On May 15 Péter Szijjártó, undersecretary in charge of foreign policy and foreign economic relations, received three new jobs from Viktor Orbán. He will be the chairman of the Hungarian-Belarussian, Hungarian-Turkman, and Hungarian-Uzbek bilateral economic councils. Following the announcement, Szijjártó’s spokeswoman emphasized that “economic cooperation with the former Soviet member states are the foundation pillars of the government’s strategy of the Eastern Opening and therefore the government will pay special attention to bilateral relations with Belarus, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.'”
Uzbekistan is described by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the U.S. Department of State as “an authoritarian state with limited civil rights” in which there is “wide-scale violation of virtually all basic human rights.” Turkmenistan’s record is no better. Its government operates as a single party state. The country has been widely criticized for human rights abuses and has imposed severe restrictions on foreign travel for its citizens. According to Reporters Without Borders 2012, Turkmenistan had the second worst press freedom conditions in the world, just behind North Korea. Belarus is described as a dictatorship and has been barred from the Council of Europe since 1997.
So, these countries are the pillars of Viktor Orbán’s “Eastern Opening.” Nice company Hungary is keeping. Clearly, the Orbán government is ready to cooperate with countries with natural resources. Both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have extensive natural gas reserves and phenomenal economic growth. Belarus, on the other hand, seems to be in constant economic crisis; occasionally Putin’s Russia helps the country out with large loans.
Not much appeared in the Hungarian press about Belarus before November 2012 when HVG reported that Alexandr Lukashenko, the country’s president, announced that “the Hungarians seemed to have had enough of democracy and market economy. They sobered up.” He recalled that in the good old Soviet days the two countries were friends, and he expressed his belief that the two countries will strengthen their ties in the near future. “We cannot lose Hungary.”
That exchange between the Belarus president and the new Hungarian ambassador to Minsk made quite a splash in Budapest. Árpád W. Tóta, a commentator known for his verbal virtuosity and keen sense of politics, had a grand time with Lukashenko’s description of Hungary’s undemocratic ways, adding that Hungary is nowhere close to Lukashenko’s Belarus but “we are coming along nicely.” According to András Giró-Szász, government spokesman, Lukashenko “was only joking.”
Interestingly, at the time the Hungarian government was not eager to inform the public of closer Belarussian-Hungarian relations. Hungarian papers learned about the details from the Belarussian Telegraph Agency. For example, already in October 2012 “Minsk was playing host to the third meeting of the intergovernmental Belarussian-Hungarian commission for economic cooperation and the Belarussian-Hungarian business forum.” The Belarussian Ministry of Sport and Tourism and the Ministry of National Economy of Hungary signed an agreement on cooperation in the field of tourism. Working groups were set up for the study of cooperation in the fields of agriculture, industry, and tourism, as well as science and technology. In mid-December 2012 Aleksandr Khainovsky, Belarussian ambassador to Budapest, met with Sándor Lezsák, deputy-speaker of the Hungarian parliament and head of the parliamentary friendship group Belarus-Hungary. “The parties discussed the prospects of Belarussian-Hungarian inter-parliamentary relations and agreed on expanding cooperation in these areas…. The sides also specified projects to promote Belarus-Hungary contacts in culture, education and youth exchanges.”
By February 2013 the Hungarian media learned, again through the Belarussian Telegraph Agency, that Belorussian officials carried on negotiations at the time when the Agro Mash Expo 2013 was being held in Budapest about Hungary’s importing more Belarussian agricultural machinery, especially tractors. Already in 2011 Hungary purchased 973 tractors from Belarus for $16.6 million.
On May 1, 2013, Fidesz’s official website announced that Péter Szijjártó met Alena Kupchina, Belarus deputy foreign minister, in Budapest. They discussed setting up direct flights (Minsk-Budapest-Belgrade) that would “encourage economic and cultural relations between the two countries.” The two agreed that, as of the coming academic year, Hungarian will be taught at the University of Minsk. Further plans call for close cooperation in pharmaceutical research and development.
I was somewhat baffled that the same Alina Kupchina who met Szijjártó on May 1 was again in Budapest on May 6 when she met with two senior officials of the Hungarian Foreign Ministry, Zsolt Németh and Péter Sztáray. She came specifically for a “foreign policy consultation.” Németh at least brought up Hungarian concerns over the Belarussian human and political rights situation. He asked for the release of political prisoners because “this would assist Belarus’s more active participation in the work of the Eastern Partnership.”
Tomorrow I will continue with the other two “pillars” of Hungary’s Eastern Opening: Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.