Growing diplomatic row between Hungary and Romania

In the doldrums of summer, there is a growing and increasingly public conflict between Hungary’s Orbán government and the Ponta administration in Romania. In just the past two days, the diplomatic representatives of the  two countries, serving in Budapest and Bucharest, have been summoned by the respective foreign ministries of the two EU member states and both are claiming that the other is doing severe damage to bilateral relations.  Controversy erupted in earnest, when Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán posted photos to his Facebook page of a visit to the Transylvanian town of Tusnádfürdő (Băile Tuşnad), depicting emblems and other memorabilia of the pre-1920 Kingdom of Hungary, which back then included the lands of Transylvania. The Romanian government viewed this photo as a clear nod to Hungarian nationalists and irredentists by Mr. Orbán. The photo also struck a sore spot with a government that steadfastly opposes any talk of regional autonomy for two majority Hungarian counties in Transylvania, known as Szeklerland (Székelyföld). Somewhat unconvincingly, the Orbán government argued that the photo merely shows historic symbols, and thus does not constitute a contemporary political statement.

The row continued this week, when Károly Zoltán Nagy, the first secretary of Hungary’s mission in Bucharest, was summoned by the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs over an interview that Ambassador Botond Zákonyi, gave to a centre-right publication called Romania Libera. (Mr. Zákonyi was on vacation and could not attend.) Mr. Zákonyi told the paper, which is affiliated with the Romanian opposition, that there wasn’t “enough good will” on the part of the Victor Ponta government to really mend and develop bilateral diplomatic relations between Romania and Hungary, particularly within the field of joint infrastructure projects. One such project involves the connection of some 10 roads that would allow for Hungarians and Romanians to cross over from one country into another with greater ease. Romania’s government argues that it will only move ahead with this, once Romania is allowed to join the EU’s Schengen Zone. Some on the Hungarian right argue that the slow progress on this front has more to do with fears surrounding Romania’s Hungarian minority and their growing connect to Hungary. Another stalled joint infrastructure project is a gas pipeline between the Hungarian city of Szeged and Arad, in southern Transylvania.

The Hungarian ambassador then went on to claim that Mr. Ponta is playing a nasty political game in the EU, against the Hungarian government: Mr. Ponta is setting up a dichotomy, with him being the “good Victor” and Mr. Orbán being the “bad Viktor.” Romania’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted that these remarks from the ambassador were disrespectful towards to the Romanian head of government and wholly inappropriate. The Ministry added, that Budapest was not respecting the general strategic framework that guides bilateral relations between the two countries, and which was adopted in 2002.

Following this spat, Mr. Ponta went on television Monday night, and lambasted the Hungarian prime minister and his government. Mr. Ponta noted that “all of Europe and the United States is criticizing the Hungarian government for its antisemitism, revisionism, its pro-Russian stance and for the fence built against immigrants.”

The two Vic(k)tors: Victor Ponta of Romania (left) and Viktor Orbán of Hungary (right).

The two Vic(k)tors: Victor Ponta of Romania (left) and Viktor Orbán of Hungary (right).

“I think that the Hungarian government–and the Hungarian ambassador is playing the government’s game–is very much trying to provoke us,” added Mr. Ponta.

Mr. Ponta then suggested, with some sarcasm, that Hungarians are so excited about more roads leading into Romania, because they like to cross the border to shop for cheaper groceries. He added that he is really pleased with western companies, previously headquartered in Hungary, that are now looking to move to Romania.

“I am quite satisfied with this,” the Romanian prime minister remarked.

This morning, Hungary’s government was livid with Mr. Ponta’s  televised comments, and summoned Romania’s ambassador in Budapest for a chat with Levente Magyar, state secretary in the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Mr. Levente commented that the Romanian prime minister’s remarks amounted to “unacceptable accusations” against Hungary. Mr. Levente’s office suggests that the Romanian prime minister is “engaging in anti-Hungarian agitation, in order to turn the attention away from his own internal crisis, caused by the series of charges brought up against members of his government.”

It’s not just a scorching summer weather-wise in eastern Europe, but also in terms of the deepening dispute and tit for tat conflict between the two Victors.

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