Tag Archives: East-Central Europe

The Three Seas Initiative and Donald Trump

On June 9 the White House Office of the Press Secretary announced the upcoming visit of President Trump to Poland at the invitation of Polish President Andrzej Duda in advance of the G20 Summit in Hamburg. At the end of the short statement we learned that, in addition to meeting with Duda and delivering a major speech, “he will attend the Three Seas Initiative Summit to demonstrate our strong ties to Central Europe.”

SouthFront: Analysis & Intelligence announced that “this visit deserves to be closely monitored for it will reveal more about the Trump Administration’s foreign policy agenda than his previous actions.” The opinion piece considered Trump’s presence at the Three Seas Initiative Summit especially meaningful since Poland’s current political elite is advancing the idea of Intermarium, a Polish-dominated confederation that would include the Baltic States, Ukraine, and possibly also the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, and Slovenia. It is supposed to serve “as a ‘cordon sanitaire’ against Russia and a counterweight to the power of Germany and the European Union.”

Before we embark on current opinions on the Three Seas Initiative, let’s look at its precedent–Intermarium, or in Polish Międzymorze, between the seas. It was a plan proposed by Józef Piłsudski, an important political figure and military leader of interwar Poland. He envisaged a confederation that, by its third iteration, would have included practically the whole of Central Europe, including Hungary. Nothing came of the plan because there were just too many conflicting national interests at work. In addition, other countries were suspicious of the whole project, which they viewed as an attempt to re-establish the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which in the seventeenth century included half of today’s Estonia, all of Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, the westernmost parts of Russia, and the larger part of Ukraine.

Józef Piłsudski’s Intermarium Plan and its different stages

A revival of the Intermarium project surfaced after the 2014 Ukrainian crisis when the present Euroatlantic arrangement couldn’t prevent the annexation of Crimea and the armed conflict in Donbas. Ukraine and its neighbors were looking for alternative models for regional cooperation. At that time the concept of a modern Intermarium began gaining adherents, among them Polish President Andrzej Duda, who “is attempting to recreate the Polish long-life plan of building a natural defensive alliance among like-minded neighbors in the face of the Russian threat, and with NATO military support.”

Duda looks upon the formation of the Three Seas Initiative (TSI) as his great diplomatic feat. On August 28, 2016 a two-day meeting took place in Dubrovnik, Croatia, which was attended by representatives of 12 countries, including Hungary’s president, János Áder. The Croatian president called the area between the Adriatic, the Baltic, and the Black Sea “the lifeblood of Europe.”

It is the second summit of this group that Donald Trump agreed to attend. Trump’s attendance, according to Wojciech Przybylski writing for Euobserver, will definitely put the spotlight on TSI. It is not impossible that Trump’s Polish visit is intended as “a slight against German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Emmanuel Macron.” In addition, some European leaders fear that the Polish ministry of foreign affairs can’t handle such a diplomatically sensitive visit. There is also the possibility that, after Trump’s visit, the Poles will be even more confrontational than before when dealing with the European Union, Przybylski concludes. Others, like the pro-Russian World Socialist Web Site, use stronger language. They are certain that “Trump’s meeting with the leaders of this alliance is a clear signal that the White House is reintroducing the Intermarium strategy which will exacerbate conflicts with Germany.”

Last December Vit Dostál, writing for visegradplus.org, called the Three Seas Initiative a “pipe-dream coming from Warsaw.” He may have been right because the Polish Gazeta Wyborcza cited at least one Czech diplomat who said that Prague will not attend the Three Seas event because it is far too close to the “concept of Piłsudski.” Sputnik Polska conducted an interview with Adam Wielomski, a Polish political science professor, who considers Trump’s visit to Poland and his presence at the TSI summit “support of Duda’s governing Law and Justice Party and the initiative to forge a Central and Eastern European union.”

The TSI project or, in Hungarian, “Három Tenger Kezdeményezés” was not widely covered in Hungary before the news of Trump’s attendance. MTI reported on the Dubrovnik summit, but no one was really interested in what was described as a round table discussion on energy. On the other hand, in November 2015, at a conference attended by politicians, both Jobbik’s Gábor Vona and LMP’s András Schiffer envisaged Hungary’s future in an East-Central European Union. I have not followed Schiffer’s foreign policy ideas, but Vona’s adherence to such a regional solution didn’t surprise me because a couple of months ago Matthew Kott of New Eastern Europe reported that Intermarium was hijacked by the far right in certain countries of the region.

The only serious Hungarian piece on the Three Seas Initiative and Donald Trump’s decision to attend its summit is by Attila Ara-Kovács, a foreign policy analyst, which appeared a couple of days ago. He is skeptical of the success of Duda’s project and Trump’s power to substantially influence the present geopolitical situation in Europe.

Donald Trump’s visit to Warsaw is fraught with danger. He knows absolutely nothing about the situation in Poland or, for that matter, about the whole complicated region. His visit will give a boost to the present Polish government, which is good neither for the Polish people nor for the people of the European Union.

June 29, 2017

Viktor Orbán discovered the culprits of bolshevism in western europe

At last we have a Viktor Orbán speech that contains something new, not merely his usual mantra of the declining West which, let’s face it, is becoming pretty tedious. Although the speech was still about the West, Viktor Orbán–this time as a self-styled expert on political philosophy from a historical perspective–decided to enlighten his audience about one of the West’s gravest sins. With admirable virtuosity he managed to make the West responsible for the Soviet system as it developed after 1917 in Russia. For good measure, he added that Western Europeans should be ashamed for not placing equal blame on communism and national socialism.

The speech was delivered on February 25, which Orbán’s government declared in 2000 to be the “Day of Victims of Communism” as “befitted a Christian-national government.”

So, let’s see how he moved from the Soviet Union and its satellites to the guilty West. “It is no longer customary to say that those ideas that led to tyranny were born in Western minds. Communism, just like national socialism, came into being as a Western intellectual product. It didn’t see the light of day in Moscow, Cambodia, or Havana. It came from the west of us, in Europe, from where it proliferated over half the world.” The West was also responsible for this “through and through Western idea becoming the bitter lot of Central Europe.”

The numbers on the lectern designate the three parcels in which the remains of the heroes of 1956 are buried / MTI/ Photo: Zoltán Máthé

The transgressions of the West don’t end here. “Even today there are many people in the West who try to excuse the sins of communism, and the European Union itself is reluctant to condemn it.” After the war, sentences were meted out to war criminals in a military court, but after the fall of communism “the representatives of the free world didn’t impose such a severe verdict” on the perpetrators of crimes in the former communist countries. So, it’s no wonder that “Western Europe has a bad conscience.”

Orbán’s critics are up in arms. What an incredible leap from Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to Lenin and Stalin. Accusing Western European politicians and intellectuals of being responsible for Stalinism or Maoism just because in the second half of the nineteenth century a German social scientist and philosopher developed a social model which years after his death was transformed in Russia into something that had nothing to do with Marx’s theories is preposterous. Marx’s original hypothesis that the lot of the proletariat would worsen turned out to be wrong and therefore, as the years went by, Marx’s ideas were transformed. Modern social democracy developed. Soviet Bolshevism had more in common with Russia’s Tsarist past than with Karl Marx. Viktor Orbán should know that only too well. His generation had to study Marxism-Leninism and, as far as we know, he was an enthusiastic member of KISZ, the Communist Youth Organization, while his father was party secretary at his workplace.

Other speakers representing the Christian-nationalist government elaborated on Orbán’s theme, further distorting the past, burying it under their ideological garbage. Zoltán Balog went so far as to claim that “European unity and real dialogue [between East and West] will be possible only if Western Europe is willing and able to look upon the sins of both communism and Nazism as the shame of Europe.” This contention–that underlying the profound differences of opinion between some of the Central and East European countries and the western members of the European Union is the refusal of Western Europe to own up to the sins of communism–is staggering.

Other Fidesz politicians turned instant historians came up with bizarre versions of Hungarian history in their desire to make anti-communism a trademark of Hungarian existence during the Kádár regime. János Potápi, undersecretary in charge the government’s “national policy,” said that with the arrival of communism Hungary “had to say goodbye to a world based on law and order.” As if the Horthy era had been a model political system that was worth preserving. We also learn from him that “the political system founded on tyranny failed because there were secret little islands, fortresses of souls and ideas that paralyzed” the dictatorship. This is the fruit of Mr. Potápi’s imagination. With the exception of a handful of “dissidents” in the 1980s who were the future founders of SZDSZ there were no fortresses or islands of resistance in Hungary to speak of. And those few who resisted the regime and were ready to face the serious consequences of their actions are today considered to be “enemies of the people” by Viktor Orbán.

László Kövér, president of the Hungarian parliament, is inclined to see communist ghosts everywhere, although he himself came from a family that was closely associated with leftist politics. His grandfather, as a young man, served in Béla Kun’s Red Army, and his father was known to be a faithful member of the party. Yet he considers the communist system to be the greatest curse of history, which ruined the lives of generations. It seems that Kövér discovered God and now as a religious man is worried about the “godlessness and inhumanity that are manifest in communism, which may under a different name and in a different shape return at any time.” Such a tragedy must be thwarted by reminding people of the evils of communism.

Gábor Tamás Nagy, the mayor of Budapest’s District I, claimed that in essence there was no difference between the Rákosi and the Kádár regimes, adding the total nonsense that “the communists didn’t learn anything from 1956 and didn’t forget anything. That was the reason for their downfall.” At first I thought that perhaps the mayor is a relatively young man who knows nothing about the Kádár regime. But no, he was born in 1960 and thus spent 30 years in Kádár’s Hungary, which he equates with the terrors of Mátyás Rákosi. They didn’t learn anything from 1956? Just the opposite. The memory of the revolution was foremost on their minds, and they adjusted their policies accordingly. It was precisely the lessons of 1956 that eventually led to Kádár’s goulash communism.

All this falsification of history only postpones a real reckoning with the past, be it 1944, 1956, or 1989-90.

February 27, 2017

The Hungarian economy as reflected in the World Bank’s 2012 GNI per capita figures

Each year on July 1 the World Bank revises its classification of the world’s economies based on estimates of gross national income (GNI) per capita for the previous year. The current income classifications by GNI per capita are as follows: low income = $1,035 or less; lower middle income = $1,036 to $4,085; upper middle income = $4,086 to $12,615; and high income = $12,616 or more.

If we take a look at the figures between 2008 and 2012 we find that until 2012 Hungary belonged (just barely) to the high income group. But last year the GNI per capita dropped below $12,616, the cutoff number. To be precise, Hungary’s GNI per capita income in 2012 was $12,390. With this drop Hungary joined the group of upper middle income countries and left the high income ones.

The World Bank list that summarizes the changes between 2008 and 2012 is revealing in more than one way.  Somewhat surprisingly, Hungary’s 2009 GNI ($12,980) was higher than the year before, but by 2010 it fell back to the 2008 level. The range over the first four years of the survey period, however, was not significant, as you can see from the graph below. By contrast, last year’s drop was substantial: from $12,860 down to $12,390. So, Hungarians are not living better.  It doesn’t matter what Viktor Orbán tells his people about the brilliance of Hungary’s economic policies that the whole world should imitate.

All of the countries in the region with the exception of Hungary improved their per capita GNI. Bulgaria, the poorest country in the region, moved up from $5,700 in 2008 to $6,870 in 2012. With the exception of 2010, Romania improved every year (from $8,050 to $8,420). Poland likewise–from $11,870 to $12,670–which means that Poland moved into the high income countries while Hungary dropped out of this elite group. Although Croatia’s per capita GNI declined somewhat in 2012, the country is safely in the high income zone with a figure over $13,000.

This chart, which was published in today’s Index, is telling. For instance, Slovakia was far ahead of Hungary between 2008 and 2011 and shot up even higher in 2012, reaching $17,170.

GNI/capita changes between 2003 and 2012 in the East-Central European Region / World Bank / Index
GNI per capita changes between 2003 and 2012 in the East-Central European Region / World Bank and Index

Sharp-eyed observers noticed that while there were thirteen countries globally that moved into a higher category, there were only two that dropped into a lower one: Southern Sudan and Hungary.

Opposition politicians immediately responded to the news. Csaba Molnár (DK) recalled that in Brussels at the latest summit Viktor Orbán indignantly said that he found it strange that all those countries that are so unsuccessful at handling their own economies criticize the only country in the European Union that is successful. Molnár called particular attention to Lithuania and Latvia, two countries in the region that managed to get into the high income category. Latvia’s figures are truly impressive: between 2008 and 2012 it went from $12,020 to $14,180. Lithuania also did well: $13,850 in 2012 as compared to $12,000 in 2008.

In the Hungarian miracle economy, it turns out that the deficit (as of June) is much higher than expected. Unless revenues increase dramatically in the rest of the year, Hungary’s deficit will not be under 3.0%. Actually, in the first five months the deficit reached 3.8%. As the case of Cyprus showed, the European Commission can easily put Hungary under the excessive deficit procedure again if it fails to meet its target, which would be an awful blow to the Orbán government.

In order to avoid such a calamity yet another austerity package might have to be introduced. And if the state of the treasury doesn’t improve, the planned increase in teachers’ salaries as of September 1 will have to be scrapped. As it is, the current budget doesn’t include the several billion forints that would be needed to give a modest salary raise to teachers. That may mean that Orbán’s plans for raising salaries just before the election might have to be abandoned. According to one of the trade union leaders, it is more than possible that the majority of teachers voted for Fidesz in 2010 because of its promise to raise the very low salaries of teachers. For three years nothing has happened and the teachers’ patience is running out. There are more than 100,000 teachers in Hungary. That’s an awful lot of voters whom Fidesz may lose.

MSZP suggested that the figures on poverty that were due to be released in June are being held back. Opposition politicians suspect that the figures are horrendous and that’s the reason for the delay. Whatever the cause, one suspects that poverty has risen sharply since the inauguration of the Orbán government. When will the Hungarian public reach a point of no return?

As for the government’s efforts to turn Hungarians against the European Union, they have not yet borne fruit. The majority of Hungarians still think that Hungary’s place is within the European Union. Some opposition politicians think that perhaps the 2014 election should be a kind of  referendum on Hungary’s membership in the Union. This might be a savvy political strategy. Especially if the opposition hammers home the dire consequences of leaving the EU and being isolated and locked inside the country’s borders after almost ten years of total freedom of movement across the 28-country Union. Show the people the changes that abandoning the Union would bring to their everyday lives–from an increase in the price of goods and an economic slowdown to needing visas to visit their relatives in Slovakia and Romania. I’m sure they would think twice before voting for a party that wants to keep the country totally independent. Independence has a price. Just as Hungary’s independence from Austria had a price. A very high price.