Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó paid a visit to Bucharest on February 5, which the Romanian media described as “strange” and “extremely controversial.” These adjectives may not be an exaggeration since his Romanian counterpart, Teodor Meleșcanu, reluctantly received him only after Szijjártó’s persistent request for an audience. According to Romanian sources, Szijjártó was supposed to meet only Liviu Dragnea, president of the chamber of deputies, and Călin Popescu-Tăriceanu, speaker of the senate, in connection with the reopening of a Roman Catholic theological seminary in Targu Mureș/Marosvásárhely.
HotNews, an English-language internet site, also noted that President Klaus Iohannis did not receive Szijjártó, although a few days earlier he extended an invitation to the Polish foreign minister who was visiting Bucharest. The paper reminded its readers that Szijjártó was the “one who banned Hungarian diplomats from participating in Romania’s national day celebrations” last December. Despite these dismal accounts of the trip, by the time Szijjártó landed in Budapest the visit had morphed into a triumphant encounter of historic importance.
According to MTI, Hungary’s official news agency, the foreign ministers of the two countries signed an agreement that will ensure the receipt of large quantities of natural gas extracted from the Black Sea. Szijjártó added that “this is Hungary’s first opportunity in the past decade to buy large quantities of natural gas from a source other than Russia.”
Two days later, however, Teodor Meleșcanu made it clear that “no agreement or other bilateral document has been signed regarding gas export from Romania to Hungary or about other new projects in the energy field.” During a breakfast meeting “issues known to the public were reviewed … with no new elements.” They simply had a friendly or not so friendly chat about a gas pipeline, one of the projects of the “Connecting Europe Facility” which, according to the European Commission’s Innovation and Networks Executive Agency (INEA), is “a key EU funding instrument to promote growth, jobs and competitiveness through targeted infrastructure investment at a European level.”
The project is an onshore “pipeline from Bulgaria to Austria via Romania and Hungary,” known as the BRHA project. The pipeline will extend approximately 1,318 km and will have a delivery capacity of between 6.1 and 52mcm/day, depending on the geographic location. Work on the project began in July 2016 and the first phase of the project must be finished by August 2020. Meleșcanu noted that “the plan states that the interconnection will be made … according to a prescribed schedule, which is a condition for funding, and non-compliance … leads to losing the funds,” which is 40% of the total cost. Each side must finish its work within the prescribed time. The project needs no Romanian-Hungarian negotiations. On the other hand, Hungary might have to explain to the European Union and to Austria why it refuses to extend the pipeline to Austria and why it is instead diverting part of the Romanian gas to Slovakia. Judging from Meleșcanu’s description of his conversation with Szijjártó, the subject of Hungary’s plans for the gas once it reaches Hungary was not discussed.
Meleșcanu’s correction of Szijjártó’s misleading information didn’t deter Viktor Orbán from boasting about an alleged breakthrough in Hungary’s energy supply, something that is a result of his astute policies and his foreign minister’s superb negotiating skills. Yesterday, during the press conference held after his meeting with Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic, he announced that three Hungarian companies had won a tender in Romania for gas delivery. “Within moments we will sign an agreement that will allow for the next 15 years the import of over 4 billion cubic meters of gas from Romania.” He declared that “the era of Russian gas monopoly will come to an end in Hungary … as we will be able to cover more than half of our imports from other, in this case, Romanian sources.” Orbán acts as if he didn’t know that “according to European regulation, we cannot speak of gas sources or infrastructures dedicated exclusively to a particular country,” as the Romanian Foreign Ministry explained. I’m afraid this is exactly what Viktor Orbán is doing.
The Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has since released an explanation that allegedly proves the correctness of the Hungarian interpretation of the arrangement with Romania. “The situation is terribly simple. At the auction for capacity booking held by Romanian and Hungarian pipeline operators, two Hungarian companies booked the Romanian-Hungarian interconnector’s total capacity after 2022 in the direction of the Romanian-Hungarian line. However, gas will be transported not only in this direction but also toward other countries. Therefore, the statement by the Romanian Minister of Foreign Affairs is meaningless.” My suspicion is that this will not be the end of the sparring between the Orbán government and the Romanians over the pipeline.
But that’s just one aspect of this affair. The other one is the jubilation over being free of dependence on Russia. Keep in mind that after only three months Hungary paid the first installment on the Russian loan, which was €78.2 million, and the first significant tender for the Paks project was won by a consortium of GE Hungary and Alstom Power Systems in competition with the Russian Silovie Mashini. Some people wonder what all this means. Is it a real diplomatic turn, just the usual peacock dance, or chaos in Hungarian foreign policy? At this juncture it is hard to tell, but it is possible that Orbán is contemplating a new strategy.
This morning I read an op-ed in The Washington Post in which the author used Jonathan Swift’s famous line that “falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it,” which led me to read his whole essay on “Political Lying.” There I found another passage that I found most appropriate to the subject of our story. “And my imagination this minute represents before me a certain great man famous for this talent, to the constant practice of which he owes his twenty years’ reputation of the most skillful head in England, for the management of nice affairs. The superiority of his genius consists in nothing else but an inexhaustible fund of political lies, which he plentifully distributes every minute he speaks, and by an unparalleled generosity forgets, and consequently contradicts, the next half hour. He never yet considered whether any proposition were true or false, but whether it were convenient for the present minute or company to affirm or deny it.”