Birds of a Feather

President Vladimir Putin of Russia and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary during a joint press conference in Budapest on February 17, 2015 (photo: Hungarian News Agency).

President Putin and Prime Minister Orbán at a joint press conference in Budapest on February 17, 2015 (photo: Hungarian News Agency).

On February 17, 2015, President Vladimir Putin of Russia made an eight-hour official visit to Budapest. There hadn’t been so much portentous excitement among Hungarians surrounding the arrival of a foreign statesman to their country in a long time, perhaps even since the System Change. Not because Putin had any important business to do in Hungary, but merely because he is Putin―the larger-than-life and all-powerful leader of the newly revitalized and assertive Russia. 

President Putin initiated the visit to Hungary as a means of breaking his foreign isolation and showing the West that he was a welcome guest in the capital of a NATO and European Union member state (source in Hungarian).

Both the Hungarian and Western media reported that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, now trying to mend relations with Hungary’s NATO and EU allies, attempted to downplay Putin’s visit, which under the circumstances he found somewhat cumbersome and embarrassing (see New York Times article on the event). 

While this may be true, Orbán projected no discomfort as he and Putin held a joint press conference, dressed in nearly identical dark-blue suits, white shirts and burgundy ties, following their longer-than-expected two-hour talks. As expected, the press conference produced nothing of real importance―five minor agreements, perfunctory calls for peace in Ukraine, talk of a Russian-Turkish pipeline project in place of the discarded South Stream (source in Hungarian). 

In fact, the visit of the Russian president to Hungary, rather than a source of embarrassment for Prime Minister Orbán, provided him above all with the opportunity to show Western leaders something as well: that despite his efforts to improve relations with them, he has retained the independence of action necessary to host Putin, anathema in the West since his occupation of Crimea and proxy war against Ukraine, and to conduct an autonomous foreign policy in which national self-interest supersedes loyalty toward NATO and the European Union.

And one thing that is certain: if Orbán is ever forced to abandon his “shuttlecock policy” (called hintapolitika―“swing policy”―in Hungarian) and choose between the West and Putin, he is much more likely to go with the latter, whose illiberal, authoritarian political outlook he shares.

On the day of President Putin’s visit to Budapest, journalist Zsolt Bayer published an editorial in the pro-government newspaper Magyar Hírlap entitled “Letter to Vladimir Putin.” Bayer is one of the 37 founding members of Fidesz and many consider him to represent the true voice of the party and the current prime minister, the outspoken and often politically incorrect articulator of  “things he would like to say, but can’t” (see In Defense of Illiberal Democracy).

Below in an Orange Files translation of an excerpt from Bayer’s February 17 editorial (source in Hungarian):

[. . .]

Honored Mr President!

I travelled to those parts in 2005 and I wrote these lines as the introduction to a film and a book [referring to a brief account of a trip to Siberia]. And I did not think that I would once be so bold as to wait for your arrival.

Now I await it.

Because now you are right.

This is the first and most important thing that we must say.

You are right in almost everything. Most of all in that you did not let Russia perish.

[. . .]

And be assured that we are also right. And also be aware that those who now rant against you and Russia here got along splendidly with the Soviet Union and approved of it when the Soviet Union trampled on us in ’56.

This is how they lived for forty years. And they hated me precisely as much then, when I hated the Soviet Union, as they hate me now because I love Russia and think you are right.

It is for this reason that they do not count at all, Mr. President.

They refer to Europe, they scream Europe now when there is no Europe. When there still was a Europe and I, we, longed for Europe, then they hailed the Soviet Union.

We are in phase-delay here, in the middle, compared to one another as well, and with regard to everything else too.

Today Europe wants to be America, Mr. President. And this fate was intended for you as well. If your predecessor had remained, the hapless and weak-willed Yeltsin, then the foreign agents such as Khodorkovsky would have remained too and there would be no more Russia. Then there would be an immense colony, crippled in consumption, that contains Russia in its tracks. And maybe there would be flights between Kamchatka and Alaska every half hour, Mr. President.

And just as the Americans bought Alaska from the czar, they would have bought all of Russia since then, but just for less.

However, it would be said that you are a perfect democracy, a free country of the highest order. Because you know, Mr. President, the face of freedom has become so strange these days.

You did not let Russia perish. You made it strong. You liked it Russian and kept it that way. You could have done nothing more or greater than this.

One should naturally be cautious when attributing the words of one to the sentiments of others. However, aside from its characteristic obsequiousness, Bayer’s “Letter to Vladimir Putin”―which not incidentally makes frequent use of the personal pronoun “we”―may legitimately be considered an accurate reflection of the viewpoints of Prime Minister Orbán, Jobbik President Gábor Vona and most Fidesz, Christian Democratic People’s Party and Jobbik voters regarding Putin, Russia and the United States.

Last updated: February 19, 2015.