Washington more concerned about Orbán’s pro-Russian politics than his authoritarianism

István Dobozi, a foreign policy adviser and a former senior economist with the World Bank, wrote a piece for the conservative Magyar Nemzet daily, in which he argued that under President Donald Trump, bilateral relations between Hungary and the United States have only improved ever so slightly, compared to its low point under the Obama administration. However, he added that Washington’s primary concern is not the demise of the rule-of-law in Hungary, but rather the Orbán government’s pro-Russian political orientation.

Pointing to the more recent demise of liberal democracy in Poland (and to a lesser extent, growing concerns around populism in the Czech Republic), Mr. Dobozi notes how much more vociferous the United States has been in its critiques of Budapest than of Warsaw. It’s worth noting, of course, that Mr. Orbán over the last nearly eight years has come much further than Poland in dismantling the system of checks of balances and in creating a de facto one-party state–a state where the ruling party most likely cannot be dislodged from power through elections. But Mr. Dobozi believes that the fact that a country like Poland would be the target of far less criticism and retaliation from Washington than Hungary points to the possibility that America’s real concern is not the state of democracy as such, but the given country’s rapport with Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Mr. Dobozi argues that Washington was genuinely “shocked” by the Kremlin’s successful military interventions in Georgia, Ukraine and in Syria. Following this, foreign policy and military leaders in the U.S. came to see not China, but rather Russia as the primary geopolitical rival. For instance, Wess Mitchell, the current Assistant Secretary at the State Department, in charge specifically of the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, accused Russia of “predatory” revisionism, noting that Moscow was attempting to destabilize and increase its clout in the so-called “Near Abroad” (the former Soviet states), as well as in Eastern Europe. Russia aims to achieve this through misinformation campaigns, espionage and clandestine military operations, as well as increasing the dependency on Russian energy.

During his confirmation hearings, Mr. Mitchell declared:

“The Russian government must understand that a return to normal relations will be impossible as long as it attacks its neighbors, abuses its people and attempts to undermine confidence in America’s institutions and those of our allies. If confirmed, I will urge Moscow to cease its destabilizing activities in Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and the Balkans and to end its support for hostile regimes in Syria and Iran. I will also support efforts to reduce the vulnerabilities of our allies and partners to corruption, disinformation, and other forms of malign influence that Russia uses to weaken their institutions and civil societies.”

In this international dynamic, Mr. Mitchell sees Hungary as being “pragmatically accommodating” to Russia. Mr. Mitchell also contrasted Hungary’s approach with that of the Baltic States, Poland and Romania. The former group “resists” Moscow, while Hungary accommodates President Putin. Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, President Putin has visited Hungary on four occasions, and these frequent high-level visits go against an unwritten policy among G7 countries, promoted by the Americans, to avoid bilateral meetings with the Russian president whenever possible. Perhaps even more critically, Washington sees Hungary’s decision to go ahead with the Russian expansion of the Paks atomic plant and Mr. Orbán’s support for Gazprom’s “TurkStream” pipeline as a sign of disloyalty to the interests of the Trans-Atlantic alliance.

Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orbán in February 2017. Photo: MTI.

Hungarian officials had expected the relationship between Hungary and the U.S. to warm significantly after Mr. Trump’s election. This has not happened.  As our readers will likely know, that the State Department launched a $700,000 grant to establish or strengthen the democratic media in rural Hungary, thus enraging the Orbán government. As well, despite claims to the contrary, Washington is in no rush whatsoever to extend a much coveted Oval Office invitation to Viktor Orbán. The Americans have indicated that such a visit may happen after the North Korean crisis is resolved. In other words: Budapest should not hold its breath.

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