Tag Archives: Catherine the Great

Attila Ara-Kovács and Bálint Magyar: Can we learn from history?

After so many years, the Hungarian state is finding itself for the first time in a conflict where the external limits to the actions of its voluntarist leaders are determined not by impersonal economic processes but by equally voluntaristic factors the dimensions of which, however, are much larger and cast a shadow much longer than their own. With no pressure from outside, Hungary’s current government has sided with a policy which may seem advantageous from the viewpoint of holding on to its power but run contrary to the country’s interests and long-term objectives. Moreover, it promises that the country will once again end up sharing defeat and disgrace with forces that will be remembered by history with nothing but contempt.

CRIMEA: THE BEGINNING OF AN ERA

What goes on in Crimea today is by no means a result of random incidents but fits perfectly into Russia’s aspirations to resurrect the empire and, on the other, is inspired by the same fateful divisions, fraught with ethnic conflicts, that are as characteristic of Ukraine today as they were in Georgia in 2008. Russia’s re-positioning of its world political influence is justified neither by economic performance nor by military potential in a global context. Just as at the time of the Romanovs in the 19th century or Stalin’s empire-building decades in the 20th, the only factor motivating Russian policy vis-à-vis its neighbors is naked power politics exercised at what it considers its peripheries. Back then, Russia was unable to present itself as a great power of full value, capable of a global performance and holding out the promise of an alternative comparable to that offered by its rivals. Nor is it capable of the same feat today. In fact, there is a reverse relationship: whenever Russia reaches the outer limits of its potential for peaceful growth, parallel with that, its aggressiveness begins to grow. As a consequence, cooperation with the Russian empire in the international arena could never be conducted in a “businesslike” contractual manner but by bargains based on the power conditions, genuine or assumed, of any given time.

It was during the reign of Cathering the Great that Russia annexed the Crime in 1783 Source: Wikipedia.org

It was during the reign of Catherine the Great that Russia annexed the Crimea in 1783
Source: Wikipedia.org

A certain amount of aloofness was always highly advisable for the great powers, whether rivals or allies in a given period, when dealing with a Russia of this character. This was so in the 19th century when Russia was regarded by the world practically as an Asian power, but also in the 20th when forced alliance or openly hostile Cold War policies were predominant. The limited courses left accessible by geographical closeness for nations which did not have the military and economic power to resist Moscow’s designs are a different issue. These nations were doomed to maneuver in a field of force dominated by a provisional alliance between the western democracies and an empire struggling with permanent economic crisis yet unable to “outgrow” its despotism. Seeking balance between the great-power blocs was a failure even when they were in a stable state (perhaps with the exception of interwar Czechoslovakia), but trying to stay afloat in escalating conflicts which promised to last long usually forced them into compromises guaranteeing a losing position. The circumstances are very similar today with the difference that the former Central Europe and the Baltic have since been integrated into the European Union, and their nations are all NATO members.  NATO membership entails their obligatory protection, meaning that their freedom cannot be sacrificed even for the sake of avoiding a world war. The geographic regions still open to bargaining between the great-power blocs have narrowed down and shifted to the east. Russia’s empire-building ambitions aimed at a Eurasian Union are intended precisely to prevent “switching teams” between international blocs, a game that could be more or less openly played by the countries of the region in the past quarter century.

That is the position in which the post-Soviet states “stuck” in the Russian sphere of interest even after 1991 when the Soviet Union disintegrated find themselves. They have made occasional attempts to break out of their predicament through their “color revolutions”. Of these states, Ukraine is the most important, not only because of its size and economic potential, but also because if, after 300 years, it were to succeed to ultimately free itself from the bonds of co-habitation with Russia, it would eliminate even the appearance of Russia’s great-power status. The events that took place in Kiev’s Maidan have already forced the Kremlin to modify its strategy. 2015 was set as the original target date for the formal announcement of the new imperial union on the construction of which Putin has been working for years. Without Ukraine, the Eurasian Union will never be what it was meant to be according to the Russian blueprint. For one thing, it will grow much more distant from Europe, the entity with which the biggest share of the trade and cultural relations of the Russian Federation has been conducted ever since it was founded. On the other, it will become overwhelmingly Asian, making Moscow more vulnerable to Chinese pressure as well as hostage to the dynamically developing, increasingly dynastic post-Soviet mafia-states of Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan).

DOMINO EFFECT IN THE BUFFER ZONE

1. The occupation of Crimea should therefore be regarded as the beginning only. The reputation of the Russian regime is unlikely to be damaged any further, so what we can expect is most likely the uninhibited assertion of its real or assumed interests. That includes the restoration of the unity of the one-time Soviet military-economic complex for which major supply capacities used to be provided by industrial facilities located in Ukraine. The dress rehearsal for that has already been completed in the shadow of weapons in Crimea with a referendum intimating the Wilsonian principles. Even though the result had not been questionable for a moment; the approval of Putin’s will by the population of the peninsula was shamelessly fraudulent. (Just in Simferopol, the rate of “yes” votes was 123 per cent.) The next moves could be the “soft” annexation of the industrial regions of the Donetsk Basin, the population of which is also overwhelmingly Russian, as well as of Odessa and the coastal area, again in the shadow of weapons. That would practically cut off Ukraine from the sea and rob it of the highly important hydrocarbon repositories of the continental shelf.

2. With the tiny Moscow-supported puppet state of Transnistria announcing its desire to join Russia (the breakaway mini-state, though still formally a part of Moldova, is centered in the town of Tiraspol), we see a new phase of the encirclement of Ukraine unfolding. With the potential annexation of Odessa and with Moscow’s inciting the ethnic minorities, like the Gagauzes, of the southwest Ukrainian areas against Kiev, Transnistria will help establish a contiguous zone under Russian influence, putting Kiev increasingly at the mercy of the Russian empire and placing a bigger price tag on western solidarity with Ukraine.

3. The events in Crimea and especially Transnistria may force the truncated Republic of Moldova to escape into a rapidly established union with Romania. The conditions and prospects for such a union are already openly discussed by Moldovan politicians and analysts. Some see full union as an inevitable prerequisite for instant guarantees by the EU and NATO, for which not only the regional and economic conditions are in place but is also reinforced by tradition ranging from common language to shared national symbols. Others, considering the mixed ethnic background, envision a federal-type community as more viable.

4. In Subcarpathia, the agents of Russian nationalism have already started to provoke the region’s ethnic minorities with mother countries outside the Ukrainian borders (Hungarians, Romanians) into thinking that this might be the right historical moment and manner for their reunification with the mother country. In reality, for them it would be a game of Russian roulette where the player is offered a revolver with all chambers loaded.

At the same time though, due to the threatening presence of extreme nationalists in western Ukraine, the fears of these minorities are by no means groundless. Even if they refrain from raising a strong voice in defense of their minority rights, with no military protection to back them up, they might easily become targeted by frustrated Ukrainians with their national feelings hurt by the Russians against whom they can do nothing. Their position could become even more precarious if their claims could be interpreted as a preparatory stage to secession.

In addition, there is no great power around to remotely support an attempt at breaking away. Even Russia’s interests end at sowing political chaos in Ukraine. On the other hand, every single “mother country” affected is a member of NATO and the EU, both of which rule out meddling with the borders developed after World War II. Also, in 1994 they provided special guarantees for the territorial integrity of Ukraine when the Budapest Memorandum was signed, the very document on the legal strength of which they attack Russia for the annexation of Crimea. Moreover, Ukraine, though not an energy producer itself, has a key role in the transport of energy, so any hostility, or even deterioration in relations, might endanger the energy security of a number of European nations, mainly that of Hungary, Slovakia and Romania.

In the light of all this, the extreme nationalist visions of the “return” of territories, fuelled by Russian interests, as broadcasted in Hungary by Echo TV (a television channel owned by circles close to the governing Fidesz party) with their not-so-subtle tone of encouragement are suicidal and threaten the very existence of the Hungarian minority in Subcarpathia.

5. Another highly sensitive problem is the impact of the afterlife of the Ukrainian situation on Transylvania. In the wake of the annexation of Crimea, sealed by a referendum, the Romanian political elite is already looking with growing concern at claims of regional autonomy for the Szekler region, only made more provocative by personal visits by leading Fidesz politicians and Hungarian neo-Nazi leaders. By likening the position of Hungarians in Transylvania to that of the Crimean Tartars, the former Bishop and future Fidesz MEP László Tőkés poured oil on fire, providing further arguments to all those in Romania, whose goal it is to curtail the rights of that country’s Hungarian minority. In the wake of declarations of this kind by Hungarian political actors and developments in Crimea, aspirations of Szekler autonomy are decoded by public opinion in Romania as a first step on the road to the establishment of political and administrative conditions for eventual secession. In such an atmosphere it will hardly be surprising for the Romanian parties to resist granting any concession, even those which did not appear hopeless before, like giving prevalence to the ethnic-cultural principle in the development of EU regions.

Such fears will not appear altogether groundless to an unbiased observer either—for instance to representatives of the European Union—if, for instance, the major change in Hungarian policy regarding dual citizenship is also noticed. At the beginning, the introduction of dual citizenship was declared by Fidesz to be a symbolic act expressing the belonging together of the Hungarian nation as a cultural community. However, by granting voting rights to dual citizens residing outside Hungary, something which they had earlier denied they would ever do, they turned all those wishing to take advantage of that opportunity into citizens with equal rights of two countries at the same time. With that, these dual citizens have gained an entitlement in which emphasis is laid on their affiliation to Hungary even from the viewpoint of public policy. In certain critical periods like the current one, this poses a serious risk to the social life of the community, raising suspicions in Romanians that they may be facing the possibility of losing Transylvania again. As unrealistic as such a scenario may be, the fears it fosters politically are all the more real.

ADVENTURISM CLOAKED IN NATIONALISTIC RHETORIC 

There is little doubt that Hungary does not have any interest served by nationalistically loaded, provocative policies. Still, the Fidesz government is pursuing precisely such policies. Why is it doing that? The reason is that the mafia state absolutely needs the tense atmosphere of conflicts, genuine or made-up, internally as well as in its relationship with its neighbors. On the world political stage too: it continues its game of doublespeak with the European Union and its allies. It drags its feet in reacting to Russian aggression while sucking up to Putin’s imperial authoritarianism. A part of the Hungarian leadership—the head of state whose role is exclusively ceremonial and the impotent foreign minister—is reassuring the world about the government’s full solidarity with the trans-Atlantic alliance, while Orbán, the real source of all power makes decisions contrary to that solidarity. A secretary of state of the Foreign Ministry summons the Russian ambassador to express his concern over the annexation of Crimea while the same Russian ambassador is ensured by another secretary of state that the whole thing is nothing but a smokescreen or pure theatricals. And indeed, the nuclear energy deals signed recently with the Russians are to stay in force, as has been declared by Orbán, their fulfillment being—and remaining—a priority for the government.

A state of permanent mobilization, bellicose talk and the cult of seeking enemies all serve for Orbán to win a mandate (with a two-third parliamentary majority, if he can) for a long-term suspension of law and morality, and thus for stabilizing his rule. By pursuing such policies, however, the country is once again ending up on the wrong side, the side of the losers, while its international credibility is being further reduced.

In the sharpening conflict between East and West, quite to the contrary of what Orbán says, the region will never become the manufacturing centre of European industry but is far more likely to turn into a collision zone in which there is no economic growth, democratic traditions are diluted and the solutions of an eastern-type autocracy prove practicable. This is exactly the kind of place which not only foreign capital is fleeing from but talented people with an enterprising spirit also leave behind.

As a part of the region, owing to its internal conditions and external circumstances Hungary may find itself stagnating or on a downward slope for a long time to come. The damages that follow can be neither prevented nor reduced without a clear-cut, unequivocal and unmistakable commitment to the west, the type so characteristic of Poland, for instance. Particularly if in the meantime Orbán collaborates with the extreme right, the neo-Nazis, undisturbed. In the thinking of Fidesz, however, such considerations of genuine national policy are overwritten by the direct power and financial interests of the adopted political family of the mafia state. For them, therefore, the adventurism cloaked in nationalist rhetoric with which they react to a situation the seriousness of which they fail to recognize, is perfectly suitable.