The Canadian Hungarian Democratic Charter (CHDC) was present at a roundtable discussion hosted by Carleton University’s Centre for European Studies, in Ottawa. The roundtable, held on September 29th, 2014, explored avenues of international cooperation among Visegrád 4 countries. Considering the Orbán government’s overt move away from western-style liberal democracy and nearly constant international controversy, the Charter’s three spokespersons present at the event — namely, Göllner András, Stevan Harnad and Christopher Adam — were interested in engaging the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Deputy State Secretary Szabolcs Takás and the other panelists in a discuss on the problematic developments in one of the Visegrád Group countries. This also served as an opportunity for Mr. Takács to encounter the diversity of opinions within the Hungarian Canadian diaspora which is often incorrectly portrayed as being uniformly supportive of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s illiberal and authoritarian government.
In addition to Mr. Takács, the other panelists included Václáv Bálek, the political director of the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Marcin Bosacki, Poland’s ambassador to Canada, Lubomir Rahek, the political director of Slovak’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Carla Wursterová, executive director of the International Visegrád Fund.
Is Viktor Orbán Putin’s Trojan Horse?
The short presentations given by each speaker were followed by nearly an hour of discussion and questions from the audience, which were heavily dominated by two broad topics: the Ukraine crisis (and what western countries should do to more effectively keep Russia at bay) and the state of the rule of law in Hungary. Stevan Harnad, a professor at UQAM and spokesperson for the Charter, launched the questions. Professor Harnad asked the panelists about Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and then turned to the issue of the Hungarian government’s staunch support for Vladimir Putin, its rejection of economic sanctions, even as other Visegrád countries (most notably Poland) are far more decisive in condemning Moscow’s actions in eastern Ukraine. Dr. Harnad observed that Hungary seems to be out of step with the region and the western international community, vis-a-vis Russia and Ukraine. Last week, Hungary decided to cut off gas supplies to Ukraine, without any warning to Kyiv. Although Hungary is, indeed, geographically close to Russia and in many ways is still dependent on Moscow, as a member of NATO and the European Union, the Hungarian government has clear responsibilities as well to its western partners. Mr. Orbán’s governement seems to admire Mr. Putin’s model of governance and it would appear that the pime minister is trying to tie Hungary to the economies of Eurasian countries, observed Dr. Harnad. The recent, controversial decision to expand the Paks atomic energy plant using Russian funds is just one example of Hungary’s move to the east. “What does it mean for the European Union and for the North Atlantic community, when one of its member states is following a geopolitical strategy that is so very much at odds with the direction of other western countries and when it attempts to build an illiberal state?”–asked Dr. Harnad. “Is Hungary a positive or a negative example for Ukraine, when it comes to the transition to liberal democracy and the rule of law,” Dr. Harnad added.
Dr. András Göllner, professor emeritus at Concordia University and founder/international spokesperson for the Canadian Hungarian Democatic Charter, followed Dr. Harnad with further questions on Hungary. Professor Göllner observed that a piece in the well-respected journal Foreign Affairs recently suggested Mr. Orbán may be Mr. Putin’s trojan horse in Europe. Dr. Göllner added that iconic former leaders of the Visegrád Group, most notably Václav Havel, have voiced deep concerns about the antidemocratic nature of the Orbán government. Two American presidents — Barack Obama and Bill Clinton — have spoken out forcefully about Mr. Orbán’s plans to build an illiberal state in the heart of Europe. “Hungary’s Fidesz government likes to explain away all of this criticism as merely ideological attacks from left-wingers and liberals, but if this is indeed the case, then why is it that other governments in the region, including Poland’s conservative cabinet led by Prime Minister Donald Tusk, do not experience the same stinging critiques?”–asked Dr. Göllner. He added that Mr. Orbán has even been criticized for his antidemocratic practices by the European Peoples’ Party (EPP), of which Fidesz is a member.
Christopher Adam, who teaches history at Carleton University and is a spokesperson for the Charter, closed this series of questions by inquiring about how Hungary’s badly tarnished image abroad hinders it from pursuing an effective foreign policy and maintaining some degree of leverage regionally, within the Visegrád Group.
Mr. Orbán is wildly popular in Hungary and the Fidesz cabinet is the most stable government in all of Europe — answered Mr. Takács.
When answering the Charter’s questions about the demise of Hungarian liberal democracy and Mr. Orbán’s embrace of Putinism, Mr. Takács spoke about the Orbán government as being more “stable” than any other government in the European Union and also about the two-thirds majority that the prime minister continues to enjoy in parliament, following the April 2014 elections. “Our government enjoys remarkable popularity,” observed Mr. Takács, noting that nobody called into question the legitimacy of the most recent national elections.
Mr. Takács declared that replacing Hungary’s historic constitution with the new “Fundamental Law” (which was adopted without any meangingful dialogue with the opposition and civil society) was essential, considering that the earlier constitution (which came about in 1949, but in fact had been nearly entirely revised after 1989/90) was nothing more than “the heritage of communism.” Despite the criticism surrounding the new constitution and the many negative articles in the international press about the demise of the rule of law in Hungary, Mr. Takács claimed that “civil society was flourishing.”
Mr. Takács spoke about the many investigations into the state of Hungarian parliamentary democracy, media freedom and judicial independence (most notably by the Venice Commission) as a badge of honour, noting that no other country had been screened as often as Hungary. Anyone who is still questioning the Orbán government’s commitment to democracy was advised to “visit us,” in order to have his/her mind changed on the matter.
The deputy state secretary also found it problematic that Hungary was bearing the brunt of criticism for its close rapport with Moscow, when in fact maintaining a good relationship with Russia is critical for the entire region. “We stand to lose a lot, by losing Russia,” noted Mr. Takács. The deputy state secretary added that it was important to develop and implement an effective “eastern neighbourhood policy.”
“Hungary has every desire to cooperate with Russia,” added Mr.Takács. While all other panelists pointed to economic sanctions as the main course of punitive measures against Russia, following its aggression in (and ultimately invasion of) eastern Ukraine, Mr. Takács was the only one to question the use of these sanctions. A number of people from the audience asked the panelists about options other than sanctions (including possible military support to Ukraine), but all speakers remained entirely non-committal and avoided this discussion.
Mr. Takács believes that the Orbán government should be “commended, not criticised” for having been the main supplier of gas to Ukraine over the summer months, even though Hungary has since (and very suddenly) decided to cut off the supply, following a meeting with Gazprom executives in Budapest.
Without being prompted by anyone, Mr. Takács noted that Hungary’s neighbouring countries are fortunate, as the Hungarian government has no intention of pursuing an irredentist policy aimed at border revision.
Mr. Takács then thanked Canada for having been so open to accepting tens of thousands of refugees after the failed 1956 revolution and subsequent waves of Hungarian immigrants. “Canada was very friendly towards our people,” added the representative of the Orbán government.