Between Visegrad and Beijing

15. 3. 2017

The Hungarian elites strongly believe that with Chinese help, Central Europe can become the most competitive part of our continent.

If we were to name a successor to satisfy Kundera’s and Miłosz’s Central European hankerings, we would point to Viktor Orbán. In his orations and interviews not only does he invoke the uniqueness of the region’s historical experience but he also resolutely envisions its future. “In twenty years Central Europe shall become the most competitive part of Europe,” observed Orbán in May 2011 at the European Economic Congress in Katowice. His conclusions are in fact astonishingly close to George Friedman’s book The Next Hundred Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century, in which the author shows a future Central Europe as well positioned among the new hearts of the Old Continent.

Orbán’s optimism is based on three premises. Like Friedman, the Hungarian prime minister considers the advancement of the region to be the result of the collapse that the hitherto centers of the global political and economic power are experiencing now, as well as from the decay of the existing system of international institutions. “Their weakness contributes to national factors gaining relevance again. As a result, we should more than ever cooperate with other nations, primarily our neighbors,” stated János Martonyi, foreign minister in Orbán’s government, in 2010. The prime minister himself highlighted that unrestrained consumption, a lack of regard for work and a tendency to incur debt have contributed to gradual Western decline. Nevertheless, it is not only the economic crisis, but also distancing from European historic and spiritual heritage that has caused the transformation of global geopolitics. “I have an impression that most leaders have lost their faith in what once created the greatness of Europe and made our continent so prominent on the globe,” observed Orbán in March 2012 during an interview with Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, in which he reproached the West for the abundance of secularization.

Eastern winds doctrine

According to Orbán’s vision, a powerful Central Europe is justified by the region’s economic and energy potential. The North-South Gas Corridor—a network of local connections linking Świnoujście with Constanta, Romania and the Croatian island of Krk—is a strategic project for Central European countries which are reliant on resources supplied by Russia. This construction not only enables diversification of energy sources, but may also allow exports, resulting in an increased regional significance on resource markets. It is also important for Hungarian policy towards Central Europe that economic relations established between Hungary and other countries in the region are mutually beneficial. Central European countries together are Hungary’s second largest commercial partner after Germany, with a total amount of 29.6 million Euro.

Furthermore, Hungarian elites strongly believe that the rising Eastern powers, led by China, will rescue the European Union and that they will seek their “entrance” in Central Europe. Orbán’s government is sustaining efforts made by its left-wing predecessors that founded strong political and economic bases for the development of Hungarian-Chinese relations. Hungarian diplomacy not only makes links with China, becoming the main proponent of their presence in the European Union, but it also seeks to develop its relations with other Asian countries, as a result of Asia’s exceptional handling of the economic crisis. In last two years Hungarian politicians visited countries in North- East and Central Asia, as well as Transcaucasia and the Persian Gulf region. The Asian direction of Hungarian politics has gained so much relevance that it has been named: “Eastern Winds Doctrine”.

Not only Visegrád

Despite the fact that Central European politics was a key issue in Orbán’s program from the beginning, in the last two years it has evolved considerably. In its first weeks of his cabinet there was skepticism toward cooperation within the Visegrád Group (V4). This was mainly a result of disadvantageous political situation in Slovakia. The Slovakian ruling coalition consisted of the left-wing SMER-SD and two nationalist parties, whose anti-Hungarian rhetoric caused a genuine freeze in relations between those two countries.

The climate in bilateral relations did not improve after a resolution of the Hungarian parliament that revised the dual citizenship law. The bill facilitated a procedure of bestowing Hungarian citizenship on inhabitants of neighboring countries and it provoked a sharp response from the Slovakian prime minister, Robert Fico, who accused his Hungarian counterpart of “diffusing the Brown Plague”.

The difficulties between Budapest and Bratislava, as well as negative experiences in regional cooperation under Orbán’s first government in 1998–2002, convinced Hungarian decision- makers that V4 was ineffective and this developed into the reasons for forming a new regional alliance between Hungary, Poland and Romania. Yet Polish politicians reacted indifferently to this idea, initially sketched in the winter of 2009, and then during Orbán’s first official visit to Warsaw in May 2010.

The Polish lack of interest, along with political changes in Slovakia when Fico’s cabinet unexpectedly lost power after an election in June 2010, impacted Hungary’s return to involvement in V4. In Slovakia, the new conservative government of Iveta Radičova declared their will to reopen relations with their southern neighbor and proved it by mitigating a restrictive language bill. A month before the election in Slovakia, a new government was created in the Czech Republic, and Karel Schwarzenberg, renowned for his interest in Central European issues, became the foreign minister.

The resurgence of Visegrad cooperation and the presidencies of Poland and Hungary in the EU Council in 2011—where Croatian’s accession to the EU was a key issue—resulted in Hungarian authorities initiation of a “wide Central Europe” perspective, reaching from the Baltic to the Adriatic. From the vantage point of Hungary, where foreign policy notes the strategic significance of the Balkans, a widening of the range of regional activity was designed to show appreciation for the modernizing efforts of the Western Balkan countries and to entice their interest in the Visegrad Group.

The End of the Honeymoon?

The commitment of Orbán’s government to Central European politics was driven by a favorable political climate in 2010–2012. For the first time in history, all the Visegrád Group countries had center-right oriented governments. Moreover, cooperation with countries previously disturbed by issues and questions surrounding Hungarian minorities was aided by a reduction in anti-Hungarian rhetoric. This change was brought about by the presence of Hungarian minority parties’ in governing coalitions in Slovakia and Romania, and by good personal relations between politicians in Romania and endeavors to join the EU by Serbia.

The conciliatory attitude of Central European leaders towards Hungary was also manifested in the absence of criticism of Orbán over his controversial domestic reforms with some leaders, like Donald Tusk and Václav Klaus, even defending him against inflated accusations in the West. The Hungarian prime minister could speak with full conviction—as was the case during his visit to Croatia in the beginning of May 2012, that “Central Europe has a beautiful future before it”.

It took only six weeks, however, for the Hungarian position in the region to deteriorate. In March 2012, after a snap election in Slovakia, the left-wing party SMER-SD returned to power and its leader Robert Fico headed a single party cabinet. Nevertheless the apprehension of “cold peace” 2006–2012 and its restoration may prove to be overestimated. Fico is now concerned with maintaining his country’s position in the principal domains of European politics and therefore he is not interested in feeding conflicts with his southern neighbor. This is due to the absence of nationalist parties in his government and Slovakia’s current supremacy over Hungary in terms of economic stability and political positioning. Nevertheless an active policy towards the Hungarian minority without consulting Bratislava will definitely elicit more resolute reactions for Fico than those evoked by his predecessor.

The outlook for relations between Romania and Serbia appears worse. In May 2012, a Romanian election was won by the Social Democratic Party, which readily proclaimed nationalist slogans. It is dubious to suspect that questions most urgent for the Hungarian minority in Romania— i.e. the new administrative division of the country that separates Hungarian settlements and its autonomy—would be resolved in favor of Budapest. Relations between president Traian Băsescu and Viktor Orbán have been up and down for some time, regardless of the fact that both have emphasized not only political cooperation but also personal friendship. In the summer of 2011, WikiLeaks released a telegram in which Băsescu called the Hungarian prime minister “the last hideous little nationalist in Europe”, which may put an end to friendly relations between the leaders.

Orbán can no longer count on cordial contacts with the new president of Serbia, the nationalist Tomislav Nikolić, who replaced the more liberal Boris Tadić in May 2012. Despite the fact that the Hungarian minority there is more privileged than in Romania or Slovakia, problems in Hungarian- Serbian relations are still being stoked by the exacerbation of historical conflicts dating from World War II and by immense social distrust manifest by the marginal support that Hungarians have for Serbian integration with the EU.

The beautiful future of the region?

Because of government changes in Bratislava, Bucharest and Belgrade, an active Central European policy and steps taken in support of Hungarian minorities will be problematic for the whole strong Central Europe project. It is not only changing political situations, however, that will impact the future of Central European politics. Poor economic conditions as well as difficult relations between Orbán’s government and the European Commission and International Monetary Fund have not promoted an image of Hungary as a reliable country capable of having good relations with its partners and of working in the broader EU forum. But this is essential since next year’s most fundamental question for the EU will be negotiating the multiannual financial framework for 2014–2020. A coalition of Central European countries would be useful in negotiating prolongation of the policy of generous subsidies as a way to generate cohesion.

Another difficulty that Hungarian advocates of Central Europe need to manage are the negligible results of economic rapprochement with China and other Asian countries. Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao did mention, in April 2012, the possibility of a credit of 10 billion dollars for infrastructural and technological development in the region but he had already made a promise of the same sort in Budapest a year earlier. And for the time being, there is no trace of credit nor large investments.

Nonetheless in 2010–2012 Hungary noted some achievements in their Central European activities. From their vantage point the most notable was a hospitable implementation of two key priorities in Hungarian foreign policy, i.e. the consolidation of political relations with other countries of the region in conjunction with an improvement of the status of the Hungarian minorities in those countries. The Hungarian government facilitated naturalization and wrote into the constitution active suffrage for their diaspora, that under other political constellations in Slovakia, Romania and Serbia would have led to deterioration in bilateral relations.

In Balkan politics the Hungarian presidency in EU Council enhanced the regional development program for the Danube countries, which included Croatia and Serbia, as well as completed the six-year accession negotiations with Croatia. Orbán’s government has also maintained friendly relations with other Western Balkan countries based on economic engagement with Macedonia and Montenegro as well as involvement in the EU and NATO missions to Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo. In addition, Hungary has initiated a diplomatic relationship with Albania with which it had hitherto no ties.

Moreover, Budapest is committed to constructing an international gas transmission system. In September 2010 a pipeline project with Romania (Szeged-Arad) was completed and a connection to Croatia (Városföld-Slobodnica) opened in August 2011. The Slovakian section (Vecsés-Veľké Zlievce) is scheduled to be finished by June 2013. Yet Poland and the Czech Republic have their own gas connection.

Acknowledging the geopolitical potential of Central Europe, Orbán’s government ought to avoid worsening relations with new administrations in neighboring countries, as well as strive to formulate a single agenda that would uphold a common strategic path for regional development. It is the only way to sidestep the deterioration of bilateral relations, which has already troubled Central European politics in the past, as well as advance a vision of “the beautiful future” of the region.

Dariusz Kałan

is a journalist covering Central Europe for magazines such as the Washington Post, The Times, Foreign Policy, Balkan Insight, among others. He is also a former Central Europe analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs, a Warsaw-based think tank.

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