1. The Eastern Neighbours and Russia

Beyond pragmatism

Hun­gar­i­an polit­i­cal par­ties, except some minor lib­er­al ones from the so-called demo­c­ra­t­ic oppo­si­tion, pur­sue a strong pro-Russ­ian for­eign pol­i­cy. The incum­bent con­ser­v­a­tive gov­ern­ment par­ty, Fidesz has made a U‑turn in its Rus­sia rela­tions since 2010. Prime Min­is­ter Vik­tor Orbán, a staunch crit­ic of Rus­sia for two decades, has turned into one of Moscow’s most vocal defend­ers in the midst of its war in east­ern Ukraine. Prime Min­is­ter Orbán con­clud­ed a huge nuclear deal with Rosatom in Jan­u­ary 2014 and con­tin­ues to pur­sue an inten­sive “gas diplo­ma­cy” with Moscow. The right-wing rad­i­cal par­ty Job­bik, Hungary’s sec­ond-strongest par­ty, has crit­i­cised the government’s pro-Euro­pean stance and favours even more engage­ment with Moscow — a his­tor­i­cal­ly unprece­dent­ed ori­en­ta­tion for a rad­i­cal right-wing par­ty. Some scan­dals have also revealed finan­cial sup­port to Job­bik from Rus­sia in the past. Major left­ist oppo­si­tion par­ties cau­tious­ly crit­i­cised Orbán’s Rus­sia and for­eign pol­i­cy on var­i­ous grounds. Nonethe­less, they also have a rel­a­tive­ly pro-Russ­ian lega­cy, since the Hun­gar­i­an Social­ist Par­ty and the Fer­emc Gyurcsány led cab­i­net engaged Moscow in dif­fer­ent pipeline and polit­i­cal issues pri­or to 2010.

The Hun­gar­i­an Prime Minister’s turn towards Rus­sia cer­tain­ly has a strong eco­nom­ic jus­ti­fi­ca­tion. Ener­gy is a major issue in this regard; the bilat­er­al deals sig­nal strong quid pro quo rela­tions (rough­ly 70% of all gas and oil demand is cov­ered by Russ­ian imports). Prime Min­is­ter Orbán also crit­i­cised the sanc­tions as counter-pro­duc­tive and harm­ful for Euro­pean economies. Budapest would like to nor­malise rela­tions and min­imise the neg­a­tive con­se­quences of the Ukraine cri­sis for bilat­er­al rela­tions. The government’s Rus­sia pol­i­cy is more dri­ven by util­i­tar­i­an con­sid­er­a­tions, and maybe to some extent also by its EU-scep­ti­cism, cou­pled with igno­rance of demo­c­ra­t­ic deficits in Rus­sia, rather than by ide­ol­o­gy or “grand visions”. Giv­en the pro-Russ­ian domes­tic par­ty land­scape, this pol­i­cy line remains less risky and cost­ly in terms of pop­u­lar sup­port, than any pro-Atlantic stance.

Pub­lic opin­ion polls show a more bal­anced pic­ture, with Hun­gar­i­ans being tra­di­tion­al­ly more scep­ti­cal towards Moscow. Rus­sia faces a set­back if asked about gen­er­al sym­pa­thies: Ger­many, Unit­ed States, and even Chi­na have bet­ter rank­ings. Nev­er­the­less, this is often not trans­lat­ed into par­ty pol­i­tics. For exam­ple even if almost half of the poten­tial Job­bik vot­ers would rather sup­port the US than Rus­sia in a “new Cold War”, they remain igno­rant to the right-wing rad­i­cal party’s strong pro-Rus­sia line.


All quiet on the Hungarian front…

The events in Ukraine did not sig­nif­i­cant­ly change Hungary’s rela­tions with the East­ern Part­ner­ship coun­tries. The main rea­son is that Hun­gary has nev­er been a par­tic­u­lar­ly enthu­si­as­tic or proac­tive sup­port­er of the East­ern Part­ner­ship project, well demon­strat­ed by the annu­al Euro­pean For­eign Pol­i­cy Score­card sur­veys. Budapest con­cen­trat­ed its activ­i­ties most­ly on Moldo­va and on the part­ly Hun­gar­i­an-pop­u­lat­ed Tran­scarpathi­an region of Ukraine. The lat­ter receives more than 90 per cent of all Hun­gar­i­an devel­op­ment aid funds spent in the East­ern neighbourhood.

In addi­tion to this, since 2010 Hun­gary has been striv­ing to estab­lish and main­tain good rela­tions with Azer­bai­jan. This is most­ly moti­vat­ed by gas import inter­ests, while con­cerns relat­ed to the demo­c­ra­t­ic and human rights sit­u­a­tion in Azer­bai­jan play no role at all. This is a struc­tur­al ele­ment that is not going to be changed by the Ukraine cri­sis. The sus­pend­ed diplo­mat­ic rela­tions with Arme­nia are also not going to improve, because Yere­van would require Budapest to apol­o­gise for a pro-Azer­bai­jani move – in 2012 Hun­gary trans­ferred a for­mer Azer­bai­jani offi­cer sen­tenced to life­long impris­on­ment for mur­der­ing an Armen­ian sol­dier in Budapest to Baku, where he was imme­di­ate­ly par­doned and pro­mot­ed to nation­al hero – which Hun­gary will not do in the near future.

Rela­tions with Geor­gia and Belarus have been slow­ly, but steadi­ly improv­ing. The only minor change is that, in line with the government’s strong for­eign trade ori­en­ta­tion, Budapest has start­ed to push for improv­ing the EU-Belarus rela­tions, regard­less of the domes­tic polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion in the coun­try. While offi­cial Hun­gar­i­an argu­ments stress the pos­i­tive role played by Min­sk in medi­at­ing the Ukraine cease­fire nego­ti­a­tions, in real­i­ty Budapest per­ceives Belarus both as an attrac­tive export mar­ket and also as a pos­si­ble part­ner in cir­cum­vent­ing the Russ­ian agri­cul­tur­al counter-sanctions.

All in all, the cri­sis did not change the East­ern Part­ner­ship-relat­ed pri­ori­ti­sa­tion of Hun­gary, i.e. no new pri­or­i­ties were defined, or old pri­or­i­ties aban­doned. Obvi­ous­ly, more atten­tion is paid to Ukraine, but the over­all strate­gic objec­tives and poli­cies remained the same.


Limited expectations with little disappointment

Hun­gary had two main inter­ests to achieve at the Riga Sum­mit, mak­ing two pro­pos­als aimed at them. The first one was to imme­di­ate­ly grant visa-free trav­el to Ukrain­ian cit­i­zens, moti­vat­ed main­ly by the above-described spe­cial inter­ests about the Hun­gar­i­ans liv­ing in Ukraine. Fol­low­ing the sum­mit, Prime Min­is­ter Orbán admit­ted that this did not suc­ceed and crit­i­cised the EU for its delay.

The sec­ond Hun­gar­i­an pro­pos­al was aimed at the fur­ther dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion of the East­ern Part­ner­ship. How­ev­er, the idea was not to pri­ori­tise the coun­tries that made the most progress, i.e. Geor­gia and Moldo­va, but to fur­ther deep­en ener­getic coop­er­a­tion with Azer­bai­jan, a pos­si­ble source of non-Russ­ian gas sup­plies for Europe. As none of the two main Hun­gar­i­an pro­pos­als went through, Orbán declared the sum­mit only to be mod­er­ate­ly successful.

The sum­mit kept silent about the issue of mem­ber­ship per­spec­tive to Geor­gia, Ukraine, or Moldo­va, as well as about visa-free trav­el to the EU for the lat­ter two, caus­ing some dis­ap­point­ment in Budapest. Expec­ta­tions in these respects are still vivid, regard­less of the fact that in real­i­ty mem­ber­ship per­spec­tive has nev­er been on the EU agen­da and more­over, EaP coun­tries were cer­tain­ly ful­ly aware of this. How­ev­er, the expert com­mu­ni­ty had a more bal­anced posi­tion and man­aged to point out the impor­tant results of the sum­mit too, for exam­ple the ben­e­fits Ukraine actu­al­ly got, such as a con­crete dead­line of intro­duc­ing a visa free regime and the promise that the DCFTA will indeed come into force from 1st Jan­u­ary 2016, thus there will be no fur­ther delay. More­over, Kyiv also received a mas­sive loan of 1.8 bil­lion euro.


Not too much enthusiasm for an EU army…

At present, there is no high-lev­el pub­lic dis­cus­sion in Hun­gary about the need for a uni­fied EU army. How­ev­er, the gen­er­al offi­cial posi­tion of the Hun­gar­i­an gov­ern­ment is crit­i­cal to the fur­ther deep­en­ing of EU inte­gra­tion in gen­er­al. Instead, Budapest fre­quent­ly empha­sis­es the impor­tance of main­tain­ing the sov­er­eign­ty of the mem­ber states.

Besides, accord­ing to the rel­e­vant pol­i­cy doc­u­ments of Hun­gary, Budapest con­sid­ers NATO to be the pri­ma­ry guar­an­tor of its mil­i­tary secu­ri­ty and defence. Hence, in line with the alliance’s per­cep­tion of Rus­sia as a source of increas­ing threat, Budapest was ful­ly sup­port­ive of the Wales dec­la­ra­tion, among them the sta­tion­ing of NATO troops in the Baltic States and the estab­lish­ment of a Very High Readi­ness Task Force. Besides, in line with the Wales deci­sions, Budapest com­mit­ted itself to increase its mil­i­tary spend­ing; more­over, from Sep­tem­ber 2015 JAS-39 Gripen fight­ers of the Hun­gar­i­an Air Force will con­tribute to the defence of the air­space of the Baltic States. In addi­tion to all these, Hun­gar­i­an defence and spe­cial forces start­ed to ded­i­cate par­tic­u­lar atten­tion to the threat from Russia’s so-called hybrid war­fare too. How­ev­er, all these activ­i­ties have been and will be con­duct­ed deci­sive­ly in the frame­work of NATO.

These two fac­tors implic­it­ly mean that Budapest would be against the idea of set­ting up a uni­fied EU army, even though there is no pub­licly avail­able spe­cif­ic offi­cial posi­tion on the issue. Instead, Budapest would prob­a­bly empha­sise the impor­tance of NATO in guar­an­tee­ing the secu­ri­ty and defence of Europe.


2. EU Enlargement

More scepticism about Eastern enlargement

While ful­ly sup­port­ive of the EU’s enlarge­ment to the West­ern Balka­ns, Hun­gary had been some­what scep­ti­cal towards the East­ern enlarge­ment even before the begin­ning of the Ukraine cri­sis. Hence, the break­out of the cri­sis and the sub­se­quent war only added to the exist­ing reluc­tance and scep­ti­cism of Hun­gar­i­an elites and pub­lic about whether coun­tries of East­ern Europe should ever be admit­ted to the Euro­pean Union.

This is par­tic­u­lar­ly so because the Orbán gov­ern­ment – large­ly in com­mon with its pre­de­ces­sors – intends to main­tain good rela­tions with Rus­sia, and per­ceives the sit­u­a­tion in Ukraine through the lens of Hungary’s Rus­sia-relat­ed inter­ests. This pol­i­cy, how­ev­er, is not moti­vat­ed by a val­ue-relat­ed choice, but deci­sive­ly by eco­nom­ic inter­ests, main­ly by ener­gy-relat­ed con­sid­er­a­tions. And, as Rus­sia is strong­ly opposed to the EU’s East­ern Part­ner­ship gain­ing too much influ­ence in the East­ern neigh­bour­hood, Hun­gary can­not afford pur­su­ing an enlarge­ment-ori­ent­ed East­ern pol­i­cy in the region with­out risk­ing alien­ation with Moscow.

More­over, the often Rus­sia-sym­pa­thet­ic pol­i­cy of the gov­ern­ment is fur­ther chal­lenged by the strongest oppo­si­tion par­ty, the far-right Job­bik, which pur­sues an open­ly pro-Russ­ian, anti-West­ern and anti-Kyiv for­eign pol­i­cy and report­ed­ly has close con­nec­tions to the Krem­lin. The pres­sure from Job­bik may con­sti­tute an impor­tant fac­tor push­ing the Orbán gov­ern­ment to make unusu­al­ly rad­i­cal remarks about Ukraine (ques­tion­ing the future of Ukraine as a state, demand­ing auton­o­my for Tran­scarpathia while fight­ing in the East had just begun, etc.) in order not to let the rad­i­cal par­ty dom­i­nate the com­mu­ni­ca­tion agen­da. Left­ist par­ties (Demo­c­ra­t­ic Coali­tion, Hun­gar­i­an Social­ist Par­ty) sup­port the EU’s east­ward enlarge­ment but often under­line the impor­tance of pre­serv­ing region­al sta­bil­i­ty dur­ing the process. Small­er lib­er­al and green par­ties are unam­bigu­ous­ly in favour of enlarge­ment, espe­cial­ly in the light of Russ­ian aggression.


Integration to fight migration?

In case of EU enlarge­ment toward the West­ern Balka­ns and Turkey, the Hun­gar­i­an gov­ern­ment has declared its con­tin­u­ous sup­port for the process. The Hun­gar­i­an for­eign min­is­ter sug­gest­ed accel­er­at­ing EU acces­sion nego­ti­a­tions with Ser­bia and Mon­tene­gro and start­ing acces­sion talks with Mace­do­nia as well.

Beside its geo­graph­ic prox­im­i­ty, the region is con­sid­ered to have key impor­tance for the future of Hun­gary and Cen­tral Europe’s ener­gy secu­ri­ty. Turkey as a new­ly emerg­ing eco­nom­ic pow­er of the region is also con­sid­ered an impor­tant tar­get part­ner of the Hun­gar­i­an ‘East­ern open­ing’ pol­i­cy, aim­ing at strength­en­ing eco­nom­ic ties with extra-EU countries.

Recent­ly, the main argu­ments for rapid inte­gra­tion of the West­ern Balka­ns are con­nect­ed to migra­tion and secu­ri­ty issues: it would help to man­age the migra­tion pres­sure on the Euro­pean Union and help con­tain­ing the flow of for­eign fight­ers recruit­ed for the Islam­ic State as well. The build­ing of a fence pre­vent­ing ille­gal bor­der-cross­ings on the Ser­bian bor­der of Hun­gary has raised some ten­sion between the two coun­tries. It was, how­ev­er, eased after joint gov­ern­ment dec­la­ra­tions on fur­ther coop­er­a­tion and  stronger sup­port for Serbia’s EU inte­gra­tion. Hun­gar­i­an police helps to patrol the Ser­bian-Mace­don­ian bor­der as well.


This EU-28 Watch is part of the a project called ‘East­ern Neigh­bours and Rus­sia: Close links with EU cit­i­zens’ (ENURC) in col­lab­o­ra­tion with TEPSA (Trans Euro­pean Pol­i­cy Stud­ies Asso­ci­a­tion). The project focus­es on devel­op­ing EU cit­i­zens’ under­stand­ing of the top­ic of the East­ern Neigh­bour­hood and Rus­sia and aims at encour­ag­ing their inter­est and involve­ment in this pol­i­cy which has an impact on their dai­ly lives.

The EU-28 Watch project is map­ping out the dis­cours­es on these issues in Euro­pean poli­cies all over Europe. Research insti­tutes from all 28 mem­ber states are invit­ed to give overviews on the dis­cours­es in their respec­tive countries.

This sur­vey was con­duct­ed on the basis of a ques­tion­naire that has been elab­o­rat­ed in March 2015. Most of the reports were deliv­ered in June 2015. This issue and all pre­vi­ous issues are avail­able on the recent­ly relaunched EU-28 Watch web­site:

The EU-28 Watch No. 11 receives sig­nif­i­cant fund­ing from the Otto Wolff-Foun­da­tion, Cologne, in the frame­work of the ‘Dia­log Europa der Otto Wolff-Stiftung’, and finan­cial sup­port from the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion. The Euro­pean Com­mis­sion is not respon­si­ble for any use that may be made of the infor­ma­tion con­tained therein.