Tag Archives: NATO

Viktor Orbán: “We have convinced NATO”

Viktor Orbán’s self-aggrandizing fabrications after international summits never cease to amaze me. He holds so-called press conferences, usually in Hungarian and frequently with a single reporter from M1 state TV, to explain his pivotal role in the negotiations. It is usually, he explains, at Hungary’s insistence or upon his own sage advice that the European Union, or in this case NATO, decides to pursue a certain course of action.

This time the claim is that NATO at his urging decided “to take an active part in the European Union’s efforts at solving the refugee crisis. … We managed to get NATO on our side … We stated that illegal migration must be stopped, the outside borders must be defended, uncontrolled influx carried not just civilian but military security risks.” After this grandiose announcement that gave the impression that soon enough NATO troops will be standing at the Serb-Hungarian border, he said that “first and foremost, certain NATO forces will be moved to the defense of the maritime borders.”

The fact is that NATO has had a presence in the Aegean Sea ever since February when at the request of Germany, Greece, and Turkey it joined other international efforts to deal with the crisis. NATO is also involved in stemming illegal trafficking and illegal migration. These roles were described in the “NATO Summit Guide,” released by NATO ahead of the summit. It was reported in April 2016 that “Barack Obama said he was willing to commit NATO assets to block the traffic in human beings and the people smugglers that we refer to as modern slavers.” In June The Financial Times reported that “NATO will take a more prominent role in handling the EU’s refugee crisis by expanding its presence across the Mediterranean, potentially helping to stem an increased flow of people from north Africa into Italy.” In brief, Hungary didn’t initiate anything. The decision to expand the operation has been in the works for months.

Only one Hungarian publication, 444.hu, noticed this latest untruth of Viktor Orbán.

A few hours ago Jens Stoltenberg, secretary-general of NATO, tweeted that four NATO battalions will be deployed in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. Polish, Romanian, and Bulgarian troops will also be used in this new NATO force. Note that neither Hungarian nor Slovak troops will take part in the mission. A U.S.-led battalion will be stationed in Poland. Germany will send 500 troops to Lithuania, and more soldiers will come from the Benelux countries, Norway, and France. Half a battalion, led by Great Britain, will be moved to Estonia. A full NATO battalion, led by Canada, will be sent to Latvia.

The most interesting development is the exchange of troops between Poland and Romania. A Polish brigade will be stationed in Romania, and the Romanians will send a brigade to Poland. It also seems that Bulgaria will send 400 people to Romania, and it is likely that Polish soldiers will be sent to Bulgaria. So, in a way, a kind of international force of former Soviet-dominated countries is taking shape.

Russian helicopters

Although Hungary is not sending any soldiers to regions bordering on Russia, the country will have a forty-member NATO control center (irányítási pont). Orbán is being careful to stay in the background as much as possible so as not to alienate the Russians. He did, however, specifically mention in the “press conference” that in his opinion the present military arrangement does not infringe on the “NATO-Russian agreement.”

Origo assumed that Orbán was talking about the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between NATO and Russia signed in 1997 which, according to the paper, includes a clause that prohibits the stationing of NATO troops in countries bordering on Russia. There are commentators, however, who insist that this reading of the agreement is based on a misinterpretation of the text, which has a clause stating that the prohibition is valid only “in the current and foreseeable security environment.” Those who argue that placing NATO troops in the Baltic states is perfectly legal point to “the changed security environment.”

By sending troops to Latvia and Lithuania, the NATO leadership accepted the latter interpretation. But here again Orbán invented a lofty role for himself when he said that “we persuaded NATO that no Russian interest will be violated.” Who are these persuasive “we”?

Although the analysts of the Heritage Institute, a conservative think tank, might argue that the prohibition against stationing NATO troops in countries neighboring Russia is nothing more than “a myth that has been perpetuated by the Kremlin’s propaganda machine,” the Russians see it differently. The Russian foreign ministry blasted NATO for concentrating “its efforts on deterring a non-existent threat from the east.” As had been agreed to earlier, NATO ambassadors will meet their Russian counterparts in Brussels where “Moscow will seek explanations for NATO’s plans.”

Orbán is misleading the Hungarian public about the country’s real standing in the international community and about his own role in shaping international policy. But when the government controls so much of the media it’s easy to tell tales.

July 10, 2016

Viktor Orbán’s solution to the refugee crisis has been discarded

I really hate leaving the topic of the teachers’ revolt because I am convinced that this is an important event that may have lasting consequences in the political life of Hungary. Of course, we will return to the subject by Saturday at the latest. But, although Hungarians in the eighteenth century liked to think that “extra Hungariam non est vita, si est vita, non est ita” (there is no life outside of Hungary and if there is, it is not the same), the world is currently teeming with events that may have a substantial impact on Hungary, which Viktor Orbán is trying to insulate from the rest of the world.

I think it is patently obvious by now that the Hungarian prime minister imagines himself to be a key player on the world stage. In the last few weeks he has positioned himself as a counterweight to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, offering an alternative policy of how to handle the refugee issue.

Russian bombers are furiously attacking moderate opposition forces in Syria, driving tens of thousands more people into exile in Turkey and thereby swelling the number of refugees who are embarking on the dangerous voyage to Greece and from there to points farther north. In bombing Aleppo, Russia is wittingly or unwittingly exacerbating the crisis within the European Union, fueled in no small measure by Viktor Orbán himself. Clearly, Europe must find a solution to the crisis. It’s not that even two or three million people couldn’t be absorbed by a region of 500 million inhabitants, but such numbers, especially if the refugees swarm into only one or two countries, can become unmanageable.  So, the influx must be slowed and regulated.

Currently there are two very different concepts in circulation regarding the defense of the European Union’s external borders. One is an orderly resettlement of refugees, which involves slowing the influx of refugees by controlling the Aegean Sea. This idea is supported by Angela Merkel. The other is “the brainchild” of Viktor Orbán and is supported by some of the Central European politicians. The greatest supporter of Orbán’s scheme is Miro Cerar, prime minister of Slovenia. This involves constructing an insurmountable fence between Greece and her three neighbors:  Macedonia, Albania, and Bulgaria. Which of these two plans has the better chance of being approved at the end of the day? Most observers think that Orbán’s plan will fail because “it would needlessly and unfairly antagonize Greece, destabilize the Western Balkans, and create a huge demand for readily available smuggling services.” In addition, it would require a fence as long as and as sturdy as that between Israel and Egypt that took three years to build. It would also entail a willingness to use deadly force.

As the result of Orbán’s masterplan, Hungary’s relations with Greece are strained. How tense they are became public only very recently when Nikos Xydakis, the Greek deputy foreign minister for European affairs, paid a visit to Budapest. The Greek foreign ministry announced on February 8 that Xydakis, whom the Greeks call “alternate minister,” was to visit Austria, Slovakia, and Hungary. In Austria he had a meeting scheduled with Minister of the Interior Johanna Mikl-Leitner and the secretary-general of the Austrian foreign ministry, Michael Linhart. From Vienna he was to travel to Slovakia, where he was to have a meeting with Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajčák and Deputy Foreign Minister for European Affairs, Ivan Korčok. Finally, he was to meet with officials in Budapest.

Xydakis got a mouthful from Johanna Mikl-Leitner, who severely criticized Greek measures taken in keeping the refugees at bay. She “wanted to know why the Greek leadership did not use its deployment-ready naval fleet for civilian purposes.” In Bratislava, where he met with the foreign minister himself, he had an easier time. Their meeting was described as friendly. Instead of criticizing Greece, the Slovak foreign minister wanted to hear about Greece’s refugee management.

In Hungary Xydakis had three meetings. One was with Interior Minister Sándor Pintér, the second with Levente Magyar, deputy to Péter Szijjártó, and the third with Szabolcs Ferenc Takács, undersecretary in charge of European affairs. We don’t know what transpired at these talks, but Xydakis wasn’t in a very good mood when Népszabadság asked him for an interview. He minced no words, calling Hungarian policy towards Greece “hostile.” Hungary hasn’t even sent one tent to Greece, and it contributed only five policemen to the staff of Frontex’s mission. At the same time Hungary sent 100 km of barbed wire and 31 soldiers and policemen to assist in the building of a fence along the Greek-Macedonian border. “This was a political decision, which we consider to be a hostile act from a NATO ally and an EU partner whom we considered our friend. The Macedonian and Bulgarian action is unfriendly, but it understandable that they want to defend their own borders. What, however, is unacceptable is that other EU countries send policemen and soldiers to the Macedonian-Greek and Bulgarian-Greek borders. Who is the enemy? We, the Greeks?”

From the interview we learned that both Vienna and Bratislava offered material aid to Greece, which has had an influx of almost a million refugees. In Budapest Pintér offered nothing. He said only that he will take a look at the list of items Greece desperately needs. Xydakis also reported during the interview that German-Greek relations, which during the Greek financial crisis were severely strained, have improved greatly. The refugee crisis has brought Germany and Greece closer, and today they work hand in hand because collaboration is an absolute necessity under the present circumstances.

In Xydakis the Hungarians found somebody who is not like the usual overly cautious and overly diplomatic West European politicians. Xydakis, who is relatively new to politics, used to be the editor-in-chief of Greece’s premier daily Kathimerini. Knowing the Orbán regime’s policy of immediate counterattack at the slightest criticism of its policies, you can imagine what Péter Szijjártó had to say after reading this interview. The diatribe against Greece was long, but one can summarize it easily: Greece has no right to give lessons on solidarity. It is entirely Greece’s fault that Europe is defenseless because Greece isn’t fulfilling its obligations. Hungary had the remedy from the very beginning: one needs soldiers, policemen, ships, helicopters, airplanes, not Frontex officials. If Europe is ready to defend the border by force, Hungary is ready to contribute to the effort.

Source: The Independent

Source: The Independent

I wonder what Szijjártó thinks now that a few hours ago the decision was made to deploy the NATO fleet to the Aegean Sea. The decision was made right after Greece declared Turkey a “safe third country,” which gives it the legal framework to turn back asylum-seekers arriving through Turkey. The fleet, which is currently under German command, “will be tasked to conduct reconnaissance, monitoring and surveillance of the illegal crossings in the Aegean sea.” It seems that the West, which has been so severely criticized by Orbán, is quite capable of acting without his assistance. The idea of keeping Greece under quarantine failed. I wonder what will happen to the 100 km of barbed wire Budapest sent to the Macedonian border.

February 11, 2016


Yesterday, in the first of my two-part series on Viktor Orbán’s speech in Kötcse, where Fidesz bigwigs hold a so-called picnic, I concentrated on Viktor Orbán’s ideas about the origins of the refugee crisis. I think we can safely call these ideas fanciful and without foundation. Here I will analyze another theme: the crisis and possible death of liberalism.

A year ago at Tusnádfürdő/Baile Tusnad, Viktor Orbán delivered a speech that caused worldwide consternation. In his speech he rejected democracy as we understand it and championed the cause of “illiberal democracy,” an autocratic form of government in which, although there are free elections, citizens lack civil liberties. The speech created quite a storm and Orbán’s men tried to explain his words away with little success. From there on, he was not too eager to talk about the end of liberal democracy. It seems, however, that his “successes” in his fight against the Islamic invasion have emboldened him and that he is now ready to return to his vision of the new world that will be created as a result of the migration crisis. Viktor Orbán now sees himself as the leader of a new Christian, national era that will follow “the age of liberal blah blah.”

In his view, with the refugee crisis came “the crisis of liberal identity.” What is the connection between the two? I will try to put it more elegantly than Viktor Orbán did. Liberal ideals, among them the right to freedom of movement and universal human rights, brought on this catastrophe, which proves that the continuation of these policies is no longer possible. Right now Europe is rich but weak, which is “the most dangerous combination that can exist.” Liberalism is responsible for Europe’s weakness. And soon enough its riches will be taken away by the less fortunate. If Europe wants to defend itself, it must get rid of its liberal political philosophy.

As things stand now, even conservative politicians are liberals because of the pressure of the media, which is in liberal hands. This liberal tyranny in Europe is so strong that even talking about a turn away from liberalism is dangerous. Only in Hungary can one speak honestly, “where we can sit here and talk about these questions.” Nowhere else in Europe could that happen. One couldn’t call together such a meeting in Germany “because there one cannot say such things.” Even in Poland it would be risky.

Liberalism has been undermining the very foundations of European security, and the refugee crisis made the bankruptcy of liberalism crystal clear. Orbán further elaborated on this theme today in his regular Friday morning interview on Magyar Rádió. He called western liberalism “suicidal” and said it will lead to a decline in living standards. Thus, while a year ago he tried to hide his antagonism to liberalism, now Orbán has come out and openly attacked it as the cause of the “migrant invasion.” Obviously, he thinks that foreign public opinion will be more receptive to his anti-liberal talk given the pressures of the refugee crisis.

In the eyes of the United States and its supporters

there is righteousness and there is evil that should be conquered. But at the end, it always turns out that behind it all there is something else: money, oil, raw materials. When they bombed Iraq or for that matter Syria into smithereens their action was anything but beneficial. Yet they demand that the world acknowledge that they are benefactors who stand on the right side. This is the essence of liberal foreign policy.

Orbán is looking at the Euro-Atlantic alliance as an outsider even though Hungary is a member of NATO and therefore an ally of the United States. I really don’t understand how he can cooperate with an evil power like the United States and why he sent a contingent of Hungarian soldiers to Iraq only a couple of months ago. I also don’t understand why he allows American troops into the country because at this very moment there are joint military exercises taking place in Hungary. How long will he be able to play this game?

Orbán spent a considerable amount of time on his plans for Hungary’s future. He came up with four essential ingredients. The first is the necessity of defensible borders. As he put it, “a country that has no borders is not a country.” That means that Hungary will veto any attempt to strengthen geographical and political ties among member states.

The second is “the defense of ethnic and cultural composition,” not only of Hungary but also, he hopes, of Europe. Every nation has the right to decide whether they want to change or not. He seems to think that this is the most important component of his new Europe “because at the very end this is the battle that must be won.” This is a dangerous idea which could affect the free movement of citizens of the European Union’s member states. What if the United Kingdom decides that they want to defend the current ethnic composition of the country and no longer welcome Hungarian “economic immigrants”?

Third, Hungary must remain economically competitive because in these modern times even if you are right and “morally as close as possible to perfection, if you are not successful economically they will crush you.” Economic success, however, is not an end in and of itself. It is only a vehicle for the ultimate goal: national sovereignty.

And the last ingredient of illiberal Hungary is what he calls “everyday patriotism” (mindennapi patriótizmus), to which he immediately added: “Please, don’t misunderstand me.” What is the problem with everyday patriotism? After all, what he seems to mean by it is that Hungarians should give preference to Hungarian products and should discriminate in hiring practices in favor of Hungarians. Why apologize? Well, it is because most Hungarians remember the documentary film of Mikhail Romm called “Ordinary Fascism,” which for the most part took the form of annotated excerpts of archival material that show the rise and fall of fascism, especially in Nazi Germany. The film’s Hungarian title is “Hétköznapi fasizmus” (weekday fascism), in the sense of “ordinary.” Even he felt that the phrase needed some explanation. His everyday patriotism has nothing to do with Romm’s ordinary fascism.

Thousands marching toward Nagykanizsa, Zala County

Thousands marching toward Nagykanizsa, Zala County

Well, I’m afraid we’ll have to wait for the fulfillment of Viktor Orbán’s grand vision. At the moment, all hell has broken loose along the borders and Hungary has become completely isolated. Viktor, you’re doing a heck of a job! Unfortunately, unlike Michael Brown who resigned ten days after George W. Bush thus praised him for his utterly inadequate handling of the Katrina crisis, the Hungarian prime minister is seeing both his power and his domestic popularity increase.

István Simicskó’s encounter with Celeste A. Wallander, 2002

Viktor Orbán doesn’t like to waste time. Yesterday afternoon Csaba Hende, minister of defense, resigned, and lickety-split the prime minister named his replacement, István Simicskó, who as of this afternoon could occupy’s Hende’s empty office in the ministry.

I suspect that not too many people are familiar with Simicskó, although he has been a member of parliament since 1998 and off and on has been a member of various Fidesz governments. The name will resonate in the White House, however, with Celeste A. Wallander, special assistant to the president and senior director for Russia and Eurasia on the National Security Council. How on earth, you might ask, would Celeste Wallander know who István Simicskó is? Here in a nutshell is the story.

Back in November 2002, when Wallander was a senior researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, she wrote a study on NATO in Foreign Affairs with the title “Shape Up or Ship Out.” In it she pointed out how the new NATO countries were failing to fulfill their obligations:

Unfortunately, the evidence is that other new members are already falling behind on their commitments. Recently, a senior figure in European security remarked that “Hungary has won the prize for most disappointing new member of NATO, and against some competition,” citing the previous Hungarian government’s antisemitism, extraterritorial claims against its neighbors, and failure to play a constructive role in Balkan security. Indeed, Hungary seems to have accepted this dubious distinction. The new Hungarian defense minister, Ferenc Juhasz, even admitted on local radio after meeting with NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson that Hungary has failed to meet its NATO commitments over the past four years to such an extent that the alliance has unofficially told him that Hungary would already have been expelled if an expulsion were possible.

Hungary appears to be back on the right path after the defeat of Victor Orban’s nationalist government in elections earlier this year.

This article appeared in a highly respected journal, and normally it would not have prompted an incident. Not unless the criticism was directed against anything connected with Viktor Orbán’s government or party. Simicskó, who after the fall of the Orbán government, became the deputy chairman of the parliamentary committee on defense, created a storm over the article. Not only did he point a finger at the Horn government as being responsible for the sorry state of the Hungarian army but he also began working on a conspiracy theory. Celeste Wallander was accused of being in cahoots with members of the Medgyessy government, then in power. Simicskó was convinced that “such critical remarks and articles appearing about Hungary prepare the ground for Hungarian participation in a possible war against Iraq and sending soldiers to Afghanistan.” In plain English, Celeste Wallander the political scientist was pictured as an agent of American military circles in addition to working with the Medgyessy government because “the picture becomes complete when we consider that [the article] came out in preparation for Prime Minister Medgyessy’s visit to Washington.”

A few days later Simicskó wrote a letter to the political scientist and told her off for including the quotation that “Hungary has won the prize for most disappointing new member of NATO, and against some competition.”

I don’t remember all the details, but I believe Celeste Wallander answered Simicskó’s letter. That wasn’t the end of Wallander’s woes, however. She was also attacked by the internet group known as the Hungarian Lobby, which is actually a Fidesz lobby. The group was founded by Béla Lipták, who left Hungary as an engineering student after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and who is the author of several highly technical books on such topics as process measurement and analysis, hazardous waste, and air pollution. Every time a newspaper article critical of Orbán’s Hungary appears, Lipták writes to the thousands of people who receive the Lobby’s newsletter and asks them to bombard the editors of the paper or in this case Celester Wallander herself with letters of complaint. He provides a sample letter but tells the members to change the sentence structure a bit and make sure they add their own name; that is, don’t send the form letter with Lipták’s signature. As soon as Lipták got wind of the Simicskó-Wallander exchange, the Hungarian Lobby machinery moved into action and the poor woman was inundated with hundreds of letters.

I, who out of curiosity receive Lipták’s newsletters, decided to write a letter to Celeste Wallander and express my sympathy. I wanted to show that there are people who don’t share the ideas of Simicskó or those of Lipták’s indefatigable letter writers. We subsequently exchanged a number of letters about the incident.

Lajos Kósa, chairman of the parliamentary committee on military affairs, and István Simicskó after the committee approved Simicskó's appointment for the post of minister of defense

Lajos Kósa, chairman of the parliamentary committee on military affairs, and István Simicskó after the committee approved Simicskó’s appointment to the post of minister of defense

In 2010 the consensus was that the most likely candidate for the post of minister of defense would be István Simicskó, but on April 27 the word came down that Csaba Hende would be appointed and that Simicskó would have to be satisfied with the post of undersecretary. The next day I wrote an article about the 2002 incident in Galamus titled “Simicskó István esete Celeste A. Wallanderrrel” (István Simicskó’s encounter with Celeste A. Wallander). By that time Celeste Wallander was deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia/Ukraine/Eurasia at the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy. In that article I mused over the possibility that if Orbán had appointed Simicskó minister of defense sooner or later he would have had to encounter, perhaps even in person, Celeste Wallander.

Since then Wallander has moved even higher up on the U.S. governmental ladder. Somehow I doubt that Simicskó will ever have to face Celeste Wallander because is unlikely that he will have occasion to pay a visit to the White House. I’m certain, however, that Wallander will remember, and not too fondly, the name of the new Hungarian minister of defense.

The Horn government and NATO: The Blinken memoirs, Part II

This is something of an extended footnote to my book review of Vera and the Ambassador: Escape and Return. There I quoted Donald Blinken as saying that “Hungary’s swift action demonstrated in a manner no words could express that the country was intent on being taken seriously as a candidate for NATO membership.” Alex Kuli, one of our regular commenters, remembers the events differently. According to him, “the Horn government did plenty of hand-wringing over NATO membership. Around 1995 or thereabouts, Horn proposed a referendum on NATO membership as a stalling tactic, saying he wasn’t sure Hungarians wanted to be a part of a new military alliance so soon after the Russian military had departed.”

I decided to revisit Hungary’s accession to NATO. I refreshed my memory and came to the conclusion that Ambassador Blinken’s rendition of the story is accurate. First, let me quote from an English-language article of László Valki, a professor of international law at ELTE, that appeared in European Security and NATO Enlargement: A View from Central Europe, edited by Stephen J. Blank (1998). In it we read that before the Madrid meeting in the summer of 1997, when Hungary was finally invited to join NATO,

a rather odd psychosis seemed to have overcome Hungary. The politicians in Budapest were looking dreamily toward NATO, plucking flower petals, and murmuring—loves me, loves me not. Every political act, every event had been assessed according to whether it furthered the accession of the country to NATO or hindered it. Hungary had been making enormous efforts to prove that it was fully fit to be admitted.  (pp. 91-92)

We learn from Valki’s article that most parliamentary parties built their foreign policy programs around NATO accession and that their positive attitudes to accession became part of their legitimacy. (p. 95) Naturally, that also included MSZP. “One of the planks in the Socialist Party’s 1994 election platform was in favor of Hungary joining NATO and it included a commitment to holding a referendum on the issue.” (p. 108) So, Horn’s later references to holding a referendum had nothing to do with any kind of stalling tactic. He was simply reiterating the socialist promise of a referendum. As for the outcome of the referendum, according to Váli “the parties did not fear rejection but they were worried about low turnout.” Public support before the Madrid invitation was  61%; after, 69%. The actual results were even higher: 85.3%.

I think it is also useful to see what Gyula Horn himself had to say on the subject since he was present when the decision was reached in Madrid to extend an invitation to the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland to join NATO. The quotations below come from Gyula Horn’s memoirs titled Those 1990s (1999). Still in Madrid, Horn promised to keep the Hungarian people fully informed and announced his government’s decision to hold the referendum soon, adding that “if the referendum brings negative results then we don’t deserve membership in the alliance.” (p. 454)

Václav Havel, Aleksander Kwaśniewski, and Gyula Horn in Madrid after the NATO invitation to join

Václav Havel, Aleksander Kwaśniewski, and Gyula Horn in Madrid

On July 15 he made a speech in parliament from which I will quote a few sentences to give some sense of Horn’s thoughts at the time. He called NATO

an alliance, a community that has been in existence for forty-eight years and which has been defending democracy, human rights, the freedom of political and economic enterprises, the foundations and instruments of prosperity. NATO that invited us never attacked anyone at any time anywhere … and at the same time it defends peace and freedom. … The organization asks us to defend together with them ourselves, Europe, the world against the enemies of democracy, against dictators and nationalists. …

NATO doesn’t command but invites us. A rare occurrence in our history… Accepting the invitation is our sovereign decision. Let’s take advantage of it…. At last we don’t show ourselves as a self-pitying nation…. Now we cross the threshold of a long and promising process that will hopefully lead, with our contribution, to the predominance of democracy in Europe and all over the world. We cross a threshold that will hopefully lead to a time when no one will be able to force regimes on nations that violate human dignity, human rights and free will ….

If we miss this opportunity and if we don’t realize this hope, then we can’t forgive ourselves, and our children and grandchildren will never forgive us. (pp. 455-456)

Honest to goodness, I never thought I would consider Gyula Horn a standard-bearer of democracy, but after four plus five years of Viktor Orbán, Horn comes across as the epitome of a western democratic statesman. One can only lament the sorry state of Hungarian democracy less than twenty years after this speech was delivered.

The last five years of the Orbán government, fact and fiction

It caught everybody by surprise, including some of the highest office holders of the government and Fidesz, that today “around noon” Viktor Orbán planned to give another speech on “the state of the nation” only three months after his last one. Even one of Orbán’s deputies, Lajos Kósa, learned about it only when he received his invitation a couple of days ago. The prime minister’s closest advisers must have convinced him that he has to deliver a major address to revive his and his party’s sagging popularity. They came up with a date that could serve the purpose well: it was five years ago, on May 29, that the second Orbán government was formed. The speech was supposed to call attention to the fantastic achievements of these five years and to point the way forward.

Back in February, Orbán’s “state of the nation speech” was nothing like what was expected. One would have thought that after the political setbacks suffered by Fidesz, the prime minister would have realized that a change in tactics was in order. But at no point in his speech did he admit that any of his policies had been unsuccessful. The problem was, he claimed, that the activists didn’t work hard enough. The party and the government just have to work harder and all will be well. Also, despite Jobbik’s steady growth, Orbán said nothing about the dangers it posed for Fidesz and the country. Instead, he frightened his audience with the spectre of a “return of the socialists,” which would threaten the well-being of the country.

In comparison to that message in February, today’s speech seemed to be aimed, at least in part, at silencing his critics, both foreign and domestic. Of course, given the prime minister’s ideological meanderings and his total unreliability when it comes to translating words into action, the significance of this speech might be minimal. It is a bit naive of Szabolcs Dull of Index to take Viktor Orbán at his word and believe that from here on the Fidesz members of government and parliament will “consult” with the opposition parties or that they will prepare pieces of legislation early and submit them for discussion in ample time. Dull also found Orbán’s self-criticism refreshing, but the only mistake he admitted to was the internet tax, which was just one of the many decisions that prompted widespread dissatisfaction with the government. The man has real difficulty admitting to any missteps. All in all, it is difficult to imagine that, in place of their relentless war-like behavior, from now on Viktor Orbán and his government will pay the greatest attention to the everyday problems of ordinary Hungarians, as he promised today.

Viktor Orbán speaks on his achievement of the last five years

Viktor Orbán speaks about his achievements of the last five years

Orbán promised zero tolerance toward corruption and spoke out against “slanderers” who out of “sheer jealousy” attack brave and hardworking Hungarian businessmen. I guess these words need no translation. Everything will remain the same. Corruption will flourish and the “slanderers” might end up in jail.

Orbán used the occasion to make his first public attack on Jobbik and its euroskepticism. In this connection he talked about the European Union and NATO as “our family.” But how seriously can one take all this when in the same speech he said the following: “A lot can happen in twenty-five years, but the fact that we are for a free and independent Hungary must remain constant. For us the sovereignty of Hungary cannot be a bargaining chip.”

The bulk of the speech focused on the fantastic accomplishments of his five years in power. The message was, in essence, that when he came into power Hungary was in ruins. Thanks to his government’s efforts the country has been saved. Few people remember, especially after five years of brainwashing, that the worst fallout of the 2008 crisis in Hungary was in 2009 and that by 2010, thanks to the Bajnai government’s efforts, the economy was improving. In fact, the collapse of the forint, the downgrading of the Hungarian government’s bonds to junk status, and the decrease in foreign investment were not the products of the Gyurcsány-Bajnai governments. They all happened after Viktor Orbán became prime minister and his right-hand man, György Matolcsy, began his crazy experimentation with “unorthodox” economics.

Orbán set two priorities in 2010: to fight unemployment and to reduce the national debt. In March 2010 the debt was 83% of GDP. Five years later, in March 2015, it was 85% of GDP. And in the interim an incredible amount of money taken from the private pension funds of 3.5 million Hungarians went for debt reduction. As for unemployment, on paper the figures look impressive–a decrease from about 12% to 7%. But if we look at the situation a little closer, we realize that 250,000 people who were added to the workforce are employed by the public works program, which is a burden on the national economy. In addition, 300-400,000 Hungarians by now have moved to other countries of the European Union, which eased the unemployment situation. The government that promised to become smaller than ever before has grown enormously. In the last five years, out of the 120,000 net new jobs in the country, a whopping 104,000 were created in the government sector. Growth in the private sector, which is what really matters, was minuscule: less than 16,000.

Although Orbán is very proud of the 2014 GDP, which is indeed high by European standards, he certainly wouldn’t want to talk about the sad fact that between 2010 and 2014 there was no growth whatsoever. It was only in the last few months that economic growth reached a level last seen before 2008.

In 2010 60% of high school matriculants headed to college, but this figure is now 45%. In 2014 1.5 times more people moved abroad than in 2013 and six times more than in 2009. Most left for economic reasons, but 36% of them said that they were also escaping the regime introduced by the Orbán government.

And a final sign of Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal democracy.” The following media outlets were denied access to the conference organized for the occasion: Népszava, Hócipő, 444.hu, KlubRádió, and the still right-of-center but not wholly uncritical Magyar Nemzet and LánchídRádió. Népszabadság, the leading Hungarian daily, was not barred, but out of sympathy for those excluded, the paper published only MTI’s report on the speeches delivered at the conference.

Is Viktor Orbán’s foreign policy Jobbik inspired?

In the interview Gábor Vona gave to Magyar Nemzet yesterday, the chairman of Jobbik talked about the foreign policy strategies of the party. He said: “I have been repeating ever since 2010 that Hungary must realize its national interest in a German-Russian-Turkish triangle. Not long ago Viktor Orbán himself admitted that much.”

Vona was referring to the rambling speech the prime minister delivered on March 9 to the Hungarian ambassadors who were called home to be personally instructed by Orbán on the intricacies of Hungarian diplomacy. In this speech Orbán said:

I think that, historically, Hungary’s fate depended primarily on its relations with three countries. I am currently watching what is happening in German-Hungarian, Russian-Hungarian, and Turkish-Hungarian relations. These are the three great powers that have determined what happened to us in the last one thousand years…. This is the network of foreign relations that we must maintain.

A German-Turkish-Russian triangle as the cornerstone of the Orbán government’s foreign policy is new. Or at least this was the first time I heard Viktor Orbán talk about it. I suspect that the idea came from Márton Gyöngyösi, the “foreign policy expert” of Jobbik. The son of a Hungarian diplomat from the Kádár era, he has spent most of his life abroad. He is a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, and prior to his university studies he and his family lived in several countries, including at least one in the Middle East. He has never hidden his anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli feelings. He is pro-Russian and might be on a list of undesirables in Ukraine because he assisted in the plebiscite in Donetsk.

Following up on Gábor Vona’s interview yesterday, Gyöngyösi gave a lengthy interview to 444.hu that appeared today. The interview was wide-ranging. Here I will concentrate on those ideas I think most closely resemble the foreign policy articulated by the prime minister. Just as with domestic policies, the foreign policies of the two parties overlap at several points.

Márton Gyöngyösi

Márton Gyöngyösi

According to Gyöngyösi, the oft-repeated adage that Hungary must choose between the West and the East is a false dichotomy that has plagued Hungarian thinking “ever since St. Stephen.” Instead, Hungary should adjust its foreign policy to the three great powers: Germany, Russia, and Turkey. He launched into an analysis of foreign policy during the reign of Gábor Bethlen (1580-1629), prince of Transylvania, when, in Gyöngyösi’s opinion, Hungary successfully navigated among the three great powers–the Austrian, Russian, and Ottoman Empires.* In his view, Hungary shouldn’t accept any kind of “one-sided dependence or colonization.” It should keep its independence, especially because of “the duality of Hungarian national consciousness [which is] both western and eastern.” I don’t think I have to remind readers of very similar ideas expressed by Viktor Orbán himself.

Although Orbán is careful not to alienate the western powers by expressing sentiments that would indicate that he stands on Russia’s side in the Ukrainian-Russian conflict, he has made it eminently clear that Hungary has no stake in allying itself with either side. Gyöngyösi goes so far as to say that he would seriously consider leaving NATO, thereby realizing the Hungarian right’s desire for neutrality. After all, if a neutral Finland is safe and not threatened by Russia, why does Hungary need the NATO umbrella?

Vona might talk about an “opening to the West” and Gyöngyösi might envisage Hungarian ties to a German-Russian-Turkish triangle, but thus far Jobbik has shown itself to be committed almost exclusively to a pro-Russian policy. Gyöngyösi views Moscow as a peace-loving country that has wanted nothing since the end of the Cold War but a security zone in which “the CIA and NATO don’t operate.”

As far as Hungary is concerned, “the country fell from one dependency into another. The Russian soldiers left and then came a different kind of dependency, which arrived in disguise…. Is this colonization? Yes, it is.” The problem Hungary faces is “the unilateral euroatlantism which results in the loss of sovereignty.” This is familiar text from Orbán’s speeches.

Gyöngyösi has no problems whatsoever with the Russian loan for Paks’s two new reactors. “There is a huge difference between this loan and the money coming from the EU, because Brussels has a say in how it is spent. Russia, on the other hand, does not have a say in what we spend the money on. Russia does not meddle in Hungarian internal affairs.” Viktor Orbán would heartily agree.

When it comes to autocratic regimes like Putin’s Russia or Erdoğan’s Turkey, Gyöngyösi thinks, just like Viktor Orbán, that such regimes suit the Russian and Turkish psyches. He also believes that the Russian and Turkish models, perhaps with some modifications, suit the Hungarians better than unrestricted democracy. Just as Hungary adopted Christianity in a modified** form, so there are different versions of democratic regimes. Hungary surely will have its own, tailored to its needs. Again, this sounds familiar. How often we heard similar sentiments expressed by Viktor Orbán.

And finally, Gyöngyösi “already in 2008 talked about ‘the eastern opening,'” which includes good relations with Russia. Viktor Orbán’s concept of the eastern opening definitely postdates 2008, and therefore there is a good possibility that even that foreign policy initiative was taken over from Jobbik. But, according to Gyöngyösi, there are problems with Orbán’s credibility in eastern countries. The political leaders of these countries remember only too well what Orbán’s opinions of them were in 2008 and 2009. Sure, he is the only one now who can negotiate with them, but Gyöngyösi knows “from first hand” what these people think of him. They think he is a “turncoat.” And “one cannot base a stable foreign policy” on purely short-lived economic interests.

*I suspect that Márton Gyöngyösi’s knowledge of early 17th-century European history leaves something to be desired. In vain did I search for Russian involvement in Austrian-Hungarian affairs during the reign of Gábor Bethlen. Russia was going through one of the most difficult times in its history, the period called “The Time of Troubles” when Moscow lost large parts of its territories to Poland-Lithuania. The Russians had enough trouble of their own; they didn’t need to get mixed up in Austrian-Hungarian affairs.

**I don’t know what kind of modified Christianity Gyöngyösi is talking about.