Tag Archives: Conference of Western Balkan States

Viktor Orbán did not attend the Balkan Summit

Although most commentators are critical of the European Union’s handling of the flood of refugees, today I’m more optimistic that a viable solution will be found, which might not be to the liking of Viktor Orbán. I came to this conclusion after reading summaries of speeches at the second West Balkan Summit, held today in Vienna. These summits were originally designed to prepare the ground for the eventual EU membership of six so-called West Balkan states–Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia, but today’s gathering was completely overshadowed by the migration crisis.

It was perhaps for that reason that HVG wanted to find out from the prime minister’s office why Viktor Orbán didn’t attend the summit. The prime minister’s office rightly pointed out that Hungary is not a Balkan country, and therefore “the question of the prime minister’s attending the summit hasn’t come up at all.” Subsequently, KlubRádió interpreted the information from the prime minister’s office in a way that implied that the invitation came but was turned down. The headline read: “Orbán didn’t go to the conference on migration” (Orbán nem ment el a menekültügyi konferenciára). We don’t know for sure whether Orbán was invited to the meeting or not, but I suspect that he was because, in addition to EU officials (Federica Mogherini, responsible for foreign affairs, Maroš Šefčovič, president of the Energy Union, and Johannes Hahn, in charge of enlargement negotiations), the German delegation (headed by Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier), and the delegation of the host country of Austria (headed by Chancellor Werner Faymann and Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz), all the countries that have been most affected by the refugee crisis were present: Greece, Italy, Macedonia, and Serbia. Only Hungary was missing.

Chancellor Werner Feymann, Chancellor Angela Merkel and Prime Minister Denis Zvizdić

Werner Faymann, Angela Merkel, and Denis Zvizdić of Bosnia and Herzegovina

Why am I optimistic after reading reports on the summit? First of all, because the reports show that European politicians have started thinking about finding a common solution to the problem. Sebastian Kurz, the Austrian foreign minister, put forth one plan that would create “safe havens” in the migrants’ home countries and elsewhere where those seeking asylum would be under UN protection. Here the refugees would be processed and, once cleared, would be given safe passage to Europe. All 28 countries would have to take their share of the new immigrants. Although I see quite a few problems with these “safe havens” as envisaged by Kurz, this suggestion could be a beginning to a comprehensive handling of the crisis.

Prior to the conference, Kurz told the media that Austria currently has more refugees than Italy and Greece together. If other EU countries refuse to cooperate, Austria will have to tighten its borders to restrict free passage to and from Austria. Although Hungary and Bulgaria refused to accept any refugees under the quota system, it looks now as if the European Commission has returned to the idea. In fact, Commissioner Johannes Hahn told reporters that “we’re going to have a quota settlement approach, and in light of recent developments, I believe all 28 member states are now ready to accept and approve that.” Does this mean that Viktor Orbán behind the scenes changed his mind and that all his saber rattling is for home consumption only? It looks that way.

Chancellor Faymann had just finished telling the other European leaders that there was an urgent need to do something about human traffickers when the news came that at least 20 refugees but perhaps as many as 50 had been found dead in a truck just a few miles away.

The story as it is unfolding is complicated. The truck itself belonged at one point to a meat processing plant, Hyza, located close to Žilina/Zsolna in northern Slovakia. It was one of 21 trucks the company sold to somebody in Slovakia who then resold it to a Hungarian company in Budapest called MasterMobilKer Kft., established in 2011 but by now defunct. The first story, told by János Lázár himself, that the temporary license plate on the truck was issued to a Romanian citizen turned out to be false. Apparently, the man who went to the Hungarian equivalent of the Department of Motor Vehicles was a Hungarian who lives on a ranch near Kecskemét. The truck, however, began its journey in Budapest and crossed the Austro-Hungarian border sometime between Wednesday at 9 p.m. and Thursday at 6 a.m. Yet when the truck was found on the roadside this morning the bodies were already in an advanced stage of decomposition with bloody fluids dripping from the truck. Although the temperature has been very high, I find it difficult to believe that the people in that truck had been traveling for only for a few hours.

While Angela Merkel was “shaken by the awful news,” which “reminds us that we in Europe need to tackle the problem quickly and find a solution in the spirit of solidarity,” Fidesz’s reaction was accusatory. According to the party’s official statement, “this shocking event shows that the migrant policies of the European Union have failed.”

What would the official Hungarian solution be? It sounds simple enough: the borders must be properly defended and crossings should occur at designated places under the watchful eyes of the authorities. In this way such tragedies could be avoided. The problem is that it doesn’t matter whether the refugees come through designated “gates” of some sort or over the fence as long as they can fall prey to unscrupulous smugglers, who in this case, it seems, happened to be Hungarians. In fact, I heard György Kakuk, the author of El Camino de Balkan, say in one of his interviews that the smugglers he encountered in crossing the Serb-Hungarian border came from Hungary. Building fences will only increase the number of enterprising smugglers. Thus, the Hungarian government is, wittingly or unwittingly, encouraging men like the one(s) who is/are responsible for the horrendous crime discovered today. It would be time to sit down with others and come up with a better solution than the one the Hungarians devised on their own.

Viktor Orbán and the gathering storm clouds in the East

Meetings of the heads of EU member states usually last much longer than anticipated. At eight in the evening participants were still discussing who will replace Herman Van Rompuy as European Council president and Catherine Ashton as foreign policy chief.  They finally determined that the former post will be filled by Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk and the latter by Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini.

It seems, however, that the decision on further sanctions against Russia will be postponed for at least a week, although a draft of such sanctions dated August 27 exists which says that the bloc “stands ready to consider further steps” against Russia due to the “reported participation of Russian armed forces in operations on Ukrainian soil.” Petro Poroshenko, who was present at the discussions about his country, indicated that further sanctions are likely. The EU only wants to wait on implementation to see how Russia reacts to his attempt to revive a “peace plan” next week.

If Vladimir Putin’s threatening remarks are any indication, further sanctions and an increased Western military presence in Eastern Europe are indeed likely. Putin told the press that “Russia’s partners … should understand it’s best not to mess with us,” adding: “I think no one is thinking of unleashing a large-scale conflict with Russia. I want to remind you Russia is one of the leading nuclear powers.” Nuclear threat or not, the number of NATO troops in Poland and Romania has doubled already, and NATO is planning to send an additional 1,ooo troops to the region. And Britain and six other states are planning to create a new joint expeditionary force of at least 10,000 personnel to bolster NATO’s power.

map2

Meanwhile a rather frightening map was published by the Russian weekly Expert that showed the sphere of influence Russia is attempting to create. The green line indicates the reach of Soviet dominance, the red the current situation, and the orange Russian hopes for an expanded sphere of influence. That would include Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia.

Observers of Russia and its plans might be also interested in reading a statement by Kazakhstan’s 74-year-old dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev. Let me quote it verbatim from Kazakhstan’s official English-language website Tengri News.

If the rules set forth in the agreement are not followed, Kazakhstan has a right to withdraw from the Eurasian Economic Union. I have said this before and I am saying this again. Kazakhstan will not be part of organizations that pose a threat to our independence. Our independence is our dearest treasure, which our grandfathers fought for. First of all, we will never surrender it to someone, and secondly, we will do our best to protect it.

Of course, he added that nothing of the sort can possibly happen because “there are three representatives from each country [Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan] and three Vice-Prime Ministers. They also make their decisions together.”

Putin’s response to Nazarbayev’s statement called Kazakhstan’s future independence into question. Yesterday he said that Kazakhstan, although large, is only one-tenth the size of Russia. He also explained that Nazarbayev “created a state on territory where no state had ever existed. The Kazakhs had never had statehood. Nazarbayev created it. In this sense, he is a unique person for the former Soviet space and for Kazakhstan too.” But, Putin continued, underscoring his expansionist intentions, Kazakhstan is better off in the “big Russian world.”

Meanwhile Viktor Orbán, as his wont, gave a press conference upon his arrival in Brussels. Interestingly enough, he is usually driven to these meetings in his own Volkswagen minibus, an odd choice for such occasions. According to normal protocol, the hosts provide vehicles for visiting dignitaries, but for one reason or another Orbán insists on his own bus. One must wonder how this vehicle gets to Brussels. Is it driven or transported there ahead of time? Or, perhaps he has several identical vehicles?

It is also hard to know whether only Hungarian reporters are interested in what the prime minister has to say or whether journalists from other countries are also present. I suspect that only Hungarian reporters attend these events. On one of the pictures taken at the press conference I could see the mikes of only MTV and HírTV.

In Orbán’s opinion, today’s meeting was organized only for “the review and correction of the current political situation.”  The discussion centers around whether “the sanctions have reached their desired goals” but for that “we should know what the desired goals are.” He is convinced that sanctions will not work. Sanctions until now have not been successful and it would be self-deception to think that more of the same would end the conflict.

Finally, I would like to say a few words about the Conference of Western Balkan States that took place in Berlin on August 28, 2014. Participating were representatives of the European Union, Germany, Austria, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, and the Republic of Macedonia. It was called together by Chancellor Angela Merkel, who also chaired the meeting.

The idea for the conference came in response to the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I. The intention was to show commitment to the process of future enlargement of the European Union as well as to shore up relations with Serbia as a strategic partner of the EU, especially in light of the problems in Ukraine.

Serbia has, since the second half of the nineteenth century, been a close friend and ally of Russia. Its negotiations with the European Union for membership have been going on for a long time, but Serbia’s chances have been strengthened by what is going on in Ukraine. Because, as Adelina Marini of euinside.eu points out, “if Serbia becomes part of the EU, Russia will lose its influence in the Balkans or, at least, it will be significantly limited.”

However, Serbia apparently wants to have its cake and eat it too. Although it desperately wants to join the European Union, it also wants to keep its special relationship with Russia. Brussels is unlikely to accept such a “special status” for Serbia. But if Russia becomes a real threat to Europe, Serbia’s membership in the EU might help block the spread of Russian influence.

Diplomacy in Europe and especially in Eastern Europe and the Balkans is a much more complicated enterprise than it was a few years back when these countries did not have to worry about the Russian bear. Orbán’s idea that diplomacy can be pretty much replaced by foreign trade is patently wrong. The current situation is complex, negotiations are difficult, and a bad outcome would be very dangerous for Europe. And even as storm clouds are gathering in the East, Hungarian diplomacy is being guided by Péter Szijjártó, who is totally unfit for the job.