Turkey seems to hold a special place in Viktor Orbán’s heart. Ever since he became prime minister for the second time around in 2010, Orbán has gone out of his way to court the country he considers to be an important factor in world politics. From the very beginning, he supported Turkey’s membership in the European Union, an event that is not likely, especially in light of the domestic developments in Turkey over the last four or five years. By 2013, Orbán had succeeded in establishing a strong bilateral relationship between the two countries. In that year, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited Budapest with 125 Turkish businessmen in tow. In 2012, the volume of trade between the two countries was only 1.7 billion dollars, which Orbán said he wanted to increase to 5 billion dollars by 2015. In December of 2013 Viktor Orbán visited Ankara. By that meeting it was eminently clear that these two men are soulmates. I covered that meeting at some length.
During the four years that have elapsed since Orbán’s visit to Ankara, Prime Minister Erdoğan amassed more and more political power until a military coup d’état in June 2016 gave him the opportunity to get rid of his opposition altogether. A year later he pushed through a number of constitutional amendments that awarded him sweeping powers. Democratic leaders looked upon the results of the referendum as a setback for Turkish democracy and were anything but enthusiastic. Not so Viktor Orbán, who phoned Erdoğan to congratulate him on his victory. Orbán genuinely welcomes the kind of system Erdoğan established as a consequence of these constitutional amendments.
Orbán’s second visit to Ankara this week highlighted the political friendship between the two heads of state. Orbán and about half his cabinet participated in a “joint Hungarian-Turkish cabinet meeting.” Holding such a meeting is a big thing in diplomacy and signifies especially close relations between the two countries. Before 2010 the Hungarian and Romanian governments used to get together quite frequently, but Orbán stopped the practice.
As is usual with such visits, the program is pretty tight. For instance, it is customary for the visiting prime minister to deliver a speech at a business forum. So, let’s start with this speech, especially since four years ago the plan was that by 2015 trade between the two countries would reach 5 billion dollars. As it turned out, the trade numbers came nowhere close to this goal. In the last four years there has been practically no growth in bilateral trade between Turkey and Hungary.
How did Orbán try to sell Hungary to the Turkish businessmen? Why should Turkey, a large and powerful country, care about small Hungary? There is one important consideration. Hungary “with a population of 10 million can produce 110 billion dollars’ worth of exports” while “Turkey with 80 million people generates 145 billion dollars’ worth of exports.” The manhandling of export figures is, I think, quite obvious. I also wonder how the Turks in the audience responded to the implication that their business abilities and economic successes were inferior compared to little Hungary’s. The second drawing point, in Orbán’s opinion, is the very low across-the-board business tax rate and government incentives given to investors that may mean an effective tax rate of less than 9%. Third, Hungary is part of the European Union, and “if someone enters Hungary he also enters a market of 500 million people.”
I found Viktor Orbán’s advice to the Turks on how to deal with Hungarian businessmen fascinating. It is important to know, he said, that Hungarians are very sensitive. “I suggest not provoking Hungarians when you want to have a business deal. It is very important not to lecture them [because] Hungarians are like the Turks. They don’t like to be lectured at.” Turkish businessmen ought to show them respect because “after all, Hungary might have a population of only 10 million but it has a thousand-year-old history.” Turkish businessmen also should praise Hungarians because that is very helpful in business. I found the whole speech bizarre.
Hungarian sources didn’t report on the speech of Binali Yıldırım, the Turkish prime minister, at the same business forum, but a summary of it is available in the English-language pro-government newspaper, Daily Sabah. He was less optimistic about Turkish-Hungarian trade relations than his Hungarian counterpart. He complained that although both Hungarian and Turkish incentives are attractive, the growth in trade hasn’t reached the desired level. Although the Turkish newspaper’s English prose is not the clearest, in my reading Yıldırım talked about 500 Turkish businessmen who have invested more than $100 million in Hungary while nearly 40 Hungarian investors have invested $10 million in Turkey. This is nothing to brag about. These are meager figures. I gained the distinct impression that the Turkish prime minister is not optimistic about the prospects of improving the current situation because he suggested that perhaps Turkish and Hungarian businessmen could cooperate in third countries instead. He was specifically thinking of African nations.
Binali Yıldırım and Viktor Orbán had an hour-long conversation, after which they gave a joint press conference. The Hungarian prime minister thanked Turkey for its struggle against terrorism and migration, by which it is not only defending Hungary but the European Union as a whole. Unfortunately, not too many people in Europe realize that, but Hungary definitely does. Turkey must remain a strong and stable country with a clear, unequivocal leadership, which in this case means an autocratic if not dictatorial regime under Erdoğan. We also learned that while the Hungarian government is doing its best to expel Central European University from Hungary, Orbán was negotiating with the Turks about a Turkish-Hungarian university. And while the Orbán government is trying to limit the number of Hungarian students attending gymnasium and wants to send them to trade schools instead, the two prime ministers were talking about establishing a Turkish-Hungarian bilingual gymnasium.
Binali Yıldırım was preoccupied with Turkey’s gripes over the stalled negotiations with the European Union and its demands for visa exemptions. Turkey is obviously hoping to use Orbán to advance its own agenda. “Visa-free travel for Turkish citizens to Europe would make a big contribution to improving bilateral relations between Ankara and Budapest,” and in fact he called on Orbán to take steps toward instituting a visa-free status in the EU, at least for Turkish businessmen.
The Hungarian media didn’t spend much time on this trip. Most news sites were satisfied to reprint MTI’s factual description of the visit’s highlights. The only exception was a short editorial that appeared in today’s Népszava. The author, Mária Gál, points out that instead of forcing an unnaturally close, fruitless economic cooperation with Turkey, the government should encourage businessmen in Romania and Hungary to invest in areas where cooperation would help the lives of the local population. For example, in Gyula, only a few kilometers from the Romanian border, there are no job opportunities and a lot of people live just above the poverty line, whereas in Arad, less than an hour away, it is difficult to find employees for the new industrial parks. Romania has a large market and has been developing by leaps and bounds. Why not invest in and foster good relations with Romania? And “we wouldn’t have to be ashamed of that cooperation,” indicating that Hungary should be ashamed of cooperating with Erdoğan’s Turkey. But Budapest rejects Bucharest’s “request to renew the previous practice of joint cabinet meetings because the Romanians trample on the rights of the Hungarian minority. Turkey, I guess, became our friend because of their exemplary treatment of their Kurdish minority.” Biting sarcasm well deserved.