Opinion: Orbán Government In Swirl Of World Politics

  • 12 Oct 2018 8:59 AM
  • Hungarian Spectrum
Opinion: Orbán Government In Swirl Of World Politics
Since the end of September, a full-fledged diplomatic war has broken out between the Hungary and Ukraine.

Relatively few Hungarian journalists know anything about foreign affairs, and those that do are usually preoccupied with the United States and Hungary. Therefore Hungarians are not likely aware of the situation with Ukraine and the possible implications of Hungary’s behavior on world politics.

When it comes to Hungary’s relations with its neighbors, Romania, thanks to the number of Transylvanians who settled in Hungary in the 1980s and after, is pretty well covered, but the same cannot be said about Ukraine, a country that became a neighbor of Hungary after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

The other day a well-known reporter suggested that the current Ukrainian-Hungarian diplomatic crisis is nothing more than a spat artificially fed by both governments for domestic reasons. She is gravely mistaken. It is a deadly serious diplomatic game being played by Viktor Orbán at the behest of Vladimir Putin.

After watching debate on the Ukrainian-Hungarian diplomatic crisis between a young politician of Momentum, András Révész, and Gábor Stier, the pro-Russian former foreign editor of Magyar Nemzet, now Magyar Hang. It is hard for someone, who has been intently following Viktor Orbán’s relations with Ukraine, to agree with Stier’s assessment that the blame lies solely with the Ukrainians.

Viktor Orbán, soon after becoming prime minister in 2010, visited Ukraine, where he praised Viktor Yanukovych’s government for “stabilizing Ukraine” just as “he was working on stabilizing Hungary.”

A few months later, during one of his visits to Brussels, he commented favorably on Yanukovych’s presidency and called him “a reliable” partner. For four years Ukrainian-Hungarian relations remained close. All that changed when Yanukovych was ousted and Russia occupied Crimea. From that time on, Orbán’s relations with Ukraine have been tense and lately outright antagonistic. It is hard not to link Orbán’s change of attitude toward Ukraine to his close relationship with Russia.

Hungary’s intransigence goes far beyond a bilateral squabble. It has already affected U.S.-Hungarian relations and raised concern in NATO. Russia is considered a threat to Europe and, just lately, diplomats from Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States urged the Orbán government to lower the volume and make a deal with the Ukrainians.

After all, it is in the interest of Ukraine to remove the barrier Hungary erected, which stands in the way of its developing a partnership program with NATO. Similar entreaties came from NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, to no avail. U.S. Permanent Representative to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison said recently that “the United States certainly supports a NATO-Ukraine Commission.

We have urged and will continue to urge Hungary not to oppose it. It is important.” By the way, only one Hungarian foreign policy analyst, Csaba Káncz, talked at all about U.S. and NATO requests to the Hungarian government regarding the Ukrainian dispute.

Nothing has had any effect. Relations have gone from bad to worse. Hungary is simply not ready to negotiate  provisions of the education law that restricts the use of Hungarian in schools.

As far as Budapest is concerned, only a complete withdrawal of the law would satisfy the Orbán government. Since the education law was introduced in order to restrict the use of Russian in the eastern provinces, Kiev cannot repeal the law altogether, but it would be willing to make exceptions in the Hungarian case.

Orbán is such a faithful servant of Putin, however, that he is ready to risk Hungary’s standing with the United States and other NATO countries for the sake of Russia’s interest in Ukraine.

Inflexibility on the Hungarian side led to a similar rigidity on the Ukrainian side. Eventually, Kiev expelled the Hungarian consul, and there has been talk about going after those Ukrainians who have taken out Hungarian citizenship.

A far-right nationalistic website, which Hungarians charge is working hand in hand with the government, has been compiling lists of dual citizens. We are at a point that The New York Times published an article about a week ago titled “At war with Russia in East, Ukraine has worries in the West, too.”

According to the article, the Hungarians in Berehove/Beregszász, who constitute about 50% of the population, live as if they didn’t belong to Ukraine at all. The locals even set their watches to Hungarian time, an hour ahead. A Hungarian flag flies in front of city hall. And when the Hungarian State Opera performed in town, “the audience stood mute during the Ukrainian national anthem and then burst into boisterous song for the anthem of Hungary.”

One reason for this state of affairs is the lavish support this small community receives from the Hungarian government.

Meanwhile hysteria is growing in both capitals. Péter Szijjártó accuses the Kiev of compiling a “death list,”  which he is also on. The latest is that the Ukrainian government wants to expel dual citizens and instead fill Berehove with refugees from the east.

Today Zsolt Bayer, in his opinion piece in Magyar Idők, admits that the language of the education law is not directed at the Hungarians but at the Russians and says that “the West is quiet because they find stripping the Russian minority of their rights acceptable.”

But for Hungary the fate of the Russian minority is just as important as that of the Hungarian minority. “Therefore we must make clear to the villainous Ukrainian leadership that under these circumstances they cannot even dream of NATO.”

This is an honest description of Hungary’s role in this basically Russian-Ukrainian struggle: to be the Western “diplomatic” hit man for Vladimir Putin. This is not at all in the interest of Hungary, as will become clear when we take a quick look at current U.S.-Hungarian relations.

We have been waiting for months for the Orbán government to sign an agreement with the State of New York that was already approved by Budapest. Nothing has happened since, and the December 31 deadline is fast approaching.

Ambassador David Cornstein in September had a lengthy conversation with Viktor Orbán, who seems to have fooled him; at least this is what I gathered from the ambassador’s optimistic remarks.

In addition, he had a rather unfortunate interview with Szombat, a Jewish publication. But yesterday he gave a lecture to the faculty and students of Central European University that indicates to me that Cornstein is slowly realizing the true nature of the Hungarian regime.

The ambassador said that he had spent most of his time in the last 100 days trying to resolve CEU’s precarious situation. He also admitted that “his initial good mood that existed between himself and the Hungarian government has changed,” I guess for the worse.

The ambassador expressed his surprise about Orbán’s intransigence because “there is every reason to develop good relations with the present administration.” The Obama administration didn’t want to do anything with Viktor Orbán, but Trump supports the present government.

“If they want to keep up this good relationship, the road they chose is the wrong one.” He told his audience that he was the one who asked Trump to phone Orbán and congratulate him after his electoral victory. “It is now time that the Hungarian government reciprocates for everything it has received so far from us.”

Magyar Narancs, which reported on Cornstein’s lecture, recalled that the ambassador after his arrival stated that he had four goals as ambassador.

The first was improvement of U.S. financial help for military airfields; the second, the establishment of an oil pipeline from Romania; the third, ending the CEU crisis; and the fourth, “reestablishment of good relations with Ukraine and Hungary’s support of Ukraine’s partnership with NATO.”

We don’t know much about the progress, if any, made in the first two matters, but we do know that neither the problem of CEU nor Ukraine’s NATO partnership has been solved. If anything, the opposite is true. CEU is seriously thinking about moving its campus to Vienna, and Hungarian politicians swear they will thwart Ukraine’s ambitions, even at the cost of the country’s own national interests.

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Hungarian Spectrum

Hungarian Spectrum features analyses in English about Hungarian political, economic, and cultural news. Its editor and primary pundit is Eva S. Balogh, who formerly taught East European history at Yale University. Guest contributors include Hungarian and international professors, experts and researchers of sociology, international affairs, and political science. The site, which is archived at the Library of Congress, is recognized by diplomats, journalists, scholars, and representatives of non-governmental organizations as a source of thoughtful analysis and high-level discussion of contemporary Hungarian affairs.

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