Tag Archives: Czech Republic

What awaits the Visegrád Four?

A couple of weeks ago an excellent article appeared in Atlatszo.hu with the striking title “Visegrád is dead—An anti-Orbán alliance is in the making in Central Europe.” The alliance the author, Botond Bőtös, is referring to is the so-called Slavkov Triangle, comprising Austria, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. Slavkov is better known to most of us as Austerlitz, where the Battle of the Three Emperors (Napoleon, Tsar Alexander I, and Emperor Francis II) was fought in 1805.

Actually, the Slavkov Triangle is not new. It was in January 2015, in the middle of the Ukrainian crisis, that on the initiative of the Czech Republic the three prime ministers–Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann, and Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico–signed a declaration that envisaged close cooperation in areas of infrastructure development, traffic, energy safety, and, most important, joint consultations prior to European Union summits. At the time quite a few Polish and Czech analyses appeared, but in Hungarian I found only one, in HVG, by Csaba Tóth of the Republikon Institute, which was subsequently translated into English and published by the Budapest Sentinel under the title “Slavkov Triangle threatens to isolate Hungary from its European allies.” The Slavkov Declaration, as Tóth noted,“betrays such a level of cooperation … as to suggest that if this plan is executed, the Visegrád Cooperation will become an empty structure.”

Not much happened in the intervening months. But at the end of June Bohuslav Sobotka, Robert Fico, and the new Austrian chancellor Christian Kern sat down again to continue their project and talk about the “convergence of old and new Europe.” According to Botond Bőtös, in the last couple of years the Czech Republic in particular has become concerned that the Visegrád 4 countries are being labelled intransigent opponents of everything the European Union stands for. Czech politicians began asking whether it was in the best interests of the Czech Republic to be identified with the Polish-Hungarian dominated group.

Bőtös is convinced that Orbán was always something of an irritant to the others, but after the 2015 Polish election that brought the right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS) to power, “the foreign policy of Orbán became the official strategy of the Visegrád Group.” That was too much for the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Especially after the September 2016 V4-meeting in Bratislava, it became increasingly apparent that the Czechs and Slovaks held different views from their Polish and Hungarian colleagues. They differ on European integration, and they are not happy with the authoritarian turn of events in Poland and Hungary. They came to the conclusion that the V4 has no common, positive message for the rest of Europe. And the outside political world has a very negative opinion of the V4 countries. These are the considerations underpinning the revival of the Slavkov Triangle.

Christian Kern, Bohuslav Sobotka, and Robert Fico in front of the Austerlitz Palace

A couple of days ago Austrian chancellor Christian Kern gave an interview to the German paper Handelsblatt in which he talked at some length about the Visegrád 4 Group. He began by saying that there is a visible split in the group between Poland and Hungary on one side and the Czech Republic and Slovakia on the other. Kern pointed out that the EU often reproached the Polish and Hungarian governments, to no avail, but “now this conflict must have a resolution.” If necessary, through financial retribution.

Péter Szijjártó, the Hungarian foreign minister, reacted by saying that the Hungarian government has been aware for some time that certain Western European politicians are attempting to divide the Visegrád Group. “But we have bad news for them. It will not work. The Visegrád Group is the closest and most effective alliance within the European Union.”

Yesterday Viktor Orbán himself spoke about the Austrian chancellor’s reference to Hungary and the fractured Visegrád 4 in his Kossuth Rádió interview. Let me translate the passage verbatim because it says a lot about him and his interaction with the rest of the world.

It is never fortunate in politics when someone confuses his desires with reality. I understand that the Austrians are hurt because they are not part of the Visegrád Group. Austria is a lonely country anyway, and thus we don’t even know exactly where it is trying to find its strategic interests. Since the collapse of the monarchy it has been the historical question of Central Europe where Austria belongs. Until now Austria has been a very successful country. Therefore we can tip our hats because between the end of World War II and now it has achieved the highest standard of living and the greatest economic development. So, it is a talented country, but in a foreign policy sense it is at a loss because it is not a member of NATO yet a member of the European Union, not a member of V4 although it belongs to Central Europe. So there are many uncertainties here. It is not worthwhile for our friends to hope that they can break the unity of the Visegrád 4. The basic principle of V4 is simple: one for all and all for one.

Orbán at his best. Condescending, contemptuous, and arrogant when, by the look of it, it is he and his country who seem to be in some trouble on the international stage.

July 8, 2017

A multi-speed Europe and the Visegrád Four

While Viktor Orbán is celebrating his “victory” in his fight with the European Commission over the expansion of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant, politicians in the western half of the continent are busily working on laying the foundation for a new type of European Union, one that might be able to avoid the pitfalls that have besieged Brussels ever since the abrupt enlargement of the Union in 2004.

On March 1 the European Commission published a White Paper on the future of Europe, “Avenues for the EU at 27.” The White Paper sets out five scenarios, each offering a glimpse into the potential state of the Union by 2025 depending on the choices Europe makes. Scenario 1: Carrying On. Scenario 2: Nothing but the Single Market. Scenario 3: Those Who Want More Do More, which means that the 27 members proceed as today but willing member states can do more together in areas such as defense, internal security, or social matters. Thus one or several “coalitions of the willing” will emerge. What will that mean exactly? To give but one example, 15 member states set up a police and magistrates corps to tackle cross-border criminal activities; security information is exchanged as national databases are fully interconnected. Scenario 4: Doing Less More Efficiently, which means delivering more and faster in selected areas, while doing less in other areas. Scenario 5: Doing Much More Together, in other words something close to a real union.

Although Juncker tried to deliver these five options in a neutral tone, it soon became evident that he and the other policy makers preferred scenario 3. “This is the way we want to go,” said an EU official to Euroaktiv.

On March 25 the White Paper will be officially handed over to the 27 governments in Rome at the sixtieth anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, which signaled the first step toward the idea of a united Europe. It is there that the Visegrád 4 countries were planning to propose amendments to the EU treaties, but their hopes are most likely misplaced. As an unnamed EU official said, “for treaty change, there is no market.”

The idea of a multi-speed Europe has been in the air for some time as an answer to the feared disintegration of the European Union after Brexit. But it was only on February 3, at the informal summit of the European Council in Malta, that Angela Merkel spoke of such a solution publicly. Since then behind the scenes preparations for the implementation of this solution have been progressing with spectacular speed.

Today the “Big Four” officially called for a new dynamic, multi-speed Europe. In the Palace of Versailles Angela Merkel, François Hollande, Mariano Rajoy, and Paolo Gentiloni announced their support for a newly revitalized multi-speed Europe. The leaders of Germany, France, Spain, and Italy want to do more than celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the EU. They want “to reaffirm [their] commitment to the future,” said Hollande. Merkel added that “we should have the courage to allow some countries to move ahead, to advance more quickly than others.” To translate these diplomatic words into less polite language, these four countries, most likely supported by a fair number of other western and perhaps also Baltic states, are sick and tired of countries like members of the Visegrád 4. If they don’t want deeper integration and a common policy on defense, the economy, security and immigration, so be it. They will be left behind.

European leaders at the Palace of Versailles / Euroactiv.fr

What is Viktor Orbán’s reaction to these plans? As we know, the Hungarian prime minister can change his positions quickly and frequently, and it looks as if in the last month his ideas on the subject have hardened. Bruxinfo received information from sources close to Orbán at the time of the Malta Summit that the Hungarian prime minister didn’t consider the formation of a multi-speed Europe a necessarily adverse development as far as Hungary is concerned.

On March 2, however, a day after Juncker’s White Paper came to light, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary issued a joint declaration to the effect that the Visegrád 4, strongly supported by Viktor Orbán, find the idea of a multi-speed Europe unacceptable. The declaration said that the Visegrád 4 countries want neither federalization nor a return to the single market. What they find most odious, however, is Scenario 3. They look upon a multi-speed Europe as a sign that they will be treated as poor relatives, second-class citizens. Unfortunately, the four Visegrád countries, besides not wanting to be left behind, can’t agree on the extent of integration they are ready to accept.

Slovakia and the Czech Republic, unlike Poland and Hungary, are ready to cooperate with Brussels in certain areas such as asylum, migration policy, and the digital agenda in the spirit of “Bratislava Plus” adopted in September 2016. You may recall that after the Bratislava Summit Viktor Orbán was the only political leader who announced that the summit was a failure. He was especially unhappy that his Visegrád 4 friends didn’t stick with him during the negotiations. It looks as if Poland and Hungary didn’t manage to force their rigid attitude on the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Because of their differences, the common denominator of the Visegrád 4’s declaration was merely a description of their gripes. As a result, their message was defensive and weak. The four countries “express their concerns about creating exclusive clubs, they demand the equality of member states, and they want to involve national parliaments more in the political process that would control the subnational institutions,” as Vit Dostál, editor-in-chief of Euroaktiv.cz, remarked in his op/ed piece. The news about the decision of the German, French, Spanish and Italian prime ministers yesterday had to come as very bad news for the Visegrád 4. A multi-speed Europe is a frightening prospect for these countries.

Of course, they wouldn’t have to worry so much if they, especially Poland and Hungary, were more accommodating in their attitudes and would accept the fact that by joining the European Union they gave up some of their countries’ sovereignty. If they accepted the fact that the refugee problem is something that can be solved only together. As Merkel said in Versailles yesterday: “Cooperation can be kept open to those that have fallen behind.” We will see which road Orbán will choose, but cooperation is not Orbán’s strong suit.

March 7, 2017

The collapse of the united front of the Visegrád 4 in Bratislava

The Hungarian media hasn’t paid much attention to Viktor Orbán’s Friday morning interview on Magyar Rádió, which was aired on September 16 around 8:00 a.m. but was recorded the evening before. In it, the prime minster talked a great deal about the common agenda of the Visegrád 4 countries, on which their representatives were working furiously, even overnight. He proudly announced that while “the bureaucrats in Brussels” will most likely not be able to produce a document at the end of their negotiations in Bratislava, the Visegrád 4 will present a common set of proposals. As he said, “this is an important moment in the history of the Visegrád 4.” He added that “the Visegrád 4 are in perfect agreement on these questions.”

So, let’s see the demands of this joint statement, which Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydło presented to the leaders of EU27. Its most important “ultimatum,” as some journalists called it, was “the strengthening of the role of national parliaments underlining respect for the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality.” The Visegrád 4 accused Germany and France of making key decisions alone and disregarding the opinions of the eastern European states. “European integration is a common project and all negotiations should therefore be inclusive and open to all member states.” They demanded that “efforts should be channeled to fully implement the already undertaken commitments aiming at strengthening security in the Schengen area as well as the protection of EU’s external borders.” Linked to the security issue was the question of migration, which is considered to be the key issue for the group. The solution of the Visegrád 4 to the problem of the millions of migrants is what they call “flexible solidarity,” “a concept [which would] enable Member States to decide on specific forms of contribution taking into account their experience and potential. Furthermore any distribution mechanism should be voluntary.”

If we take a look at “The Bratislava Declaration,” we can safely assume that very few of these demands were discussed or even considered. The only exception is that the Bratislava road map includes “full control of our external borders…. Before the end of the year, full capacity for rapid reaction of the European Border and Coast Guard.” The goal of the Bratislava summit was to demonstrate unity, not to argue endlessly about the Visegrád 4’s grievances. The European Union is facing difficult challenges for which the member states must find common solutions. Donald Tusk made it crystal clear to Beata Szydło that this is not the time for a public debate of these issues. He even visited Budapest ahead of the summit to try to convince Viktor Orbán to let sleeping dogs lie. It seems that Tusk failed to restrain Orbán from open criticism, although in his interview on Magyar Rádió the prime minister did say that “in the name of fairness there is improvement on this issue,” adding that Tusk is one of the people in Brussels who places “defense” as the top priority. Of course, he credited himself for the evolving change in thinking on the issue.

If Orbán found the joint document of the Visegrád 4 so significant, why didn’t he complain that the summit passed over most of the demands outlined in it? Why did he object instead merely to the European Union’s immigration policies? On this issue “The Bratislava Declaration” said only that “work to be continued to broaden EU consensus in terms of long term migration policy, including on how to apply the principles of responsibility and solidarity in the future.”

First of all, knowing Viktor Orbán, who cannot imagine life without dissent, discord, and constant battling about one thing or the other, we could expect that he, unlike his comrades in arms in the Visegrád 4, would not come out of the meeting smiling and telling the world how happy he is with the outcome. He would have to complain about something. The most obvious target was immigration, or rather sharing the burden of the newly arrived asylum seekers. He could not return home and tell the Hungarian people that all’s well with the European Union and that from here on the remaining 27 member states will try to solve their problems together. After all, the Hungarian referendum on the refugees will be held on October 2, a referendum that he deems of vital importance to his political career. So, the choice of his complaint was a given.

But, in addition to immigration policy, he could have complained that the summit ignored one of his demands: strengthening the nation states at the expense of the center. Why didn’t he? Because, as far as I can see, he lost the support of his allies: Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. They joined the rest and declared the Bratislava summit a success. Even Beata Szydło realized that in the package presented to the members there were substantial incentives to stand by the others.

The roses were not enough

The roses were not enough

From the very beginning dissension was noticeable among the four countries. Poland and Hungary were the most vocal critics of Brussels. Slovakia and the Czech Republic wanted closer relations with Germany. Of course, it is not at all to Hungary’s advantage to have a pro-government media empire that revels in anti-Merkel rhetoric, but Orbán’s political moves are not always rational. While Orbán was advocating a counter-revolution against the existing order in Europe, Ivan Korčok, the Slovak undersecretary for European Affairs, talked to Politico about “a deeper reflection process, [fearing] trenches between West and East.” Moreover, he said that “migration is a phenomenon we have to see with a long term view,” which to my mind means a realization that migration will be part of the lives of the people of the EU, from which there is no escape for individual states.

Even between Poland and Hungary, despite their close ideological ties, there is the troubling issue of Russia. Poland, fearing Russia, supports a permanent NATO force in the region while Orbán would like to see the end of EU sanctions against Russia. The Poles also don’t approve of his cozy relations with Vladimir Putin.

These four countries, in spite of their geographical proximity, are different in many ways and have different national interests. As Korčok said of the upcoming summit, “I don’t think we can surge forward together.” Well, they didn’t.

It seems that Orbán’s revitalization of the Visegrád 4 pretty well collapsed in Bratislava. This diplomatic defeat should trouble him a lot more than the European Union’s immigration policy, over which he has no control. For the sake of winning a useless referendum for domestic political purposes he might have to give up his dream of being the leader of the East European countries and ultimately a major player on the European stage.

September 17, 2016

The shadow of János Kádár’s happiest barrack

In November 2009 the Pew Research Center conducted a survey in nine former communist countries. Twenty years had passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and researchers wanted to know how public sentiment had changed in the intervening years.

The countries selected were East Germany, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Lithuania, Russia, Bulgaria, and Ukraine. The results can be found on the Internet. A quick look at the interactive public opinion poll on some of the more important political questions reveals a lot about the mood of the people in these countries in 2009. The most startling finding was that Hungarians were the most dissatisfied and most disappointed people in the area. I believe that if a similar survey were conducted today, the divergence between the Hungarian figures and those of the other countries would be even greater than it was five years ago. Since then the lot of most of the neighbors has improved, while the Hungarian economic and political situation has worsened.

Here are some selected data from 2009. While in 1999 80% of Hungarians were looking forward to the coming of the market economy, by 2009 only 46% had any trust in the capitalist system. The only other country with similar results was Ukraine. Hungarian’s satisfaction with democracy was the lowest (21%), compared to Poland’s 53%, the Czech Republic’s 49%, and Slovakia’s 50%. But perhaps the most interesting finding was that it was in Hungary where most people (72%) thought they were better off during the communist period than in 2009. Compare that to 35% of the Poles, 39% of the Czechs, and 48% of the Slovaks.

Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project / November 2009

Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project / November 2009

Political analysts have been trying to find an explanation for this discrepancy between Hungary and her closest neighbors (the Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovakia) in attitudes toward the regime change and what followed. Clearly, there were heightened expectations everywhere, but while, for example, in Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic there was only a slight drop in the population’s positive attitude toward the market economy, in Hungary the drop was huge–from 80% to 46%.

What makes the Hungarian situation so different from that of the other countries? From repeated surveys we know that there is something in Hungarian culture that makes Hungarians consistently dissatisfied with their lot. That by itself, however, is not enough to account for the incredible disappointment reflected in these numbers. It is also unlikely that Hungarian politicians who were responsible for the introduction of democracy and a market economy in Hungary were totally unfit for their jobs. Or that they were significantly worse than their colleagues in the neighboring countries. All countries had their own political upheavals, and they also made bigger or smaller political mistakes. So, I don’t think that the key to the puzzle of Hungarians’ dissatisfaction with their political and economic situation can be found in either the national psyche or the political leadership.

There has to be some other fundamental difference between Hungary and the other countries that accounts for the huge divergence in attitudes and outlook. The answer, I believe, lies in the unique nature of the Hungarian version of the socialist system. Ironically, Hungary’s troubles today most likely stem from the fact that the Hungarian people had it too good under János Kádár. If they had had to live in the kind of dictatorship that existed in Czechoslovakia under Gustáv Husák or in Romania under Nicolae Ceaușescu, today they would have a much greater appreciation of democracy. If Hungarians had had to face empty shelves in the stores as the Poles did or to suffer as much economic hardship as the Romanians, they would have a much more positive view of the market economy.

But the Kádár regime, especially in its last ten years, was a benign one-party system, what Hungarians call a “soft dictatorship.” The great majority of people wouldn’t have had any reason to complain about their limited freedom since their demands were modest in the first place. Most people were satisfied with their lot because they noticed a steady growth in their living standards year after year, almost to the very end. It’s no wonder that with the exception of a very small group of “dissidents,” really a handful of people, there was no serious opposition to the regime.

The lives of Hungarians in economic terms have not changed for the better since 1990. Yes, there are people who have become very rich, but in Hungary in 2009 77% of the people believed that “the rich just get richer while the poor get poorer,” as opposed to around 50% in the neighboring countries. I’d bet that if we had a similar poll today, even more Hungarians would think that in the last five or six years the situation has deteriorated further. Today poverty is widespread. All in all, there are very good reasons for economic dissatisfaction, which cannot be counterbalanced by positive feelings about the introduction of democracy, especially since Viktor Orbán’s system is a far cry from democracy as most people understand it.

The relatively good economic situation of the population during the Kádár regime, the fact that slowly but surely people became satisfied with their lot might also be responsible for some of the failures of the new political elite. Many of the economic ills of Hungary in the last twenty-five years stemmed from a fear of moving in a direction that might lead to a severe drop in living standards, to which Hungarians, given their relative well-being under the Kádár regime, would react very negatively. Much more negatively than the populations of other post-communist countries who were accustomed to hardship and privation. Therefore, a restructuring of the economy was postponed time and again because of fear of a backlash. Over the years, governments overspent in order to satisfy economic demands only to be forced later to introduce austerity measures when the deficit spiked. No one dared to bite the bullet and make the Hungarian system a fully functioning market economy in the western sense. The irony of it all is that the economic system that more than half of Hungarians hate is not really a market economy in the classical sense. As someone rightly put it, Hungarian capitalism has all of the negative features of the market economy without any of its benefits. János Kádár’s system continues to cast a dark shadow over today’s Hungary.

Hungary as a “field of operation”

Paranoia seems to have swept through the Hungarian government. Fidesz politicians are convinced that the United States wants to remove Viktor Orbán and cause his government’s fall. All this is to be achieved by means of the “phony” charge of corruption.

Recently a journalist working for Hetek, a publication of Hitgyülekezet (Assembly of Faith), managed to induce some high-ranking members of the government to speak about the general mood in Fidesz circles. The very fact that these people spoke, even about sensitive topics, to a reporter of a liberal paper points to tactical shifts that must have occurred within the party.

Their argument runs along the following lines. Until now the Obama administration paid little attention to the region, but this past summer the decision was made to “create a defensive curtain” in Central Europe between Russia and the West. The pretext is the alleged fight against corruption. The Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania are the targets. Fidesz politicians point to recent Slovak demonstrations against corruption which were “publicly supported” by the U.S. ambassador in Bratislava. Or, they claim, the Americans practically forced the Romanian government to take seriously the widespread corruption in the country. They are certain that the resignation of Petr Nečas, the former Czech prime minister, “under very strange circumstances” was also the work of the CIA.

In its fight against the targeted Central European governments Washington relies heavily on NGOs and investigative journalists specializing in unveiling corruption cases. George Soros’s name must always be invoked in such conspiracy theories. And indeed, Átlátszó.hu, sponsored in part by the Soros Foundation, was specifically mentioned as a tool of American political designs.

To these Fidesz politicians’ way of thinking, all of troubles recently encountered by the government are due solely to American interference. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that the government itself has given plenty of reason for public disenchantment. In fact, the first demonstrations were organized only against the internet tax. Admittedly, over the course of weeks new demands were added, and by now the demonstrators want to get rid of Viktor Orbán’s whole regime.

The Fidesz politicians who expressed an opinion think, I am sure incorrectly, that the Americans have no real evidence against Ildikó Vida and, if they do, they received it illegally. Vida got into the picture only because of the new “cold war” that broke out between the United States and Russia. Hungarian corruption is only an excuse for putting pressure on the Hungarian government because of its Russian policy and Paks.  As for Hungary’s “democracy deficit” and American misgivings about Orbán’s “illiberal state,” Fidesz politicians said that if the United States does not accept Orbán’s system of government as “democratic” and if they want Fidesz to return to the status quo ante, this is a hopeless demand. “Not one Hungarian right-wing politician would lend his name to such ‘retrogression.'”

The latest American “enemy” of the Orbán government is the State Department’s Sarah Sewall, Undersecretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, who a week ago gave a speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in which she said that “we [recently] denied visas to six Hungarian officials and their cronies due to their corruption. This action also bolstered public concern, and on November 9th, the streets of Budapest filled with 10,000 protesters who called for the resignation of corrupt public officials.” As soon as Hungarian officials discovered the text of that speech, André Goodfriend, the U.S. chargé in Budapest, was once again called into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

I think it would be a mistake to characterize the American fight against corruption simply as a smokescreen for exerting political pressure on foreign governments. Sewall in that speech explains the potentially dangerous political ramifications of corruption.

Corruption alienates and angers citizens, which can cause them to lose faith in the state, or, worse, fuel insurgencies and violent extremism…. Ukraine …provides [an] illustration of how corruption can both increase instability risks and cripple the state’s ability to respond to those risks. The Maidan Movement was driven in part by resentment of a kleptocratic regime parading around in democratic trappings.

All this makes sense to me, and what Sewall says about Ukraine is to some extent also true about Hungary. But the Fidesz leadership sees no merit in the American argument. In fact, today both Viktor Orbán and Péter Szijjártó used very strong words to accuse the United States of interfering in Hungary’s internal affairs.

"We can't pay as much in taxes as you steal"

“We can’t pay as much in taxes as you steal”

Viktor Orbán sent a message from Belgrade. The prime minister does not know why the United States put aside 100 million dollars for “the preparation of an action plan against two dozen Central- and East-European countries in order to put pressure on their governments.” The United States declared Hungary to be a “field of operation,” along with others. Referring to Sewall’s speech, he expressed his dissatisfaction that he has to learn about such plans from a public lecture. “If someone wants to work together with Hungary or with any Central-European government for a good cause, we are open. We don’t have to be pressured, there is no need to spend money behind our backs, there is no necessity of organizing anything against us because we are rational human beings and we are always ready to work for a good cause.” It is better, he continued, to be on the up and up because Hungarians are irritated by slyness, trickery, and diplomatic cunning. They are accustomed to straightforward talk. (He presumably said this with a straight face.)

Viktor Orbán’s reference to the military term “field of operation” captured the imagination of László Földi, a former intelligence officer during the Kádár regime as well as for a while after 1990, who announced that in secret service parlance “field of operation” means that every instrument in the intelligence service can be used to undermine the stability of a country. The Americans’ goal, as Orbán sees it, is the removal of his government.

Meanwhile the staff of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade who were brought in by Péter Szijjártó are solidly anti-American. They consider the diplomats who served under János Martonyi to be “American agents” because of their alleged trans-atlantic sentiments. So I don’t foresee any improvement in American-Hungarian relations in the near future, unless the economic and political troubles of Putin’s Russia become so crippling that Orbán will have to change his foreign policy orientation. But given the ever shriller condemnations and accusations, it will be difficult to change course.

Hungary is in a difficult diplomatic bind: The “Orbán doctrine” is dead

This morning 168 Óra ran the headline “The Orbán doctrine has collapsed after three days.” The reason is the Russian “incursion” into Ukrainian territory. After that, said Árpád Székely, former Hungarian ambassador to Moscow, there will be neither Paks nor the Southern Stream. Székely actually welcomes the first consequence, a dubious deal between the Hungarian and the Russian government to build a new nuclear reactor in Hungary, but he is sorry about the likelihood of scrapping the Southern Stream project that would have supplied gas to the Balkans, Hungary, and Austria.

While high-level negotiations in the UN, NATO, and EU are going on over the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, I had to think about one of the many fallacies Viktor Orbán presented us with during his pep talk to the Hungarian ambassadors only four days ago. In his speech he indicated that as far as he is concerned old-fashioned diplomacy is passé. “Not that classical diplomacy has lost its magic and beauty” but “we must acknowledge the realities of the economic age in which we live.” Well, the Russo-Ukrainian conflict must be solved by old fashioned diplomacy, and Hungary’s newly reorganized foreign ministry is ill prepared for the task. Moreover, its leaders are constrained by the prime minister’s unorthodox ideas on diplomacy. Orbán’s Hungary is in a bind.

I should note in passing that German-Hungarian relations have cooled considerably. Earlier, I wrote about a warning from Michael Roth, undersecretary of the German foreign ministry, that in his government’s point of view “Hungary is going in the wrong direction.” Since then an even more detailed and stronger statement was signed by Michael Roth, undersecretary in charge of European Affairs at the German Foreign Ministry, and his colleague Tomáš Prouza in the Czech Foreign Ministry. They warned that “Europe is more than a market.” It is a community of shared values.

According to Hungarian sources, Hungarian diplomats have been trying for some time to entice Chancellor Angela Merkel to visit Hungary for the annual German-Hungarian Forum. After all, this is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the German refugees’ safe passage to Austria thanks to the action of the Hungarian government in 1989. If she could not come, they at least hoped for a visit by the new foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Well, it seems that Budapest will have to be satisfied with an assistant undersecretary as the representative of the German government. The highest ranking German participant will be Reinhold Gall, social democratic minister of the interior of Baden-Württemberg.

Now, to return to the current diplomatic challenge. After the failure of the meeting between Vladimir Putin and Petro Poroshenko in Belarus, several thousand Russian troops crossed the Russian-Ukrainian border. Subsequently Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk announced that his government will introduce a proposal in parliament to change the non-aligned status of the country and to request membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Some observers immediately announced that Ukrainian admission to NATO was very unlikely. However, NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen made a statement today in Brussels, saying: “I’m not going to interfere in political discussions in Ukraine. But let me remind you of NATO’s decision at the Bucharest summit in 2008, according to which Ukraine ‘will become a member of NATO’ provided of course, Ukraine so wishes and fulfills the necessary criteria.” A strong warning for Russia. Putin often stressed that Russia will not tolerate a NATO presence on Ukrainian soil.

Meanwhile, EU foreign ministers are recommending tougher sanctions against Russia. They gathered in Milan today for an informal meeting to discuss the Ukrainian crisis. Tibor Navracsics represented Hungary in Milan, but I could find no report on his position in the Council of Foreign Ministers. We know that Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Latvia, and Denmark were strongly in support of tougher action.

"German

German Foreign Minister Walter Steinmeier is arriving at the informal meeting of EU foreign ministers in Milan

Tomorrow the European Council will meet again to decide on the President of the European Union and the EU Foreign Affairs Chief. According to the latest intelligence, the next President of the European Union will be most likely Donald Tusk, prime minister of Poland.

Tusk’s government has been among the most hawkish in Europe over the issue of Ukraine. Just today the Polish government announced that it will allow the plane of Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu to fly over its territory only if the plane changes its status from military to civilian. Earlier his plane was barred altogether from Polish air space. Russia was not very happy. Its foreign ministry declared that Poland’s closing its air space to Shoygu’s plane is “a major violation of norms and ethics of the communication between states.”

Today three of the four members of the Visegrád4 (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary) issued statements about the Russian incursion. Poland’s foreign ministry said that it regards the incursion of Russian troops into the southern regions of the Donetsk province “as actions that fulfill the attributes of aggression, as defined in UN documents–Resolution 3314 of the United Nations General Assembly.”

The Czech statement was equally strongly worded. “The Czech Republic considers the incursion of the armed forces of the Russian Federation into the territory of eastern and southeastern Ukraine a fundamental threat to peace and stability of all of Europe.” It called on Russia “to immediately withdraw its troops from the Ukrainian territory.”

The silence from Slovakia was deafening.

Hungary chose an intermediate position and released the following statement: “We are closely monitoring and evaluating the situation on the ground, and we are in contact with our EU and NATO allies. A confirmed incursion of  Russian regular military units on Ukrainian territory would gravely escalate the crisis. In line with our consistently expressed earlier position, we emphasise that only a political process can lend a sustainable solution to the present crisis and therefore we support all diplomatic efforts to this end. The upcoming extraordinary European Council meeting and the informal meeting of the EU foreign ministers offer good opportunities for harmonizing the European position on this matter.”

Two of the opposition parties, Együtt-PM and DK, called on the government to stand by Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity. The former also wants the Hungarian government to suspend preparations for the expansion of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant while Russian troops remain on Ukrainian soil. The party also asked Orbán to use his good offices with Putin to convince the Russian leader to withdraw his troops from Ukraine.

DK wants to call together the parliamentary committees on foreign affairs, national security, and defense and to have the government prepare a statement that condemns Russian military action against Ukraine. In addition, Tibor Navracsics should call in the Russian ambassador to Hungary to convey to him Hungary’s condemnation of Russian aggression. Naturally, none of these suggestions or demands will be considered by the Orbán government.

On the other hand, I believe that Viktor Orbán will quietly vote with the majority on all the issues that will be discussed at tomorrow’s European Council meeting only to go home and report on the excellent ideas he gave to his colleagues about how to solve the Ukrainian crisis.

Recent Hungarian diplomatic blunders: Romania and the Czech Republic

Let’s move from domestic to foreign affairs, not because there are no interesting topics at home in spite of the silly season (cucumber season in Hungarian or Saurgurkenzeit in German) but because Romanian President Traian Băsescu made headlines today with his caustic and, according to some, threatening remarks about the Orbán government’s behavior toward his country.

Traian Băsescu was Fidesz’s favorite Romanian politician a couple of years ago, and it seemed that Viktor Orbán and the Romanian president were kindred souls who understood each other and were ready to support each other. I vividly recall when back in 2009 Zsolt Németh, Fidesz’s foreign policy expert, gave a television interview in which he emphasized the importance of Băsescu’s re-election. He considered it to be critical from Hungary’s point of view, especially after Fidesz’s electoral victory in 2010.  In 2011 Băsescu attended Fidesz’s summer camp in Tusnádfűrdő and in 2012 Orbán campaigned on Băsescu’s behalf among Transylvanian Hungarians. Well, the honeymoon is over.

When Viktor Orbán and Trajan Basescu were still friends. On the right László Tőkés at Tasnádfűrdő

When Viktor Orbán and Trajan Băsescu were still friends. On the right László Tőkés at Tasnádfűrdő

I have two versions of what Băsescu had to say this morning in Marosfő/Izvoru Mureșului in Hargita/Harghita county at another summer free university gathering. Marosfő is a village with a population of 800 which is completely balanced ethnically. The Hungarian version appeared in the Romanian Új Magyar Szó, according to which Băsescu said that “politicians of Hungary became so impertinent that it is likely that we will not approve their holding their Free University and student camp in Bálványos.” He added that “Romania is ready to accept a leading role in reprimanding Hungary because  it has recently become the center of tension in the region.” He announced that 2013 was the last year that “the whole political elite could loiter undisturbed in Harghita and Covasna.” This was the version that Hungarian papers republished without any changes.

The other version appeared in The Independent Balkan News Agency, which covers all the Balkan countries in addition to Slovenia and Cyprus. This version is more complete and explicit than the one that appeared in the Hungarian paper. Here Băsescu talks about Hungary as “a regional hotbed of instability” and warns that Bucharest could seek “to teach Hungary to know its place” and made it clear that in the future Hungarian politicians “will not be able to roam around Romania freely.” As it turns out, the Romanian original from Băsescu’s blog is “poate să se perinde” which is very close to the Hungarian “loitering” (lófrálni). * The news agency also notes that Băsescu’s outburst came only two days after Gábor Vona, the leader of Jobbik, said (also in Romania) that “Hungary should engage in a conflict with Romania in order to protect the rights of the Hungarian minority. ” Moreover, László Tőkés’s suggestion that Hungary extend “protection” to the Hungarian minority in Romania is also mentioned.

Official Hungarian reaction was slow in coming. First it was Hunor Kelemen, chairman of RMDSZ/UDMR, the major Hungarian right-of-center party in Romania, who described Băsescu’s “recent reaction to Hungary [as] over the top.” The language Băsescu used was too strong even in connection with Gábor Vona’s remarks, but “Hungary’s leaders did not warrant such a reaction from President Traian Băsescu.” Kelemen found it “unacceptable for a head of state to threaten a neighboring country with isolation.”

It was only around 7:00 p.m. that Balázs Hidvéghi, a novice Fidesz member of parliament who since 2010 hasn’t done anything notable judging from his parliamentary record, was picked to answer the Romanian president. This choice I think reflects Viktor Orbán’s  attempt to make the event seem insignificant, undeserving of a high level answer. Hidvéghi was both understanding and friendly; he emphasized that the summer camps at Tusnádfűrdő were always held with a view to furthering Romanian-Hungarian dialogue and friendship.

Magyar Nemzet looked for a Romanian politician who had condemned Băsescu and found him in Mircea Geoană, the former Romanian foreign minister. He considered Băsescu’s attack on Hungary and the Hungarian politicians part of the Romanian president’s “desperate pursuit of popularity.” Geoană expressed his fear that after such an extremist statement “there will be the danger that the world will consider Romania to be the center of instability in Europe” instead of Hungary. What Magyar Nemzet neglected to mention was that the socialist Mircea Geoană was the candidate for the post of presidency in 2009 against Trajan Băsescu. But even Magyar Nemzet had to admit that another socialist politician, Mircea Dusa, a member of parliament from Hargita/Harghita, welcomed Băsescu’s condemnation of the Orbán government’s political activities in Romania.

If that weren’t enough, Viktor Orbán made another diplomatic faux pas, this time involving the Czech Republic and the Visegrád Four. The Visegrád Four (V4), an alliance of four Central European states–the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, and Hungary, was established both to further cooperation and to promote the European integration of these countries. The name of the alliance is derived from the place where Bohemian, Polish, and Hungarians rulers met in 1335. The three kings agreed in Visegrád to create new commercial routes to bypass the port of Vienna and obtain easier access to other European markets.

The Visegrád Four still exists and this year the prime minister of Hungary serves as chairman. The next summit of the four countries was scheduled to be held on August 24 in the fabulous Esterházy Palace located in Fertőd, close to the Austrian border. On August 8 the Office of the Prime Minister announced that Viktor Orbán had decided to postpone the summit due to the Czech government crisis. It was clear from the text of the announcement that the idea had originated with Viktor Orbán and that the postponement was not requested by the Czechs.

The Czech reaction was swift. Jan Hrubes, the Czech government spokesman, announced that there was no need to postpone the summit. Moreover, the Czech government learned about the change of plans only from the media. Jirí Rusnok, the current prime minister, was ready to participate in the summit. The spokesman of the Hungarian Office of the Prime Minister expressed his surprise since, according to him, the Poles and Slovaks received Orbán’s announcement. Whether the Czechs did or not is a moot point. The fact is that it is not customary in diplomacy to postpone a meeting on account of instability in one of the countries without the request of the country in question. A typical Viktor Orbán move; he behaves in international circles like a bull in a china shop.

According to observers, the real reason behind Orbán’s move can be traced to his political sympathies. The former prime minister of the Czech Republic, Petr Nečas, was a member of the right-of-center Civic Democratic Party and was an admirer of Orbán. In fact, he stood by the Orbán government at the time the European Parliament accepted the Tavares Report. He expressed his “deep disappointment” and forewarned of the grave consequences of the report for the future of the European Union. By contrast, President Miloš Zeman is a socialist and so is Jirí Rusnok, who will most likely remain at the head of the government at least until October when elections will probably be held. Tamás Rónay of Népszava suspects that Orbán’s decision to postpone the summit is a gesture to and an expression of solidarity with Nečas, who had to resign in the wake of a huge sex and corruption scandal. Just another case of diplomacy Orbán style.

*Thanks to my friends originally from Transylvania who provided me with the Romanian original.