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The Turan Blind Alley of the Hungarian “opening to the East”

November 4, 2012 - Andrzej Sadecki - Bez kategorii



On August 31st 2012, Hungary released the killer of an Armenian soldier back to his native Azerbaijan, where he was instantly pardoned and welcomed as a national hero. As a result, Armenia suspended diplomatic relations with Hungary, and while the criticism was mainly targeted at Azerbaijan, the international community has once again taken an alarmed look at the country governed for the last two years by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Does the eruption of the scandal signify a failure of the “opening to the East” policy promoted by Budapest, and of the reaching for Turan traditions (belief in the mythical kinship of Hungarians, Huns and Turkic peoples) in the Hungarian foreign policy? Or perhaps it is just a side effect of the consistent policy of developing friendly relations with the most important actors in the East?

The Safarov case

The roots of the scandal go back to a murder committed in a dormitory of the military academy in Budapest during a language course within the NATO programme “Partnership for Peace” in 2004. On February 18th, late at night or early morning the next day, one of the course participants, an Azeri sub-lieutenant Ramil Safarov, killed a sleeping Armenian officer and tried to murder another Armenian trainee. Safarov was arrested and after a three-year trial a Hungarian court sentenced him to 30 years in prison for first degree murder without the possibility of parole. In Azerbaijan, Safarov was perceived by many as a patriot and a hero, and the Azeri administration strived for his extradition. It has been recently admitted by a member of the parliamentary national security committee that the Safarov case was the main reason for establishing an Azeri embassy in Budapest. The matter was widely discussed in these two feuding South Caucasian countries. Armenia appealed for a severe verdict for the murderer, as well as for keeping him in Hungary, which would guarantee that the punishment would be served.

But having spent eight years in a Hungarian prison, Safarov was unexpectedly turned over to the Azeri authorities. When the killer landed in Baku, he was pardoned by President Ilham Aliyev, received his outstanding salary and an apartment, and was elevated to the rank of major, while people in the street applauded the arrival of the “hero”. The President of Armenia instantly condemned Azerbaijan's actions, but also held Hungary responsible and relations between the two countries were suspended (there has been no such radical step in the history of Hungarian diplomacy since 1967, when under Soviet pressure Hungary suspended relations with Israel). The indignation of the Armenians, which culminated in a demonstration before the honorary Hungarian consulate in Yerevan and the burning of the Hungarian flag, was exacerbated by rumours that Azerbaijan was planning to buy Hungarian bonds, which the Hungarian press had been speculating about for several weeks.

The rumours had been circulating in the press since early August, and one week before Safarov‘s extradition the Hungarian economic weekly Figyelő – quoting government sources – published information that Azerbaijan might buy Hungarian bonds worth two or three billion euros. The government had previously failed in its attempts to sell bonds to Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, and such a financial injection would strengthen the Hungarian position in the final stage of negotiations on a credit line from the International Monetary Fund. The Hungarian authorities, however, strongly rejected the claim that they had “made a deal” with Azerbaijan, and Baku also officially declared that it had no plans to buy Hungarian government securities. Budapest stressed that turning the prisoner over was in line with international law, and specifically the Strasbourg Convention. The Hungarian Foreign Ministry notified the Azeri ambassador that Safarov’s pardon was received with indignation by the Hungarian government. A few days later Orbán admitted that he had made the decision on Safarov’s release fully aware of the possible consequences, and that none of them surprised him.

The Hungarian “opening to the East ”

Negotiations on Safarov’s release took place at the highest level. During the economic forum in Baku in late June 2012, the Hungarian prime minister talked about it to Aliyev and the details were then discussed by Péter Szíjjártó, Orbán’s right hand. Neither side revealed the details of the negotiations but Safarov’s release was an unambiguous friendly gesture towards Azerbaijan, in tune with the “opening to the East” policy promoted by Orbán. Among the most important partners in this policy, the government names Azerbaijan, alongside Saudi Arabia, China and Russia, as well as, further down the line, Georgia and Kazakhstan. Although developing cooperation with the East had already begun under the Socialists (2002-2010), when Fidesz took power, the “opening to the East” became one of the government’s flagship projects. Orbán has frequently declared that in the face of the crisis in Europe cooperation with the East, an “engine of global economy”, should now be tightened.

Above all, the government is counting on new markets for Hungarian manufacturers, as the Hungarian economy is based on exports which account for more than 80 per cent of GDP. The break-down of demand for Hungarian products and services in Europe, and especially in Germany – their greatest economic partner – means that Hungary belongs to the countries most affected by the on-going economic crisis. So the “opening to the East” is an attempt at a geographic diversification of exports. One instrument for achieving this is a network of trade chambers and the first is to be opened this year in Azerbaijan. The Ministry of National Economy intends to spend 3 billion forints (about 10.6 million euros) on building such a network. Other chambers are to be established in China, Russia and Saudi Arabia.

Hungarians are also attempting to attract capital from the East. So far, mainly Chinese investment has been brought in, with the largest transaction being the purchase of the BorsodChem chemical works by the Wanhua Industrial Group corporation in February 2011. But an attempt at selling government bonds ended in failure. Eastern partners are not interested in high risk Hungarian securities. Also, the prospect of securing non-Russian suppliers of natural gas in the East seems remote. Hungarians have been recently focusing on smaller, regional projects, such as building gas interconnectors, but in the longer-term they remain intent on acquiring energy supplies from the Caspian region. During the economic forum in Baku held in June, Orbán underlined the hopes connected with the AGRI project (transferring Azeri gas via Georgia, the Black Sea and Romania to Hungary, with the involvement of the Hungarian state-owned energy company MVM). But at the same time – although Orbán openly admitted being pessimistic in this respect – Hungarians still support the construction of the Nabucco pipeline, as witnessed, for example, by the fact that as the first of the countries in the consortium in August this year, they issued ecological permits for the project.

A test for the Hungarian “Turanism”

In recent months Hungarian foreign policy has been given an ideological rationale. Fidesz has been increasingly often invoking the “Turan” tradition, based on the mythical brotherhood of Hungarians with the Huns and Turkic nations, such as the Azeri, Turkmen and Kazakhs (this tradition ignores the Finno-Ugric linguistic affinity with the Fins, Estonians and other nations). Although the President of Hungary recently opened a congress of Finno-Ugric nations, this year’s edition of the Kurultaj festival organised in Hungary, a meeting of peoples which cultivate the tradition of Turanism, was more widely advertised. This mass event secured a government subsidy (about 250,000 euros), and the deputy chairman of the National Assembly from Fidesz received delegations from Turkic countries and peoples in parliament.

Fidesz reaches for this tradition as serving the short-term goals of its Eastern policy, emphasising the special relationships of Hungary with Asia, although it is also a way of breaking Jobbik’s monopoly on invoking this current of Hungarian national ideology. And the critics of the government in Hungary and abroad present it as Orbán employing anti-democratic and Fascist traditions (Turanism was particularly favoured by the Arrow-Crossers). An impression of a “Turanist” tendency in the rhetoric of the regime was intensified by Orbán’s words from July 2012 about the half-Asian origin of the Hungarians, who are closer to the Eastern, “forcible” models of building national unity than, for example, the Scandinavian models.

The Safarov case highlights the weaknesses of the indiscriminate drawing by Orbán on various currents of tradition, and showed that invoking the “Turan” idea may come in conflict with the Christian Democratic tradition still dominant among the Hungarian Right. A significant role in this tendency is played by the tradition of the “rampart of Christianity” and cooperation of Eastern European nations. A policy placing Hungary in the role of an ally of the Azeri against the Christian Armenians may be at least confusing for a major part of Fidesz's voters, and especially for its coalition partner – the Christian Democrats from the KDNP (the Christian Democratic People's Party, a mostly Catholic electorate). The feelings of a section of Hungarian society after the Safarov scandal are probably reflected by the reaction of the Hungarian Christian churches. Hungarian Primate, Cardinal Péter Erdő, expressed solidarity with the Armenian Catholics and the Armenian nation. A similar position was taken by Protestant bishops (Calvinian and Lutheran). The opposition is divided on the matter. The extreme rightist Jobbik supported the government’s actions, while the liberal and left-wing parties strongly criticised it, demanding the dismissal of the foreign minister and the minister of justice. Non-governmental organisations combined their criticism of the government with expressing solidarity with the Armenians (internet campaigns and a two thousand-strong demonstration on Kossuth Square in Budapest).

What does the future hold?

Safarov’s release and emphasising the Turan dimension of Hungarian foreign policy has so far brought more damage than benefits to Hungary. After the extradition, Armenia suspended diplomatic relations with Hungary, while the United States and strategic partners of Hungary in the European Union (including Germany) criticised the decision of the government in Budapest; and Azerbaijan officially denied the intention of buying Hungarian bonds. Invoking Turanism bears a political cost for Fidesz – it is negatively received by a major part of moderate Fidesz voters and gives the opposition an opportunity to castigate Orbán for holding views previously reserved for the extreme Right. Longer-term diplomatic relations between Hungary and Armenia will probably be renewed, for there is no serious conflict of interests between these countries. Hungary may put pressure on Azerbaijan to compensate the political losses in the economic sphere, but it is doubtful whether Azeri interest in intensifying cooperation will grow sufficiently for Hungarian expectations to be satisfied. Although the Hungarian “opening to the East” will probably be continued, recent weeks have shown the drawbacks of this policy. We may expect a more cautious approach to relations with Eastern partners from Budapest.

Translated by Tomasz Bieroń

Andrzej Sadecki is an analyst at the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW) in Warsaw, specialising in Hungarian politics. He holds an MA in European Studies from the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, and an MA in History from Central European University in Budapest.

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