Hungary: Vacillating between the EU and Russia? Two weeks after Merkel’s visit Orbán welcomes Putin

Csaba Tóth, Director of Strategy at Republikon Institute, and István Hegedüs, Chairman of Hungarian Europe Society, on Viktor Orbán’s foreign policy and his relations to the EU, USA, and Russia.

For the first time after five years, German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Hungary two weeks ago. Both government and opposition had their expectations about the visit. Who was happier in the end?

IstvánIMG_4690 Hegedüs: In the eyes of the ruling party, the visit of Angela Merkel was supposed to give evidence to the argument that Viktor Orbán is an important player at the European level who is not isolated. In contrast, the Hungarian opposition had hopes that the political differences between the Hungarian and the German governments would come to surface. What really happened was closer to the wish of the opposition. The two monologues of the top politicians at the press conference made the differences very explicit. The Hungarian government had no chance to portray the negotiations as another “victory” of Orbán. Tellingly, there was no common communiqué of the two partners after their meeting.

Angela Merkel spent a lot of time with NGOs and at university. Was it clearly perceived as support for civil society, which is under a lot of pressure from the Orbán regime?

Csaba Tóth: It was clear that Merkel prefers the NGOs, students and civil leaders to Orbán. I had the opportunity to attend her speech at Andrássy University and it was as powerful as the symbolism of her visit’s protocol: it is hardly a normal scenario between two state leaders belonging to the same European party family to spend so little time with each other.

István Hegedüs: Angela Merkel also went to the biggest Synagogue in Budapest and in this way she indirectly expressed her support to the Jewish community and the Hungarian Jews who have to face open, extreme right-wing anti-Semitism and a double-speech of the government on this matter.

The United States seem to have taken a much sharper stance against Hungary for its violation of democratic principles and ostentatious support of Putin compared to the EU.

István Hegedüs: The USA put a lot of pressure on the Hungarian government when it introduced a visa-ban on some officials (among them was the president of the National Tax Authority) some months ago. The Obama administration and Senator John McCain have expressed their concerns about the state of democracy in Hungary many times. The US government dislikes the Russian-friendly views and the peacock policy of Orbán in the Ukraine conflict. But the US Administration knows that the Hungarian government finally aligned to the political decisions at the EU level. Moreover, concerning the illiberal shift in Hungary, the US consider this problem as a mostly European one which should be solved by the European institutions and the member states.

 Do you think the EU should do more? How?

Istvan-Hegedus-fotoIstván Hegedüs: Yes, the European Union should care more about Hungary and the risks of spreading illiberal and populist, anti-European views inside the post-communist parts of the EU, and the EU as a whole. We need to find new methods and mechanisms at the European level to deal with member states in case one of them systematically breaches the norms, values and regulations of the EU. The report of the European Parliament in 2013 on the situation of the fundamental rights in Hungary suggested recommendations and there are further ideas under scrutiny at the European Commission and the Council what to do. It is evident that we need a political will especially in the case of the European People’s Party, where Fidesz is a member, to talk about the Hungarian case in a critical manner.

Csaba Tóth: Yes, the EU should use more of its leverage to affect changes in Hungary. The US is willing to engage in the political process. André Goodfriend, US Charge d’Affairs in Hungary, communicated not only behind the scenes but launched a massive PR campaign with press conferences and twitter messages that got through to the Hungarian public. The EU has never done any such thing – although, I believe, it should.

Let’s talk about Putin´s visit today: to whom is it more important? To Putin, since he has an appearance side by side with a European Prime Minister or to Orbán who urgently needs a deal on gas supplies and nuclear power?


Csaba Tóth: It is important for both of them, but I think because of the timing Putin has more to gain. As the chemistry between these two leaders is quite strong, the contrast with the Merkel visit will be especially striking. I believe Orbán will try to be as business-like as he can. Maybe he will even criticise Putin, which nobody expects.

István Hegedüs: It is not evident who can win more either in political or in economic terms – Putin or Orbán. For Hungary, nuclear energy might be harmful and even expensive. Moreover, Orbán gave up his original idea about decreasing the one-sided dependence on Russian energy supplies. In general, Orbán introduced a new “opening” towards the east in order to gain room for himself and his government what he calls sovereignty and hoped to receive financial support from Russia and other post-Soviet republics. He does not care about democracy and human rights any more but has declared an interest-based foreign policy. Recently, Orbán tries to change his image and he had plans to go visit Ukraine before Putin comes to Hungary. The peacock policy never ends…