Tag Archives: Ukraine

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.

Two narratives of the impending Budapest visit of Angela Merkel

As Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to Budapest nears, there is conflicting speculation about the purpose of her visit. Merkel will spend five hours in Budapest, apparently on February 2. This short stint will include a meeting with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and a visit to Mazsihisz, the umbrella organization representing the Jewish religious community. Why is Merkel traveling to Hungary? According to critics, the trip is ill-advised because, with a visit to Budapest, she is implicitly endorsing the illiberal regime of Viktor Orbán. A few days ago one of the leading MSZP politicians announced that the party expects Merkel “to signal to Viktor Orbán in unambiguous terms that he has no place in the community of democratic European politicians.”

Others seem to be convinced that Merkel is going to Budapest to ensure that Viktor Orbán will vote together with the rest of the European prime ministers to extend the sanctions currently in force against Russia. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that the German chancellor made it clear that sanctions can be lifted only after the agreement reached in Minsk is fulfilled. And nothing of the sort has happened. In fact, just this morning Kiev announced that 700 Russian troops had crossed into Ukraine to aid the rebels fighting for control of the eastern provinces.

Attila Ara-Kovács, the foreign policy expert of Demokratikus Koalíció, is one of those who believe that the trip’s main purpose is to convince Viktor Orbán of the necessity of extending the sanctions. But he goes even further when he hypothesizes that Merkel has another message for Orbán in light of the recent demonstrations: he should end the political conflict at home. Somewhat similarly, Stratfor, an American geopolitical intelligence and advisory firm, is convinced that Merkel’s visit is part and parcel of a U.S. “diplomatic offensive” in the region and can be viewed as putting joint U.S.-German pressure on Viktor Orbán. The aim is to stop the spread of Russian influence in the region.

Is this the truth?

Is this the truth?

Or that?

Or this?

The other narrative of the impending Merkel visit comes straight from Fidesz. It is well summarized in the headline of an article by Zsolt Hazafi: “Is Merkel Orbán’s guardian angel?” It is true that the journalist turned the Fidesz message into a question, but the answer is “yes.” The story line goes as follows: Hungary and Germany are very close allies who synchronize all their diplomatic moves. More than that, Orbán’s Hungary is doing Germany’s bidding. Or at least this is what József Szájer, a Fidesz member of the European Parliament, intimated in his interview with Antónia Mészáros of ATV yesterday. As he put it: “Germany sent us ahead” to test the ground vis-à-vis Russia. Berlin, according to him, is just as much against sanctions as Budapest is, but Merkel is constrained, presumably by the United States. Therefore, she secretly welcomes Hungary’s position on the sanctions.

After talking with several high-level government officials, Hazafi gained the impression that in the last few years a Russian-German-Hungarian triangle came into being, a three-way relationship that includes an understanding about building a second reactor at the Paks nuclear power plant. Why would the German chancellor agree to the secret Russian-Hungarian deal on Paks? According to this narrative, Germany, where soon enough there will be no nuclear power plants, will be able to get inexpensive energy from Paks. Fidesz informants pointed out that a German firm was instrumental in making the Russian loan to Hungary possible. They added as proof of the understanding between Germany and Hungary on Paks that Günther Oettinger, former European commissioner for energy matters and a German, raised no objection to the Putin-Orbán deal. Members of the Hungarian government and leading Fidesz leaders consider both visits–Merkel’s and Putin’s–diplomatic triumphs. “Hungary is back on the map,” Orbán allegedly said.

Népszabadság also had its own Fidesz informants. They claim that Germany didn’t object to the Orbán-Putin meeting since Germany and Hungary work hand in hand when it comes to Russia. Some of the more embarrassing statements of Viktor Orbán are no more than trial balloons. One example is the question of sanctions. According to other Fidesz politicians, those who see a connection between the visits of Merkel and Putin “are not far from the truth.” Insiders also claim that the relationship between Merkel and Orbán is close. According to them, the two became closer after their hour-long meeting in Milan last year. Government officials, when claiming close German-Russian-Hungarian cooperation, usually bring up the fact that Klaus Mangold, former CEO of Daimler-Chrysler, was the middleman between Orbán and Putin throughout the negotiations. The informers seem to be pretty certain that “it is no longer in the interest of Germany to talk seriously about the lack of democracy in Hungary.” The author of the article (we don’t know who he/she is because there was no by-line) added that Merkel might have to resort to more serious criticism after “the prime minister’s crude anti-immigration theses” in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris.

So, here we have two irreconcilable narratives. I find the Fidesz version of close German-Hungarian relations hard to believe. There are just too many signs that contradict it. Unless, of course, we assume duplicity on the part of Angela Merkel. After all, time and again she expressed her misgivings about Russian aggression and her support of the sanctions, including additional ones if Russia refused to cooperate. Such a double game would make no sense, especially now that Russia is in serious economic and political trouble. Thus, my hunch is that the sudden talkativeness of Fidesz potentates is a concerted effort on the part of the Orbán regime to burnish the prime minister’s image, to point to his diplomatic importance and genius, and to portray him as one of the most important leaders in Europe.

I am inclined to believe that the main reason for the Merkel visit is indeed the question of the sanctions and Hungary’s overly chummy relations with Putin. I am also convinced that Merkel will talk about what Hungarians call “the democracy deficit,” which is something that is hard to ignore given the wide coverage of Orbán’s illiberal state and the latest demonstrations. In brief, I consider this latest tsunami of leaks by Fidesz politicians to be a part of a disinformation campaign.

Vladimir Putin’s impending visit to Budapest

Népszava, a social democratic paper, is generally well-informed about the “secrets” of the government. This time it surprised its readers with a front-page article announcing a planned visit by Vladimir Putin to Budapest sometime in March. Budapest, judiciously spurned by western political leaders of late, is becoming a hub of diplomatic activity. Angela Merkel is scheduled for a five-hour visit on February 2 and now the news about Putin.

The newspaper pointed out that this will not be Putin’s first visit to Budapest. He was the guest of Ferenc Gyurcsány in February 2006 when the Hungarian prime minister supported the idea of the Southern Stream to the great annoyance and disapproval of both the United States and Viktor Orbán. Orbán at that time considered such a policy to be the equivalent of treason. The paper also called attention to Viktor Orbán’s about-face when he paid a visit to Moscow in November 2010 and again in February 2013.

Actually Népszava missed an earlier indication that a change in Russo-Hungarian relations was in the works. In November 2009, prior to his becoming prime minister, during a visit to St. Petersburg as one of the vice presidents of the European People’s Party Orbán attended the eleventh congress of the ruling United Russia Party. During this visit he indicated to Putin that he wanted “to put Russian-Hungarian relations on an entirely new footing.” He had made up his mind to conduct a pro-Russian foreign policy once in power.

Viktor Orbán and Vladimir Putin in Moscow, January 2014 Source: Europess / Getty Images / Sasha Mordovets

Viktor Orbán and Vladimir Putin in Moscow, January 2014
Source: Europess / Getty Images / Sasha Mordovets

Perhaps the first person to comment on the news of the visit was László Kovács, former foreign minister, who happened to be a visitor on the early morning program “ATV Start.” He assumes that the initiative for the visit came from Moscow. Zoltán Sz. Bíró, a Russian expert, shares Kovács’s hypothesis. Putin must have been the one to suggest the visit in the hope of convincing Orbán to veto the extension of EU sanctions against Russia, which expire in March. In Biró’s opinion, a veto by Orbán not supported by any other EU country would poison the relationship between Hungary and the West for a very long time. Therefore he doubts that Orbán would dare to go that far.

Attila Ara-Kovács, head of the “foreign cabinet” of the Demokratikus Koalíció, told Klubrádió that he knew about the impending visit for about a week but, according to his information, Putin’s visit will take place not in March, as Népszava reported, but on February 9. In his reading, it was Orbán who invited Putin and not the other way around, perhaps to show the world that he is not alone in his battle with the United States and the European Union. If Orbán sensed that Angela Merkel intended to deliver “bad news” during her stay in Budapest, perhaps a looming visit from Putin might temper her disapproval. Ara-Kovács considers this latest move of Orbán a provocation that will only add fuel to the fire in the strained relationship between Hungary and the West.

What are the reactions of the opposition parties? As usual, MSZP is hibernating. Not a word from József Tóbiás, the party chairman, or from anyone else. Együtt somewhat naively demands that the government consult with all parliamentary parties “in preparing the meeting between Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and the Russian president.” Együtt can wait for such a consultation. Együtt joined LMP in its opposition to the construction of the Paks2 nuclear power plant. Both parties want the government, during the prime minister’s meeting with Putin, to break its contract for a 10-billion-euro Russian loan to have Rossatom build the plant. Well, that will not happen either but it is possible, as Zoltán Sz. Biró suspects, that Russia for financial reasons will give up the idea of the project. PM’s reaction was the most sensible: the party would like to see a huge demonstration against Putin’s visit organized by all the democratic opposition parties as well as by the civic groups that were responsible for the recent mass demonstrations.

László Szily, the blogger of Cink.hu, correctly pointed out that, if it is true that Putin is coming to Budapest, Viktor Orbán just did those who have been expressing their anger against his regime in the last few months a huge favor. The most recent demonstration showed signs of fatigue, but Putin in Budapest could resurrect the old enthusiasm of the crowds and just might unite the hitherto anti-party civic groups and the democratic parties into one large and potent group. Moreover, too cozy a Russian-Hungarian friendship might cause a rift within Fidesz itself. A lot of Fidesz voters are adamantly anti-Russian.  In Szily’s words, “The vacillating opposition on the streets can be grateful to the prime minister because kowtowing to Russia, parading with the dictator is the kind of event that could successfully bring together the dissatisfied left, right, and liberal public.”

One party was elated by the news: Jobbik. This afternoon Jobbik published an official statement, the theme of which was “Hungary must represent the interests of peace and neutrality.” Márton Gyöngyösi, the party’s foreign policy expert, said that Jobbik is a supporter of Viktor Orbán’s “eastern opening” and “considers Russia an economic, political and cultural partner of Hungary.” Budapest, because of the Hungarian minority in the Subcarpathian region of Ukraine, shouldn’t side with its western allies. Gyöngyösi went even further than the rather subdued official statement when he told Hiradó, the organ of state propaganda, that “it is unacceptable that the Hungarian government, blindly representing western interests, is ready to throw the Subcarpathian Hungarians as bones to the West.”

It is hard to know what the next couple of months will bring on the international scene. We have no idea what kind of message Angela Merkel will deliver to Budapest on February 2. We don’t know what foreign reactions to Putin’s visit will be. But domestically the Russian president’s visit might just be a potent catalyst for political change.