Tag Archives: Putin

Hungary as a “field of operation”

Paranoia seems to have swept through the Hungarian government. Fidesz politicians are convinced that the United States wants to remove Viktor Orbán and cause his government’s fall. All this is to be achieved by means of the “phony” charge of corruption.

Recently a journalist working for Hetek, a publication of Hitgyülekezet (Assembly of Faith), managed to induce some high-ranking members of the government to speak about the general mood in Fidesz circles. The very fact that these people spoke, even about sensitive topics, to a reporter of a liberal paper points to tactical shifts that must have occurred within the party.

Their argument runs along the following lines. Until now the Obama administration paid little attention to the region, but this past summer the decision was made to “create a defensive curtain” in Central Europe between Russia and the West. The pretext is the alleged fight against corruption. The Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania are the targets. Fidesz politicians point to recent Slovak demonstrations against corruption which were “publicly supported” by the U.S. ambassador in Bratislava. Or, they claim, the Americans practically forced the Romanian government to take seriously the widespread corruption in the country. They are certain that the resignation of Petr Nečas, the former Czech prime minister, “under very strange circumstances” was also the work of the CIA.

In its fight against the targeted Central European governments Washington relies heavily on NGOs and investigative journalists specializing in unveiling corruption cases. George Soros’s name must always be invoked in such conspiracy theories. And indeed, Átlátszó.hu, sponsored in part by the Soros Foundation, was specifically mentioned as a tool of American political designs.

To these Fidesz politicians’ way of thinking, all of troubles recently encountered by the government are due solely to American interference. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that the government itself has given plenty of reason for public disenchantment. In fact, the first demonstrations were organized only against the internet tax. Admittedly, over the course of weeks new demands were added, and by now the demonstrators want to get rid of Viktor Orbán’s whole regime.

The Fidesz politicians who expressed an opinion think, I am sure incorrectly, that the Americans have no real evidence against Ildikó Vida and, if they do, they received it illegally. Vida got into the picture only because of the new “cold war” that broke out between the United States and Russia. Hungarian corruption is only an excuse for putting pressure on the Hungarian government because of its Russian policy and Paks.  As for Hungary’s “democracy deficit” and American misgivings about Orbán’s “illiberal state,” Fidesz politicians said that if the United States does not accept Orbán’s system of government as “democratic” and if they want Fidesz to return to the status quo ante, this is a hopeless demand. “Not one Hungarian right-wing politician would lend his name to such ‘retrogression.'”

The latest American “enemy” of the Orbán government is the State Department’s Sarah Sewall, Undersecretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, who a week ago gave a speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in which she said that “we [recently] denied visas to six Hungarian officials and their cronies due to their corruption. This action also bolstered public concern, and on November 9th, the streets of Budapest filled with 10,000 protesters who called for the resignation of corrupt public officials.” As soon as Hungarian officials discovered the text of that speech, André Goodfriend, the U.S. chargé in Budapest, was once again called into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

I think it would be a mistake to characterize the American fight against corruption simply as a smokescreen for exerting political pressure on foreign governments. Sewall in that speech explains the potentially dangerous political ramifications of corruption.

Corruption alienates and angers citizens, which can cause them to lose faith in the state, or, worse, fuel insurgencies and violent extremism…. Ukraine …provides [an] illustration of how corruption can both increase instability risks and cripple the state’s ability to respond to those risks. The Maidan Movement was driven in part by resentment of a kleptocratic regime parading around in democratic trappings.

All this makes sense to me, and what Sewall says about Ukraine is to some extent also true about Hungary. But the Fidesz leadership sees no merit in the American argument. In fact, today both Viktor Orbán and Péter Szijjártó used very strong words to accuse the United States of interfering in Hungary’s internal affairs.

"We can't pay as much in taxes as you steal"

“We can’t pay as much in taxes as you steal”

Viktor Orbán sent a message from Belgrade. The prime minister does not know why the United States put aside 100 million dollars for “the preparation of an action plan against two dozen Central- and East-European countries in order to put pressure on their governments.” The United States declared Hungary to be a “field of operation,” along with others. Referring to Sewall’s speech, he expressed his dissatisfaction that he has to learn about such plans from a public lecture. “If someone wants to work together with Hungary or with any Central-European government for a good cause, we are open. We don’t have to be pressured, there is no need to spend money behind our backs, there is no necessity of organizing anything against us because we are rational human beings and we are always ready to work for a good cause.” It is better, he continued, to be on the up and up because Hungarians are irritated by slyness, trickery, and diplomatic cunning. They are accustomed to straightforward talk. (He presumably said this with a straight face.)

Viktor Orbán’s reference to the military term “field of operation” captured the imagination of László Földi, a former intelligence officer during the Kádár regime as well as for a while after 1990, who announced that in secret service parlance “field of operation” means that every instrument in the intelligence service can be used to undermine the stability of a country. The Americans’ goal, as Orbán sees it, is the removal of his government.

Meanwhile the staff of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade who were brought in by Péter Szijjártó are solidly anti-American. They consider the diplomats who served under János Martonyi to be “American agents” because of their alleged trans-atlantic sentiments. So I don’t foresee any improvement in American-Hungarian relations in the near future, unless the economic and political troubles of Putin’s Russia become so crippling that Orbán will have to change his foreign policy orientation. But given the ever shriller condemnations and accusations, it will be difficult to change course.

The G20 summit: Hungarian right-wing newspapers on Vladimir Putin in Brisbane

If I did not have such a low opinion of the hacks at Magyar Nemzet,  Magyar Hírlap, and Válasz, I would feel sorry for them today when they had to cover the G20 summit in Brisbane, Australia. By all reports, Putin was completely isolated and, in fact, at times was even humiliated. While Barack Obama and the Chinese premier Xi Jinping were met by the governor general and attorney general on their arrival, Putin was greeted by the assistant defense minister.

Pro-government papers had to tiptoe around the delicate topic of Vladimir Putin’s less than friendly reception by practically all the other participants. After all, the Hungarian government has been on an anti-American, anti-EU course for some time while relations with Russia have been rosy. In fact, an opinion piece that appeared in the Russian newspaper Vedimosti called Viktor Orbán our man in the European Union.

News portals critical of the government reported the events pretty much the way other western papers did. Almost all of them mentioned Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s less than diplomatic words to Putin: “I guess I’ll shake your hand but I have only one thing to say to you: you need to get out of Ukraine.” They said there were rumors of Putin’s early departure from Brisbane. They included Obama’s statement that Putin’s policies are “a threat to the world” and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s warning about further financial sanctions against Russia if Putin does not recall Russian troops from Eastern Ukraine. They also called attention to Putin’s lowly place at the far left of the formal G20 leaders’ photograph and reported on anti-Putin demonstrations.

G20 Brisbane afp

So, let’s see how the right-wing Hungarian press reported the events in Brisbane. It was Válasz that first tackled the topic with the headline “Obama harshly attacked Putin,” although the bulk of the article was about other things: climate change, strategic cooperation in the Far East, and environmental issues. Válasz specializes in misleading headlines. The MTI report they used also quoted Yuri Ushakov, foreign adviser to Putin, who insisted that Russia has nothing to do with the fighting in Eastern Ukraine. As far as the sanctions are concerned, the Russian position is that “they are illegal and contrary to the United Nation’s Charter.” Not a word about Putin’s problems and the unity of the G20 on the Ukrainian issue.

Magyar Hírlap‘s early report did not rely on MTI. Its headline set the tone: “The West threatens again with sanctions.” According to Putin, the sanctions are harmful for all concerned, including Ukraine. Russia has enough reserves to weather the sanctions. The article also quotes Yuri Ushakov, who informed the public about the forthcoming bilateral talks between Putin and British Prime Minister David Cameron as well as Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott. The article adds that the Russian daily paper Kommersant reported that refugees from southeastern territories of Ukraine turned to the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg against the Kiev government. They demand financial compensation. All in all, the article relies almost exclusively on Russian sources and reflects the Russian point of view. This should not be a surprise because Magyar Hírlap‘s political ideology lies roughly at the intersection of Jobbik and Fidesz.

Magyar Nemzet was rather slow at reporting on the event. The headline quotes Obama as saying that “Russia is a threat to the world.” At the beginning of the article the journalists DA and KaG summarize the main events of the day: David Cameron said that Russia may face new sanctions if Putin continues with its current policies, Obama considers the Russian policies dangerous, and officially the agenda is about global economic stimuli.

After describing the lovely reception of the delegations of the G20 and Angela Merkel’s wonderful time mingling with Australians on the street, the article continues: “The reception of Vladimir Putin was cooler. Allegedly the Canadian prime minister told him to get out of Ukraine.” They also mention Herman van Rompuy’s and David Cameron’s harsh words about the Russian aggression. It looks as if this particular article was based on information picked up from western sources.

One could say that, however briefly, Magyar Nemzet covered the most important points. Four hours later, however, a new article appeared about the Brisbane summit that “corrected” the earlier picture. Here we learn that Putin will indeed leave early “because the western countries put pressure on him in connection with the Ukrainian crisis.” In this article the emphasis is on the Russian point of view. It recalls an interview with Vladimir Putin with the German ARD television station in which he talked about the adverse effects of the sanctions, not just for Russia but for all countries, including Ukraine. Russian banks have 25 billion dollars in Ukraine which they could certainly recall. The article quotes Dmitri Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, who described the meeting of Putin with Merkel in which “President Putin explained the Russian point of view on Ukraine in great detail.” In addition, it again mentions Putin’s interview on ARD TV in which Putin said that “Russia will not allow the Ukrainian army to destroy all its political adversaries.” Apparently he was talking about the pro-Russian separatists of Eastern Ukraine. Furthermore, according to Putin, Russia’s “European and American partners are not doing any favor to Ukraine when they ruin its financial basis or limit our financial institutions’ possibilities of reaching the international markets. Do they want to ruin their banks? With that move they ruin Ukraine.”

I wonder how long this particular point of view will prevail in Hungary. On Monday there will be a meeting of EU foreign ministers which Hungary’s “super diplomat” will attend. The topic will be new sanctions against Russia. I might mention here that Angela Merkel spent altogether four hours with Vladimir Putin. The first two hours the two spoke alone. In the second half Jean-Claude Junker joined them. If Dmitri Peskov gave an accurate account of the meeting, I have the feeling that new sanctions are forthcoming. After all, according Putin’s spokesman, the Russian president simply described the Russian position. And we all know what that is.

Viktor Orbán between Russia and Brussels

In Budapest there is the usual Friday political turmoil since it’s the day that Viktor Orbán holds a well-rehearsed conversation with a journalist of the Hungarian state radio. I no longer call Magyar Televízió and Magyar Rádió public television and radio stations since in the last four years both have become mouthpieces of the government. Just like in the Kádár regime.

Normally the world does not pay much attention to these early morning chats, but today was different. By 04:45 EST Reuters reported on what Viktor Orbán had to say about the European Union’s sanctions against Russia. After the leaders of the Union decided on tough economic sanctions against Russia, Orbán publicly voiced his opposition to the plan. Referring to the Russian ban on agricultural products coming from the European Union, Canada, the United States, and Australia, he announced that the sanctions policy pursued by the West “causes more harm to us than to Russia…. In politics, this is called shooting oneself in the foot.” He continued: “I will do my utmost–of course we are all aware of Hungary’s weight, so the possibilities are clear–but I am looking for partners to change the EU’s sanctions policy.”

This move of Orbán may not have come at the best time. Just yesterday political observers noticed that Putin adopted a softer tone during a visit to the Crimea that was not carried live on Russian television. Moreover, the sanctions have just begun to bite, but even before there were signs of financial strain as a result of the annexation of the Crimea. Desperate for cash, the Russian government dipped into the national pension fund which means taking away from every Russian two years’ worth of social security payments. Although Putin’s personal popularity is extraordinarily high, according to one survey only 7-12% of the population are ready to make financial sacrifices for the sake of Russia’s policies in Ukraine.

Inflation is up 9% this year while there is no economic growth. The government is contemplating a new 3% sales tax to plug some holes in the federal budget. There are already shortages in the supermarkets. Forty percent of Russia’s food supply comes from abroad, and Russian consumers will be unhappy very soon. In the last twenty years or so they became accustomed to a great variety of products from all over the world and they have no intention of returning to Soviet times of limited supplies and inferior quality. Putin’s propaganda that the ban on Western food is just a means of “supporting the product manufacturers of the fatherland” will wear thin soon enough.

The temporary loss of the Russian market for Hungarian agriculture is less significant than the Hungarian government wants the world to believe. Orbán put in a bid for compensation and therefore, I assume, he exaggerates the potential losses for Hungarian farmers. Reuters in its report claims that Russia is Hungary’s largest trading partner outside the European Union, with exports worth 2.55 billion euros in 2013. However, this figure may be wrong. According to a Hungarian source, that figure is 70 billion forints, which is only 223 million euros at today’s exchange rate. So, the Russian sanctions against Hungary will not be as painful as Orbán would like to portray them. On the other hand, Western sanctions against Russia are more serious from Hungary’s point of view than the Russian sanctions against Hungary, Zsolt Kerner claims. One of the Russian banks affected by the sanctions is the state-owned Vnesneconombank (Bank for Development and Foreign Economic Affairs), which owns part of Dunaferr and is also the bank through which the Russian loan to build a new nuclear power plant in Paks will be administered.

Orbán’s attack on the Russian policy of the European Union is also ill-timed.  Finland’s president, Sauli Niinistö, is currently in Moscow to negotiate with Putin. Although Niinistö is not an official envoy of the European Union, he was in contact with western colleagues. The European Union has been seeking a diplomatic solution to the crisis, and they don’t need Viktor Orbán’s good offices as a messenger between Moscow and Brussels.

While Niinistö was negotiating with Putin in Moscow, the EU foreign ministers held an emergency meeting in Brussels, discussing among other things the Ukrainian situation. Of course, I have no idea what position Tibor Navracsics took at this meeting, but I assume he was instructed to oppose sanctions and perhaps suggest bilateral discussions with Moscow. Whatever the Hungarian position was, according to the agreed-upon statement “any unilateral military actions on the part of the Russian Federation in Ukraine under any pretext, including humanitarian, will be considered by the European Union as a blatant violation of international law.” And, most importantly, “the Council  … remains ready to consider further steps, in light of the evolution of the situation on the ground.” According to diplomats, the new measures would target Russian sales of sovereign debt, its ability to raise funding through syndicated bank loans, and high-tech machine imports.

I may add here that Viktor Orbán’s old friend David Cameron, with whom he saw eye to eye on the nomination of Jean-Claude Juncker to be president of the European Commission, is unlikely to be on his side on the issue of EU sanctions against Russia. Great Britain is one of the harshest critics of Russia’s destabilizing efforts in the region.

By now Orbán has one staunch ally and that is Robert Fico, the prime minister of Slovakia who announced his opposition to sanctions already yesterday. However, it seems that the Slovak leadership is divided. Andrej Kiska, who recently defeated Fico to become Slovakia’s president, came down on the side of sanctions. He said that “when words aren’t enough, economic sanctions can be used to bear greater pressure on countries which seek to expand, dictate or threaten.”

Orbán’s comment that the sanctions policy hurts the European Union more than it does Russia and that EU policy is in fact a move by which the EU shoots itself in the foot was not left unanswered. Lithuania’s foreign minister, Linas Linkevicius, upon arriving for the EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels, retorted that it was better to shoot oneself in the foot than to let oneself be shot in the head. Naturally, Lithuania politicians are a great deal more worried about Russian intentions than is Orbán, who looks upon his country as a kind of bridge between Moscow and Brussels.

What kind of sanctions? Let the man eat his sandwich in piece Source: Posteemes /Photo: Urmas Nemvalts

What kinds of sanctions? Let the man eat his sandwich in peace.
Source: Postimees / Urmas Nemvalts

Estonia, which is in the same boat as Lithuania and Latvia, has lately changed its until now pro-Hungarian attitude. One reason for that change is Orbán’s overly cozy relations with Putin’s Russia. But there is another. While Hungary just opened a new embassy in Ecuador’s Quito, it unceremoniously closed its embassy in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. Estonia is not only a fellow EU member, but Estonians speak a Finno-Ugric language. This linguistic connection has always been the source of a special bond between Estonia and Hungary, just as in the case of Finland. The Estonians not surprisingly took offense and closed their own embassy in Budapest.

And now the largest and most prestigious Estonian newspaper, Postimees, published an editorial with the title: “A delicate European problem called Viktor Orbán.” Here is a pull quote from the English-language editorial: “A headache indeed – the increasingly autocracy-minded statements and the ever tightening cooperation with Putin’s Russia by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. The issue being: how united is Europe in its values, firstly, and secondly in bridling the warlike neighbouring Kremlin. Obviously, the latter is searching for weak links in Europe. Alas, the still economically troubled Hungary and its populist-type anti-Brussels PM provide for one.”

Orbán’s fame is spreading, but it’s not exactly the kind that Hungarians can be proud of.

Viktor Orbán’s Hungary: “An illiberal democracy”

Now at last we have the road map for Hungary under the leadership of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. As László Szily of Cink wrote, the Transylvanian air has a strange effect on him because it is usually there at this time of the year that he delivers a visionary sermon about his plans for the future. The mostly middle-aged audience listens to him in awe, not realizing the true meaning of his words.

This time he was brutally honest. He is in the middle of introducing a different kind of political system: illiberal democracy. This simple message was couched in pseudo-scientific language, giving the false impression that he has both a wide and a deep knowledge of the world. This knowledge leads him to great discoveries, which sooner or later will bring spectacular results to the Hungarian nation. “Our time will come,” he added at the conclusion of his speech.

So, what is illiberal democracy? The concept became popular in political science circles in the late 1990s after Fareed Zakaria, an Indian-born American journalist and author, published an article in the November-December 1997 issue of Foreign Affairs. In it he argued that in the West “democracy meant liberal democracy–a political system marked not only by free and fair elections, but also by the rule of law, a separation of powers, and property. This bundle of freedoms which might be termed constitutional liberalism is theoretically different and historically distinct from democracy.” In his scheme “democracy” is very narrowly defined. For him democracy simply means “free and fair elections.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton obviously agreed with Zakaria when she told the leaders of the Hungarian opposition in Budapest in June 2011 that as long as there are free and fair elections Hungary is a democratic country.

But in Zakaria’s view “constitutional liberalism” is what gives real meaning to Western democracy. He calls this liberalism constitutional because it rests on the rule of law that is a defense of the individual’s right to life, property, freedom of religion and speech. This is what Viktor Orbán wants to abolish in Hungary. There will be elections (more or less free though not fair), but the real backbone of our modern western political system, checks and balances, limits on the actions of the government, will be abolished if it depends on Viktor Orbán. And, unfortunately, at the moment it does depend on him.

Orbán was very careful to avoid defining liberalism as a political philosophy because if his audience had any knowledge of what liberals believe in, it should have been patently obvious to them that his plans involve depriving his fellow citizens of their individual rights. Instead, he invoked a popular saying about the extent of an individual’s liberty that in no way touches on the essence of liberalism: “one person’s freedom ends where another person’s freedom begins.” The cliché apparently has its origin in Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s claim that “Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins.”

Explaining the inexpicable Viktor Orbán in Tusnád/Băile Tușnad

Explaining the inexplicable
Viktor Orbán in Tusnád/Băile Tușnad

From this saying Orbán derives far-reaching conclusions about the meaning of liberalism. In his view, in such a system the stronger always wins. In his world, the idea that “everything is allowed” cannot be an organizing principle of the state. Instead, he suggests another concept: “One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself.” In brief, the state should adopt as its organizing principle the Golden Rule or the ethic of reciprocity. (That would be a tall order for the current Hungarian government.)

According to Orbán, the time of liberal democracies has come to an end. Something else, something better will come that will ensure “competitiveness” in this global economy. Orbán mentioned a few countries worth imitating: Singapore, China, India, Turkey, and Russia. What a happy prospect in the center of Europe!

Surely, he himself must have wondered whether he will be able to dismantle the rule of law in Hungary given the country’s membership in the European Union, but he convinced himself that he will be able to do it since the EU grants broad powers to the governments of the member states. And, after all, so far his building of an illiberal democracy, which has been going on for the past four years, hasn’t had any serious consequences.

Index‘s report on the speech bears the title: “Orbán is building an illiberal state and he is proud of it.” Cink is convinced that “not even Putin is as much of a Putinist as Orbán.” Indeed, it is unlikely that Putin would openly admit that he is building, or has built, an illiberal state.

Close to the end of his speech Orbán listed a number of unexpected global occurrences. For example, no one would have ever imagined that Barack Obama could be sued by Congress for repeatedly encroaching on Congress’s power. He expressed his utter astonishment and continued: “What do you think, how long could I stay in office if parliament could sue me for overstepping our authority?” Viktor Orbán does not even pretend. He tells the whole world that he has unlimited power. He has no shame. In fact, he is proud of it.

Foreign journalists should no longer have to pretend either. They don’t have to use milquetoast adjectives like “conservative,” “right-of-center,” and “conservative-nationalist” anymore. Call it what it is. A one-man dictatorship with more or less free but unfair elections.

How not to win friends and influence people: Viktor Orbán

I’m sure that Viktor Orbán never read Dale Carnegie’s famous self-help book How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936) that has sold more than 18 million copies in the last 78 years. In fact, I fear that his own anti-Carnegie principles will ensure that he will eventually be hated by everyone, with the exception of the “hard-core” who think he walks on water.

One of the chapters in Dale Carnegie’s book speaks about the virtues of leaders, specifically “how to change people without giving offense or arousing resentment.” Among the principal virtues Carnegie mentions are qualities that Viktor Orbán totally lacks. He suggests that a good leader should talk about his own mistakes before criticizing the other person. Orbán and self-criticism? Carnegie also suggests that if a leader is wrong he should admit it “quickly and emphatically.” Or another piece of advice: “Be sympathetic with the other person’s ideas and desires.” Or “show respect for the other person’s opinions.” All these are alien concepts to the prime minister of Hungary. In fact, he does just the opposite of everything that Carnegie thought was necessary for a successful leader.

Take, for example, the erection of the ill-fated Archangel Gabriel monument. Regardless of how much criticism he receives, regardless of how many historians and art historians tell him that the concept is historically and artistically inaccurate, he plows ahead with it. Yesterday the Hungarian Academy of Sciences organized a conference on the issue; their condemnation was unanimous.

Or there is the decision to extend the capacity of the Paks nuclear power plant. As Bernadett Szél (LMP member of parliament) continues to dig into the details of the planned expansion it is becoming obvious that no serious feasibility studies were done before Orbán hurriedly signed the contract with Russia. But that is perhaps the least of the problems Paks is causing Hungary. Orbán’s newly found friendship with Vladimir Putin has led him to regard Ukraine as a potential trophy not only for Putin but for himself as well.

First, he tried to ignore the issue of Russian aggression in the Crimea, but since Hungary happens to be situated in a region that borders on Ukraine, Orbán had to line up, however reluctantly, with Hungary’s neighbors. He decided, however, to make a claim of his own–though for people, not land.

In the same speech I wrote about yesterday, he spoke briefly about Hungarian foreign policy. Here is a translation of the relevant part.

We will continue our policy of the Eastern Opening; we will strengthen our economic presence in the Carpathian Basin. This is in the interest of Hungary as well as of the neighboring countries and the European Union. This strengthening of regional economic relations is not in opposition to a resolute national policy [nemzetpolitika]. The question of the Hungarian minorities has not been solved since the end of World War II. We consider the Hungarian question a European affair. Hungarians of the Carpathian Basin deserve dual citizenship, communal rights, and autonomy. This is our view, which we will represent on international forums. The Hungarian question is especially timely because of the 200,000 strong Hungarian community in Ukraine whose members must receive dual citizenship, the entirety of communal rights [ közösségi jogok], and the possibility of  self-government [önigazgatás]. This is our expectation for the new Ukraine currently under reconstruction that otherwise enjoys our sympathy and assistance in the work of the creation of a democratic Ukraine.

Not exactly a friendly gesture toward a neighbor that is in great peril at the moment because of Russian aggression. As if Hungary would like to take advantage of the troubled waters for its own gains. Apparently, according to a leaked foreign ministry document, “Fidesz with its own national policy [nemzetpolitika]–even at the price of ‘fertile chaos’–is striving for a change in the status quo.” If there is one thing the European Union and the United States are worried about, it is ethnic strife in Eastern Europe. And Hungary just took a rather aggressive step in this direction.

The Hungarian ambassador to Kiev was immediately summoned to the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry. He was told in no uncertain terms that such a step “is not conducive to the de-escalation and stabilization of the situation.” The spokesman for the ministry noted that “certain aspects of [Hungarian] national policy were criticized by Hungary’s partners in the European Union.”

The Ukrainian reaction was expected. Donald Tusk’s response, however, was more of a surprise given the normally warm relations between Poland and Hungary. Both Tusk’s party and Fidesz belong to the same conservative People’s Party, and usually Orbán receives a lot of help in Strasbourg from Polish members of EP. But this time the Polish prime minister was anything but sympathetic. “I am sorry to say this but I consider the statement made by Prime Minister Orbán as unfortunate.” And he continued: “Today, when we witness the Russian efforts of Ukraine’s partition such a statement must raise concern. We need to be careful that in no way, whether intentional or not, it should sound as backing the actions of pro-Russian separatists.” He added that the Polish government will make sure that none of its neighbors threatens the integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine.

Donald Tusk and Viktor Orbán / Photo Barna Burger

Donald Tusk and Viktor Orbán on May 5, 2014 / Photo Barna Burger

In cases like this it is Foreign Minister János Martonyi who comes to the rescue. According to Martonyi, Orbán’s words were misinterpreted. Orbán invoked “self governance” not autonomy. But if you read my translation carefully, you can see that he talked about both self-governance and autonomy in the Carpathian Basin. Martonyi tried to explain that self-government and autonomy are actually “cultural autonomy in Hungarian.” No, they are not. Cultural autonomy exists in Subcarpathian Ukraine already. There are Hungarian schools, Hungarian associations, Hungarian theaters.

Naturally, the opposition made hay out of these careless sentences of Orbán. Ferenc Gyurcsány recalled a sentence from the farewell letter of Prime Minister Pál Teleki to Miklós Horthy before he committed suicide. In April 1941 Hungary agreed to let German troops through Hungary in order to attack Yugoslavia with whom Hungary had just signed a pact of eternal friendship. In that letter Teleki told the Governor: “We became body snatchers!” On Facebook Gyurcsány asks Orbán whether he is playing the role of a body snatcher in these hard days in Ukraine.

Martonyi might have tempered Orbán’s harsh words but Orbán himself did not. He announced this afternoon that he simply reiterated the Hungarian government’s “long-standing views on the Hungarian minorities.” As far as he is concerned, the case is closed.