Tag Archives: Belarussian-Hungarian relations

A CANDID INTERVIEW WITH HUNGARIAN FOREIGN MINISTER PÉTER SZIJJÁRTÓ.    PART II

Yesterday I covered only about half of the lengthy interview Péter Szijjártó gave to Index a couple of days ago. I talked about Viktor Orbán’s foreign advisers who are attached to the prime minister’s office and described U.S.-Hungarian relations, with special emphasis on Szijjártó’s relationship with Ambassador Colleen Bell and Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland. It is now time to move on to the Hungarian perception of Russia’s diplomatic and military plans. In addition, Szijjártó described at some length his ministry’s active support of even opposition politicians seeking political or business opportunities abroad. This claim came as news to many of us.

If we take Szijjártó’s comments on Russia at face value, the Orbán government has complete trust in Vladimir Putin. The conversation on Russian-Hungarian relations began with the reporter recalling recent statements about possible military threats from the east as well as the south. Does Szijjártó hesitate “to say that this eastern threat means Russia,” the reporter asked. The answer boiled down to the following. The Hungarian foreign minister “doesn’t think that Russia would decide on any threatening act against any of the NATO countries.” Therefore, the fears of the Poles and the inhabitants of the Baltic countries are based only on intangibles like past experience or geography. They look upon Russia as a “threat to their sheer survival.” Hungary’s situation is different: “we don’t consider Russia an existential threat,” he repeated several times. Therefore, he doesn’t think that “NATO soldiers should come to Hungary to defend us from Russia.”

How fast some people forget. It is true that Hungary, unlike Poland or the Baltic states, didn’t encounter Russian encroachment until 1849, but Hungarian aversion toward the Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union has been strong in the last two centuries. The Russian occupation of Hungary after World War II, which lasted almost 50 years, seems to have faded from Hungarian consciousness, and pro-Russian editorials have been abundant in the pro-government, right-wing media. The absence of fear of a Russian military threat can be at least partially explained by the fact that Hungary is no longer a direct neighbor of Russia. As Semjén Zsolt, deputy prime minister, said rather crassly at the time of the Ukrainian crisis in 2014, “It is a good thing to have something between us and Russia.” But, of course, the main reason for the current cozy relationship between Russia and Hungary is Viktor Orbán’s admiration of Vladimir Putin and his, I believe mistaken, notion that Hungary can act as a bridge between Russia and the European Union.

Although Orbán often quite loudly proclaims his opposition to the economic sanctions against Russia, time and again Hungary obediently votes with the rest of the EU countries to extend the sanctions. This was also the case at the end of June when the next six months’ extension was approved. So, not surprisingly, Szijjártó tried to camouflage Hungarian action by first saying that “the approval was reached at the level of deputy permanent representatives only and that it had to be accepted without any discussion because that was the expectation.” Soon enough, however, it became clear that the approval of the extension of the sanctions didn’t go exactly the way Szijjártó first described it. It turned out that there was in fact discussion “and at the beginning there were a few of us who were opposed to it, but the opposition melted away and at the end everybody accepted it.”

One segment in particular from this lengthy interview caused quite a stir in liberal circles. The conversation took an odd turn after a question about instructions the foreign ministry gives to Fidesz politicians when they go to Russia. The journalists were especially interested in Antal Rogán’s trip to Russia in May 2013. It was a secret trip to Moscow to discuss ways in which the Hungarian government could accumulate foreign currency reserves in Russian rubles because of the unstable position of the dollar. This trip created a scandal in Hungary. I wrote about it in “Viktor Orbán’s Russian roulette.”

Szijjártó, who at that point had nothing to do with the foreign ministry, couldn’t enlighten the journalist on this particular event, but he offered juicy information on all the assistance his ministry gives to politicians, and not just those who belong to Fidesz. He continued: “Perhaps it is surprising, but the Demokratikus Koalíció indicated that Ferenc Gyurcsány was going to China. It was the most natural thing for me to ask the Department of Chinese Affairs to put together some preparatory material for the former prime minister.”

Eorsi Matyas

That kind of information shouldn’t prompt an extended discussion in an interview, but in Hungary such simple and customary courtesy astounds everybody because it is so unexpected from the boorish lot that leads the country today. Once Szijjártó saw the astonishment on the faces of the journalists, he decided to tell more about the government’s generosity toward its political opponents. “But I can also tell you some breaking news! Recently I had a visit from Mátyás Eörsi, who lives in Warsaw and works as deputy-secretary general of an international organization called Community of Democracies. This organization has 18 members, among them Hungary, and Eörsi would like to run for the post of secretary-general, but he needs the nomination of his government. He asked me whether such a nomination would be possible, and I said: of course. I visited the prime minister and told him that this was a good idea. He said that [Eörsi’s] merits at the time of the regime change deserve respect even if we have since disagreed on many things.” It was at this point that Szijjártó learned that Mátyás Eörsi is actually a member of the Demokratikus Koalíció.

First, a few words about the Community of Democracies, which was established in 2000 at the initiative of Polish Foreign Minister Bronisław Geremek and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Its purpose is to bring together governments, civil society, and the private sector in support of democratic rules and to strengthen democratic norms and institutions around the world. As for Mátyás Eörsi, his political career is studded with important positions domestically as well as internationally. The English-language Wikipedia has a shorter and the Hungarian version a longer description of his political importance ever since 1990. Given Eörsi’s solidly anti-Fidesz political activities, his endorsement by the Orbán government is indeed a great surprise.

Eörsi, prior to the appearance of the Szijjártó interview, published an announcement of his nomination by the government on Facebook. Ever since, a fierce debate has been going on both in the media and among people on Facebook about Eörsi’s decision to seek the nomination from the Orbán government. There are those who find Eörsi’s move unacceptable. Among these is Christopher Adam, editor of Hungarian Free Press, and Tamás Bauer, formerly an SZDSZ member of parliament and nowadays a member of DK. Christopher Adam is worried that if he actually becomes the secretary-general of this organization he might not be able to publicly condemn Fidesz’s pro-Russian and anti-EU policies freely. Tamás Bauer argues about the inappropriateness of Eörsi’s decision because, while in democratic countries it is perfectly natural for a government to nominate for an international position someone holding different views, in this case we are dealing with a government that has completely destroyed democracy. Eörsi’s decision, Bauer continues, gives the false impression that Hungary is still a democracy. Thus endorsement is in the interest of Fidesz but not of Hungary. This is what Eörsi doesn’t understand, Bauer concludes. Zsolt Zsebesi in gepnarancs.hu called on Eörsi “not to be Orbán’s useful idiot.”

On the other side, Judit N. Kósa of Népszabadság expressed her dismay that the Hungarian political situation is so distorted that Eörsi had to explain why he turned to Szijjártó for a nomination. She expressed her hope that this is not just a trick from the Orbán government but that they truly mean that even an opposition politician can represent Hungary in the Community of Democracies.

Finally, today Ferenc Gyurcsány himself stood by Eörsi, also on Facebook. He assured Eörsi of his support but admitted that he doesn’t understand the government’s motives. “We shouldn’t doubt our colleague’s obvious decency…. It is not Eörsi who should explain the reasons for his action but Viktor Orbán. He should be the one who ought to explain to his own why he supports one of the symbolic representatives of the liberals, one of the leaders of DK for such an important position.” He added that Orbán may know that under the present circumstances it is unlikely that the board of the Community of Democracies will vote for a Hungarian secretary general because that would be considered an endorsement of Orbán’s regime. His final sentence was: “I would be glad if I were wrong . . .”

August 4, 2016

Putin’s visit: “Strategic impetus” for future Russian-Hungarian relations?

Yesterday the Russian ambassador to Hungary, Vladimir Sergeyev, when asked about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Hungary, basically repeated what Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has been telling the Hungarians in the last few days. Putin’s visit to Budapest is nothing out of the ordinary. The main topic of the talks will be “the extension of a long-term contract” that will ensure the uninterrupted flow of natural gas from Russia to Hungary. The contract is due to expire this year, hence the urgency of the negotiations. Sergeyev emphasized that Putin’s visit has nothing whatsoever to do with “the overall situation in the world and the tension we now observe.” In addition to energy questions, the two leaders will discuss “cooperation in tourism and culture.” All this sounds utterly innocent until we get to the last sentence: that the talks are designed “to give a strategic impetus” to the future development of relations.

Viktor Orbán, although he is usually quite tight-mouthed, also indicated, perhaps unwittingly, that “over and above the question of energy, we must strive for a truly balanced relation. That’s why we invited and welcome President Putin.” These sentences indicate that the conversations will go beyond economic relations. Suspicion is growing in Budapest that the “urgent issue of the gas supply from Russia” is only an excuse for a visit by the Russian president. The real reason is what Ambassador Sergeyev called a “strategic impetus” for closer relations between the two countries. And that is a political, not an economic issue.

Let’s return briefly to Lajos Simicska, the oligarch to whom Viktor Orbán owes his rise to power but who is no longer Orbán’s friend. In his interview with Magyar Narancs Simicska told the reporter that after the April elections he had a long conversation with Viktor Orbán, during which the prime minister outlined his “plans,” which Simicska did not like. Among other things, Orbán shared his views of Russian-Hungarian relations, which Simicska found odious. He expressed his disapproval of Orbán’s scheme, saying: “No, I don’t like it at all. I grew up at the time when the Soviet Union was still here and I don’t have pleasant memories of the activities of the Russians in Hungary. I can’t really see any difference between the behavior of the former Soviets and the political behavior of today’s Russians.” I am sure that Simicska’s anti-Russian feelings are genuine. He was known for his intense dislike of the Soviets even as a high school student. This antipathy most likely had something to do with his father’s involvement in the Revolution of 1956 and the reprisals the family suffered as a result. If his old friend Viktor had talked to him only about economic ties and a secure supply of gas, surely Simicska wouldn’t have reacted so negatively.

A Romanian view: "Putin will visit Hungary: A challenge to the United States Source: Independent.md

A Romanian view: “Putin will visit Hungary: A challenge to the United States”
Source: Independent.md

No, it is becoming clear that the urgent negotiations about a long-term gas contract are only a smokescreen. Although it is true that the current agreement will expire at the end of June, the flow of gas will not stop. According to the present contract, Gazprom is obliged to supply gas to Hungary for at least two more years. Perhaps three. Fifteen years ago, when the contract was signed, energy consumption was higher than it is now. The contract specified a certain amount of natural gas between 2000 and 2015, but that amount hasn’t been used up. So why is this deal suddenly so important to Orbán? Why does he think that he will be able to get the best deal from Gazprom thanks to Putin’s good offices? What did Orbán promise to Putin in exchange for cheap gas? Will he get cheap gas and, if so, at what price? Will Rossatom’s building of the two new reactors at Paks be enough for Putin in return? Or will Orbán be ready to sell or rent the storage facilities he purchased earlier from the German firm E-On to Gazprom? Most important, why is Orbán so keen on a special deal with Gazprom when by now Russia’s monopoly on the gas supply to Europe is broken?

Some observers even claim that it is not to Hungary’s advantage to sign a long-term contract with Russia because the current market price of natural gas is actually lower than what Hungary is paying for Russian gas. Hungary is paying between $350 and $400 for 1,000m³ of gas; on the open market it sells for $300. Moreover, as I already noted, Russia’s gas monopoly is a thing of the past. By now there are alternate pipelines through which western gas can reach Hungary. Although it is true that the completion of the pipeline between Slovakia and Hungary has been delayed due to technical problems on the Hungarian side, it should be ready very soon. Meanwhile gas has been steadily coming into the country from Austria and Croatia.

The Orbán government in the last five years or so was not too eager to work either on alternative pipelines or on reducing the amount of gas used by Hungarian households, which is twice that of Austrian households. The reason is inadequate insulation. European Union directives oblige energy suppliers to improve the insulation of buildings, but for some strange reason the Orbán government is in no hurry to change the Hungarian law to allow such a solution. According to experts, people could save 30 to 50% on their gas bills if this essential repair work on windows and doors were done. Definitely more than the much touted 10% decrease in utility bills legislated by the government.

Orbán has exaggerated the danger of running short of gas. He even indicated that if he is unsuccessful in his negotiations with Putin, Hungarians will freeze to death because there will be no gas to heat their houses and apartments. Of course, this is not only an outright lie but a stupid business tactic. If the situation is so desperate, the negotiating partner will have the upper hand in the negotiations, as several people pointed out.

And with that I return to Russian Ambassador Sergeyev’s mysterious “strategic impetus” for future relations between the two countries. Suspicion is growing in Hungary that Orbán is making some kind of a political deal with Putin which may commit Hungary to a closer relationship in the future. Miklós Hargitai of Népszabadság goes so far as to speculate that “it is not the decrease in our utilities bills that will depend on Putin but Orbán’s hold on power.” For whatever reason, the Russian card seems to be of the utmost importance to Hungary’s gambling mini-Putin.

Orbán’s Hungary and Lukashenko’s Belarus

On May 15 Péter Szijjártó, undersecretary in charge of foreign policy and foreign economic relations, received three new jobs from Viktor Orbán. He will be the chairman of the Hungarian-Belarussian, Hungarian-Turkman, and Hungarian-Uzbek bilateral economic councils. Following the announcement, Szijjártó’s spokeswoman emphasized that “economic cooperation with the former Soviet member states are the foundation pillars of the government’s strategy of the Eastern Opening and therefore the government will pay special attention to bilateral relations with Belarus, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.'”

Uzbekistan is described by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the U.S. Department of State as “an authoritarian state with limited civil rights” in which there is “wide-scale violation of virtually all basic human rights.” Turkmenistan’s record is no better. Its government operates as a single party state. The country has been widely criticized for human rights abuses and has imposed severe restrictions on foreign travel for its citizens. According to Reporters Without Borders 2012, Turkmenistan had the second worst press freedom conditions in the world, just behind North Korea. Belarus is described as a dictatorship and has been barred from the Council of Europe since 1997.

So, these countries are the pillars of Viktor Orbán’s “Eastern Opening.” Nice company Hungary is keeping. Clearly, the Orbán government is ready to cooperate with countries with natural resources. Both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have extensive natural gas reserves and phenomenal economic growth. Belarus, on the other hand, seems to be in constant economic crisis; occasionally Putin’s Russia helps the country out with large loans.

Not much appeared in the Hungarian press about Belarus before November 2012 when HVG reported that Alexandr Lukashenko, the country’s president, announced that “the Hungarians seemed to have had enough of democracy and market economy. They sobered up.” He recalled that in the good old Soviet days the two countries were friends, and he expressed his belief that the two countries will strengthen their ties in the near future. “We cannot lose Hungary.”

That exchange between the Belarus president and the new Hungarian ambassador to Minsk made quite a splash in Budapest. Árpád W. Tóta, a commentator known for his verbal virtuosity and keen sense of politics, had a grand time with Lukashenko’s description of Hungary’s undemocratic ways, adding that Hungary is nowhere close to Lukashenko’s Belarus but “we are coming along nicely.” According to András Giró-Szász, government spokesman, Lukashenko “was only joking.”

Interestingly, at the time the Hungarian government was not eager to inform the public of closer Belarussian-Hungarian relations. Hungarian papers learned about the details from the Belarussian Telegraph Agency. For example, already in October 2012 “Minsk was playing host to the third meeting of the intergovernmental Belarussian-Hungarian commission for economic cooperation and the Belarussian-Hungarian business forum.”  The Belarussian Ministry of Sport and Tourism and the Ministry of National Economy of Hungary signed an agreement on cooperation in the field of tourism.  Working groups were set up for the study of cooperation in the fields of agriculture, industry, and tourism, as well as science and technology. In mid-December 2012 Aleksandr Khainovsky, Belarussian ambassador to Budapest, met with Sándor Lezsák, deputy-speaker of the Hungarian parliament and head of the parliamentary friendship group Belarus-Hungary. “The parties discussed the prospects of Belarussian-Hungarian inter-parliamentary relations and agreed on expanding cooperation in these areas…. The sides also specified projects to promote Belarus-Hungary contacts in culture, education and youth exchanges.”

By February 2013 the Hungarian media learned, again through the Belarussian Telegraph Agency, that Belorussian officials carried on negotiations at the time when the Agro Mash Expo 2013 was being held in Budapest about Hungary’s importing more Belarussian agricultural machinery, especially tractors. Already in 2011 Hungary purchased 973 tractors from Belarus for $16.6 million.

It seems the tractors are exported / www.bbc.co.uk

Belarus agriculture: it seems that the tractors are being exported  www.bbc.co.uk

On May 1, 2013, Fidesz’s official website announced that Péter Szijjártó met Alena Kupchina, Belarus deputy foreign minister, in Budapest. They discussed setting up direct flights (Minsk-Budapest-Belgrade) that would “encourage economic and cultural relations between the two countries.” The two agreed that, as of the coming academic year, Hungarian will be taught at the University of Minsk. Further plans call for close cooperation in pharmaceutical research and development.

I was somewhat baffled that the same Alina Kupchina who met Szijjártó on May 1 was again in Budapest on May 6 when she met with two senior officials of the Hungarian Foreign Ministry, Zsolt Németh and Péter Sztáray. She came specifically for a “foreign policy consultation.” Németh at least brought up Hungarian concerns over the Belarussian human and political rights situation. He asked for the release of political prisoners because “this would assist Belarus’s more active participation in the work of the Eastern Partnership.”

Tomorrow I will continue with the other two “pillars” of Hungary’s Eastern Opening: Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.