Tag Archives: Viktor Yanukovych

How not to win friends and influence people: Viktor Orbán

I’m sure that Viktor Orbán never read Dale Carnegie’s famous self-help book How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936) that has sold more than 18 million copies in the last 78 years. In fact, I fear that his own anti-Carnegie principles will ensure that he will eventually be hated by everyone, with the exception of the “hard-core” who think he walks on water.

One of the chapters in Dale Carnegie’s book speaks about the virtues of leaders, specifically “how to change people without giving offense or arousing resentment.” Among the principal virtues Carnegie mentions are qualities that Viktor Orbán totally lacks. He suggests that a good leader should talk about his own mistakes before criticizing the other person. Orbán and self-criticism? Carnegie also suggests that if a leader is wrong he should admit it “quickly and emphatically.” Or another piece of advice: “Be sympathetic with the other person’s ideas and desires.” Or “show respect for the other person’s opinions.” All these are alien concepts to the prime minister of Hungary. In fact, he does just the opposite of everything that Carnegie thought was necessary for a successful leader.

Take, for example, the erection of the ill-fated Archangel Gabriel monument. Regardless of how much criticism he receives, regardless of how many historians and art historians tell him that the concept is historically and artistically inaccurate, he plows ahead with it. Yesterday the Hungarian Academy of Sciences organized a conference on the issue; their condemnation was unanimous.

Or there is the decision to extend the capacity of the Paks nuclear power plant. As Bernadett Szél (LMP member of parliament) continues to dig into the details of the planned expansion it is becoming obvious that no serious feasibility studies were done before Orbán hurriedly signed the contract with Russia. But that is perhaps the least of the problems Paks is causing Hungary. Orbán’s newly found friendship with Vladimir Putin has led him to regard Ukraine as a potential trophy not only for Putin but for himself as well.

First, he tried to ignore the issue of Russian aggression in the Crimea, but since Hungary happens to be situated in a region that borders on Ukraine, Orbán had to line up, however reluctantly, with Hungary’s neighbors. He decided, however, to make a claim of his own–though for people, not land.

In the same speech I wrote about yesterday, he spoke briefly about Hungarian foreign policy. Here is a translation of the relevant part.

We will continue our policy of the Eastern Opening; we will strengthen our economic presence in the Carpathian Basin. This is in the interest of Hungary as well as of the neighboring countries and the European Union. This strengthening of regional economic relations is not in opposition to a resolute national policy [nemzetpolitika]. The question of the Hungarian minorities has not been solved since the end of World War II. We consider the Hungarian question a European affair. Hungarians of the Carpathian Basin deserve dual citizenship, communal rights, and autonomy. This is our view, which we will represent on international forums. The Hungarian question is especially timely because of the 200,000 strong Hungarian community in Ukraine whose members must receive dual citizenship, the entirety of communal rights [ közösségi jogok], and the possibility of  self-government [önigazgatás]. This is our expectation for the new Ukraine currently under reconstruction that otherwise enjoys our sympathy and assistance in the work of the creation of a democratic Ukraine.

Not exactly a friendly gesture toward a neighbor that is in great peril at the moment because of Russian aggression. As if Hungary would like to take advantage of the troubled waters for its own gains. Apparently, according to a leaked foreign ministry document, “Fidesz with its own national policy [nemzetpolitika]–even at the price of ‘fertile chaos’–is striving for a change in the status quo.” If there is one thing the European Union and the United States are worried about, it is ethnic strife in Eastern Europe. And Hungary just took a rather aggressive step in this direction.

The Hungarian ambassador to Kiev was immediately summoned to the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry. He was told in no uncertain terms that such a step “is not conducive to the de-escalation and stabilization of the situation.” The spokesman for the ministry noted that “certain aspects of [Hungarian] national policy were criticized by Hungary’s partners in the European Union.”

The Ukrainian reaction was expected. Donald Tusk’s response, however, was more of a surprise given the normally warm relations between Poland and Hungary. Both Tusk’s party and Fidesz belong to the same conservative People’s Party, and usually Orbán receives a lot of help in Strasbourg from Polish members of EP. But this time the Polish prime minister was anything but sympathetic. “I am sorry to say this but I consider the statement made by Prime Minister Orbán as unfortunate.” And he continued: “Today, when we witness the Russian efforts of Ukraine’s partition such a statement must raise concern. We need to be careful that in no way, whether intentional or not, it should sound as backing the actions of pro-Russian separatists.” He added that the Polish government will make sure that none of its neighbors threatens the integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine.

Donald Tusk and Viktor Orbán / Photo Barna Burger

Donald Tusk and Viktor Orbán on May 5, 2014 / Photo Barna Burger

In cases like this it is Foreign Minister János Martonyi who comes to the rescue. According to Martonyi, Orbán’s words were misinterpreted. Orbán invoked “self governance” not autonomy. But if you read my translation carefully, you can see that he talked about both self-governance and autonomy in the Carpathian Basin. Martonyi tried to explain that self-government and autonomy are actually “cultural autonomy in Hungarian.” No, they are not. Cultural autonomy exists in Subcarpathian Ukraine already. There are Hungarian schools, Hungarian associations, Hungarian theaters.

Naturally, the opposition made hay out of these careless sentences of Orbán. Ferenc Gyurcsány recalled a sentence from the farewell letter of Prime Minister Pál Teleki to Miklós Horthy before he committed suicide. In April 1941 Hungary agreed to let German troops through Hungary in order to attack Yugoslavia with whom Hungary had just signed a pact of eternal friendship. In that letter Teleki told the Governor: “We became body snatchers!” On Facebook Gyurcsány asks Orbán whether he is playing the role of a body snatcher in these hard days in Ukraine.

Martonyi might have tempered Orbán’s harsh words but Orbán himself did not. He announced this afternoon that he simply reiterated the Hungarian government’s “long-standing views on the Hungarian minorities.” As far as he is concerned, the case is closed.

Ukrainian-Hungarian relations during the Orbán years

Today I’m going to survey Hungarian-Ukrainian relations over the course of the last four years, since Viktor Orbán won the election. You may recall that the new prime minister began his diplomatic rounds with a trip to Poland, which was supposed to signal a foreign policy that would put the emphasis not so much on relations with western Europe as on relations with other central and eastern European nations. Of course, he also made several official visits to Brussels, but they were quick trips related to Hungary’s membership in the Union. There is a handy list, compiled by MTI, on Orbán’s foreign visits, showing that Ukraine was one of the first countries he visited. It was on November 12, 2010 that he traveled to Kiev. Shortly thereafter, on November 30, he went to Moscow.

Ukrainian-Hungarian flagsSo, let’s see what Orbán had to say about Hungarian-Ukrainian relations at the time. He claimed that former Hungarian governments hadn’t paid enough attention to Ukraine, but from here on everything would change because “the current Ukrainian leadership stabilized Ukraine” even as he is “working on stabilizing Hungary.” He was looking forward to cooperation between two stable countries, and he expressed his appreciation that Viktor Yanukovych’s government had withdrawn some legislation that was injurious to the Hungarian minority in Subcarpathia. A few months earlier, during one of his visits to Brussels, Orbán had a meeting with Anders Fogh Rasmussen, secretary-general of NATO, during which he commented favorably on the new Ukrainian government (Yanukovych became president of Ukraine on February 25, 2010), which he considered to be a “reliable” partner.

Since 2010 Ukrainian-Hungarian relations have been friendly. In fact, behind the scenes they were quite close. Here I will give just one example of how close: the story of Oleksandr Shepelev, former member of the Ukrainian parliament. Shepelev belonged to Yulia Tymoshenko’s party from 2006 until December 2012. The Ukrainian government charged him with three contract killings and one attempted murder. In addition, he was alleged to have embezzled one billion dollars of government funds which, they contended, he pumped into Rodovid, an ailing bank with which he was associated. He fled Ukraine, fearing for his safety. The Ukrainian government went to Interpol asking for his arrest. He and his family were found in Budapest in July 2013 where he was seeking political asylum. The Ukrainian online newspaper Kyiv Post triumphantly announced on September 30 that “the Hungarian authorities have denied refugee status to former Ukrainian member of parliament Oleksandr Shepelev, a diplomatic source told Interfax-Ukraine.” The Hungarian judicial system ordered the Shepelev couple to be incarcerated until the immigration authorities decided their fate. Half a year went by and there was still no decision about the Shepelevs.

According to Indexthe Hungarian government that was asked to extradite the Shepelevs to Ukraine was quite eager to oblige. Vitali Zakharchenko, the just recently dismissed minister of interior, came to Budapest several times to confer with his Hungarian colleague, Sándor Pintér, about the fate of Shepelev. Viktor Pshonka, the prosecutor-general of Ukraine whose garish house we admired online, who since was also dismissed by the Ukrainian parliament and is currently in hiding, also paid a visit to Budapest to confer with Hungary’s own chief prosecutor, Péter Polt. In fact, the Hungarian government was certain that Shepelev would be in Kiev soon enough, and they leaked the impending extradition to reporters. The Hungarian courts, however, intervened. In a December 9 hearing the judge ruled that the reasons given by the immigration office for a denial of political asylum were insufficient. Shepelev, who might have been thrown into jail for life in Ukraine, was temporarily saved by the Hungarian judiciary despite the best efforts of the Orbán government.

The immigration office had to make a decision by January 6 but nothing happened. At this point Galina Shepeleva threatened the prison authorities with a hunger strike. Shepelev’s lawyer, after looking at the documents submitted by the immigration office, came to the conclusion that the office was following the explicit orders of the Hungarian government. In brief, Viktor Orbán was effectively assisting Yanukovych’s thoroughly corrupt government go after a political opponent, possibly on trumped-up charges.

As long as Vladimir Putin and Viktor Yanukovych were both in power Viktor Orbán’s situation was easy. He could have excellent relations with both. But now Yanukovych, who according to Orbán brought “stability to Ukraine,” is gone and Putin has sent troops to the Crimea. Orbán, as prime minister of a country that is a member state of the European Union, is supposed to follow the lead of the European Union. The prime ministers or presidents of most European countries, including Hungary’s neighbors, have openly condemned the Russian military action. Viktor Orbán is silent.

The Russian military move is clearly illegal. The reference point is the so-called Budapest Memorandum of 1994 signed by Bill Clinton, John Major, Boris Yeltsin, and Leonid Kuchma, who was then the president of Ukraine. The complete text of the Budapest Memorandum is available on the Internet. The parties agreed, among other things, “to refrain from economic coercion designed to subordinate to their own interest the exercise by Ukraine of the rights inherent in its sovereignty and thus to secure advantages of kind.” In this light, Putin’s economic pressure on Ukraine was already a violation of the agreement. Point 2 of the agreement states that “the United States of America, the Russian Federation, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, reaffirm their obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine.”

The ineffectual János Martonyi did go to Ukraine with the Czech and Slovak foreign ministers. Poland sent only an undersecretary. They went to Kiev and the Donetsk region where they held most likely absolutely useless talks with Ukrainian leaders. Martonyi subsequently visited the Subcarpathian region where he conferred with leaders of the Hungarians living there who hold conflicting political opinions. Ever since Orbán won the election in 2010 the Hungarian government has given financial help to one faction while it has ignored the other. It looks as if the main difference between the two groups is their attitude toward the Yanukovych government. The Yanukovych government, most likely as a sign of its appreciation for Viktor Orbán’s support, lifted some of the discriminatory pieces of legislation previously enacted. That made some of the Hungarians supporters of the Yanukovych regime. Others sided with the supporters of the European Union. Throughout his visit to the region Martonyi kept emphasizing the need for unity. However, under the present circumstances I’m not at all sure what this means. Supporting whom? The parliament in Kiev rather foolishly abrogated the language law enacted in 2012 but thanks to the intervention of the acting president it is still in force. Therefore it is also difficult to figure out what Martonyi’s silly motto, “Don’t hurt the Hungarians,” which he repeated on this occasion, means in this particular case.

For a good laugh, which we all need today, here is what the sophisticated deputy prime minister, Zsolt Semjén, said about the Ukrainian crisis last night in an interview on HírTV. “It is a good thing to have something between us and Russia.” Let’s hope that this statement, however primitive, means that Hungary stands behind the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

Difficult passage: Orbán’s ferrying between Moscow and Brussels

Endre Ady (1877-1919), one of Hungary’s greatest poets, also wrote an enormous number of political essays during his lifetime. After all, he made his living as a journalist. He was a sharp-eyed observer of Hungarian politics from an angle conservative Hungary considered to be radical. His criticism of his country, which he loved dearly but also feared for, could be harsh and often prophetic.

Some of his descriptions of Hungary at the turn of the nineteenth century are applicable even today. One of these is the famous label he stuck on Hungary: “a ferryboat country.” Like a ferry, the country keeps crossing the river back and forth. With every crossing it ends up not on the side of progress  and democracy but its opposite, stultifying reaction and with it tyranny. It cannot decide whether it belongs to the East or to the West.

Today Hungary has a prime minister for whom this disturbing aspect of Hungarian reality that Ady wrote about causes no sleepless nights. On the contrary, he considers it a plus that will allow his country to become a negotiator of sorts between East and West. He is convinced that Hungary will reap enormous benefits from his ferrying between the two worlds.

It seems, however, that Viktor Orbán’s ferry is drifting farther and farther toward destinations like Putin’s Russia, Lukashenko’s Belarus, and Yanukovych’s Ukraine.

Observers often comment on Viktor Orbán’s incredible luck. In the past four years political and economic analysts predicted that Hungary’s unorthodox policies would bring certain collapse, and yet he managed to keep his head above water. People admire his skill in playing a double game with the European Union. One day, people predict, the European Union will have had enough of him. And yet, even though he compares Brussels to the Moscow of the Soviet Union, money continues to pour in from Brussels.

Occasionally, however, things can go wrong. Only a couple of months ago he decided to strike a deal with Vladimir Putin that put Hungary solidly in Russia’s economic sphere. Moreover, the enormous loan that Putin made available to enlarge the nuclear power plant in Paks can be used by Putin as leverage against Hungary if need be. According to people close to Orbán, Putin made a good impression on him. Yet Putin is a foxy fellow who is most likely using Hungary to move Russian money and power into the European Union. As one Orbán critic put it, the ferry set anchor in Putin’s harbor.

Yes, Orbán has been lucky so far, but this Ukrainian revolution came at the very wrong time for him. There are serious questions at home over the wisdom of such a long-term commitment with Putin’s Russia. It is dangerous to get too friendly with Putin, whose Russia is increasingly harking back to Soviet times. People ask how ferocious anti-communists like Orbán and László Kövér, president of the Hungarian parliament, can get so chummy with a former KGB agent. Fear of Putin’s intentions in Hungary is real. Perhaps this is the most serious complaint in Hungary when it comes to the Putin-Orbán agreement.

And now comes the upheaval in Kiev. Yanukovych hitched his wagon to the Russian troika for a few billion dollars. Ukraine received just a little more money than what Putin promised to Orbán. But there was a price: giving up the idea of Ukraine ever belonging to the European Union. A lot of Ukrainians, however, didn’t want to be part of the Eurasian Economic Union Putin has been dreaming of for some time. He himself stated in November 2011 at a conference organized by his United Russia party that this Eurasian Union would be built upon “the best values of the Soviet Union.” During the same conference a Russian political scientist said that not just former Soviet states but also countries which “have been historically or culturally close to the former Soviet Union” would belong to this union. Hungary was one of them.  As for Ukraine, Russians always looked upon this territory as their very own. After all, Kiev was where Russia was born in the late ninth century. The former Czech president Václav Klaus, calling himself a realist, announced just today that Ukraine is an integral part of Russia; this is where it belongs. Those hot heads in Kiev shouldn’t be encouraged by the politicians of the European Union that it should be otherwise.

Viktor Yanukovych and Viktor Orbán in March 2012 during a short visit to Kiev

Viktor Yanukovych and Viktor Orbán in March 2012 during a short visit to Kiev

So, here is Viktor Orbán’s predicament. As the prime minister of one of Ukraine’s neighboring countries, he should take an active part in the negotiations initiated by his friend Donald Tusk, prime minister of Poland. The Polish foreign minister, Radosław Sikorski, has been instrumental in brokering an agreement between President Yanukovych and the opposition which at least for the time being has resulted in a restoration of the 2004 constitution and the promise of early elections. If the truce holds, it looks as if Putin’s attempt at gaining a foothold in Ukraine will have failed.

But Orbán doesn’t want to offend Putin and therefore he is keeping a low profile. Although leading politicians all over Europe have condemned Yanukovych’s bloody efforts to suppress the revolt, Orbán remains quiet. As he said today in his regular Friday morning radio address, “We are watching the events from the background.” In fact, they are remaining so far in the background that Foreign Minister János Martonyi suddenly became too ill to attend the extraordinary meeting of foreign ministers in Brussels. Hungary was represented by Undersecretary Zsolt Németh.

Well, I’m not quite correct in saying that Orbán did nothing in connection with the Ukrainian crisis. He hopped on a helicopter and visited the Hungarian-Ukrainian border at Záhony. And he made sure that his activities were videoed. As usual, he kept a few pieces of paper in front of him which he studied intently for a few seconds. He looked at the snow-covered Ukrainian terrain where he spotted a couple of deer. Then he rushed to a hospital where he was told that there are plenty of doctors and beds to take care of the wounded. And finally he gave a little pep talk to the border guards for doing their best. I might add that there is nothing in Zaparttia Oblast that would warrant his presence there. But his staff immediately placed the video on Facebook. One blogger described him as “a man who is trying to reap political benefit from the corpse of his neighbor.”

Meanwhile the servile state media feel that they have to take a pro-Russian stance. For example, the centrally edited news called the demonstrators in Kiev terrorists. When called to explain this report, it turned out that one of their sources was the “Russia Today” television station and the other a Russian daily newspaper’s online edition. Gordon Bajnai’s reaction upon hearing the story was disbelief until he himself listened to the broadcast. He bitterly remarked that if the Orbán government keeps going in the same direction as in the last four years “Hungary might become the most western successor state of the Soviet Union.” He added that this is one good reason to vote against Orbán and his party on April 6.