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. 


Too Close for Comfort

On February 28, 2014, Hungarian journalist Ferenc Szaniszló declared during his foreign-affairs program Világ-Panoráma [World-Panorama] on the pro-government television station Echo TV that Hungary must be prepared to reincorporate the Hungarian-inhabited regions of Subcarpathian Ukraine into the Hungarian state in the event that Ukraine collapses (see video in Hungarian and Orange Files transcription in English below): 

I welcome our kind viewers from Paso Robles, California to Stavanger, Norway, from Rochester in the state of New York to Moscow. Whether it wants to or not, Hungary must prepare to take back Subcarpathian Ukraine, at least its majority Hungarian-inhabited parts located alongside the Trianon border. In the event that Ukraine falls apart, we cannot pretend that we have nothing to do with the Verecke Pass, Munkács (Munkacheve) or the Carpathians. The new political powers in Ukraine are limiting use of the Polish, Russian and Hungarian languages once again. And it doesn’t really console us that the European Union also supports the genocidal, Hungarian-killing Beneš decrees. The Russian, Polish and Hungarian inhabitants of Ukraine cannot satisfy themselves with the fact that the European Union is supporting the Nazis and financing the fascists. It is the deeply held desire of Brussels that the new Ukraine be nationalist against the Russians, the Poles and the Hungarians, though internationalist toward the repositories of surreptitious global financial power—the EU, NATO and the IMF. And all of this from our money, because Hungary is also an accomplice to the EU, NATO and the IMF.

Revision of the territorial changes stemming from the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, according to which Hungary lost two-thirds of its Austro-Hungarian Monarchy-era territory to the newly created or expanded states of Czechoslovakia, Romania, Yugoslavia and Austria, has been one of the greatest political taboos throughout the region of east-central Europe since the end of the Second World War. The only voices that have openly advocated the reincorporation into Hungary of Hungarian-inhabited territory in surrounding countries have been those of the radical-nationalist Hungarian fringe arising from extra-parliamentary political organizations such as the 64 Counties Youth Movement (Hatvannégy Vármegye Ifjúsági Mozgalom) and extremist websites such as Kuruc.info.

Echo TV owner Gábor Széles (center) at the head of a pro-government Peace March processions in Budapest.

Echo TV owner Gábor Széles (center) at the head of a pro-government Peace March processions in Budapest.

Ferenc Szaniszló, though notorious for his outlandish conspiracy theories and racist innuendo, is nevertheless much closer to the Hungarian political mainstream than others who have made similarly explicit irredentist statements. Echo TV, though only the 40th most-watched television station in Hungary, is the most popular pro-government news station ahead of the more moderate Hír TV [News TV] (source in Hungarian). The owner of the Echo TV channel that broadcasts Szaniszló’s twice weekly program is staunchly pro-Orbán media tycoon Gábor Széles, who has been one of the main organizers of the massive pro-government Peace March processions that have taken place in Budapest about every six months since 2012.

Minister of Human Resources Zoltán Balog (left) presenting journalist Ferenc Szaniszló with a Mihály Táncsics Prize on March 14, 2013.

Minister of Human Resources Zoltán Balog (left) presenting journalist Ferenc Szaniszló with a Mihály Táncsics Prize on March 14, 2013.

On March 14, 2013, Orbán government Minister of Human Resources Zoltán Balog presented Szaniszló with a state-sponsored Mihály Táncsics Prize in recognition of outstanding achievement in the field of journalism. However, after several days of sharp protest from the socialist and liberal opposition and the US and Israeli ambassadors to Hungary, Balog requested on March 19 that Szaniszló return the prize, claiming that he had been unaware of the highly publicized incendiary statements the journalist had made during his program over previous years, including an anti-Gypsy diatribe in February 2011 for which the National Media and Infocommunications Authority fined Echo TV 500,000 forints (1,800 euros) for violating regulations prohibiting incitement to hatred (source in Hungarian).

Szaniszló complied with the minister’s request, asserting during his following television program “Israel has triumphed over Ferenc Szaniszló” (source in Hungarian).

Although Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and the members of his administration have been very careful to avoid making statements that can be construed as irredentist and have never given any indication that they, themselves, maintain anti-Gypsy or -Semitic attitudes, Ferenc Szaniszló’s open reference to the possibility of territorial revision on February 28 and previous racist commentary during his television program on the pro-government television station Echo TV provide evidence of the direct connections that exist between the Orbán government and the exponents of radical Hungarian nationalism.


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.”


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.


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).


From Russia with Love

On February 20, the bloodiest day of clashes between anti-government Euromaidan protestors and police in Kiev, Ukraine, Hungary’s state-run Kossuth Radio broadcast the following report in Hungarian about the demonstrations during the station’s 2:00 p.m. news (source in Hungarian at 14:00): 






The following is an Orange Files translation of broadcast:

Passions have not calmed in Kiev. Snipers are shooting members of law-enforcement services from the roof of a hotel. The Ukrainian interior ministry is recommending that people do not go out onto the streets, because there are armed individuals there. Law-enforcement organizations have begun the process of locating and neutralizing the terrorists. According to the former deputy president of the Ukrainian secret service, anti-terrorism investigation applies to all Ukrainian citizens and only serves to further aggravate the situation that has developed in the country. According to the former representative, the anti-terrorism operation is essentially tantamount to the introduction of martial law. In Kiev the Metro is still not running—its entries have been blocked with big metal bars. Banks, shops and cafés are closed. Meanwhile Kiev Mayor Volodymyr Makienko announced that he is withdrawing from the governing party in protest against the bloodbath and fratricidal war taking place in the Ukrainian capital. Representatives from the governing party and the opposition as well as demonstration leaders have initiated the urgent convocation of parliament in order to resolve the grave domestic crisis. Representatives from the governing party have summoned opponents to discontinue violence and begin peace talks with German, Polish, Russian and American mediation.

Pro-European Union demonstrator in Kiev.

Pro-European Union demonstrator in Kiev.

Kossuth Radio aired this report as media throughout the rest of Europe focused the Ukrainian police’s use of live ammunition in an attempt to quell the increasingly violent anti-government demonstrations in Kiev, killing and wounding a large number of unarmed protestors in the process. The Kossuth Radio report does not cite the number of civilian casualties, at this time estimated to be around 60 dead and several hundred wounded over the previous 36 hours, referring to the Euromaidan demonstrators in a sentence without an identified source as “terrorists” whom law-enforcement authorities were “locating and neutralizing.” Nor does it mention any of the demands of demonstration leaders, notably the resignation of subsequently ousted president Viktor Yanukovych.

Kossuth Radio issued the following statement in response to criticism of the report (source in Hungarian):

The public media is reporting continually on the Ukrainian crisis. We use as sources for news both the opinions of the opposition and statements from the governing party as well as accounts from our reporters on location and from major world news-agencies. The report broadcast on Kossuth Radio’s 2:00 p.m. news on Thursday was likewise based on several various sources, including information from the Russia Today television station and the internet edition of a Russian daily newspaper. We are continually stating other opinions as well in the course of the radio’s news programs. News editors cannot express criticism of the reports arriving from various sources. Kossuth Radio has been subjected to several attacks as a result of the news it aired on a single occasion on Thursday. We draw the attention of those who have voiced criticism to the fact that they have seized upon a single report within an entire day’s programming, which included the broadcast of news reflecting numerous other points of view, though they do not mention these.

Orbán and Putin shake on the Paks deal.

Orbán and Putin meet in Moscow in January 2014.

The Kossuth Radio statement reveals that the station based its 2:00 p.m. news report on the anti-government demonstrations in Ukraine on Russian sources, including the overtly anti-Euromaidan news station RT (formerly known as Russia Today), though the original report did not cite these sources. The statement contends that Kossuth Radio presented news of the demonstrations from other perspectives in the course of other broadcasts during the day. This contention, even if true, does not negate the fact that Kossuth Radio’s report on the protests during their deadly culmination on the afternoon of February 20 was much closer to that of pro-Yanukovych sources from Russia than it was to pro-opposition European sources such as those from the United Kingdom and France.  

There are two reason that government-controlled Kossuth Radio broadcast this report essentially reflecting the official Russian stance toward the anti-government demonstrations in Kiev: first, the Orbán government wants to remain in favor with the Putin administration now that Hungary has signed an interstate agreement with Russia for a 10-billion-euro loan to build two new reactors at the Paks Nuclear Power Plant (see Deal of the Century); and second, there exists an obvious and forboding parallel between the pro-Russian Yanukovych government and pro-European Union demonstrators in Ukraine and the eastward-oriented Orbán government and the westward-oriented democratic opposition in Hungary.