Hungarian news website HVG.hu has published an interview with former senior statesman Geza Jeszenszky in which he talks about Hungary’s relations with its allies, how the Norway Civil Fund fiasco affected his ability as ambassador to promote strong bilateral relations with Norway, and how a dramatic shift in foreign policy has launched Hungary into a new era of diplomatic relations. For an English translation of the entire interview, click here.
The Norway Civil Fund Fiasco
While making it clear that he is not at liberty to divulge details concerning his departure from his post as Hungary’s ambassador to the Kingdom of Norway, Jeszenszky tells HVG.hu that the Norway Civil Fund fiasco definitely played a role in it.
The fiasco put Jeszenszky between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, Hungary’s Office of the Prime Minister, specifically Janos Lazar, sent letters to the Norwegian government without first consulting with Hungary’s diplomatic mission in Norway. In the letters, Lazar made baseless allegations about the Kingdom of Norway, accusations that Jeszenszky himself dismisses as “flippant” and “utter nonsense”.
Despite Jeszenszky’s best efforts, the government of Hungary refused to handle the fiasco on a diplomatic level and instead opted for a path that only soured bilateral relations between the two countries.
He had urged the government of Hungary to resolve the conflict with the Kingdom of Norway as soon as possible because, as Jeszenszky says
“Norway is country that we could learn from. It has a center-right government, a Norwegian is the secretary general of NATO, it would be easier to import energy from Norway than from Azerbaijan, and they even give Hungary EUR 153 million every four years. If there’s any country we shouldn’t have conflict with, that country would be Norway.”
After failing to mediate any progress in the conflict Jeszenszky felt the public souring of relations signaled that his role as the chief of Hungary’s diplomatic mission to Norway had come to an end.
He tells HVG.hu that the government of Hungary showed no intention whatsoever of moving the controversy to a diplomatic level. “Why have a diplomatic representative if this will happen?” asks the senior statesmen rhetorically.
The shift in Hungary’s foreign policy
Jeszenszky mentioned an event organized last year by Hungary’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to celebrate Hungary joining the European Union, an event which took place right before the reshuffling of Hungary’s government and coincided with then-Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi’s 70th birthday.
According to Jeszenszky the event had an ominous undertone heralding the “last dance” of an era in Hungary’s foreign affairs and foreshadowing a marked departure from the precedent of earlier years. Since Martonyi’s departure in April 2014 Hungary’s foreign diplomatic core has been largely replaced, as have most of the people working at the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs under current Minister for Foreign Relations and Trade, Peter Szijjarto.
Jeszenszky’s position has not changed regarding the US State Department’s travel bans targeting Hungarian government officials and businessmen. He still thinks the United States should share its evidence. However, Jeszenszky believes the Hungarian government is well aware of who is involved in the scandal and what connects said individuals to the travel bans.
Furthermore, he points out that it wasn’t the US government that informed the Hungarian public of the travel bans, but pro-government Napi Gazdasag.
To make matters worse, Jeszenszky says, the Hungarian government’s response to the travel bans was “absolutely not diplomatic”.
“To even suggest that a chief of mission should give up his diplomatic immunity and stand trial before a judge…. I taught diplomatic history for many years but I’ve never heard of anything like this. [then-US Chargé d’affaires André] Goodfriend may have a unique style but I think he has some resemblance to Mark Palmer who was also very active. But [Goodfriend] is an official representative of the American government, and the Americans keep their ambassadors on a much tighter leash than, say, the Hungarians. So it’s impossible that he was doing what he was doing on his own accord,” says Jeszenszky.
Jeszenszky says the US is genuinely concerned about what their government perceives to be violations against democracy in Hungary.
“I don’t think they are being hypocrites, I think they genuinely take these things very seriously. The standards are always held higher for a formal ally,” he says.
Hungary needs to be good and Hungary needs to look good
With regard to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, Jeszenszky says the government is pursuing a two-faced policy. On the one hand, it votes for economic sanctions against Russia. On the other hand, it publicly criticizes the sanctions in the hope of scoring points with Putin.
Jeszenszky thinks the only reason why Hungary is so open in its opposition to sanctions against Russia is because this government seeks to garner some kind of domestic support from this position, i.e. the government is attempting to appease certain elements within Hungary who are supportive of Russia’s actions.
Jeszenszky doesn’t think Putin’s visit in itself is a problem, it’s the timing that can be criticized.
“Most of the Western countries also believe that negotiating and patience are important. If Hungary is in a position to have meaningful discussions with Putin then it should try to do so,” he says. “It’s understandable to negotiate if our goal is to be the beneficiaries of cheaper gas. But if we end up paying a high price for cheap gas then it’s not.”
Regarding German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s recent visit to Budapest, Jeszenszky says that, given the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine, “It’s not only our moral responsibility but also a fundamental interest to stand united with our allies.”
The combination of geopolitical turmoil and growing distance between Hungary and its allies poses serious challenges to Hungary, but Jeszenszky emphasizes the opportunities that arise in such situations. “I had hoped that this unfortunate escalation and cold war-like confrontation would realign Hungary to where it was earlier, where it belongs. This hasn’t happened yet but there are signs that it might take place.”