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Hungary’s Geopolitical Situation and the Options in Foreign Policy

Dénes Sályi 2018.10.19.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan paid a visit to Budapest last week. On this occasion, the Hungarian Prime Minister repeated the same principle he has spoken of many times over the past several years regarding the triangle of capitals—Berlin, Moscow and Istambul—which have traditionally had a strong influence on Hungarian foreign policy. The well-worded bonmot relies on relevant conditions, but at the same time, seems a bit exaggerated as well. Undoubtedly, the Habsburg Empire played a distinctive role as its capital is in Vienna–a connection inherited by the German Empire ruled from Berlin. This also holds true for Turkey, although further back in time, and for Russia in the last 170 years.

Viktor Orbán’s foreign policy has its historical precedents in the political philosophy and practice of the great Prince of Transylvania, Gábor Bethlen, and Ferenc Deák, the brain of the Austro-Hungarian Compromise, as well as in the delicately balanced policy of Miklós Kállai during World War II. Orbán points out that the country’s geostrategic position is a reality that can not be changed; the only opportunity is to make the best use of it. A crucial element here is that Hungary should develop good political and economic relations with all the great powers around it without depending on any one of them too strongly.

Currently, Hungary’s gas supply is provided to a large extent by Russia, as is the case for many other European countries. The Russian Federation is rich in raw materials, and although it faces serious domestic problems, it will surely remain a great power in the forthcoming decades because of its demographic weight and military potential. Turkey has a population of 80 million and a strong army, its economy has been growing steadily in the last 20 years and it has a considerable impact on Middle Eastern affairs, including migration. Also, the more and more authoritarian Erdogan-regime is clearly determined, not without some nostalgia for Ottoman times, to gain a foothold in the region. Germany is the leading power of Europe with the fourth largest economy worldwide and boasts 82 million inhabitants making it the most populous state in the EU. Taking all of this into account, it is unquestionably the number one country in the Union.

Although Orbán didn’t say that the three countries were equal in relevance for Hungary, his mention of them in one package without distinction could be interpreted like so. However, this is absolutely not the case. As far as Russia is concerned, the relationship is really only necessary for one field: energy supply. Its importance will probably decrease in time with renewables gaining ground. On the other hand, despite Russia’s mighty military potential and nuclear arsenal, the country has fallen behind the US since the disintegration of the Soviet Union (Its defense spending being one-tenth, its GDP one-fifth of the American figures – the latter based favorably for Russia on PPP). Finally, as a member of NATO, Hungary is given the defense umbrella of the organization.

Turkey has become a lot more powerful in the past twenty years, especially as migration has upped their geopolitical importance of late. However, their voice is louder than their political weight, and they are still, and most likely will remain, a regional power. Moreover, Turkey’s membership in NATO necessarily restricts their ambitions in the region.

It is not debatable that among the three countries, Germany’s influence is most felt and this is not likely to change in the future. The German share in Hungary’s foreign trade is over one-fifth–largely exceeding any other partners–and in capital investment, they also take the lead. The double tie of NATO and the EU forms a strong bond, too. Another common aspect is that both Germany and Hungary are rooted in Western Christianity and democratic values permeate their societies, even if one may find some discrepancies in that. It is another question whether it would be advisable for Hungary to ’diversify’ its dependence on Germany by trying to find other reference points within the EU in the future.

Another relevant point is that Hungarian society, in spite of its disappointment in the West after the fall of communism, is fundamentally and strongly Western-oriented, and even though it often criticizes certain EU policies, it is a keen supporter of the European Union and sympathizes with Germany (and Austria). By comparison, owing to the 150-year Ottoman rule people are reserved towards Turkey, and because of the double occupation by Russia in 1849 and by the Soviet Union between 1944 and 1991, there is a massive anti-Russian sentiment in the country. In addition, Orbán didn’t name the USA in his evaluation, despite it still being the leading power of the world and NATO economically and militarily. Even Trump’s isolationist steps in certain fields can’t eliminate this trend. America also played a major role in Hungary’s destiny in the 20h century (World War I, Wilsonian principles, World War II, non-interference in 1956 or the Malta Talks between Gorbachev and Bush).

Hungary’s primary political home is the EU, whose improvement should be achieved by political means–something often declared by Orbán himself in recent years. Russian and Turkish relations are important, but being too strongly influenced by them wouldn’t serve Hungary’s national interests. Of course, to regard our Western connections and our unquestionable commitments to the West as something bringing prosperity and fortune automatically to the country would equally be the wrong position, as was proven with the end of communism a quarter of a century ago. A wise combination of faith in values shared and sober realism concerning its interests is what Hungary needs in the forthcoming decades.

By Dénes Sályi


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