Erdogan in Budapest: standard “Orbánian” diplomacy

Erdogan in Budapest: standard “Orbánian” diplomacy

On Monday, October 8, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Budapest. Of course, the meeting of two illiberal leaders provoked hysteria among the powerless liberals who oppose them. Hungarian MPs of a party credited with 1% support displayed a banner at parliament denouncing the new “dictators”, Putin, Erdogan and Orbán. Generation Identity, a tiny anti-Islam group unhappy with Erdogan’s visit, managed to organize a demonstration of some twenty people. Liberal media shared the intelligent and mature art of a second-class singer, who represented Erdogan with penis drawn on his face. This is the educational and moral level of the Hungarian opposition. Looking beyond these insignificant protests, let’s consider the real results of the meeting.

Since the beginning of the migrant crisis in 2015, few countries have been hit as hard as Hungary – if we set aside Greece, which is isolated from the EU core. Hungary is the first EU country on the Balkan road, and thus felt the effects of the crisis immediately. Anti-immigration and correlated anti-Islam views rose sharply in the small Central European country sparked by the massive influx of non-European foreigners, and especially Muslims. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was objectively the EU leader who took the firmest hand in responding to the crisis; he managed to stop the massive influx, posing as the protector of Europe against what he called an invasion: let us recall that approximately 1.1 million people walked the Balkan route in 2015. Orbán has since then never stopped his anti-immigration rhetoric, making him the front runner of the new European illiberal, anti-Brussels, identitarian informal movement. He aims to gain tremendous influence in the European Parliament in May 2019 along with his European allies.

Many on the liberal side, eager to label people those they dislike, call him an Islamophobe. However, in 2016, Orbán explained his outlook during a reception hosted by Ahmed el-Tayeb, Grand Imam of al-Azhar, noting: “that different cultures exist on Earth is no reason for them to clash. We may live in peace alongside the Muslim world. Not mixed with it, but next to it. This is a Christian standpoint that Muslims are happy to accept”. This quote is a key to understanding the identitarian position of Viktor Orbán: he does not define his political stance by opposing to another one, and can’t be therefore called an “Islamophobe”, as he rejects the “clash of civilization” principle. He is a proud Christian and wants his country to stay a Christian one – this explains his opposition to both islamization and liberalism, since they would both change the identity of Hungary. Hence his quote from the meeting with Turkish President Erdogan last week: “It is an old truth that the prouder we are of our own culture, the stronger we will be. And it is also true that this pride also brings out the ability to respect the cultures of other nations,” meaning that standing for an identity does not mean to hate, despise or fear another one: quite the contrary. And this is what Orbán wants: to play the card of a strong, proud and respected leader, to raise himself at the level of the strong leaders of powerful countries, standing – as the opposition sees him in their nightmares – at the same level of influence, enjoying the same respect and strength as Erdogan, to name but one leader.

There is no paradox in Orbán’s position, but a forgotten policy in Europe: being strong and affirming one’s identity in order to be respected, instead of being hypocritical and fake to gain geopolitical favor. Leaders of more traditional countries understand this behaviour, because they follow the same principle.

Orbán’s equilibrium strategy is making Budapest the gravity center of the Moscow-Ankara-Berlin Triangle

As part of his policy of opening up to the East to counterbalance Western influence and domination – especially through economic ties – Viktor Orbán took part at the 6th Turkic Council Summit. He presented an image of a European man comfortable amongst Central Asian leaders. He has specifically cultivated this image : to appear strong and almost exotic to his western counterparts, and be a European representative amongst his Asian partners. He wants Hungary to be both the heart of Europe, and stand apart from it. He nourishes this Hungarian paradox. And this masterly developed diplomatic strategy affords him the possibility, despite leading a rather small country, to be an interesting and relevant partner for the three vertices of the power Triangle:

“Hungary must pay attention to three capitals: Ankara, Moscow and Berlin, thus we have a vested interest in balanced relations,” explained Viktor Orbán, putting his cards on the table.

Hungary and Turkey are both members of NATO, and more specifically, two members of the eastern flank of NATO… both of which are shaping complex relationships with Russia – notably in the energy sector. Mr. Orbán’s announcement that he would ask Turkey for military technology as well as pursue Hungarian-Turkish military cooperation – in the framework of Hungary’s military modernization – is no coincidence. This plan goes hand in hand with the further development of economic ties with Turkey. Last year, Hungarian-Turkish trade reached 3 billion dollars, with a 19% increase in 2018 so far. Orbán and Erdogan had set a goal of an annual 5 billion dollars in trade, and recently updated this goal up to 6 billion.

Following the migrant crisis of 2015, Orbán managed to revive the Visegrad Group – Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary – crafting it as an ad hoc structure to defend Central European common interests and stances. “I am not only drawing your attention to Hungary, but to the entire Central European region: a region of 64 million people,” said Orbán, speaking about the Visegrad Group. This also demonstrates Orbán’s new regional policy, which focuses on close regional partners in order to strengthen Hungarian interests, within the EU and beyond. This “syndicate”, is a kind of geopolitical “workers union” in relationship totheir German “boss”;the formation is not used simply to oppose migration and EU dictates or ease German domination: the V4 is modestly becoming a geopolitical and diplomatical tool.


Behind Orbán’s strategy, and the V4 in general, one crucial factor is often forgotten: energy. In September, Orbán met with an other so-called “illiberal”leader: Vladimir Putin. Orbán made it clearthat he wants the TurkStream to be extended to Hungary. For that to happen, negotiations with both Putin and Erdogan are necessary, and that means Hungary needs to make some gesture toward these two poles.

Regarding Turkey, one of the moves that defines Hungary’s position – and that of the Visegrad Group generally – is support for Turkey’s candidacy for EU membership. However, let’s be honest: it won’t happen. Orbán knows it well, and mobilizes the position accordingly: he is able to make a nice diplomatic gesture to Ankara, and, in the meantime, uses the uncomfortable situation to fault Brussels. This is “Orbanian” diplomacy as usual!

Ferenc Almássy
Journalist, political analyst based in Budapest, Hungary. French and Hungarian, he is the editor in chief of the Central European news and analysis portal Visegrád Post and permanent correspondent for the French webmedia TV Libertés

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May 2023