Tag Archives: Miloš Zeman

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

Jean Asselborn calls for the expulsion of Orbán’s Hungary from the EU

Only a few hours have gone by since Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn gave an interview to Die Welt in which he called for the temporary or permanent expulsion of Hungary from the European Union. But the number of articles on the story is already in the hundreds, in the Hungarian as well as the international media. Asselborn argued that Hungary’s leaving was “the only way to preserve the cohesion and values of the European Union.” The EU shouldn’t tolerate such misconduct as “the treatment of the refugees, the massive violation of the freedom of the press and the independence of the judiciary.” Asselborn would like to see a change of EU rules that would allow “the suspension of membership of an EU country without unanimity.”

Asselborn is especially appalled by the treatment of those fleeing war, who “are being treated almost worse than wild animals.” In his opinion, “Hungary is not far away from introducing a firing order against the refugees.” Once he finished with the sins of the Hungarian government, he turned to the person of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, whom he made responsible for the perception that, although in words the EU is supposed to be the defender of basic human values, it tolerates the existence of a regime represented by Orbán.

The letter Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó sent from Moldavia was, as Index pointed out, anything but politically correct. “We already knew that Jean Asselborn is not someone who should be taken seriously. He lives only a few kilometers from Brussels and it shows. He is patronizing, arrogant, and frustrated…. As a run-of-the-mill nihilist he tirelessly works on the ruination of European security and culture.” The description of EU politicians as the “nihilists of Brussels” is of very recent coinage. Viktor Orbán used it yesterday in his speech at the opening of the new session of the parliament. The image apparently comes from Aleksandr Dugin, the Russian political scientist whose views have been described as fascist.

Jean Asselborn and Péter Szijjártó, September 21, 2015 / MTI Photo Márton Kovács

Jean Asselborn and Péter Szijjártó, September 21, 2015 / MTI / Photo Márton Kovács

The very first person who came to the defense of Orbán was Jiří Ovčáček, the spokesman of Miloš Zeman, the notoriously anti-EU and pro-Russian president of the Czech Republic. Zeman’s support only further emphasizes how far out of the European mainstream Viktor Orbán is with his views.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steimeier tried to calm the situation. He pointed out that “there is no agreed position” within the Union on the treatment of Hungary, but he added that he “can understand, looking at Hungary, that some people in Europe are getting impatient.” Steimeier is a social democrat who most likely shares Asselborn’s feelings toward Viktor Orbán and his regime but is far more diplomatic.

Soon enough, however, German politicians on the right began to line up behind Orbán. The first of these was Manfred Weber, head of the European People’s Party in the European Parliament. Although occasionally Weber has been mildly critical of the Hungarian prime minister, this time he defended him quite vigorously, pointing out that “Hungary has always carried out all the decisions” of the European Union. On the other hand, he severely criticized the Polish government for its attempt to undermine the rule of law in Poland. An indefensible position, I must say, considering that in the last six and a half years Viktor Orbán has completely destroyed Hungarian democracy and has introduced an autocratic system without any semblance of the rule of law. Weber’s lopsided view is undoubtedly due to the fact that the Polish PiS members don’t sit in his EPP caucus.

The German Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) naturally supports Orbán’s Hungary. The party’s deputy chairman called Asselborn’s demand “grotesque” and added that Orbán should be awarded the Charlemagne Prize. This suggestion is especially amusing in light of the fact that the last two recipients of the prize were Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament, and Pope Francis. Orbán at the moment is accusing Schulz of conspiring with socialist Hungarian mayors to smuggle migrants into the country, and we know what the general opinion is in Fidesz circles of the pope who doesn’t understand Europe and is a naïve socialist.

Soon enough Austrian politicians also spoke up in defense of Orbán. Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz considered Asselborn’s statement “unacceptable,” but as I read MTI’s summary of his statement he mostly objected to the fact that Asselborn criticized Orbán and his policies in public and expressed his belief that the topic may come up in Bratislava at the end of this week at the meeting of the European Council. The other Austrian who spoke on the issue in favor of Orbán was Hans-Christian Strache, the chairman of the far-right Austrian Freedom Party.

Too little time has gone by since the appearance of the Asselborn interview for foreign policy analysts to assess the significance of Asselborn’s harsh criticism of Orbán, with the exception of a partisan pro-Orbán piece written by Bálint Ablonczy of Válasz.

Asselborn’s dislike of Orbán is legendary, and this is not the first time that he has openly and harshly criticized the Hungarian prime minister. In 2010 he was one of the first critics of the media law, which he claimed “directly threatens democracy.” In 2012 he raised his voice against the introduction of a new constitution and called Hungary “a blot on the European Union.” In 2015 he suggested placing Orbán in diplomatic quarantine.

Asselborn, who has been in politics ever since the age of eighteen, has been foreign minister since 2004. He is also a close friend Jean-Claude Juncker. Of course, the question is how many people share his view of Orbán in Brussels and elsewhere. According to Hungarian opposition EP members, the anti-Orbán voices are growing, but this might just be wishful thinking.

Although no serious commentary on the Asselborn interview has yet been published, an “open letter from a potential refugee” appeared in Kolozsvári Szalonna, which is as intriguing a site as its name, which means Kolozsvár (Cluj) bacon. It was published both in Hungarian and in English. In it, the author, who calls himself István Kósi, explains to Asselborn how the Hungarian public is misled and how it has become “radicalized, fanaticized,” which can be compared only to the 1940s. The far-right shift then “led to gruesome consequences, so you probably understand why many of us are so worried this time.” He concludes the letter with these words: “Let’s throw them out of the EU, out of Europe in general, and out of the planet.” The author describes himself “as a citizen of the European Union and Hungary, potential refugee in the near future—unless something is being done by those capable of effectively doing anything at all.”

I believe that a lot of people share this sentiment, but only an iconoclastic site like Kolozsvári Szalonna will actually publish something that openly supports Asselborn’s suggestion. I’m curiously waiting to see how the opposition party leaders react and how they indicate that they are in favor of some kind of censure without going as far as Asselborn.

September 13, 2016

Viktor Orbán at a crossroads: Alone or together?

By all objective standards Viktor Orbán’s refugee policy is a resounding failure. The hastily constructed fence, as predicted, is useless. This past weekend almost 9,000 refugees arrived in the country. The Hungarian government’s handling of the crisis has been roundly criticized, and by today Germany with the assistance of Austria decided to bend the rules and deal with the situation in a “flexible manner,” which meant taking over the registration of the would-be immigrants from the incompetent and malevolent Hungarian government.

Yet, from the point of view of the Orbán government the outcome of the protracted refugee crisis may not be a total loss. Yes, a lot of money was spent on anti-refugee propaganda and western powers are horrified at the heartless measures introduced and/or contemplated by the Hungarian government. But according to the latest public opinion poll by the Republikon Institute, as a result of the “firm” attitude of the government regarding the refugee issue, the downward slide of Fidesz’s popularity has stopped. The anti-refugee propaganda also reinforced the xenophobic tendencies of Hungarians to the point that, by now, 66% of the population believe that “the refugees pose a danger to Hungary and therefore they shouldn’t be allowed” into the country. Only 19% think that “it is the duty of Hungary to accept them.”

The most vociferous opponents of a generous immigration policy are the Fidesz voters (79%). They even surpass followers of Jobbik (71%). But even supporters of the opposition parties are not too keen on foreigners. For example, 64% of MSZP voters and 52% of LMP supporters harbor anti-immigration sentiments. DK voters polled lowest, at 47%, but this number is still surprisingly high given the liberal disposition of Ferenc Gyurcsány’s followers. Thus, one can safely say that a large majority of Hungarians would recommend strong measures against the influx of refugees and support Orbán’s categorical refusal to accept any refugees whatsoever.

It is another matter, however, whether the policies that have been introduced thus far satisfy the expectations of the electorate. Again, by objective standards, they shouldn’t because the results of these efforts, legislative and otherwise, are zilch. Yet I don’t think that Fidesz’s attempt to gain political advantage from the immigration crisis is in jeopardy. The government can always blame the European Union for its failures. Laying the blame on Brussels is a relatively easy task given the total confusion that reigns in the capitals of the member states and in Brussels itself.

Today’s events are a perfect example of that confusion. Yesterday the ministry of interior categorically announced that without a passport and a valid visa nobody can leave the country. Never mind that in the last few months more than 100,000 people left without either of these documents. This morning the same ministry claimed that there will be plenty of space in Hungarian jails for “illegal immigrants.”

By midday the Hungarian government blamed Germany for the situation that had developed at the railway stations in Budapest and elsewhere. András Giró-Szász, one of the government spokesmen, not without justification complained that Hungary has followed all of the Dublin III regulations governing immigration procedures when it is now Germany that has shown “a more permissive attitude toward Syrian refugees … which has raised hopes among the illegal immigrants who possibly come from Syria.” He asked the German government “to clarify the legal situation.”

Then something happened at the Eastern Railway Station (Keleti) between six and seven this morning. Within an hour all the policemen who were supposed to make sure that no refugee gets on any train heading west disappeared. Within minutes the news spread that Syrian refugees can embark on their journey to Germany where they are being welcomed. That meant a sudden reversal of Hungarian policy, which was undoubtedly prompted by a telephone call from Angela Merkel to Viktor Orbán. The Austrians stopped the two trains carrying the refugees at the border, but after making sure that the trains were not overcrowded they let them proceed to Germany.

The trains at the Austro-Hungarian border,August 31, 2015

The trains at the Austro-Hungarian border, August 31, 2015

I’m not sure whether, after the German change of policy, the Hungarian government will proceed with its plans to modify the criminal code, which would lay the groundwork for declaring a state of emergency. This might be incompatible with Hungary’s membership in the European Union. It seems, however, that the prime ministers of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia will hold a mini-summit in Prague on Friday. It was expected that these countries would stand together in their refusal to take any refugees. But Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz of Poland announced today that, given the changed situation, Poland is ready to accept far more than the 2,200 refugees it had offered at the time the quota system was originally discussed. So the staunchest holdouts may be limited to the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia.

As 444.hu said, a Kulturkamp has broken out between Western and Eastern Europe over the refugee issue. While the west wants to return to a discussion of quotas, the former socialist countries are refusing to accept any such solution. The tension is palpable. Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner used strong words today. She announced that “pressure should be put on those countries” that refuse to cooperate. In her opinion, Brussels might reduce the amount of support for the recalcitrant member states.

The easterners keep repeating that they want to remain Christian countries. Robert Fico is perhaps the least bashful in expressing this view, saying that Slovakia is willing to take 250 immigrants but they must not be Muslims. But the Poles, Estonians, and Czechs feel the same way about “refugees who come from a different cultural background,” as Miloš Zeman rather politely put it. As a result, in the Western European countries one often hears about the “heartlessness” of East Europeans while they stress their own humane attitudes. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls yesterday recited Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus”: “Give me your tired, your poor, /Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.” Italy, Austria, and Germany have indicated that if there is no common solution, free movement within the European Union cannot be maintained.

Four days ago an opinion piece,”The price of zero,” appeared in Népszabadság by the excellent veteran journalist Endre Aczél. He begins his piece by saying that he wasn’t at all surprised that it was Germany that first decided to abandon the “Dublin Convention” and not to send refugees back to the countries where they reached the territory of the European Union. The Germans remember their own post-World War II history when 14 million Germans were forced to move from east to west. The Germans, the French, and the Italians contemplate a pan-European solution. But Thomas de Maiziere, German minister of the interior, “quietly” mentioned the possibility of guarding national borders in the future. “Anyone, like Orbán, who declares zero acceptance of immigrants should think twice: What would be the benefit or advantage from limitations to Hungarians’ free movement within the European Union?” Of course, it would be a terrible blow. If it came to that, Viktor Orbán wouldn’t be prime minister of Hungary for long. One wouldn’t even have to wait for the next scheduled election.