Who needs enemies when you have friends like Orbán and Erdoğan?
Published in Newsroom.co.nz (Wellington), 9 August 2022
The year is AD2022. The West is united against its many foes. Well, not entirely! Two countries led by indomitable autocrats still hold out against any semblance of unity.
That is not the beginning of an Asterix comic. That is the sad reality facing the European Union and Nato.
Despite the threats of Russia, China, and stagflation, Hungary and Turkey are backstabbing the organisations they belong to.
That has been happening for a while – and this column has documented it. Nevertheless, the behaviour of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan over the past weeks has been extraordinary, even by their standards.
Let’s begin with Orbán. He has been at loggerheads with the EU for years – over Hungary’s foreign policy and domestic political settings.
With respect to foreign policy, Orbán’s Hungary blocked any common European refugee policy and in effect passed the issue on to its neighbours. It is easy to forget, but the big migration wave into Germany in 2015 only started when then Chancellor Angela Merkel accepted a few thousand refugees who were stranded in Budapest.
Orbán also created a headache when he refused to join in the sanctions after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Domestically, meanwhile, Orbán championed the concept of an ‘illiberal democracy’ and then manipulated Hungary’s political and media landscape to his party’s advantage.
So there has been a long history of Orbán being a headache for Europe since he became Hungary’s Prime Minister (for the second time) in 2010. But in the past couple of weeks, Orbán still managed to excel himself negatively.
First, at the Bálványos summer camp, held in neighbouring Romania this year, he delivered a speech with all his usual bluster. Except he went further than usual.
Instead of simply making a conventional conservative case for limited migration, Orbán warned against the mixing of races. In his own words: “We are willing to mix with one another, but we do not want to become peoples of mixed-race. This is why we fought at Nándorfehérvár/Belgrade, this is why we stopped the Turks at Vienna, and – if I am not mistaken – this is why, in still older times – the French stopped the Arabs at Poitiers.”
When was the last time the head of government of an EU member state displayed such open racism?
In response, one of Orbán’s longest-serving advisors, Zsuzsa Hegedüs, resigned in disgust. ”I don’t know how you didn’t notice that the speech you delivered is a purely Nazi diatribe worthy of Joseph Goebbels,” she wrote in a letter.
Orbán, realising he had gone too far, backtracked later, claiming his anti-immigration stance was a cultural, not a biological position. That was enough for Hegedüs to recall her accusation of Nazism. Whether it was credible for Orbán is another question.
Two weeks later, at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas, Orbán delivered his next broadside. In Trumpian rhetoric, he again went on the attack against the EU, George Soros and the perceived liberal elites: “The globalists can all go to Hell; I have come to Texas!”
Again, an EU leader attacking the EU and its principles on foreign soil is almost unheard of. Or, as Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian Prime Minister, tweeted, “Orbán meets with Trump & does Putin’s work … calling for the US to negotiate with Russia to decide Ukraine’s future.”
However, apart from a media release of European Parliament group leaders condemning Orbán’s latest outbursts, once again, the Hungarian Prime Minister will get away with it.
The same is likely true for Erdoğan. The distance between Budapest and Ankara is about 1,400km, but as far as populism and anti-liberalism are concerned, Erdoğan and Orbán are close neighbours.
In mid-July, Erdoğan shocked his Western allies in Nato not just by attending a summit in Tehran with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. It was the imagery of that meeting that made headlines.
All three men posed for a photo holding hands – with the Iranian host in the middle. It was a picture displaying triumphalist unity. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock wearily commented, “The fact that the Turkish president is in this photo is a challenge, to be kind.”
But if that picture was a challenge, one can only speculate what Baerbock made of the next meeting between Erdoğan and Putin. That happened last week, and it was not even on neutral ground any more but at Putin’s summer residence in Sochi.
The result of their consultations? Russia and Turkey agreed on increased cooperation in economic and energy matters at their meeting, “despite the current regional and global challenges”, according to a joint statement.
This is how the assault on Ukraine becomes a challenge – and, as we all know, challenges are opportunities. Or at least they are for Russia, which will now be paid in roubles for its gas supplies to Turkey.
In their statement, Putin and Erdoğan also announced both countries would cooperate in the fight against terrorist organisations in Syria and expand trade and economic cooperation.
Erdoğan’s motivation is clear: he wants to have Russia’s permission to start a new military offensive in northern Syria. With that, he hopes to prevent another wave of Syrian refugees to Turkey. Russia, meanwhile, backs Syria’s dictator Assad.
Whether Putin gave Erdoğan the thumbs-up during their meeting is unclear. A further question is whether Russia wants to purchase military drones from Turkey (the same type Turkey previously delivered to Ukraine) – and whether Erdoğan will deliver them, defying Nato. There is a (reverse) precedent for a military deal when Turkey bought the S-400 missile defence system from Russia in 2020.
Both Hungary and Turkey are Nato members. Hungary is an EU member, too, while Turkey previously tried to become one. Yet, in the West’s gravest foreign policy crisis in decades, Hungary and Turkey put their own interests first, even if it means doing Putin favours.
Perhaps that shouldn’t surprise anyone, given the personalities of their leaders. Orbán and Erdoğan have never been different.
Yet it is still remarkable how little resistance they meet from within Nato and the EU. However, there is a simple reason for this. Nato and the EU cannot afford to lose either of them. The two countries remain strategically important, and their cooperation, for example, is vital if Sweden and Finland are to become Nato members.
Who needs enemies when you have friends like Orbán and Erdoğan?