Tag Archives: European Union

Who is the real winner of the Austrian election? Perhaps not Viktor Orbán, after all

On October 16, 2017, Hungarian government propaganda papers were ecstatic. It looked almost certain that the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), led by the young Sebastian Kurz, would emerge as the strongest party after the national election. The Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) finished second, only slightly ahead of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), but most people expected Kurz to turn to Heinz-Christian Strache’s FPÖ to form a government. And indeed, four days later, coalition talks began between ÖVP and FPÖ.

The pro-government Origo exclaimed, as soon as Kurz’s victory seemed assured, that “Viktor Orbán also won in the Austrian election.” The paper quoted Russia Today, which predicted an even deeper division within the European Union with Kurz’s victory. The position of Berlin and Paris, it said, will be weakened when Austria joins the Visegrád 4 countries in opposition to open borders, which in turn will lessen the likelihood of a federalist solution in the near future.

Right-wing analysts like Ágoston Sámuel Mráz echoed Russia Today, adding that, although Austria is unlikely to join the Visegrád 4, with Kurz’s election “the Central European concept will be strengthened.” As he put it, in Austria “Sebastian Kurz was victorious, but it was Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán who won.”

After the announcement of the conclusion of successful coalition negotiations on December 18, there was general optimism concerning closer relations between Austria and Hungary under the leadership of a government without the socialists. Austrian pundits made all sorts of predictions about cooperation, especially on matters of immigration. Hungarian government experts emphasized with satisfaction that ÖVP, as far as the refugees are concerned, had adopted FPÖ’s more radical approach. They noted, however, most likely with some regret, that the coalition agreement contains a reference to Austria as an integral part of the European Union. 888.hu was especially happy about the large presence of FPÖ in the coalition and published an article on Austrian Interior Minister Herbert Kickl (FPÖ), who considers Viktor Orbán a prophet and a model for Austrian politicians to emulate.

It is not at all clear at the moment how close a relationship Sebastian Kurz wants to maintain with the Visegrád 4, especially after he warned against “overinterpreting things.” As he put it, “there are measures and initiatives where we have goodwill in western European countries … [and] there are others where we will perhaps get applause from the Visegrad countries, and still others where we agree with all other 27 EU member states.” Híradó, the official Hungarian government news outlet, put it even more bluntly when it reported that “Sebastian Kurz rejected speculation that Austria would draw closer to the V4 countries as opposed to its Western European allies.” Kurz announced that he is planning to visit Paris and Berlin in the coming weeks, stressing that Germany is Austria’s biggest neighbor and most important economic partner. In brief, it is unlikely that Viktor Orbán can rely on Kurz in his anti-Merkel moves.

Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache at the cabinet meeting in Seggau / Source: Der Standard

I found the comments that the new Czech Prime Minister, Andrej Babiš, made a couple of days ago amusing. He announced that the Visegrád 4 countries must convince Brussels that the refugee quotas are senseless, and he “has a clear plan how to fight against the quotas and find new allies.” In the next few weeks he is planning to visit the Bulgarian prime minister and Jean-Claude Juncker. He is also going to Davos, where he will meet the Austrian chancellor. That is his plan. If the neophyte Czech prime minister thinks that a couple of private chats will change the solid opposition to the Polish, Czech, and Hungarian refusal to abide by EU rules, he still has much to learn.

I don’t think that Viktor Orbán ever seriously believed that Austria would be part of the Visegrád 4 any time in the future, but I suspect that he didn’t anticipate a potential source of friction between the two governments only a few days after the formation of Kurz’s government. After the first cabinet meeting, Kurz and Strache announced that the Austrian government will reduce the amount of child support for children of “guest workers” whose families remain behind. In 2016, the Austrian government paid 273 million euros for 132,000 children living outside of the country. Hungary and Slovakia received the largest amounts of money: Hungary 80 million and Slovakia 63 million.

This move is part of a broader Austrian government agenda that includes cutting taxes, reducing benefits for refugees, and restricting new immigrants’ access to many social services for five years. Or, as Péter Techet wrote in a thought-provoking article on Austria, this government wants to end the Austrian welfare state as it currently exists.

Discriminating between EU citizens is illegal according to the EU Constitution. Yet Kurz seems confident that his government won’t violate EU laws by reducing family allowances. At least this is the opinion of the party’s expert, who argued that the size of the benefit should be determined by the purchasing power of the country of the child’s residence. It is ridiculous, he said, that a Romanian family with two children receives €300, which is the equivalent of an average salary in Romania. However, it may not be as simple as the Austrian labor lawyer thinks. Jean Claude Juncker’s deputy chief spokeswoman already issued a warning that the European Commission is closely monitoring the situation, and I wouldn’t be too sanguine about Austrian success in this matter. Earlier such attempts by Germany to discriminate against so-called foreigners were squashed.

In an ironic twist, Orbán, who fights so valiantly for the rights of Hungarians in the United Kingdom, may have to turn to the hated Brussels for protection against the Austrian government he greeted with such enthusiasm.

January 8, 2018

The Orbán government’s international conference on the future of Europe, with Milo Yiannopoulos

Yesterday the Hungarian media got wind of an international conference on The Future of Europe, to be held between January 23 and 25, 2018 in Budapest’s Castle Garden Bazaar. The conference is heralded as “an outstanding cultural and scientific event of the V4 Hungarian Presidency” and is being funded by the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Századvég, the Fidesz think tank, and V4 Connects, the fancy name for the Hungarian presidency of the Visegrád Four, are “partners,” while the organizer of the affair is a foundation created during the first Orbán government under the watchful eye of Mária Schmidt, who still serves on its five-member board.

According to the conference’s webpage, it “represents an extraordinary opportunity to analyze the full array of political and cultural processes as well as to put our identity-creating cultural values in the limelight.” The conference is advertised as a gathering of leading politicians, renowned professors and well-known public figures [who] will share their views with each other and with the audience of visitors.”

There will be panel discussions on topics like the “cultural war for body and soul” of Europe, or, to put it another way, “shall we, out of cultural guilt or simple calculation, sacrifice Christianity, freedom and our way of life?” As for geopolitical challenges, the invited guests will discuss such issues as the nature of a European army. The question is whether this army “should consist of soldiers or machines and algorithms.” They will touch upon digitalization, which tomorrow “may radically transform humanity’s own identity or even our physical existence.” Finally, emphasis will be placed on the Visegrád Four as “the engine of Europe’s economy” and what opportunities the emerging giants of the world economy–China, India, Indonesia–offer the Visegrád nations. “Will our region be able to jump several stairs at once and make Europe become a leading force in the future world economy?”

When it comes to “the gathering of leading politicians, renowned professors and well-known public figures,” the keynote speaker on the opening day of the conference will be Milo Yiannopoulos, described as a political commentator, publisher, blogger, journalist, and the author of Challenges of the Western World. The next day Frank Füredi, author, commentator, and sociologist, will deliver a lecture on “Populism and the European Culture Wars.” In the afternoon, Götz Kubitschek, described as a publisher, publicist, and philosopher from Germany, will conduct a panel discussion on “migration, resettlement and the future of Europe.” The closing presentation, still untitled, will be given by Pascal Bruckner, a French philosopher and author of a book on France and Islam. The last day will be given over to such luminaries as Péter Szijjártó, who will deliver a speech, most likely on Europe’s geopolitical challenges, and Tamás Deutsch, who will inquire whether “artificial intelligence is our future.” Closing remarks will be delivered by Sándor Csányi, the president of OTP, Hungary’s largest bank, and the richest man in the country.

Who are these people? Let’s start with the lesser-known characters. Götz Kubitschek is a right-wing activist who espouses ethnocentric positions and is one of the most important protagonists of the Neue Rechte. Apparently, he was instrumental in the consolidation of the German branch of the Identitarian movement, commonly viewed as far right. He has been a frequent speaker at PEGIDA rallies in Saxony. He is also close to the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.

Frank Füredi, as his name indicates, is of Hungarian origin. With his parents he arrived in Canada as a refugee after the Hungarian revolution of 1956. He has been living in the United Kingdom since 1969. In the 1970s he became involved in left-wing politics and was the founder and leader of the Revolutionary Communist Party. Nowadays, however, he shows quite a bit of sympathy for populist ideas. I suspect that he was invited to this conference because only a few months ago he published a new book titled Populism and the European Culture Wars, which “argues that the current outburst of anti-populist anxiety is symptomatic of a loss of faith in democracy and in the ability of the demos to assume the role of responsible citizens.” Even more importantly, the book focuses “on the conflict between the European Union’s Commission and the Government of Hungary” and “explores contrasting attitudes towards national sovereignty, popular sovereignty and the question of tradition and the past as the main drivers of the culture wars in Europe.”

Pascal Bruckner was most likely chosen because of his ideas on Islam and the white race, about which he wrote in La Tyrannie de la pénitence. His general criticism of Islam kindled an international debate about ten years ago when he wrote a polemical article titled “Enlightenment fundamentalism or racism of the anti-racists?” In it he talked about an “enlightened elite who deny the benefits of democratic rights to the rest of humanity.” This is an idea that fits in very nicely with the Fidesz ideologues’ hatred of the liberal elite.

Of course, the most controversial character among the invitees is Milo Yiannopoulos, a former senior editor of Breitbart News. He is a critic of feminism, Islam, social justice, and political correctness. He is often described as a member of the alt-right movement, a label he rejects. But in October 2017 leaked emails revealed that he had repeatedly solicited neo-Nazi and white supremacist characters for feedback and story ideas for his work at Breitbart. The same emails also revealed that some of his Breitbart articles were ghost written. His book, which was supposed be published by Simon & Schuster and for which he received $255,000, was eventually rejected and the contract broken. A few days ago an article was devoted to the editor’s notes on Yiannopoulos’s rejected book, which reveal the man’s total inability to write something publishable. One of the funnier remarks by the editor was that the author needed “a stronger argument against feminism than saying that they are ugly and sexless and have cats.” A recent article compares him to Donald Trump in the sense that he “grew out of a grotesque convergence of politics and the internet, and thrived by turning hate speech into show business.”

Milo Yiannopoulos

Well, this is not how the Fidesz far-right looks upon him. Yesterday Pesti Srácok published an article in which Balázs Dezse, the author, talked about Yiannopoulos’s visit to Budapest as a “historic moment” which “for many people is a dream come true.” Dezse is obviously is one of them. According to the admiring author, Yiannopoulos played a key role in the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States. The argument is that it is hard to label this man as a Nazi because, after all, he is openly gay, he prefers African-American partners, and he is partly Jewish. As for his firing from Breitbart for his controversial remarks about pedophilia, this was an attempt by liberals to silence him. He had been molested by his own father, and his remarks about the case were simply twisted by his enemies. Dezse, in an earlier article, also published in Pesti Srácok, describes Yiannopoulos as “the most exciting and most controversial figure of the alternative right.” With great enthusiasm he covers every step that Yiannopoulos has ever taken, showing a deep familiarity with the man’s career and the foreign-language sources that have covered his activities. The article is titled “A brilliant and dangerous fagot, evil doer of the internet alt-right.” (Yiannopoulos called himself a “dangerous faggot.”)

The more mainstream Fidesz papers, like Magyar Idők and Magyar Hírlap, have so far remained quiet about the conference. Mária Schmidt’s Figyelő couldn’t quite ignore it since, after all, Schmidt was involved in the organization of the event. So, an article attacked the liberal media’s criticism of inviting people like Milo Yiannopoulos to an international conference organized by the Hungarian government. The author rejects the label of “extreme right,” which is an arbitrary designation that is given by the so-called independent media and a few liberal politicians. These people complain that “Yiannopoulos as a newspaperman considers his chief mission to be the criticism of feminists, left-wingers, and human-rights activists. This is 100% correct and that’s why we love him.”

Zsolt Jeszenszky, who described himself as a political hobbyist and who has a Bannon 2020 banner on his Facebook page, called the criticisms mere hysteria by the “Hungarian alter egos of Guy Verhofstadt.” In his opinion, “the fellow is extremely well educated, well informed” and often makes fools of his opponents. He is “the greatest enemy of the liberal establishment.” Jeszenszky in this article intimates that conservative Republicans were behind Yiannopoulos’s downfall at Breitbart, taking advantage of his comments on his pedophilic experience.

As time goes by, Viktor Orbán is becoming increasingly open about his far-right ideology and orientation. Looking over the participants of this conference, I find it hard to imagine a group further to the right, unless Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz will decide to invite white supremacists and neo-Nazis to their next international conference on the future of Europe.

December 29, 2017

Was Orbán’s bout with the EU a “points victory”? We will see tomorrow

Viktor Orbán, along with the other prime ministers of the European Union’s member states, is in Brussels at the moment, where among other things they are supposed to come to an understanding on the thorny issue of migration. The goal is naturally unity, a common understanding, a situation in which all member states share in the solution to the problems currently facing the European Union.

The greatest obstacle to reaching this goal is the refusal of three of the four Visegrád countries to accept one single refugee in case the need arises. These countries are the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland. The fourth country, Slovakia, would take a very limited number of asylum seekers.

The Visegrád Four countries have jointly come up with a plan of their own. Those countries that already have a number of immigrants from countries outside of the Union should accept most of the refugees while the Central Europeans would redeem their non-compliance with cash contributions. They came out with a figure today. They would pay 35 million euros in assistance to Italy. Hungary’s contribution would be nine million euros. This offer has not found too many enthusiastic supporters. In fact, most of the influential political leaders of the larger states deemed the Visegrád Four’s solution to be unacceptable.

The deep division within the EU became all too visible even before the opening of the summit. In October Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, introduced the idea of sending around a so-called Leaders’ Agenda prior to the summits. Its alleged purpose was to set out topics to be informally discussed. This time the topic was “Migration: way forward on the external and the internal dimension.” It is hard to tell what Tusk meant by this mysterious title, and I’m not surprised that some of Tusk’s critics considered the document badly written. The short letter was full of commonplace notions, like “secure external borders.” But what was strange and new in the document was that Tusk decided that “only Member States are able to tackle the migration crisis effectively” and that the European Commission’s approach to the migration crisis “has turned out to be ineffective.”

Eszter Zalan of Euobserver wrote that Tusk’s note on migration prompted “institutional hysteria” in Brussels. Eventually, the text had to be changed after serious concerns were raised at the meeting of EU foreign ministers on December 11. This was considered by some to be a “humiliating climb-down.” The revised note called for the EU institutions to work together. EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos called Tusk’s note “anti-European,” which might have been an overstatement, but even the official comments coming from the European Commission took umbrage at Tusk’s singular action. Its spokesman conveyed the Commission’s disagreement with Tusk’s criticism of its work.

It was not just the members of the European Council who were critical of Tusk’s move but also the political leaders of Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and even Greece, which has had to manage large numbers of refugees and migrants. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, for example, called Tusk’s comments “aimless, ill-timed, and pointless.” Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose reproofs are usually quite subdued, was openly critical, insisting that “solidarity for the management of borders” is not enough; responsibilities must be shared within the Union as well. Italy might have been pleased with the financial offer but nonetheless reiterated that “we will continue to insist that a commitment on the relocation of refugees is needed.”

The leaders of the Visegrád Four must have been elated when they received Tusk’s note, but the changes that had to be made should have signaled to them that they couldn’t expect an imminent victory for their position. Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó declared that Tusk had “spoken the truth” on mandatory quotas. He went even further in his criticism of the European Commission. “Some Brussels bureaucrats continue to organize and promote illegal migration, and Donald Tusk is now being attacked in a vile and sanctimonious manner by those who have been representing for years now the obviously misguided migration policy of the European Commission.”

The other side considered Tusk’s initiative to be an encroachment on the prerogatives of the European Council. As one unnamed EU diplomat said, “The European Council is not a legislative body.” In his opinion, Tusk couldn’t possibly mean to bypass the normal procedures of the European Union. Moreover, Tusk’s opinions bore a suspicious resemblance to the general argument put forth by the Visegrád Four, which could be a result of his national attachments.

Photo: Stephanie LeCocq / MTI-EPA

Viktor Orbán left Budapest in a combative mood with a backpack on his shoulder which, according to him, contained 2.3 million Hungarians’ rejection of the Soros Plan, which in Orbán’s domestic parlance means the plan of the European Commission. (I should add that no official results of the national consultation have yet been disclosed.) Today he seems to be flying high because his Facebook page is full of videos with English subtitles from Brussels, announcing all of the things he has been accomplishing.

Before the summit the Visegrád Four prime ministers, whose ranks included two new members, Andrej Babiš of the Czech Republic and Mateusz Morawiecki of Poland, met Jean-Claude Juncker of the European Commission and Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni of Italy. Juncker was especially open to the gesture of the four prime ministers and called the offer a sign of solidarity. Orbán was elated and declared that he was “deeply thankful to [Juncker], who was a good partner.” According to Andrew Byrne, Financial Times correspondent for Hungary, Romania, and the West Balkans, Orbán was overtaken by Juncker’s kindness. It’s no wonder that Orbán on one of his videos announced that “after the first bout we are doing well. It looks like a points victory today.”

We will see how the rest of the summit shapes up. After all, Tusk had to retreat, and there is a crucial dinner meeting tonight and another day of negotiations tomorrow.

December 14, 2017

European Union salvo against Viktor Orbán’s illiberal state

Yesterday an editorial appeared in Magyar Hírlap, a government-sponsored daily paper. The author reassured the paper’s readers that “yesterday nothing new happened; nothing was decided; the political, financial, legal, and communication war [between the EU and Hungary] will continue.” And in any case, next week there will be an important EU summit where “the power relations between Brusselites and the camp of those countries that defend sovereignty can shift further toward the latter.”

Admittedly, it is important for a government publication to spread optimistic messages, but the fact is that official statements belie these hopeful predictions. Viktor Orbán rarely gives “extraordinary” television interviews, but after the barrage of bad news coming from Brussels he felt it necessary to explain his version of the events.

What is the Hungarian government facing at the moment? Two different proceedings against the country are underway. The first is a triad of infringement procedures. The second, the beginning of the Article 7(1) process.

Infringement procedures are legal actions against a member country that fails to implement EU laws. There are stages to these procedures, which basically involve an exchange of legal opinions. After the second such unsatisfactory exchange the Commission sends the case to the European Court of Justice. In the event the judgment goes against the country and that country doesn’t rectify the situation, the Commission will propose that the Court impose financial penalties which, depending on the seriousness of the infringement, may be quite high, especially if the penalty is imposed for each day the country is not in compliance.

Hungary at the moment has three serious infringement cases under consideration at the European Court of Justice: the country’s refusal to accept a small quota of refugees, its modification of the laws regarding foreign-financed civic groups, and the amendments to the education law that placed Central European University in a precarious position. Its continued existence is still very much in question.

The other “drama” is being played out in the European Parliament, where a resolution was adopted earlier that calls for launching Article 7(1). It instructs the Committee of Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) to draw up a formal resolution for a plenary vote. On December 7 there was a hearing on the issue, where Péter Szijjártó represented the Hungarian government. The adoption of a resolution calling for the initiation of Article 7(1) proceedings, which could result in the suspension of voting rights for the targeted country, is a first in the history of the European Parliament.

These are significant matters, so I wasn’t surprised that Viktor Orbán, who rarely initiates television appearances, decided to grace the newly appointed Echo TV with his presence. Of course, Orbán’s interviews are so obviously staged that one can easily pick out all the “key words” that were supplied to the anchors ahead of time. And naturally the interviewers never ask “difficult questions.” One of the messages of government communication from here on will be that none of these “attacks” on Hungary has anything to do with the Orbán government’s transgression of European laws and values. They are inflicted on Hungary either because the Orbán government’s actions have had an adverse effect on the economic interests of foreign multinational companies or because they interfere in some mysterious way with the goals of the bureaucrats in Brussels.

In this interview Orbán renewed his claim that economic interests triggered the Tavares Report of 2013, which was a sharply worded, hard hitting report on the state of democracy in Hungary. After the European Parliament accepted Rui Tavares’s report, the Hungarian government wrote a resolution of its own which was then submitted to parliament. It was a verbose, clichéd piece of writing which included a sentence that struck me as odd at the time. It claimed that the Tavares Report was an answer to Hungary’s “reducing the cost of energy paid by families. This may hurt the interests of many European companies that for years have had windfall profits from their monopoly in Hungary.” That claim was ridiculous in 2013, if for no other reason than that the Tavares Report, which had nothing to do with economics, had been in the making for a year and a half while the Orbán government’s lowering of energy prices took place about two months before the release of the report. I really wonder whether by now Viktor Orbán actually believes this lie since he used the same kind of rationalization to explain away the report that is currently being drafted in the European Parliament.

Viktor Orbán claimed in 2013 that the very thorough analysis of the Orbán government’s transgression of democratic norms was nothing but a series of political attacks. Today he claims the same. As far as he is concerned, all disputes about democratic norms were closed before 2013. The Hungarian government has “the paper” to show that the European Commission and the Venice Commission were totally satisfied with all the changes that had been made to the media law and the constitution. It is not a lack of democracy that the Commission and the Parliament are really worried about today. EU politicians are concerned that Hungary’s stance on migration will hurt “their interests.” As if it was in the interest of the European Union to be faced with a million and a half refugees and immigrants. It is hard to fathom that anyone believes such nonsense or, for that matter, that any self-respecting politician can utter such an absurdity. And yet Orbán, with a straight face and in all seriousness, discussed the European Union’s plans to create a “continent of mixed population.” I assume I don’t have to add that George Soros and his network are behind this diabolical plan.

The key word, by the way, in this interview was sovereignty, which was kindly supplied by Orbán’s old friend Zsolt Bayer, one of the two anchors. Often, when Orbán encounters a word that is borrowed from abroad, like sovereignty (szuverenitás), used in Hungarian since 1786, he feels compelled to explain what the word actually means. This time he came up with “freedom” (szabadság) as a good equivalent. “At stake is the question of Hungarian freedom,” he claimed. The debate in the Union “touches on the question of freedom.”

With this switch from sovereignty to freedom, Orbán moved the discussion to an entirely different plane. Sovereignty means complete independence and self-government. Freedom, on the other hand, has many meanings, including “the condition of not being subject to a despotic or oppressive power,” and that can conjure up all sorts of xenophobic reactions in Hungarians. “Brussels is after us.” And indeed, some of the comments I read today in right-wing papers were revealing. One genius announced that the reason for the five-times higher living standards in Austria is Vienna’s exploitation and oppression of Hungary for five hundred years. The same can also be heard about the European Union’s plutocrats. Hungarian nationalism can easily be awakened by an appeal to “freedom,” a ploy Orbán loves to use. And it always does the trick.

December 9, 2017

Hungary’s “geopolitical game”: Playing hardball with Ukraine

The Hungarian government has been flexing its diplomatic muscles ever since the Ukrainian government passed an education law that made Ukrainian the language of instruction from grade five on for all citizens. Students from other nationality groups, mainly Russian, Polish, Romanian, and Hungarian, will be able to learn only two or three subjects in their native languages.

That decision prompted a vehement reaction from the Orbán government, for which the “gathering of the nation across the borders” is an important political goal. For years, an incredible amount of money has been spent on Hungarian-inhabited regions of Ukraine, Romania, and Serbia in order to fortify the economic strength of Hungarian enterprises and alleviate the poverty of the inhabitants. In Ukraine, the number of Hungarians is small, perhaps 120,000, yet Hungarian diplomacy moved into high gear, reaching out to all international organizations that have anything to do with Ukraine to protest the law. The Orbán government also made it clear at the time that it would do everything in its power to prevent any kind of friendly intercourse between Ukraine and the European Union and NATO. Given Ukraine’s position as a victim of Russian aggression, one might question the wisdom of the Hungarian government’s stance over a relatively minor dispute, which could most likely be resolved through bilateral talks and a little good will on both sides.

Hungary’s first opportunity to isolate Ukraine came at the end of October when Hungary vetoed a planned December 6 meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Joint Commission, a decision-making body responsible for developing relations between NATO and Ukraine and directing cooperative activities between them. Sputnik reported the good tidings that “Hungary announced that it will block Ukraine’s aspirations to integrate into NATO.”

In 2008 Ukraine applied to join the NATO Membership Action Plan, which was shelved two years later when the pro-Russian Victor Yanukovych was elected president. Interest in renewing relations with NATO intensified after the Russian military intervention in Ukraine. Since October 2014 the Ukrainian government has made joining NATO a priority. President Petro Poroshenko wants to meet NATO requirements by 2020 and has promised to hold a referendum on joining the alliance.

Given western suspicion of Hungarian-Russian relations in general, it is not the smartest move on the part of Viktor Orbán to take such an anti-Ukrainian position. The United States is a strong supporter of Ukraine and is ready to take a stand on the Russian-Ukrainian issue. CNN reported a couple of months ago that 1,650 servicemen from 15 different countries, including many Americans, were participating in a military exercise in Ukraine which was planned to take place a few days before Russia was scheduled to launch its own massive military maneuvers, which “put the region on edge.”

It is in this tense diplomatic and military environment that Hungary decided to play the tough guy by turning away from Ukraine and by default standing by Russia. This development is especially disheartening when there seems to be growing agreement among the member states of NATO that Ukraine’s desire to join the alliance might be realized soon enough. Two days ago Jens Stoltenberg, secretary general of NATO, stressed that Ukraine must undertake reforms before its membership in the alliance can be considered. He added that “membership in NATO will make Ukraine strong.” So, unless I misread the signs, there is a general inclination to expand NATO by admitting Ukraine in the next few years.

U.S. Secretary State Rex Tillerson took a tough line on Russia today in a talk with the foreign ministers of the NATO member states, which naturally included Péter Szijjártó. In addition to blaming Russia for interfering in the U.S. election, he expressed his belief that “there is broad consensus among all the NATO members that there is no normalization of dialogue with Russia today.”

If that wasn’t enough of a warning to Péter Szijjártó, there was also the news that Germany and ten other NATO member states had expressed disagreement with Hungary’s actions of blocking “Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic initiatives.” Apparently, these countries don’t consider the language issue to be something that should put “the strategic interests of the Alliance in jeopardy.” The letter also called attention to the fact that division and disagreement in the alliance is a success for Russia, which should be avoided.

Szijjártó wasn’t impressed, and during one of the intermissions he gave a brief press conference in the course of which he reiterated that Hungary is not ready to negotiate with Ukraine. If membership in NATO is so important for Kiev, then the Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian parliament, should withdraw the education law. Hungary’s position is that Ukraine not only has violated its commitments to the European Union but also has failed to fulfill its NATO obligations. He declared that “Hungary is not prepared to sacrifice the interests of the Hungarian minority in Transcarpathia on the altar of any kind of geopolitical game.”

According to Magyar Nemzet, Hungary will suggest introducing sanctions against Ukraine at the EU-Ukraine Joint Commission on Friday, but since the qualified majority rule applies in that body, Hungary’s antagonistic move will most likely fail. The hope now is that in February, at the next meeting of defense ministers, a NATO-Ukraine Commission meeting can be scheduled. At the moment, however, Hungary is still playing hardball.

Orbán’s Hungary is getting itself into international deep water, with serious possible consequences. This is not a “geopolitical game,” as Szijjártó thinks. This is a deadly serious international affair in which Hungary has no business. As things stand, there is just too much suspicion of Hungary’s relations with Russia. It is possible that while the European Union is too weak to “discipline” the Orbán government, the United States through NATO will be less willing to overlook Orbán’s duplicity as far as his relationship with Russia is concerned.

December 6, 2017

Is China buying up Eastern Europe on the cheap?

It was in May of this year that I wrote a post about Chinese plans for the reorganization of the global economy and Hungary’s role in this scheme. At that time, I outlined Chinese plans for the modernization of the Budapest-Belgrade-Skopje-Athens-Piraeus railroad line, announced in December 2014. The Hungarian section, which runs between Soroksár, just south of Budapest, and Kelebia, on the Serbian border, is 166 km. long and will cost 750 billion forints or $2.85 billion. It will be built with the help of a 20-year Chinese loan at 2.5% interest, which will cover 85% of the cost.

The contracting entity is the Chinese-Hungarian Railway Nonprofit Ltd., which was set up about a year ago. (I don’t know whether it chose nonprofit status to avoid paying taxes or to admit that the line would never turn a profit.) The state-owned China Railway International Corporation and China Railway International Group hold 85% of the Chinese-Hungarian Railway and the Hungarian State Railways (MÁV) holds 15%. The deal was structured as an EPC (“Engineering, Procurement, and Construction”), whereby the EPC contractor is made responsible for all activities–from design, procurement, and construction to the commissioning and handover of the project to the end-user or owner.

According to Hungarian economists, this deal is good only for China. The line is barely used for passenger trains and it touches only one small city, with a population of 27,000. Clearly, it was designed for freight trains that haul Chinese goods from the port city of Piraeus through the Balkans to Hungary. Since China isn’t sinking any money into the project, if the rail line is a flop, it is nothing off the skin of the Chinese. Hungary would be left holding the bag. According to some critics, the Belgrade-Budapest line will be the world’s most expensive, and if the project fails, Hungary will never be able to recoup its investment. HVG’s Benjámin Zelki figured that perhaps after 2,400 years the line might be profitable. I don’t think he meant it as a joke.

Viktor Orbán’s decision to get a loan from China when the European Union is quite willing to give money for the development of Pan-European corridors can be explained by the unprofitability of the project. It is unlikely that he would have gotten money from Brussels for such a financially hopeless project. The lure of the project, if it ever becomes reality, is that China might use Hungary as a distribution hub. For that  elusive prospect, the Orbán government is ready to get involved in this risky venture.

Of course, there is a good possibility that nothing will come of the whole project. The Chinese have offered Hungary many enticing deals, including a loan for a railroad line between the Ferenc Liszt Airport and downtown Budapest, but nothing came of it. Beijing also offered loans for building railroad lines in Greece, Macedonia, and Serbia, but none of these projects got off the ground.

The European Union is not all happy about Viktor Orbán’s close “strategic partnership” with China. First, just like with the Paks II Nuclear Power Plant, there were no competitive bids. Therefore, about a year ago the project was put on hold when infringement procedures were launched against Hungary. The latest news is that Hungary announced on Monday that it would publish a new procurement tender for its section of the line. As HVG put it, “there is no escape” from this monstrous project.

Another, more serious political consideration makes the European Union suspicious of Viktor Orbán, who hosted Li Keqiang for the sixth annual meeting of the Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries or “16+1.” Eleven of these countries are member states of the European Union. According to The Financial Times, Brussels is rattled as China reaches out to Eastern Europe because “some of the arrangements between China and these countries are touching on EU competences, or they are going into new areas where there are already initiatives between the EU and China.” They are worried about Chinese influence in the region. Diplomats fear that closer Chinese-East European relations could undermine Brussels’ effectiveness in dealing with China. According to Forbes, China is in the midst of buying “Eastern Europe on the cheap” while Viktor Orbán is using the occasion to “poke Western Europe in the eye.”

Boyko Borisov, Viktor Orbán, and Li Keqiang at the fifth summit of “16+1”

According to Süddeutsche Zeitung, China knows the weak spots and fault lines in Europe, and therefore in the last five years it has developed close relations with the “16+1” club. “There is mighty China with 16 dwarfs, receiving lucrative orders.” With investment they are buying influence. The European Union must recognize how the internal divisions and contradictions weaken it in the eyes of the outside world. The article specifically mentions Viktor Orbán and Miloš Zeman, whom it describes as the most vulnerable political leaders to the siren voices of the Far East because they are “representatives of secluded societies.” They believe that in China “they find not only sponsors but also allies in the fight against liberal democracy.”

Yes, Viktor Orbán has committed his country to another risky venture. But since work will begin on the rail line only after 2020, there is always the faint hope that the whole project will die, as so many other Chinese ventures did.

November 29, 2017

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