One can say all sorts of things about Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó, just not that he is the paragon of diplomatic virtue. Upon his arrival in Hungary’s foreign ministry, he not only got rid of Hungary’s seasoned diplomats but also used language rarely heard in the world of diplomacy. Szijjártó was groomed for his diplomatic career in the rough and tumble of Hungarian politics, Fidesz style. He tore into fellow foreign ministers, presidents, prime ministers, anyone who dared utter a word against Hungary. Actually, he was just following the instructions of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who at his very first meeting with the Hungarian ambassadors told them that they cannot let one “untrue” statement about the country go unanswered. Thus, like diplomats from banana republics, Hungarian ambassadors routinely write letters to the editor of major papers of the country where they serve. A rather distasteful habit.
It is hard to assess Hungary’s relations with her neighbors because they are so volatile. One month Szijjártó sends threatening letters to presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers of Croatia, Slovenia, and Austria and the next month we hear high praise for the same countries from Viktor Orbán. There are exceptions to the rule: Serbian-Hungarian relations seem to be consistently good and Romanian-Hungarian relations, consistently bad. Szijjártó’s latest move will not improve the situation with Romania.
Szijjártó forbade Hungarian diplomats serving abroad to attend the receptions Romanian embassies gave today on the country’s national holiday. It was on December 1, 1918 that the National Assembly of Transylvania and Hungary convened in Alba Iulia/Gyulafehérvár and decreed “the unification of those Romanians and of all the territories inhabited by them with Romania.” As the foreign ministry’s spokesman explained to HVG, “the Hungarian people have no reason to celebrate December 1.”
Thus no one represented official Hungary at the reception in Budapest where the Romanian ambassador greeted the visitors in both Romanian and Hungarian and where the national anthems of both countries were played. The concert that followed included pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach, Béla Bartók, and George Enescu. The ambassador’s speech, delivered in English, put special emphasis on the 1996 Hungarian-Romanian treaty on “mutual understanding, cooperation, and good neighborliness.” The English-French-language text of the treaty is available online, and its importance is detailed in a recent press release by the Romanian Foreign Ministry on the twentieth anniversary of its signing.
The Romanians’ response was surprisingly mild: “it is hard to understand such a decision because honoring the values and national symbols of a country certainly belongs to the basic precepts of the European Union and the Atlantic community.” As we have had to learn in the last six years or so, however, such “niceties” are not observed by the Hungarian government. Just as Viktor Orbán told the delegates of the Hungarian Diaspora Council on November 30, “political correctness, as a way of speaking, is the instrument of worldwide intellectual oppression,” which he naturally refuses to accept.
The pro-government media naturally greeted the Orbán government’s decision with elation. “At last we’re handling the Romanian national holiday as we should,” opined 888.hu. At last we have a foreign minister who behaves as he should. Leaders of the socialist-liberal governments behaved abominably, according to the news site. For example, on December 1, 2002 President Árpád Göncz, Prime Minister Péter Medgyessy, and Foreign Minister László Kovács were among the guests at the reception where they met Romania’s prime minister Adrian Nãstase and representatives of the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians, the major Hungarian party in Romania. Fidesz, which had lost the election only a few months before, raised hell. Fidesz sympathizers quickly organized a demonstration of about 500-600 people in front of the Kempinski Hotel where the reception was held. The party, by then in opposition, did everything in its power to create a scandal.
A few years of respite followed when we heard nothing about the treasonous Hungarian socialists and liberals attending the Romanian receptions on December 1. But then came 2010 when Róbert Alföldi, the director of the National Theater whom Viktor Orbán and his friends hated, made the mistake of renting one of the halls of the National Theater to the Romanian Cultural Institute for the event. The most clamorous critics were the politicians of Jobbik and the Christian Democrats, but Fidesz also chimed in, saying that “the leader of one of the most important national organizations should know that the loss of Transylvania for the majority of the nation means trauma with lasting effect” and therefore no state institution should facilitate the reception. Under pressure, Alföldi withdrew his verbal agreement with the Romanian Cultural Institute.
Kolozsvári Szalonna, which naturally is more familiar with Romanian-Hungarian affairs than I am, brings up past occasions when Hungarian patriots inside and outside of Romania were quite happy to celebrate together with Romanian politicians. For example, Jenő Szász, then mayor of Odorheiu Secuiesc / Székelyudvarhely and a great friend of László Kövér, happily celebrated the Romanian national holiday with President Traian Băsescu in 2006. Géza Szőcs, former undersecretary for cultural matters in the prime minister’s office, back in 1990 even made a speech in Alba Iulia praising the democratic nature of the declaration of the National Assembly of Transylvania.
So, why this strident move, which will only further erode the already tenuous ties between Romania and Hungary? The most likely reason is Viktor Orbán’s newly found self-assurance which, as far as I can see, has grown substantially since Donald Trump’s victory on November 8. In his speech to the representatives of the Hungarian diaspora he rehashed the points he had made in his speech to the same body the year before. This gave him an opportunity to tout the wisdom of his political views and emphasize his belief that time is on his side. The real proof is “the surprising result of the American presidential election and the expectation that this election ushers in a new era.” The American election “supports [his] earlier view that a major worldwide realignment is forthcoming.” With Trump at the helm “instead of liberal democracy we can return to a democracy whose essence is freedom.”
By now he sees himself as the premier politician of Central Europe who has brought considerable prestige to Hungary. “Central Europe hasn’t had so much influence on European affairs since the House of Árpád or perhaps since King Matthias.” Of course, he is talking about his own influence on the common policies of the Visegrád 4 countries.
Finally, I would like to call attention to Orbán’s comments in this speech on the Hungarian military. We all know that European countries will have to commit a larger percentage of their GDP to the NATO budget. In fact, Hungary has already promised an increase in defense spending. Perhaps I’m reading too much into the following couple of sentences, but they gave me a pause. First, he said that Hungarians settled in a very difficult spot and “our first question is always what kinds of dangers we will have to face next.” Then, a few lines later, he told his audience that the Hungarian army must be beefed up not because of some outside threat but because Hungary “mustn’t fall behind the striking powers of the armies in our region.” I don’t know whether these statements are significant or just the usual imprecise talk.