STRATFOR: The U.S. Sanctions the Moscow-Budapest Axis: The Orban Regime Either Shifts Its Ground or Goes

By Dan Dungaciu | Stratfor | 5 November 2014

 “To question democracy and the constitutional state in Hungary is to offend the memory of 1956’s martyrs” stated Gergely Gulyas, vice-president of the Hungarian Parliament, in grandiloquent fashion in Berlin on the 24th of October. Not everyone, however, agrees with Gergely Gulyas’ statement. For some, in reality it is Viktor Orbán’s goulash-Putinism and Hungary’s irresponsible alignment with Russia’s (geo)energetic policy that offers the greatest affront to the memory of the  martyrs of 1956, who died under the wheels of Soviet tanks. At least this is what the State Department thought when it decided to drastically sanction Budapest after it opted to become Moscow’s most effective “Trojan horse” within the Euro-Atlantic alliance. But let’s start at the beginning.

“A new era in Russian – Hungarian relationships”

Hungary’s problems started a considerable time ago. The crushing victory that the FIDESZ party, led by Viktor Orbán, registered in the 2010 elections led to the formation of postwar Hungary’s first single party government. The agenda, put in parenthesis or temporized, of Orbán’s first term (1998-2002) is now making a powerful come-back. First of all, post- Trianon nationalism, so characteristic of the Hungarians. Then, the young Hungarian prime minister initiated the highly- controversial “Law of Hungarians Everywhere”. However the referendum for dual citizenship which he organized was unsuccessful due to the turnout falling below the required threshold. Ultimately, an almost-unanimous consensus was obtained in Budapest concerning the acceptance of “dual citizenship”, and now it has become a reality. After 2010, the entire Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs was restructured, one of the changes being the creation of a department responsible for Hungarians abroad. Budapest’s “new” regional concerns do not fall upon empty ground. Regional geopolitical stakes have always been an abiding concern. The intense interest in Moldova, for instance, needs to be placed within the perspective of a form of billiard ball diplomacy, centered on manifest identity interests. Budapest looks at Romania through Chisinau, and has Moscow’s complete and total agreement and support. After Hungary’s integration into the EU, the all the important positions for Brussels’ European representation in Chisinau were awarded to Hungary – the EU representative for the Republic of Moldova (RM), the general who led the European mission on the Moldova-Ukrainian frontier (EUBAM): the Hungarian embassy became the Schengen center for RM, the head of the parliamentary mission accredited to monitor the decisive parliamentary elections in 2005 was a Hungarian, etc. All these things could not have been achieved without Moscow’s tacit agreement, nor without its support. At the time when Romanian diplomats were being expelled (2009), Hungarian ones were accompanying Vladimir Voronin on hunting trips and were expressing their extreme concern about the rights and position of the Russian minority within the Republic of Moldova. After the coming to power of the Orbán regime in 2010, the thread is re-tied: Hungarian officials from Budapest systematically take positions over the Transnistrean issue, demanding regional autonomy – while obviously thinking about other territories. Starting in 2009, Zsolt Nemeth, the Secretary of State at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and subsequently the President of the Parliamentary Commission for Foreign Affairs, a man well versed in the risks and dangers of territorial autonomy, dropped continual hints, asking for “territorial autonomy for Transnistria”. Today, things move more or less inside the same registry. The Hungarian ambassador in the RM makes visits to the UTA Gagauzia, an autonomous, Russian-speaking region; meets Bashkan Mihail Formuzal; and at the end of last year the president of Harghita’s county council sent Formuzal a project for an agreement for collaboration between the Gagauz region and Harghita county. In fact, beyond the historicist and more- than- a- little pathetic inflammations of the Turanic blood (lately!) boiling within Hungarian hearts, the principal instigator of these geopolitical actions is Moscow. It patronises them and directs their path. Not by chance, after 2010 the relationship with Russia, banked by ex-anticommunist Viktor Orbán, started to show its true face (or fangs). Seemingly reiterating the Churchill dictum “Hungary has no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests”, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Janos Martonyi, paid his first in-office visit to … Moscow! He had discussions with Sergei Lavrov about a “new era” in Hungarian-Russian relationships. Moreover, the talks about the importance of  Putin’s “New Russia” Party being admitted into the European Popular Party – an idea already aired at previous meetings by both Orbán and Putin – clearly and unequivocally indicated who Putinist Moscow’s partners in Hungary would be. “We are dealing here with serious people debating serious matters” self-righteously declared the post-meeting statement. As the mouse on the bridge said to the elephant, in that well- known joke “We trot along, we trot along….”

The Moscow-Budapest axis begets a strategic face

orban putinGradually, things started to accelerate, and the Russia- Hungary relationship reach an unprecedented intensity in the shape of a publicly agreed strategic partnership. A 2013 statement such as the one the political director of the Hungarian Foreign Affairs Minister, Szabolcs Takacs, made when stating that one of the major aims of Hungarian foreign policy is to reduce the distance between Russia and the EU, should have caused more concern. Budapest aimed to become, as an American president might have said, a bridge between the EU and Russia! Or, more accurately, a host for Russia! Viktor Orbán met with Putin in Moscow at the start of 2013 and they established a strategic partnership, what Budapest called “the strategy of opening towards the East”. This included serious, difficult, grave problems. We are not dealing here with exchanges of greetings or over polite cultural accords, but with Russia building two nuclear reactors in Hungary, promoting the South Stream pipeline and agricultural trade. Russia was, in 2013, the guest of honor at the Budapest agricultural fair, where a renewal of commercial treaties between the two states– which anyway amount to a figure of about 12 billion – was announced. Russia is Hungary’s preferred non-EU economic partner, and Moscow and Budapest announced the opening of Russian – Hungarian chambers of commerce from Moscow to Rostov, Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk or Novorosisk – all of them, strategic points. In turn, Hungary was invited to the great Moscow Book Fair in September 2013. So, an extremely consistent diplomatic game as well as a strategic partnership is starting to operate at all levels. At home the Orbán regime continues its “independent” policy towards Brussels, irritating EU institutions and banks, and the response, when there is one, is inexplicably weak. Moreover, last year, in the middle of a crisis in Budapest – Brussels relations, Viktor Orbán is invited to eurosceptic London, where he meets Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron. The program included a visit to the prestigious Chatham House, where Orbán delivered a speech covering not just political but also strategic matters. His speech was entitled “The role of traditional values in the future of Europe” and was lauded by the conservative press. Amongst other things,  Orbán said that given the failure of a post-national Europe and the distancing and increasing isolation of the West from its Eastern fringes, isolated Eastern states would not be able to avoid establishing a relationship with Russia, even a negotiated confrontation with it. All Budapest is doing now – that is, a strengthening of the state, centralization and taking over the levers of governmental power, only serves to pave the way for establishing such a relationship. Some believe this, or at least they wish to believe it.

It’s (all) the fault of the Germans! The German occupation and Hungary’s innocence

“Admiral” Viktor Orbán does not stop here and manages, by an extremely controversial gesture, to humiliate Europe’s political and economic locomotive itself. And not just it! On January 17th, 2013, the Hungarian government decides to erect a monument to commemorate the invasion of Hungary by Nazi Germany in 1944! Of course, Berlin was not comfortable at all with this ridiculously simplistic screenplay, of “bad Germans” versus “innocent Hungarians” but, for readily understandable reasons, did not protest. The problem lies elsewhere. Professional historians, including Hungarian ones, have criticized both the monument and in particular, the simplistic and caricatured narrative it embodies. In the opinion of highly regarded international experts, the officials’ gesture was one of placing guilt strictly and exclusively upon Germany, and as a consequence of exonerating both the Horthy regime and Hungary itself of any blame (this, despite Eichmann’ s observation, when confronted with local Hungarian enthusiasm for “solving the Jewish question”, that he was now convinced of the Hun roots of the population!). As the international press pointed out, the renowned specialist Randolph L. Braham (an American Holocaust researcher of Romanian origin) returned a high distinction which he had received from the Hungarian head of state, as a gesture of protest against what he called “a deliberate campaign to falsify history with the aim of  exonerating the Horthy regime from any guilt”. This was not the only protest – a group of thirty Jewish American Congress members also expressed their disagreement. Viktor Orbán remained inflexible in the face of all these criticisms, and replied in a letter to the thirty members of the American Congress that “the pain of losing Hungarian liberty is the driving force behind the memorial for commemorating the victims of the Nazi occupation”, besides which, “from a moral point of view [the decision to build the monument] is correct and blameless”.

“KGBéla”: Hungary, NATO and Russian spies

Soon after Hungary joined NATO (2009) an Alliance official exasperatedly suggested that if there had been a mechanism for eliminating a state from NATO, this country would have been the first on the list. Hungary continues to pose lots of problems in this area. The military budget is around 0.8% of the GDP, half what it was in 2001, when it was around 1.8%, but no one in Budapest seems to be concerned about this. Things are more serious still, and there are serious concerns regarding the weaknesses of Hungary’s security and self-defense system. Apparently there are more holes than a Swiss cheese! The case the media banked upon was that of  Béla Kovács, the extremist Jobbik party’s representative in Parliament, who was accused of being a KGB agent. The accusation exploded in the Budapest press. Although spectacular from a media point of view and having considerable political repercussions, what was dubbed the “KGBéla” case does not cover the whole story about the security risks Hungary raises. A considerable debate took place concerning “Jobbik and the Russian connection” and the political and financial connections this party must have had with Moscow. Unfortunately, reality seems to be incomparably more complex,  and the Béla Kovács case now appears to largely have been a set-up. Not that Béla Kovács was innocent or the respective “Russian connection” did not exist, but because the strategy of accusing Jobbik of everything (the culprit of the day) has become the official policy in Budapest and also provided an interpretative framework for many commentators when dealing with Hungary. Nothing more false! In reality, it’s not the Jobbik representatives with all their sins (as numerous and as unacceptable as they might be) but Hungary’s official and legitimate representatives who promote strategic agreements with Moscow, who sign contracts allowing Russia to build two nuclear reactors in Hungary, who avoid condemning any Russian actions in Crimea or who promote the South Stream oleo-pipeline, blocking the Ukraine and trying to keep hidden from the European Commission. It’s not Jobbik who rules Hungary, but the  Orbán regime! And it’s about Orbán’ s Hungary that the specialist publications write – either that it promotes the weakening of NATO by fueling irredentism inside the organization’s territory, or in terms such as these, “No European country can better illustrate the way in which Russia conducts a special kind of war than Hungary, a member of both the EU and NATO. The Russian secret services are extremely active in Hungary, with agents deeply infiltrated into its political and economic sector and the economy… Budapest has a serious strategic counter-information problem and is unable to defend itself” (The XX Committee, “How Russia Wages A Special War Against NATO and EU”, 14 august 2014).

“The mask has fallen”. Viktor Orbán comes to Romania to confute “liberal democracy”

As if all of these were not enough, Viktor Orbán adds another ugly note to this already dark tableau. On July 26, 2014, the prime minister comes to Romania where, at the Baile Tusnad summer university,  he gives his famous speech denouncing “liberal democracy” and expresses his admiration for “neoliberal democracies” of the Chinese, Turkish or Russian variety. Reactions appear instantly. On August 7th, the prestigious The American Interest prints an article written by Prof. Charles Gati, specialist in Hungarian issues, which is emblematically entitled “The mask has fallen”. The Hungarian Prime Minister is whipped out of his boots by the person he had met in Washington in 1998 and to whom he had confessed emotionally that “all I know about contemporary politics and history I learned from Professor Gati “. The article’s conclusion is that Viktor  Orbán has given up all Euro-Atlantic values and without any hesitation embraced Putin-type authoritarian nationalism. Nothing can be added to the portrait presented by the American historian. “Orbán has abandoned his democratic mask. His discourse indisputably confirms what both his internal and external critics said years ago about his managerial democracy, and what until now his propaganda managers and faithful supporters furiously denied”.

Geopolitics beats politics. The clock is ticking.

Had Romania said or done a quarter of what Hungary has said or done, it would have been expelled long ago from both the EU and NATO….. But Orbán’s Budapest continues to be tolerated, backed, tacitly supported, be it in silence. Why this is happening is still a mystery. Could it just be the fault of the economic crisis? The Hungarian Euro-Atlantic capital cities lobby? Or, rather, is Hungary a tolerated experiment, in order to see how far resistance to a German model of the  European Union, built upon premises that are not universally shared, can stretch? Hard to say. What is certain is that things have reached a level from which it is impossible to go on. We have reached a red line. In fact, none of the failures or accusations aimed at Hungary we listed above have managed, by themselves, to generate a decisive reaction on the part of the region’s major strategic actors, especially the US. Something else was needed. And the additional factor which filled the glass was the Ukraine war and Budapest’s reaction to it. Geopolitics beats politics! Seen through this matrix, the Orbán regime becomes intolerable and thus becomes a target. It had practically no reaction to the Russian aggression in Crimea, was opposed – and still is – to European sanctions, intemperately raises the question of the Hungarian minority in the Ukraine just when Kiev is negotiating with Russia and just after Gazprom president’s, Alexei Miller, visits Budapest. This is probably where the explanation for America’s reaction lies. Budapest’s dangerous game can (not) evade sanctions anymore. We do not know at present how long the Ukrainian confrontation will last and how deep it will reach, albeit even by non military means. We do not know what the Russian reaction will be this winter, when it will recommence negotiations with the new Kiev government. But the energy weapon will loom large amongst the many weapons Moscow has at its disposal for blockading the Ukraine. In these conditions, one can anticipate a regional confrontation with unforeseeable results. Hungary – perhaps even Slovakia! – will have to understand these things. One cannot leave the US or the EU with is flanks open in a confrontation with the Russians. A Hungary which negotiates in an absolutely non-transparent way, on political and not on economic grounds, the building of two nuclear reactors with the Russian state company Rossatom: which cuts Ukraine’s gas and and keeps the South Stream project on the agenda, under the helpless gaze of the EU, is cutting the ground from under its own feet. And cannot escape punishment. Without forcing any comparison, American interventions in Budapest can be read through he same interpretative framework as is applied in the case of the Ukraine. In the same way in which a major failure of EU diplomacy in Kiev generated the US intervention in the Ukraine, the existing major failure of the EU to stop Russia from occupying Budapest’s seat at the energy negotiation table will obviously bring about American support. Indirectly, the confirmation of any geopolitical explanation comes from the Russian press agencies, who widely circulated the idea that all these sanctions are due to the Russian- Hungarian cooperation (they probably know why!). The most quoted author was Gabor Stier, the foreign affairs editor of the Hungarian publication Magyar Nemzet (associated with  FIDESZ) who said recently in Soci, where he attended the Valdai discussion group, “I am inclined to believe that this is a punishment because we have been talking with Russia … Hungary’s reaction towards the sanctions imposed upon Russia has been reserved. Hungary builds its relationship with Russia upon pragmatic bases”. And, as a conclusion, “America believes we are corrupt, but we are a sovereign state, and this is our own business. Many people in the US don’t appreciate the fact that Viktor Orbán is fiercely independent. We do not believe that liberal democracy is the only possible form of democracy … Corruption is just an excuse”. We will note in passing just one further thing: on the list of people invited to the Valdai Club, where the main speech was given by president Putin, the only Prime Minister invited from within the Euro-Atlantic space was Viktor Orbán.

Adevarul Orban articolThe Orbán regime changes or goes

From this perspective, the hypothesis stating that America’s harsh intervention is a consequence of the duplicitous and dangerous game Hungary plays in its partnership with Russia seems the most coherent explanation of the October 6th gesture, when the US Embassy in Hungary informed the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs that six government officials had been banned from entering American territory. The signal was given then. From then on, nothing was very clear – neither the names nor the positions of the people sanctioned by this action. But the geopolitical-type explanation makes the names involved irrelevant anyway. They constitute the pretext and not the text of the retaliation against Hungary. It is a signal, and Budapest will have to take it at face value. What is obvious is that sanctions for its partnership with Moscow will not stop here. And “admiral” Viktor Orbán, with all his inherited Turanian blood, cannot win this war. The Orbán regime will either have to change its attitude or go.

Dan Dungaciu is full Professor at the Department of Sociology, Faculty of Sociology – University of Bucharest. He is Director of the Institute of Political Science and International Relations of the Romanian Academy and President of the Black Sea University Foundation.