I’m beginning to feel sorry for Viktor Orbán, who tries so hard to make the right diplomatic move at the right time but, despite his best efforts, finds himself making missteps. He can expect even more such aborted diplomatic moves now that the United States has a totally unpredictable president. Orbán’s latest effort was an obvious attempt to further strengthen Russian-Hungarian relations in the conviction that this move would have President Trump’s blessing and backing. It looks as if Viktor Orbán didn’t factor in the total unpredictability of the Trump administration’s policies.
Viktor Orbán expected that his favorite candidate, Donald Trump, would conduct a pro-Russian foreign policy and would keep his nose out of the affairs of other countries. Also, he would no longer demand adherence to democratic norms. Consequently, Orbán renewed his attack on non-governmental organizations operating in Hungary, especially those that receive money from George Soros’s Open Society Foundation. After all, Orbán figured, Trump dislikes the billionaire financier because he generously supported Hillary Clinton. As for diplomatic matters, Orbán was certain that he would receive Trump’s support for an even closer relationship with Putin’s Russia.
So, how did Orbán prepare for this new era of international relations? He decided to have a trial run ahead of the scheduled visit of Vladimir Putin, sending Péter Szijjártó to Moscow with a message that indicated a more openly supportive Hungarian policy toward Russia.
The many reports that appeared in both Hungarian and foreign papers on the meeting in Budapest between Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orbán all agree that the much touted “summit” ended with a fairly meaningless press conference dealing mostly with trade relations and including a few announcements about the Russian gas supply and the financing of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant’s extension. To learn more about what most likely transpired between Putin and Orbán behind closed doors, we should focus on the Moscow trip of the much more talkative Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó on January 23 and 24. He was equally chatty after his negotiations with members of the Russian delegation in Budapest.
First of all, Szijjártó’s servility was, even by his own standards, extreme. He oozed praise and talked at length about the personal pleasure he felt at being able to meet Sergei Lavrov again. The normally dour Russian foreign minister seems to have such a close relationship with Szijjártó that in Budapest, the night before the “summit,” Lavrov was a guest at Szijjártó’s private residence.
After the Lavrov-Szijjártó meeting in Moscow, Szijjártó expressed the views of the Hungarian government: “If the EU and Russia cannot agree on the conditions of a pragmatic and close cooperation, then the Union will seriously lag behind in the international economic and political competition.” He called attention to the fact that historically Central Europe has always been the victim of conflicts between East and West and therefore “it is in Hungary’s interest that the new U.S. administration and Russia establish as soon as possible a pragmatic and close cooperation based on mutual trust.” Politicians in the European Union label everybody whose ideas aren’t mainstream a “Putinist” or a “Trumpist.” But Hungary “wants to break away from such insultingly simplistic and harmful approaches and to realize that it is in Europe’s interest to normalize its relationship with Russia.” This must have been music to Sergei Lavrov’s ears.
A few days later, this time in Budapest, Szijjártó continued his efforts with members of the Putin delegation and announced Hungary’s eagerness for a close relationship between the European Union and Russia. He falsely claimed that by now “the western world” also wants to have a rapprochement with Russia. He exaggerated Hungary’s financial loss as a result of the sanctions and announced that “our position on this matter” will be guided by Hungarian interests. Both Szijjártó and Orbán, as we will soon see, act as if Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its active participation in the disturbances in Eastern Ukraine simply didn’t exist. It looks as if, in the view of the Orbán government, the “western world” should just forget about Putin’s transgression of Russia’s treaty obligations and its settling of territorial disputes by force.
In comparison to Szijjártó, Viktor Orbán was outright reticent. What was most telling was not what he said but what he didn’t. After thanking Putin “for visiting us,” he immediately moved to the “center of the talks,” which were economic issues, specifically the absolutely perfect economic relations between the two countries in recent years. It was only at this point that he gingerly moved to politics. “One of the reasons we should especially value the results of economic cooperation is that we have achieved them in a difficult international environment. We have all seen the development of strongly anti-Russian sentiment in the western half of the continent, and anti-Russian politics has become the fashion.” Fashion? Anti-Russian sentiment out of the blue? Clearly, the Orbán government would love to forget about the whole Ukrainian issue, which seems to me a highly irresponsible position considering that Ukraine is Hungary’s neighbor.
Then he moved on, somewhat obliquely, to the question of sanctions. “Hungary maintains its position that problems of a non-economic nature cannot be addressed with economic measures,” an opinion that is clearly wrong. For example, sanctions against Iran were instrumental in getting Iran to the negotiating table. Or, if these sanctions are as ineffectual as Orbán has often claimed, why is Putin so eager to have them lifted? Orbán added that “it is difficult to imagine Hungary being successful if we do not develop open, strong, and fruitful economic and trade cooperation with the major players in the global economy.”
Putin’s introductory words were equally bland, dealing mostly with economic and cultural relations between the two countries. He spent only one sentence on territories in which Russia has a military presence. He ended his short address with these words: “We discussed the Eastern-Ukrainian and Syrian situations, and we determined that we must unite our forces against terrorism.”
From Putin’s answer to a Russian journalist’s question, however, one has some idea of what Putin must have said to Orbán on the Ukrainian situation. In Putin’s opinion, the Ukrainians provoked the latest military action in the eastern provinces of the country because the Ukrainian government badly needs money, which it hopes to get from the European Union and the United States. Thus, the Ukrainians try to picture themselves as the victims of Russian aggression. Orbán’s response to this fabrication was not exactly courageous. He muttered something about fulfilling the Minsk II Agreement, which will provide peace in Europe. At the same time he felt it necessary to mention that the Minsk Agreement has a clause guaranteeing minority rights, which also affects the Hungarian minority. He expressed his dissatisfaction with the Hungarian minority’s current situation in Ukraine.
The Hungarian assumption underlying Viktor Orbán’s hopes for closer Russian-Hungarian relations was that Donald Trump would conduct a pro-Russian foreign policy, which he has long advocated. But after the chaotic first two weeks of the new administration, there has been an unexpected turn. The Trump administration, counter to all expectations, is taking a hard stand on Russian aggression against Ukraine. The newly appointed U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, delivered a tough speech yesterday in which she condemned Russia’s unacceptable behavior. She said that the United States would like to have better relations with Russia, but “the dire situation in eastern Ukraine is one that demands clear and strong condemnation of Russian actions.” Moreover, in the speech she also said that “the United States continues to condemn and call for an immediate end to the Russian occupation of Crimea. The United States considers Crimea to be part of Ukraine.” She added that “our Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns control over the peninsula to Ukraine.”
Although Haley’s remarks were not all that different from speeches delivered by Samantha Power, the Obama administration’s ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, the Russian ambassador to the UN, felt that “there is a change in tone” with the arrival of the new administration. He claimed that he wasn’t particularly surprised by Haley’s speech, something I find difficult to believe, even though in the last couple of weeks the Russians have also come to the conclusion that one never knows what to expect from this new White House.
What an irony of fate. On the very same day that Viktor Orbán and his foreign minister are laying out their great plans for an entirely different international climate as far as Russia and Europe is concerned, the U.S. ambassador to the UN reinforces the United States’ resolve to keep the sanctions in place as long as it takes. This should put an end to the daydreams of Viktor Orbán and Péter Szijjártó.