The Russian aggression in Crimea and in Eastern Ukraine has presented the European Union with its most serious geopolitical and security challenge since the fall of the Iron Curtain. Although the Visegrad Countries (Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary) are perhaps the region most affected along with the Baltics, the Ukraine crisis has led to no significant upgrading of security cooperation in the region. In fact, there has been no cooperation on security issues within the Visegrad group and no V4 common positions at NATO either. Thus Visegrad as a strategic alliance has lost value.
The Russian aggression in Eastern Ukraine has presented the EU with its most serious geopolitical and security challenge since the fall of the Iron Curtain.
Whilst both the Czech Republic and Slovakia refused to host NATO troops on their territory, for example, Hungary did not reject this publicly. But it has also become known as the country with the most pro-Russia policy within NATO and the EU for many reasons.
Up until late 2014, Budapest had a pretty pragmatic balancing act between its strategic interests in the Euro-Atlantic area and the energy issues tying it to Russia. In the years of the second Orbán government (2010-2014), the structures of the Hungarian state administration itself mirrored these very different strategic positions: the Hungarian foreign and defence ministries represented the Euro-Atlantic orientation whilst the Prime Minister’s Office focused on improving relations with Russia.
Practical economic cooperation with Moscow has always been part of Hungarian foreign policy ever since the loss of the Russian market at the end of the Cold War. This cooperation was fundamentally limited to the energy issue and thus never threatened to undermine the country’s Euro-Atlantic orientation. So the recent “pivot to Russia” – clearly Orbán’s own pet project – has been challenged rather than supported by the Hungarian society.
The recent “pivot to Russia” – clearly Orbán’s own pet project – has been challenged rather than supported by the Hungarian society.
Hungary’s Russian links are qualitatively different to those of other Visegrad countries. Energy dependency is not the most important issue; the €11 billion Russian loan in the Paks nuclear plant agreement comes to about 10 percent of Hungary's GDP (although there are rumours that this money will actually be used to prop up the Orbán regime), for instance. Futhermore, Russia is de facto an important buyer of Hungarian state bonds and thus finances Hungarian state debt, making Hungary much more financially dependent on Russia than other Visegrad countries are. This is quite surprising as trade relations are fairly limited – only 3 percent of Hungarian exports goes to Russia (compared to 4-5 percent for the other Visegrad countries). But Hungary’s energy dependence on Moscow is unquestioned: 99 percent of its oil and 74 percent of its natural gas comes from Russia.
Up until 2010, no mainstream Hungarian political party, not even the Socialists, had a particularly pro-Russia policy. The first party to be penetrated by Russian influence was the radical right-wing party, Jobbik. Jobbik was founded in 2003 and built up a country-wide following in 2006-2008, mostly likely thanks in part to covert financing from abroad. The party’s official foreign policy and the recent scandal of its MEP Béla Kovács (allegedly a KGB agent) confirm that it has been penetrated by Russian influence like many other right-wing parties in the EU.
Until late 2014 “Do not listen to what we say, but look at what we do” was a standard phrase of Hungarian diplomats in Western countries.
The foreign policy of Fidesz, the ruling party, has always had strong a trans-Atlantic orientation, so its pivot to Russia can be seen as led by Orbán with cautious opposition from the party’s foreign policy leadership. Mr. Orbán has been known to denigrate EU institutions and praise Mr. Putin, not least in his famous “illiberalism speech” in the summer of 2014. Nevertheless, until late 2014 these statements were dismissed as mere posturing. “Do not listen to what we say, but look at what we do” became a standard phrase of Hungarian diplomats in Western countries.
However, this all changed in late 2014 when the pro-Western Fidesz party elite – including the former minister of foreign affairs Martonyi and state secretary Németh – were sidelined following the elections. Moreover, about 400 diplomats were fired and 60 heads of mission were recalled. To all intents and purposes, Hungary now has no foreign policy elite able to counterbalance the Prime Minister’s pro-Russia policy. Mr. Szijjártó, the acting minister of foreign affairs, was personally responsible for the “Eastern Opening” policy and he is not expected to change his spots now. Currently only one state secretary has a diplomatic background; the rest have no experience on the diplomatic stage.
The Fidesz-led government is starting to pay the price for its rapprochement with Russia. The US has imposed travel bans on ten senior Hungarian officials, and it has highlighted Budapest’s problematic track record on democracy and tackling high-level corruption. Moreover, recently the Hungarian minister of foreign affairs was received in the State Department only by an under-secretary of state.
Putin’s planned visit to Budapest in February 2015 will be the new high water mark of Russian-Hungarian relations and an event of practical and symbolic importance. As Hungary’s long-term gas supply contract with Gazprom is due to be renewed in 2015, it is likely that Putin will make a proposal during his visit for a very preferential gas price in exchange for Hungarian support on the lifting of European sanctions against Russia.
Now that Washington has got tough, it is time for Europe to do the same.
Europe, especially Germany, has now realised that Hungary was only able to follow its pro-Russia path since 2010 because no one was prepared to confront Mr. Orbán. Now that Washington has got tough, it is time for Europe to do the same. Budapest needs to balance its interests between the West and Moscow, gaining benefits from both sides. It cannot afford to risk isolation from EU and NATO structures. Despite his ideological attraction to Putin, Mr. Orbán will realise that he cannot continue down the pro-Russia path if his Western partners communicate this message in a frank and straightforward way. Chancellor Merkel’s upcoming visit to Budapest on 2 February is a good opportunity for some straight talking in German-Hungarian relations.
Daniel Hegedüs is a research fellow and project manager at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.