Yesterday around noon Moscow time the Kremlin published a short announcement regarding a telephone conversation that had taken place earlier that day. It was brief and to the point: Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orbán “discussed current issues on the bilateral agenda, in particular the implementation of agreements reached during the visit to Budapest by the President of Russia on February 2, 2017. The two leaders also stressed the importance of the construction, carried out by Rosatom State Corporation, of two new power units at the Paks Nuclear Power Plant, as well as joint gas projects.” About half an hour later the news of the telephone conversation was also announced in Budapest. It was even briefer than the Russian version. “Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and President Vladimir Putin held a telephone conversation about current questions of Hungarian-Russian bilateral relations.”
Most newspapers and internet sites republished the short MTI announcement without any comment or interpretation. I found only two exceptions. One was 168 Óra, which was certain that it was Viktor Orbán who called the Russian president “only a few hours after he had returned from the NATO summit in Brussels,” implying that perhaps the topic of conversation wasn’t so much Paks, as the Kremlin communiqué claimed. Perhaps Viktor Orbán reported to Putin on his impressions of the NATO summit.
The other was a longer opinion piece by Gábor Stier, Magyar Nemzet’s Russian expert. Stier is a pro-Russian journalist specializing in foreign affairs. As opposed to 168 Óra, he is certain that it was Putin who called Orbán. Stier might be a great friend of Russia, but even he doesn’t believe that the conversation between the two men was about “current bilateral relations.” Putin visited Budapest only a couple of months ago, and about two weeks ago the two men spent some time together in Beijing at the summit of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. Stier also can’t imagine that, now that all the obstacles have been removed to the financing and construction of Paks, the nuclear power plant merited a telephone call.
So, why was such an encounter arranged? Stier believes that the key to the content of the exchange lies in the brief Russian reference to “joint gas projects” which, in Stier’s opinion, is the construction of the “Turkish Stream,” which “would benefit not only Moscow and Budapest but the whole Mediterranean region.” Now that U.S. policy toward Europe is changing and “its relations with Russia may become more pragmatic, there is a chance that Washington will not hinder these plans,” says Stier. In that case, he believes, Berlin will be less antagonistic to the project. Apparently on the same day Putin also phoned Borut Pahor, president of Slovenia, an event that, according to Stier, supports his interpretation of this unexpected telephone conversation between Putin and Orbán. This second telephone conversation, however, was prompted by the twenty-fifth anniversary of diplomatic relations between Russia and an independent Slovenia, which took place on May 25, 1992. I’m therefore less sure than Stier that the phone call had anything to with the pipeline.
Given the paucity of information, all of the above is just conjecture, but the frequency of Putin-Orbán meetings and telephone conversations is striking. So is Orbán’s increasing diplomatic isolation, at least when it comes to Western countries. On the other hand, relations with autocratic countries like Turkey and Azerbaijan are excellent.
Let’s take a look at Turkish-Hungarian relations of late. President Recep Erdoğan was supposed to visit Hungary already in 2016, but the trip had to be postponed because of the Turkish military coup that occurred in July. According to the latest information, the trip might take place soon, to coincide with the opening of the restored “türbe” (tomb) of Gül Baba (d. 1541), a dervish poet and companion of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, which is in the hills of Buda.
There was also at least one telephone conversation between the two men that Orbán initiated. Orbán congratulated the Turkish president on his victory at the polls that made him an autocrat for life. In return, Erdoğan suggested bilateral talks in Beijing at the summit. At that time Erdoğan also invited Orbán to Ankara, which Orbán naturally gladly accepted.
I might also add that while Orbán often justifies his anti-Muslim stance and Hungarians’ unwillingness to have Muslims in their country by reminding the world of the 150-year occupation of the central part of Hungary by the Ottomans, a veritable love affair is going on between the Hungarian and Turkish governments.
Not too many people are aware of the fact that Suleiman the Magnificent (1494-1566) died during the Battle of Szigetvár in Hungary. His body was taken back to Istanbul to be buried, but his heart, liver, and some other organs were buried just outside of Szigetvár. The Battle of Szigetvár is also an important site for Hungarians, who celebrate the heroism of the captain of the fort, Miklós/Nikola Zrínyi/Zrinski, who also died there. In any case, the Turkish government has generously contributed to archaeological work conducted to find the exact location of Suleiman’s burial. For its part, the Hungarian government is planning enormous busts of both Suleiman and Zrínyi. A rather strange way to commemorate the victory of 20,000 invading Ottoman troops over 2,500 Hungarian-Croatian defenders.
Another politician Orbán has warm relations with is Ilham Aliyev, president of Azerbaijan, who visited Budapest in 2014. Two years later Viktor Orbán and his wife paid a visit to Baku, where the two men agreed to repeat their visits to each other’s capitals. This year it is Aliyev’s turn to visit. Mind you, the Hungarian media had to learn from Azeri sources that their president will visit Budapest in October. Aliyev inherited “the throne” from his father in 2003, and he has been president ever since. This spring Aliyev designated his wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, first vice president. She would replace him in the event of his death. In 2016 at Orbán’s suggestion President János Áder bestowed a high state decoration on Aliyeva.
Putin, Erdoğan, Aliev—these are the people Orbán feels comfortable with. And they are are the ones who are willing to visit the Hungarian capital on a somewhat regular basis. A sad commentary on Hungary’s standing in the world of diplomacy.