Looming over the financial markets and in hot spots, a potential conflict between the two major world powers - the US and China - has been brewing, and allies have to be counted on for their support. Therefore, the US can no longer ignore Viktor Orbán.

The meeting of Viktor Orbán with Donald Trump is a symbolic beginning of a new era in the US relations with Central Europe. They can be assessed in two ways – from Budapest’s and Washington’s perspective.

The casualness of both parties during a press conference at the White House suggests that the atmosphere was not as comfortable as Orbán would have liked. Several factors have contributed to this, including harsh criticism from circles in Washington according to which many of Hungary’s policies violate basic democratic values.

The visit, which was preceded by negotiations on the purchase of American weapons, could have been more hopeful for Orbán.

A calculating player

For the Hungarian leader, who was probably the first in the world to support the candidacy of Donald Trump, a visit to the US is part of a series of victories in the fight against liberal democracy.

After years of effort, the fourth leader of the Visegrad Group was finally admitted to the White House; Orbán had to stay away when Barack Obama sat in the oval office. At that time, Hungary was treated as a temporary difficulty, a secondary problem in relation with Europe.

However, Orbán consistently built up his domination, dismantling democratic institutions and earning criticism from the OSCE, Freedom House but also the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation, which in the field of civil liberties and economic freedom place Hungary beyond the category of fully democratic countries.

What matters most to Orbán is his personal freedom.

He is a calculating player on both the domestic and international stages. The lack of a resolute reaction of the European Union and the US, occupied by other crises, enabled him to pursue a policy evermore detached from democratic principles and to cooperate more closely with countries hostile to NATO and Europe, including Russia and China.

In his youth, the buzzard Orbán called for the expulsion of the Red Army. After many years, he met with the former KGB agent, secretly signing a contract for the extension of the nuclear power plant by the Russians and rejecting the offers of Western bidders. Putin’s messages about the West have been mirrored in the narrative of the Prime Minister of Hungary.

In turn, with China, he agreed on the construction of a railway line from Belgrade to Budapest, which will serve Beijing as a convenient trade route deep into Europe. His calculation seems childishly simple – the more trouble he gives himself, the more important he will become for them and negotiate better conditions.

Inviting the representatives of Chinese and Russian financial agencies, Orbán tells them that, as a member of NATO and the EU, he will be the first to open the door for them and will count on their generous gratitude. He expects the same from the NATO states.

Great Hungary, an eternal dream

On the domestic front the constitutional and statutory changes Orbán made has given him an advantage over all opposition parties. He took control of key media (state and private) as well as the public procurement sector.

Moreover, he has a protective circle of oligarchs around him. On one hand, there is a centralised and overpowering state which now serves the implementation of foreign policy subordinated to the interests of the prime minister, and on the other hand, the public debate is constantly underpinned by a widespread belief in historical injustices dating back to the Treaty of Trianon a century ago.

The Hungarians are nostalgic for their former territories. For years, maps of “Great Hungary” have been hanging in governmental offices, the borders of which cover the areas of states that today belong to the same political and defensive structures.

Creating conflict around identity has long been Orbán’s favourite method of governing. It is not surprising then that he reached for this same political tool when immigrants from Africa and the Middle East began to reach Europe through the Balkans.

In contrast to Croatia, which provided assistance and let the refugees continue their way west, Hungary did the opposite. The refugees were first detained in Budapest, and then fenced off from new arrivals by barbed wire.

Another victim of Orbán’s policy turned out to be George Soros and his philanthropic activities, especially the Central European University, which he wants to throw out of the country.

US presidents rarely host the Hungarian prime minister

All these woes paradoxically give Trump a lot material to discuss with the Hungarian Prime Minister. As David Cornstein – the US ambassador, an 80-year diamond trader and private a friend of Trump – admitted, the US president would like to be in a similar political situation as Orbán.

However, anyone who thinks that these two politicians have a similar style of governing is wrong, and that’s why they met.

The time has come to change the political line to all countries of Central Europe. This is not a return to the community of values, but a demonstration of the strength that the USA has and thanks to which Central Europe can make use of NATO’s protective umbrella.

Mike Pompeo meets with Slovak Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini

Orbán is visiting the White House for the second time. George W. Bush and Barack Obama did not invite him. In 1998, Bill Clinton received him, whom Orbán praised as a liberal and future ally in NATO, able to save Hungary from Moscow’s influence.

History has come full circle, and Orbán strongly advocates his formula of illiberal principles, flirts with Putin, but does not change alliances. And in this sense, a visit to the US is important and perhaps even necessary.

How to make Hungary dependent on the USA

As part of the new strategy, the US clearly identified Russia and China as its revisionist opponents. For two decades, Central Europe has carefreely developed under the umbrella of the alliance, but now it has become the arena of a dispute with Russia and the West.

That is why recently Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited several countries of the region, including Poland, underlining their close ties with the US, and then began a series of visits to Washington – first the Czech Prime Minister, then Slovak, now Hungarian, whose relations with Russia are also the most emotional.

Although Trump is not one of the most credible politicians, especially when it comes to relations with Putin, the USA effectively binds its allies. This time, it is not a community of values, but a policy of purchasing American weapons. The United States wants to be unrivalled in the region.

This arrangement would be acceptable to Orbán. But it may soon turn out that the transatlantic critics of such an agreement, also counting Republicans among their numbers, would dominate the narrative not only in Europe but also in the US.

Before the meeting at the White House, Orbán received a letter with the position of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, signed inter alia by Marco Rubio, once a contender in the presidential primaries, demanding a firm attitude in all matters concerning Hungary’s policy: from respect for freedom to relations with Beijing and Moscow.

Orbán puts on a brave face

Although these voices usually do not make an impression on Trump, he has to reckon with the position of his party and cannot publicly support Orbán. From the outset, the Hungarian Prime Minister said: “I am building an alternative to liberal democracy”.

Trump said he was dealing with a controversial politician who was close to him in style. Nothing more. In a conversation with journalists, most of the time it took him to answer questions about China and the situation in the Middle East. Orbán only politely asked if he was allowed to say something to begin with, and then disappeared in the shadow of the US president.

The Hungarian autocrat will simply pay a higher price for geopolitical antics measured by arms purchases. He’s trying to put on a brave face for a bad game.

In the long run, he can no longer count on indulgence, and not because Hungary has suddenly become important. But when there is a potential conflict on the horizon between the major powers – the US and China – allies must be counted.

Democratic values ​​turn out to be much more valuable than the price you have to pay for security in a state that despise these values.



This article is part of the #DemocraCE project organised by Visegrad/Insight. It was published in Polish on Polityka and can be found here

Editor-in-chief of Visegrad Insight and president of board at the Res Publica Foundation. His expertise includes European politics and political culture. Previously, he has been the editor-in-chief of Eurozine - a Vienna based magazine with a European network of cultural journals, and a Polish quarterly Res Publica Nowa. Wojciech also co-authored a book 'Understanding Central Europe’, Routledge 2017. Twitter: @wprzybylski

Eastern European Futures

In 2009, the European Union and six of its Eastern neighbours launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP) with the stated aim of building a common area of shared democracy, prosperity, stability and increased cooperation. A decade on, however, progress has been mixed.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

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