Hungary under fire

Posted by gergelyvg on 13/02/12

The recent exchange of highly tense letters in December 2011 between European Commission President José Manuel Barroso and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, and the ahead of scheduled departure from Budapest of the joint EU – IMF negotiating team preparing the talks on a new IMF – loan were just two signs the current Hungarian center – right government of Prime Minister Orbán has strained relations with key Western leaders. At the center of the Barrosso – Orbán dispute was a new legislature on the Central Bank of Hungary, which critics say could harm the independence of the bank, but it is hardly the only issue spurring tensions between Budapest and Brussels, and in a broader picture, Budapest and the “West”.

After the first weeks of January, as Hungary’s new basic law came into force, the government faced increasing international pressure from leading Western governments to change course. For days Hungary was at the cross-hairs of the international press, while at the same time the Hungarian Forint hiked to record lows against key currencies. Under growing international pressure, and with the government in growing need of an IMF-EU safety loan, since the second week of January, the Hungarian government has begun to signal it is open to revise most of the criticized measures.

Critics of Prime Minister Orbán say the tensions are only the result of the current government’s goal of expanding and cementing its power. True, since taking office in May 2010, the Hungarian government has received some critical remarks even from such well respected institutions as the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe on the new Hungarian basic law, not to mention other more harsh criticisms on numerous issues coming from Western politicians and even the US State Department.

Transforming Hungary with the two-thirds majority

Indisputably a lot of the regulations, appointments approved by the Parliament favor Fidesz, the ruling center-right party, and its bur directly or indirectly. One obvious example is the recently adapted law on elections, which includes new voting districts drawn to favor to some extent Fidesz, which the opposition fear could cement the power of the ruling party for the years to come. But in the eyes of Viktor Orbán and his supporters, it was the previous twenty years from voting districts favorable to the socialist party to media regulation and to a whole range of other regulations and institutions which was unfair, undemocratic and ultimately unsuccessful: all results of the unfinished, messy, and corrupt political transformation of 1989-1990. And with two thirds majority in Parliament since the elections of April 2010, the government perceives it has the mandate to finally transform the Hungarian political system for good.

Even though the Prime Minister came under growing pressure from the West because of his policies on democratic institutions and unorthodox economic policies based on the concept of “economic freedom fight”, domestically, he was still up for the fight. So what was, and to some extent, still is behind this determination?

Orbán has been deeply involved in Hungarian politics ever since the late 1980s, it would be misleading to drive down his current concept of governance, policies and his view on the “West” only from his recent tenure as Prime Minister, or from his supposed quest for stabilizing his power. More importantly, it would not explain why is Orbán, being under fire from all fronts from the outside, is still popular on the right, even though he has received some criticism from his own political side as well. There is a long history of specks in the eyes of Orbán – and with him, a large proportion of his political supporters on the right – when it comes to Western leaders and their approach to Hungarian politics.

Past experience and perceptions of the West – from the right

As for domestic politics, it was the West who accepted the political descendents of the communist regime as authentic democratic partners in the 1990s, while being much more suspicious with parties on the right in fear of their supposed nationalism. It was the West who followed with suspicion the policies with which the previous and the current Orbán – government tried to improve the situation of the three million ethnic Hungarians living in neighboring countries, even though these policies never went further than supporting autonomy for these minorities or providing them dual citizenship – both a common European practice.

It was the West which hardly protested after socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány did not step down after his infamous “Öszöd – speech” in 2006, in which he admitted the socialist’s policies and campaign running up to the 2006 elections where based on lies. And it was the West which did not stood up against the brutal police abuses in the fall of 2006 during the demonstrations calling for Gyurcsány to step down.

As for economic policies, in the perception of the government and its supporters, it was the West who pressed Hungary to adopt neo-liberal economic policies (liberalization, deregulation, privatization) from the early 1990s, which was partly responsible for the current global economic crisis – and it was the Hungarian political left which much more so cheered for these policies, while the Hungarian political right was more cautious.

It was the West who urged “wild” privatization in the early 1990s, exceeding the levels of every other ex-communist neighboring country, which is largely responsible for today’s unhealthy dual economic structure in Hungary, with relatively healthy foreign owned multinational companies and struggling Hungarian firms. It was the West, and the IMF in particular, which forced the Hungarian government to introduce the obligatory private pension system in 197, which then created huge yearly deficits for the annual budgets, and according to a 2008 IMF study on Pension Privatization and Country Risks, wasn’t such a good idea after all. And it was the West who now criticize the Orbán government for eliminating this obligatory private pension system. It was mostly western owned banks, who heavily contributed to and profited from the irresponsible foreign currency based lending in the last decade and then did not share their fair burden after the crisis hit – until the Orbán- government introduced extra taxes on them.

Constant solid base for Prime Minister Orbán

Of course one can debate the extent of the truths in the above mentioned statements. But it is hardly debatable that a considerable proportion of Hungarian society, especially those on the right, agrees with the above listed perceptions, which recent polls conducted by Hungary based research think – tank Tárki seems to reinforce. Fidesz is still leading the polls with more than 20% ahead of radical right party Jobbik and socialist MSZP, both around 10%, and Prime Minister Orbán is still the most popular politician after President Pál Schmitt. Although the government had to face the first significant opposition demonstration on January the 2nd, with a number of participants estimated to be around 50,000, on January the 21st supporters of the government managed to take by orders of magnitude larger number of people to the streets in a demonstration in support for the government.

So even if in the current EU vs. Hungarian government battle Orbán will have no other option than to compromise, which seems highly likely at this moment, he would be considered by many in Hungary as a politician simply failing to be realist enough in measuring his room for manoeuvre – but on the other hand, still considered to be a politician ultimately fighting – and loosing – for the “right” cause.

Recognizing Palestine – not just a moral issue

Posted by gergelyvg on 29/11/12

The recognition of Palestine at the UN would strengthen those on both sides who believe peace is possible. It would send the Palestinians a strong message, that the international community truly recognizes their rightful and legitimate aspirations. It would help Palestinian unity. It would make Hamas more interested in negotiations. It would send the message that diplomacy is worth it. It would send the Israelis a strong message that peace and security through diplomacy and concessions – and only through diplomacy and concessions – is possible. It would give a slight hope that Western nations could still keep a minor slice of their fading influence in the Arab world.
A former Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert thinks likewise – and a large number of other Israelis, who badly need a boost.

Will Western nations adjust to the hard – line Netanyahu – Libermann narrative or will they strengthen those who share their own political goals – and stand up to their national security interests?

And by the way: it’s the right thing to do.

No Smart Defense without Smart Integration for Europe

Posted by gergelyvg on 30/05/12

While Western leaders reaffirmed their commitment to NATO at the recent Chicago summit – pledging to conduct a responsible drawdown in Afghanistan, cooperate more on military capabilities in Europe, and enhance global partnerships – the future of the future of the Alliance, and indeed the entire European project itself, is still cast in a cloud of uncertainty. Four years into the current eurocrisis, new political tensions have emerged between EU member states and old divisions between Europe’s core and its periphery have been reinforced.

But the eurocrisis is not just a political and economic challenge – it also presents a serious challenge to Europe’s long-term security and, as a result, to transatlantic solidarity. There is no reason to believe that transatlantic security cooperation would remain immune to a standstill or a complete collapse of the European integration process, as we argue in detail in a study published at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

Quite the reverse, if current trends persist, the Alliance should prepare for a dim, if not dismal future. While the United States is increasingly bent on pivoting towards Asia, U.S. policymakers have continuously sent the message to their European counterparts that NATO will remain relevant to Washington only as long as it lives up to certain military expectations.

Unfortunately, most European nations have not paid heed to this message. The year 2012 will mark the first time that Asian military spending will surpass that of Europe – just one of the countless signs that Europe is on a downward trajectory towards strategic irrelevance. If current trends hold, Europe in a couple of years will not be able to conduct even a limited Libya-like operation, which is an alarming prospect.

As for now, NATO’s smart defense and EU’s pooling and sharing concepts are seen as the primary tools for tackling Europe’s capability problem. However, doing more with significantly less is impossible. Less money means fewer capabilities, and this cannot be an option in a world that is far from peaceful and stable.

While economic challenges remain a top priority, this does not mean Europe is not facing growing security challenges. On the contrary, conflicts and crises of even larger scale and greater impact than the ones recently seen in Libya or Syria cannot be ruled out in Europe’s vicinity in the years to come.

The growing competition in the global commons and their vulnerability to various state and non-state actors – such as the increasing number of cyber-attacks against Western nations or piracy off the coast of Somalia – should all be a concern for European nations. Meanwhile, the willingness and ability of the United States to provide for security in the full spectrum of these domains, which Europe so heavily relies upon, is in decline.

Even more importantly, European publics tend to overlook the reality that peace and stability in Europe cannot be taken for granted. Instead, they are a result of the transatlantic Alliance and of European integration. The true value of the “security goods” NATO provides can only be determined if the organization were to disappear. Sustaining the Alliance in the absence of a common imminent threat requires a certain level of convergence of economic, political and security interests among European states. If European integration were to wreck havoc, prompting an inordinate disintegration of Europe, NATO too would feel the pain. The future of NATO is accordingly intrinsically embedded into the future of European integration.

In the new challenging geopolitical environment, with a changing global power distribution and with new security threats on the rise, Europe needs to boost its defense not just because of NATO, but even more so because of itself. With current European defense budgets this is only possible through increased cooperation in the defense sphere. Effective and smart defense integration requires a comprehensive approach. Similar to NATO’s “Smart Defense” concept, which aims to do more with less, “Smart Integration” should be at the heart of European security policy, involving coordinated efforts in defense, industrial, economic, social policies, taking into account the unique features of Europe’s history and diversity.

In response to those who fear the loss of national sovereignty over defense policy, the real question facing most European nations is not whether to have the most urgently needed capabilities alone or to share it with allies, but whether to have them at all. Furthermore, the most critical shortcomings of European nations involve top tier reconnaissance, surveillance, and precision targeting capabilities – assets that are as useful for expeditionary missions overseas as for traditional Article five defense roles. To this regard, Smart Defense and Smart Integration, involving other overlapping policies would result in more resources for basic equipment, weapons and training – all crucial elements of territorial defense.

While the recent Chicago Summit demonstrated some modest progress in the Alliance, the real work should only begin. In order to secure the strategic relevance of NATO in the 21st century, Europe needs to realize that its peace and stability is not for free. Hence, Europeans should grab the opportunity of the current crisis, and start together taking defense seriously.

By Erik Brattberg and Gergely Varga. Both are visiting scholars at the Center for Transatlantic Relations of Johns Hopkins University, SAIS, Washington D.C.

German geo-economics and security challenges

Posted by gergelyvg on 04/04/12

It is nothing new to see European defense spending trailing behind that of the United States, or lately, as I wrote in an earlier post, that of other emerging parts of the globe. Although many tend to emphasize the decades old transatlantic gap between the US and European allies, the disparities between European nations defense spending are equally challenging for NATO and the EU common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP). What is new in the current economic crisis is the extent to which it is having an impact on also the relatively better performing members of the Alliance, such as the UK, France, the Netherlands, or Denmark. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with their share of European defense spending and capabilities, the impact of the British and French defense cuts is of course the most significant development. To name just one significant feature of the impact of austerity, the UK will not have an operational aircraft carrier until at least 2012, the ultimate symbol of the capability for power projection.

The only European nation with the size and resources to slow or maybe even stop the current decline of defense is Germany. Of course, because of the legacy of the 20th century, this could pose a major dilemma for European nations: should they support a considerable improvement of German defense capabilities, making it the premier nation in European security issues also, or from fear of a “German Europe”, they would rather stick with the current trend. No other option seems more likely at this point.

Even if Europe manages to avoid a collapse of the Eurozone, its economic growth prospects are not encouraging, including that of Britain and France. A federalized European security and defense policy, the only way pooling and sharing could reach the size and scope with a significant strategic impact, seems almost as far away than a decade ago.

However, Germany does not seem to be interested. The general pacifism, the rejection of the use of force in the German public as a legacy of the 20th century is still a powerful factor, however it is worth noting that Germany is the world’s third largest arms exporter. Germany’s foreign policy is still driven by geo-economics rather than geopolitics. Its special relations with Russia driven by energy cooperation and German investments, lack of interest in NATO’s military interventions out of area, while taking the lead in trying to reshape the EU according to its own economic rules are clear indication of this policy. If no dramatic event occurs which would reshape German security perception, this policy will likely remain unchallenged for the following years. However, if for any reason Germany would decide to create much stronger defense capabilities and play a more active role in international security policy, it is worth considering what would its main features likely
look like.

One of the reasons of German passivity in the broader Middle East, the premiere region for major conflicts of the past decade, is of course that it has traditionally less political, strategic interests in the region than France or the UK had. Its geopolitical location has always forced Germany to look towards the East. This feature is unlikely to change, while deepening strategic economic partnership with Russia will likely remain a major priority, and to its immediate East NATO and EU member Central European nations pose no threats. Hence it is unlikely that Germany would considerably strengthen its defense posture towards the Eastern Europe. Germany is unlikely to initiate out of area military engagements either around the world even if it would have more capabilities to be involved or take the lead in them. The one thing Germany is really interested in and could be concerned about is trade.

As the engine of German economic growth, international trade is crucial for Germany. As the rise of Asia, the most dynamically expanding a region for German goods, will continue, it will increasingly rely upon the security of international trade routes on the high seas. Today the security of the high seas, the freedom of international trade is to a large extent guaranteed by the US navy. No competitor can be seen on the horizon, even China, which could in the foreseeable future question the primacy of the US in that domain. However, as the US will be increasingly focused to demonstrate its presence in the Pacific and the Indian ocean, and increasing tensions, conflict from time to time could not be ruled out in those vast areas, European nations could be forced to play a larger role in the security of this vital global common, especially in Europe’s vicinity. The absence of confronting this challenge would likely contain great costs, and Germany would have equally a lot to lose.

Gergely Varga is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Young Atlanticist Working Group

Is Europe prepared for the new world order?

Posted by gergelyvg on 01/04/12

In the first time since centuries, Asia’s military spending will surpass that of Europe in 2012 according to London based International Institute for Strategic Studies, which is preparing to launch its annual Military Balance publication. With Asia’s continuing robust economic growth together with strategic incentives for defense modernization on the one hand, and Europe’s economic crisis, drastic defense budget cuts and no major imminent security threat on the other this isn’t such a surprising development. The news just clearly represents a milestone of a historical trend, the geopolitical shift of power from the Euro-Atlantic area towards Asia.

So what does this mean for Europe’s strategic position, how worried should Europe be?

First of all, one reason European nations can let their defense budgets continue to shrink is positive – much of Europe remains to be the most stable and peaceful continent, and there are no imminent security threats within or from outside of Europe. Much of Europe is an ally of the United States, the world’s premier and only true global military power, which will likely remain in this position for decades to come. Furthermore, Asia’s new military powers are arming themselves primarily to maintain balance of power within themselves, not viv a vis the West. China might be the obvious exception, which might have the potential in a decade or so to be a competitor of the United States economically, and even militarily in China’s neighborhood to some extent, but still not globally. Asia’s other major developed powers, Japan, South Korea, Australia or emerging ones as India, Indonesia and other South – East Asian nations are either US allies or tend lean towards the US more than China on security matters. So these are basically the reassuring news for Europe. That is, it is highly unlikely European nations would be involved in direct, full scale military confrontation with these emerging Asian nations in the foreseeable future.

Even in the case of Russia, the overall picture is reassuring for Europeans, in 2011 European NATO countries spent about 275 billion dollars on defense, about five time as much as Russia did. Of course the devil lies in the details, Europe is not a nation state with a unified political and military leadership, and Central and Eastern Europeans sometimes have doubts of their Western allies’ commitments to their security.

However, as it has been in the last two decades, the potential for unrest, political turmoil and military conflict in Europe’s neighborhood from North Africa through the Middle East to the Caucasus cannot be ruled out for the foreseeable future. Not to mention that the Persian Gulf is also experiencing a regional arms race, but looking at the unexpected trajectory of the Arab revolts, no one could know for sure how stable or friendly would the regions actors be to the West in a couple of years’ time.

Accepting the current trends of ever decreasing European defense capabilities does pose risks and will have costs at some point, one just has to think on the political instability around the Persian Gulf and North Africa or piracy around Somalia. The world especially in that region is far away from the utopian “democratic peace”, one has to have credibility to be taken seriously. Military power is of course by itself not a solution for the challenges of the region, but without it, the chance for Europe to influence the developments will shrink accordingly. Debates on intervention like the one on Libya or on Syria could remain totally hypothetical and irrelevant in the future, even if a crisis of a much larger scale would erupt in this neighborhood and pose direct security threats for Europe, if European nations would not have military means to act. The United States, as it has shown in Libya, will be much more reluctant to intervene in places where vital US strategic interests are not at stake.

Furthermore, in the coming decades, China and likely even India will be able to increase its military footprint in the Western part of the Indian – ocean. These new powers will want to increase their military presence in vital naval routes, as they will rely more on imports of natural resources from the Persian Gulf and Africa. And as their policies concerning the Arab revolts have shown, their interests and actions often do not always correspond with that of West.

European nations will have to figure out ways no to let their defense capabilities further erode. Through NATO and CSDP European nations have to maintain and strengthen the right military capabilities, while remaining to take the lead in multilateral arms control and nuclear non-proliferation initiatives. And if it wants to do that with credibility, it has to be open in meeting its obligations, such as on the issue of NATO’s tactical nuclear weapons. Less like in the previous decades, where global fight against WMD largely meant the West pressuring much less weaker nations to abandon their WMD weapons and programs, Europe as part of the West will be forced to negotiate with increasingly powerful nations, where results will be achieved through hard compromise. The sooner Europe prepares itself for this new world, the less unpleasant surprises will it have to encounter.

Gergely Varga is member of the Atlantic Council’s Young Atlanticist Working Group

“Never Again” – Remembering the Victims of Communism

Posted by gergelyvg on 25/02/12

On February the 25th Hungary remembers the victims Communism. On this day in 1947 Béla Kovács, a leading Hungarian politician at the time who opposed the “sovietization”- that is the drift towards communist dictatorship – of Hungarian politics was unlawfully arrested and deported to the Soviet Union.
He wasn’t the first victim, nor the last. Thousands of Hungarian men were deported during the end of the Second World War to the Soviet Union for “malenkij robot” – a “little work”. Many never came back, and they were the first Hungarian masses who experienced the true nature of Stalin’s inhuman regime. After the war ended, with thousands of soviet troops stationing in Hungary, the country steadily, step by step drifted towards communism, and with the few glorious days of the 1956 revolution as the exception, it defined Hungary’s history for the decades to come. Yes, communism ended in 1989, but its legacy, its memories are still with Hungarians up till this day.
It might be a relative who was taken away by the secret police in the early 50’s. Urban middle class ancestors who were deported to the country-side from their homes because they were considered enemies of the class, or “just” fired from their jobs. The victims of the 1956 revolution and its brutal reprisal. Or just the legacy of the “gulyás communism” or “mild dictatorship” of the 1970’s and 80’s: yes it was more comfortable for many, and yes, it was not so harsh as in other communist countries, but it was still a communist dictatorship. With severe consequences for Hungarian society: the institutionalization of lies, the oppression of civil society, communities, innovative initiatives, community responsibility, free public discourse, tradition, religion and the list goes on.
All which is essential for the free and prosperous Europe Hungary wanted to (re)join after communism collapsed. So when we are thinking about reforming, reinventing Europe today, we should remember, that institutions and regulation by themselves are not the solution: it’s the essence which matters most.
And all this begins by being aware of the dark side of our past, which Hungarians together with other nations experienced in the 20th century. Therefor we should say together: never again communism.