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.

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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.

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Vlad Beyond Reproach

Russian soldier on patrol at Simferopol International Airport in Crimea.

Russian soldier on patrol at Simferopol International Airport in Crimea.

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has been one of the few political leaders of European Union member states who did not explicitly condemn Russia’s military intervention in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea in Ukraine beginning on February 27, 2014. Prime Minister Orbán, in fact, said nothing at all about the intervention for a full week after it began. The following are Orange Files translations of the prime minister’s initial, cursory comment about the Russian military  intervention in Ukraine on March 3 and more detailed comment regarding the incursion on March 4. Note that more than 150,000 Hungarians live in western Ukraine, a region that is known in Hungarian as Subcarpathian Ukraine (Kárpátalja). 

 On March 3 Prime Minister Orbán said (source in Hungarian): 

Hungary is not part of this conflict. Hungarians are secure. In Hungary and in Subcarpathian Ukraine as well. And the Hungarian government is working to ensure that they remain secure. Moreover, our foreign minister is currently in Brussels. Hungary is part of the common European efforts aimed at achieving peace, security and respect for international law. We are working toward these objectives within the context of united European crisis-management.

On March 4 Prime Minister Orbán said (source in Hungarian):

For us the most important thing in this whole conflict is the security of Hungarians. This includes both Hungarians living in Hungary and Hungarians living in Subcarpathian Ukraine. This is the perspective from which we examine the events. And that is why we sent the foreign minister to Subcarpathian Ukraine—so that he could make it clear to the Hungarians who live there that the Hungarians living in Subcarpathian Ukraine can count on us. The second Hungarian interest according to which we are gauging our steps pertains to Ukraine itself. It is in the Hungarian interest that Ukraine be a democratic state. Thus we want a democratic Ukraine, a Ukraine in which Ukrainian citizens can feel secure and at home, including citizens who belong to minorities, thus the Hungarians as well. This is why Hungary cannot accept the annulment of the language law. We consider this to be an illegitimate decision and we insist that the rights due to Hungarians are not impaired as a result of the changes in Ukraine. With regard to a resolution of the situation, the Hungarian  viewpoint is a negotiated settlement. There is an obvious situation: Russia borders Ukraine from the east and the European Union from the west. From this it follows that Russia and the European Union must negotiate. We believe that negotiation is the only alternative to war. Therefore we want negotiation and not armed conflict—peace and not blood. In order to achieve this it is necessary that the two sides, the European Union and Russia, hold talks. Moreover, I am going to support the position in Brussels that the European Union must make an immediate response to Russian military movements. This response cannot be of military nature. The response must be decisive, immediate and of an integrative nature. . . . 

The fundamental messages contained in Prime Minister Orbán’s delayed responses to the Russian military intervention in Ukraine were, in order of their pronouncement: “Hungary is not part of the conflict”; “the most important thing in this whole conflict is the security of Hungarians . . . both Hungarians living in Hungary and Hungarians living in Subcarpathian Ukraine”; “Hungary cannot accept the annulment of the language law”; “Russia and the European Union must negotiate”; and finally “I am going to support the position in Brussels that the European Union must make an immediate response to Russian military movements.”

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Prime Minister Donald Tusk of Poland.

Prime Minister Donald Tusk of Poland.

The leaders of other EU member states located in eastern Europe made the following initial statements regarding  Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine. Note that in 1994 the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia and Ukraine signed a diplomatic memorandum in Budapest in which Ukraine agreed to transfer all Soviet-era nuclear weapons located on its territory to Russia in exchange for the guarantee of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Prime Minister Donald Tusk of Poland said on February 27 (source in English): 

We need international pressure on those who would like to break the principle of non-interference and respect for territorial integrity of Ukraine . . . It is clear that our expectations are becoming reality, namely that Crimea and Ukraine’s territorial integrity are becoming crucial issues . . . Russia’s approach to this key challenge of preserving Ukraine’s integrity will be the test of Russia’s true intentions towards Ukraine’s future.

Prime Minister Tusk said on March 2 (source in English): 

Ukrainians have to find out today that they have real friends . . . Europe must send a clear signal that it will not tolerate any acts of aggression or intervention. . . . Therefore I will call on my European partners to exert pressure to  preserve peace on Russia, not on Ukraine. It is Russia that seems interested in an unstable situation in that part of the world.

Prime Minister Tusk also said on March 2 (source in English): 

We should be able to stop Russia in its aggressive moves precisely in order to avoid a conflict. . . . History showsalthough I don’t want to use too many historical comparisons—that those who appease all the time in order to preserve peace usually only buy a little bit of time.

President Miloš Zeman of Czech Republic said on March 1 (source in English): 

Although I fully understand the interests of the majority Russian-speaking population in the Crimea that was incorporated into Ukraine by an absurd decision made by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954, we have our experiences with the 1968 military intervention . . . I believe that any military intervention creates a deep ditch that cannot be filled during a generation.

Prime Minister Robert Fico of Slovakia said on March 1 (source in English): 

We call on all sides for maximum restraint, and for a political and diplomatic solution to the crisis.

President Traian Băsescu of Romania said on February 28 (source in English): 

As Romania has repeatedly said, Ukraine’s statehood, sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity are values in keeping with the public international law that must be observed by all states which recognized Ukraine’s independence in 1991, the more so the signatories of the 1994 agreement in Budapest.

President Băsescu said on March 2 (source in English): 

Romania considers that any presence of the Russian Federation’s troops on Ukraine’s territory, without its consent and violating the existing bilateral agreements and subsequent notifications, is an aggression against Ukraine. At this moment, we consider that Ukraine is being assaulted by the military forces of the Russian Federation. Romania considers that the signatory states to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum have the obligation to immediately start negotiations to restore international legality, including the Russian Federation ceasing any moves on Ukraine’s territory. This agreement between the U.S., Great Britain and the Russian Federation represents, in our view, alongside the relevant international legislation, the guarantee for Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty.

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Orbán and Putin seal the Paks Nuclear Power Plant deal at the Russian president's residence near Moscow on January 14, 2014.

Orbán and Putin seal the Paks Nuclear Power Plant deal at the Russian president’s residence near Moscow.

The responses of these eastern European heads of state and government to Russia’s military intervention in Crimea are founded to a significant degree upon both common and specific historical experience and current geo-political and strategic considerations that place them in fundamental opposition to Russian expansionism in Europe: all five countries—Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania—are member states of an alliance, the European Union, that has come into growing friction with an increasingly assertive Russia; the Soviet Union occupied the eastern parts of Poland and Romania (Bessarabia) at the beginning of the Second World War pursuant to the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact; the Soviet Union occupied all five countries for decades following the Second World War and imposed the communist political-system upon them; the Soviet Union furthermore invaded Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia (the Czech Republic and Slovakia) in 1968 to suppress anti-Stalinist revolutions in those countries; and there is growing tension between Romania and Russia with regard to political influence over the Republic of Moldavia, the population of which is 70-percent Romanian-speaking and 10-percent Russian-speaking.  

The above factors compelled Donald Tusk of Poland and Traian Băsescu of Romania to vociferously condemn the Russian military intervention in Ukraine and Miloš Zeman of the traditionally more Russophile Czech Republic to issue a qualified condemnation of the incursion. Aside from Prime Minister Orbán, only manifestly pro-Russian Prime Minister Robert Fico of Slovakia did not express disapproval of Russia’s intervention in Crimea.
Prime Minister Orbán’s failure to condemn Russia’s military incursion in Ukraine is based on three factors that have superseded his formerly outspoken opposition to Russian expansionism: rejection of the new Ukrainian government’s annulment of the 2012 language law authorizing the use of minority languages, including Hungarian, in schools, courts and other government institutions in Ukraine; aversion toward the liberal democracy and free-market capitalism of the European Union and sympathy toward the authoritarianism and centrally guided capitalism of Vladimir Putin’s Russia; and the condition of economic and political subservience that Hungary assumed toward Russia when the Orbán government concluded an interstate agreement in January 2014 to have Russian state-owned nuclear-energy company Rosatom build two new reactors at the Paks Nuclear Power Plant with a 10-billion-euro loan from the state of Russia (see Deal of the Century).

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