Tag Archives: Austro-Hungarian relations

Austria as an ally of Orbán’s Hungary?

Viktor Orbán’s planned meeting yesterday with Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s youthful new chancellor, was made public almost a week ago which, given the secretiveness of the Orbán government, was quite unusual. As for the physical trip itself, the Hungarian prime minister opted for an ordinary train ride between Budapest and Vienna. But one of his Volkswagen minibuses was waiting for him in the Austrian capital. A strange arrangement.

There was something else that was out of the ordinary regarding this trip. During the train ride Viktor Orbán had a video made, on which he announced that “in Vienna he wants to sign an agreement on migration, the two countries’ joint defense, and mutual assistance.” This was certainly an ambitious agenda. If Orbán actually meant to say that he would like to return with concrete assurances from the Austrian government concerning those issues, he must be disappointed. What the talk produced was merely a reiteration of long-held views shared by the two governments. No, they don’t want to harbor “illegal migrants”; they want to strengthen the Schengen borders; they don’t think that the quota system is working.

As far as Austria’s joining the Visegrád 4 alliance is concerned, the Austrian right-wing coalition wants to be only “a bridge” between Brussels and the not-so-steady Visegrád 4, even though the far-right Austrian Freedom party said before the October 15 election that it wanted Austria to join the group. Their plans were obviously quashed during the coalition negotiations. What Orbán’s views are on Austria’s joining is not known, but I would be surprised if he didn’t covet such a development.

The Austrian and Hungarian papers, by and large, consider the meeting of little consequence, which might be the reason for the Hungarian party’s reluctance to have any contact with the media after the negotiations were over. According to Die Presse, a conservative Austrian daily, Orbán originally didn’t even want to hold a press conference after his meeting with Kurz. It took some cajoling by Kurz to convince him to allow four questions, two from each country. On the Hungarian side, only M1 TV and the new Fidesz favorite, Echo TV, got a chance to ask questions, which were safe from Orbán’s perspective. The Austrian journalists naturally were more forthcoming, and the Austrian public television’s reporter managed to squeeze in a question about Orbán’s ideas on “illiberal democracy.” The encounter that followed was “politely” left out of the Hungarian news agency’s report. According to Austrian sources, Orbán insisted that his political system is called “illiberal” simply because there are no liberals in his government. “We don’t accept the equation of democracy with liberalism. The only true democracy is democracy without any adjective.” Kurz diplomatically added that he is liberal and Christian and he is happy that the people of Austria live in a strong democratic political system. He added that democracy is the best form of government for any country.

The topic that interested Hungarians most was Austria’s decision to cut child benefits for non-Austrian workers from East European countries, the largest contingent coming from Hungary. Hungarian opposition parties expected Orbán to fight hard for equal rights for these guest workers, but the general impression they got was that Orbán had not done so. This is one of those occasions when I have to defend Orbán. It is the European Court of Justice that will rule on the constitutionality of the issue. Bilateral negotiations with Kurz and his government have no relevance here. The same is true about Austria’s suit against the construction of Paks II. This is a matter between Austria and the European Commission.

Although Austrian and Hungarian commentators might believe that the meeting was a flop, one English-language paper wrote about the two politicians who came away from the meeting “with a pledge for close cooperation in Europe if not a formal alliance.” Euobserver believes that “while Kurz might seem less friendly than his anti-immigration campaign perhaps suggested to Budapest, the Hungarian leader can count on one more ally in opposing the EU’s migrant relocation scheme.” This fear might be exaggerated. Because of the presence of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) in the coalition, Kurz is trying doubly hard to assure the European Union of his trustworthiness. He tweeted after his meeting with Orbán that “Austria can and wants to make a contribution to reinforce cohesion in the European Union and reduce tensions.”

The question is whether the young, relatively inexperienced Sebastian Kurz is capable of taming Viktor Orbán. Zsuzsanna Földvári, a journalist living in Vienna, gave a lengthy interview to the Független Hírügynökség (fuhu.hu) on the encounter, which I found most perceptive. Földvári attended the press conference and gained the impression that “Orbán played the role of the fatherly elder statesman to the young Austrian chancellor, who behaved like a scared schoolboy.” Apparently, Orbán’s experience was evident in the way he handled questions. “He was more informative, more active, and more interesting than Kurz.” Of course, Orbán has the advantage of having spent decades in the political arena. Also, I would not underestimate his charm, which he exhibits on certain occasions. For a while, Orbán most likely will have the advantage, although Kurz just today showed that he can be tough when he announced that “there will be political consequences” of an FPÖ member of parliament’s membership in a neo-Nazi fraternity.

In addition to Sebastian Kurz, Orbán also talked with Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache of the far-right FPÖ. Western papers paid little attention to this meeting, although for Orbán this meeting was just as important as his conversation with Kurz. Maybe even more so. For years Orbán has been most eager to meet Strache, whom he considers “the man of the future.” In September 2015 a planned meeting between the two was reluctantly cancelled in the last minute. Although the Austrian and English-language papers didn’t say much about Orbán’s meeting with Strache, Origo devoted a detailed article to the meeting, which centered on “the closest, most professional, and friendliest relations” between the FPÖ minister of defense and minister for transport, innovation and technology and their Hungarian counterparts.

I don’t want to underestimate the importance of a right-wing government in neighboring Austria, especially after the strained relations that existed during the Social Democratic-People’s Party coalition. At the same time, I would be reluctant to call the Kurz government an absolute bonanza for Orbán, whose expectations, I believe, exceeded what he actually got in Vienna yesterday. He can only hope that with time he will be able to draw Austria closer to the Visegrád 4 Group, gaining tangible support when the Visegrád countries flex their muscles. However, if Poland’s intransigence continues, cooperation between Austria and the Visegrád Group might be out of the question. In fact, it might even threaten the continued existence of the Visegrád 4 alliance.

January 31, 2018

Foreign and domestic criticism of Viktor Orbán’s handling of the refugee crisis

While we are waiting for the outcome of the German and Austrian decisions to temporarily close their borders, let’s move on to two other topics. One is the diplomatic squabble between Austria and Hungary and the other is the pro-Fidesz demonstration against Magyar Narancs. The weekly publication appeared on Thursday with a portrait of Viktor Orbán with a mustache made out of the kind of wire used in the fence along the Serb-Hungarian border. The mustache bore a suspicious resemblance to the one Hitler made infamous. A day later Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann compared Orbán’s refugee policy to the Holocaust in an interview with Der Spiegel. On the very same day the Serbian Blic published a picture of the Hungarian prime minister without a mustache but with two words under his nose: “Orbán, this is shameful.” The paper called him “an evil neighbor [who] sends the police after the refugees, keeps them in dog crates, and feeds them as if they were pigs.”

Let’s start with the Austrian chancellor. It is no secret that Werner Faymann finds Viktor Orbán’s politics unacceptable. Ever since the outbreak of the European refugee crisis Faymann has delivered pointed messages to the Hungarian government. He was perhaps the only European politician who openly talked about limiting the financial contributions of the EU to those countries that are unwilling to cooperate in solving the current crisis. He also made clear that he consider the right of asylum a human right that cannot be taken away from the asylum seekers. The result was the cancellation of a meeting between Orbán and Faymann that was originally scheduled for last week. As it turned out, the two men talked on the telephone several times, but these conversations couldn’t have gone well because last Thursday János Lázár in his weekly press conference called Faymann’s behavior “more than flesh and blood can bear.”

And at that point the Hungarians had not yet read Faymann’s Spiegel interview that appeared on September 12, in which Faymann said: “Refugees stuck in trains, in the belief that they would go somewhere else entirely, bring back memories of the darkest period of our continent.” And he continued: “To divide human rights by religions, is intolerable.” In his opinion, Orbán is pursuing “a deliberate policy of determent.” Orbán’s Hungary as well as other East European countries should be financially penalized, “for example by cutting funds from the structural funds that benefit primarily eastern European member states.” In return, Szijjártó called Faymann a man who is running amuck. He called the chancellor a liar. The spokesman for the party demanded an apology, not just to Viktor Orbán but to the Hungarian nation. The Austrian ambassador to Hungary, for the second time, was called in to the ministry of foreign affairs and trade. The Hungarian ambassador to Austria also had to appear, not to one of the undersecretaries of the foreign ministry but to Chancellor Faymann himself. So, this is where Austro-Hungarian relations are at the moment.

And then there is Magyar Narancs‘s mustache story that greatly upset the leaders of CÖF (Civil Összefogás Fórum). This is an organization that claims to be an independent body but that just happens to support the government. It is financed by taxpayer money. It was CÖF that began an anti-Bajnai-Gyurcsány-Mesterházy campaign before the election campaign could legally begin because it was a civic organization to which the election laws were not applicable. One of the leaders of CÖF is Zsolt Bayer, an anti-Semitic scribbler whose opinion pieces in Magyar Hírlap are disgraceful examples of the worst features of the Orbán regime. Another leader is András Bencsik, who just the other day wrote a post on Facebook in which he defended Petra László, the camerawoman who physically attacked a refugee and his son, as someone who was just helping the work of the police. These are the people who in the past organized huge demonstrations they called “peace marches.” The goal of the demonstrations was to bolster the sagging popularity of Viktor Orbán and show the world that, contrary to most political analysts, the Hungarian prime minister had tremendous support. Hundreds of buses delivered people to these demonstrations from all over the country. According to rumor, they were paid and fed for their trouble.

Well, it seems that CÖF, which even used SMS to gather supporters to demonstrate in front of the editorial offices of Magyar Narancs, couldn’t rally their usual 300,000 people. This time they had to be satisfied with about 3,000 noisy people who enthusiastically demonstrated against any refugee who would dare set foot on Hungarian soil. Zsolt Bayer, who was one of the speakers, demanded a European Union-wide referendum on the issue. He is convinced that out of the 508 million “natives,” 450 million are against allowing these refugees to settle among them. “The Hungarian prime minister represents their opinion and tells the truth on their behalf. He says that which, because of these people’s ‘opinion terror,’ nobody dares say.” I guess “these people” are the liberals Magyar Narancs represents. CÖF promised to organize a new “peace march.”

Today there were two other demonstrations. One was organized by Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Demokratikus Koalíció and the other by Együtt. First DK supporters listened to Ferenc Gyurcsány’s speech, and an hour later the Együtt demonstration began, which DK supporters joined. Népszabadság‘s headline read: “Thousands for Hungary’s humanity.” The speeches by the party leaders were coordinated and focused on the inhumanity of Viktor Orbán and his administration. The demonstrations, though not huge, were impressive given the general anti-refugee sentiment in the country.

Együtt-DK joint demonstration, September 13, 2015

Együtt-DK joint demonstration, September 13, 2015

Who knows what next morning will bring. Who knows whether the introduction of a state of emergency will stop the flow of people across the border. I doubt that it will. And then the world will get to see Hungarian summary justice in action.