Tag Archives: Ukraine

Orbán’s Hungary under attack by its enemies, and they are many

While Viktor Orbán is battling the European Union and defending the country against the invading conquerors from Africa and the Middle East, the rest of the gang is not idle either.

János Lázár and enemies all around

Once upon a time, naturally before Viktor Orbán began work on the “renewal” of Hungary, there was a cabinet post to oversee the Hungarian intelligence network. Usually, the occupant of that post was a minister without portfolio. Now, however, like so many other matters, it is supervised by János Lázár, the all-powerful minister of the prime minister’s office. Orbán’s “chancellery,” as the prime minister’s office is often called, is a huge organization. The number of people employed in this particular office is close to 1,400. Of this number almost 650 people work for intelligence and information (i.e., propaganda).

On June 23 the parliamentary committee on national security, chaired by Zsolt Molnár (MSZP), asked Lázár to report on the current situation. It began as a routine affair, most likely prompted by the arrival of thousands of refugees at Hungary’s southern border. But as time went by, the hearing turned into something that I can only describe as an accusatory tirade against Hungary’s neighbors and indirectly against the United States. Naturally, the “internal enemy,” the opposition, is also charged with actively ruining their own country’s future.

The countries who were accused of anti-Hungarian policies are Ukraine, Romania, and Croatia. The Ukrainian government is guilty of impeding the Hungarian government’s efforts to assist the Hungarian minorities living in Ukraine. Lázár indicated that this attitude of the Ukrainian authorities keeps the Hungarian intelligence service busy. He also admitted that, as a result, diplomatic relations between the two countries are somewhat rocky.

enemies

In Romania, the government conducts an outright anti-Hungarian policy “under the guise of transparency and justice.” For some background, you might want to read my post on recent Hungarian-Romanian relations and the active Romanian Anticorruption Directorate (Direcţia Naţională Anticorupţie/DNA). Only recently Prime Minister Victor Ponta himself was accused of corruption by the DNA. In fact, Ponta just announced that for reasons of ill health he will retire for a couple of months and his deputy will take over the reins of government. Hundreds if not thousands of cases are pending, so the couple of Hungarian politicians accused of corruption cannot be interpreted as a deliberate attack on ethnic Hungarians or an unfriendly gesture toward Hungary.

But Lázár didn’t stop there. He, in fact, practically accused the United States of being behind the Romanians’ anti-Hungarian policies when he said that “at the moment we cannot ascertain whether these actions have anything to do with the close cooperation between the United States and the Romanian government.” I guess the hundreds of intelligence officers attached to the prime minister’s office are now madly trying to find out whether it is Washington that is encouraging the Romanians “to destabilize the financial foundations of the Hungarian historic churches [in Romania] and to limit the freedom of religion there.” The evil United States was also mentioned as being behind the bad German press.

Croatia is no friend either. Its government is bent on “discrediting the whole Hungarian business elite” through the MOL-INA affair. This is a long story about which I wrote at least twice, once in 2012 and again in 2013. Zsolt Hernádi, CEO of MOL, is being accused of bribery in connection with MOL’s purchase and management of the Croatian oil refinery, INA. Through a clever legal maneuver Hernádi has so far successfully avoided appearing before the Croatian authorities. But he cannot leave the territory of Hungary because he is still on Interpol’s wanted list.

Lázár further claimed that they have “unambiguous information” that certain business groups “intentionally boycott the completion of the pipelines coming from Romania and Croatia.”

All in all, incredible charges against Hungary’s neighbors from the second most powerful politician in Budapest.

György Matolcsy found an enemy in The Economist

It is not only governments that want to discredit and ruin Hungary. For example, the editors of The Economist decided to bury the economic achievements of the Hungarian government, as Matolcsy complained in a letter-to-the-editor. Here we learn that Matolcsy, who is a regular reader of the magazine, found the weekly tables presenting macroeconomic and financial market developments in certain countries and regions extremely helpful. He was, however, surprised to see that, “contrary to your former practice, since your 25 April issue the macroeconomic indicators related to Hungary have been omitted.”

After devoting a long paragraph to the spectacular achievements of his unorthodox economic policies Matolcsy comes to the point:

The omission of the data is detrimental to perceptions about the Hungarian economy. Moreover, its timing gives the impression as if The Economist was keen on presenting those data to its readers that confirmed the problems of the Hungarian economy, which indeed did exist in the past, while it would rather hide the data demonstrating the successes achieved in recent years. The deletion of information related to Hungary hinders readers with a general interest in economic developments from making an educated assessment, while it reduces the opportunity of investors with a presence in Hungary or considering future investments in the country to monitor the most important developments in the Hungarian economy in one of the world’s most widely read economic weeklies.

In brief, Matolcsy is certain that even the editors of The Economist are conspiring against Hungary by refusing to share the good economic news coming from the country. Surely, it is madness but, I’m afraid, quite typical. Otherwise, I just learned from György Bolgár’s column in 168 Óra, which functions as a kind of Hungarian “fact check,” that Hungary was replaced by the Philippines on the list of 42 countries, but only in the print edition. Online, Hungary is still there. Bolgár noted that Portugal, whose territory is practically the same as that of Hungary, is not listed either, although its economy is larger than Hungary’s. But, Bolgár added ironically, “they don’t have a Matolcsy who would indignantly complain.”

Freedom House is also an enemy of Hungary

Complaining at every instance about perceived unfair criticism is part of the central directive coming straight from Viktor Orbán, who repeatedly instructs Hungarian ambassadors to raise their voices every time Hungary is “unfairly” criticized. And the fact is that, as far Hungary’s current political regime is concerned, all criticism is unfair. For example, the latest Freedom House report, which degraded Hungary to a “semi-consolidated democracy” from “consolidated democracy.” What does that mean? Where does that put Hungary among the former socialist countries? Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and the Baltic states are consolidated democracies. As of 2014 Hungary joined Romania, Bulgaria, and Serbia as a semi-consolidated democracy.

A day after the report became public, the ministry of justice published an announcement titled “Freedom House paints a false picture of Hungarian democracy.” The arguments that are supposed to show that Freedom House’s criticisms are unfounded are weak. For example, on the electoral system’s failings, the ministry of justice can say only that “last year’s elections prove that our electoral system works well and reflects voters’ will.” What they neglect to say is that with less than 50% of the votes Fidesz managed to have a two-thirds majority in parliament. The only answer to the criticism of the justice system is that Freedom House should take a look at the European Union’s Justice Scoreboard, which “showcases the quality, independence and efficiency of the justice system.”

Freedom House is also wrong when it accuses the Hungarian government of not supporting disadvantaged social groups when in fact the government’s “main tools of these efforts are triggering economic growth, stopping inflation, creating jobs and public catering for children.” Clearly, this is no answer to the absolute neglect of the poorest segment of society. Otherwise, “the Government of Hungary is ready and open to all discussions concerning democracy and human rights, and accordingly to contribute to the development of a true picture of the country.”

One must admit that the present leaders of the country are unbeatable when it comes to misleading unsuspecting and trusting foreigners. Luckily, their numbers are diminishing.

Hungary’s latest lobbying effort: Connie Mack IV and Dana Rohrabacher

When I read last fall that Századvég, Fidesz’s favorite think tank, won a 1.4 billion forint contract to conduct lobbying activities in Washington, I was baffled. What expertise do the political analysts of Századvég have that would enable them to be successful lobbyists in the U.S. capital?  None. But obviously I don’t understand how these things work. Századvég got this huge amount of money to find someone with Washington connections to do the actual lobbying.

Of course, the Orbán government didn’t need Századvég to find the right man for the job. In fact, I suspect that Századvég had mighty little to do with this latest Hungarian attempt to influence American political opinion. It was most likely not Századvég who tapped Connie Mack IV, a former Republican congressman from Florida, to be Hungary’s new lobbyist but Arthur Finkelstein, a prominent Republican consultant with whom Fidesz has had a long-standing relationship and who was at one point Mack’s campaign manager. But since Századvég is suspected of being a kind of money laundering arm of Fidesz, a chunk of that 1.4 billion will most likely eventually end up in Fidesz coffers, if it hasn’t already.

Mack’s congressional career ended in January 2013 when, after eight years in the House of Representatives, he ran for the Senate and was badly defeated by the incumbent Democratic senator, Bill Nelson. He decided to try his hand at lobbying instead. Former politicians are ideal lobbyists because of their extensive ties with members of Congress.

In March, Századvég organized a conference on the country’s foreign policy where Connie Mack was one of the speakers. To the astonishment of a reporter from 444.hu, Mack insisted that Hungary’s reputation is actually quite good in Washington. Many American politicians acknowledge the achievements of the Orbán government. His job, it would appear, is to convince even more politicians that Hungary is a stalwart ally of the U.S. and that the Hungarian government is worthy of praise.

Connie Mack IV at the conference organized by Századvég / MTI, Photo by Zsolt Szigetvári

Connie Mack IV at the conference organized by Századvég / MTI, Photo by Zsolt Szigetvári

Mack, it seems, has been working pretty hard to improve Hungary’s image, and he’s even managed to show something for his money. On May 19 a hearing will be held on “The Future of U.S-Hungary Relations.” It is being organized by the Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats, a subcommittee of the Committee on Foreign Affairs. The chairman of this subcommittee is Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican congressman from California, who is considered to be the only defender of the Kremlin in Congress. According to a New York Times article, the congressman “speaks up for Moscow with pride” and is somewhat sore that he “hasn’t gotten so much as a thank you” from Moscow. In his ideological career Dana Rohrabacher has gone from being a free market anarchist to a a cold warrior who played a leading role in the formulation of the Reagan Doctrine and, now, to a Putin apologist. He finds the annexation of Crimea legitimate because the people of Crimea spoke and they have the right of self-determination. Recently, he voted against a $1 billion loan guarantee to support the new government of Ukraine and abstained on the vote to condemn Russia for violating Ukraine’s sovereignty. In a way, Rohrabacher is an obvious choice to press Hungary’s case since Viktor Orbán is considered to be Vladimir Putin’s Trojan horse in the European Union. How successful the openly pro-Russian congressman will be in today’s political climate in Washington is another question.

According to the invitation to the open hearing, there will be four “witnesses,” two who will most likely speak on behalf of the Hungarian government and two who will criticize it.

Frank Koszorus, Jr, president of the American Hungarian Federation, and Maximilian Teleki, president of Hungarian American Coalition, will undoubtedly extol the Orbán government while András Simonyi, former Hungarian ambassador to the United States who is currently with Johns Hopkins University’s SAIS, and Tad Stahnke, vice president for research and analysis of Human Rights First, will point to the darker side of the Orbán regime.

Koszorus’s relations with the current government have been very close, especially recently, since the government is in the process of making a national hero out of his late father for his alleged role in “saving the Jews of Budapest.” Max Teleki has been a bit more critical of the Orbán government lately than he was earlier. He is not alone in right-of-center circles in and out of Hungary. See his interview in The Budapest Beacon.

András Simonyi is considered to be an accomplished debater, and I’m sure that he will eloquently represent the other side. As for Stahnke, he works for Human Rights First, which last August published the best report ever on human rights violations in Hungary. I wrote about this excellent publication under the title ‘”We’re not nazis, but …: Human Rights First report on Hungary and Greece.” There are few people in the United States who are as familiar with the Hungarian domestic situation as he is.

I suspect that Rohrabacher’s attempt to whitewash Orbán’s domestic record and his double game with Putin will not succeed. He represents a view that is shared by mighty few American politicians, so I doubt that his advocacy of the Orbán regime will make an appreciable difference among those who matter. Connie Mack will have to come up with something better.

The man behind the Russian-Hungarian rapprochement: Ernő Keskeny

A few days ago a fascinating article appeared about the diplomatic impasse in which Viktor Orbán finds himself. It was written by Szabolcs Panyi of Index. Most of the information the journalist received seems to have come from disgruntled diplomats who either have already lost their jobs or fear that they will in the near future.

Earlier I wrote about the massive firings that took place last year. The first round of pink slips were handed out after the arrival of Tibor Navracsics as interim minister of foreign afffairs. The second, when Péter Szijjártó became the new minister.

It is customary to make personnel changes when there is a change of government, and therefore it was not at all surprising that in 2010, after the formation of the second Orbán government, the newly-appointed minister, János Martonyi, got rid of many of the top diplomats of the earlier socialist-liberal governments. The cleanup was thorough, more thorough than is usual in Hungary.  So, the diplomats who today are complaining about the direction of Hungarian diplomacy are not socialist or liberal leftovers. On the contrary, they are people who wholeheartedly supported the Orbán government’s foreign policy. At least until recently.

Panyi’s article covers many topics, each of which deserves deeper analysis. Today I am focusing on what–or, more accurately, who–is responsible for the present state of Russian-Hungarian relations. In the opinion of the more seasoned diplomats, “the lack of knowledge of Russia in the government is astonishing.” The Russia experts in the ministry were systematically excluded from any decision-making. The prime minister made decisions on the basis of personal contacts. One key player was Ernő Keskeny, today Hungarian ambassador to Kiev.

Anyone who wants to go beyond the bare bones biographical data about Keskeny available on the website of the Hungarian government should visit the Russian-language website Regnum. Apparently this news portal employs a fair number of former secret service experts who presumably are quite familiar with Keskeny. He is described as something of a country bumpkin “without diplomatic education or foreign diplomatic gloss” who comes “from the bottom of Hungarian society.” His education began in a vocational school. Later he studied in a pedagogical institute in Nyíregyháza. Eventually he received a university degree from ELTE, as Regnum notes, “in absentia.” Years later he received his Ph.D. in Russian Studies, also at ELTE. Apparently, it was Foreign Minister Géza Jeszenszky who helped him get a job in the ministry (1990-1994). By 1995 he became head of the Hungarian consulate in St. Petersburg. During the first Orbán administration he was ambassador to Moscow.

Keskeny is known as a rabid Russophile and as someone who knows Vladimir Putin quite well, most likely from the years he spent in St. Petersburg in the 1990s. Apparently, he was the one who arranged the first meeting between Putin and Orbán in November 2009, and ever since he has been promoting close relations between the two countries. He is described by Regnum as not too smart but a “reliable workhorse” who looks “more like a bandit than a diplomat.” Keskeny seems to be the chief adviser to Viktor Orbán on Russia.

Ernő Keskeny, standing in the background on the left, Moscow, December 2014

Ernő Keskeny, standing in the background on the left, Moscow, December 2014

Between 2010 and 2014, when he was in the Foreign Ministry, he was head of the department dealing with Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Later he was also named to be ministerial councillor in charge of the Commonwealth of Free Nations. Keskeny was known in the ministry as an unwavering supporter of a pro-Russian policy. As early as 2010 he tried to convince Martonyi to turn toward Russia, but at that time Martonyi could still prevent such a diplomatic move. As time went on, however, Keskeny gained more and more influence. As one of Index‘s sources put it, “everything concerning Russia went through Ernő Keskeny without any transparency or control.”

And now we come to the most frightening aspect of Keskeny’s role in Russian-Ukrainian-Hungarian relations. In November 2014 he was named ambassador to Kiev. One really wonders what message this is meant to send to the Ukrainian government. Keskeny’s devotion to Mother Russia is well known. Why did Orbán post him to Kiev? As one of Index‘s informers put it, sending Keskeny to Kiev is like sending him to Siberia. He will not be able to move an inch there. No one will talk to him. He will be totally useless in the Ukrainian capital. What worries people in the foreign ministry is that sending Keskeny to Kiev is “a gesture toward Russia.” Another source who is less antagonistic toward Keskeny thinks that he was sent there because he is “a hard worker” and the post in Kiev is not an easy one, a hypothesis that agrees with Regnum‘s description of the man.

Index learned who some of the more important pro-Russian people are in the ministry: Csaba Balogh, deputy undersecretary in charge of the Eastern Opening; János Balla, the new ambassador to Moscow; and Péter Györkös, ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary, permanent representative of Hungary to the Council of the European Union. Today there are still approximately one hundred graduates of the Moscow Diplomatic Academy who work in the Hungarian foreign ministry. Not all are pro-Russian, of course. But the ministry faithfully carries out Viktor Orbán’s pro-Russian policy.

Index‘s sources believe that by now Orbán realizes that his policies have led to isolation, but I would disagree. Today in the presence of the visiting Turkish prime minister he was still clinging to his ideas for a Turkish-Macedonian-Serbian pipeline.

Viktor Orbán’s dangerous games

Foreign press coverage was uniformly negative following Vladimir Putin’s visit to Budapest. The Hungarian prime minister’s role in giving the Russian aggressor a platform was widely condemned, and not just in the media. Yesterday I described the Polish reaction to Viktor Orbán’s friendship with Putin and his admiration of the “illiberal democracy” of Russia. Orbán’s answer to these criticisms is always the same: he is a pragmatic politician whose only concern is Hungary’s national interests. Moreover, national interests for him means purely economic interests. Hence the complete reorganization of the foreign ministry, which was transformed into a ministry of foreign trade. He steadfastly maintains that his dalliance with Putin’s Russia has absolutely nothing to do with politics. Or at least this is what he wants the western world to believe.

Pragmatism for Orbán also means the total disregard of any principles of morality. One can lie through one’s teeth about small matters or weighty issues in the pursuit of desired ends–power being the overarching end. He has no qualms.

What are his plans? On two different occasions he talked about his relations with the European Union and Russia. First, right after the Putin visit, the “background conversations” with Hungarian journalists who are responsible for covering foreign affairs and, second, an interview that appeared today in the Russian newspaper Kommersant. Both belie Orbán’s contention that his interests in Russia are purely economic.

For me it is not at all clear why Orbán decided to share his thoughts on his foreign policy agenda with about fifteen journalists, including those from opposition papers. Whatever the reason, he was expansive and covered a variety of issues, starting with the European Union. He pointed to the chasm that exists between Poland and the Baltic states on the one side and the rest of Europe on the other when it comes to their policies toward Russia and the United States. He made no secret of his disapproval of any attempt to exclude Russia from “European cooperation.” He accused these countries of using the notion of a “value-based foreign policy” to achieve this goal.

What does Orbán mean by a “value-based foreign policy”? To put it in the simplest terms, for Orbán it means a foreign policy that is based on democratic values. The United States, for example, allegedly conducts such a foreign policy but, as Orbán put it at this meeting, the veneer of democracy covers up the true beneficiaries of such American efforts– businessmen.

Orbán seems to be convinced that “there are no Russian interests that would threaten the Hungarian ones.” Reading this sentence today, when I see the headline that Vladimir Putin just announced that “no one should have the illusion that [other countries] can gain military superiority over Russia, put any kind of pressure on it,” I shudder at the shortsightedness of Hungary’s prime minister. The British Defense Secretary, Michael Fallon, rang the alarm bell: Russia is “a real and present danger” to the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, all of which are NATO members. But I guess if the prime minister of Hungary looks upon his country as an island in the middle of Europe and not part of the European Union, then he can sit back and have no worries about possible Russian military expansion. First Ukraine and perhaps the Baltic states. What comes next? Poland, Slovakia, Romania, with the exception of Hungary? I don’t want to exaggerate the danger, but I think that Russian aggression is real and can be stopped only by an absolutely united European Union backed, at least in principle, by the military might of the United States.

Viktor Orbán, in an interview in Kommersant, which was recorded before his visit to Warsaw, was effusive about Russia. We have to keep in mind that a chat with Hungarian journalists behind closed doors is a different cup of tea from an interview with a Russian newspaper. The article summarized Orbán’s position as “fundamentally different from the common European position.”

Orban

Orbán’s position on sanctions is no secret. He is against them. But he revealed in this interview that his policy toward Germany has also changed. While before Angela Merkel’s visit to Budapest we heard over and over that Germany is Hungary’s closest ally, benefactor, and example, we find out now that Angela Merkel is the greatest obstacle to better understanding between Russia and Europe. As he said in this interview, “as long as the Germans want to keep sanctions against Russia, the situation is unlikely to change. Whether Hungary agrees or not.”

We know from Orbán’s conversations with the journalists that Poland and the Baltic states are the bad boys. If it depended on the rest of the countries of the EU, there would be some kind of understanding with Russia. In this interview he went even further. There is not only a split in Europe over the Russian-Ukrainian crisis, but “there are those who believe that Russia should be isolated economically. They claim that there must be a clear choice between Russia and European unity.” Keep in mind that Orbán is talking to a Russian audience against his allies on behalf of Russia. And continuing down this path, he said that when the European Union “decides on the issue of cooperation with Russia … we will not be deciding the fate of Russia but the future of Europe itself.” Well, that can mean only one thing. Orbán predicts that Russia will be the winner of this dangerous game. If the EU does not agree to cooperate with Russia, Europe’s fate will be sealed. Moreover, he said, he does not want to live “in a Europe that conducts a new Cold War with Russia.” Any thoughts about the best place for him to emigrate?

In his opinion Europeans should take advantage of the “fantastic economic opportunities” Russia offers. Such a partnership would be mutually beneficial; then “we will have a fantastic future.” What practical steps does Orbán suggest the leaders of the European Union take to achieve such a bright future? They “should support the Russian initiative that offers economic cooperation and free trade between the EU and the Eurasian Union.” In brief, he would suggest a total turnabout in the Russia policy of the United States and the European Union.

There were many more topics covered for which I have neither time nor space here. I’ll limit myself to his gripe about the West and his fondness for the East. He complained about the EU’s attitude toward Hungary, which he characterized as “pressure mixed with antipathy.” By contrast, he hailed “the respect with which President Putin treats us.” And he expressed his admiration of the Russian leader. When he was prime minister between 1998 and 2002 he “watched the situation in Russia with great sympathy…. [he] saw the changes that occurred in 2000 when President Putin came to power. A leader who could restore faith in the future of his people.”

So, tell me, are we talking only about economic relations between Putin’s Russia and Orbán’s Hungary, as he and his spokesmen try to convince the world? Certainly not. Eduard Hellvig, who was just appointed head of the Romanian foreign intelligence service, published an article a few days ago in which he warned of “the threat to the EU” because of the rapprochement between Russia and Hungary. Let me quote a couple of sentences from this article:

The Russian-Hungarian partnership not only threatens the Romanian-Hungarian strategic partnership, which becomes increasingly vacuous due to the nationalist hostility of Budapest, but also NATO and EU interests in the area. Therefore, I believe that Romania, caught in the vise of this poisoned Russian-Hungarian Entente, should take the leading role in defending democratic values and allied interests in the region.

Hellwig points out that Russia has an offensive military doctrine which threatens Eastern Europe, including his own country.

Lately, Orbán has been seen as a Trojan horse, “increasingly under the influence of Moscow.” I heard rumors that western diplomats were warned by their ministries to be careful around their Hungarian colleagues. Almost sixty years ago Hungarians fought to rid themselves of the influence of Moscow. Now the country freely accepts its influence, guided by a prime minister who values power over principles.

Polak, Węgier — dwa bratanki / Lengyel, magyar – két jó barát–Not at the moment

Two days ago the media got wind of the news that Viktor Orbán was heading to Warsaw today to give a lecture on the Hungarian economic miracle before the Polish Chamber of Commerce, which bestowed on him the prestigious “Golden Umbrella” prize. I understand that among the earlier recipients were Lech Wałęsa, Bronisław Komorowski (today president of Poland), and Pope Benedict XVI.

There is a good possibility that Orbán’s original Warsaw schedule didn’t include a meeting with Ewa Kopacz, who only recently succeeded Donald Tusk as prime minister of Poland. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the Hungarian side asked for the meeting only recently. At least this is what I read between the lines of an article published two days ago that talks about “plans for a meeting with the Polish prime minister as well.” Orbán was also hoping to meet with Jarosław Kaczyński, chairman of the far-right Law and Justice party (PiS) and–at least until now–a great admirer of Viktor Orbán. Apparently, the Hungarians tried for two solid days to convince Kaczyński to meet with the Hungarian prime minister but he was unmoved. Mariusz Błaszczak, the leader of PiS’s parliamentary delegation, confirmed the party’s refusal to meet with Orbán, announcing that in their estimation such a meeting was out of the question given the present political situation. This is total reversal of PiS’s policy toward Orbán’s Hungary. You may recall the thousands of Poles in colorful folk costumes joining the Peace Marches organized to save Viktor Orbán’s premiership. As a Hungarian site gleefully remarked: We won’t see Poles demonstrating for Viktor Orbán and his party for a while. The reason, of course, is Viktor Orbán’s soft spot for Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Since the very beginning of the Russian-Ukrainian crisis Poland has been totally committed to Ukraine. We must remember that the western portion of Ukraine belonged to the Polish crown until the middle of the seventeenth century. As a Hungarian expert on Poland, Judit Hamberger, told Index, Ukraine for the Poles is something like Transylvania for the Hungarians. Polish public opinion is decidedly pro-Ukrainian and anti-Russian. In addition, Poles are great supporters of the European Union, joint EU defense forces, and a unified energy policy. So, they are for all those things Viktor Orbán hates. Orbán’s popularity in Poland plummeted when he stopped sending gas to Ukraine after he had a chat with the CEO of Gazprom, Alexey Miller.

Members of the Polish government share the sentiments of the Polish people. President Komorowski, no friend of PiS and Kaczyński, agreed with the leader of the opposition party when he recalled that “it was not a long time ago that certain Polish politicians considered Budapest an example to follow. Perhaps it is now worth their while to re-examine their positions.” Well, it seems that they did. Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna predicted that Orbán will have to pay a heavy price for his pro-Russian stance because, after all, the majority of Hungarians are against Orbán’s friendship with Russia. Naturally, the Polish media followed suit, from far-right to liberal. Rzeczpospolita, a center-right publication, declared that “Putin buried Orbán’s past,” meaning his famous speech in 1989 at the reburial of Imre Nagy. The liberal Gazeta Wyborcza accused Orbán of buying popularity at home by acquiring cheap Russian gas.

I have the feeling that the decision to arrange a meeting with the Polish prime minister was prompted by a report by Zsolt Németh, who happened to be attending a conference in Warsaw. It is one thing to feel important in the presence of President Putin in Budapest and quite another to be in Poland and feel its ire: parties, media, everybody. On the 17th Németh gave an interview to Index in which he emphasized the urgency of “explaining at the highest level that strengthening economic cooperation with Russia doesn’t mean that we want to withdraw from our support of European integration.” So, a meeting was quickly arranged which, as a Polish official remarked, couldn’t be refused under the circumstances.

It turned out to be a disaster for Viktor Orbán. Even his customary kissing of the lady’s hand didn’t help the situation. It seems that Orbán doesn’t do well with women, especially when they are in powerful positions. He had a pretty rough time with Angela Merkel. And I think that his meeting with Merkel was a cakewalk in comparison to what he had to endure in Warsaw. A Polish source, the television station TVN24, quoted Jacek Rostowski, head of the prime minister’s advisory team. “I think Prime Minister Orbán understood quite clearly what the position of the Polish government is.” And, he added, the Hungarian prime minister “didn’t receive any absolution.” On the contrary, “he was called to order.” In East-Central Europe they know that the polite, diplomatic language used in the western part of Europe does not work with this man. Rostowski wasn’t sure, but he hoped that Orbán understood the “very clear language of the prime minister.”

Kopacz and Orban2

Ewa Kopacz herself described the conversations as open, honest, and difficult. We all know what these words mean in diplomacy. The following quotation comes from a Hungarian translation. “As is customary between friends in an open and honest conversation, not avoiding each other’s eyes, I told Mr. Orbán: the European Union and the unity of the Visegrád countries in the present grave Ukrainian situation is of critical importance. I think that a large country like Ukraine has the right to decide its own fate. In our common past we Hungarians and Poles always lost when force supplanted international law. I think that countries like ours, which twenty-five years ago thanks to assistance coming from abroad, with the help of western democracies regained their independence, owe a debt of gratitude toward those who are denied the right of independence.” The delivery was anything but friendly. Moreover, the Poles made sure that the flag of the European Union was stuck between the Hungarian and Polish flags. I’m sure they knew that this flag irritates Viktor Orbán to no end.

It must have been very difficult to say anything after that speech. Orbán was brief and concentrated on the Minsk Agreement.”European unity is built on that agreement which Hungary will support and defend to the very end…. In this respect Poland can count on Hungary.” But I’m sure this will not be enough. The Poles want Orbán to condemn Russian aggression against Ukraine and support the EU position without any “ifs and buts.” But it is unlikely that the “great freedom fighter” will oblige. How long can he sit on the fence?

Russia, Hungary, and the Hungarian minority in Ukraine

A few days ago an article appeared in Foreign Affairs with the somewhat sensational title “The Hungarian Putin? Viktor Orban and the Kremlin’s Playbook,” written by Mitchell A. Orenstein, Péter Krekó, and Attila Juhász. Orenstein is a professor of political science at Northeastern University in Boston and an associate of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University. Krekó and Juhász are associates of the Hungarian think tank Political Capital. The question the article poses is whether Hungary entertains any irredentist plans as far as her neighbors are concerned, similar to the way in which Russia behaved earlier in Abkhazia and now in Ukraine. After all, the Russian attacks on those territories were preceded by a grant of Russian citizenship to Ukrainians and Abkhazians. To this question the answer is negative. Viktor Orbán may sound bellicose at times, but he is interested in the Hungarians living in the neighboring countries only as a source of extra votes and perhaps a reservoir of immigrants to a country with dismal demographic figures.

The authors claim, however, that there is “a delicate balance [which] could easily topple.” What created this delicate balance? Although “Hungary’s radical right-wing, fascist, and irredentist party, Jobbik, has virtually no support among Hungarians abroad,” it is still possible that “aggressive separatist political movements, especially those with external political support, could … act as though they have a majority beyond them, as in eastern Ukraine.”  I must say that the exact meaning of this claim is unclear to me, but the authors’ argument is that the “nationalist political use of Hungarians abroad in Hungary could set the stage for such extremism and instability in neighboring countries.” In Ukraine such a danger is real “where Orban has taken advantage of political chaos to press Hungarian minority issues … in the sub-Carpathian region of western Ukraine, adjacent to Hungary.” There are far too many “ifs” here, but it is true that Orbán did announce his claim to autonomy for the Hungarian minority at the most inappropriate moment, during the first Russian attacks on eastern Ukraine.

It is unlikely that Hungary could convince Ukraine’s western friends to force Kiev to grant autonomy to the Hungarians of Sub-Carpathian Ukraine (Zakarpattia Oblast) who constitute 12.1% of the total population of the province. In 2001 they numbered 151,500, but since then it is possible that many of them either left for Hungary or with the help of a Hungarian passport migrated farther west. On the other hand, one occasionally hears Russian voices outlining ambitious plans for Ukraine and its minorities. For example, in March 2014 Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of the nationalist Liberal Democratic party that backs Vladimir Putin, suggested that Poland, Hungary, and Romania might wish to take back regions which were their territories in the past. Romania might want Chrnivtsi; Hungary, the Zaparpattia region; and Poland, the Volyn, Lviv, Ternopil, Ivano-Frankivsk, and Rovensky regions. Thus Ukraine would be free of “unnecesssary tensions” and “bring prosperity and tranquility to the Ukrainian native land.”

Or, there is the Russian nationalist ideologue, Aleksandr Dugin, the promoter of a Russian-led “Eurasian Empire” that would incorporate Austria as well as Hungary, Romania, Serbia, and Slovakia. Although Dugin’s specific recommendations were first reported on a far-right Hungarian site called Alfahir.hu, the news spread rapidly beyond the borders of Hungary. Dugin is an enemy of nation states and would like to see the return of empires. “If, let’s say, Hungary, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, or perhaps even Volhynia and Austria would unite, all Hungarians would be within one country. Everything would return to the state that existed before Trianon.” Of course, Dugin’s argument is specious. Surely, a United Europe offers exactly the same advantages to the Hungarian minorities that Dugin recommends, but without the overlordship of Putin’s Russia.

One could discount these suggestions as fantasies, but something is in the air in Russia. The country’s foreign minister considers the fate of the Hungarian minority in Ukraine to be of such importance that at the Munich Security Conference a couple of days ago he spent a considerable amount of time on the minority’s grievances.

Mind you, Sergei Lavrov’s speech was met with derision by those present. As the reporter of Bloomberg described the scene, the “crowd laughed at and booed him.” Apparently, during his 45-minute speech he “rewrote the history of the Cold War, accused the West of fomenting a coup in Ukraine, and declared himself to be a champion of the United Nations Charter.” From our point of view, the most interesting part of the speech was the time he spent on the Hungarian minority in the Zakarpattia Oblast.

I think it is worth quoting Lavrov’s answer to a question that addresses this issue:

[The Ukrainians] are probably embarrassed to say it here, but now Ukraine is undergoing mobilization, which is running into serious difficulties. Representatives of the Hungarian, Romanian minorities feel “positive” discrimination, because they are called up in much larger proportions than ethnic Ukrainians. Why not talk about it? Or that in Ukraine reside not only Ukrainians and Russians, but there are other nationalities which by fate ended up in this country and want to live in it. Why not provide them with equal rights and take into account their interests? During the elections to the Verkhovnaya Rada the Hungarian minority asked to organize constituencies in such a way that at least one ethnic Hungarian would make it to the Rada. The constituencies were “sliced” so that none of the Hungarians made it. All this suggests that there is something to discuss.

Perhaps the most “amusing” part of the paragraph Lavrov devoted to the Hungarian and Romanian minorities in Ukraine is his claim that fate was responsible for these ethnic groups’ incorporation into the Soviet Union. I remember otherwise. The Soviet government kept the old Trianon borders without any adjustments based on ethnic considerations. The ethnic map of Zakarpattia Oblast shows that such an adjustment shouldn’t have been too difficult a task.

Ethnic map of Zakarpattia Obast  / Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zakarpattia_Oblast

Ethnic map of Zakarpattia Obast / Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zakarpattia_Oblast

The small Hungarian minority is obviously being used by the Russians to further their own claims, which in turn might encourage Viktor Orbán to pursue his quest for autonomous status for the largely Hungarian-inhabited regions of the oblast. The Orbán government supports autonomy for the Szeklers of central Transylvania despite the Romanian-Hungarian basic treaty of September 1996 that set aside the issue of territorial autonomy, to which Romania strenuously objected. The treaty had to be signed because NATO and EU membership depended on it. The Ukrainian situation is different because Ukraine is not part of the EU. Whether Orbán will accept the tacit or even open assistance of Russia for the sake of the Hungarian minority in Ukraine remains to be seen. In any case, to everybody’s surprise Viktor Orbán will pay a visit to Kiev where he will meet with President Petro Poroshenko.

Merkel-Orbán conversations: Serious differences of opinion

Yesterday, right after Angela Merkel’s plane left the runway at the Budapest Airport, I jotted down my first impressions. It was a busy day for the German chancellor, so I had to be very selective in my post. I concentrated on Merkel’s comments, largely because they were the most unexpected elements in the exchange. Moreover, I talked mostly about her reactions to Hungarian domestic issues and spent a great deal less time on the disagreements between the two leaders over foreign affairs.

Let’s start with their attitudes toward Putin’s Russia. According to Orbán, Ukraine is important for Hungary because it is a neighbor of Hungary, because there is a Hungarian minority across the border, and because the gas that Hungary needs badly travels through this country. Therefore, he said, Hungary “can stand only on the side of peace. We can imagine only a solution that will take us toward peace.” But let’s see what Merkel had to say. According to her, the Germans would also like to have a ceasefire and political stability in Ukraine that “can guarantee the territorial integrity of the country.” Something Orbán didn’t talk about. Merkel also gently reminded Orbán that Hungary is not the only country that is dependent on Russian gas, indicating that it is unacceptable for Hungary to have a different viewpoint on the question of Russian sanctions.

That last remark from Merkel prompted Orbán to open a discussion with his guest on Hungary’s unique position in this respect. Germany’s situation cannot be compared to that of Hungary; “one must take Hungary’s situation vis-à-vis Russia very seriously.” Hungary has to renew her long-term agreement on the price of gas for the next fifteen years, and therefore “it is difficult to fully support the Russian sanctions.”

Although yesterday I talked about their disagreements over the meaning of democracy, I said nothing about how the topic came up during the press conference. Orbán naturally did not bring it up; it was Merkel who announced that during her conversation with Orbán she “indicated that although the Hungarian government has a large majority, in a democracy the role of the opposition, the civil society, and the media is very important.” She added that later she will find time to have a conversation with the leaders of Hungarian civil society. From Orbán’s reaction it was clear that the Hungarian prime minister did not expect such direct involvement by Merkel in a matter he considers a domestic issue. It was after these points of disagreement that Merkel and Orbán had their rather sharp exchange on the nature of “illiberal democracy.” As the Frankfurter Rundschau pointed out, Merkel can at times be quite “undiplomatic,” as she was this time, and therefore “she annoyed Orbán.” You can see the prime minister’s annoyance and his determination to follow his own path on the picture below, taken during their debate on “illiberalism.”

Source: MTI / Photo Tibor Illyés

Source: MTI / Photo Tibor Illyés

Csaba Molnár,  the number two man in the Demokratikus Koalíció, thought that Orbán was cowed and “behaved like a scared little boy standing by his teacher’s side.” I disagree. I saw exactly the opposite: a combative Viktor Orbán who will not be swayed by any argument and who will continue to build his illiberal state. I’m afraid the same might be true when it comes to negotiations with Vladimir Putin. Even though he might sign on to further sanctions, he will try to make a deal with Putin regardless of EU disapproval. It is another matter whether Putin will swallow a big one and give preferential treatment to Orbán despite the meager returns he can expect from Budapest.

As even the right-wing media had to admit, the visit was not a great success, although it was designed to be a showcase of German-Hungarian friendship and a stamp of approval by the German chancellor of the Orbán regime. What does Fidesz do in such an awkward situation? After all, they cannot admit that Merkel and Orbán disagreed on almost everything, starting with Russia and ending with the nature of democracy. The simplest and the usual Fidesz response in such cases is to resort to outright lying. This is exactly what happened today.

Vs.hu is a relatively new internet news site that came out with the startling news that the real significance of the conversation was in the realm of new German investments in the Hungarian economy. András Kósa, a well-respected journalist who used to be on the staff of HVG, just joined Vs.hu. He was told by unnamed members of the government and local German businessmen that although on the surface there was visible friction between Merkel and Orbán, in fact “concrete important industrial agreements came into being on Monday.” Siemens will be involved in the construction of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant. In addition, Hungary will buy thirty helicopters from Airbus, not from the American Sikorsky or the Italian-British AgustaWestland. Kósa was told that “BMW is contemplating opening a factory in Hungary.” Only the exact location remains to be settled. And, on top of everything else, Mercedes will build a new factory to manufacture a new model.

Well, that was quite a scoop. The Hungarian media went crazy. Dozens and dozens of articles appeared within minutes, and every time the story was retold it became grander and grander. While the original article emphasized that all these favorable developments “might happen,” by the time the story got to Magyar Nemzet it became “Gigantic German investments are forthcoming as a result of the Merkel-Orbán meeting.” Válasz discovered that the real significance of the meeting was that new “gigantic German investments are coming to Hungary,” obviously all that taken care of during a short luncheon. Even such a reputable site as Portfolio.hu fell for the story.

The first word of warning came from a specialized internet site that deals with the car industry, Autopro.hu. It is possible that economic relations were discussed, but it is impossible that there could be negotiations between Merkel and Orbán regarding concrete projects, the author of the article remarked. This is not the first time that the possibility of a BMW factory is being heralded by the Hungarian media, but nothing ever came of it. Moreover, if there are such plans or decisions, they would not be discussed by Merkel and Orbán but by the top management of BMW and Hungarian economic experts. Autopro.hu didn’t manage to get in touch with BMW, but they were told by Mercedes that at the moment they have no intention of building another factory. Later the pro-government Napi Gazdaság  learned from BMW headquarters that “the BMW Group has no plans to build a factory in Hungary.” I don’t know whether the rest of the story, about Siemens and Airbus, is true or is also a figment of the imagination of certain government officials.

I consider Kósa a reliable and serious journalist who would not make up such a story. But why would government sources leak information about nonexistent projects? What do these so-called high government officials think when they concoct stories that are bound to be discovered to be false? Perhaps they think that the false news will spread like wildfire, as it did in this case, and that the correction will be reported by only very few media outlets. Therefore, it can be considered a successful communication stunt. Fidesz is good at that.