Tag Archives: Eastern Europe

Hungary and gender equality: An abysmal record

Ignác Romsics, a historian best known for his work on the twentieth century, is a prolific writer who just published an ambitious book, a one-volume history of Hungary. Romsics has been making the rounds to publicize his book. During one of his interviews, he was asked about “the guiding principle of the Hungarian nation” in history. Is there some kind of “inevitability” to its fate? Romsics, without making any reference to politics or specifically mentioning Viktor Orbán’s name, had some harsh words to say about the romantic notion that the guiding principle of the Hungarian people is its “longing for freedom.” In Romsics’s view, “if there is such a thing as a guiding principle, Hungary in the last 1,000 years has been trying to follow the modernization efforts of Western Europe. Our gaze was always on the West; both our revolutionaries and our consolidators have followed European and not Asian models. Both Mihály Károlyi and István Bethlen were guided by this principle…. But despite continuous efforts, we have never managed to catch up with the advanced regions of Europe.” Here Romsics, who is considered to be a conservative historian, goes against everything the Orbán regime stands for. It seems that he, like other conservative thinkers, realize that their place is not on Viktor Orbán’s side.

I recalled this interview, which I read a few days ago, when I looked at another study by the European Commission, this time on gender equality. Two days ago I was decrying the fact that Hungary, in almost all comparative polls, ranks worst or close to worst among the 28 member states. It is depressing always to see Hungary among the same three or four East European countries, whether the issue is healthcare or the performance of 15-year-olds on PISA tests. Or, as we will find out, when it comes to the position of women and the societal attitude towards them.

A couple of years ago 444.hu got hold of a recording of an informal conversation between Viktor Orbán and university students at his old dormitory. A female student inquired why there weren’t more women in Hungarian politics. Orbán replied that, yes, some people claim that “women should be given more opportunity in political life,” but, according to him, Hungarian politics is built on “continual character assassination,” which creates the kinds of brutal situations that “women cannot endure.” Perhaps they could be used in diplomacy. An ambassadorship might be a safe place for a woman, but being a “mayor in a town that is a county seat is a soldier-like political task for a woman.” Of course, within Fidesz it is Viktor Orbán who decides which women are strong enough to be politicians since he approves all appointments within the party. Mighty few  qualify.

Gender Equality 2017 is a survey that was undertaken at the behest of the European Commission. It was published a few days ago. As everyone knows, the West is a great deal more progressive than the East. But even within Eastern Europe Hungary stands out as an extremely conservative country with societal outlooks stuck at the end of the nineteenth century. This is especially strange after forty years of socialism, when women were brought into every field of the working world. For instance, in the 1950s Hungary was way ahead of the United States, where women were largely excluded from such professions as medicine, law, and engineering.

The traditionalist, deeply conservative view of Hungarian society is  demonstrated by Hungarians’ answer to the following statement: “The most important role of a woman is to take care of her home and family.” Respondents had the option of either agreeing or disagreeing with this assertion. Bulgaria leads the way with 81% agreeing, but, don’t fear, Hungary is right behind at 79%. And 79% of Hungarians believe that “the most important role of a man is to earn money.” Given such an attitude, we shouldn’t be surprised that an overwhelming majority of Hungarians (87%) believe that “women are more likely than men to make decisions based on their emotions.” The EU average score is 69%.

The survey included two statements on women and politics. The first was about women’s interest in acquiring positions of responsibility in politics. The majority of Hungarians (57%) believe that women are simply not interested in politics. The EU average is 34%. The situation was even worse when Hungarians confronted the statement “Women do not have the necessary qualities and skills to fill positions of responsibility in politics.” Forty-one percent of Hungarians believe that women are simply unfit to fill political roles. Well, you could say, that’s not so bad. At least it’s better than 79% thinking that the most important role of a woman is taking care of the home and children. Yes, but Hungary, along with Romania, heads that list. Just to illustrate the seriousness of the situation,  only 20% of Poles and Slovenians are as backward as Hungarians. Sorry, but I consider that true backwardness.

Political analysts like to portray Viktor Orbán as the political genius who keeps his finger on the pulse of the nation. He knows “Kádár’s folks,” the saying goes, but I think it would be more accurate to say that he is one of them. It is unlikely that he keeps women away from power because he considers it to be politically advantageous. No, he does it instinctively because he truly believes that they are neither fit for nor interested in politics.

Strangely, when Hungarians were faced with the statement “Politics is dominated by men who do not have sufficient confidence in women,” 82% of them agreed, the highest score among all member states. Hungarians, when it comes to women and politics, seem to have a somewhat schizophrenic attitude to the whole question. On the one hand, women should stay at home and take care of the family and, on the other, the men who are in charge of their affairs don’t really represent their interests. The majority (61%) of Hungarians realize that “political gender equality has not been achieved” in their country.

With a political leadership that not only wouldn’t reflect and exploit present prejudices but would try to bring the country more in line with the West, toward which Hungary has allegedly been striving for a thousand years, the abysmal standing of Hungary on the issue of gender equality could be shaped over time to conform at least to the European Union average.

November 27, 2017

Viktor Orbán’s first day in Brussels without his British prop

Today, after a meeting of the European Council sans David Cameron, several European leaders gave press conferences, starting with President Jean-Claude Juncker. From his brief summary of the meeting, we learned that there had been unanimity on two important issues.

First, there will be no internal à la carte market. “Those who have access have to implement all four freedoms without exceptions and nuances”: the free movement of goods, the free movement of services and freedom of establishment, the free movement of persons (and citizenship), including free movement of workers, and the free movement of capital.

The second point was that while the European Union does need reforms, they can be neither additional nor contrary to what has already been decided. What he has in mind is the strategic agenda of the European Council and the ten priorities the European Commission declared earlier. Here I will mention only four of these priorities that are not at all to the liking of the Visegrád 4 or countries that sympathize with the group: (1) a deeper and fairer internal market, (2) a deeper and fairer economic and monetary union, (3) an energy union, and (4) a common European agenda on migration. From the Hungarian point of view, perhaps the most significant announcement by Juncker was that “it is about speeding up reforms, not about adding reforms to already existing reforms.”

Viktor Orbán also gave an “international press conference,” as the Hungarian media reported the event. Normally, after an ordinary summit, there are only a couple of Hungarian media outlets that are interested in Orbán’s reactions, but this time the prime minister’s press conference was conducted in English and with a larger group of journalists.

The Associated Press’s short summary concentrated on “personnel changes,” which without additional background information didn’t make much sense. In order to have a better understanding of what Orbán was talking about, we must interpret his words in light of Jarosław Kaczyński’s demand for the resignation of Jean-Claude Juncker and other EU officials a few days ago. Orbán, who talks so much about the unity of the Visegrád 4 countries, doesn’t seem to be ready to support the Polish leader’s attack on Juncker and the Commission, at least at this time. The Hungarian prime minister thinks that “time, analysis, thought and proposals are needed” before such changes are discussed. In his opinion, “it would be cheap and not at all gallant in these circumstances to suddenly attack any leader of the Commission or any EU institution.” In addition, Orbán doesn’t stand by Kaczyński on at least two other issues. Kaczyński severely criticized Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, while Orbán praised him. Orbán also rejected, for the time being, the Polish politician’s call for a rewriting of the EU constitution.

Viktor Orbán at his press conference / AP Photo

Viktor Orbán at his press conference / AP Photo

Hungarian summaries of the same press conference are naturally a great deal more detailed and therefore more enlightening when it comes to an analysis of Viktor Orbán’s current thinking on the situation in which he finds himself. Here I will concentrate on two of Orbán’s priorities.

The first is his hope that future negotiations between the European Union and the United Kingdom will be conducted not by the European Commission but by the European Council. Even if the European Parliament and the Commission were willing to agree to such an arrangement, which I very much doubt, the complexity of these negotiations precludes such an arrangement.

Orbán’s second priority is the introduction of an entirely new set of what he calls “reforms.” He, as opposed to most European politicians, has a different notion of what constitutes “reform.” Instead of the European agenda that aims at deepening integration, he would like to see a loosening of ties among member states. During the press conference, Orbán repeated several times a Hungarian saying, allegedly first uttered by Ferenc Deák, the architect of the 1867 Compromise with the Crown who was famous for his figures of speech. Deák, after the 1848-1849 revolution, likened the absolutist administration to a hussar’s dolman which was buttoned incorrectly and which could be fixed only if the hussar unbuttoned all the buttons and started anew. In plain language, the whole structure of the European Union is wrong and it is time to undo everything and begin again from scratch. But, as we learned from Juncker, this is not what the majority of the European Council has in mind. In sum, I don’t believe that either of Orbán’s two important goals has the slightest chance of being accepted.

There is one issue, however, on which he fully supports Juncker’s position. As far as he is concerned, there can be no question of Great Britain limiting the immigration of citizens of the European Union. In his opinion, the East European countries went beyond what would have been a reasonable compromise when in February they accepted Cameron’s very tough demands on European citizens working in the United Kingdom. But now there can be no concession on this issue. If Great Britain wants to enjoy certain trading privileges with the European Union, its government must allow EU citizens to live and work there.

Restricting immigration from Europe, especially from its eastern part, has been a topic of long-standing political debate in the United Kingdom. Theresa May, the home secretary who has a chance of becoming David Cameron’s successor, has been talking about limitations for a number of years. Both Boris Johnson and Theresa May want to close the door on unskilled labor from Europe without Britain’s losing access to the single market. They interpret the EU’s free-movement principle as the freedom to move to a specific job rather than to cross borders to look for work. And there is no question, the pro-exit Conservatives are not talking about Middle Eastern refugees here. They decry the fact that “a third of Portugal’s qualified nurses had migrated, 20% of Czech medical graduates were leaving once qualified, and nearly 500 doctors were leaving Bulgaria every year.” The Brexit leaders could talk about Hungary as well, which saw about 500,000 people leave for Great Britain, Germany, Sweden, and other countries in the West.

Viktor Orbán did touch on immigration to the British Isles as one of the causes of the anti-European sentiment that has spread across England and Wales, but he maintained that “in British thinking migrants coming from outside of Europe and the employees arriving from the European Union are conflated, the result of which the voters felt that they didn’t get satisfactory answers from the European Union for their questions.” British Conservative politicians’ opinions on the subject, going back at least a year if not longer, leave no doubt that they were not been concerned with the refugees but with those EU citizens already in the country. The person who does conflate the two is Viktor Orbán. Last Friday he, who only a few days earlier had campaigned for David Cameron, manifested a certain glee in blaming EU’s refugee crisis for Brexit. I wonder how he will feel when one of the key sticking points in the U.K.-EU negotiations turns out to be East European immigration to Great Britain.

Meanwhile, I understand that the number of Hungarians planning to make the journey to the United Kingdom has grown enormously since the British exit vote. The hope is that anybody who arrives in Great Britain while the country is still part of the EU will be safe, but who knows what will happen later.

June 29, 2016

Zoltán Balog’s Europe: Victim of outside forces

On paper Zoltán Balog, head of the ministry of human resources and an ordained Calvinist minister, should be relatively sophisticated about the world. He spent years studying in Berlin, Halle, Tübingen, and Bonn. He had many foreign friends already in the early 1980s when he was a student at the Debrecen Theological University. In fact, his first wife, whom he married at the age of 20, was an East German exchange student. Yet, when one listens to him today, he gives the impression of being comfortable only inside the borders of Hungary, geographically, culturally, and ideologically.

He got involved with Fidesz early, mostly as an adviser on matters of religion, about which Orbán and his friends knew next to nothing. His advice was especially badly needed around 1993 when Fidesz was supposed to be transformed into a Christian democratic party. This was apparently the time when both László Kövér and Viktor Orbán “found God,” a revelation in which Balog had a role to play.

For a short while Balog worked in the office of the president during Ferenc Mádl’s tenure, but otherwise his relation to Fidesz was informal. He first got extensive media coverage when, in 2006, joined by Krisztina Morvai of Jobbik, he established the Civil Jogász Bizottság (Civic Legal Committee). This group rewrote the history of the 2006 September-October disturbances. It will be a difficult task for future historians to come up with a more balanced view of those events.

By 2006 Balog was a full-fledged member of the Fidesz parliamentary caucus, and after 2010 he became part of the government. He began his government career as undersecretary in the ministry of administration and justice in charge of Roma affairs. Less than two years later he was named minister of the ministry of human resources, a mega ministry in charge of education, healthcare, sports, and culture.

A few days ago, Balog agreed to give an interview to 888.hu, a gutter internet paper published by Árpád Habony’s new media center. Despite the years spent outside of Hungary, in this interview he shows himself to be a provincial fellow.

In his view Hungary is under bombardment by antagonistic forces from the outside. The attacks are not just political but cultural as well. For example, he wants to save the country from foreign food and foreign music. What a threat it is to have all those foreign restaurants on Hungarian soil. And how sad that the recipes on Hungarian internet sites are practically indistinguishable from what appears on similar sites in Germany, France, or, for that matter, the United States. Even a strong Orbán government cannot defend Hungarians from food globalization.

Zoltán Balog explains Hungary's place in the world

Zoltán Balog explains Hungary’s place in the world

Of course, the real threats are the “concealed powers,” like Soros’s Open Society Foundation. On the surface it looks as if Hungary is a free country, but “there are people who want to make us the plaything of world powers.” When Balog suspects foreigners of giving advice, his “blood boils.” He gets mighty upset when “big international organizations keep explaining to us what we should do with the Gypsies, women, the media, the economy.” Hungarians don’t fabricate “conspiracy theories” because “it is a fact that … financial and economic powers try to influence the internal affairs of Hungary and other countries.” When the Orbán government goes against these forces, it is justified because it acts “in the defense of democracy.”

In Balog’s eyes all criticisms of the Orbán government come from selfish economic interests. But since complaining about diminished profits wouldn’t impress anyone, “they talk about the dangers threatening Hungarian democracy, Hungarians killing Gypsies, virulent anti-Semitism.” Of course, none of this is true, but in Germany “they make films in which they try to explain to children that Viktor Orbán is a dictator.”

Balog’s view of the former Soviet bloc is more than strange. Westerners, and here I assume Balog thinks of West Germans whom he knows best, often talk about “the former east,” which irritates him to no end. Every time he hears someone refer to “central Europeans” in such a way, he answers that as long as Europeans don’t also talk about the west as “the former western bloc” there will be no “common Europe.”

Balog finds the situation of the peoples of the two blocs analogous in many ways. As I understand him, Balog claims that none of the nations of Europe has been free. In the East, the Soviets foisted their political system on the countries that were “liberated” by the Soviet army in 1945. The same thing happened in the West, which the American army occupied. Westerners had to endure the Americanization of the West, just as Easterners suffered Sovietization.

I don’t know whether this is Balog’s own theory or whether he is just mouthing the ideas of Viktor Orbán. From the other topics he covers in this interview, I’m inclined to believe that this incredible idea is not his own.

And this is not the only strange idea that Balog sets out in this interview. He was always a fierce anti-communist, even in his high school years. Add to this a very strong dislike of the political elite of the Kádár regime and the Fidesz propaganda about the liberals being the communists of today, and Balog sees communists everywhere.

According to him, “people in the West are inclined to look upon the history of the last seventy years as a small episode in the area east of the Elbe,” after which we can return to the “agenda.” But the former Soviet bloc countries cannot return to something westerners may call normalcy “because the experience of dictatorship is shared” by West and East alike. Western countries have also been poisoned by communism.

Balog contends that because communism made inroads even in the United States, Bill Clinton’s claim about the United States’ gift of freedom to Poland and Hungary is false. Does this mean that democracy in the western countries is basically a sham? That they are no more democratic than the people of the former Soviet bloc? I guess this is exactly what Balog has in mind. Because by the end, he claims primacy for Poland and Hungary over the United States when it comes to the introduction of democratic principles. As he put it: “While in America they were flogging the blacks and the slaves, in Poland there was quite a democracy already. And in Hungary too.”

As for Polish democracy, I assume Balog is thinking of the infamous “liberum veto,” a parliamentary device in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth which allowed any member of the Sejm (parliament) to force an immediate end to the current session and nullify any legislation that had already been passed. It seems that Balog’s teachers didn’t explain to him that only nobles of the realm could be members of parliament and that therefore the Polish case is not a valid counterexample. As for Hungarian democracy, I have no idea what Balog has in mind. I’m afraid he doesn’t either.

June 13, 2016

European Union in crisis: David Cameron and Viktor Orbán

In the last few days we discussed at some length U.S.-Hungarian relations, which are not in the best of shape. We also briefly talked about the harebrained ideas of a Hungarian Catholic bishop on the death of Christian Europe. During these few days some newsworthy events took place in the European Union, the most important being British Prime Minister David Cameron’s “ultimatum” to the European Union. Analysts suspect that Cameron doesn’t really want to get to the point of holding a referendum on Great Britain’s membership in the EU but wants concessions that he can present to domestic critics of the EU. Given the fragile state of the EU, brought about first by the Greek financial collapse and now the refugee crisis, Cameron’s belligerence couldn’t have come at a worst time.

Cameron’s demands include a safeguard to prevent countries that use the euro from discriminating economically against Britain; an end to Britain’s legal commitment to pursue an “ever closer union”; and the right to restrict welfare entitlements, including benefits for low-income workers, for four years for migrants arriving from other European countries. Of these demands the last is the most troubling since it “would be a departure from current European rules stipulating that citizens of all countries in the bloc should be treated equally.” Politico.eu, on the basis of a conversation with a “diplomat familiar with the talks,” claims that the “EU leaders will offer to create a transition clause that restricts the ability of citizens of possible future EU members such as Serbia and Albania to work elsewhere in the EU.” At present there are restrictions for seven years after a country joins the bloc but, according to politico.hu‘s source, “this could be increased to as much as 20 years.”

Such a deal sounds unfair to me, although it might appease the three Visegrád countries–the Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovakia–whose leaders have already protested loudly. After all, London is full of “economic migrants,” the overwhelming majority of whom come from poor East European countries. Witold Waszczykowski, Poland’s incoming foreign minister, finds the British move “humiliating.” Peter Javorcik, Slovakia’s ambassador to the European Union, declared that “we cannot create two categories of EU citizens.” According to Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, to put limits on the freedom of movement within the EU poses “a serious problem for the Czech Republic.”  I trust everybody noticed that Hungary said not a word on the issue.

While these leaders were objecting, the energetic Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, in an interview with Die Welt had a few harsh words of his own about the East European newcomers to the EU. He spoke about the walls that “are not protection but traps.” Renzi didn’t mince words on the behavior of the East European countries. According to him, “the Western European [politicians] paid a political price for the enlargement,” but now they are faced with uncooperative and belligerent Easterners. When the reporter brought up the intransigence of Viktor Orbán, Renzi pointed out that the dividing line on this issue is not left versus right but East versus West. There is socialist rule in the Czech Republic and Slovakia and yet they side with the right-wing Viktor Orbán and many Poles. He elaborated: “It is a geographic, not a political division between those who know Europe as a great ideal and those who primarily see it as an economic benefit.” The problem must be solved together and it will take years: “Only Marine Le Pen or other right-wing demagogues” believe that the problem can be solved in a week. I have no doubt that Renzi includes Viktor Orbán among these right-wing demagogues.

wektwoche

During the same period Orbán gave an interview to the Swiss Die Weltwoche in which he more or less reiterated the outlandish ideas he outlined in his recent speech about the organized nature of the refugee crisis. But this time, I think wisely, he neglected to mention the name of George Soros. He did, however, repeat his belief in a left-wing conspiracy to dilute Christian Europe. This time he also shared his conviction that the socialists of Western Europe welcome the newcomers because they will add to the shrinking voter base of leftist parties.

It seems that Orbán doesn’t have the patience to think through his pronouncements. Years and years will go by before these newcomers receive citizenship. When a large wave of immigrants arrives at the same time, the newcomers’ inclination is to vote for the party that was in power when they were admitted. This was definitely true of the 56ers in the United States and Canada. At least in the first ten or fifteen years after their arrival. Why would the Syrians, who at the moment are so grateful to Angela Merkel, vote for the socialists?

In this interview, which unfortunately is not available online and which I could read only in a Hungarian-language summary, I found two statements that shed light on Viktor Orbán’s state of mind. The first is that he pretty much acknowledges here, if only indirectly, that he has been isolated in the last few years because he “doesn’t fit in,” because he doesn’t “represent the euro-liberal mainstream.” Last night on PBS’s NewsHour I saw Viktor Orbán walking alone, one hand in his jacket pocket, at the Malta Summit, where sixty leaders gathered yesterday. The second telling sentence came at the end of the interview. He explains that the “European, civic, Christian Democratic camp is in such shambles that [he] must take upon himself the task that others cannot accomplish.” Nowhere before have I read such a bald confession of Orbán’s soaring ambition to lead Europe to accept his solution to the refugee crisis.

Hungarian politicians on the European Union

We must abandon the refugees who are waiting in vain to board a train to Vienna and beyond because at the moment no one knows what the Hungarian government’s plans are regarding their fate. By the time I could finish a post about them, my report would be hopelessly outdated. Therefore, I’d rather move to a seemingly “safer” subject: Fidesz politicians’ view of Hungary’s position vis-à-vis the European Union as the source of Hungary’s current grievances over the refugee crisis.

Two or three days ago I talked about the growing chasm in attitudes between East and West as far as the refugee crisis is concerned. The dividing line is more or less where the iron curtain used to be. A huge difference in public attitudes on many issues still exists even between West and East Germans. Almost half a century of Soviet influence left a lasting mark on national psyches.

We have of course long been aware of the political, economic, and cultural differences between East and West, but there was always the hope of “convergence,” to use a term officials of the European Union are especially fond of. But now, under the weight of the refugee crisis, seemingly irreconcilable differences have surfaced. The western countries are ready to cooperate and adhere to the common values upon which the Union was built. The former socialist countries think only in terms of nation states, which is no answer to a pan-European crisis.

Clinging to national sovereignty, thinking only in terms of the particular instead of the general is an attitude that doesn’t bode well for the health of EU. How can there be unity if the politicians of the former socialist states don’t come to their senses? And in Hungary’s case the politicians aren’t showing any such inclination. In fact, if anything the opposite is true. As time goes by, statements by leading Fidesz politicians are even less  acceptable to those who believe in the future of Europe as a more closely knit union of member states where the common good overrides purely national interests.

Let’s sample some of the prevailing attitudes within Fidesz. János Lázár, who heads the prime minister’s office, is more or less responsible for the everyday management of the country, if you can call it management. Most critics would call it floundering, which is not too harsh a judgment if we look at the government’s handling of the registration of refugees. In any event, he is the most important man in the country after Viktor Orbán, and he is also the de facto voice of the prime minister. In Lázár’s opinion the European Union is an institution under the influence of the left, and all politicians of the left are incompetent. The result: economic and political ruin.

The same theme crops up in a much cruder form in a press release by the Antal Rogán-led Fidesz parliamentary delegation. According to the Fidesz delegation, the leadership of the European Union is not merely influenced by the mistaken notions of the European left; European politicians are actively working against the Christian, national right-wing Orbán government in order to weaken it. As proof of their position they cite the “fact” that the European Union gave a lucrative job to a company owned by Ferenc Gyurcsány for the express purpose of strengthening the Hungarian left against the legitimate government of Hungary. As the press release put it: “The European Commission bought Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Demokratikus Koalícó by the pound, and therefore it is not surprising that Gyurcsány parrots the failed immigration policies of the European Union.” It’s hard to respond to such a ridiculous conspiracy theory from a high-level politician.

Help, humanity

Rogán elaborated on the same theme in an interview he gave to Napi Gazdaság, which as of yesterday has been renamed Magyar Idők (Hungarian Times). He severely criticized the European Union for its immigration policies, which practically amount to encouragement to emigrate. Rogán seems to sense that the western big guns are getting mighty annoyed and making noises about the restoration of internal borders within the Schengen frontiers, but he believes that Hungary’s current plans to stop all asylum seekers at the Serb-Hungarian and perhaps later the Croatian-Hungarian border will be the remedy. If Rogán’s ideas reflect Viktor Orbán’s notions, then I’m sure the prime minister is on the wrong track.The introduction of harsh measures, the deployment of the army, and the enactment of undemocratic laws is no solution.

In the same interview Rogán bared his feelings about the Middle Eastern refugees when he declared that he wouldn’t want “his grandchildren to live in the United European Caliphate.” This kind of talk only reinforces the population’s worries about the refugees, which is undoubtedly the intention of the government. The Hungarian intelligence services have already informed the Parliamentary Commission on National Security about the large number of terrorists they identified among the asylum seekers even though real terrorists are unlikely to arrive in Europe on foot and climb under or over Orbán’s fence. Unlike the refugees, they can buy plane tickets.

The same theme was echoed by Szilárd Németh, an important Fidesz politician. According to him, those members of parliament who don’t support the Fidesz amendments to the criminal code “unequivocally prove that they place the interests of the immigrants ahead of those of the Hungarians.” The situation that developed at the Keleti (Eastern) Station “will not be solved by politicians,” especially not by those irresponsible EU politicians like Jean-Claude Junker “who practically encourage people to come without fear because there will be no problem once they are here. . . . We, on the other hand,” he added, “stand by the current laws” of the European Union.

At the end of his press conference Németh indicated that it was Viktor Orbán who initiated the meeting with Jean-Claude Junker, Donald Tusk, and Martin Schulz scheduled for tomorrow. I’m not so sure that this was the case. Given the firm stand of the western member countries on the immigrant issue, I have the feeling that the invitation came from Brussels. It is becoming increasingly obvious that they are seeking a common policy that would entail each country taking a certain number of refugees, the kind of quota system Viktor Orbán earlier categorically rejected. Those who refuse to play ball will be in one way or the other “disciplined.”

A few days ago I suggested that I would not be shocked if Viktor Orbán, despite all the noise he has been making, would eventually cave. He certainly hasn’t caved yet, but the Hungarian ambassador to Berlin, József Czukor, in an interview with ZDF, a public television station, suggested that perhaps under certain circumstances a solution that would distribute the immigrants among member states could be discussed after all. The interviewer was greatly surprised and asked Czukor again about the issue. The ambassador repeated that “this problem must be solved together.” The interview can be seen here.

What kinds of “certain circumstances” was the ambassador talking about? I fear that what the Hungarian prime minister has in mind is the acceptance by the European Union of Hungary’s plan to seal the Serb-Hungarian border so tight that no one would be able to enter the European Union on land through the Balkans. In that case, Hungary would accept a few hundred refugees. If that is the case, Viktor Orbán’s trip might not be a success. I am sure that the western democracies are demanding close cooperation and humane treatment of deserving refugees and will reject the solution, with its attendant draconian measures, advocated by the Hungarian government.

Viktor Orbán’s dangerous games

Foreign press coverage was uniformly negative following Vladimir Putin’s visit to Budapest. The Hungarian prime minister’s role in giving the Russian aggressor a platform was widely condemned, and not just in the media. Yesterday I described the Polish reaction to Viktor Orbán’s friendship with Putin and his admiration of the “illiberal democracy” of Russia. Orbán’s answer to these criticisms is always the same: he is a pragmatic politician whose only concern is Hungary’s national interests. Moreover, national interests for him means purely economic interests. Hence the complete reorganization of the foreign ministry, which was transformed into a ministry of foreign trade. He steadfastly maintains that his dalliance with Putin’s Russia has absolutely nothing to do with politics. Or at least this is what he wants the western world to believe.

Pragmatism for Orbán also means the total disregard of any principles of morality. One can lie through one’s teeth about small matters or weighty issues in the pursuit of desired ends–power being the overarching end. He has no qualms.

What are his plans? On two different occasions he talked about his relations with the European Union and Russia. First, right after the Putin visit, the “background conversations” with Hungarian journalists who are responsible for covering foreign affairs and, second, an interview that appeared today in the Russian newspaper Kommersant. Both belie Orbán’s contention that his interests in Russia are purely economic.

For me it is not at all clear why Orbán decided to share his thoughts on his foreign policy agenda with about fifteen journalists, including those from opposition papers. Whatever the reason, he was expansive and covered a variety of issues, starting with the European Union. He pointed to the chasm that exists between Poland and the Baltic states on the one side and the rest of Europe on the other when it comes to their policies toward Russia and the United States. He made no secret of his disapproval of any attempt to exclude Russia from “European cooperation.” He accused these countries of using the notion of a “value-based foreign policy” to achieve this goal.

What does Orbán mean by a “value-based foreign policy”? To put it in the simplest terms, for Orbán it means a foreign policy that is based on democratic values. The United States, for example, allegedly conducts such a foreign policy but, as Orbán put it at this meeting, the veneer of democracy covers up the true beneficiaries of such American efforts– businessmen.

Orbán seems to be convinced that “there are no Russian interests that would threaten the Hungarian ones.” Reading this sentence today, when I see the headline that Vladimir Putin just announced that “no one should have the illusion that [other countries] can gain military superiority over Russia, put any kind of pressure on it,” I shudder at the shortsightedness of Hungary’s prime minister. The British Defense Secretary, Michael Fallon, rang the alarm bell: Russia is “a real and present danger” to the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, all of which are NATO members. But I guess if the prime minister of Hungary looks upon his country as an island in the middle of Europe and not part of the European Union, then he can sit back and have no worries about possible Russian military expansion. First Ukraine and perhaps the Baltic states. What comes next? Poland, Slovakia, Romania, with the exception of Hungary? I don’t want to exaggerate the danger, but I think that Russian aggression is real and can be stopped only by an absolutely united European Union backed, at least in principle, by the military might of the United States.

Viktor Orbán, in an interview in Kommersant, which was recorded before his visit to Warsaw, was effusive about Russia. We have to keep in mind that a chat with Hungarian journalists behind closed doors is a different cup of tea from an interview with a Russian newspaper. The article summarized Orbán’s position as “fundamentally different from the common European position.”

Orban

Orbán’s position on sanctions is no secret. He is against them. But he revealed in this interview that his policy toward Germany has also changed. While before Angela Merkel’s visit to Budapest we heard over and over that Germany is Hungary’s closest ally, benefactor, and example, we find out now that Angela Merkel is the greatest obstacle to better understanding between Russia and Europe. As he said in this interview, “as long as the Germans want to keep sanctions against Russia, the situation is unlikely to change. Whether Hungary agrees or not.”

We know from Orbán’s conversations with the journalists that Poland and the Baltic states are the bad boys. If it depended on the rest of the countries of the EU, there would be some kind of understanding with Russia. In this interview he went even further. There is not only a split in Europe over the Russian-Ukrainian crisis, but “there are those who believe that Russia should be isolated economically. They claim that there must be a clear choice between Russia and European unity.” Keep in mind that Orbán is talking to a Russian audience against his allies on behalf of Russia. And continuing down this path, he said that when the European Union “decides on the issue of cooperation with Russia … we will not be deciding the fate of Russia but the future of Europe itself.” Well, that can mean only one thing. Orbán predicts that Russia will be the winner of this dangerous game. If the EU does not agree to cooperate with Russia, Europe’s fate will be sealed. Moreover, he said, he does not want to live “in a Europe that conducts a new Cold War with Russia.” Any thoughts about the best place for him to emigrate?

In his opinion Europeans should take advantage of the “fantastic economic opportunities” Russia offers. Such a partnership would be mutually beneficial; then “we will have a fantastic future.” What practical steps does Orbán suggest the leaders of the European Union take to achieve such a bright future? They “should support the Russian initiative that offers economic cooperation and free trade between the EU and the Eurasian Union.” In brief, he would suggest a total turnabout in the Russia policy of the United States and the European Union.

There were many more topics covered for which I have neither time nor space here. I’ll limit myself to his gripe about the West and his fondness for the East. He complained about the EU’s attitude toward Hungary, which he characterized as “pressure mixed with antipathy.” By contrast, he hailed “the respect with which President Putin treats us.” And he expressed his admiration of the Russian leader. When he was prime minister between 1998 and 2002 he “watched the situation in Russia with great sympathy…. [he] saw the changes that occurred in 2000 when President Putin came to power. A leader who could restore faith in the future of his people.”

So, tell me, are we talking only about economic relations between Putin’s Russia and Orbán’s Hungary, as he and his spokesmen try to convince the world? Certainly not. Eduard Hellvig, who was just appointed head of the Romanian foreign intelligence service, published an article a few days ago in which he warned of “the threat to the EU” because of the rapprochement between Russia and Hungary. Let me quote a couple of sentences from this article:

The Russian-Hungarian partnership not only threatens the Romanian-Hungarian strategic partnership, which becomes increasingly vacuous due to the nationalist hostility of Budapest, but also NATO and EU interests in the area. Therefore, I believe that Romania, caught in the vise of this poisoned Russian-Hungarian Entente, should take the leading role in defending democratic values and allied interests in the region.

Hellwig points out that Russia has an offensive military doctrine which threatens Eastern Europe, including his own country.

Lately, Orbán has been seen as a Trojan horse, “increasingly under the influence of Moscow.” I heard rumors that western diplomats were warned by their ministries to be careful around their Hungarian colleagues. Almost sixty years ago Hungarians fought to rid themselves of the influence of Moscow. Now the country freely accepts its influence, guided by a prime minister who values power over principles.

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.