Janos Szeky, Radio Lemberg Hungary, 30.01.2019
It came out of the blue. On Monday, January 27, the Wall Street Journal published a story which began with the sentence, “Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has told U.S. diplomats that he wants his country to be ‘neutral, like Austria’ as Washington pushes for a tougher line on Russia and China, deepening fears that a longtime American ally is drifting from its orbit.” Which, in plain language, would mean the Hungarian government wants to leave NATO. Many people were shocked.
Viktor Orbán, however, is not a man of unequivocal statements, but rather, as the title of a recent book says, is “the Man of Chaos.” So the next sentence in the WSJ article reads, “Aides to Mr. Orban said he wants to remain a troop-contributing member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and values the security Hungary gets from the alliance.” Which would mean the Hungarian government does not want to leave NATO after all.
An explanation, if not a solution, to this bald contradiction is given in the third sentence: “But a senior Hungarian official said Mr. Orban strongly objects to U.S. pressure aimed at curbing the influence of Moscow and Beijing in Europe.” So this was Orbán’s way of telling the State Department through Ambassador David Cornstein that he does not tolerate interference with his “Eastern opening” policy, which is code for doing business with Russia, China, and other Eurasian tyrannies.
This happened last December, around the time Cornstein said that moving Central European University (a prestigious American institution founded and funded by the government’s top bogeyman, George Soros) “broke his heart,” but he had been able to build “a good working relationship” with Viktor Orbán. As one of Cornstein’s priorities was to bring about an agreement between CEU and the government so that the university could remain in Budapest, this meant that he simply turned a page on his own failure, and he is just one more political appointee sent to Budapest, whom Orbán can lead in circles.
The term “doing business” is used by Orbán’s aides, but it is rarely clear who benefits from such transactions. In Russia’s and China’s case it means basically two megaprojects. One is the second block of the Paks Nuclear Power Station, built by Rosatom and mostly financed by a Russian loan of €10,000,000,000; the secret pacts were made public during the stormiest days of Euromaidan (the financial agreement was leaked by the Russians).
The other is a new railway line built between Budapest and Belgrade, a Chinese project financed from a Chinese loan. This is the only case when an EU member state willingly participated in the “16+1” plan, where in exchange for Chinese investments (more precisely, loans covering infrastructural projects) the cooperating government represents Chinese positions on the international scene. So this is doubly advantageous for Beijing – there would be a continuous, high-standard, Chinese-controlled surface line between the port of Piraeus in Greece and Germany; and there will be an agent to defend Chinese interests in the EU or the Council of Europe.
Neither project seems to work smoothly, to say the least. Both are years delayed. The government openly claims the Budapest-Belgrade railway line turned out to be much too expensive; and pays the instalments of the Russian loan, without doing any construction work yet, from more favourable market-based credits.
The Hungarian coauthor of the WSJ story, Anita Kőműves, wrote a separate article for the key investigative portal Átlátszó. She stresses, among other points of contention, that the Hungarian government extradited the Russian arms dealers, whom American DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) agents caught in Hungary – to Russia. Hungary conspicuously avoids buying arms from the U.S.. Also, renegotiation of the Defence Cooperation Agreement, which regulates the conditions for American troops stationed in Hungary, appears to be a failure.
The reasons Orbán is said to have given for this were surprising or even ridiculous: EU rules do not allow such an agreement. Or, on the other hand, some Fidesz MPs object to some of the details and he has no control over them (in reality, Fidesz’s centralized system allows total informal control for party chairman Orbán over MPs).
On Tuesday the 29th of January, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Péter Szijjártó, made a furious attack on the Wall Street Journal. He called them liars for stating that Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, would come to Budapest to pull up Orbán for getting too close to Russia and China and for talking about Austrian-type neutrality. Szijjártó said that negotiations about the DCA are proceeding and only with bad intention can anyone doubt Hungary’s commitment to NATO. All this while not denying Orbán’s words about neutrality.
He said, “we got used to the fact that the American liberal media permanently spreads lies about us,” ignoring the fact that the Wall Street Journal is not ‘liberal’ but part of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire – a conservative, quality newspaper.
To sum up, nothing is clear about Orbán’s real positions, except that he insists on maintaining close ties to Muscovy and China. Neutrality has been a popular idea in Hungary ever since the 1956 revolution, just like the concept that as a small country Hungary has to be on good terms with all the great powers. So Orbán might be playing to a home audience, as he often does. But why does he mention neutrality in confidence to the American ambassador, without being certain that the news will get out in the foreseeable future?
Well, he is a politician who generates and thrives in chaos. One of his notorious sayings was, allegedly to foreign diplomats: “You shouldn’t pay attention to what I say; the only thing you have to watch is what I do.” By then it may be too late.