The first Orbán government, between 1998 and 2002, managed to alienate practically all of its neighbors, so the past five years can be viewed as something of an improvement. Budapest now proudly claims to have excellent relations with Slovakia and Serbia. Relations with Croatia are less rosy, and as far as Romania is concerned, the two countries’ relationship is outright disastrous. Viktor Orbán of Hungary and Victor Ponta of Romania have never officially met. I don’t know about Orbán, but Ponta said that he has no intention of meeting face to face with his Hungarian namesake.
There are several reasons for the strained relations between the two countries, chief among them the Orbán government’s constant interference in the affairs of the large Hungarian minority in Romania. There exists an ethnic Hungarian party in Romania, Romániai Magyar Demokrata Szövetség (RMDSZ) or Uniunea Democrată Maghiară din România (Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania), which since 1996 has often been part of the government. RMDSZ is a right-of-center party whose leaders always had better relations with Fidesz than with the socialist-liberal governments. For many years the chairman of the party was Béla Markó, a poet of some renown. In 2011 he was followed by Hunor Kelemen, another writer. I don’t follow Hungarian ethnic politics in Romania, but my impression is that Kelemen has much closer ties with the current Hungarian government than his predecessor did. Moreover, while Markó used to be proud of his party’s achievements as far as the rights of the Hungarian minority were concerned, Kelemen is much more critical of Bucharest and often harshly criticizes Romanian minority policies. Only a few days ago he complained to the president of the Venice Commission, Gianni Buquicchio, about the grievances of the Hungarian minority. Kelemen reproached the Venice Commission for praising Romania’s minority policy without consulting with RMDSZ, the representative of that minority.
But there are other issues of more recent vintage. One is Viktor Orbán’s pro-Russian policy, which Romania, boxed in between a less than friendly Russia on the east and a pro-Russian Hungary on the west, disapproves of. Another matter that divides the two countries is that while Hungary has been pursuing a less than friendly foreign policy toward the United States and is a very unwilling participant in the trans-atlantic alliance, Romania wholeheartedly supports it. From the vantage point of Brussels and Washington, Romania is a country that is heading in the right direction while Hungary is not.
In the last few years there were relatively few meetings between the Romanian and Hungarian foreign ministers. The last time a Hungarian foreign minister visited Bucharest was in 2013. Last February Romanian foreign minister Titus Corlățean was in Budapest, but it was not an official visit. He came to meet the foreign ministers of the Visegrád Four.
But now Foreign Minister Bogdan Aurescu came to Budapest on official business. He and his Hungarian counterpart, Péter Szijjártó, were supposed to sign a memorandum on minorities: Hungarians in Romania and Romanians in Hungary. According to the 2011 census there are 1,227,623 Hungarians in Romania and 35,641 Romanians in Hungary. Although apparently both sides wanted to sign the memorandum, at the end the two foreign ministers couldn’t agree on any of the ethnic issues. During the meeting they did sign some agreements on roads to be built and the opening of border crossings, but the ethnic issues seemed to be insurmountable. According to vs.hu, an internet news site, Zsolt Semjén, deputy prime minister in charge of minority policies, put pressure on Szijjártó not to move an inch on certain issues.
One topic that came up in the conversation will add to the poisonous relations between the two countries. That is the case of Attila Markó, a Romanian-Hungarian politician, who is currently sought after by Interpol and who is hiding in Budapest. And that takes us to the Romanian Anticorruption Directorate (Direcţia Naţională Anticorupţie/DNA) and its fearless prosecutor, Laura Codruța Kövesi.
I first read about her in a fairly lengthy New York Times article. Although DNA was originally established by the Romanian government in 2003 to placate the European Union, apparently the Romanians never meant it to be a serious corruption-fighting agency. Once Kövesi took over, however, things changed radically. Since 2013 several very important Romanian politicians have been charged and found guilty, including former prime minister Adrian Năstase and Dan Voiculescu, a politician and businessman who received a 10-year jail term for money laundering.
DNA became interested in Attila Markó, a member of the Romanian parliament and earlier undersecretary in charge of minority affairs. Markó was a member of the committee responsible for the restitution for confiscated property during Romania’s communist period. According to the charge, Markó and seven other members of the committee overpaid the claimants to the tune of 85 million euros. Markó in an interview with András Stumpf of Mandiner expressed his distrust of the Romanian justice system. In addition, he claimed that “the Romanian state is using the fight against corruption to decapitate the Hungarian political elite. To date there were too few Hungarians among those arrested.” So, Markó wants to make an ethnic issue out of a possible corruption case.
Of course, I have no idea whether Markó is innocent or guilty, but his claim that DNA is after him because of his ethnicity doesn’t ring true. After all, all eight members of this particular committee have been charged, and surely not all of them are Hungarians. Moreover, Laura Kövesi (née Laura Lascu) has lived all her life in near proximity of Hungarians. She was born in the county seat of Kovászna/Kovasna County, a predominantly Hungarian town in the middle of the Szekler region of Transylvania. She attended law school in Cluj/Kolozsvár, which also has a fairly large Hungarian population. And finally, judging from the name by which she is known today, she is or was married to a Hungarian. So, all in all, I doubt that Markó’s accusation is well founded.
Markó’s name apparently came up during the negotiations between Bogdan Aurescu and Péter Szijjártó. The Romanian foreign minister asked his colleague to inform the appropriate authorities about the international warrant issued for the arrest of Attila Markó, but Szijjártó refused to get involved, claiming that the foreign ministry has no authority in such matters.
I’m certain that we will hear the name of Attila Markó in the coming months because I doubt that the Hungarian authorities will extradite Markó to Romania. The Orbán government, which already has the reputation of doing nothing to combat the rampant corruption in Hungary, will now be in the unenviable position of harboring an allegedly corrupt politician from Romania.