Trudeau government would stand up to Putin. What about to Orbán?

Canada may be on the brink of a change in government on October 19th, after nearly 10 years of Conservative rule under Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The Liberals, led by Justin Trudeau, seem to have the momentum in the last days of the campaign and are now leading with 36%, compared to 29% for the Conservatives and 25% for the New Democratic Party (NDP), according to Wednesday’s Nanos tracking poll. Not only does Mr. Trudeau now stand a chance of forming a strong minority government  with these numbers, but he is probably only two or three percent away from majority territory. As a note of caution: pollsters tend to slightly underestimate Conservative support, though not by seven percent.

This week, Mr. Trudeau differentiated himself from Mr. Harper by announcing that as prime minister, he would send a clear message to President Vladimir Putin of Russia, accusing him of “being dangerous” to the smaller countries of Eastern Europe, as well as “irresponsible” and “provocative” in the Middle East and an overall bully.

“If I have the opportunity in the coming months to meet with Vladimir Putin, I will tell him all this directly to his face because we need to ensure that Canada continues to stand strongly for peace and justice in the world,” said Mr. Trudeau during a campaign stop in Toronto.

Justin Trudeau, leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.

Justin Trudeau, leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.

Telling anything to another political leader’s face is strong language from someone who stands on the threshold of becoming Canada’s next prime minister. Tristan Hopper writes in Wednesday’s print version of the National Post:

“It is the Putin Test: Western countries measure potential leaders’ mettle by considering how they might deal with Vladimir Putin, the judo-master strongman of Russia…Unfortunately, Mr. Putin has already proven resistant to stern lectures from Canadian prime minister.”

Mr. Tristan is referring to a moment where Prime Minister Harper told Mr. Putin at the G20 meeting in Brisbane: “I guess I’ll shake your hand, but I only have one thing to say to you: you need to get out of Ukraine.”

Although Mr. Trudeau’s tough, no-nonsense words regarding Mr. Putin may be theatrical posturing during a tough election campaign, and will likely morph into more diplomatic discussions–perhaps somewhat tense ones, behind closed doors–if he comes to power, the Liberal leader must not forget about another autocratic bully and one who is in the heart of Europe: Hungary’s Viktor Orbán.

Mr. Orbán, during his five and half years in power, has dismantled the county’s public broadcaster and turned into into a blatant arm of the country’s propaganda ministry. Mr. Trudeau has at least one campaign platform promise dealing with eliminating budget cuts and the Conservative government’s general disdain for Canada’s public broadcaster, the CBC, so the way in which Mr. Orbán demolished Hungary’s public television and radio, turning it into an arm of the party, should both concern and appall him.

Domestically, Mr. Orbán has dismantled the country’s independent judiciary, put Fidesz oligarchs in charge of large chunks of the economy, turned the public service into a servile wing of the ruling Fidesz party, gutted the country’s Ministry of Foreign and Trade, firing or removing respected analysts and career diplomats, and sometimes even loyal supporters of the party, replacing them with a younger generation of thirty-something and early forty-something diplomats, with close personal ties and friendships to the country’s foreign minister, Péter Szijjártó.

In terms of foreign policy, Mr. Orbán’s government tacitly supported Vladimir Putin in Ukraine or, more precisely, he agreed to remain silent throughout the crisis in Crimea and in Donetsk and Luhansk. Mr. Orbán stood in stark contrast to other Eastern European and EU leaders. Mr. Orbán’s Fidesz party also maintains close ties with the most dubious elements around President Putin, even when these same elements are banned from so much as entering countries, like Poland.

Until he realized that he had stoked the anger of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Germany, Hungary’s most important trade partner, Mr. Orbán followed a pro-Eastern and pro-Putin policy, and he reorganized the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade to accomplish this purpose. When he realized that Germany was enraged and, in light of the invasion of Ukraine, an isolated Hungary seemed to be supporting the aggressor, Hungary launched a totally vacuous “southern policy” of building ties with African and South American countries, with whom Hungary has virtually no history of trade and few interests in the region. Everyone involved in Hungary’s foreign affairs in the past two and a half decades simply chuckled at the idea of a southern strategy and viewed this as merely a face-saving mechanism and a way to slowly wind down the country’s Ostpolitik.

If Mr. Trudeau wins the federal elections of October 19th, he must finally put Canada back on the world stage, when it comes to speaking out clearly against authoritarian rulers and bullies like Mr. Orbán and Mr. Putin.

Perhaps one of the most shameful failings of the Harper government has been its complete and total silence when faced with the destruction of the rule of law in Hungary. American, French, German and many other western governments and organizations, including the EU, have expressed their deep concern and have publicly condemned the Orbán regime in Budapest, sometimes in surprisingly strong terms. Senator John McCain referred to Mr. Orbán as a “neofascist dictator getting in bed with Vladimir Putin.” Canada had absolutely nothing to say whatsoever for almost six years and seemed, instead, to be a partner of the Hungarian authorities in deporting Roma refugee claimants in this country, referring to them all as “bogus” and effectively labeling the Roma as cheats.

Mr. Trudeau needs to show leadership on the Hungary file, if he becomes Canada’s prime minister later this month. Hungary under the Orbán government, whose leader happily declared the death of liberal democracy, who has bullied liberals in Hungary for almost six years, who used his police force to attack the NGO sector, and who has adopted and transplanted Putinism to the heart of the European Union, cannot be a partner for Canada.

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