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.”
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?