Gajus Scheltema, who has been the Netherland’s ambassador to Hungary since 2013, is now retiring from the diplomatic service. He has been a diplomat since 1978. Prior to his current post he served in Poland, Slovakia, Austria, Belgium, Romania, Jordan, Pakistan, and the United States. In brief, he is a seasoned diplomat. Therefore, his farewell interview in 168 Óra cannot be viewed as some horrible diplomatic faux pas. In fact, a careful reading of the interview reveals a man who is meticulous in his wording. What did Ambassador Scheltema say that so infuriated Viktor Orbán?
The interview itself is fairly lengthy, but there are only two sentences that set off the government. One came in the middle of his observation that the terrorists, as the losers in globalization, have turned toward extremism and fanatical religiosity because it gives them a feeling of security. “They create enemies along the same principles as the Hungarian government does.” The second sentence was embedded in a discussion about Hungarians’ inability to reach compromise, as opposed to the Dutch practice of constant negotiations. “Here, on the other hand, there can be only pro or con positions. Someone is either with us or against us. This is a classic Marxist viewpoint.”
The fact is that there were several other critical remarks, which most other governments would have found much more insulting than the two the Orbán government focused on. For example, this absolutely straightforward assertion that “We cannot finance corruption. We cannot keep alive a corrupt regime.” I cannot think of a more damning comment than that. Yet the Hungarian government didn’t find any reason to object to it.
Therefore, my suspicion is that this uproar over the Dutch ambassador’s interview is once again, as so often in the past, for domestic consumption. How many people read 168 Óra? Very few, and therefore only a small group of people will ever hear the ambassador’s harsh words about their corrupt government, which is kept alive by money coming from the European Union. And officially complaining about the ambassador’s calling the Orbán government corrupt would have meant disseminating an uncomfortable truth that the majority of the Hungarian public are also aware of. So, instead, the government picked on statements they thought would rile Hungarians against the European Union via the Dutch ambassador. Someone compared us to terrorists? Someone called us Marxists? It is unacceptable and we demand satisfaction.
Péter Szijjártó’s initial reaction on Thursday, right after the interview was published, was quite mild. He simply said: “Let’s hope that the Dutch ambassador will leave soon.” A day later, however, he opted for a much stronger response. I suspect that Viktor Orbán, who had just arrived from his three-week vacation in Croatia, instructed Szijjártó to make a forceful move that would have reverberations internationally. Actually, Szijjártó doesn’t need much prodding when it comes to aggressiveness. In this case he announced that “relations at the level of ambassadors have been suspended indefinitely,” asserting that this move is “one of the most radical steps in diplomacy.” He announced that Hungary “won’t settle for an explanation behind closed doors.” They will be satisfied with nothing less than “a public apology.”
I must say that the Dutch foreign minister, Bert Koenders, didn’t show himself to be a nimble diplomat in this case. Perhaps he is unaccustomed to the Hungarian way of conducting diplomacy, but he crumbled instead of standing by his ambassador. In the course of a conversation with reporters he admitted that he was “embarrassed” because “it’s clear there is no link between terrorism and the actions of the Hungarian government.” At the end, he added that he couldn’t “imagine that this is what the ambassador wanted to say.”
The fact is that Scheltema said nothing of the sort. He wasn’t talking about a direct link between terrorism and Hungary. Rather, he pointed out that creating nonexistent enemies enables people to justify their own actions. The terrorists create enemies who are set on destroying them and who should therefore be punished. Similarly, the Hungarian government creates its own foes in order to justify its constant attacks on the European Union and clandestine international forces. The Orbán government needs these antagonists in order to prove to the populace that the country is in danger and that it is only the current regime that is fighting for their independence and well-being.
The Orbán government might have avoided a reference to the corrupt regime Ambassador Scheltema was talking about, but Egon Rónai of ATV didn’t miss the opportunity to quiz Péter Szijjártó on the subject. Members of the Orbán government are infamous for not wanting talk to the media, and there are certain outlets that are considered to be forbidden territory. One of these is KlubRádió, especially György Bolgár’s program “Let’s Talk It Over.” Another is HírTV, which is boycotted because its owner is Lajos Simicska, Viktor Orbán’s old friend turned enemy. ATV, although it is not considered to be a pro-government outlet, still manages to have some government officials as guests.
Yesterday Péter Szijjártó was being interviewed on “Egyenes beszéd” (Straight Talk). The interview was supposed to have been on Emmanuel Macron’s meeting with the Slavkov Three instead of the Visegrád Four. But then the controversy over the Dutch ambassador emerged. Egon Rónai asked Szijjártó about Scheltema’s labeling the Hungarian government corrupt. Szijjártó’s answer was priceless. He complained that foreign politicians accuse them of corruption, but when he asks these people to give particulars they cannot come up with anything. The accusation is ridiculous because a corrupt country cannot be economically successful. Hungary happens to be very successful, and therefore such allegations are baseless. When Rónai interjected and called attention to the incredible amount of convergence money coming to Hungary, Szijjártó’s reaction was to belittle the significance of these funds. However, as 444.hu pointed out, a new study just showed that without the convergence money the Hungarian economy would be 6% smaller and the level of investment two-thirds of the present level.
As for the unfinished business between the Netherlands and Hungary, the government made sure that no one forgets about it. Gyula Budai, who is currently undersecretary of the ministry of agriculture, gave a press conference at which he said that the Hungarian government is still waiting for the apology. It is a mystery to me what an agricultural undersecretary has to do with this diplomatic quarrel. Maybe no one else was in town this weekend.
Otherwise, the Hungarian foreign ministry is waiting to see whether its demand will be met. On Monday, “a decision will be made about the next step to be taken.” Prior to the final decision, Szijjártó will speak to the returning Hungarian ambassador and the Hungarian chargé will pay a visit to the Dutch foreign ministry.
The general sentiment in the Netherlands is that an apology will not be forthcoming. And then what? Interestingly, when a Russian official called the 1956 Revolution a counterrevolution ignited by the CIA, the Hungarian government said nothing. It also remained quiet when former Romanian president Traian Băsescu said that the real border between Romania and Hungary should be the Tisza River. But when it comes to one of the important countries in the European Union, Viktor Orbán behaves like a lion ready to pounce.