I’m sticking with Russian-Hungarian relations, although today I won’t write about the Hungarian opposition’s reactions to the Putin-Orbán meeting as promised. The reason for this change of plans is that I read an in-depth interview with Zoltán Sz. Bíró on the relationship between the two countries over the last ten years or so. I would like to share it with those of you who are not in a position to read it in the original.
Although I’m quite familiar with Russian history and Soviet politics, I haven’t been following what’s going on in Russia. I know as much as one can learn from the media. A couple of years ago, however, Tamás Mészáros hosted a show on ATV that dealt with foreign affairs. Every time the discussion touched on Russia Zoltán Sz. Bíró, a research fellow in the Historical Institute of the Research Center attached to the Hungarian Academy’s Section of the Humanities, was among the participants. He always impressed me with his learning and his analytical skill.
His track record continues. I learned more from the interview that appeared in today’s Népszava on the state of Russian-Hungarian affairs than from all the other articles I read on Viktor Orbán’s visit to Moscow. The main thrust of Bíró’s analysis is that, despite Vladimir Putin’s warm welcome, there is a great deal of dissatisfaction with the Orbán government’s Russia policy. Putin’s Russia doesn’t hide its true feelings toward Viktor Orbán, which in this case translated into a short audience, no scheduled press conference, and no lunch or dinner after the official appointment. In November 2010 when Viktor Orbán first visited Russia as prime minister these niceties were planned, but in the end they were dispensed with. By contrast, each time Péter Medgyessy or Ferenc Gyurcsány paid a visit to Moscow there was always a press conference and a dinner meeting.
Russia has reason to be dissatisfied with trade relations and mutual investments between the two countries. In the last three years the rate of investment has slowed. To quote from Putin’s welcoming speech: “The level of investment until recently was well balanced between the two countries. However, for the last three years it hasn’t grown or has grown very slowly.”
Before December 2002, when Medgyessy visited Moscow, Hungarian exports to Russia were less than half a million U.S. dollars while imports were around 2.2 billion dollars. By 2008 both exports and imports peaked: Hungarian imports reached 10 billion and exports 4 billion dollars. That is, while Hungarian imports grew fourfold, exports expanded by a factor of eight. Not even in the old Soviet days was the volume of trade between Russia and Hungary that great.
This spectacular growth was due in part to the change of government in Poland when under the Kaczynski brothers’ rule Russian-Polish relations soured. In addition, in 2007 Russia finally decided to build the Southern Stream that would supply Hungary with natural gas. Negotiations over the pipeline necessitated frequent contact between the two countries.
Viktor Orbán is in a difficult position when it comes to friendly relations with Russia because of the heavy political baggage he carries from his days in opposition. In those days he made irresponsible comments about Russia. A responsible politician should think ahead: what will happen if he wins the election? How hard is it going to be to mend fences? The Russian leaders are pragmatic, but in 2005 there was a spectacular change in the official Russian stance on its role in World War II. In order to give emotional content to the regime, Putin’s government stands ready to do battle with any country that tries to minimize or question Russia’s sacrifice. The Orbán government’s frequent anti-Soviet rhetoric certainly doesn’t endear it to the Russians.
Earlier I wrote about Viktor Orbán’s resolve to purchase E.On’s Hungarian subsidiary from the German company. At the moment the Hungarian media is full of extended debates about whether the 800 million euros the Hungarian government is paying is too much. According to some, it is not worth more than 400 million. I can’t take sides because I have no idea of the value of E.On. But presumably E.On could purchase Russian gas at a cheaper rate than a Hungarian state-owned company could. Russia’s largest natural gas customer in Europe is Germany at 35-36 billion cubic meters a year. Hungary in the last three or four years decreased its natural gas purchases to about 6 billion cubic meters. This difference in purchasing power most likely influences the price of Russian natural gas. That’s why “the Hungarian government’s anti-E.On policies are incomprehensible.”
According to Sz. Bíró, a half-hour meeting on the highest level simply cannot replace the day-to day work necessary to develop a good relationship between countries. János Martonyi’s absence was glaring. Péter Szijjártó was there, but in Sz. Bíró’s opinion the young upstart lacks a thorough knowledge of the areas he is supposed to deal with. Here is one example. Szijjártó announced that Russian-Hungarian economic relations are especially promising because the Russian economy last year grew by 3%. But this is not a great accomplishment for Russia. On the contrary, “it is a serious set-back.” After all, in 2010 and 2011 the Russian economy grew by more than 4% while during the prior decade the Russian GDP grew by 7-8% every year.
Sz. Biró is not at all sure whether Hungary should enlarge the Paks Nuclear Power Plant, not just because of its enormous cost (2-4 trillion Hungarian forints) but because the country might not need a larger facility in the first place. Second, this enormous investment would have to be financed by new loans. Sz. Bíró also fears that “if a political group is able to get even a small portion of this money it will be able to eliminate the possibility of open and democratic political competition.” In brief, Hungary will be stuck with a Fidesz government for a very long time to come.
I think that I more or less managed to summarize Zoltán Sz. Bíró’s opinions on the current status of Hungarian-Russian relations. Let me finish with something that I hope Viktor Orbán said in jest Friday morning during his weekly interview on MR1 (Kossuth Rádió) when asked about his trip to Moscow. He described his trip thus: “Hungarian history is a great teacher. That’s why the first success is that we not only went to Moscow but we also came home. We should start here!” What on earth did he want to say? If it was a joke, it was a very bad one. Not exactly how to make friends and influence people!
Otherwise, Orbán said nothing specific about his accomplishments in Moscow. When asked about Russian participation in the building of additional facilities at the Paks Nuclear Power Plant, he acted as if he didn’t hear the question. Instead, he went on and on about Russia’s contribution to the fields of music and literature. According to him, “We can’t even imagine European music and literature without Russia.” He quickly added that Hungary is a “kultúrnemzet” which also contributed greatly to European culture. “We can therefore speak of Russia with appreciation.” Why? Otherwise we couldn’t?
A quick look at Facebook reveals that jokes about Viktor Orbán’s appreciation of music and literature number in the hundreds. We know from Gábor Fodor’s description of Viktor Orbán in his college days that “Viktor moved in the world of culture like an elephant in a porcelain shop,” meaning he didn’t feel at home there. He was interested in football and politics almost exclusively. It is highly unlikely that in his spare time the Hungarian prime minister reads Dostoevsky or Tolstoy. But I guess if you don’t want to acknowledge Russia’s importance in today’s world, it is always safe to praise its cultural heritage. A nationalistic prime minister also has to point out, however, that Hungary is no less cultured and that its contribution is just that great as that of other nations.