in 1968, an invasion in which Hungarian troops also participated.
I suspect, however, that this was only an excuse. The real reason was that the Slovaks had become tired of László Sólyom’s frequent visits to their country. A bit earlier the Romanians also reacted angrily to Sólyom’s visits, which were usually announced in the last minute, and at one point they wouldn’t grant his plane permission to land at the Marosvásárhely (Târgu Mureş) airport. Sólyom had to go by car. A fairly long and arduous trip from Budapest.
Sólyom’s humiliation raised the hackles of Hungarian nationalism, and all parties joined ranks in indignation. The media followed suit. I think I was perhaps the first, although not the last, person to publish an article in Népszava expressing disapproval of these visits that purported to be private when in fact they were official or semi-official. Among other things, when a foreign dignitary visits, the host country is supposed to provide protection. I would have liked to see what the Hungarian government would have said if the Slovak president paid last-minute visits to Hungary every few months.
At the time when this topic was hot in Hungary I heard a conversation with Péter Balázs, then foreign minister in the Bajnai government, and to my greatest surprise found out that Sólyom decided on his foreign trips himself. Until then I assumed it was the foreign ministry that told the president which countries to visit. Moreover, Sólyom and his staff decided on the details of these “private” visits and contacted the foreign ministry for only one purpose: to have them officially announce the president’s impending visit to the country in question. So, in the days of the Sólyom presidency the foreign minister was no more than a messenger boy. Mind you, the situation of the present foreign minister is no better but for different reasons, and I’d bet that János Áder goes where he is told to go not by János Martonyi but by Viktor Orbán.
The case ended up at the European Commission. The EC decided that although Slovakia used the wrong justification for the refusal, Bratislava had the right to deny entrance to László Sólyom because Sólyom as the president of another country cannot take absolutely private trips abroad. The Hungarian government’s point of view was that Sólyom was denied the free movement of individuals inside the European Union by the Slovak government. I remember the representative of the European Commission visiting Budapest and Bratislava, and even during this investigative phase of the case it was becoming obvious that the EC representative was leaning toward the Slovaks in this dispute. And indeed the European Commission’s position was that member countries have the right “to supervise the entrance of foreign heads of state” to their countries regardless of whether that person is a citizen of the Union or not. The Bajnai government decided not to accept this verdict and turned to the European Court of Justice for a ruling.
That was in March 2010. I simply couldn’t understand why the Bajnai government opted for this course of action. The case seemed to me cut and dry. One could only lose it. Perhaps they were afraid of being branded unpatriotic; they already had enough trouble on that front. However, there are times when one must take a stand and this would have been a good time to show some strength. Let the Orbán government bear the odium of losing the case. Because they lost it all right. On March 6 the judge, Yves Bot, who was in charge of the case announced that Slovakia was within its rights to deny Sólyom entry to the territory of Slovakia because in this case international law supersedes the laws of the EU. Yves Bot suggested that the European Court dismiss the Hungarian suit.
Today we learned the final verdict. No surprise here. Hungary lost. I really don’t know why Hungarian governments feel compelled to go to court at the drop of a hat even with cases that have very little merit. They received plenty of warning that Hungary might end up on the losing side. Yet they forged ahead. Perhaps the old litigious Hungarian tradition simply can’t die. Plus, as Viktor Orbán often says, this “particular Hungarian way of thinking” leads them astray when it comes to assessing their real chances in the courtroom.