Hungarian foreign policy confusion

There seems to be a distinct sense of confusion in Hungary’s foreign policy, a lack of direction and haphazard action, instead of a clear, coordinated strategy, and one which takes into consideration changing geopolitical realities and interests. On Thursday, the country’s largest daily paper of record – Népszabadságobserved that things may still get much worse in terms of the on-going diplomatic row between Hungary and the United States. The paper suggests, based on a report from the Polish Institute of Foreign Affairs (PISM), that Washington may delay the accreditation of Hungary’s new ambassador to the US. Réka Szemerkényi has been appointed to lead the mission in the American capital, thus replacing György Szapáry. Ms. Szemerkényi is a staunch loyalist of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. She served as his chief adviser between 1998 and 2002 on national security issues.

According to PISM (which functions as an independent think tank focusing on international relations in Europe and on foreign policy research), Hungary can expect a “long, hot winter” as we get closer to 2015. The decision to ban six high-ranking government officials (including the now rather infamous Ildikó Vida, director of the National Revene Agency) from entering the U.S. was simply the first phase of a longer-term strategy. The U.S. can’t provide precise information on the barred individuals and what forms of corruption raised concerns, nor about what proof they have. On Thursday, Levente Magyar, one of the newly-minted and very young state secretaries held a markedly theatrical press conference in Kossuth Square, with Parliament as a backdrop, and noted that the information handed over by the American embassy in Budapest to the Ministry “lacked seriousness,” in part because the documents did not include an official stamp and were apparently undated. (This document has been since been made public by Hungary’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.)

Levente Magyar waves embassy papers on Thursday. Photo: MTI.

Levente Magyar waves embassy papers on Thursday. Photo: MTI.

But according to PISM, the American strategy is to keep the issue of the six barred government officials on the front burner and to therefore gradually increase popular dissatisfaction with the Orbán government. Additionally, the Obama administration may over the course of the next months caution American companies against investing in Hungary. The U.S. is the fourth most important investor in the Hungarian economy. As such, a negative reference from Washington could come with a steep economic price.

The PISM report suggests that the U.S. is somewhat less worried about Hungary’s descent in autocracy (although the state-led harassment of NGO’s did hit a raw nerve in the Obama administration) and far more irritated by Hungary’s see-saw geopolitics. “The United States has for a long time criticised the constitutional and structural reforms introduced in Hungary by the Viktor Orbán government. However, the rising tensions from the fall of this year in relations between the two countries were visible not only in American concerns about democratic standards in Hungary but also in the particular geopolitical context of the Ukraine–Russia conflict and EU sanctions on Moscow”–writes Dariusz Kałan in the PISM report.

It is widely seen as a miscalculation on the part of Hungary’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs that it did not appreciate the full impact of the conflict in eastern Ukraine and Russia’s covert military involvement. The fact that the Ministry was effectively gutted of experienced policy analysts and high-ranking civil servant, in order to make room for loyalists of the new foreign minister, Péter Szijjártó, could not have come at a worse time…at least from the perspective of Foreign Affairs’ ability to respond to dramatic developments east of Hungary and the new “cold war” between Russia and the West. Even countries like Germany, which advocated for a more measured response to Russian aggression, have been more open to condemning Vladimir Putin’s administration. Hungary’s foreign policy has remained out of step with that of Germany, the rest of the EU and certainly the United States.

According to Mr. Kalan:

“From the viewpoint of U.S. interests and politics, of particularly alarm was Budapest’s turn to the east (its so-called eastern opening or Eastern Winds doctrine), the original purpose of which was to stimulate economic relations with emerging economies in Asia and developing countries elsewhere, but which after the Ukraine crisis erupted took on new meaning in the form of political rapprochement with Moscow. Evidence of this was the invitation to Russian company Rosatom to be involved sans tender in the expansion of Hungary’s Paks nuclear power plant as well as the country’s very restrained response to Euromaidan, the annexation of Crimea, the war in south-eastern Ukraine, and EU sanctions on Russia. Another example of this shift was seen in anti-American statements made by leading politicians from Fidesz, including Orbán himself, who, in a famous speech on 26 July about “illiberal democracy,” contrasted American liberalism with more efficient—in his opinion—political models in Russia, China and Turkey. Hence, it doesn’t seem coincidental that the U.S. ban took place shortly after the government in Budapest temporarily closed its gas interconnector with western Ukraine and announced that in order to avoid problems with the European Commission it would prepare special legislation to release the Russia-backed South Stream gas pipeline from restrictions under EU law.”

Azerbaijan's Ilham Aliyev signs a deal with Mr. Orbán on Wednesday. Photo: MTI.

Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev signs a deal with Mr. Orbán on Wednesday. Photo: MTI.

An article published in HVG seems to suggest that Mr. Orbán’s government may have realized that it went too far and that it has misread the transatlantic community’s resolve vis-a-vis Russia. According hvg.hu’s sources, Mr. Orbán is preparing to more closely align itself with Germany, on foreign policy matters. This would represent a major shift in the policy of opening up to the East and spouting out populist, anti-western rhetoric at home. It does, however, leave open the possibility of a subtle, incremental shift in foreign policy, whilst continuing to pay lip-service to the Eastward politics of the past years, and fanning anti-western flames before domestic audiences. This type of double-talk is at the centre of Mr. Orbán’s politics. The fact that Mr. Orbán referred to Azerbaijan as a “model state” does call into question whether this change in policy is, in fact, looming…or perhaps just the incorrect reading of tea leaves, amongst Hungary’s Kremlinologists.

One Comment

  1. ORBAN: “This is just a scrap of paper. If it weren’t in English, I’d think it was written by an opposition party…”

    This is the sort of petty pugilism that will be Orban’s undoing. He is megalomanic, demagogic, amoral, corrupt and extremely greedy, but above all he is paranoid, and delusional. Up to a point, that feeds into a national culture with a similar bent; but ultimately he will go even beyond the Hungarian persecution complex, and then Hungarians themselves will be perceived as part of the “opposition.” That’s the point where the Stalins and Kims of the world institute a police state, but Orban will not have as free a hand as that. There’s a big world out there too, watching…

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