Tag Archives: Austria

Viktor Orbán turns his back on the Polish government

Although Viktor Orbán’s press conference this morning was anything but upbeat, a few hours later both the Polish left and right in addition to the Hungarian government media were full of praise for the prime minister’s superb diplomatic talents. In a Polish conservative opinion piece he was called the Talleyrand of our times who has been winning every major battle with “raging liberals and the Left in Europe.” He is a man who knows what Realpolitik is all about. Why this praise? Orbán had the good sense not to support the Szydło government in its hopeless fight against the reelection of Donald Tusk as president of the European Council.

Donald Tusk, who served as prime minister of Poland between 2007 and 2014, is the bête-noire of Jarosław Kaczyński, chairman of the Law and Justice party. Kaczyński’s enmity toward Tusk has a long history. First of all, at one point the two men were political rivals. Second, Kaczyński, who is convinced that the Russians were responsible for the death of his twin brother, President Lech Kaczyński, in 2010 when his plane went down in Russia, considers Tusk “politically responsible” for his brother’s death by allowing the Russians to investigate the case ahead of the Poles. But perhaps what is even more important, the far-right Polish government accuses Tusk, as president of the European Council, of wanting to bring down the right-wing Szydło government. The current Polish leadership decided to resist the reelection of the man who dared to criticize the present government in defense of democracy. Mind you, Tusk is not a “flaming liberal.” His party, the Civic Platform, is right of center.

Warsaw put up a counter-candidate–Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, like Tusk a Civic Platform member of the European People’s Party. To understand the dynamics of the situation we must keep in mind that the EP members of Kaczyński’s Law and Justice party belong to the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), basically a Euroskeptic lot. ECR doesn’t have the gravitas of EPP, to which Fidesz EP representatives also belong.

The Polish plan to block Tusk’s reelection didn’t go as planned. As soon as Saryusz-Wolski’s nomination was announced, he was removed from Civic Platform. And EPP removed him from all responsibilities within the party.

After this somewhat lengthy introduction let me turn to Viktor Orbán’s role in this ill-fated Polish political maneuver. Apparently, Warsaw was counting on Great Britain and the Visegrád Four for support. But it became apparent soon enough that neither Slovakia nor the Czech Republic would support Saryusz-Wolski’s nomination. The Polish government still hoped that Viktor Orbán would stand by their side, especially since, as we learned this morning from Viktor Orbán himself, at one point he promised that he would vote against Tusk. Orbán didn’t keep that promise.

As Orbán explained at his press conference in Brussels, since EPP’s only candidate was Tusk and since Fidesz is a constituent part of EPP, he had no choice. This is how the European Parliament functions, he explained. Otherwise, he claimed that he had tried his best to broker a deal but, unfortunately, he failed. He added that a couple of days ago he had informed the Polish government of his decision to vote for Tusk because circumstances didn’t allow him to do anything else.

Well, as usual, Viktor Orbán didn’t tell the whole truth. It wasn’t party protocol that forced him to vote as he did since there was another important European Council vote where he did not support the EPP candidate. I’m talking about the election of Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission in June 2014. Juncker was EPP’s candidate for the post. At that time David Cameron and Viktor Orbán voted against Juncker, which didn’t prevent him from getting the job. Then, perhaps feeling safe under the protective wing of Cameron, Orbán had no trouble voting against the favored candidate. So his decision had nothing to do with party obligations. Moreover, he could have voted against Tusk as a gesture to his Polish friends because his “no” vote wouldn’t have made any difference: Tusk would have been elected anyway. But, for reasons known only to him, he decided to go with the flow. He even went so far in his press conference as to laud the European Union as the best place to live in the whole wide world. It is a place where people can be truly happy and satisfied with life. A rather amusing comment considering all his earlier talk about the EU being in decline with the attendant miseries for the people.

I don’t want to dwell on the foolish behavior of the Polish government, but I’m afraid the Polish media’s unanimous condemnation of their government’s incompetence is well deserved. The Polish government should be only too well aware of the misfortunes that have befallen the country as a result of the territorial ambitions of its neighbors. Poland is rightfully worried about Vladimir Putin’s Russia. But then common sense would dictate good relations with the countries of Western Europe, especially with Germany. Yet the current Polish government treats Germany like its enemy. Perhaps this disastrous defeat will be a wake-up call, but the mindset of the present Polish political leadership doesn’t inspire confidence that it will happen any time soon.

In addition to the Polish fiasco, Orbán covered two other topics at some length in his press conference. One was the “migrant issue,” which had elicited widespread condemnation in the media and in international organizations involved with the refugee crisis and human rights. It turned out that the matter of the amendment to the Asylum Law came up during the summit. As Orbán described it, he “informed the prime ministers about the new [asylum] law, who didn’t raise any objections and did not protest.” He took this as a good sign, adding that the real fight will be with the bureaucrats of the European Union. Whether this silence was a sign of approval or an indication of a reluctance to get into a discussion of the issue we don’t know.

Orbán then explained the real meaning of the detention centers, which he compared to airports as transit zones. He was again quite explicit about the differences between the attitudes of the Hungarian government and the European Union when it comes to the refugee crisis. Hungary’s goal is not to handle the issue “humanely,” which the EU insists on, but to make sure that the refugees are stopped.

The other topic was the most recent conflict between Austria and Hungary. As is well known, an incredible number of Hungarians work in Austria. In 2016 more than 63,500 Hungarians lived in Austria, in addition to those who live in Hungary but cross the border daily to work on the other side. The Austrians recently floated the idea that Romanian, Hungarian and Czech employees would not receive extra family benefits. The Hungarians claim that as a result of such a new law Hungarian workers would receive 50% less than native Austrians for the same work. This is unacceptable for Hungary. Sophie Karmasin, the Austrian minister responsible for family affairs, visited Hungary only yesterday, and Viktor Orbán set up a meeting with Chancellor Christian Kern while in Brussels. On this topic, Orbán was forceful. He called the issue “a serious conflict” which he will take all the way to the top, meaning the European Commission and even the European Court of Justice. Hungarians cannot be discriminated against. If the Austrians discriminate against Hungarians, “we will respond in kind.” That is, if the Austrians proceed with this cut in family benefits, the Hungarian government will make certain that opportunities for Austrian businesses in Hungary will be curtailed. So, if I understand it correctly, Orbán fights against the European Commission at every turn, but once he feels that Hungarian citizens are being slighted he is ready to appeal for protection from the European Union.

March 10, 2017

Viktor Orbán’s vision of a new world order is fading

I was all set to ignore Viktor Orbán’s nineteenth yearly “assessment,” to skip the whole rigmarole. After all, there is absolutely nothing new to be found in his ramblings sprinkled with archaic and pious phrases mixed with affected folksiness. We have heard him speak countless times about his clairvoyant powers, predicting the coming of a new illiberal world which is partly his own creation. And this latest speech is no different from any of the others he has delivered lately. But as I was going through my early morning perusal of news in the United States and Europe, I decided that in light of the latest developments in world affairs it might be useful to spend a little time on Orbán’s latest pronouncements.

Although critics complain that the speech, which was supposed to be about the government’s achievements in the past year, was mostly about foreign affairs, I found a fair amount of bragging about the great accomplishments, economic and otherwise, of the third Orbán government. Nonetheless, I was much more interested in his “vision” of the present and the future, not of Hungary but of the world.

According to Viktor Orbán, 2017 “promises to be an exhilarating year.” There will be “surprises, scratching of heads, raising of eyebrows, rubbing of eyes.” People will ask each other: “Is everything that is coming undone and taking shape in front of our eyes really possible?” The existing world order is coming to an end. History beckons the prophets of liberal politics, the beneficiaries and defenders of the present international order, the globalists, the liberals, the influential talking heads in their ivory towers and television studios. A new world is coming, a world where populists like Viktor Orbán , Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Recep Erdoğan, Marine Le Pen, and other right-wing populists elsewhere in Europe will decide the fate of the western world.

Perhaps I have been inattentive, but this is the first time that I noticed a recurring adjective in an Orbán speech: “open world, “open world order,” “open society.” Orbán is “paying homage” to his nemesis, George Soros. He very much hopes that with the “exhilarating” 2017 the “open world order” will come to an end. As far as he is concerned, the beginning of his new world looks promising: Brexit, the American presidential election, “booting out” the Italian government, the “successful” Hungarian referendum on the migrants, all of these take us closer to the promising new world.

Orbán’s next sentence can be fully understood only if I provide its poetic backdrop. Sándor Petőfi (1823-1849) was a political radical who, in December 1848, wrote a poem titled “Hang the Kings!” The poem begins “Knife in Lamberg’s heart and rope around the neck of Latour and after them perhaps others will follow. At last, you people are becoming great!” Lamberg and Latour were high government officials who were killed in Pest and Vienna by angry mobs. So, Orbán, of course without mentioning the two murdered gentlemen, sums up the happy events of late in Great Britain, Italy, the United States, and Hungary: “after them perhaps more will follow. At last, you people are becoming great.” So, Orbán is in a revolutionary mood, no doubt about it. And he is also full of hope, although given the fate of the 1848 revolutions in the Habsburg Empire, I wouldn’t be so sanguine in his place.

As I look around the world, however, Orbán’s dream world may not come into being as fast, if at all, as he thinks. Let’s start with Austria’s presidential election last year. Orbán and the government media kept fingers crossed for Norbert Hofer, the candidate of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria, yet Alexander Van der Bellen, a member of the Austrian Greens, won the election by a fairly large margin. The first effort of a self-described far-right party in Europe to win high office failed.

Orbán’s next hope is for a huge victory by Marine Le Pen in France. But the centrist Emmanuel Macron’s chances of beating Le Pen look good. At least the Elabe poll shows Le Pen losing the run-off 37% to 63%. Another poll, Ifop Fiducial, predicts 36% to 64%. Two different polls, very similar results.

Then there is Germany. Former foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a social democrat, was elected Germany’s president. He won 931 of the 1,239 valid votes cast by members of the Bundestag and representatives of the 14 federal states. When the result was announced by Norbert Lammert, president of the Bundestag, there was a standing ovation. Even more importantly, Angela Merkel’s solid lead a few months ago is beginning to fade. The reason is the socialist Martin Schulz’s appearance on the German political scene. According to the latest polls, the two candidates are neck to neck. One also should mention the latest developments in the nationalist Alternative for Germany Party (AfD), which would certainly be Orbán’s choice. According to the German media, since Schulz announced his candidacy for the chancellorship, “the number of people who did not vote in 2013 and are now planning to vote for the SPD has risen by roughly 70 percent in the last 14 days.” And what is more important from Orbán’s point of view, “AfD—which brought the most non-voters to the polls in several state elections last year—also lost support dramatically. Forty percent fewer former non-voters expressed their support for the party.”

One ought to keep in mind that the Hungarian government propaganda has succeeded in making Angela Merkel generally despised by the Hungarian public. Vladimir Putin is more popular in Hungary than Merkel. But given the choice between Merkel and Schulz, Orbán should actually campaign for Merkel’s reelection because Schulz, who until now was the president of the European Parliament, is one of the loudest critics of Orbán and his illiberal populism.

Finally, let’s talk about the situation in the United States. What has been going in Washington since Donald Trump’s inauguration as president of the United States has surpassed people’s worst fears. Total chaos, a non-functioning government, and very strong suspicions about the Trump team’s questionable relations with Russian intelligence. Michael Flynn, Trump’s choice to be his national security adviser, was forced to resign because of his direct contact with the Russian ambassador to Washington. A few minutes ago, we learned that Andy Puzder withdrew as labor secretary nominee in order to avoid a pretty hopeless confirmation hearing.

Donald Trump on the phone with Vladimir Putin / Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

The list of incredible happenings in Washington is so long that one could spend days trying to cover them. What I would like to stress here is that I’m almost certain that Trump’s original friendly overtures to Putin’s Russia have been derailed. The Russians did their best to bolster Trump’s chances, but by now Putin must realize that the new American president cannot deliver.

Now let’s return to Viktor Orbán, who was an early admirer of Donald Trump. His admiration of Trump was based on the presidential hopeful’s anti-migration policies, his disregard of political correctness, and his anti-establishment rhetoric. Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, Orbán found Trump’s pro-Russian views and his promise to “make a deal” with Russia and lift the sanctions against Moscow especially appealing. In such an event, Orbán believed he would play a more important role than he as the prime minister of a small country could otherwise have expected.

Now these hopes are vanishing with the tough stand both Democrats and Republicans have taken on Russia’s military occupation of Crimea and its efforts to stoke a civil war in Eastern Ukraine. Moreover, given the investigation into Russia’s interference in the U.S. presidential election and the ties of members of the Trump team to Russian intelligence, Trump is not in a position to hand out favors to Russia. So Putin won’t be best friends with the American president. And Europe seems disinclined to follow the U.S. into political chaos. Orbán, if he has any sense, should tone down his rhetoric about a new, exhilarating future where the old establishment sinks into oblivion.

February 15, 2017

The Orbán regime and the Austrian presidential election

A few hours ago newspapers all over the world announced that Norbert Hofer, the far-right candidate for the Austrian presidency, had lost the election. Pre-election polls indicated that the election was too close to call, but the final result gave a healthy majority to Alexander Van der Bellen, a professor of economics and former head of the Greens. Hofer readily conceded, while Van der Bellen called the result a vote for a “pro-European Austria based on freedom, equality, and solidarity.”

Although the post of the president in Austria is mostly ceremonial, the Austrian election had acquired special significance in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory. Democrats all over Europe fear the spread of populism and looked upon a Hofer win as an event that might have a domino effect, first in France and later in other European countries where elections will be held in the near future. Now these people are relieved.

Just as a reminder, this is the second time that Van der Bellen and Hofer faced each other in this presidential contest. In May Van der Bellen won the election with a margin of about 30,000 votes, but because of some technical irregularities Austria’s Constitutional Court annulled the result and ordered a new round of voting.

The Hungarian right followed the race between the two men closely because it finds in the politicians of the far-right Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) kindred spirits. Viktor Orbán certainly didn’t hide his preference for Norbert Hofer and the party’s chairman Heinz-Christian Strache, whom he considers “a man of the future.”

The Hungarian right-wing, pro-government press was already full of praise of Hofer in May before and during the election. Two days before the election Magyar Idők published a glowing editorial claiming that while the left symbolizes failure, the Freedom party is “the depository of success.” The same pro-government newspaper was looking forward to “a political earthquake,” which was likely since polls indicated that Hofer would get at least 52-53% of the votes. When this didn’t materialize, they cried foul. They questioned the results and talked about electoral fraud. Zsolt Bayer in his usual style enthused over all those votes cast for Hofer: the peasants of Burgenland, the people of Carinthia, the Alpine graziers, the yodelers of Tyrol. With the exception of Vienna and Vorarlberg, everyone voted for Hofer. Red Vienna, what can one expect? And Vorarlberg, it is “not really Austria.”

The decision of the Austrian Constitutional Court was warmly received in Hungary. The pro-government papers were again hopeful, reflecting the Hungarian government’s wishes and expectations. Hofer was critical of the European Union, which he wanted to reform alongside Viktor Orbán and his allies. He talked about his desire for Austria to join the Visegrád 4 Group. A step toward the far right in Austria nicely fit into Viktor Orbán’s plans. Therefore, a new round of optimistic and encouraging articles appeared in the Hungarian right-wing press.

At the beginning of the second campaign, the pro-government media again talked about the “historic vote” and predicted Hofer’s victory. As Magyar Idők pointed out, “FPÖ may draw strength from the victory of Trump.” Hungarian right-wing commentators were convinced that somebody who doesn’t espouse an anti-migrant stance can’t possible win, and Van der Bellen had supported Chancellor Angela Merkel’s policies during the refugee crisis and after. Mariann Őry, one of Magyar Hírlap’s interpreters of foreign news, elaborated on this theme, practically calling Van der Bellen stupid for telling the Austrians to support Angela Merkel’s policies. He is no better than the Hungarian liberals who are patronizing at home and opportunistic bootlickers abroad.

The Hungarian right's clear choice was Norbert Hofer on the right

The Hungarian right’s clear choice was Norbert Hofer, on the right

Closer to the actual election Magyar Idők reported a story from Kronen Zeitung: that a conspiracy is underway on the part of the European Parliament and Germany to influence the Austrian presidential election. The story was based on a conversation in a restaurant among Martin Schulz, the social democratic president of the European Parliament, Sigmar Gabriel, deputy chancellor of Germany who is also a social democrat, and Werner Faymann, Austria’s rejected (bukott) chancellor. Considering that the three happily consented to a photo of their meeting, claims of a conspiracy were obviously highly exaggerated.

A day before the election Mariann Őry again expressed her disdain of Van der Bellen as an inept candidate who doesn’t know what to say when. Her example is telling. According to Hofer, those Austrians who went to Syria to become terrorists should be stripped of their citizenship. Van der Bellen retorted that no valid citizenship can be revoked in Austria. “Surely, it is hard not to think that the western liberals have completely lost their minds. What kind of an Austrian is Van der Bellen” who considers these terrorists Austrians? “If for no other reason than statements like this, the Austrians should realize what is in their best interest. We will find out Sunday night.” She did. Perhaps Van der Bellen wasn’t that stupid after all.

The most detailed account of the Hungarian right’s thinking on the Austrian election came from a government-employed talking head, Zoltán Kiszelly. He gave a lengthy interview to 888.hu yesterday. I believe that the scenario he outlined here, assuming Norbert Hofer’s victory, accurately reflected the hopes of Viktor Orbán. First of all, the new president will initiate an early national election. In fact, all Austrian parties have been anticipating such an outcome. Today the FPÖ is the strongest party and as such would be the dominant party in a future coalition. The logical coalition partner would be the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), which is part of the present coalition. Sebastian Kurz, foreign minister represent ÖVP and a great pal of Péter Szijjártó, “has already adjusted his program to that of the Freedom Party.” The political changes in Austria would significantly weaken the European Union’s migration policies as represented by Jean-Claude Juncker and Angela Merkel. The Austrian move toward the right would also have an influence on German politics. Another benefit would be that the new government would support the Visegrád 4’s policies, which would force Brussels and Berlin to retreat from their current migration policies.

The journalist of 888.hu at this point reminded Kiszelly of what happened in 1999 when Wolfgang Schüssel, the leader of ÖVP, opted for a coalition with PFÖ, resulting in a long, acrimonious dispute with the European Union. Kiszelly said he was certain that nothing of the sort would happen today because “this time the PFÖ wouldn’t have to cede the chancellorship to the People’s Party just because it is a ‘moderate’ party. There have been significant changes in western politics, like the political climate in the Netherlands and Denmark, Great Britain’s decision to leave the European Union and, for that matter, the election of Donald Trump. After these events, the world that existed sixteen years ago can never return.” Finally, he added that a victory of the far right in Austria would be an event that “certainly could stir up European politics because, following the Austrian example, other countries would also opt for early elections.” So, an avalanche would follow Hofer’s win, which could result in a sharp turn to the right, perhaps sooner than we think.

If I’m correct and Kiszelly was articulating views he shared with Viktor Orbán, the loss today had to be a real blow to the Hungarian prime minister, especially since only three days ago he announced that “it is just a question of time before [real] democracy is restored because in Europe there is no democratic equilibrium now. …We just have to prevail and, in the end, we will predominate.”

Of course, one shouldn’t be unduly optimistic. This is not the end of the spread of populism, but apparently with the victory of François Fillon in the French conservative primaries, Marine Le Pen’s National Front will have a much harder time than she had anticipated. Most commentators are convinced that Fillon will be the next president of France.

December 4, 2016

Viktor Orbán’s favorite party failed to gain the Austrian presidency

On Tuesday Viktor Orbán, who seems to have an iron constitution, took the day off because, as his office announced, he was sick. Yesterday a humorous little piece appeared in Sztarklikk with the title: “That’s why Orbán fell ill.” Surely, the author said, Orbán needed to be revived with smelling salts after learning that Norbert Hofer, the candidate of the far-right Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), had narrowly lost the Austrian presidential election. Well, smelling salts might be a bit of an exaggeration, but Orbán’s disappointment had to be great because it is a well-known fact that Heinz-Christian Strache, the leader of FPÖ, and Viktor Orbán greatly admire one another.

At the end of September when Viktor Orbán visited the Austrian chancellor, Werner Faymann (SPÖ), and his deputy, Reinhold Mitterlehner, in order to temper months of quarreling between the two countries, the Hungarian prime minister was also planning to meet Strache. Unfortunately, apparently to the great sorrow of Orbán, the planned meeting had to be cancelled in the last minute. The reason was straightforward enough. Strache is persona non grata in mainstream Austrian political circles, and when the Austrians found out about Orbán’s plans they expressed their strong disapproval. In fact, Deputy Chancellor Mitterlehner, whose party, the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), just like Fidesz, belongs to the EU’s European People’s Party, refused to meet with Orbán if he insisted on going through with his original plan. Reluctantly, Orbán cancelled the meeting.

Apparently Orbán is convinced that Strache is a man of the future. Strache’s threat to build a fence between Austria and Hungary to keep Hungarian workers out of his country didn’t seem to dampen his enthusiasm for the man. Strache might not like Hungarians working in Austria, but several times he expressed his admiration for Orbán, who is “one of the few honest politicians who don’t want to sell out or destroy Europe.” He added that Orbán is the only European politician who has any brains when it comes to the migrant issue.

The Hungarian government has had strained relations with Austrian politicians of the two governing parties, SPÖ and ÖVP. Even a cursory look at the political news of the last few months reveals repeated insults being exchanged between Werner Faymann and Péter Szijjártó. Although Faymann resigned as chancellor on May 9 of this year, most likely to the great relief of Viktor Orbán and Péter Szijjártó, it looks as if his successor, Christian Kern, will be no better from the Hungarian point of view. In fact, I suspect that the new Austrian chancellor will be an even more severe critic of the Hungarian prime minister, whose views are practically identical to those of Heinz-Christian Strache.

A few days ago Kern announced that “it is an illusion to think that the refugee problem can be solved by European countries adopting authoritarian systems as the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has done.” Szijjártó, as is his wont, responded immediately and rashly. According to him, what is an illusion is any hope that with a change in the Austrian chancellorship insults from Austria will cease. Kern’s statement, he said, compared Hungary to Hitler’s Germany. “It is unacceptable for anyone to use expressions in connection with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán that are in any way attached to the most monstrous and darkest dictatorship of the last century.” Not the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Magyar Idők, the government’s fervent supporter and often unofficial spokesman, followed the Austrian presidential race with great interest, keeping fingers crossed for Norbert Hofer. A day before the second round of the presidential election, Magyar Idők was pretty certain that Hofer would win. The paper also noted that The New York Times compared FPÖ to the Hungarian, Polish, and Slovak government parties. (I don’t know whether the author of the article considered this an insult or not.) An opinion piece that appeared on the morning of the presidential election ran under the headline: “The Freedom Party is the symbol of success while the left is that of failure.”

Heinz -Christian Strache and Norbert Hofer before the presidential elections / Photo APA / Hans Klaus

Heinz -Christian Strache and Norbert Hofer before the presidential election / Photo APA / Hans Klaus

After the election Mária Schmidt, a historian who has great influence over Viktor Orbán, bemoaned the fact that public discourse in Austria is now dominated by baby boomer leftist politicians of the pro-German tradition. She recalled that Orbán in his first term was the first foreign leader to receive Chancellor Wolfgang Schlüssel of Austria, who was at that time considered a pariah in the West because he included the Freedom Party of Jörg Haider in his coalition government back in 1999.

Viktor Orbán’s friend Zsolt Bayer is also disappointed, but he is optimistic that “a new healthy young Europe is coming” that will replace the 70-year-old dying Europe that is full of bedsores. This youthful new Europe will come “from the mountains of the Alps, the fields of Burgenland, from Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Poland.” For Bayer, the Freedom Party of Strache and Hofer is not the depository of far-right views but, on the contrary, the embodiment of “normalcy.” So it’s no wonder that Viktor Orbán and his fellow “normal” far-right friends were disappointed by the election results.

May 26, 2016

Hungarian nationalism, Trianon, and the Day of National Cohesion

Lest we forget, we ought to talk about the 95th anniversary of the signing of the peace treaty between the victorious Entente powers and by then independent Hungary, which seems to be one of the pet projects of the Orbán government. On June 4, 1920, the territories that Hungary lost after World War I had long been in the possession of the successor states. In fact, certain areas that were to remain on the Hungarian side of the border were still under foreign occupation on that day.

Hungarians at the time and for some time afterwards simply didn’t understand what had happened to them and why. They never really grasped the fact that without the Habsburg Monarchy there could be no such thing as an independent Hungary with its historical borders intact. They had to choose, and in a way they did. The Habsburg Monarchy, with its multinational and multicultural population held together by a supranational monarch, could have developed into a kind of European Union on a smaller scale, but nationalism, especially Hungarian nationalism, worked against such an outcome.

Ever since the sixteenth century Hungarians had an ambivalent attitude towards the Habsburgs. In fact, almost four hundred years were spent in greater or smaller wars and uprisings against Vienna. There were times when Hungarian politicians, in their anti-Habsburg hatred, were even ready to side with the Turks to prevent the “liberation” of the country by the western forces. In this instance, using today’s political parlance, we would say that Hungary, instead of choosing the west, opted for the east. But can you imagine what would have happened to Hungary if the Turks with their corrupt administration had stayed in Hungary until the early nineteenth century? Compare the economic and social development of Hungary and Serbia at the outbreak of World War I and you will see the difference.

At the moment something similar is going on with Viktor Orbán’s war of independence against Brussels. In fact, a few years back he compared Vienna and Brussels when he mentioned an eighteenth-century Habsburg administrative office that was the symbol of Austrian oppression of Hungary at the time. Just as some Hungarian nationalists resisted any influence coming from Vienna and beyond, Viktor Orbán is doing the same by looking upon the liberal European Union as a kind of modern-day Habsburg Empire whose goal is to destroy the Hungarians and deprive them of their independence.

As soon as an arrangement was worked out between the moderate Hungarian political elite and the crown and Hungary received wide-ranging autonomy, an opposition party with varying names over time came into being that was against the 1867 arrangement and wanted total independence. These Hungarian nationalists did their best to create a “nation state” within the historical borders of the Kingdom of Hungary. The “nation state” did arrive after 1918, but not exactly in the way the country’s political leaders imagined it. The Habsburg Monarchy disappeared, and in its place small “nation states” with large ethnic minorities were created. Hungary, because of the very generous borders favoring the successor states, remained almost exclusively Hungarian. These countries remained weak and without the support of the great powers, and they fell prey to eventual Soviet and German aggression.

As Péter Techet, a young, talented right-of-center newspaperman and legal scholar, pointed out, the Hungarian political elite before 1918 when it stood against Vienna also opposed the liberal politics of the Austrian part of the Dual Monarchy. Once they were alone in their own country, they exhibited the ultra-conservative and on occasion far-right politics that stood in stark contrast to the multicultural and supranational policies of Vienna.

According to Techet, those people who today put Greater Hungary stickers on their cars are actually, although I assume unwittingly, for “the Habsburg Empire, its diversification, its European nature,” what Hungary was in those days. On the other hand, “those who defend Hungary’s sovereignty, who are against European unity, who incite against immigrants and against minorities within the borders, these people should be happy with their present homogeneous Hungarian nation state. So, they can celebrate the Trianon decision. Hungary became a small, insignificant, poor country of no account, but at least it is theirs,” claims Techet. It is a rather singular view, but not without merit. It is certainly thought provoking.

Surely, it would require a complete re-evaluation of Hungarian history for ordinary Hungarians to realize that total independence and territorial integrity were mutually incompatible and that it was thus in Hungary’s interest to cooperate with Vienna and with the other nationalities that made up the Monarchy. Instead, Hungarians, especially after 1945, removed practically all statues and street names that in any way reminded people of the four-hundred-year coexistence with Austria. As for textbooks, the benefits of the Dual Monarchy are scarcely mentioned.

The Hungarian nationalism that had been tempered somewhat since World War II is now being rekindled by Viktor Orbán, who knows full well what a potent force nationalism can be. C. A. Macartney, the conservative British historian of Hungary, said somewhere in one of his many writings on the Horthy regime that the Hungarian governments of the interwar period had to conduct an irredentist foreign policy because otherwise no Hungarian government could have survived given public sentiment. I disagree. The governments of the interwar period seized every opportunity to rouse public ire against Trianon. This attitude contributed to the Hungarian government’s eventual cooperation with Germany.

And this is not the worst of the many Trianon memorials. Can you imagine the rest?

And this is not the worst of the many Trianon memorials. Can you imagine the rest?

Something like that is going on today. Declaring June 4 a day of remembrance of the signing of the treaty has revived the kind of public outcry (however limited in scope) that was present only in the interwar period. By now there is a National Trianon Society in addition to several local chapters. An incredible number of horrendous Trianon memorials have been erected. One older one, The Statue of Hungarian Suffering by Emile Guillaume, a 1932 gift of Viscount Rothermere who was a zealous supporter of Hungarian revisionism, was restored during the first Orbán government and stands in Debrecen. It was here that the National Trianon Society held its memorial gathering on Thursday where the speaker, who happens to be a high school history teacher, claimed that textbooks don’t spend enough time on Trianon which was, after all, the greatest tragedy in the history of Hungary.

This Hungarian wallowing in the country’s past grievances obviously irritates some of the neighbors. Titus Corlățean, former Romanian foreign minister, suggested that perhaps June 4th should also be a Romanian holiday, when the Romanian flag would be displayed on public buildings. Public television and radio stations should broadcast informational material on the significance of the date. In the foreign minister’s opinion, “the rewriting of history and the repeated assertion of revisionist views in the European Union nowadays are unacceptable.” I agree, but the remedy is not to declare an anti-Trianon day of remembrance. One day, after Orbán is gone, a new government can decide what to do with it. Perhaps it can simply be forgotten. Just as the socialist-liberal governments forgot to renew the old Horthyist Corvin Chain revived by the Orbán government or refused to enforce the language law that regulated foreign words on store fronts and shop windows. As it is, public interest in the whole idea of the Day of National Cohesion converges on zero.

Russia and the European Union on a collision course over the South Stream pipeline

It was a week ago that the European commission told Russia that the “South Stream” pipeline, already under construction, and the contracts between Gazprom and six members of the European Union, including Hungary, violate European Union law. Klaus-Dieter Borchardt, director for energy markets at the European Commission, told the European Parliament on December 4 that the “intergovernmental agreements are not in compliance with EU laws.” The EU countries that signed agreements with Gazprom were told that “they have to ask for re-negotiations with Russia, to bring the intergovernmental agreements in line with EU laws.” The countries in question are Bulgaria, Hungary, Greece, Slovenia, Croatia, and Austria, as well as Serbia, which is a member of the Energy Community, an EU-backed international agreement covering former communist countries in Eastern Europe.

Deli Aramlat

The European Commission identified three major problems with the South Stream. First, Gazprom is in violation of the so-called ownership “unbundling” rules, according to which a company cannot be both a producer and a supplier of gas. It cannot own production facilities and transmission networks. Clearly, Gazprom does. Second, according to EU law, non-discriminatory access of third parties to the pipeline must be ensured. In other words, Gazprom cannot have the exclusive right to supply gas through the pipeline. Finally, the Commission found problems with the tariff structure.

If these treaties must be renegotiated, there will be a delay of not months but, according to Borchardt, at least two years. Bulgaria has already protested. Bulgarian foreign minister Kristian Vigenin, who used to be a member of the European Parliament, made it clear that his country is not happy with Brussels’ decision. “It is not a nice move to slow the construction, because the parties to the track area are already in readiness to kick off.” He emphasized that “this is a very important project” for Bulgaria and expressed his hope that the European Union will not “stop the South Stream project.” Bulgaria already began construction of the South Stream at the end of October.

Brussels, however, seems to mean business. Borchardt said “in all openness and frankness that the South Stream pipeline will not operate on the territory of the EU if it is not in compliance with our energy law.” The Russians seem to be as resolute as the European officials are. A representative of Gazprom who was present at Borchardt’s announcement stressed that “nothing can prevent the construction of South Stream.” Russia’s position is similar to that of Viktor Orbán: EU law cannot prevail in EU-Russian relations, which are governed only by international law.

The Hungarian media covered the news coming out of Brussels, but the Hungarian government offered no response to the rather harsh verdict of the European Commission on the bilateral treaties that had been negotiated with Russia. Although here and there one could read about visits of Gazprom officials, nothing was known about the actual state of the negotiations and their particulars. Only yesterday Világgazdaság, a normally well informed paper dealing with economics and finance, reported that perhaps in the next week or so Orbán and Vladimir Putin will talk about the EU objections. Apparently Mrs. László Németh, the minister in charge of national development, was charged with preparing the prime minister’s visit to Moscow. I’m not sure, however, whether this meeting will actually take place. Because, as we just found out today, an agreement has already been signed.

As usual, details of Hungary’s negotiations with foreign powers came from the other side. The Hungarian public learned today that Aleksei Miller, president of Gazprom, paid a visit to Budapest yesterday and signed an agreement concerning the construction of the South Stream pipeline. Journalists immediately bombarded the head of Orbán’s press department for details. They were told that the prime minister and the head of Gazprom didn’t sign any agreement. He added that negotiations between Mrs. László Németh and Gazprom will proceed according to plans.

So we had two versions of the story. Someone was not telling the truth. At least this was the conclusion journalists of opposition papers came to. Stop, an online site, asked its readers whom they believed, the Hungarian government or the head of Gazprom. A relatively new online paper whose political views seem to me to be close to the Demokratikus Koalíció talked about the “selective memory” of the officials of the Orbán government.

It turned out that the spokesman for Viktor Orbán didn’t lie outright. It is true that Orbán himself didn’t sign anything. But something was signed all right: an agreement between Gazprom and MVM (Magyar Villamos Művek/Hungarian Electricity Ltd.), a state-owned company. As I understand it, MVM and Gazprom established a joint company called Déli Áramlat Zrt (South Stream Corporation), each with a 50% ownership. It is a large, expensive project that might pose serious financial risks to MVM, especially if the EU stands fast.

Experts figure that the Hungarian part of the project will cost around 300 billion forints, for which MVM will be responsible. Today’s Népszabadság points out, however, that MVM will be able to borrow such a large amount of money only if the project has the European Union’s blessing and financiers feel safe lending so much money to the Hungarian company.

I have the feeling that this is just the beginning of an extended imbroglio. Viktor Orbán is ready for his next battle with the EU, Hungary’s enemy.

Mass exodus from villages in Baranya County, Hungary

Hungary is witnessing a steady flow of emigrants. Admittedly, one could counter that it is incorrect to call those who seek work abroad emigrants because “to emigrate” means “to leave one country or region to settle in another.” One could argue that these people don’t plan to live abroad for good. However, there is a very good likelihood that people who spend a number of years in another country, establish a career for themselves, make new non-Hungarian friends, perhaps even marry local men or women will not return to their country of birth. A good example of that kind of emigration was the mass exodus of Hungarian citizens, especially from the Slovak-inhabited counties of northeastern Hungary, who left for the United States in the 1880s and 1890s in order to make enough money to return home and live in relative comfort. Most of them never saw Hungary again.

We know that at least 330,000 Hungarians now work abroad. I suspect that most of these people are from larger cities and from regions adjacent to the Austrian border. But today I read a fascinating report about the poverty-stricken south of the County of Baranya which has been witnessing “emigration fever.” The population of this region is in an utterly hopeless situation. There are places where over 50% of the population are unemployed without the slightest hope of finding work. In the entire county there was only one large factory, the Finnish Elcoteq, but in 2011 the firm filed for bankruptcy and between 5,000 and 7,000 people lost their jobs. Until 2011 the lucky ones in these godforsaken villages could find work in Pécs, commuting between work and home. That opportunity is gone.

The Pécs stringer for Népszabadság visited four tiny villages, two close to Szigetvár on the west and two near Sellye, the largest town in the so-called Ormánság. I might add here that the Roma population of south Baranya is pretty high. It always was, but by now there are villages where all of the inhabitants are Roma. This is especially true of the Ormánság. Both Szigetvár and Sellye are marked on the map below.

The reporter’s journey began in Kétújfalu (pop. 667), 13 km from Szigetvár. There even the Fidesz-KDNP mayor’s son moved to Germany where he began as a dock worker but by now has a job as a computer technician. He made 110,000 forints a month as a fire fighter in Hungary; he now makes about three and a half times that amount–1,300 euros a month. The thirty-year-old English teacher in the village school packed up a couple of years ago. She became a housekeeper in the UK. A fifty-year-old locksmith has been working in Germany for the last ten years. Last summer his wife followed him. She was a cook in the school, now she works as a cleaning lady. She gives the impression of being a “secure and self-confident person,” at least this is how the mayor, who is a German-Russian-gym teacher, describes her.

The situation is very much the same in Teklafalu (pop. 343) close by. The first emigrant was a butcher who went to Germany fifteen years ago. His son decided to become a butcher as well in order to work with his father. As soon as he learned the trade he followed his father to Passau where he got a job at the firm his father is working for. The family has two daughters who are still not on their own, but once they finish school the wife is going to follow husband and son. She is ready to work in a factory. After all, in the old regime she worked in a canning factory in Szigetvár.

After the son of our butcher left, interest in emigration grew in Teklafalu. Two women in their fifties left for Germany. The son of one them headed to Italy. A young fellow just left for the Netherlands, but he is not the first one in that country from the village. A young woman left years ago and recently her father followed her; he got a job as a security guard. “He had enough of the poverty,” as his neighbor said.

County of Baranya

County of Baranya

From the Szigetvár region the reporter moved south, close to Sellye, to a village called Bogdása (pop. 295). The place has a Catholic and a Hungarian Reformed church but neither priest nor minister. They come from Sellye for services. The same exodus can be observed here. First, one fellow left for France and soon enough two more followed him. Neither man was unemployed at home; they had jobs but never made more than 120,000-150,000 a month. Now they make about five times that amount as plasterers. One of them is in Rennes and the other in Grenoble. Their sister is planning to go to Austria and would be happy to work either in a restaurant or in a hotel. Another couple moved to England where they work in a Sony plant. As their neighbors say, “they don’t even visit anymore.” Three men from the village work in a slaughterhouse in Germany while three others, also in Germany, got jobs as long distance truck drivers.

The most interesting story is from Drávafok (pop 508). Tímea  Buzás is thirty and Roma. She has been working in the United Kingdom ever since 2006 when she graduated as a midwife. At that time she applied for a job in Drávafok but lost out to someone else. She suspects that her Gypsy origin had something to do with it. So she decided to leave for Great Britain. Because she didn’t know English she first worked in a factory. Two years later when her English improved she got a job looking after elderly people. A year later she got a regular job as a nurse. Today she is head nurse in Crawley and makes 2,500 pounds a month.

In the last six years she paid off her parents’ mortgage on their house (4 million), spent 2 million fixing up their house in Drávafok, bought an apartment in Pécs for 8.5 million, and spent another 2 million fixing it up. She also generously helps others, preparing them for the journey and conditions in the UK. She apparently managed to get jobs for 72 of her acquaintances. Once they are there she helps them open bank accounts, fill out job applications, and find apartments. Out of the 500 inhabitants of Drávafok there are at least 15 people just in England.

These people, six months after arriving in the UK, are able to send home 200,000-250,000 forints a month. Not surprisingly there is great interest in moving to Great Britain in Drávafok. Tímea, who is currently spending her summer vacation at home, was approached by seven of her neighbors in just the past few days. The only impediment is that future emigrants must have some initial capital with which to start their new lives. According to Tímea one needs at least 300,000 forints. Since most of the inhabitants of Drávafok can get only 45,000 forint public works jobs it is almost impossible to scrape together such a sun. Otherwise, I suspect, there would be no way of stopping them.

Until now the Roma of Baranya County didn’t rush to leave the country seeking jobs abroad. That has changed. As one mayor in the region said, the best educated and the most ambitious are the ones who are leaving, which is a real pity.

Yes, this situation greatly resembles what was going on in the northeastern counties of Greater Hungary in the late nineteenth century. The news spread by word of mouth. One villager went to the United States to work in a factory or mine and sent home glowing reports about his good fortune. And more and more packed up until half of the villages had no adult men. This is what seems to be going on today, at least in Baranya. But now the women are also leaving.