Viktor Orbán’s Russian Roulette: A Foreign Policy Dilemma

by András Zágoni-Bogsch

Hungarian media were startled in mid-October when the news broke that six of the country’s citizens had been banned from entering the United States for alleged tax evasion, that harmed American economic interests. All reportedly had ties to the cabinet of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. He has governed the country for the last four years and, according to the U.S., Hungary’s chargé d’affaires André Goodfriend has helped undermine the market position of Bunge, an American food company in Hungary.

Few believed this explanation. The American government has rarely, if ever, barred citizens of EU or NATO Member States because of alleged harm to U.S. business interests.

Most understood the ban as a strong message to the Hungarian leadership – a   declaration that the U.S. will no longer tolerate a political regime within its sphere of influence edging ever closer to Russia.

This is not the first signal Washington has sent. In September, President Obama mentioned Hungary when expressing concern about the repression of civil society throughout the world. “From Russia to China to Venezuela, you are seeing relentless crackdowns, vilifying legitimate dissent as subversive. In places like Azerbaijan, laws make it incredibly difficult for NGOs even to operate. From Hungary to Egypt, endless regulations and overt intimidation increasingly target civil society,” he said. Being featured in a presidential statement alongside authoritarian regimes is not business as usual, and it should come as a strong signal to Hungary’s prime minister.

Nevertheless, the White House apparently decided to pile even more pressure on the Hungarian government. The current ban prohibits the Chairman of the Hungarian Tax Authority, among five others so far unnamed, from visiting the U.S.  Orbán should be aware that the time for softball and doublespeak is over.

The tactics he applied in handling criticism issued by the EU will not cut it against the U.S. The ban is not only a strong diplomatic gesture, but it also carries implications. If Washington knows about this corruption scheme, they might know much more, and thus be able to hurt Orbán and his government significantly.

The U.S. cannot afford to reluctantly watch Hungary switch to Team Russia. Neither can Washington afford many more diplomatic setbacks. The U.S. has already suffered a major diplomatic blow because of its inability to contain Russia in the Ukraine crisis. Hence, Washington cannot allow for a Kremlin-style Trojan horse within its own alliance. That is exactly what Orbán’s leadership increasingly resembles.

In January, he struck a multi-billion euro nuclear expansion deal with the Russians. When Russian aggression in Ukraine started, Orbán failed to side with NATO and repeatedly denounced the economic sanctions against Moscow.

Differences further deepened when the flow of gas to Ukraine through Hungarian pipelines was stopped, as well as most recently, when a shrewd legislative amendment gave green light for the construction of Gazprom’s South Stream pipeline in Hungary, an endeavor heavily opposed by the EU.

Orbán claims that his openness to a Russian partnership is merely part of a new pragmatic foreign policy directive,  announced earlier this year. He describes it as one that values economic self-interest above ideological considerations.

Caught between new commitments eastwards and old ties to U.S. dominated NATO in the West, Orbán faces a serious dilemma. If he yields to the American pressure and retracts from his eastward course, Russian President Vladimir Putin can inflict serious harm on Hungary by exerting economic power. If he turns the other way, the U.S. may use the evidence it holds against corrupt government officials to undermine his leadership.

However serious, this dilemma should appear ironic to the Hungarian prime minister. After all, as a young man in 1989, he was the first in Hungary to publicly call for the departure of Soviet armed forces stationed in the country, a feat that jumpstarted his political career. A quarter century later, he is the man who tied the country to Russia once again. Balance in this situation will now prove difficult to find. Either some of the old, or new ties have to be secured. No matter which way this goes, it might end up costly for Viktor Orbán.

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