It looks to me as if Viktor Orbán has managed to maneuver his country into an untenable position between Russia and the European Union. It has taken five years, but he has succeeded in making Hungary the target of both Moscow and Brussels.
First, he tested the patience of the European Union, which under José Manuel Barroso’s presidency seemed infinite. After a while, drunken with success, he imagined himself to be a statesman who could be an equal player on the world stage with the leaders of the dominant EU countries.
At first, he was satisfied with waging verbal battles with unsuspecting western diplomats unaccustomed to Viktor Orbán’s way of dealing with those who stand in his way. Later, he decided to solicit “an ally” who would add weight to his words. The desired Hungarian “sovereignty,” in his myopic worldview, could be achieved by balancing Russia against the European Union.
Viktor Orbán did not realize that the world around him had changed in some fundamental ways. Vladimir Putin had over the years acquired the unsavory reputation of being a reactionary autocrat, one of the many his country managed to produce over the centuries. As far as the West was concerned, doing business with Russia was fine, but having cozy relations with the lord of the Kremlin was definitely not. And Orbán in his usual fashion went out of his way to ingratiate himself with Vladimir Putin, just as he did with the leaders of China while the West watched warily. Their concern only grew when Putin annexed the Crimea and incited a rebellion in the mostly Russian-inhabited areas of Ukraine. But it was too late for the EU. Orbán had already committed his country to having Rosatom build two new nuclear reactors with the help of a Russian loan. And it was also too late for Viktor Orbán. His quest for an “independent” Hungarian foreign policy was doomed as soon as it became apparent that the West would not take the Russian aggression against Ukraine lying down.
It wasn’t only the Russian-Ukraianian conflict that changed the political landscape. There was something else that Orbán didn’t take into consideration. Last November Barroso’s presidency came to an end and with it perhaps Brussels’ lackadaisical attitude toward Viktor Orbán’s antics. The front runner, Jean-Claude Juncker, was the worst possible choice as far as the Hungarian prime minister was concerned. Orbán, following David Cameron of Great Britain, voted against him in the European Council, but the two of them remained in the minority. The reason for Orbán’s opposition was that it was known that Juncker supports a stronger, more unified European Union, the last thing Orbán wants. What was even more worrisome was that Junker named Frans Timmermans of the Netherlands to be his first deputy, and Timmermans was known to be an outspoken critic of Viktor Orbán’s illiberal views. Orbán found himself in a very uncomfortable position because there were signs that the European Union, with an entirely new leadership, would at last crack down on Hungary’s repeated infringements of EU laws.
This change in attitude on the part of the EU might finally have arrived. Those familiar with Viktor Orbán’s political tactics might consider his references to the death penalty no more than a PR move to boost his flagging popularity and steal votes from the neo-Nazi Jobbik party, but I think it was one of the issues that made the European leaders have second thoughts about giving Orbán so much leeway. In addition to withholding billions of euros from Hungary, this is the first time that an official of the European Commission talked about Article 7 as a real option in connection with Hungary for “solving crises and in the interest of holding on to the values of the European Union.”
And now comes Vladimir Putin’s bizarre conversation with Sergey Kiriyenko, head of Rosatom. First of all, although this conversation took place in Putin’s office and looks like a private conversation, it was shown on Russia’s state television. Surely, it was meant to be a message for a wider audience. The conversation was about the Paks nuclear power plant. According to Putin, “we offer good terms and advanced technology, so, if the partner is forced to refuse [to cooperate], which they could have done, it would be damaging to Hungary’s national interests.” Kiriyenko assures Putin that “we have received confirmation from the government of Hungary that all the agreements are in force on a wide range of projects…. Everything has been confirmed and coordinated and the contract is coming into effect.”
Practically all the Hungarian media interpreted Putin’s words as a threat to Hungary. One exception was the official “Híradó” (News), which provides news to Magyar Televízió and Magyar Rádió. There the headline read:”Putin is worried about Hungarian national interests.” The other exception was “Pesti srácok” (Kids of Pest), a far-right Fidesz Internet site, which claimed that “Putin is satisfied with the Hungarian government’s stand against the European Union,” a blatant misinterpretation of the conversation between the two men.
Although the available translations are rather poor and the subordinate clause “which they could have done” is not at all clear, I believe that Putin either suspects or knows that the European Union has already put pressure on Hungary and that Hungary might have to abandon the project. János Lázár has repeatedly assured the country that all is well and that work will begin on time, but these assurances were probably not grounded in reality. Although Euratom eventually approved the plan to have Russia supply fuel rods for the new reactors, there are still serious hurdles for Hungary to overcome. Negotiations are in progress and, judging from Putin’s unusual “conversation” with Kiriyenko, they might not be going well.
Not surprisingly, the Orbán government didn’t respond to Putin’s warning to Hungary and the European Union. Most likely the spin doctors are planning an appropriate response and perhaps tomorrow János Lázár, in his usual Thursday morning press conference, will say that all is well with Paks, the European Union, and Rosatom and that he doesn’t know what all the fuss is about.