Teutonic Shift

Seehofer and Orbán: pointing the way.

Seehofer and Orbán: pointing the way (Photo: Die Welt).

On November 6, 2014 Prime Minister Viktor Orbán made a seemingly routine trip to Munich to visit Minister-President Horst Seehofer of Bavaria. The stated purpose of the meeting between Orbán and Seehofer was to discuss issues related to the Hungarian state’s purchase of MKB Bank from the Bayerische Landesbank (Bavarian State Bank) earlier in the fall (source in Hungarian).

However, the official visit that Prime Minister Orbán made to Bavaria at the beginning of November in fact represented a major shift away from rapprochement with Russia as part of his administration’s Eastern Opening policy in favor of mending relations with the West via Germany. Though little noticed at the time, Orbán provided the first indication of this reorientation of his foreign policy during a joint interview with Minister-President Seehofer published in the November 9 issue of the Berlin-based conservative daily newspaper Die Welt. During the interview, Prime Minister Orbán said (source A in German and B in Hungarian):

We find ourselves in a very difficult situation. The Russians have made it clear that they want to establish a buffer zone between them and NATO and are willing to violate international law in the interest of doing this. . . Our point of reference in this crisis can only be international law. We cannot accept violation of this. It is moreover in the Hungarian interest that there always be something between us and Russia. Therefore we have a great interest in a stable and independent Ukraine. When I was young there was a Hungarian-Soviet border. This must not repeat itself.

Following the new leader (photo: AFP)

Following the new leader (photo: AFP).

On November 12, the online edition of the opposition weekly HVG reported that “a high-ranking Fidesz political official who plays an important role in the conduct of international relations” told the website that sources close to Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany had informed the Orbán government through informal channels that within the “current international environment” they consider its “maverick” (különutas) policy to be unacceptable. “We received strong signals regarding what Germany expected of us,” the unnamed Fidesz official told hvg.hu, adding that Prime Minister Orbán had thus decided to make the necessary changes to his administration’s foreign policy (source in Hungarian).

The “current international situation” cited in the hvg.hu report obviously referred to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine and the “maverick” foreign policy of the Orbán government to its failure to condemn Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014 (see Vlad Beyond Reproach) and reluctance to support European Union sanctions intended to punish Russia for the unilateral takeover (see Notable Quotes: Prime Minister Viktor Orbán under heading “European Union Economic Sanctions against Russia” and National Economy Minister Mihály Varga under “Notable Quotes”).

Over the 12 days following the hvg.hu report, both Orbán and Minister of External Economy and Foreign Affairs Péter Szijjártó reinforced the explicit and implicit support for Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty that the prime minister initially articulated in his November 9 interview with Die Welt. Moreover, Orbán and Szijjártó made associated statements intended to affirm Hungary’s loyalty to the European Union in specific and the West in general. The following is a summary of these pronouncements:

November 12: Minister of External Economy and Foreign Affairs Szijjártó said during a joint press-conference with Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany in Berlin that Hungary is committed to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Szijjártó added that “Hungary will always be loyal toward common European decisions (source in Hungarian).

November 14: Szijjártó stated during an interview with the Financial Times that “Central Europeans know what it means to have a neighbor like the Soviet Union and we never want to experience that again.” With regard to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, the Orbán government’s minister of external economy and foreign affairs said “The big and strong countries need to put the proposals on the table; they can count on our support for all solutions which bring the conflict to a swift conclusion” (source in English).

November 17: Szijjártó said with regard to EU sanctions against Russia during a visit to Brussels to attend a meeting of European Union foreign ministers that “Hungary supports expansion of the group of individuals subjected to European Union visa bans and if the occasion arises the imposition of further asset freezes” (source in Hungarian).

November 20: Prime Minister Orbán declared at a session of the Hungarian Permanent Conference [Magyar Állandó Értekezlet] in Budapest that “It is in the Hungarian interest, not the American or European, that there be something between Hungary and Russia, and this is Ukraine. A sovereign, democratic Ukraine, where a 200,000-strong Hungarian community lives” (source in Hungarian).

November 21: during a speech at the The Foundation for Family Businesses in Germany and Europe conference in Baden-Baden, Germany, Orbán remarked that “We had a common border with the Soviet Union. It was a big adventure, though it was enough.” The prime minister said that his administration supports Ukrainian sovereignty because “. . . we also believe that there must be something between Russia and Hungary” (source in Hungarian).

November 24: Orbán said in an interview with the German business daily Handelsblatt that “Chinese are necessary for the Chinese model and Russians for the Russian [model]. In Hungary and in Europe these solutions are unusable.” Orbán repeated during the interview that “It is in our interest to have something between Hungary and Russia—and that is a sovereign Ukraine . . . We had a common border with the Soviet Union and it lasted a long time until we were able to get rid of it. We do not want to have this again” (source A in German and B in Hungarian).

The abrupt turnabout of Prime Minister Orbán away from Russia and toward Germany represents the most dramatic policy change he has made in the four and a half years since returning to power in May 2010. This volte-face must be viewed within the context of Orbán’s loss of support among both Western allies (following his highly publicized crackdown on Norwegian Civil Support Fund-financed NGOs in Hungary beginning this spring and proclamation of the illiberal Hungarian state this summer) as well as among domestic advocates (following his announcement of the subsequently withdrawn Internet tax and the emergence of several high-profile instances of corruption, cronyism and apparent politics-for-profit within his administration this fall). In short: Prime Minister Orbán could not afford to further alienate his formal allies abroad as support for his “two-thirds revolution” weakens at home. The prime minister is specifically seeking to obtain political support from Germany, which has long been Hungary’s most significant foreign-trade partner and is currently governed by the two foreign parties with which Fidesz has maintained its closest ties—Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and the affiliated Christian Social Union in Bavaria. However, Orbán, whose political retreats have never been more than tactical, is almost certain to shift Hungary’s external orientation back toward Russia and the East if he regains his domestic political footing.