Tag Archives: German-Hungarian relations

What will Viktor Orbán have in his satchel when he goes to Brussels on October 3?

I don’t even know where to start because there are so many fascinating topics to pick from. Perhaps the most significant comes from Magyar Nemzet. The paper learned from “diplomatic sources” that Germany is ready to come to Hungary’s aid in some of the most serious infringement procedure cases in return for Viktor Orbán’s more moderate stance on the refugee issue and a “more constructive attitude” towards issues concerning the European Union.

Magyar Nemzet got hold of a secret government background study which dealt with the gravity of the situation posed by the 21 infringement procedures leveled against Hungary that are under consideration at the moment. The document that described the “economically or politically significant” cases paints a grim picture of relations between Budapest and Brussels.

Of the 21 cases the two most significant are Paks II and the Budapest-Belgrade railroad project. I don’t think I have to say much here about Paks II. We all know far too much about the shady deal Viktor Orbán negotiated with Vladimir Putin that will put Hungary in debt to Russia for at least 30 years. It is a well-known fact that the European Union has had great misgivings about Paks II because the project was awarded to the Russians without any competitive bids. In addition, the profitability of the project is in doubt; perhaps only hidden state subsidies would keep it afloat. On the other hand, I don’t think I have ever written about the high-speed rail connection between Budapest and Belgrade that was negotiated with China. Magyar Nemzet reported about two weeks ago that an infringement procedure is in place in connection with the construction of the railroad.

In December 2014 Hungary, Serbia, Macedonia, and China signed an agreement on the modernization of the Budapest-Belgrade-Skopje-Athens railroad, “which will allow the fastest transportation of Chinese goods from Greek harbors to Europe.” Under the agreement a consortium led by the China Railway Group was awarded a $1.57 billion contract to build the 160 km Hungarian section. Two Chinese companies will finance 85% of the project; the rest will be paid by Budapest. The European Union has many concerns about the project. Once again, the profitability of the project is in question. The railroad might end up being a white elephant, just like the choo-choo train in Felcsút. 444.hu calculated that the construction of the Hungarian section would cost about 400 billion forints but that only 4,000 people travel on the line daily, which is 1% of all railroad travel in the country.

Now Magyar Nemzet’s sources claim that these two projects will be given the green light by the European Commission thanks to the good offices of Berlin. What Germany, specifically Angela Merkel, would like in exchange is for Viktor Orbán to tone down his anti-refugee rhetoric and to work with the other member states in arriving at a common solution to the problem at hand. Hungarian sources stressed that Viktor Orbán’s policies regarding the refugee crisis “might be dangerous for Angela Merkel” at home. Figyelő learned earlier from a German diplomatic source that “the referendum might be a turning point, after which the Hungarian government might be more constructive. It is possible that Orbán might even offer helpful suggestions.”

Magyar Nemzet claims to have already noticed a less belligerent Viktor Orbán with respect to Germany. The paper also called attention to László Kövér’s statement, in a long interview with Magyar Idők, that a strong Europe cannot be imagined without Germany. I must admit that I haven’t seen any great change in the anti-EU rhetoric of Viktor Orbán and others, but we will see what happens after Sunday. If I were Angela Merkel, I wouldn’t rush into anything. I would first want to see concrete signs of true cooperation, not just words. As we know, Orbán’s words are worth nothing. And even if, in a desperate attempt to salvage his two pet projects, he changes his tune in the next months or so, it is folly to think that three months later he will not continue his uncooperative behavior exactly where he left off. In fact, I would predict that this is exactly what will happen. And by that time work on both projects will have begun and nothing will be able to stop them.

As I said, I find it difficult to believe that a different Viktor Orbán will emerge after the referendum. In fact, in an interview he gave to Magyar Katolikus Rádió he indicated that he will have all the ammunition he could possibly need in his negotiations with the European Union. He talked about the referendum as the beginning of something new. If it is successful, he “will put ‘hamuban sült pogácsa’ into his satchel” and will head toward Brussels.

pogacsa

So, let’s stop for a minute and try to explain what Orbán had in mind. Every dictionary I consulted translated “pogácsa” as cake, which is outright wrong. It is more like a biscuit or a scone. For those who would like to try their hand at making pogácsa there are plenty of recipes available online in English.

But back to Orbán’s reference. According to a Hungarian folktale, the children of a poor man go on a long and dangerous journey. Their mother makes these special biscuits for them, baked in ashes, but only the oldest’s “pogácsa” is made out of white flour. The youngest’s and the stepchild’s biscuits are made out of bran. The youngest child, the hero of the tale, shares his biscuits with a beggar, a fox, a mouse, and ants, with all those who helped him on his way. It seems that Orbán knows only the first part of the story. The part about the generous hero escaped his attention.

September 30, 2016

Seehofer in Hungary: A disappointment for Orbán

Horst Seehofer, minister president of Bavaria and the leader of Christian Social Union, has been pursuing an independent foreign policy of sorts lately. In December he paid a visit to Moscow where he met Vladimir Putin, a trip he is planning to repeat in the near future. His visit to Hungary yesterday was interpreted as a sign of Seehofer’s attempt to gain allies in his fight against Angela Merkel’s refugee policy. Politicians in his own party were uneasy about this trip. They were especially puzzled why the minister president decided to pay a visit to Budapest only three days before an important European summit dealing with the refugee crisis. One might add that not all Seehofer’s colleagues are happy with what has been an expensive Bavarian-Hungarian friendship. Some time back Seehofer championed establishing a subsidiary of the state-owned Bayerische Landesbank in Hungary. It flopped and was eventually purchased by the Hungarian state at a loss of two billion euros to Bavaria.

Der Spiegel was especially critical of Seehofer’s trip to Budapest, which it called “a mini-summit” against the European solution to the crisis. But almost all the German papers criticized his overly friendly relationship with Orbán, who was described by Die Zeit as “the chief ideologist of national closure.” Liberal papers especially considered the trip an outright provocation of Angela Merkel. They described Seehofer as two-faced. He keeps repeating that he and Merkel are in constant touch, but when it comes to supporting Merkel’s refugee strategy he refuses to answer questions concerning the issue.

It seems, however, that the assumption that Seehofer and Orbán are co-conspirators was misplaced. In fact, Seehofer went to Hungary to have a heart to heart with Orbán. Or at least this is what we learned from an interview with Manfred Weber, the leader of the European People’s Party in the European Parliament. The message he carried to Orbán was that “the essence of Europe is compromise” and that “if we want a European solution [he] must also move away from [his] current position.” That may mean that the EPP is no longer ready to shield Viktor Orbán from well-deserved criticism.

The press conference that followed the conversation between Seehofer and Orbán confirmed that Seehofer delivered Berlin’s message. Both men, as  Index put it, “ swore allegiance to Angela Merkel.” Orbán said practically nothing about the meeting itself except for some of his ill-phrased comments that are inappropriate and embarrassing. For example: “When two men get together, everybody is curious what their opinion is of the lady who is not present. But we know that this is man’s fate.” Otherwise, Orbán in his remarks didn’t show much inclination to follow the policies of Angela Merkel vis-à-vis Turkey, except to say that Hungary is willing to give money for the upkeep of the refugees. However, when it comes to moving Syrians out of Turkey and granting visa exemption to Turkish citizens, Orbán’s solidarity with Turkey, which he considers a strategic ally, seems to be totally absent. I wonder what President Erdoğan will think of his friend’s unyielding posture toward his country.

Seehofer was equally tight-mouthed, but he wished “with all his heart” that Merkel will succeed at the summit on Monday where she is planning to convince the prime ministers of the member states to accept as many refugees as possible.  Hungarian observers noticed disappointment in Orbán’s demeanor because it seems that he lost his most influential ally in the Bavarian minister president. Orbán’s only remaining ally is Robert Fico, who is in the middle of a national election campaign.

Seehofer and Orban2

Although Seehofer said little at the press conference, what he said in a speech delivered at the Andrássy Universität, a German-language university in Budapest, was, in my opinion, very important. He talked about the rule of law as a prerequisite of European solidarity. He called on everybody to stop “the erosion of law” in Europe. One cannot help thinking that he was referring to Hungary itself or perhaps Poland because I cannot think of any other European country that has serious problems as far as the rule of law is concerned.

 

After these introductory remarks he returned to the question of solidarity, the absolute necessity of European integration, and the continent’s low birthrate which, since 1946, reduced its population to only 7% of the world’s. The countries of Europe, he maintained, can achieve their individual interests only through a common policy. When it comes to important issues the European Union actually needs more integration, not less.

Seehofer went against Orbán not only on the question of integration but also on the treatment of the refugees. Bavaria’s immigration policy is built on three pillars, he said: humanity, integration of those who are deemed to be true refugees, and limits on immigration. In the past 25 years Bavaria has taken in two million immigrants. The integration of these people has been a great success.

He concluded by saying a few nice words about Hungary’s economic recovery and its generosity in 1989 when the country opened its border with Austria to the East German refugees.

Seehofer’s speech was followed by László Kövér’s harangue against the refugees, against immigrants in general, and against integration. According to him, “today the national, religious, family, and sexual identity of the European people is under attack.” If artificial European identity devoid of national consciousness materializes, it would be as unrealistic as the artificial Soviet or Yugoslav identity. It could be maintained only through force, relative well-being, and geopolitical interest which can collapse once force no longer can be sustained, the welfare state ceases to exist, or global interests change.” He went on and on in this vein. His tirade was dutifully reported at length in the far-right Magyar Hírlap, which found his message much more palatable than Seehofer’s. I wonder what Seehofer, who is a very conservative man, must have thought of Kövér’s speech, since it went against everything that European politicians west of Hungary think about the world.

All in all, I don’t think Orbán is a happy man today, especially since his fence, which he is planning to extend along the Romanian-Hungarian border soon, has turned out to be porous. Daily at least fifty people break through the “impenetrable” fence, which was supposed to save Hungary from the bandits who want to rape Hungarian women, from the migrants who can no longer be shipped off to the Croatian or the Austrian border. One temporary shelter after the next is being built and Orbán, I think, will soon enough have to ask for help from his enemies in Brussels.

March 5, 2016

Viktor Orbán’s democracy: Nationalism, pure and simple

We should have gotten accustomed to the fact that by now that news about Hungary and its prime minister is an everyday occurrence. Just today I encountered well over 100 articles about Viktor Orbán in newspapers as well as on internet news sites, from Azerbaijan to Sweden. Most of the articles I came across were from Germany where Viktor Orbán’s interview with Kai Diekmann, the publisher of Bild, created quite a stir.

Kai Diekmann and Viktor Orbán / Business Insider

Kai Diekmann and Viktor Orbán / Business Insider

From Orbán’s awkward and occasionally wrong word usage, I assume that the interview was conducted in English, with not the best results. For example, the sentence that is most often commented on in the German press is: “Today, the voices coming from Berlin are coarse, rough, and aggressive.”

Orbán has never been known for his diplomatic skills, and since he has achieved a certain, in my opinion dubious, fame in Europe he thinks he can say practically anything with impunity. For example, when Diekmann quoted Jean-Claude Juncker’s claim that “history will prove Ms. Merkel right,” Orbán’s answer was rude and demeaning. He said, “I think the course of history will not be bothered by Mr. Juncker…. Let us see how history one day will judge Chancellor Merkel without Mr. Juncker’s help.”

The German people will read with delight Viktor Orbán’s opinion that “we owe nothing to Germany, and the Germans owe nothing to us. Germany has supported us in becoming a member of the EU. We are grateful for that. But then Hungary has opened its market for all EU states. Everybody has profited from that. So we are square.” When asked about Hungary’s relations with “the controversial Polish government,” Orbán answered: “I can only say that the peoples of Central Europe and Hungary are a community in fate, to the death. Many of us would spill our blood for Poland any time. And vice versa: in an emergency, many Polish people would give his life to protect Hungarians. This has happened more than once over the course of history.”

Two days ago I brought up my puzzlement over a sentence that Viktor Orbán uttered at the quickly organized press conference at which he announced his decision to hold a referendum on the compulsory refugee quotas. He said at that time that voting against this question would be a proof of loyalty to the country. “Because how could someone be loyal as long as others decide the most important questions?” I added that it didn’t matter how hard I tried to follow Orbán’s logic, I couldn’t see the connection between loyalty and the matter on hand. This interview sheds some light on the subject. Orbán has a very strange definition of “the basic principle of democracy,” which “in the end is loyalty to the nation.” What an incredible, unfathomable statement. Democracy according to this confused man equals nationalism.

At this point I would like to interject a quotation I jotted down from Ian Kershaw’s masterful two-volume biography of Hitler, which I’m in the middle of reading. These lines are from the first volume, Hitler, 1889-1936: Hubris:

It was more than anything else the ways nationalism had developed in late nineteenth-century Germany that provided the set of ideas that, if often in distorted–even perverted–form, offered the potential for Nazism’s post-war appeal…. Crucial to the character of German nationalism was the pervasive sense … of incomplete unity, of persistent, even widening division and conflict within the nation. What, in the changed conditions after the war, Hitler was able most signally to exploit was the belief that pluralism was somehow unnatural and unhealthy in society, that it was a sign of weakness, and that internal division and disharmony could be suppressed and eliminated, to be replaced by the unity of a national community. (p. 136)

Compare that with Viktor Orbán’s speech at a Fidesz picnic in September 2009 in Kötcse:

Today it is realistically conceivable that in the coming fifteen-twenty years, Hungarian politics should be determined not by the dualistic field of force bringing with it never conclusive and divisive value debates, which quite unnecessarily generate social problems. Instead, a great governing party comes in place, a central field of force, which will be able to articulate the national issues and to stand for these policies as a natural course of things to be taken for granted without the constantly ongoing wrangling.

In brief, differences of opinion, any kind of political division, are signs of weakness in Orbán’s worldview just as the German variety of nationalism feared ethnic and religious differences. So, it is no wonder that Orbán called his regime the “System of National Cooperation.” If you don’t cooperate, you are not part of this nation. Fidesz and its supporters defend the national interest so if someone criticizes Orbán’s policies, this person is the enemy of the nation. As we know, this kind of striving for national unity usually ends in disaster.

By defending the nation Orbán claims to be defending democracy. When Diekmann pressed him on his policies, which may lead to the division of Europe, Orbán’s answer was that “the quota is reframing the ethnic, cultural and religious profile of Hungary and Europe. I have not decided this way against Europe, but for protecting European democracy.”

From these statements we learn that Orbán is defending not democracy but nationalism. At least this time he told the truth.

February 26, 2016

ANGELA MERKEL AND GERMANY FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF THE HUNGARIAN RIGHT. PART II

We left Mária Schmidt berating German journalists for being largely responsible for Hungary’s unsavory reputation in the West. She accuses them of being in the pay of the CIA, the German intelligence, and rich Arab countries. Here she relies on a book by Udo Ulfkotte, former editor of the Frankfuter Allgemeine Zeitung, titled Gekaufte Journalisten. Schmidt describes him as someone who is being deliberately passed over in silence because his revelations are so embarrassing to the German media.

So, who is this man? According to Wikipedia, the only source I found for information on his career, he spent a good twelve years in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Jordan. He was born into a Christian family but at the age of 21 declared himself to be an atheist. While in the Middle East he converted to Islam, which he later abandoned. He is now a born-again Christian.

As for his activities, I found an article by David Vickrey in German-American Opinion: Politics and Culture in which Ulfkotte is called a “fake journalist” and a “Putin propagandist.” According to the author, Ulfkotte “distinguished himself as a racist and anti-Islam hatemonger, demanding that all Muslims be deported from Germany in order to create more Lebensraum for ethnic Germans.”

Indeed, he was pretty well ignored in the last few years, but lately he was revitalized by two events: the Ukrainian crisis and the rise of the “Pegida movement” (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident). He began writing in Russian propaganda outlets and appeared as a speaker at Pegida gatherings. Earlier Vickrey reported that at one event organized by young social democrats protesting Ulfkotte’s speech on the dangers of immigration, he choked and threw a 15-year-old boy against the wall. Currently he is in hiding because, he claims, he received threats against his life.

Mária Schmidt seems to believe every word Udo Ulfkotte has ever uttered. She even managed to drag Boris Kálnoky of Die Welt into the controversy when she claimed that Kálnoky, whose parents left Hungary in 1947 and who learned Hungarian only as an adult, actually confirmed Ulkfotte’s allegations when in an interview on a Hungarian television station he said that he and his fellow journalists were told that, when writing about the migrants, they should concentrate on families and children. Later Kálnoky expressed his regret that Schmidt had misunderstood him. Perhaps his not quite perfect Hungarian was the reason for the misunderstanding. He was simply referring to readers’ interest in the travails of refugee families on the road.

That didn’t deter Mária Schmidt from retelling the story that Kálnoky denied. She reiterated that German journalists are instructed to present a positive picture of the migrants. In Germany “what really counts is the never-ending war against racism, anti-Semitism, and Hitler.” This from the woman who was entrusted with the establishment of a new Holocaust center, the House of Fate, specifically devoted to the children who were victims of the Holocaust. She has the audacity to complain about this “never-ending” fight.  Has she thought through what she is saying here? I guess if I confronted her about the exact meaning of this sentence she would tell me that I had taken the sentence out of context. She was talking only about “the leftist generation of 1968” who today think that they are the only ones who can make judgments about this issue. And then what? Would this be an acceptable explanation?

The much criticized selfie with a Syrian refugee

The much criticized Merkel selfie with a Syrian refugee

About half way through her text Schmidt completely lost her logical faculties, writing such sentences as “when as is her wont Chancellor Merkel talks about the sins of Europe and Germany, does she know that in the 17th and 18th centuries the Saracens (Muslims) carried off masses of Christians from Italy and sold them as slaves?… Perhaps she hasn’t heard of an Afghan custom which has been related by many ever since the 19th century that [the Afghans] cut off all four limbs of their English, Russian, and American prisoners of war?”

In this long harangue there are a couple of sentences that deserve more attention than the horror stories about cut-off limbs: “Does she [Merkel] believe that there were no mass murders on other continents? That at other places there was nothing to be ashamed of? … When will the Western European elite end this fruitless ritual of self-recrimination and self-abandonment?” Here Schmidt first of all equates the Holocaust with other mass murders and, second, pretty well tells the Western Europeans to forget about what happened to the Jewish population of the European Continent.

In the last few weeks Viktor Orbán accused Angela Merkel of not being democratic enough because she doesn’t listen to the people. Hungary is vastly superior to Germany in this respect: they introduced several national consultations and at the moment Fidesz is collecting signatures against the quota system. Schmidt decided to chime in and teach Merkel a thing or two about democracy. The proof that “Merkel can’t stand democracy” is that she prefers grand coalitions, and therefore it is practically impossible to distinguish the right and the left “especially if they are both gray and boring.” Schmidt is convinced that the reason for these grand coalitions is Merkel’s lack of democratic commitment. What she most likely purposely neglected to say is that in all three cases the reason for these grand coalitions was the refusal of the greens and the social democrats to form a government with the communist party (Linkspartei), not Merkel’s anti-democratic impulses.

What else is Merkel guilty of? Merkel and the ruling elite’s goal is “to replace the Germans and Europeans with a multi-cultural, globalized, and Muslim population. The only thing that matters is cheap labor.” In fact, Merkel can’t stand either the Germans or the Europeans in general. “She especially hates the Germans who will always remain Nazis and collectively guilty.” She is not a compassionate person when it comes to her own kind. “She never quotes from German books. She never talks about German history. And when she does, it would be better if she didn’t because it is always about the Holocaust.”

“Western Europe with its media and politicians see value everywhere except in their own. What moves them is self-hatred. And the greatest problem is that they have completely depleted their democracies.” The migrant crisis for this people comes in handy because again “they can prove their ideological commitment against racism, fascism (whatever they mean by it), and clericalism, while they affirm their allegiance to multiculturalism.”

I’m trying to be charitable, but on the basis on this text I consider Mária Schmidt to be guilty of Holocaust relativism, if not much worse.

Viktor Orbán went but didn’t conquer: His trip to Brussels

Yesterday I expressed my belief that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán would arrive in Brussels with a proposal seeking the European Union’s blessing of his hermetically sealed Hungarian borders, in contravention of European values and the Geneva Convention, in return for accepting a few hundred refugees. I was not very far off. It seems, however, that Orbán’s strategy is not working. He might receive some money to ease the strain caused by the large number of refugees in Hungary, but the EU leaders don’t want to be partners in his scheme.

It is hard to tell whether the chaos in Budapest and elsewhere in Hungary is the result of the government’s total incompetence or whether it has been artificially created. The utter confusion everywhere is a source of anxiety, even panic for the refugees. It is hard to fathom that a government chock-full of officials in charge of trivial matters hasn’t figured out that there ought to be a commissioner of refugee affairs. Is it the case, as many commentators suspect, that the Orbán government wants to have as much confusion as possible to show the population the horrible fate that awaits them if they are stranded with these screaming strangers? Moreover, if it becomes obvious that Hungary’s resources are inadequate to handle the situation, more money will come, money to replace the 23 million euros the government has spent thus far on the useless barbed-wire fence.

The reputation of Hungary is in ruins when pictures like this can be found in all foreign newspapers

The reputation of Hungary is in ruins

It seems that Orbán will get money but not much more than that. His proposals were rejected by the three important EU leaders he met with today in Brussels: Jean-Claude Junker, Donald Tusk, and Martin Schulz.

Orbán went to Brussels full of wrath. I suspect that on the way he rehearsed his main talking points, trying to phrase his message in the sharpest possible terms. He succeeded. Perhaps too well. What struck me most listening to sound bites was the primitive language in which he chose to convey his equally primitive ideas on the refugee issue. “The moral, human thing is to make clear ‘please don’t come! Why you have to go from Turkey to Europe? Turkey is a safe country. Stay there, it’s risky to come! We can’t guarantee that you will be accepted here.'”

Prior to his arrival in Brussels, in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, he described Europe’s response to the crisis as “madness.”  He reiterated his opposition to allowing Muslims into Europe. “Those arriving have been raised in another religion and represent a radically different culture. Most of them are not Christians, but Muslims…. This is an important question, because European identity is rooted in Christianity…. We have no option but to defend our borders.”

I’m sure that Orbán hoped that Donald Tusk at least, being a politician from Catholic Poland, would sympathize with him. He turned out to be mistaken. At a press conference in Brussels, Tusk had the following to say on the subject: “Finally let me make a personal comment with reference to PM Orbán’s article in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. I want to underline that for me, Christianity in public and social life carries a duty to our brothers in need. Referring to Christianity in a public debate on migration must mean in the first place the readiness to show solidarity and sacrifice. For a Christian it shouldn’t matter what race, religion and nationality the person in need represents.”

Tusk was equally negative on Orbán’s “solution” of banning all refugees who reach the borders of Hungary. While he admitted that the borders of the Union must be more effectively defended, he added that “our attitude to refugees is in fact an expression of European solidarity.” He also said that “EU countries will not change their migratory policies overnight.” Translated into plain English, Orbán, if he wants to stay in the Union, will have to allow asylum-seekers across that fence.

Orbán’s meeting with Martin Schulz didn’t go any better. After the meeting, Schulz told reporters that “the Schengen treaty is under threat.” And he warned people that “a deeper split of the union is a risk we cannot exclude.” This indicates that during the meeting Orbán showed no willingness to compromise. Since in Orbán’s opinion the flood of refugees is not a European problem but a German one, since everybody wants to go to Germany, he believes that Hungary should not be obligated to adjust its policies to those demanded by the European Union. After the press conference Schulz appeared on ZDF, the German public television station, where he expressed himself more forcefully. According to HVG, Schulz announced that Viktor Orbán’s position on the refugee crisis is “totally unacceptable.”

We know relatively little about the meeting between Viktor Orbán and Jean-Claude Juncker since no press conference was scheduled, which usually means that the meeting was not exactly a roaring success. The spokesman of the European Commission called the talks “constructive,” which pro-government Hungarian papers heralded with great fanfare, as if “constructive” in this context means something positive. “Constructive” usually means that each man expressed his opinions and there was no meeting of the minds. Apparently, Orbán talked about his idea for a sealed border, which Juncker disapproved of, while Juncker lectured Orbán on the necessity of a common European solution. At least this is my interpretation of the very brief description I read of the meeting.

After this trip Orbán can reassess what he wants to do: face the threat of the abrogation of the Schengen Treaty, which means the end of free movement and labor within the Schengen borders, or give up the promised legislative package on the refugees, whose provisions would greatly restrict basic democratic rights.

Meanwhile German-Hungarian relations are on the rocks as well. Neither Martin Schulz nor Angela Merkel appreciated Orbán’s accusations. First, Orbán accused Germany of being responsible for Hungary’s current problems with the refugees, and then came the accusation that the refugee crisis in general is a German problem. Chancellor Merkel didn’t wait long to respond: “Germany is doing what is morally and legally required of us, no more and no less,” she said in Bern.

Meanwhile at home János Lázár used the strongest language against Germany’s behavior, which he found to be “beyond words.” It is Germany that is opening and closing the doors of Keleti (Eastern Station) with its irresponsible statements about accepting Syrian refugees.

It was only a couple of months ago that we heard that Hungary’s foreign policy is anchored in the excellent relationship between Hungary and Germany. Moreover, Hungary is heavily dependent economically on Germany. Is it worth attacking the strongest power in the European Union for the sake of playing the role of Defender of the Faith and Europe?

Viktor Orbán has managed to maneuver Hungary into an untenable position. The country’s reputation is in tatters. Finally the whole world can see what kind of a country Viktor Orbán and his fellow Fidesz politicians have created in the last five years. I’m sure that a lot of people thought that the opposition parties and commentators critical of Orbán’s regime were exaggerating. They kept saying: “But Hungary is still a democracy.” The democratic features of the Orbán regime, however, are only skin deep, beneath which one can find many features reminiscent of Mussolini’s Italy.

The Orbán government is at a loss: Which way to turn?

Today even Válasz had to admit that the Hungarian government’s PR stunt that followed the less than successful Merkel-Orbán meeting was a mistake. Referring to the false news about mega-investment,” Valóság, after an earlier glowing report, had to retreat and acknowledge that “there is no BMW, there is no new Mercedes factory and Fidesz doesn’t seem to be successful in the RTL Klub affair either. This wouldn’t be drama if the government had the guts to deny Vs.hu‘s news. But now we do have a small drama.”

I don’t know whether we can call it a drama, but that the Hungarian government’s already tarnished reputation now has an ugly rusty spot as well, that’s for sure. AFP picked up the news about the gigantic German investments that were agreed on during the meeting between the German chancellor and the Hungarian prime minister, but unlike András Kósa, the author of the Vs.hu article, AFP, before publishing the article, did go to the “spokesman for the Hungarian government [who] declined to comment.” Not did the spokesman not deny the story, as Válasz would have suggested, but he purposely spread the disinformation. That leaves me to believe that this PR stunt was concocted by the large communication team around the prime minister’s office.

What can one say about a government that engages in such cheap tricks? Keep in mind that the team around Viktor Orbán was handpicked by the prime minister himself. The members of this team are the ones who manage “communication,” which seems to be the most important aspect of politics for Viktor Orbán. He is like a salesman who has only one goal: to sell his wares regardless of their value or even utility.

What were these communication wizards thinking? Surely they had to realize that sooner or later reporters will ask these companies about their alleged plans and the truth will be revealed. Indeed, Mercedes and BMW have already denied the leaked information about their plans to build factories in Hungary, and this morning we learned from the Siemens spokesman that Siemens is no longer active in industries connected to nuclear energy and therefore the news about their involvement with the Paks Nuclear Power Plant is untrue. As far as the helicopters are concerned, apparently no decision has been made. It is possible that after the meeting Airbus, the French-German company reported to have won the contract, might not be the favorite.

I can only hope that the story of this ruse will reach Angela Merkel’s office, not that I have any doubt about her assessment of the Hungarian prime minister’s character. In any case, the Orbán government’s courting of Germany as a counterbalance to the United States did not work out to Orbán’s satisfaction. Of course, he himself is partly to blame for the fiasco with his public defense of “illiberal democracy.” Even Gábor G. Fodor, a right-wing “strategic director” of Századvég, a Fidesz think tank, said that Viktor Orbán made a mistake when he openly defended his vision of “illiberal democracy.” In fact, he went so far as to say that “this debate cannot be won,” especially not before a western audience. If this absolutely devoted Orbán fan considers the prime minister’s defense of his ideology to have been a mistake, then, believe me, the mistake was a big one.

So, here we are. After all the effort the government put into good relations with Germany, it looks as if Angela Merkel was not convinced. So, where to go from here? There seems to be a serious attempt at improving U.S.-Hungarian relations. This effort was prompted by the long-awaited arrival of the new U.S. ambassador, Colleen Bell, who shortly after her arrival began a round of visits and attended to a number of official duties. Her first trip was to Csaba Hende, minister of defense, which was reported by Hungary Today, a  newly launched, thinly disguised government propaganda internet site. The news of her visit was coupled with the announcement of Hungary’s plans to purchase a new helicopter fleet. The fleet will consist of 30 helicopters that will cost 551 million euros. Discussing the helicopters and Colleen Bell’s visit in the same article was no coincidence. Most likely, the Hungarian government wants to give the impression that there is a possibility that the helicopters will be purchased from the United States.

Even more telling is the paean on the Hungarian government’s website to “successful Hungarian-U.S. economic cooperation.” The occasion was the opening of Alcoa’s “expanded wheels manufacturing plant in Hungary.” It is, if I understand it correctly, an expansion of facilities that have been in place ever since 1996. The construction cost $13 million, and it will create 35 new permanent jobs. The facility was officially opened by Colleen Bell and Péter Szijjártó. Szijjártó was effusive: “with Alcoa’s new investment, a new chapter has opened in the success story of Hungarian-U.S. economic cooperation.” We also learned that the Hungarian government “granted one billon forints for the project.”

Photo by Márton Kovács

Photo by Márton Kovács

Bell, for her part, appealed to Hungarian pride by reminding her hosts that, although Alcoa has existed for 125 years, “this is not very long in terms of Hungary’s 1000-year-old history, but for the United States, a 125-year period covers half of its existence.” Music to Hungarian ears. Of course, she also promised that in the future she will work hard to create new opportunities for both U.S. and Hungarian businesses and to further improve their cooperation. The mayor of Székesfehérvár, the city where the Alcoa factory is located, announced that the wheels of buses in the city will gradually be replaced with Alcoa products.

I somehow doubt that courting the United States in this manner will make Washington forget about the anti-American rhetoric of  pro-government papers or the incredible performance of the Orbán government in connection with the U.S. banning of Hungarian nationals because of corruption charges. Somehow I have the feeling that courting the United States without changing government policies will be just as unsuccessful as Orbán’s earlier efforts in Germany.

And one final note. Today Orbán announced that the fate of cheaper utility costs depends on his successful negotiation with Vladimir Putin on the price of gas and oil to Hungary. If he is unsuccessful, the current low utility rates cannot be maintained. The message? The Hungarian people should support his Russia policy. If not, their utility bills will rise again. Let me add that the team that came up with the idea of reducing utility prices hit a gold mine. The Orbán government’s popularity in 2012 was even lower than it is now. Yet a year and a half later the popularity of the party and the government soared. For Orbán utility rates are terribly important, and therefore I suspect that he will do everything in his power to strike a deal with Putin. The question is at what price.

Angela Merkel in Budapest

Yesterday I sketched out a number of hypotheses about Angela Merkel’s objective in visiting Budapest. Almost all Hungarian foreign policy experts were certain that Merkel would not touch on Hungarian domestic issues. Her only concerns would be Viktor Orbán’s compliance with the common EU policy regarding Russia and his treatment of German businesses in Hungary. Since the Hungarian prime minister accommodated on both fronts just prior to her visit, she would have little to complain about. The consensus was that she would remain silent on the state of democracy in Hungary.

I, on the other hand, couldn’t imagine that Merkel could ignore this issue. The German press has been full of stories about Orbán’s authoritarian regime. It has given extensive coverage to Hungary’s anti-government, pro-democracy demonstrations. So there was some homegrown pressure on the German chancellor to stick her neck out and talk openly about the issue. Many people comment on Merkel’s low-key, sometimes vapid style. Those who know her better, however, assure us that in private she can be a tiger. Well, today, we caught a glimpse of that side of her character.

This morning Gregor Peter Schmitz in Der Spiegel demanded “plain talk” from Merkel in Budapest. “The whole of Europe is terrified of extremists, Angela Merkel is meeting one,” he said. It is time to speak out. If Schmitz watched the press conference after a short luncheon meeting between Angela Merkel and the Hungarian prime minister, he was most likely disappointed, at least initially. She did talk about issues that democrats at home and abroad find important: the role of civil society and the importance of the opposition, but her critique was pretty bland. She said, for instance, that “even if you have a broad majority, as the Hungarian prime minister does, it’s very important in a democracy to appreciate the role of the opposition, civil society, and the media.” Merkel had said the same thing many times before.

The real surprise, “the plain talk” Schmitz demanded, came at the end when Stephan Löweinstein of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung asked Merkel her opinion about Orbán’s “illiberal democracy.” After explaining that liberalism is part and parcel of the ideology of her own party, she added: “I personally don’t know what to do with the term.” In her opinion there is no such animal. Orbán did not back down. He repeated his belief that not all democracies are liberal and that liberalism cannot have a privileged position in the political landscape. I should add that the Hungarian state television station omitted this exchange in its broadcast of the press conference.

Source: HVG / Photo: Gergely Túry

Source: HVG / Photo: Gergely Túry

Viktor Orbán was not a happy man. I’m certain that he expected concessions from Merkel after he was so “generous” on the RTL Klub case. It seems that Merkel did not appreciate his efforts to the extent hoped for in Budapest.

During the press conference Orbán talked mostly about German-Hungarian economic relations and thanked Germany for its investment, which resulted in 300,000 jobs in Hungary. But he became more insistent and strident as time went on, especially when Merkel began talking about a common European energy policy. He indicated that in his opinion the European Union doesn’t appreciate Hungary’s utter dependence on Russian gas. He stressed, in a raised voice, that the Russian-Hungarian long-term gas supply contract will be expiring soon and that Hungary must have a new agreement with the Russians. Hence the forthcoming Putin-Orbán meeting in Budapest.

An opposition politician called my attention to the fact that Merkel referred to Orbán as “ein Kollege” instead of the customary designation “friend.” An American acquaintance noted that the new American ambassador also talks about Hungary as an “ally” and no longer as a friend.

The German papers are already full of articles about the trip, and I’m sure that in the next few days there will be dozens of articles and op/ed pieces analyzing Merkel’s day in Budapest. I’m also certain that I will spend more than one post on this visit. Here are a few initial observations.

Merkel spent very little time with Viktor Orbán. Just a little over an hour, including a meal. With János Áder no more than 15-20 minutes. On the other hand, the event at the German-language Andrássy University was quite long where differences of opinion between the two politicians became evident. The introductory remarks by the president of Andrássy University were lengthy as was the speech by the president of the University of Szeged, which bestowed an honorary degree on Angela Merkel. Her own speech was not short either. What was most surprising was the number of questions allowed. Some of the questions were not political but personal. Perhaps the students didn’t have the guts to ask politically risky questions. Her answers showed her to be quite an open person, very different from what I expected. One brave soul did bring up the topic of terrorism and immigration, indicating that Orbán inflames prejudice against people from different cultural backgrounds. Merkel stood by her guns, stressing the need for tolerance, openness, and diversity. Another question was about Russian aggression. Here she used strong words against aggression and condemned Putin’s use of force.

Finally, a few words about Merkel’s final destination, the synagogue on Dohány utca, where she talked to Hungarian Jewish religious leaders. Apparently, the Hungarians first suggested that Viktor Orbán accompany Merkel. The Germans turned that kind offer down. I find it significant that Merkel’s visit to the synagogue was longer than planned. Her plane left Budapest half an hour later than scheduled.

All in all, those people who were afraid that by going to Budapest Angela Merkel would give her stamp of approval to Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal democracy” can breathe a sigh of relief. Nothing of the sort happened.