Tag Archives: Robert Fico

Péter Szijjártó’s foreign policy ideas

As I was searching for news on Péter Szijjártó, I found the following very funny headline on a right-wing site I had never heard of before called Jónapot kívánunk (We wish you a good day): “Péter Szijjártó will meet Fico in our old capital.” Why is it so funny? Because from the eighteenth century on the Hungarian nobles complained bitterly about the Habsburgs’ insistence on having the capital in Pozsony/Pressburg, today Bratislava, instead of the traditional center of the Kingdom of Hungary before the Turkish conquest, Buda. Pozsony/Pressburg was closer to Vienna and more convenient for the kings of Hungary to visit when the diet convened, which was not too often.

This trip to Bratislava is Szijjártó’s first since he became minister of foreign affairs and trade. During his quick trip he met Miroslav Lajčák, Slovak foreign minister and deputy prime minister, and Prime Minister Robert Fico. In the evening he visited the headquarters of Fidesz’s favorite Hungarian party in Slovakia, Magyar Koalíció Pártja (KMP). Fidesz politicians judiciously avoid Béla Bugár, co-chairman of a Slovak-Hungarian party called Híd/Most, meaning bridge. This party is not considered to be a Hungarian organization because its leadership as well as its voters come from both ethnic groups.

The encounter between Lajčák and Szijjártó must have been interesting: the Hungarian minister a greenhorn and Lajčák a seasoned diplomat, graduate of both the State Institute of International Relations in Moscow and the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. Just prior to meeting Szijjártó, Lajčák attended the conference organized by the Center for European Policy Analysis’s U.S.-Central Europe Strategy Forum in Washington and offered some introductory words following Victoria Nuland’s keynote address. This is the conference where the Hungarian participant, Zsolt Németh, had to withstand a barrage of criticism of Viktor Orbán’s government.

Péter Szijjártó and Miroslav Lajcák in Bratislava, October 7, 2014

Péter Szijjártó and Miroslav Lajčák in Bratislava, October 7, 2014

Szijjártó stressed the “strategic importance” of Slovak-Hungarian relations as the reason for his early visit to the Slovak capital. Mind you, “strategic importance” has become an absolutely meaningless concept in Hungary since 2010 since the Hungarian government signed perhaps 40-45 agreements of strategic importance with foreign firms. Szijjártó also pointed to “the success stories” shared by the two countries, such as cooperation in energy matters. The direct pipeline between Slovakia and Hungary is scheduled to open in January, although you may recall that before the election in April both Robert Fico and Viktor Orbán were only too glad to participate in a ceremony that gave the false impression that the pipeline was already fully functional. Most of the infrastructure projects, including roads and bridges, along the Slovak-Hungarian border are still in the planning stage.

Besides all the good news Szijjártó also talked about “hot topics” that should be discussed without “taboos.” Of course, what he meant was the Slovak law that bans the country’s citizens from having dual citizenship. This amendment to the original law on citizenship was designed to counteract the Hungarian decision to offer citizenship to ethnic Hungarians in the neighboring countries.

Miroslav Lajčák found the exchange “fruitful.” The Slovak journalists were less charitable and kept asking Szijjártó all sorts of embarrassing questions. For example, about the Hungarian fiasco in Brussels yesterday and about the delay in the construction of several bridges, one on the Danube between Komárom and Komarno and others across the Ipel’/Ipoly river. Construction of these bridges was supposed to begin three years ago. In brief, not much has materialized up to now that would constitute a true success story in Slovak-Hungarian cooperation. It seems that building football stadiums is much more important than constructing bridges across a very long river that defines in large part the Slovak-Hungarian border.

The day before his departure to Bratislava Szijjártó gave a lengthy interview to Origo. Here is a man who claims that old-fashioned diplomacy is passé and that he is primarily interested in foreign trade. After all, 106 commercial attachés will soon be dispatched to all Hungarian embassies, and some embassies will have multiple commercial representatives. Yet practically all the questions addressed to Szijjártó were of a diplomatic nature. For example, what about the rather strained bilateral relations between Romania and Hungary? The answer: “I recently met the economic minister of Romania. Our personal relations are good. And naturally I am ready to have talks with the Romanian foreign minister. I believe in reasonable dialogue.”

Or what about the Visegrád Four and their diverging attitudes toward Russia? They are allies, Szijjártó asserted, which lends a certain strength to their cooperation. They hold different views, but that in no way negatively influences their relationships. “As far as the Ukrainian-Russian conflict is concerned, we must not forget that there are 200,000 Hungarians in Subcarpathia and that Russia is our third most important commercial partner.” What is happening now is injurious to Europe; speedy negotiations are in everybody’s interest.

As for the United States, all unjust criticism must be rejected and Hungary must make clear its point of view. “General government control of the Hungarian civil sphere is without any foundation.” I call attention to a slight change in wording. Szijjártó here is talking about “general control,” which strictly speaking is true. The control is not general. Only those NGOs that are critical of the government are intimidated and harassed. Where does Barack Obama get his information about Hungary? “I have no idea, but those who talked to him didn’t tell the truth.”

And finally, the journalist pointed out that very few important foreign politicians have visited Hungary lately and asked Szijjártó whether that might mean that Hungary has been isolated in the last four and a half years. Szijjártó found such an accusation laughable. He said that he spent four years “right next to the prime minister and therefore I could see in what high esteem the prime minister is held  abroad.” So, all is well. Hungarians don’t have to worry. Their prime minister is Mr. Popularity among the leading politicians of the world.

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.

No retreat: Viktor Orbán socks it to Ukraine

Once Viktor Orbán is on a roll there is no way of stopping him. It matters not what politicians of the countries in the European Union think of his belligerent remarks concerning the Hungarian minority in the Subcarpathian region of Ukraine, he will never admit that it may have been unfortunate to take Russia’s side in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict. Because this is exactly what Viktor Orbán did. The Russian newspapers uniformly welcomed the Hungarian prime minister’s remarks on minority rights, which in Ukraine’s case might mean the loss of sizable Ukrainian territories to Putin’s Russia. In his speech last Saturday Orbán talked about Hungarians as a chivalrous nation. I must say that he has odd ideas about the meaning of chivalry. Let’s kick somebody when he is down. A real gentleman.

Although Foreign Minister János Martonyi tried to salvage the situation after the outburst of indignation from Ukraine and disapproval from Poland, Orbán is not the kind of man who is ready to admit a mistake or misstep. Today at the meeting of the prime ministers of the Visegrád 4 (Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, and Hungary) held in Bratislava, Orbán not only repeated his earlier demands but added more fuel to the fire. He accused the western countries of hypocrisy when it comes to Ukraine because it is not only Russia that poses problems for the EU but Ukraine as well. Orbán expressed his doubts that democracy will ever take hold in Ukraine.

As far as his demands toward Ukraine are concerned, he told his audience point blank that since EU financial assistance is necessary, to which Hungary also contributes, he expects that Ukraine will do whatever is necessary to rectify the situation of Hungarians in Ukraine. Interestingly enough, in Hungary’s case that kind of argument doesn’t cut it for him. He takes the EU’s money and does whatever he wants. Brussels should not demand anything from Hungary.

So, what is the situation of the Hungarian minority in Ukraine? Since Orbán talks about 200,000 Hungarians in the region, the Hungarian media repeats this inflated number. According to the last Ukrainian census (2001), Hungarians numbered 150,000. Given the shrinking numbers of all minorities in the region, that number today, thirteen years later, is most likely smaller still.

Hungarians have cultural autonomy in Ukraine, as they do in Romania, Slovakia, and Serbia. After listening to Orbán, one might think that the Hungarian minority’s lot in the neighboring countries is intolerable. This is not the case. In fact, in the last twenty years or so their status has greatly improved. There are always some complaints but, on the whole, a state of peaceful coexistence seems to exist between the majority and the minorities. Orbán is simply using the crisis to his own advantage.

Of the four prime ministers who met in Bratislava, Donald Tusk is the one who most resolutely opposes Russia and supports Ukraine. Hungarians might complain about Russia’s military help to Vienna during the War of Independence in 1849 and, of course, Hungary was in the Soviet sphere of influence for forty years, but no one can discount Polish grievances when it comes to Russian imperialism. Polish concerns are both deeply felt and understandable.

Donald Tusk and Viktor Orbán, May 15, 2014, Bratislava Source: Hungarian Prime Minister's Office, Photo Barna Burger, MTI

Tense moments: Donald Tusk and Viktor Orbán, May 15, 2014, Bratislava
Source: Hungarian Prime Minister’s Office, Photo Barna Burger, MTI

I myself sympathize with the Polish position and fear that Viktor Orbán and Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, who seemed to support Orbán wholeheartedly, are short-sighted. Moreover, if I were Fico, I would be worried about Orbán’s intentions. When is he going to demand autonomy for the Hungarian minority in Slovakia? When he is going to attack the Slovak law that forbids dual citizenship for its citizens?

As usual, Orbán got international coverage for his latest bombastic idea, the formation of a regional army. He is demanding “military guarantees for Central Europe. He talked about a Central European military unit (harccsoport) that could be set up by 2016. He also mentioned a longstanding idea of his, the creation of a north-south infrastructure that would facilitate the movement of goods in the Central European countries. And he pitched the idea of nuclear energy, which in his opinion is the key to European competitiveness.

I’m certain that Orbán’s followers will welcome their leader’s resolute defense of the Hungarian minority. But critics think that Orbán’s belligerence actually makes the lives of the Hungarian minorities more difficult. Here is one example from Romania. The Romanian government steadfastly stands by Ukraine and condemns Russian provocations. And lately, especially since the outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis, they worry about the Hungarian government’s demand for autonomy. They look at Ukraine and fear for the integrity of their own country.

Yesterday Bálint Magyar and Attila Ara-Kovács, in a piece that appeared in Népszabadság, called attention to an article that was published in Adevarul, the largest Romanian newspaper. It dealt with the fear that because of the Hungarian demand for autonomy Romania might succumb to the fate of Ukraine. Of course, one could say that these fears are baseless, but Orbán’s ruthless exploitation of the Ukrainian crisis intensified Romanian paranoia. And if the Romanian government worries about its own security, it may decide to withdraw some of the privileges granted to the Hungarian minority in Romania.

I have the feeling that this particular incident will not blow over anytime soon. After all, the Russian-Ukrainian conflict will be with us for a while. If a country by inciting ethnic conflict wants to redraw borders, its actions can easily give rise to a full-fledged war and perhaps the demise of a state. Just think of  the former Yugoslavia.